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[Page 63]

Religious Life in Our City under Soviet Rule

by Rabbi Ben-Tzion Fendler

Translated by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins

The first World War and the Revolution that followed changed the lifestyle in Russia completely, as is well known. The changes in the country caused major shocks in the realm of Judaism.

In our area [Kamenets-Podolsk], as in all places where the Bolsheviks ruled, they prohibited study of Torah and all Hebrew study in general; they prohibited Shabbat observance, kashrut, and every matter connected remotely with tradition. In daily life there was not a sign of Yiddishkeit. Overtly this was apparent, but covertly the situation was totally different. Throngs of Jews were faithful to all the sacred practice of Judaism, and clandestinely they observed the mitzvot of the Torah with deep commitment. In Kamenets there were people of many different backgrounds, among whom were artisans and unskilled workers, who during many years

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under Soviet rule, never tasted meat, since they did not want to be defiled with forbidden foods, and were scrupulous about the observance of the other mitzvot in all their details.

Synagogues all remained open until 5696 (1936), and many of them made hummed with the sound of prayers. The “Yevsektzia” [the Jewish section of the Communist Party] in Kamenets was moderate in its actions, and did not pursue religious Jews with rage as it did in other locations. The head of the “Yevsektzia” in Kamenets was a passionate Communist, but with regard to the religious he was a bit subdued. His view was that living conditions in the area were sufficient to terminate all the outmoded customs, and there was no need for special activities to accomplish this. Thanks to this viewpoint synagogues in the city were not destroyed until the summer of 5696 (1936). In that year the great assault on religion occurred all over, and all at once all the synagogues in Kamenets were closed, except for the “Gedalyahu Heller” synagogue. On the last Shabbat before my trip to Eretz Yisrael in the month of Elul 1936 I prayed in that synagogue, and there was no way of moving further inside. The courtyard was filled, and many stood in the nearby streets, perhaps hoping that they might hear “Barkhu” and “Kedushah.”

There were no mikvaot in the whole area. In Kamenets there had been a mikveh for several years, in the bathhouse of Sara-Leah. After this bathhouse was destroyed a room was rented in the apartment of a gentile, on the ground floor of the “Brom” (city gate), and a pit was dug to serve as a mikveh, despite the real mortal risk involved. The owner of the apartment was accordingly punished for this act, and thus people were forced to steal their way into this pit to bathe, under the nose of the members of the militia who stood on the outside walls. Many people came from near and far to bathe in this mikveh in Kamenets.

Even in these especially difficult and troubled times, many people were occupied with Torah study. In the summer of 1936, several months before I left Kamenets, and before the destruction of the synagogues, I found in the “Gedaliah” synagogue, during twilight hours, large crowds of worshippers, not less than on holidays. Between the afternoon and evening services, scores of men sat and studied Mishnah, Ayn Yaakov, and Mishnah B'rurah. After the evening prayers as well there was a class in Talmud with huge attendance. There were also classes in Torah in several other synagogues. Once the synagogues were destroyed in the month of Av 1936, they began to worship in minyanim in private apartments, in secret of course.

The “Stolen” Torah Scrolls

by Rabbi Ben-Tzion Fendler

Translated by Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins

The following occurred many years ago in Kamenets-Podolsk, during the days when the Yevsektzia in Soviet Russia persecuted religion, when houses of worship were confiscated and transformed into clubs, and religious items, including Torah Scrolls, were sent abroad for sale.

The largest and most beautiful of the sixty houses of prayer in the city was the synagogue of the tailors, that excelled in its wide and tall Holy Ark, which was coated with silver and gold, and decorated with pictures of animals and birds, fruit and flowers, and all kinds of musical instruments––beautifully crafted by talented artists. In this beautiful Holy Ark, on all three levels, stood more than one hundred Torah Scrolls.

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When this synagogue was destroyed and turned into a club for the city's workers, and the Torah Scrolls were plundered to be sent abroad for sale, the Gabaim (synagogue managers)––of all people the artisans––performed a daring act and “stole” thirty of the Torah Scrolls and secretly, with supreme devotion, hid them for safekeeping in the basement of one of the private houses. No one knew about this hidden space, of course, and from time to time the “thieves” went down to the basement to assure their safety, and guarded them very secretly for a long time.

At the end of the war the Soviets left the city and the Nazis entered with their servants from Romania and Galicia, and with them all the horrible, well-known results: the city was plundered and totally destroyed. Most of the Jews were taken out to be murdered in the nearby forest, and a few were able to flee to the neighboring villages and reached the border of Siberia. At the end of the war several of them were able to return to their destroyed and ruined city.

The same fate fell to the villages near Kamenets: destruction and devastation everywhere. Most of the Jewish residents were murdered, and the few who wandered away remained alive. After a period of time some of them returned to their destroyed villages, broken and dejected, and tried to renewed their former lives, and most of all they were concerned to establish for themselves quorums for prayer. This, without their sacred vessels, and especially without their Torah Scrolls.

Lo and behold, among those who returned was one of the Gabaim of the tailors' synagogue, who was among those, years before, who “stole” the Torah Scrolls, and remembered them. This Jew entered with a quorum of Jews to the secret basement, and brought out from its hiding place the “holy treasure”––all thirty complete Torah Scrolls, as if he had placed them there only yesterday. They all viewed this event as a “miracle from heaven.”

These Torah Scrolls were sent as “gifts” to nearby villages––a Torah Scroll to each and every village.


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