CHASSIDIC FAMILY 
IN CHARKOV
September 13, 2012
Avremele Rainitz in #850, Memoirs

R’ Zalman’s wife sees the Rebbe Rayatz on his secret journey to Rostov. * Chapters from the life story of R’ Yehoshua Shneur Zalman Serebryanski a”h.

R’ Zalman’s wife Bracha, was born on 8 Teves 5664/1904. She grew up in an authentic Chassidic home. She was educated mainly by her mother, Mariasha Badana and her grandmother, Rochel Leah.

Her father, R’ Menachem Mendel Futerfas died after Pesach 5666, when she was two, after a severe intestinal ailment. He left a pregnant wife, two little girls and a five year old boy (later known as the Chassidic artist, R’ Hendel Lieberman, named for his uncle, R’ Chanoch Hendel Kugel, who was the first mashpia in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch). A few months later his wife gave birth to a boy and she named him Menachem Mendel for his father. He was the famous mashpia, R’ Mendel Futerfas.

Her grandmother, Rochel Leah, helped her widowed daughter in raising the children. She instilled a special Chassidic atmosphere and provided them with a firm spiritual foundation.

MEKUREVES TO BEIS REBBI

Many stories abound about the grandmother, Rochel Leah. She was exceedingly righteous and was extremely punctilious in mitzva observance. Some even say she wore tzitzis.

For Pesach she would take part in the baking of the matzos, starting from selecting the wheat kernels and ending with rolling out the dough. The only pay she asked for her work was that the matzos she would be given would be from the first matzos of the “first oven.”

Old-time Lubavitchers from Russia remember that one year there was a dispute between her and R’ Yisroel Noach Blinitzky about the first batch of matzos from the “first oven.” When they could not arrive at a compromise, they went to a beis din. After the dayanim heard both sides, they paskened in favor of Rochel Leah.

She was the childhood friend of Rebbetzin Shterna Sara, the wife of the Rebbe Rashab, and whenever she went to Lubavitch she stayed with the Rebbetzin or went to visit her. The two ladies would sit and discuss Chabad stories.

MEETING WITH THE REBBE RAYATZ

In the winter of 5685, Bracha saw the Rebbe Rayatz. It was when the Rebbe was secretly traveling from Leningrad to Rostov and passed through Charkov. Among the few people who knew about his trip was R’ Shmuel Bespalov who was a mekurav of Beis Rebbi. Since the train that the Rebbe traveled on stopped in Charkov for several hours, R’ Bespalov took the opportunity and went with his daughter to see the Rebbe. Bracha was a good friend of his daughter and was invited to join them.

The meeting took place at the train station and the three spent some time in the Rebbe’s compartment. When it was time for the train to depart and they began to take leave, the Rebbe escorted them. Although it was a very cold winter day, the Rebbe left the compartment without a coat and walked them for a bit. When R’ Bespalov noted that it was very cold, the Rebbe smiled and told about a squire who would say that when he had a warm coat at home, even when he was outside, it warmed him.

SHIDDUCHIM WITH THE BEST OF THE T’MIMIM

When the two sisters came of marriageable age, their younger brother Mendel began inquiring about shidduchim for them, desiring that they marry the best of the T’mimim. Within a short time he had made a shidduch for Bracha with R’ Yehoshua Shneur Zalman Serebryanski, and a shidduch for Esther Golda with R’ Bentzion Shemtov. The two young men were considered among the best of the T’mimim and ready to be moser nefesh to spread Chassidus.

After their wedding, held on Rosh Chodesh Elul 5688, the couple lived in Charkov and joined the large Chassidic community that had been there since the time of the Rebbe Maharash.

NIGHTLY FARBRENGENS WITH R’ ITCHE DER MASMID

In those days, many Chassidic young men lived in Charkov and there was a warm Chassidic atmosphere in the Chabad community. R’ Itche der Masmid would occasionally visit the city and stay with R’ Mendel Deitsch. His visits were special spiritual experiences for the young men of the community, as he would farbreng with them every night for hours. Although most of the men worked during the day, they did not hesitate to come to his farbrengens night after night, even when they ended in the morning. R’ Zalman later recounted that it would happen that a farbrengen ended in the morning, and he would immediately head to Shacharis and then to work.

R’ Itche would drink a lot of mashke at his farbrengens. One time, at the end of a farbrengen he staggered in his tipsiness and R’ Zalman supported him. R’ Zalman heard him mumbling again and again, “Ich hub dir lib” (I love you). R’ Zalman asked him who he loved and R’ Itche said, “HaKadosh Baruch Hu!”

The farbrengens with R’ Itche were an elixir of life for the men of the Charkov community and they wouldn’t pass them up for anything. On Sukkos, they could not farbreng in the sukka for it was too dangerous. Instead, they held it in the home of one of Anash with mashke and herring without mezonos.

A THREE YEAR OLD WALKING HALF AN HOUR TO SHUL

Their first son was born in the summer of 5689/1929 and he was named Yisroel Chaim for his maternal grandfather. R’ Zalman, who wanted to instill Chassidic feeling into his son that would immunize him from the powerful communist heresy, took his son to shul from when he turned three. Every Shabbos, the two of them would walk half an hour from their house to the big shul near the river.

In those days, all the shuls in Charkov were closed by the authorities and only the large shul remained open. There were three minyanim there. The big minyan with Nusach Arizal took place in the large area on the upper floor and had 500 people every Shabbos. Most of them were older people; young people feared going to shul, lest they be accused of being anti-communist. On Yomim Tovim, about 2000 people attended shul. They enjoyed the davening with well-known chazanim. The smaller minyan, Nusach Ashkenaz, took place on the first floor, while the Chabad minyan was in a third room that held 70-80 people.

The shul building also had a mikva, which was filled by a live spring of water. Shlomo der Geller with his blonde beard and his wife were the attendants. They took care of the mikva and heated the water in a big urn with wood and coal as they did in those days.

On Shabbos morning, Anash went to shul and learned maamarim in pairs. Davening began around 11:00 and ended at 2:00. After the davening, they sat down to farbreng with the chief mashpia, R’ Avrohom Boruch Pevsner. R’ Itche would come every so often. On Shabbos, his spot was in the women’s section (which was empty in those years). They would sit down to the third Shabbos meal towards evening and R’ Itche would review maamarim.

At the kiddushim and farbrengens every Shabbos, the mashpiim would encourage Anash mainly about practical things like Shabbos observance with mesirus nefesh and chinuch with mesirus nefesh. There were a few who did not withstand the test and worked on Shabbos, but they felt the need to attend the farbrengens where they were strengthened to withstand other tests and where they were told to be moser nefesh for Shabbos too.

Although Anash would make plenty l’chaims and would sometimes speak sharply to one another, the friendship among them was spectacular and each one was ready to be moser nefesh for his fellow.

A special farbrengen was held on Yud-Tes Kislev. Anash prepared a big seuda and R’ Mendel Deitsch would cook the kasha. They also brought small barrels of pickled cabbage and pickles. R’ Avrohom Zaltzman would play the violin and young boys would prepare wooden drumsticks and tap on the tables to the beat. This farbrengen, like all farbrengens on special dates, ended at dawn and after Shacharis, Anash would go straight to work.

The friendship between Anash was such that each one knew with certainty that he would be moser nefesh for his fellow. At farbrengens, they spoke openly about strengthening religion without fearing that someone would report them to the authorities. If a stranger walked in, they would immediately change the subject. Thus, for several years, the secret police had no control over Anash.

It was first in 5697/1937 that the secret police was able to plant an agent within the Chabad community. It was a tourist who said he was a Chabad Chassid and he gained their trust. When they found out he was an informer it was too late and some Chassidim were arrested.

DOUBLE WORK, 
15 HOURS A DAY

In addition to what they had to contend with spiritually, Anash, like everybody in the Soviet Union, had to deal with the difficult material circumstances. In the years following his wedding, R’ Zalman worked in a wine factory which he inherited from his wife’s grandmother, Rochel Leah. She had started producing wine out of raisins many years earlier. At the time, she did it so that Jews would have kosher wine to buy, but when R’ Zalman took over the business, there weren’t many customers for kosher wine and he began selling wine to gentiles too. His wine was known for its strong and good taste, and he was able to support his family with this wine business.

After two years, the government nationalized all private enterprises and R’ Zalman got a permit to run a kiosk at the train station. Since he was responsible for the kiosk, he was able to keep Shabbos without fear. However, the kiosk did not earn him a big profit and he had to look for another source of income.

At that time, the government allowed disabled people who could not leave their homes to contact one of the government factories and to get work that was doable at home. Since this job depended on supplying the goods and was not confined to a particular schedule, many Lubavitchers took this opportunity that allowed them to keep Shabbos and worked from home. R’ Zalman and his wife also got these permits and began working at home.

The work was hard and the salary paltry. In order to earn the amount they needed to support the household, R’ Zalman had to work 15 hours a day! The amount they received was enough for the basics. They couldn’t even dream of meat and even chicken made it to their Shabbos table only once every few months. Little Chaim would go with his grandmother, Mariasha Badana, to buy a chicken in the market and from there, they went to the shochet’s booth, which was located in the backyard of the big shul. They took the slaughtered chicken home and kashered it. For Pesach, they bought a fattened goose and ate the meat and used the fat (schmaltz) to prepare other dishes. Speaking of Pesach, they would buy flour in the market, kasher the oven, and bake matzos at home.

Despite their poor circumstances, they made sure to pay tuition for the melamed who taught their sons. The melamed, a G-d fearing man, taught Chaim Chumash, N’viim, Gemara and Hebrew grammar, and later on, his brother Aharon too.

NIGHTS IN HIDING

The years 1937-8 were black years for Chabad Chassidim in Russia. There was a wave of arrests of dozens of Chassidim, some of whom were shot and some of whom were sent to exile. Charkov suffered too when, one night, the secret police came to the home of R’ Avrohom Boruch Pevsner, arrested him, and within a short time, sent him to exile. The next in line was R’ Nachum Pinson and then R’ Tzemach Gurewitz and R’ Shmuel Katzman.

R’ Zalman assumed he was also on the blacklist, and when he felt the noose tightening, he decided to hide. Since most of the arrests took place at night, R’ Zalman stayed home only during the day and he spent the nights in hiding. Some Lubavitchers worked as night watchmen in factories because this enabled them to keep Shabbos. R’ Zalman would spend his nights in factories. During the winter, he slept in a dye factory where he was warm at night too.

HOW A THREE YEAR OLD FOOLED THE SOVIET AUTHORITIES

When little Chaim turned eight, he was required to attend public school by law. R’ Zalman ignored the law and instead hired a Jewish teacher to teach his son, and every morning, when the neighbors’ children went to school, Chaim also left the house with briefcase in hand. However, instead of going to school, he went to his teacher’s house. The neighborhood children noticed that he wasn’t showing up in school, but despite the prevalent snitching that was widespread in Russia at the time, the neighbors didn’t say anything.

This went on for three years until an ardent communist moved into the building. As soon as she heard about the boy who did not attend school, she tattled on R’ Zalman to the KGB. R’ Zalman had no choice but to send his son to public school. If he had kept his son at home, he risked having him taken away and placed in an orphanage where he would be indoctrinated to communism. To combat the communist propaganda in school, R’ Zalman instilled a strong spirit of emuna, Chassidus, and yiras Shamayim in his son.

THE BATTLE OVER SHABBOS

In the Soviet Union of those days, the government sought to uproot the Jewish day of rest, as well as, l’havdil, the day of rest of the Christians and Moslems. To accomplish this, they promulgated a law that said that the Soviet week consists of six days, with five days of work and one day off. The weekly day off changed from week to week.

While it made life difficult, it also had an advantage in that it made catching Shabbos observers more difficult, for once in seven weeks the official day of rest was on Shabbos and everybody took the day off, not just religious Jews.

For this reason, although Chaim did not go to school on Shabbos and Yom Tov, each time with a different excuse, the teachers did not notice that his absences were systematic. It was only at the end of the year, when they checked his attendance that they noticed that he was absent once every seven days, on the Jewish Sabbath.

The administration realized that this was religiously motivated, something that was considered forbidden by Soviet law, and they went to R’ Zalman’s house on Shabbos to warn him that if his son continued missing school on Shabbos due to religious reasons, they would have to report it to the government. R’ Zalman appreciated the fact that they came to his house to warn him, because in most instances, they would immediately report him and the situation would be that much worse. He somehow excused himself and said that he would arrange things for the following school year.

World War II, which drew Russia into a bloodbath at the beginning of the summer of 1941, made it unnecessary to deal with the school regarding the Shabbos problem. School did not begin and within a short time, R’ Zalman had to flee Charkov with his family in the face of the approaching front.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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