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Ways of life and memories

[Page 203]

My father who was known as “Mendel from Dąbrowa”

by S. Ben-Menachem

Translated by Avi (Abraham) Stavsky

In the second half of the last century [i.e. 19th century], lived in the neighborhood of the city of Warsaw, known as “Powązk”, a Jew named Jicchak Zilbersztajn. He was known as Icek, Saba [grandfather] Icek. He was a Gur Chassid, who sat at the rabbi's table, in fact actually at his hand. When the latter's sons were born, and later grandsons, he was honored by the rabbi with the title “sandak” [godfather]. While he was still young in his years, much less than twenty, he was married to a woman, and when his first born son was born, the name given was Szlomo (my future grandfather). When the son grew up and reached the age of fifteen, he was married to the daughter of the rabbi of Włoszczowa in the Częstochowa region. Her name was Tamirl. And he lived there, though not many years: when he was only twenty-eight, he became sick and passed away.

In his short span of years [however], he managed to bring to the world five sons and a daughter. Upon the birth of his eldest son, he gave him the name Mendel, in honor of Rabbi Mendel of Kock[1]. This was 27 years after the death of Rabbi Mendel of Kock, but the continuance of his holy memory still permeated the hearts of generations. Already from a young age, when he was only a boy, great characteristics were noted in his studies. When he was [only] nine, it was said he knew the entire Shas[2]by heart, and he was called the elui [prodigy]. During this time he lived with his father, my grandfather, and lived for a time with Saba Icek in Warsaw.

Once his uncle (my grandfather's brother), Reb Aron, took him to live with him, and brought him to meet the rabbi. The “Sfat-Emet” sat him on his knee and asked him questions from the Shas and certain verses. I was told by my uncle many years later that by way of [an] answer, he wrangled with the rabbi. At the end he got a vigorous pinch from the rabbi, who said further, “Rashi and his son, Joshua too, were also just [made] of flesh and blood” …and he was only nine.

In the town of Dąbrowa was a Jew who was a home owner, named Mosze-Szmul Kupferberg (my future grandfather). He had a three story house built in partnership with his brother-in-law. They had a shop in the same building. Mosze-Szmul sought a match for his [eligible] eldest daughter, Rachel. In the course of his search he arrived, along with his learned brother-in-law, Szlomo Josef of blessed memory, to the town of Włoszczowa near Częstochowa. It was there he intended to meet the young man of whom he had already heard so much about. Grandfather was greatly amazed by what he saw, and Szlomo Josef, the teacher, after testing the young man [in Torah studies] agreed to the deal. Thus the prodigy became a husband and arrived to Dąbrowa. In the course of time he became well-known, especially among the Chassidim. He was known as “Mendele from Dąbrowa,” yet he was only 15 years old!

If a Chassid went to Kock, and complained that he had no income, the rabbi told him to pray to heaven. When the Chassid would answer that he didn't know how to pray, the rabbi said, “If this is [really] the case and you don't know how to pray, then this is a worse situation than not having an income.” When my mother asked my father, “what will be with his income?”, he answered, “If only all things were as simple as questions for an income…”

My mother, upon hearing an answer like that, did not follow the meaning of his words., i.e., that a true Kock Chassid was much more concerned with spiritual and heavenly worries, like the redemption of man's soul, than something as mundane and worldly as a need for an income. And my father, in his outlook and inner thinking, was a true Chassid of Kock…

Amongst the Admorim, the great spiritual men of the people of Israel, Rabbi Mendel of Kock was an entity unto himself, [almost] a brigade of one person. He was different from everyone, an original in his thinking and way of life. This difference stemmed from one thing only, [and this was] his effort to obtain the truth. His journey after the truth [totally] characterized the essence of Rabbi Mendel of Kock. He was [the personification of] truth walking on two legs. He used to say that if he had [only] three hundred people of truth – and only three hundred, willing to raise their souls, he could change the face of the world. He never found those three hundred but [similarly] neither did he change his ways ever. Some eighty years later, the rabbi of Gur said “if I only had twenty [such] Chassidim – no longer three-hundred but only twenty like rabbi Mendel from Dąbrowa, I could behave like [the rabbi of ] Kock, but even twenty he never found. How many he did find he never said, but he found at least one example, and that was my father.

The wise sages of legend told that when the Almighty decided to make mankind, he consulted with the angels. The Angel of Righteousness said: “it's worthwhile to make a man, for he will do pious deed. The Angel of Truth said: “don't create man, for he will be full of lies.” The Angel of Justice said: “create, for he will be just.” But the Angel of Peace said, “don't create, he will always be full of strife [and war]”. So what did the Almighty do?

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He took Truth and threw it down to the ground, while above remained Righteousness and Justice who had surrendered for the sake of man's creation. Asked Rabbi Mendel of Kock, “why did the Almighty throw down Truth rather than Peace, who was also opposed to the creation of man? But the rabbi, as a real man of truth answered [his own question]. “If Truth had remained above it would not have surrendered to the knowledge of the majority.” [But] the voice of the Truth Angel said, man is always deceitful, he obscures the truth for many. Also [even for] Righteousness and Justice if they remain together. The Almighty had no other choice but to throw Truth down [to earth].

My father, who cleaved to the truth as well as extremist philosophies which came along, largely refrained from involvement in severe matters, as he came to the conclusion that the pursuit of intellect requires one to cheat a little.

I ask myself now, some thirty years after my father walked on the streets of his dreary, grey city of Dąbrowa, what did he do for this town? What [did he do] for the people of this town? I necessarily come to the conclusion as far as my memory serves me, that in actual day to day affairs, [i.e.] in practicality, he did nothing substantial, as he was not a practical sort of man. And how did he build this kind of name for himself [that is, someone of no importance]? For this is how he was known to his city and so affectionately remembered.

If one knows the lifestyle of the group of young men who gathered in Kock around the rabbi, and if one can grasp the greatness of the rabbi and his deeds, it is then not hard to understand the behavior of the Chassid, even though he was born twenty-seven years after the rabbi's death, and after whom he was named. He acted as if the great man of Kock had never passed away.

Once the rabbi had settled on Kock as his domain, the dreariness and gloom of the Jewish area became spiritually uplifted. Even just saying the word “Kock” still moves the heart, enflames the imagination and the spirit, even though a hundred and forty years have passed. Rabbi Mendel of Kock was one of the most original personalities in the Chassidic world. Already from his early days he was secretive and alone, until be became completely hidden from most people. Only a select few could penetrate his mystical world. He banished Chassidim but remained an exemplary person himself, amazingly evocative and a Chassidic riddle that no one could fathom. None were as admirable as him. Already within his [own] lifetime he became a legend. The secret that enveloped him attracted [a kind of] magic. He would toil in his research to destroy the [evil?] foundation of the world. He dreamed of a redeemed world, a world of Shabbat and Yom Tov. There were days when he believed it was within his power to force the world to change. He searched for [a meaning to] existence, the great riddle for which there was no answer, the riddle of mortality and being.

Rabbi Mendel wanted to create the image of a singular personality, for whom the truth would be a sacred emission that permeates within himself as an inner sound. He sought three hundred such applications during his youth, but when he realized these were not to be [externally?] found, he abandoned his friends, students and colleagues and searched [only] within himself, sentencing himself to a lifetime of solitude and introspection.

My father was born 99 years after Rabbi Mendel of Kock, and 27 years after his departure. The generation still reverberated with holiness from the spiritual kingdom of Kock. My grandfather, Reb Szlomo (whom the Sfat Emet called the Silk Blessing), saw a spiritual need to name his elder son after this saintly giant, an angel who walked in this world. And look at this miracle – the name he received laid out his life's path. He was orphaned from his own father at a tender age, [and yet] grew up to become a famous Chassid. All his manner and being followed the style of an exemplary Kock [person].

In Kock [itself], nothing was seen and nothing was heard. In Kock people would speak [only] in the language of clues. Similarly with my father, one did not see anything or hear anything, yet but those who had eyes, saw and those who had ears, heard. A student of Rabbi Mendel of Kock had to be an incomparable scholar.

Despite this, there were some aspiring Kock Chassidim who were not [only] scholars but who didn't appear to have ever opened a book…

Once it was complained to the rabbi that Mendel of Dąbrowa does not learn; spends entire days in the Great Bet Midrash in Gur; goes and comes there, but was never seen to actually sit and study…

The rabbi called my father and asked him about a chapter in the tractate of “Makkot”[3]. The Chassid who told me this story said it was during the Nine Days wherein meat is not eaten, [i.e. before Tisha B'av] as a penance. However a festive meal was prepared that included meat, as befitting the manner when a tractate of Talmud is concluded. And to the students who complained, the rabbi turned and said: “what do you want from my Mendel?”

In contrast to other towns in Poland which did have a sizeable Jewish population, in the town of Dąbrowa there were not a lot of Jews and they were in the minority. It was a smoky city, blackened by the coal dust which permeated the town and surrounding area. From a Jewish point of view, it was a drowsy town, bereft of any apparent [major] public institutions or special public businesses, etc

[Page 205]

A student of Rabbi Mendel of Kock had to be a teacher who walked in his ways and gave prominence to his city. In the whole of Poland and in every city which had Gur Chassidim, this name was known. When someone would come from Dąbrowa and not necessarily a Gur Chassid, [or] perhaps by chance, for business purposes would visit some other town in Poland, whether mention was made of a Gur Chassid or not, immediately would come the question: “are you from Dąbrowa? From the town of Mendele the Dąbrowan?” “How is he?” “How are things with his family?”

In every place, he was called [as though} “from Dąbrowa.” Except in Dąbrowa itself, where he was called Mendele from Gur. And why? Because he would visit Gur for many weeks, and in the course of a year, these would turn into months…

When he would travel to Gur and on the way would meet someone who'd ask, “where are you going, Mendel?” he'd reply: “To Warsaw.” Because that particular train indeed only went as far as Warsaw, and from Warsaw to Gur it was necessary to take another train (a streetcar); so exacting was he in his verbiage.

Never was heard from his mouth the term “Rabbi of Gur.” The longing and admiration for such a term was so great that no one could bring himself to pronounce such an utterance.

He was known as a silent individual, the bearer of a strong [kind of] characteristic. Never appearing superior to anyone, yet different from everyone. In his thoughts he was transcendent, and yet could not – and would not -- try to climb down from the lofty heights to mundane, prosaic and worldly things, neither his own nor those of others. He was consistent to the end in his behavior, without ever displaying the hesitations or weaknesses of one born from womankind.

He was faithful to Gur with all his spirit and all his might without any tie to his house, the children of his house or the near neighborhood which surrounded him. When he was home we felt he was as distant from us as east was from west, and when he was with the Chassidim in the “shtibel” in Dąbrowa, his thoughts were far from theirs, as distant as earth is from the heavens.

In his ways, he walk, manner and deportment throughout his life never varied to the left or to the right. If his path was chosen he would follow it [scrupulously] and it did not matter to him what others might say; he was unconcerned with anyone's knowledge and would not be deviated by stereotyping.

He was not an avid follower of the minyan. Not just once in the house [synagogue] of the Chassidim, when all were praying, did he turn there and back and [seemingly] not participate in the tefila. He appeared not to be praying, especially during the evening prayers. But he would seem to pray later, at home, when his mind was set upon it.

Also, his manner of praying was different. In the “shtibel” amongst the Chassidim, his prayers were quiet and barely audible, in a kind of clandestine contemplation, [and] almost never heard. Only his thoughts would shout out in prayer. However at home, [when praying] by himself, his voice was heard and he prayed with precision. This was his same approach to study.

In the Gur “Shtibel”, the custom was to pause between the Shacharit [morning prayer] and Musaf prayers [additional service] on Shabbat, and there would be learning for about an hour and a half. He was never seen participating in the learning or sitting amongst those who had their Gemaras open. [Instead] he would stroll sunken in his thoughts or wait to read from the Torah's portion of the week or to pray the Musaf. And again his prayers were quiet, but at home he would learn loudly and with relish. It didn't bother him that in the building lived more non-Jews than Jews, or that the windows were open, or that Jews did not perceive in him anything more than [simply] being a Chassid.

To attempt standing at the Gur bet midrash in the first row, opposite the rabbi, face to face when the rabbi would conduct his table, and to keep up such posture required a strong will power and strong physical strength as well as self-discipline.

My father was always in the first row [through] all these years and held this status to the very end and also literally delivered his soul on this [practice]. I noticed once or twice when he'd emerge after the rabbi ended conducting his table that he was wet almost to his skeleton [i.e. sweat]. Yet there were boys who waited to greet him with dry clothes in their hands, in order to cover him until he reached his hostel [i.e. his resting place]. But these were merely flimsy efforts which could not prevent that which was unpreventable.

He would never catch cold nor worry about his health. He did not visit doctors nor take medications until that final sickness from which one no longer arises. Yet he carried his soul's burden for as long as he could stand precisely in the first row opposite his admirable rabbi…

His was a way of modesty to a cult. He walked modestly and did everything with reticence and with the trembling of the Charedim. If he felt hot he never displayed it and his external appearance always seemed indifferent. No one from the outside could know what his heart whispered.

He knew the secrecy of silence: even words of Torah did not spout from his mouth casually. His worship was of an inner kind, hidden in the recesses of the heart…

Rabbi Mendel of Kock once asked his Chassidim about the concept of restricting the intelligence of silence. If, indeed, silence was a key to intelligence, what is the benefit of physical silence? He asked and he replied [to his own question]: he who masters his feelings but does not display this externally has not really achieved real wisdom. Such silence is only adjacent to wisdom, but is not wisdom itself. And thus a truly wise person never surrenders his heart to feelings of either pain or joy.

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And he added: a plain wise man keeps his mouth shut, but a completely wise person also shuts his heart.

The words of Rabbi Mendel of Kock reverberated strongly with that second Mendel of Dąbrowa who was named after him, who behaved as though [he was] from Kock and who breathed the life of Kock…

A great catastrophe befell us. Our mother, Rachel had complications in childbirth and died, leaving six orphans: four daughters and two sons. And she was the breadwinner, the educator and the caretaker in the home, and only forty at the time of her death. It was unthinkable that this tragedy would not shock our father to remain without a wife, without an income, and a world with six children on his head and with such suddenness! But [at least] externally he displayed no sign of shock and the feelings of his [inner] heart he did not reveal. This tragedy occurred on the 8th day of Elul and the end of the mourning period was on the 15th of Elul and this was about the time he'd be packing his bags to visit Gur. This time, however, he did not go to Gur but remained in Dąbrowa over Rosh Hashanah. This was the only sacrifice he made, and this was the only time, at least as far as I remember, that he remained at home over the High Holydays.

On Rosh Hashanah eve, after the evening prayers had been celebrated in the shtibel, he approached everyone and joyously and loudly wished each person a happy holiday. I stood dumbstruck with my head lowered and could not utter a word from my mouth. With an embarrassed face I left the shtibel and my legs headed in the direction of my grandmother (my grandfather, Mosze Szmul, was no longer alive, having died some three months previously). At that time I still didn't understand even half of his behavior, albeit I did know that on Shabbat and on holidays one was forbidden to dwell in signs of grief.

I knew [for instance] of a story about the rabbi's son, who, but tender in his years, died suddenly on Shabbat. He was laid out in a nearby room, but the rabbi conducted his table as though nothing had happened due to the holiness of Shabbat. And no one who didn't know [what had happened] never guessed. Although I could absolutely not understand how someone could have that strong a character, without suffering pain within his heart, which must have been going through a [virtual] storm.

Although I strive mightily to recall [his saying] some light banter, perhaps a slip of the tongue, some casual behavior or even just a few words which did not necessitate [something], I cannot do so. He had a heaviness upon his head all the days of his life [but] did not raise his voice and simply his gaze was sufficient to instill fear within us. He never grew angry, though his resolve was alone sufficient for his purposes.

His mother, Grandmother Tamirl, called him, “Mendel my crown.” In her house in Włoszczowa she had three more sons, none married and grandmother was not at all happy with their behavior. She thus called for son, “the crown” to come in haste from Dąbrowa to help her. Uncle Jeszajahu told me years later, he being one of the three because of whom my father had been summoned: after his arrival and the initial greeting, he went out to the city to meet with people; went to the Chassidim house; came home; assuaged his heart; and left again. He returned two days later. On the third day he readied to depart, packed his bags, and said farewell to everyone, but did not say a word about the matter for which he had come to begin with. His brother Jeszajahu took him to the train station. When the train arrived, he boarded, extended his hand in departure and said six words: “Why'd you cause mother soulful distress?” and nothing else. And my uncle continued in his story to me that this one sentence carried more resonance than three days of ethical dissemination…

One saying of Rabbi Mendel of Kock was that man was commanded to do two things: not to cheat himself and not to mimic others. This order my father carried out with great simplicity. His attachment to his leader was achieved in him to a level as with no other. Yet this devotion did not lessen any his own troubles. He did not mingle with the crowd but guarded the independence of the individual. He was aloof from popular relations and connections which abhorred him. His thoughts were outside the realm of their thoughts. They had no idea what he was thinking…

He walked by himself through the town. With simple folk he [simply] had nothing to say [to them]. And with other Chassidim who were not Gur Chassidim, conversation was difficult. His God was in Gur. And His first commandment was: Thou shall have no other Gods… And because he was a man of refined truth, whose thoughts, words and actions were all related one to another; and as [I] stated, what he said was what he did; he could not countenance ill treatment of anyone, and any other behavior was an aberration of the truth, something he would never allow himself.

One Chassid told [a story] about following him to Gur and into the bet midrash and home again, and having heard him recite verses from the Torah. After each verse, he would further recite some of the explanations of the verse given by the Sages. He would do this for several hours. Another Chassid told of hearing astonishing words from his lips, not understandable, yet he could not gather enough strength to ask for an explanation.

He would say: be not jealous of the wealthy and if [you are] jealous, get away from here.

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Said the Chassid, “be not jealous of the wealthy” one can understand, but if one is jealous to go away? And for Mendel to say this, [well,] this was beyond his comprehension.

And these things were said but a few scant years before the beginning of the destruction of the Jews of Poland…

About Rabbi Mendel of Kock it was said by the Chassidim, and also written in books, that in his last moments, those closest to him who hovered over his bed heard him murmur: the world is not worthy of a single groan [being groaned over it]. Another interpretation of this was: the world is full of mustiness and I can't breathe in it any longer…

In the winter of 1936, my father fell ill. By Pesach of that same year, he was so ill that it was only with great difficulty that he managed to eat a piece of matzah. During Chol Hamoed he was transferred to Otwock[4]. After a few days, at dawn of the 2nd of Iyyar [April 24th, 1936], he passed away from the world, without even uttering a light groan. Although [during his life] he was much chastised, he triumphed over them until the very last minute and never displayed a sign of weakness, nor any aberration of his character or his conduct in life

The Second of Iyyar was on a Friday. The train which arrived to Otwock was filled with Chassidim who came to attend his funeral. He was brought to rest at the cemetery in Otwock in nearby Karczew.

His one brother, Szymon, followed in his father's footsteps: he “dwelled” in Gur. Years before this, when Reb Majer Szapiro of blessed memory, founded the “Yeshiva of the Lublin Sages” and traveled the length and breadth of Poland, searching for superb young men to fill his yeshiva, stopped in Dąbrowa as well. He found him and brought him to Lublin.

When the impure [ones, i.e. the Nazis] came to Gur and found material such as these: boys with long peyot; a kippah on their head and a hat on top of the kippah; a belt around their pants; their socks over their pants; they rounded up dozens of them like so much booty and, my brother Szymon among them, and shipped them off to Berlin, to show the “masters” what had been found in Poland. On the way there they abused and debased them and loaded them on to a boat that crossed a river. They threatened to sink the boat to drown them, but their intention [apparently] was just to humiliate and scare them, and thus pulled them from the water and dragged them further to their destination. Their final story is well known, that of the six million Jews of Europe who suffered the same fate.

My brother Szymon was 22 years old at the beginning of the storm. My younger sister, during whose childbirth our mother died, was named Chaja Ruda Judit, for the rabbitzin [rabbi's wife] of Gur. Before the end of the war she was still alive, but in the death marches from camp to camp, she could no longer continue, having lost her strength, and was murdered along the way. She was but eighteen and a half years old. My sister Ester completed teachers' seminary in Kraków and was a teacher in Janów Lubelski and apparently there met her death. My two remaining sisters, Necha and Tamar were taken to Auschwitz together with the other Dąbrowa Jews on the 7th of Av, 5703 [August 8th, 1943] and perished there.

  1. Kock (Yiddish: Kotzk) is a town in eastern Poland, about 28 miles (45 km) north of Lublin and 74,5 miles (120 km) south-east of Warsaw. It lies in Lublin Voivodship, in Lubartów County. It is the capital of the Kock Commune. return
  2. Shas [Hebrew: ש"ס – “Shisha Sedarim”] The six orders of the Mishnah and Talmud. return
  3. Makkot (Hebrew: מכות, lashes) is a book of the Mishnah and Talmud. Makkot deals primarily with laws of Jewish courts and the punishments which they may administer. return
  4. Otwock (Yiddish: Otwotzk) is a town in central Poland, some 15 miles (24 km) southeast of Warsaw. return

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