January 10, 2013
Beis Moshiach in #864, Memoirs

R’ Zalman Levin continues to describe memories of his father, R’ Gershon Ber, may Hashem avenge his blood. Part 8 of 9

By Rabbi Shneur Zalman Levin a”h

Prepared for publication by Menachem Ziegelboim

With the persecution aimed at Judaism and Chabad Chassidim in particular, with everyone in the Pioneers (a children’s communist movement) saluting the avoda zara which was communism, as victims fell from good homes, we stood strong in the merit of the Rebbe Rayatz, with mesirus nefesh at every step that is impossible to put into writing. My father educated children to Torah with a smile and simcha despite his sad lot.

I remember that on Simchas Torah he did not stop dancing. On Yud-Tes Kislev, Yud-Beis Tammuz, and Purim there were farbrengens. The simcha was real, with or without mashke. The ones who led the singing were R’ Yona Cohen together with Anash and the bachurim. It was really something, the somersaults in the street, the expressions of joy, the kisses for visitors and any Jews who were there. On every special day in the calendar, my father would take me to R’ Chaim the butcher (Barzin) or to the rav, and I would see them sitting and farbrenging for hours, secretly, so that nobody would know. They also farbrenged with R’ Shmuel, R’ Chaim’s son. They organized many celebrations filled with endless inspiration.

At the farbrengens, my father would tell stories of tzaddikim, since in those days they weren’t yet in print. He would sing with his whole heart, especially when the Chassidim were merry from drinking mashke on special days. He would always demand fine character traits and the refinement of middos, hiddur in mitzvos, and the proper upkeep of holy books at home and in shul.

Chassidim and bachurim would come to our house to farbreng until late at night, such as R’ Mendel Futerfas and Reb Lazer the Merchant. I also remember R’ Michoel Teitelbaum, R’ Yisroel Meir Sebesher, R’ Yisroel Meir Munitz, and Mulle and Chaim Barzin.

My father had endless Ahavas Yisroel. He would help sick people who came to Nevel for the clinic. They would come to the shul in order to find out where to get medicine and help. Since my father was the Shamash, he was the last one in the shul and he would get into conversations with these people. He would always take them home and it was up to us children to help them even though we lived in poverty. Sadly, many of those who entered that hospital never returned and this was something that was well known.

I heard a story about his Ahavas Yisroel, that when he was a chassan, he received a warm coat with fur as a gift. On the first day after receiving this gift, he went outside and saw a poor Jew freezing in the cold. On the spot, he removed his coat and gave it to the man, leaving himself with only his rekel (long suit coat), which was suitable for holiday wear.

My father always yearned for the Rebbe. His hiskashrus to the Rebbe was infinite. He would often say, “Rebbe! Rebbe!” and exclaim, “Have mercy. When will we see you?”

I heard from a relative that one time, when the Rebbe Rayatz was in Leningrad to say goodbye to the Chassidim, my father had no money to go and he began shouting, “Rebbe, it is a life and death issue for me.” He covered his face with a scarf and began collecting handouts, and he went to the Rebbe.

When they arrested the Rebbe Rayatz, it was terrifying the way we said T’hillim with tears with all the children in the school, with shouting and fasting. Nevel was in an uproar. When the Rebbe was released, the simcha was unimaginable. That is when the song, “Nyet Nyet” was composed. Translation: I fear no one and believe in no one except the L‑rd alone. There is no one besides Him, the Only One.

When he would sing niggunim of d’veikus, you could hear the endless yearning which I cannot describe in writing. It is very hard for me to be reminded of this. His heart and flesh literally sang to “the living G-d.” The tonal qualities of his niggunim (he was a marvelous singer) were well known. When he sang with R’ Yona Cohen, it was mamash a symphony.

I can still hear his silent prayer as well as feel the sweetness. During the learning in the morning, in the cold, when he would hum the Gemara tune in a quiet, sad way which was heartbreaking, with yearning, like “Kolsa Nafshi Leilokim,” or his “Yedid Nefesh” that he would sing with us at the Shabbos meal, are scenes that are imprinted on my memory. He would say that the tune wondrously fit the words.

Often, when he wanted to express his yearning for the Rebbe, he would sing the niggun of R’ Michel of Zlotchov. The way he sang it … there will never be anything like it again.

When the Rebbe Rayatz asked that T’hillim be said on Shabbos Mevarchim, my father took me in the early morning cold in order to be part of a minyan. The zal was full of T’mimim; the T’hillim said then was unforgettable, not just for me but for all the friends and cousins who were there together.

Of course, one’s heart was crushed from the many sighs and tears due to the wretched conditions of that time. It was then that my father composed the tune – with many tears from his broken heart – on the verse, “Ata Yodata Shivti V’Kumi…”


As far as I can remember, I did not see my father go to sleep. He would say, “Go to sleep?” There was no reason to waste precious time. What a pity on every minute! When he had to sleep, he would lie on the circular wooden sofa without a mattress and without a sheet, with an old garment underneath and a shmatte on top, and he would nod off like a horse. He would rest on his hands, without fully reclining. Only on Shabbos did he lie down on a straw pillow and take off his shoes.

It is amazing to me how this man could stand strong in the wake of so much suffering from all sides. My sisters, his daughters, cried that they had problems in school because they were religious and did not write on Shabbos, and I ran and hid in all sorts of places so I wouldn’t be discovered. We had to daven and we had to learn, but there was constant terror in addition to the poverty.

R’ Dovid Chein told me that he once came to learn by us and he saw my father sitting on a chair with two terrible wounds on his body and he was groaning. They asked him why he didn’t go to the doctor and he said, “Hashem gives me yisurim and I will kick at them? G-d forbid! They need to be accepted with love. Suffering scours away a person’s sins.”

I can remember the s’farim that he learned from. These included a Gemara to prepare the shiurim, sifrei Chassidus such as Likkutei Torah, Tanya, Derech Mitzvosecha, Imrei Bina, Ateres Rosh, Ner Mitzva, Toras Chaim, Derech Emuna, various maamarim – U’Maayan, V’Kacha of the Rebbe Maharash, other maamarim of the Rebbe Rashab – and the Alter Rebbe’s Siddur. It was all without standing out and without holding of himself. He learned amidst endless fasting.

His demeanor was one of perpetual annoyance, as a result of the miserable situation and the darkness outside and inside which he could not bear. He really could not stand the various forms of the opposition, especially the communists. The hunger and tzaros that were his lot by day and by night did not contribute towards his simcha either. He would often quote the statement, “Against your will you live, etc.” He would regularly take on a look of concentration and say, “Thank G-d for G-d.”

On Motzaei Shabbos he would sing “Eliyahu HaNavi” and light two candles for Melaveh Malka. Then he would light the stove and cook some potatoes in the coal for the children.

It is hard to put it all in writing. You need to be a writer in order to depict those days.

My father was very particular about cleanliness, at home and in shul. R’ Moshe Dubinsky told me that before my father would put his arm on the shtender or the window, he would wipe it first. This is because he was particular about order and cleanliness. Even though he wore a torn garment with holes, it was very clean without a spot.

I remember that one of the congregants once said that R’ Gershon’s rekel was suitable for all holidays: for Pesach – it could be used to light the oven for matzos. For Shavuos – to make chremzelech (fried patties) out of it with eggs and honey. For Erev Yom Kippur – for kreplach. For Sukkos – for s’chach, because you could see the stars through the holes. For Chanuka – you could use it to make wicks for the menorah. For Purim – to make hamantashen.

My father had two brothers, Feitel and Yisroel, and the Rebbe Rashab said that the three of them were the troika of the acronym Chayal: Chassid, Yerei Shamayim, and Lamdan.

When the Germans invaded and conquered Nevel, many of the Chassidim ran away but my father believed it would be better under the Germans than under Stalin. He said it couldn’t be worse than under Stalin.

As I heard afterward, the Germans led all the remaining Jews to the banks of the lake where they ordered them to undress and buried them all alive. My entire family was murdered, may Hashem avenge their blood.

They did not kill my father there, since our neighbors told the Germans that he was a holy man. He was hung by his hands with tremendous suffering until he expired and then hung there for another three days.

I heard about this after the war, how and when he was hung, from the Yuspin family who were partisans in the forest near Nevel, who saw it all. After that, I began observing his yahrtzait according to the date they told me. Then one night, my father came to me in a dream and told me I was off by one day. “My yahrtzait is a day later.”

In Nevel there were other holy Chassidim who were murdered. Years later, I heard that Chassidim complained to the Rebbe about what had been done to us and why had we deserved it, Chassidim who had fought the communist regime and punctiliously kept the mitzvos, openly and secretly, and worked with mesirus nefesh to maintain and spread the wellsprings of Chassidus even during those dark days. Why did they deserve to die before their time? And why such cruel deaths? Was this the reward for their mesirus nefesh? Was this their reward for teaching Torah and spreading Chassidus, that they were sentenced to exile in Siberia and forced to spend decades in prison?

Obviously, this question went unanswered because there is no answer. This was the decree.


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