« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[Page 336]

Rav Yusele Peimer

H.A. Peimer – New York

Translated by Tamara Selden

My father, R'Yusele, Slutsker Rev “of blessed memory,” was known by rabbis and gaonim. He possessed rare qualities and virtues, and had an intimate relationship with the great personalities of his generation.

His library was the most impressive in Czarist White Russia and contained antique books, some handwritten in Hebrew and Yiddish. There were newspapers, journals and periodicals which he collected over many years. The library was the greatest treasure he possessed. It was in the most spacious and beautiful room in our house. The books were bound and arranged in categories. He would often browse among them with great joy. He dusted and straightened, and took great pride in their breadth and beauty. It was characteristic of him to be the sole handler of the books. Whenever he bought a book he felt he had gotten a great bargain although he had paid a high price. The book dealers knew that with R'Yusele they had to charge a high price because, if not, it would aggravate him to think that G-d forbid he had cheated them. He rarely forgot anything. His memory was phenomenal, except when he was insulted. He seemed to forget, but actually retained the insult and even wrote it down.

There were times when Father had vast sums of holdings: money, jewelry and securities. Every single item was registered by Father in this manner: day, month, year, chapter of the Torah...belongs to Mr.__, so many hundreds, two tens, and so on. Each one received his possession back exactly as he had given it to Father. Regarding the words of the Torah, if someone asked him something, he wrote down the question, the name of the questioner and the answer.

R'Yusele (the second) Peimer

What pertained to the word or translation of the word of G-d was no problem for him. Before he answered, he immersed himself in the words of the law. He answered questions from the educated and the ordinary people, on mundane matters or even dreams. He would refer to the author, commentator on Jewish texts, and preachers. His energy had no limits and no boundaries. There was another R'av in Slutsk, but Father was the responsible authority in the city and he carried this heavy burden.

[Page 337]

He was the spokesman for every power and new regime; the ethical soul for our entire congregation and each individual. In addition there was no European language that Father did not speak and understand.

It is interesting to note here how Father, in his playful manner, spoke to various groups. With the Russians, he spoke a cooked up German, and with the Germans a murdered Polish, and with the Poles a mishmash of all three languages. At this point we should honor the enlightened thinking of five esteemed men of Slutsk; Gutseit, Chernikov, the two Feinbergs, and Dr. Schildkraut, who were estranged from religious Judaism, but were father's dearest, constant and devoted companions in all his various activities.

The Russian military, located in Teliekhen near Pinsk, decided to drive out the entire Jewish community. The Jews were ordered to line up. The rabbi led the way, followed by important businessmen and all the other Jews. Suddenly a crazy Jewish woman broke from the line and ran over to a soldier. She grabbed him by the ear and pointed to the R'av and the other important people. The soldiers decided to put the Jews in chains and march them to Slutsk. Most of the Jews did not have the good fortune that the Rabbi had. His family eventually rescued him from certain death and got him out of prison.

Once a military herald ordered Father to come immediately to the commander. Father called for Mr. Feinberg and they went together. The commander shouted, stamped his feet, and threatened to thrash the Jews and send them to Siberia, especially Slutsker Jews who sold liquor. The drunken, disorderly soldiers often attacked and robbed the Jews and destroyed their property. The commander asked Mr. Feinberg what he thought should be done. Father intervened and said he would try an old Jewish ritual of excommunication. He truly had compassion for the worthy Feinberg, who would have to clarify and explain this ritual. The commander laughed at this foolish, ridiculous idea that was meant to stop the illegal selling of whiskey. However, he left it to father of “blessed memory” to see what he could do together with the second rabbi in town.

On Thursday afternoon in the cold shul [kalte shul], the rabbis stood on the pulpit in white linen robes and wrapped in prayer shawls. Next to them were the assistants, sextons, and shofar blowers. On a table lay a parchment with a version of the excommunication ritual. A large black candle burned brightly on the lectern. On one side there was the ritual cleansing board used for the dead and on the other side a stretcher.

The tense congregation looked on with baited breath. The shofar blowers blew their ram's horns. The chief assistant proclaimed, in he name of the rabbi and other dignitaries and in a trembling voice, that if an unknown person or son of an unknown person would venture to violate the edict against producing or selling whiskey, may all the curses fall upon him. No one shall have any business dealings or contact with him because he is excommunicated.

In the dead stillness of delivering the curse, we heard the choking sounds of the women and the withheld breath of the men. The appalling ancient ritual closed with a weekday prayer. The clergy on the pulpit were gaunt and prostrate. Father of “blessed memory,” who was a young man, had the appearance of a very old man. This was a deeply painful experience for him.

After that Father became an exceptional yet humble contact for the commander. He was chosen to inform the storekeepers whenever the military had to pass through the city. Then the Jews would be warned in time. This was of great importance because when soldiers unexpectedly came, the Jewish community was often devastated, especially on the Sabbath and Holidays. The soldiers would break down the doors and steal everything in sight. Now my father could give the warning in time. The rabbi would try to give the bakers time to prepare the baked goods that were required for the Sabbath.

One time when the Jewish New Year fell on the Sabbath, Father was told that the soldiers would be arriving soon. He and the other rabbi sent a decree to all the synagogues that the bakeries must stay open to prepare the challah, despite the danger. It is not difficult to imagine the broken hearts and beaten spirits that greeted the New Year.

[Page 338]

Men and women dressed in their best Sabbath and holiday clothes, were downcast with their prayer books in hand.

There was a well known landowner who lived in Slutsk. His name was Bullhock, a significant person in the local Polish population. The Bolsheviks arrested him. They were prepared to break into his palace one night and arrest his wife also.

Someone informed R'Yusele about this and late in the evening he sent a message to warn her. He told her not to sleep at home for several nights. Near Bullhock's palace lived a Jew. Between his house and the palace there was a fence with thin stakes. R'Yusele instructed her to pull out a few of the stakes, go through the fence and replace the stakes afterwards. She was told that the Jew was expecting her. She did exactly as she was told and was spared arrest. In a short time the city went from the Russians to the Poles and Bullhock was freed. His wife told him what had occurred, and he thought well of the Jews for what they had done.

Father's timely sense of responsibility and his well-run rabbinate benefited the Jews during the Bolshevik Revolution, until the German occupation and the Polish “faznantshikes” and “Khalertsherkes” destroyed the greatest part of Slutsk including our home. It not only destroyed our belongings but also our chosen spiritual life and incredible library.

One Friday we were thinking about possibly leaving the city as the Red Army was drawing closer. The commander of the Polish Army called for Father and told him that it was only right for the Jews of Slutsk to be proper hosts and collect a sum of money for their retreat by the Sabbath afternoon. If not, he would let his soldiers do whatever pleased them. When Father heard this decree, he did not lose his courage, but went home and put on his Sabbath clothes. Accompanied by the worthy Dr. Schildkraut they went to the houses of the prominent Slutsker Jews to accomplish the difficult task that had been assigned. In this manner the money was collected and given in time to the Polish commander who took it with a brutal cynicism. He then had a good laugh and left the Jews to the mercy of the Polish beasts.

Father went to the morning service at the synagogue. Three armed Polish hooligans appeared with packages of loot under their arms. Seeing father all dressed up with a top hat and his beautiful patriarchal beard, one of them pulled out a pack of matches, lit it and threw it towards his beard. Another had a knife which he could use to cut off the beard and the third simply tried to grab it with his non-kosher paw. Father gave his hand a slap with his entire strength. The contemptible man grabbed a stick and moved to hit Father, but Father took hold of the tip of the stick and averted the injury. One of the hooligans tried to kick him, but once again he fought back. He flung the stick at the perpetrator and it struck him in the face.

The hooligan quickly recovered, stood up, took out his sword, and struck Father on the head with murderous fury. The Sabbath top hat was a life saver. It lay on the ground trampled and squashed, but it had saved Father from serious injury.

The Jews outside, hearing the tumult and seeing their rabbi surrounded by three well known Polish bullies, attacked them with their bare hands and rescued Father from further harm. The hooligans did not wait for long and fled.

The Sabbath service was transformed into a tribute for the Creator of the World and the miracle that had occurred. The eyes of the congregation were glued to Father throughout the entire time of praying. When the service ended they waited to hear their rabbi tell what happened in his own words.

For twenty years more Father continued to be the rabbi in Slutsk, and in 1920 he went to Baranovichi, tired, broken, old, and depleted. He had no books, limited funds, and thousands of letters from Slutsker Jews to their relatives in America from whom they begged for help. The letters had never been mailed.

[Page 339]

At that stormy time the Polish hordes filled up the trains. A Jew, a rabbi with a patriarchal beard, was an exceptional person. Seeing that Father struggled to climb aboard the freight wagon, the Poles assisted him and finally pulled him on with his baggage. He was surrounded by men with knives, bayonets, and burning matches. There was a wounded Jewish officer on the same wagon and had it not been for him, Father would not have survived the trip. The journey was made in peace all the way to Warsaw.

At that time Father's two sisters, two well known dentists, lived in Warsaw and had their offices at Marshalkavska 81. Among their patients were generals, professors, and important government officials. Both sisters lived comfortably, even graciously, for that time in Poland. They wanted their brother to remain with them to rest and recover from the dreadful things that had happened to him.

By no means would he even discuss this with them. He wanted to do something worthwhile to help the poor, suffering people in Slutsk and its neighboring communities. He realized that he alone could not do the job or diminish the anti-Semitism and bloody persecution. Father contacted a Jewish woman who had a good relationship with the highest Catholic clergyman of that time, Cardinal Krockavski. Father met with him and was treated with courtesy and warmth. The Cardinal listened to Father's description of the violence against helpless Jews. He then wrote a letter to the commander of the military garrison in Baranovichi, Riks Shmigli. He appealed to the commander to show great regard, friendliness, and assistance to Rabbi Peimer of Slutsk.

At the same time Father knew that the influential Prince Bullhock was in Baranovichi. He appealed to him and Bullhock gave him necessary documents and papers and also a letter to a colleague, a well known Polish leader, telling him to consider what the Rabbi told him as being Holy. The papers accomplished wonders. Arriving in Baranovichi, Father threw himself into his work of rescue, aid, and ransoming at the infamous internment quarantine camp.

The Cardinal's letter to the chief commander of the Polish troops helped to open the iron door to the tragic internment camp, and a ray of hope and trust brought relief to the devastated Jews in the camp. They felt that they had not been abandoned, and that someone cared about them.

Returning to the city, very alarmed, Father contacted the Jewish community and told them of the tragic conditions in the camp. He proclaimed that they must immediately provide food and clothing and medicine for the pitiable Jews in the camp. It might save their lives. It is important here to note that two intimates of father, Fein and Malinski, who were by chance also in Baranovichi, were able to help the Slutsker rabbi with his mission.

Father established a committee of which he was the director and whose main function was to provide for the needs of the suffering people. He immediately got in touch with the memorable Deputy Advocate in Syme, Noach Prilutski. He requested that Prilutski send a Jewish advocate from Warsaw who could handle legal options.

A famous advocate from Warsaw came to Baranavichi. He dealt with various issues and requested that the Poles immediately send documents about the legitimate rights of the camp Jews to Polish cities and towns. The Poles responded by making all documents null and void which the camp Jews had from the Polish government representative in Soviet Russia and also from the Polish border official officer. They announced that all Jews are Bolsheviks and should be sent back to their Bolshevik communities.

Father suggested with his usual devotion and concern for his people that the camp Jews be given prayer shawls, phylacteries, books, either ordinary of in Jewish, candlesticks, bible books with stories for women, or a prayer book. These items certainly are not for Bolsheviks. He would be responsible for these Jews. It is worthwhile to record that Father's unquestioning faith in God and in himself was successful.

They were able to smuggle Jewish clerical paraphernalia into the camp.

[Page 340]

The Rabbi's Wife

My mother Alter-Elke was raised by her father R'Rueben Shachravit in Kovno, where he was a prominent businessman, respected and wise in Haskala and Talmud. For him Torah came first. His beautiful daughter's upbringing was both worldly and traditional. My mother received instruction in the Holy language, Russian, Polish, German, and Yiddish. Because of her personal charm, she was well known in her youth [Picture of Alter Elke Peimer], and before she achieved maturity, her parents had notified the matchmakers of her eligibility. They then flooded the threshold of her father's house.

However, as it turned out—it seemed inevitable—mother would be a Rabbi's wife. This destiny fell on my father, who had been one of the best Slabadker Yeshiva students and who also knew many languages. He became a rabbi at the young age of twenty one. Although my parents were quite different in many ways, they were united in their love of Israel and their self sacrifice for individuals as well as for the community at large.

For my mother, a new and exceptional chapter began in her short, difficult, and fruitful life. This rare beautiful woman quickly became one of the most famous rabbi's wife in all of White Russia.

Thanks to her intelligence and tact our house became a true center in the city. There was not one subject in which mother did not participate. It was a wonder that she had the energy to organize and to be active in so many undertakings. She was a nurse in the house when we were sick, and sometimes in hospitals. She did not consider any work which helped people as ugly or hard. Each thing mattered, was important, and was done with much enthusiasm. Our house was spacious on one of the most beautiful streets in town and had a lovely garden. The doors were open to all who came: rabbis, people with worthy causes, preachers, relatives, random visitors.

The house was public domain and everyone felt free to come and go as he wanted. It was clean, tidy and in excellent order.

At the outbreak of the First World War hundreds of young Jewish men were mobilized and had to leave their beloved wives and children. It was the custom to give them a divorce document. This was done to prevent the following: If a Jewish soldier was captured or missing in action or died his wife became an agunah [widow]. She could not remarry ever. Therefore she was given a conditional divorce document, stating that if her husband did not return from battle by this and this date, she was automatically divorced from the date of the conditional document. Reb Mordechai Jacob, the scroll writer, and Reb Shimon wrote these documents.

Our town was packed with men, women, fathers, mothers, sisters. The weeping and lamentations split the sky. My mother and dear sister Motieh became nurses and comforters trying to help the weeping women. One fainted, another needed her head rubbed. Some needed a drink. In this way they were busy for weeks with the results of the terrible divorce process.

My mother and sister also became involved in preparing meals. The Jewish soldiers in the Russian Army could not carry much food with them and were living on bread and water. In the beginning there were only a few, but after awhile there were many more. My mother and sister cooked and the numbers steadily increased. It became impossible to accommodate all of them in a private home. Mother turned to the Slutsker youth, composed of Yeshiva boys, other students, teachers, workers, and asked for their help. A committee was organized to prepare several places in the synagogue for the soldiers. A large modern kitchen was needed so they could prepare large amounts of food for soldiers leaving or returning home.

[Page 342]

They needed hearty and fresh meals. Of course none of this was easy. How do make something from nothing? How do you build a facility without funds or materials and products? My mother's iron will with the help of the Slutsker community was able to accomplish it. They not only built the kitchen with a dining area, but other much needed buildings as well. The news of this traveled so far that one of Czar Nicholas' daughters, who concerned herself with similar work, communicated with the Slutsker committee. Mother became well known for her packages of food that were sent to the front. In the evening, in our home, a large blitz lamp threw a warm yellow glow on the people that wrapped the packages of food, also cigarettes, chocolates, sugar, paper, envelopes, needles, thread, buttons, and other necessary items such as sweaters and canvas sacks. They then roped them up for shipping. The canvas sacks, a very important article for soldiers, were filled with sand to protect their heads when shooting from the trenches. In addition notes with heartfelt words hoping for their safety and return home were added as well.

The youngsters in the community addressed the packages and mailed them.

At that time epidemics had raged in Slutsk. My mother and sister went to help those affected despite the danger. Seeing their example encouraged others to do likewise. I, an only son who was full of devilish tricks, became completely changed and now only wanted to help. In this way my bad behavior changed and perfecting the necessary work was my goal.

My friends and I felt that it would be a good distraction to put on a play.

I no longer remember the artistic aspect of the performance, but I know it was a colossal success. The show was called The Sacrifice of Isaac, with costumes, make-up, and decorations, which, as you can imagine, also created a terrible mess. The animal we used had to be watched carefully until it was needed at the end of the last act. I do not remember if our parents and the nearby neighbors were pleased with our nonsense, fun, and noise but my mother began to have hope for me. She did not give up and believed I would turn out well.

The house continued to swell with crowds of people. Days would pass and we would not even see our parents. I would catch a glimpse of my mother when she could no longer stand on her feet. Then I had to be her nurse caretaker. One evening she came home burdened with packages and said she wanted me to come somewhere with her. We went to a house, knocked on a door and went inside. She laid down her packages, went into another room and came out with a child. She kissed and fondled it with great care. Mother laughed and talked to him with a very loving voice. Many years later I learned who this child was. This was not the only child that Mother had nurtured. These children had been abandoned and she had established a place for them and got them into families who would raise them as good Jews.

In the Slutsker jail Mother was a frequent visitor. She brought food, took away dirty clothes, and brought them back clean. She treated these criminals as if they were rabbis or Yeshiva students and workers. Some of their crimes were minimal. Last but not least, she knew how to save them from being sent to Siberia.

I will never forget Berlyn, a ten year old whom the Czarist government had charged with espionage. He was arrested and was in various jails until he came to Slutsk. Who knows what would have happened to him were it not for Mother? After much toil and intercession, she found a way to save him. On a certain Purim she sent the officer of the prison a lovely gift and pleaded that he save the boy from going to Siberia. Miraculously, he complied.

Frequently Mother would be informed about some prisoners who were being sent to Siberia. She would provide warm clothes, packages, and bolsters. She even helped non- Jews in the hope that it would please the other Christian prisoners and they would not harass the Jews. On one occasion she gave a Christian prisoner a Jewish name in order to help him avoid going to Siberia. She had a rare influence on the government officials.

Generally speaking Mother was rich in “pride” at that time. She was the first one to requisition some of the many synagogues in Slutsk and turn them into orphanages and old age homes.

[Page 343]

To those Jews who wanted to know why the Rabbi's wife was desecrating the house of prayer, she explained that while the synagogue was a place to pray, it seemed proper to use it also for the homeless, elderly, and sick, when necessary. If this was a sin, she would take it upon herself.

Mother made it possible for many Slutsker children, ill or orphaned, to have a good life. She did this for many children throughout Poland.

I remember when our family lived together with several other families who had suffered great losses. In our dwelling lived Tavarishtch [Comrade] Balashav with his “soldier attendant” Vanya. From our old house all that remained were grandfather's portrait and a few books. Now the house looked like an office for the Red Commander, where commissars and Red Army personnel continuously came and went. In this environment I felt like a fish out of water even though Balashav and Vanya were good hearted people. Even Pesheh, who vehemently cursed the Bolsheviks, liked them and cooked for them, and even prepared a cholent for them on the Sabbath.

At first when the brigade commander Balashav came to requisition a room, Pesheh sat in the kitchen on the oven and did three things at the same time; talked to herself, prayed, and cursed. As soon as she saw the commander, she would shout, “Hey, do you hear? Take the pitcher and bring water!” The commander would lay aside his briefcase, take the water pitcher, go outside and fill it, and with a smile say, “Here, little mother, is your water.”

I became good friends with Vanya and the commander, rode their horses, wore their uniforms, and received tickets for concerts and theater performances. Everything would have been good and fine except Rabbi Bayr Efton with whom I studied did not approve and was a heavy stone in my path. When Vanya would disclose information about various kinds of arms, I could hear the Rabbi's hoarse voice calling me. It is a good time to study the Tanach and learn something. He would say that Vanya could also listen... it will not hurt him. After the lesson he would tell me to put the books away and get dressed. “We cannot lose a minute because it is time to collect money for charitable causes.” The great Rabbi Bayr and his wild son would go around the city and do this good deed.

Now it was my turn. We went from one part of the city to another, from Astraveh to Tritsan, from the city gate to the cemetery. The rabbi took very long strides and I had to run to keep up with him. Coming to a dark house with closed shutters Rabbi Bayr banged on the door. “Who is it?” The rabbi would respond by saying that we were Jewish robbers. The light went on and the door was opened by a sleepy angry Jew. “Is there not another time to do this?” The Rabbi calmed him and told him not to aggravate himself. “You should be satisfied that the holy one does not neglect you and favors you with the possibility of doing good deeds even when you are asleep. Do you know who this young man is? This is R'Yusele's son and without him I would never do this”.

It was inevitable that my mother would wear herself out. Her journey over the Polish border to Baranovichi to visit Father was like walking in the valley of death. There were members of the underground operating at all times (underworld people who smuggled things across the border with the approval of the Bolshevik regime because they furnished Communist literature to the Polish side and other contraband from Poland to Russia). My mother was with the underground and was forced to smuggle as well. When a border patrol stopped her party, the men ran away and left my sick, weak mother in God's custody. There she was, alone on a desolate, unpaved road covered with a burning frost, with stacks of packages of Communist literature lying at her feet.

Two soldiers with guns arrived and seeing what was going on wanted to shoot her, but a third soldier stopped him. He said not to take it out on this old Jewish woman. My mother was forty one years at that time. After a brief discussion they left her in the white blizzard in the middle of a field. In the bitter cold she dozed off.

A Jewish group of people saw her and placed her on their sleigh, half dead and frozen. She recovered at their house. They felt it was a privilege to help this forsaken woman from Slutsk.

[Page 345]

Summer of 1919 in Slutsk

by Nathan Kantoravitch

Translated by Tamara Selden

In the summer of 1919 I received orders from the authorities in Minsk to travel to Slutsk and take the job of assistant to the “Peoples Controller.” It was a time when the intellectuals in Russia did not want to work with the new council regime. They said that they had overtaken the government in an illegal usurpation through a bloody overthrow and dispelled the “establishment assembly” in all of Russia, which had been elected on a democratic basis.

At that time the council regime mobilized the necessary professionals and intelligentsia among the unfriendly population. The order that came to Minsk stated that all persons with greater education and students in institutions of higher learning must report to the council regime. As a young student at the Moscow Technical High School and one year at the Riga Polytechnic Institute, which had been exiled to Moscow during the First World War, I was highly eligible.

A second reason was that the People's Controller was a nonpolitical branch of the government. Therefore, it was allowed to take civilians who were not on good terms with the regime and opposition groups, which pertained to the Bolsheviks. The entire “People's Controller” in Minsk, as far as I can remember, was composed of non Bolshevik professionals. The only Bolshevik was the cabinet maker Khadash—a Jew, who was incidentally weak in speaking Russian, and was the Bolshevik commissar. He supervised the Kashruth from the government standpoint.

This man Khadash was the only Jew remembered in the large book about the history of Minsk, which was distributed by the White Russian Scientific Academy a few years ago. This book does not say one word about the Jews of Minsk or the history of the destruction of the Jewish community brought about by the Nazis. Perhaps they were mentioned once or twice in order to tell the reader that the Jewish Bund was against the Bolshevik overthrow. It was not told that there was a Jewish section at the White Russian Pedagogical Institute, and a Yiddish newspaper “The Actiaber.” Furthermore, there was a Jewish publishing company which produced many publications. Several other things connected with Jews were omitted. For Khadash an exception was made. However it was not written that he was an ordinary Jew, a plain cabinet maker, who was a little lame.

I was not displeased with the order to go to Slutsk. I had recently suffered the greatest tragedy of my life: the death of my mother. I was anxious to get away. The salary I would get did not exist in Minsk. It was known that in the town of Slutsk there was a store with much better food. There was not the great scarcity of green vegetables. The government did not requisition a large amount of food and life was easier.

Another thing that pleased me was the possibility of having a hook-up with the Zion Council in Slutsk. There was a struggle between the socialist and non socialist elements. Siding with the first, I hoped that I would be able to strengthen the socialistic branch of the Zion Council.

I arrived in Slutsk at the either the end of May or the beginning of June. With the help of friends from the Zion Council, who greeted me warmly, I found a place to live in the house of Mr. Harkovi. This was located on the corner of one of the central streets in the city. The father and brothers Harkovi came from exile somewhere deep in Russia, I believe, in Rastav on the Don. Their employment was making cheese. There was also a daughter, Musia, and her husband. The house was filled with Zionist spirit. Later, after the Russian Polish War, I heard that they had gone to Israel. Musia died in Tel Aviv.

[Page 346]

When I arrived in Slutsk I had to report to “Natshalsva.” It appeared that the entire pitiful “People's Controller” was located in a small house and the administrator of the entire operation was a man named Salaviav, a Jew from Bobruisk.

The work in the institution was very meager. Salaviav had a big mouth and one sermon about the benefits and good points of the Bolsheviks and the new regime. He did not demonstrate any great intelligence. The work he did was slovenly. It was likely that he did not know exactly what he was supposed to do.

However, he was aware of Minsker Khadash. The previous administrator had told him about his popularity and good nature. I am not sure that Salaviav even spoke Yiddish, while it was the only language that Khadash could speak to express his plain, primitive common sense and thoughts. When he was in Minsk, one thing he liked to do as to tell jokes and use risqué words. He was only able to address these jokes to a few Jews who worked at the “People's Controller.”

It should be noted that Russians, Poles, and other non Jews prefer a non-political institution. A Jew rarely felt good there due to hateful glances from the goyishe [gentile] people. The Jews alone had a “White Guard”, a known Czarist, who taunted me constantly. He repeatedly asked me what I was doing there and saying I should be outspoken since Jews were well know Bolsheviks. The opponents of the Council Regime favored Trotsky and complained that Jews and Bolsheviks were one and the same. The Czarist officer and the Poles in the People's Controller were waiting for the regime in Minsk to fall. Then they would grab power and have a reckoning with the Bolshevik Jews.

Life in Slutsk continued in the customary way. It was a nice summer. The orchards bloomed with plentiful fruit. The best crop was the small sapazhankes. Someone told me that the genus originated in Slutsk. They were honey sweet pears which literally melted in your mouth. The name was derived from Count Safieha who first cultivated them.

Another delicious item that originated in Slutsk was called Slutsker cake. It was difficult for me to understand what the queer, bizarre, strange word cake meant. Where did this word come from? It shone and there was no word comparable to it. For us in Minsk, it would be called a bapkeh with cheese. If it was now called cake it must mean that it had an extraordinary taste. I did not know what kind of special baking method brought out such a taste. After all, this has nothing to do with Jewish studies. It remained a puzzle for me until this very day. Maybe others, true Slutskers, will explain it to me some time.

The cake soon left my mind. Scarcity began to mount in Slutsk. Products needed for simple living became very expensive. Everyone had difficulty, but for me, an outsider, with a very limited salary, it was even harder. I remember now, with gratitude, how the people in the house where I lived assisted me and one of my friends from the Zion Council.

The Zion Council had a committee under the leadership of F. Meltzer, the younger son of a Rabbi, and one other. Their discussions mostly involved the future programs of the Zion Council in connection with a Socialist-Zionist organization. Among the Slutsker Zion Council the differences were so strongly crystallized, compared to the Zion Council in Minsk, where the sharp discussions created a great division between the yes and no socialists. The strongest voice among the Slutskers was pro socialist. The writers of the times were adherents of the People's Revolutionaries, “Slutsker Socialists,” and different from Marxist class conflict socialists, which had dominated the Russian Labor Zionists, and drove many away from Zionism.

[Page 347]


It was not long before we were destined to have the discussions in the “Zion Council.” We had meetings once a week but sometimes less often, particularly when things became heated. Meanwhile the mood in town, which had generally been peaceful, also changed for the worse. From the Bolshevistisher press it was not possible to learn what was happening in the wider world, even in neighboring Poland, where the government set a goal to extend Poland from “sea to sea.” That meant from her historic borders and the so called “Eastern crescent” and part of the Ukraine.

With the Poles

Close to the month of Av things began to stir in town. Refugees from the West arrived from the areas that the Polish legions had already taken. We were afraid to utter a word. Suddenly, there was a great tumult in the town as the government institutions began to evacuate. I was unable to learn anything. However, I observed that things were irregular, and once, going to buy food, I did not encounter anyone. Also, letters to be mailed were lying on the table.

I understood that I had to return home with my basket. I went to the train hoping to get as far as Asifavits where you could get the train to Minsk.

As it turned out I did not get to Asifavits because it became known that the trains from there were not going to Minsk. Asifavits had already been taken by the Poles. I therefore went back to Slutsk, but the memory of that experience remains strong in my mind.

At the train station in Slutsk there was a huge crowd of people who had run away from the town. They were waiting for the train to be permitted to go to Asifavits. Meanwhile a group of Cossacks arrived: cavalry who tied their horses to the trees and went to the station building. Suddenly in the nearby woods we heard shooting. The frightened crowd thought that the shooting was from the approaching Poles. There was an indescribable commotion. The crowd of Jews and Christians decided in haste to go back to town. They used fire wagons and horses and many went on foot. The word Pole was like a “scarecrow" and it was no wonder that it caused a panic and a wild race. In the meantime the horses that were tied to the trees tore away from their bridles and ran in an elemental gallop over the wooden slats near the station building.

The scene became unbelievable; young and old were running on the highway, which was, as far as the eye could see, overfilled with screaming and scared people.

I did not allow myself to join the hysterical throng immediately since the shooting had stopped. Now I understood that I had no reason to run back to Slutsk, when I had to go in an opposite direction.

Suddenly I saw someone running along with the mob; my basket in his hand. A sudden uncontrollable urge made me rise from my place and join the running crowd back to Slutsk. It did not take more than a second that I became part of the human lava which flowed, as if from a hot volcano eruption, over the highway to Slutsk.

And so I returned to Slutsk and waited with the entire Jewish population for the arrival of the Poles.

A few years later I was a student at the Free Polish University in Warsaw, where I attended a seminar on socialism by a well known sociologist Ludvik Kshiviski. It brought to mind the energy of the group at the train station, where its “herd force” affected my entire individual attitude about that experience. All this remains from that distant time but is strongly imbedded in my memory.

From all the examples of which were presented by Professor L. Kshiviski about group feelings, my experience had the greatest impact on him.

The arrival of the Poles in Slutsk immediately brought a pogrom and robberies. In the city fear ruled. The newly arrived Polish legionnaires and the local Poles both were guilty of these robberies and also White Russians who gave way to their brutish instincts.

[Page 348]

When things quieted down a little, the Jews were still afraid to show themselves in the streets and at night they just sat locked in their houses.

The bandits really liked to go at night, and what could the helpless Jews do against these night robbers? They used their common sense. As soon as a robber attacked a house where Jews lived, a great shriek arose from the residents. The shrieks slowly carried over to the neighboring houses and eventually to the entire street, then to the second street and the third street; a chorus of shrieks and screams to the heavens for help.

The result of these shrieks and screams was to drive away the attackers and this way the Jews escaped robbery and often death. It was told that when a delegation from the Jewish community protested to the Polish regime, the agent had to confess that he was helpless in the fight against the saldatstva which raged over the city. The shrieks and outcry in the night from the Jewish homes and streets were able to do what the Polish commander could not accomplish.

It is interesting that a year later when I was in various places in Vilna, I once again heard the shrieks, screams, and moans from the homes and courtyards, as a means to scare and expel the Polish attackers. Vilna, at that time, was taken by General Zsheligavski legionnaires, and again there were pogroms, assaults, and robberies of the unprotected Jewish community. The old technique of shrieks, moans, screams of the helpless Jewish was used as a means of self-protection.

From that time I also remember how a group of Polish soldiers once broke in through the kitchen in the house of the Harkovis. All they did, to our joy, was to scare us.

A few weeks later I went by wagon at dawn to Hareday. I used this opportunity to travel this way in order to get to Minsk. We traveled the entire day. It was an exceptionally nice day, beginning of autumn, but we were taken aback by the numbers of people walking along way. At one point we were stopped by a Polish convoy and searched. It was a miracle that I remembered earlier to get rid of some incriminating items. I wore my student jacket with the shiny buttons. One of the convoy leaders asked me where I was going and said it was good to study in Warsaw.

Late in the evening we arrived in Timkovichi. Again we were overcome with the dead silence in the town. Soon a Jew arrived who took us to the rabbi. There we found a crowd of frightened Jews, who had pleasure at hearing our story of how we traveled an entire day from Slutsk and nothing happened to us.

Finally we arrived at Nesvizh. There I looked for a friend from the Zion Council by the name of Litvin, and we went to the train station to go to Minsk. On the train I already met new and not frightened Jews, who were carrying material from Warsaw. They ate white bread smeared with butter, which was for me a great wonder. In Minsk my friends met me with outstretched arms.

[Page 349]

Khasidote in Slutsk

Translated by Tamara Selden

Khasidote in Slutsk according to Dubnow's book “The History of Khasidism”

A story of Slutsk from the book The Jewish Community of Khasidism”

The preacher R' Israel Layb and his fight against Khasidism

R'Zalman's responses to the question of R'Avigdor

The beginning of Khasidote in Slutsk

Two rich brothers who came from Gailitzia lived in Slutsk. They were in charge of leasing all the estates of the Polish Duke Radzivil. These two men were known to Shlomo Myman by the Polish name of Diershavtsi. They ruled over many town Jews who had leased taverns and stores from them. The influential brothers kept track of their activities in the leased places. From time to time they raised the rents, not concerning themselves with their tenants' complaints. Some became poverty stricken. People called the brothers tyrants.

A Khasidisher legend tells: Once the wife of one of the brothers invited her landsman, the Bal Shem Tov, to come to visit their sumptuous home for Chanukah. It was designed by a famous architect. The wise man stayed for three weeks, but felt that the Litvitsher community viewed him with suspicion and did not believe in his miraculous signs. When he was leaving the wife asked him how long would the good fortune of the family endure? His answer was: twenty two years. It came to pass that after twenty two years the Duke's wrath became so great that he threw them in jail.

Fragment translated from Dubnow's - The History of the Khasidote

The Besh't in Slutsk

There was a merchant, R'Shmuel Slutsker, who traveled around to various places in Poland. When he was in Mesbun he met the Besh't, who was a holy man. R'Shmuel followed him everywhere and became an intimate. When he came home he told his wife of the greatness of this man. She asked him to invite the Besh't to Slutsk. He did so, and arranged for someone to bring him to Slutsk.

R'Shmuel had been in Kiev and could not get back in time. The Besh't immediately asked that the butcher should bring his ritual slaughtering knife in order to see if it was kosher. R'Shmuel wife Tybele sent for the butcher. The Besh't looked at him and seemed pleased. However, the butcher became resentful when the Besh't continued to look at him. He decided that he would play a joke on him and would see if the Besh't understood or not. He left to get the knife and rubbed it against his dirty rubber belt. Then he took two witnesses to watch him slaughter and inspect an animal for impurities and make it kosher. The witnesses had not seen what he had done with the knife before the demonstration. When Friday evening came, all the people gathered at the table with the Besh't. The butcher was also present. They ate fish and then were served meat broth. The Besh't took a little on his spoon and smelled it. He said it smelled bad and put it aside. They had no meat the entire Sabbath. The people regretted this very much. On the third Sabbath of his visit he tasted some meat and declared it not Kosher and that the ritual slaughter was unfit.

The butcher presented his witnesses who said that all had been properly done. There was a commotion, and everyone was embarrassed. The witnesses, although innocent, were afraid of the holy man so they went to the Docseh in Ramalst and pleaded with her to give them some special power. She said she would, but only for one day. She gave them a lock for the door where the Besh't was staying and they posted guards at all the other doors. They did not allow anyone to go in or out.

After Havdalah was over, the Besh't told his servant to bring his horse which was in a barn attached to the house, and he got on. When they came to the door, it lifted off the ground with the posts, and they rode away. The guards did not see or hear anything, and the Besh't rode from there traveling a great distance by occult means. He was home the next day. He told R'Layb to go to Slutsk and tell the people certain things. First he was to tell them he was a great preacher and would give a fine sermon. This pleased the people in Slutsk very much and they gave him thirty pieces of gold. He stayed for three Sabbaths and gave a different sermon each time. He was highly praised.

When the fourth Sabbath came, the people were gathered in the shul. He asked them to clap their hands, which they did. He then raised his eyes and asked where the butcher was and why he had not come to hear his sermon. R'Layb would not speak until he arrived. Two sextons went to get him, but when they arrived they saw that the windows and doors were closed. They banged on the door, but there was no answer.

Returning to the shul the men told R'Layb what they had found. He then told them to go and break down the door to see what was happening inside the house. He instructed the sextons to search the house thoroughly, and so they did. They found him lying with his daughter and dragged him to the shul.

The sextons told what they had discovered. The townspeople were shocked. He never appeared to be a sinner. R'Layb began to scream: Sinner, confess what you did when the Besh't was here. He confessed that he had made the slaughter knife unkosher. The meat was not pure. Now everyone knew that the Besh't had spoken the truth. R'Layb said that wise men knew one sin led to another and now the butcher was guilty of two sins.

The merits of wise men remind us that we should beware of doing evil Amen!

(The Jewish community of Khasidim)

The preacher R'Israel Layb and his battle against Khasidism

Between the 18th and early 19th centuries, the opponents of Khasidism journeyed through Liteh, Raysin, Galitzia, Poland, and Germany, led by R'Israel Layb. He preached his sermons with a sparkling spirit and read from many books.

R'Israel son of Yehudah Layb was, as it turned out, a Slutsker. He was the author of the book Zamir Aritim 1795. His followers called him by the name R'Israel Slutsker. Until the year 1892 he took the place of preacher in Mahilv-Raysin. Afterwards he was Dyan and Preacher in Novaridak.

His opposition to the Khasidim was frightening. You could see how great his influence was on young people.

He went to see R'Zalman, who favored the Khasidim, to debate with him. R'Layb felt that the Hasidim would harm Jewry and the principles of discipline. His feeling was that the gentile world would recognize and be grateful to the rabbis who uncover the superficial activity in a minority of their people; that the Khasidim were complainers, money lovers, and spread superstition. R'Zalman was greatly angered at these remarks.

Then R'Layb wrote Sefer Vicoah against the Khasidim and went to Warsaw to have it published. This was the year 1797, after which the Vilna Gaon came out with his famous protest against the Khasidim. The Gaon's envoy R'Sedeha, who was the spokesman for the Traditionalists, had permitted the Lithuanian preacher to speak against the group and gave his approval to print the book in Sivan (May/June) 1797.

In the month of Av (July/Aug) R'Israel traveled through Slutsk and received approval from the community. He distributed his book and a brochure “Tavit Tsadikim” by R'Israel Layb, Warsaw 1798.

The Khasidim bought many of the books and tore them apart until nothing was left of them.

[Page 350]

The butcher presented his witnesses who said that all had been properly done. There was a commotion, and everyone was embarrassed. The witnesses, although innocent , were afraid of the holy man, so they went to the Docseh in Ramalst and pleaded with her to give them some special power. She said she would, but only for one day. She gave them a lock for the door where the Besh't was staying and they posted guards at all the other doors. They did not allow anyone to go in or out. After Havdalah was over, the Besh't told his servant to bring his horse which was in a barn attached to the house, and he got on. When they came to the door, it lifted off the ground with the posts, and they rode away. The guards did not see or hear anything, and the Besh't rode from there traveling a great distance by occult means. He was home the next day. He told R'Layb to go to Slutsk and tell the people certain things. First he was to tell them he was a great preacher and would give a fine sermon. This pleased the people in Slutsk very much and they gave him thirty pieces of gold. He stayed for three Sabbaths and gave a different sermon each time. He was highly praised.

When the fourth Sabbath came, the people were gathered in the shul. He asked them to clap their hands, which they did. He then raised his eyes and asked where the butcher was and why he had not come to hear his sermon. R'Layb would not speak until he arrived. Two sextons went to get him, but when they arrived they saw that the windows and doors were closed. They banged on the door, but there was no answer. Returning to the shul the men told R'Layb that no one answered. He then told them to go and break down the door to see what was happening inside the house. He instructed the sextons to search the house thoroughly, and so they did. They found him laying with his daughter and dragged him to the shul. The sextons told what they had discovered. The townspeople were shocked. He never appeared to be a sinner. R'Layb began to scream: “Sinner, confess what you did when the Besh't was here.” He confessed that he had made the slaughter knife unkosher. The meat was not pure. Now everyone knew that the Besh't had spoken the truth. R'Layb said that wise men knew one sin led to another and now the butcher was guilty of two sins. The merits of wise men remind us that we should beware of doing evil Amen!

(The Jewish community of Hasidim)

The preacher R'Israel Layb and his battle against Hasidism

Between the 18th and early 19th centuries the opponents of Hasidism journeyed through Liteh, Raysin, Galitzia, Poland and Germany, let by R'Israel Layb . He preached his sermons with a sparkling spirit and read from many books.

R'Israel son of Yehudah Layb was, as it turned out, a Slutsker. He was the author of the book Zamir Aritim 1795. His followers called him by the name R'Israel Slutsker. Until the year 1892 he took the place of preacher in Mahilv-Raysin. Afterwards he was Dyan and Preacher in Novaridak.

His opposition to the Hasidim was frightening. You could see how great his influence was on young people.

He went to see R'Zalman, who favored the Hasidim, to debate with him. R'Layb felt that the Hasidim would harm Jewry and the principles of discipline. His feeling was that the gentile world would recognize and be grateful to the rabbis who uncover the superficial activity in a minority of their people; that the Hasidim were complainers, money lovers, and spread superstition. R'Zalman was greatly angered at these remarks.

Then R'Layb wrote Sefer Vicoah against the Hasidim and went to Warsaw to have it published. This was the year 1797, after which the Vilna Gaon came out with his famous protest against the Hasidim. The Gaon's envoy R'Sedeha, who was the spokesman for the Traditionalists, had permitted the Lithuanian preacher to speak against the group and gave his approval to print the book in Sivan (May/June )1797.

In the month of Av (July/Aug) R'Israel traveled through Slutsk and received approval from the the community. He distributed his book and a brochure “Tavit Tsadikim” by R'Israel Layb, Warsaw 1798.

The Hasidim bought many of the books and tore them apart until nothing was left of them.

[Page 351]

Hasidim in Slutsk

It was told that fanatics awaited the preacher R'Israel Layb. They screamed and cursed him on the streets of Warsaw and in other towns. Supporters told of the opposition of his book “Zamir Aritim”. It showed the excellence of the writing of R'Israel. It was without rivalry and he was a zealot for the heavenly host. The cursed Hasidim spilled his blood like water-threw stones, tore his books, stamped on him as if he were the clay of the streets, and called him preacher of foolishness.

The Russian government was unwilling to intercede in this battle between the Traditionalists and the Hasidim in 1800-1801.

Of R'Zalman's responses to the questions of R'Avigdor, only two were noted in the government newspapers. The responses to the 18th and 19th questions were that the holy religious community of Slutsk was the enemy of the Hasidim. They committed great persecutions of the Lubavitsher Hasidim. When the crime became known a regulation was issued by the Minsker court to protect the Hasidim.

(These were the illusions of the Hasidim regarding persecution by the Slutsker Traditionalists. The leader of the Hasidim was R'Morcehai Liabavitsher).

A Hasidic legend tells: When the Besh't came out of exile he went to Slutsk. However the Slutsker residents did not welcome him at first.

He warned the townspeople not ever to allow the Hasidim to come there. The warning was heeded, and Slutsk remained one of four known towns where Hasidism did not want to put down one foot. The other three towns were Kosove, Razsinaye, Fruzseni. The townspeople did not wish to live to hear the first morning prayer according to Nusah Sefard. Many generations passed and the Nusah Sefard was not heard in Slutsk.

In the beginning of the twentieth century there were a small group of Hasidim in Slutsk and their leader was R'Pincus Fineyeh Kantaravitsh. They did not have a place to gather for prayer. After the residents of Slutsk had built the Mishneoat synagogue, they gave the small house where they used to pray to the Hasidim.

The Hasidim were very pleased and included their enemies in their prayers for a yarsite (prayer for the dead), L'shem Tikon, a prayer said at midnight. Then they would have a shot of whiskey. The Hasidisher house was always full on the night of the festival of Shmini Eseret. They always carried the Torahs in procession on that night instead, of on the festival of Simchat Torah, as the Traditionalists did. Afterwards they celebrated this great moment with liquor, feeling it was quite appropriate.

And it was told that every time someone passed the house, day or night, the Hasidim pleaded with them to come inside because they needed to complete the minyon.

Regarding this request people wondered why the Hasidim waited for another person to complete the required number. One of them explained: It took a few Traditionalists to take the place of a tenth man who was a Hasid.

It was told that two Hasidim from Retsitseh met in Slutsk in an Inn. It was during the month of Kislev (Nov./Dec.) and they wanted to pray together and celebrate the feast in memory of the liberation of Ridb'n, the author of The Tanya. To get a minyon of Hasidim in Slutsk was not always easy, so they put a bottle of liquor on the table and desserts to lure some guests, and it did work. It was almost midnight when they finished praying and they burst into wild celebration and frightened one of the Jews who had just arrived. He asked where the doctor was, but instead of answering they offered him another drink. The doctor was also in the room. and joined in the drinking. Soon they were all very drunk.

This celebration was beyond estimation. They had completed their prayers and let themselves go wild. The wife of the Jew, who had asked for the doctor, was waiting for him to bring him to see their sick child. She waited and waited and finally decided to go look for him.

On her way she heard singing and clapping. She looked through the window of the Inn and saw that her husband was among the dancers. Angrily she went inside and fell upon him. “ I sit alone and worry. Our child is ill and burns like fire and you dance!” Her drunken husband staggered and yelled, calling her a foolish woman. “The night is still young and it does the heart good to dance.”

Slutsk was and remained a clean traditional Lithuanian town. Slutsker Jews remained faithful to the school of thought of the Vilne Gaon, a Traditionalist. They were strongly against Hasidism, which had spread widely in the Ukraine and Poland in the 1800s. They often joked : When there was a minyon of Hasidim in Slutsk and a rabbi, then the Messiah will come. That is the way it was and remained until the Soviet Messiah and the Nazi destruction.

[Page 352]

Reb. Israel Behmer, Reb. Mendele Epstein

Translated by Tamara Selden

In his youth R'Israel, son of R'Yusele Slutsker, wanted to become a Hasid. He ran away from Slutsk, from his father, a traditionalist to Kydenov and sought out a rabbi. There he attached himself to Hasidim and became one of their number. The Hasidim thought very well of him because R'Israel was a prodigy. He was very hot headed but his father was a traditionalist. He did not remain there long. The Hasidim did not really care for someone from a Traditionalist root.

During that short period with the Hasidim R'Israel recited a Torah portion on the “Splendor of the Sabbath”, which was very deep and difficult to understand or explain. The crowd of Hasidim did not understand it. After Havdalah several men went over to the Rabbi to ask him to explain the Torah portion.

Yes, said R'Israel, I will explain. He directed them to the window. He pointed to a hole and asked them ; What do you see there? A hole, they answered.__right said R'Israel. Today I will take a tool and make another hole in it. What will that be called? __ A hole in a hole.__ A Hasid seized the idea.

Ah! So this is meaning of the “Splendor of the Sabbath.”

R'Mendele Slutsker was a Gaon of the people. However, he had never been a rabbi, and never wanted to be one. For many years he was in R'Iserke”s school. He ran a Yeshiva and was occupied with Torah “Tsvelftl”: The twelve subjects that the rich Iserlen felt were imperative. R'Mendele's custom was to go every day with his students to the house of Iserlin for a drink. R'Mendele often made merry. There was tea for everyone, as much as they wanted. When they were finished he would then have his.

Once an emissary came to Slutsk and went to see the rich man. He saw a group of Jews sitting at a table drinking tea, and a small Jew invited everyone who came in to join them at the table. The emissary thought he certainly was a servant of the rich man. He sat down with the people and asked for a glass of tea. As he was an avid tea drinker, he asked for glass after glass. He spoke to R'Mendele as if he were indeed a servant. The people stared at him but no one said a word.

Sabbath morning, after praying, it was the custom to go again to the house of the rich man for the Kidush. When everyone was seated around the table Iserlin and R'Mendele would arrive. Everyone would stand up and wish the rich man and the head of the yeshiva a good Sabbath. The emissary had gone there with the people and he saw that the rich man was with the little Jew. Then to his surprise everyone stood up to wish him a good Sabbath.

He then becomes very curious.

Who, he asks,is that Jew?

He is, several answered ,R'Mendele.

It becomes dark before his eyes. He had treated R'Mendele as a servant. He ran immediately to R'Mendele.

Please forgive me, I have no excuse. I did not know....

What offense have you made? R'Mendele. asked.

I did not know know who you were, said the emissary. I did not treat you properly.

I do not understand , said R'Mendele with humility. How have you sinned against me that you ask my pardon. You asked me for a glass of tea, so I gave you one. On the contrary I have to thank you. I had the opportunity to do a good deed.

[Page 353]

R'Yasher-Ber as Slutsker Rav

Khaykil Lunski

Translated by Tamara Selden

The publisher of the writing was the librarian of the well-known Strashan Library in Vilna.

The grandchild of the great Gaon R'Mordechay'le Ashmener, or Slagimer was he himself a great student and wise man. Lunski had the opportunity to study with him and familiarize himself with Judaism,Yiddish Gaonim and prominent people. Khaykil Lunski gave out the following work Toledo Lagaon, Reba Mordechy Vital ((Hebrew) Vilna, Tarez”z,, Tfosim Vitsllim, Makhnitav Hoilny , Vilna Tarf”a: Gaonim and prominent people from the near past, He put an entire series in the newspapers about this. He also did a series on the same subject in the religious weekly paper, “The Word” which gave the chapter from the holy text about the era of R'Yashe Ber in Slutsk. In the thirty years that H'Peretz Viernik was the chief editor of the New York Morning Journal, he was strongly interested in publishing the series in his newspaper. The arrangements were made through the writer of these lines, a personal friend of the two great men, who incidentally did not know each other personally.

H'Viernik respected his Vilna colleague and his treasure of Yiddish folklore. Unfortunately H'Peretz Viernik died and the matter became null and void.

There should be a moment for the noble soul of H'Khaykil Lunski which came together with the heartfelt and Yiddish Vilna.


When the beloved Slutsker rabbi, the Goan R'Yusele Fymer, died in 1864 the community began to look for a rabbi for Slutsk This was easier to say than to accomplish. A rabbi in Slutsk had to be a worldly Gaon, because almost all the earlier rabbis were like that. Furthermore he had to possess other great talents and above all cleverness.

The leaders of the community had an eye on the Gaon R'Joseph Dov Br'Itskhik Zav H'Layvi Salavychik. He was not a rabbi but rather the chief of a Yeshiva in Valazshin, and because of this his name rang all over the Yiddish world.

Exactly one year before he had an argument with the most important person in the chief yeshiva in Valashin, R'Hersh Layb, or as they called him the Nts”i.This had caused a feud. which spread from the town to the Litvisher Torah-world. The feud became so strongly felt that the entire issue was given over to a rabbinical court, in which the Gaon participated: R'Yusele Slutsker together with Gaonim R'David Tebl Minsker, R'Velvele, the Vilna city preacher, and the youngest off the group R'Yitskhik Alkhnan, who was then rabbi in Narvarikach.

Despite the greatness of the rabbinical court and the confidence which both saintly men had in it, R'Yashe-Ber still felt that their judgment was only a compromise and he was not pleased.

As a grandchild of R'Khiam Valashiner, and himself a great Gaon, clever and outstanding with an excellent character, the Slutsker leaders considered if he was a proper candidate for their rabbi and sent to him a “letter” inviting him to come to Slutsk.


After the argument R'Yashe-Ber did not want to be head of the Yeshiva in Valashin. Moreover, since he had later received a “ Rabbinic License” from Slutsk, he took the job and became rabbi in the year 1868.

In Slutsk he became very beloved., depite the fact that he was a leader with a very strong hand. He befriended the poor and above all the bright students.

At that time an evil decree was issued from the recruiter. It was understood that they would take mostly children from the poor families, because the rich would pay many hundred ruble to save their children. R'YASHE -BER put all his efforts into helping the poor and good students, He never rested and day and night he ran around collecting money in order to rescue the poor from military service.

They tell: once the recruiters grabbed a Yeshiva boy, but he escaped from them and he ran into a synagogue and hid himself under R'Yashe Ber's prayer shawl. R'YASHE-BER was afraid they would punish him for allowing this. He told the young man to hide elsewhere and later he would buy him a receipt to keep him out of the army. The Yeshiva boy was afraid to go away, so the rabbi told him to go hide in his house.

[Page 354]

The recruiters knew about this and went to R'Yashe-Ber's house. Their leader went in with a brazen attitude to convince the Rabbi to hand over the young man.

When the rabbi heard this, he called out to his son to get a stick. I will show this young man what comes from running away The Rabbi's anger and the raised stick somehow affected the leader, so he opened the door and shouted to the others: No one is here. From now on we will know that a scholar is wise in many ways.


I also heard that once a young man came to R'Yashe-Ber who was not too bright. He began to cry and begged the rabbi to save him from the military service. R'Yashe-Ber immediately ran to a rich man and borrowed money from him. Later the rich man came to him with complaints: The young man is supposed to go in the army. R'Yashe-Ber Ber answered:-- If I wanted to make him a rabbi, then you could complain that he is too stupid to learn. Instead I made him a non soldier and you could complain that he would not make a very good soldier either.

R'Yashe-Ber devoted himself, not only to ransoming, but also to generally assisting the poor. He literally would give away his last mouthful of food.

[Page 356]

R'Yashe-Ber once came to Minsk for a visit. The Minsker scholars came to welcome him. They wanted to discuss the Torah. Among the scholars there was a young man, a Minsker shopkeeper, who once was his student. When he heard that his Rebbi was in the city, he immediately came to see him. R'Yashe-Ber befriended him and they sat together.

___How are you?___He asked him, __I live well and have not much to complain about. I am healthy and make a good living.

They sat and talked with the other people.

A little while later R'Yashe-Ber asked the young man again:

__How are you? __Blessed be the Lord.__The young man answered again that he was healthy, made a living, and they talked further. Several minutes later, the Rebbi asks the young man how he is for the third time.

___I have no problem answered he young man, a little annoyed that he was asked the same question three times. I told you that I am healthy and make a good living.

___No! said R'Yashe-Ber__ You answer me only about practical matters. I asked you how your are and you tell me you are healthy and have enough money. What I want to know is do you give charity?. Do you study Torah?. Are you involved in Yiddishkite?

There was a rich contractor in Slutsk and he was very religious , but also very stingy. He sometimes went to the Rebbi's study house to pray, reciting his prayers. Only donations were difficult for him to give. R'Yashe-Ber knew him well, but not one time did he make a donation because of his stinginess.

“Kol Nidre” when most of the people went home and only a small group of earnest Jews remained in the shul for an entire night, the rich man stayed also. He said the hymn of the unity of G-d with the people. He recited with the people a few daily assignments of psalms and made sure that R'Yashe-Ber should hear this.

Before morning while the people rested up a little, in order to get ready for the morning prayers, he went over to the Rav and called out:__ What do you say Rebbi? It is hard to be here up a whole night and stand on our feet.

Listen__said R'Yashe-Ber. You are a contractor and work with the government quite a bit. You have knowledge about the military and the way it works. I will ask you a question. There are a variety of sections. There are horsemen and artillery. Each has its own job and each its own place. So I will ask you what happens if one soldier does the job that is not his. For instance, if a horseman decides to become one of the foot soldiers?

This soldier receives severe punishment__replied the Jew. He broke discipline. Why do you ask Rabbi?

___Because this applies to you. We know that the Kingdom of earth has its counterpart in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Rabbis of the people also have different tasks: to teach Torah, Service and Charity. You had been given control over wealth and your job was to give charity. Your job was to give generously to help poor people and follow the law of the Torah. Otherwise you could not lie in your soft bed and sleep. Saying prayers and learning is for the poor people who become soldiers in the mastery of torah. What did you do? You went away from the job of charity to stay with the poor Jews an entire night. It was preposterous, unheard of. You did not hear what it was that you should do on their behalf. So what do you think is coming to you?

One time the tax collector fell in on R'Yashe Ber with great shouting. __Rabbi they are bringing meat from another place into the city. What is all the commotion about asked the Rabbi?

__ Let us not have any anger smiled R'Yashe- Ber According to the logic of a minori ad majus (an inference from minor to major)It is quite understandable (with sarcasm) since we eat the meat of the slaughterers we know, we surely are permitted to eat the meat from slaughterers we do not know.

R'Yashe-Ber did not approve of the excessively religious people. One time he saw that one of them had washed before eating and threw away two full quarts of water.

___A pity on this Jew, smiled R'Yashe.

___He throws he entire reverence for G-d out with the slops.

[Page 357]


What is the novelty in this?_asked R'Yashe-Ber. The truth always wins out!_Rabbi, what are you talking about?, asked the members of the congregation who were observing him. You call heresy the Truth!!!__“Please understand me,” responded R'Yashe-Ber, “the heretics are truly heretics and that is why they are successful, but the honest Jews are not truly honest.”

While R'Yashe Ber was rabbi in Slutsk, there was in Minsk a great Cantor, who sometimes gave lessons for the students. R'Yashe-Ber thought very well of him. He always praised him, saying he was a rarity, a distinguished teacher.

One time the Cantor said to R'Yashe-Ber, with a smile:

___You know Rabbi, when you praise my teaching, you actually do me a disservice, but not on purpose. __For instance?___asked R'Yashe-Ber. The people, __said the Cantor, always hear your praise of my teaching. Therefore, my cantorial singing is not worthy of praise?

___If this is so, said the Rabbi, then I must consult some experts about your cantorial singing. If I am caught in a lie regarding your cantorial singing,

then they also will not believe what I say about your teaching.


R'Yashe's second wife died in Slutsk. It was told that when his wife died R'Yashe-Ber began to examine his actions. Perhaps he was very stressed out. Maybe he should do something to honor R'Hersh Layb after the quarrel in the Valazhina Yeshiva. He decided that he wanted to give something special to R'Hersh Layb, in order that he would forgive him.

As R'Hersh Layb knew that R'Yashe -Ber was in great pain. he came to Slutsk to comfort the mourner. R'Yashe-Ber told him what would like to give him whatever he wanted, in the hope that he would forgive him.

R'Hersh Lab answered, give me your son R'Chyam for a son in law. So R'Chyam became the son in law of R'Rifaln__R'Hersh Layb's son in law.

Later R'Yashe-Ber was married for the third time to a woman from Warsaw.

In 1875 R'Yashe-Ber left Slutsk and went to Warsaw, where his third wife lived.

There he received great respect and they immediately wanted him to serve as Rabbi. However, since he had not been born in Poland he could not become their Rabbi. It was simply not possible. Instead he became the head of the Yeshiva of

the Talmud Society, where for three years he gave a lessons in the study house. and all the great and honored people from Warsaw came to listen to his Torah discussion .


It is told that a Warsaw rich man, a Khasid traveled to visit a Rabbi in another town. Conversationally the Rabbi said to the rich man: Do you know that now there is a Great Gaon in Warsaw? The rich man asked who he was. The Rabbi answered that it was the Slutsker Rabbi....

When the rich man was in Warsaw he sent a message to R'Yashe -Beer that from that day on he wanted the honor of paying the salary he needed to live. R'Yashe-Ber did not want to take this money. It did not seem right to do so.


It was told that while he was in Warsaw without salary or a rabbinate, he once met a Jew on the train from that good city Brisk.: that good city. Since Brisk was searching for a Rabbi, the man began to discuss it with R 'Yashe-Ber asking him to consider taking the job as the Brisker Rabbi.

First, some years ago when R'Yehosha Layb left Brisk, a delegation of Brisker Jews came to R'Yashe-Ber with deliberation to become their Rabbi.

When this was heard in Warsaw, there was a great to do, and by no means did they want to lose the great Gaon the Gerer Rabbi. The Gerer Rabbi was also called theSfas Emet which was the name of his writings. All the rich and prominent people of Warsaw organized to insure that R'Yashe-Ber remained in Warsaw. A delegation of these people went to plead with R'Yashe-Ber not to leave Warsaw and go to Brisk. A feud began between Warsaw and Brisk regarding the Slutsker Rav. When the Brisker people saw that R'Yashe-Ber began to waver about coming to them, they said to him: Rebbe, thirty thousand Jews are waiting for you.!

Hearing these words, he put on his coat: Thirty thousand Jews waiting for me!

In the year 1878 he became the Rabbi in Brisk.


After R'Yashe-Ber left Slutsk and R'Jacob David came there , they happen to meet traveling in the same wagon. They, of course, talked about the Torah.

[Page 358]

They both argued , and R'Jacob left the wagon and sat on the coach box. next to the driver and this is the way they arrived in town. The townspeople were astonished: Two rabbis on a trip and one sits in the coach and the other sits on the coach box.

They said shalom to the one who sat on the coach box. Shalom Aleichem Rabbi.Where do you come from and who is the Rabbi sitting in the coach?_ I am -- R' Yashe Ber Brisker who sits in the wagon. and it is not according to his status for R' Jacob David that I should sit with him, so I sit with the coachman.

Don't believe him __R'Yashe Ber sticks out his head and yells, I am R'Yashe Ber and he is R'Jacob David!

__Rebbi__says R'Jacob David, it will not help you. They know your modest person.

R'Jacob David

While Rebbi Jacob David was rabbi in Slutsk , he was always arguing with the town that they did not hold him in esteem, and the shopkeepers always caused him trouble!

Once the townspeople asked him __Why are you sitting in Slutsk? Why don't you look for another rabbinate?

I will tell you__answers R'Jacob David __In Hell there are seven divisions. Why are there seven? Is there not enough suffering with torture for evildoers with one division in hell? The answer is this. When the sinner become used to his

division of Hell, he ceased to suffer so much. So he is sent to another division of Hell with other kinds of torture and suffering.

Slutsk is really Hell for me. However, I am already used to it. A new town will be a new Hell for me with new suffering. __

R'Meyer Slutsker

He was a people's Gaon and a totally good man. He was the rabbi in Slutsk for a few years.

When his grandchild, a girl, began going to gymnasium, R'Meyer, said to the rabbis. ___If I could not __he said __be a teacher in the right moral way with my own children, how can I be a teacher to an entire community of Jews.

R'Eser Zalman Meltser

The Slutsker rabbi was a very hospitable man. His home was open to everyone. A guest came to Slutsk: a rabbi. a preacher, an emissary, who had to stay with R'Meltser. Meanwhile the Bolsheviks overtook the government, and closed the Slutsker Yeshiva. R'Eser Zalman Meltser did not notice and continued to teach Torah quietly.

One time before Shabbat two Red soldiers arrived. and arrested R'Meltser.

As they are taking him to the market he saw the Nesvizsher emissary.

He asks the soldiers to stop for a while to call over that old Jew. He wants to say something to him. The soldiers granted his request.

As the emissary came over, R'Meltser said to him:___R'Abraham Yitzhock, I beg you, do me favor and celebrate Shabbat in my home for me.

« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.

JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Slutsk, Belarus     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page

Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Max Heffler

Copyright © 1999-2024 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 30 Jan 2008 by LA