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Wednesday
Feb252015

A LOYAL SOLDIER THROUGHOUT

RYaakov Levkivker ah was never willing to talk about his life of mesirus nefesh for Torah and mitzvos. * With his recent passing at the age of 86, Beis Moshiach made a first attempt in tracing his lifes journey.  Whether working at hard labor in Siberia or living in Tashkent, Kutais, Bnei Brak and Tel Aviv, he lived the life of a soldier and was a model of a Chassid.

THE BLACK CHASSID

R’ Yaakov Yosef Levkivker was born in Voznesenski in the Ukraine on 12 Sivan 5688.  His father was R’ Boruch who was a chazan, shochet, and mohel.  His father trained him in mesirus nefesh for Torah study and mitzvos and from when R’ Yaakov was very young, this is how he lived.  When he was two, his father was persecuted by the communists and the family had to run far away to Batum in Georgia.

At that time, R’ Boruch became close with Chabad Chassidim who were sent to strengthen Judaism in Georgia and he eventually became a Lubavitcher Chassid.  He even wrote a letter to the Rebbe Rayatz in which he expressed his feelings of connectedness to the Rebbe and said that he had changed his nusach to Nusach Ari.

When a group of young people tried to cross the Russian border via Georgia, some of them were arrested, R’ Boruch among them.  After interrogations and torture he was released but he was unable to regain his strength.  His wife went with him to healing spas but his strength waned and he died at a relatively young age.

After this tragedy, the family moved to Kutais where Yaakov learned in the branch of Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim there.  Back then, it was common to nickname the boys for the city they came from or the color of their hair or their height, and so he was called Yankel der shvartze for the color of his hair.

CAUGHT, RELEASED, CAUGHT, RELEASED

Along with the horrors of World War II, there was a terrible famine throughout the Soviet Union, even in areas far from the front lines.  Bread was given out with coupons.  Sadly, the bachurim learning in Georgia were not residents of the city and could not get bread.  Having no choice, young Yaakov and his friends did all they could to obtain coupons so they would not starve to death.  By open miracle, one of the bachurim managed to get some food tickets meant for soldiers.

The problem was that just at that time it was discovered in the bread store that a large amount of bread was missing relative to the number of registered recipients.  At that moment, Yaakov and another bachur showed up to buy bread.  In the book Chassidim V’Anshei Emes, there is a description of what happened, as related by his friend, R’ Moshe Morosov a”h:

“One day, Heschel Tzeitlin went to the bread store along with the boy, Yaakov Levkivker.  The gentile woman who worked in the store suspected that the boys were involved in selling bread on the black market.  When Heschel showed up to buy bread she suspected him and said, ‘Something here is fishy.  I suspect you.  Let us go to the police and check out what is going on.’ 

“Heschel staunchly maintained that someone on the street had given him the tickets and had asked him to buy bread on his behalf, but the clerk did not believe him and forced him to accompany her to the police station.  On the way there, Yaakov managed to escape but he was caught the next day.  Under questioning he denied all accusations against him.  Due to his young age, he was released within a short time.”

TRAP

At the end of the war, R’ Yaakov went to Samarkand where hundreds of Lubavitcher Chassidim were, having escaped from areas conquered by the Nazis.  Many of them left Russia on forged passports but Yaakov missed that opportunity.  Many arrests were made and Yaakov remained alone, the rest of his family having left Russia.

He went to Moscow and from there went to the border city of Chernovitz with hopes of sneaking across the border.  One day, some non-Jews were standing at the entrance to the home belonging to the mashpia, R’ Moshe Vishedsky in Chernovitz.  They had good news: There is a way out! It is possible to cross the border into Romania although the danger in the attempt to cross the border was enormous.  R’ Moshe shared his apprehensions with other Chassidim.  They held a meeting that same night which was attended by distinguished Chassidim of Chernovitz including: R’ Moshe, R’ Berke Chein, and R’ Asher Sasonkin.  They dissected the advantages and disadvantages of crossing the border and the meeting lasted until dawn.  They finally decided to offer the possibility to some bachurim who might be willing to endanger themselves, for even if they failed, they would not be endangering families. 

The offer was made to three bachurim: R’ Yaakov Levkivker, R’ Meir Junik and R’ Moshe Greenberg.  The old Chassid, R’ Moshe Chaim Dubrawsky also wanted to join the group.  “I must see the Rebbe,” he said.

It was winter and they had to prepare for the trip.  Mrs. Chasya Vishedsky, R’ Moshe’s wife, bought good shoes and clothes for the bachurim that would be useful on their journey.

On the eve of 6 Kislev 5709, the four set out.  It took only a few days.  When Shabbos came, a discussion ensued as to whether to continue traveling or to wait.  R’ Moshe Greenberg convinced the group not to continue on Shabbos.  They crossed the border on Motzaei Shabbos.

At night they stayed in some structure and in the middle of the night the Romanian police came in and arrested them all.  It turned out that the border smugglers were collaborators of the police and they betrayed the trust of the young Lubavitchers.

On Tuesday, 11 Kislev, the group was sent back to Russia and they were incarcerated in jail in Chernovitz.  The harsh interrogations began and lasted months in the course of which they were subjected to physical and verbal abuse.  After several months, they were transferred to Kiev, capitol of the Ukraine.

During the interrogations, each of the prisoners came up with his own story with the common denominator being that none of them knew the other and they had met on their way to cross the border.

“Why did you try to cross the border? Who did you go with?” The interrogators demanded to know, as we see in their file.

On 7 Adar 5709, after months of questioning and torture in Kiev, they were sentenced.  They were found guilty of treason, the worst possible crime in the Soviet Union.  Here is a quote from the sentence, “Unfortunately, I cannot declare the death penalty since the law changed and therefore I sentence you to 25 years of imprisonment and hard labor in Siberia.”

R’ Yaakov and his friends were exiled to Siberia where they suffered for many years.

DANGEROUS WORK ON THE TELEVISION TOWER

He was only 21 when he was sent to Siberia for 25 years.  Despite the tremendous suffering he endured he was strong as a rock.  He remembered where he came from and where he was going.  With mesirus nefesh he kept his Judaism and Chassidus intact.

The three young bachurim were sent to a labor camp near Omsk.  They davened together and even farbrenged on the Chag Ha’Geula, 12 Tammuz.

At first, R’ Yaakov worked at cutting trees in the forest but then he was transferred to build a television tower in Omsk where he worked high up and in tremendous danger.  One of the people in charge, a Jew, had pity on R’ Yaakov and he advised him to study architectural drafting so he could help in the construction another way. He did so and his work burden was lightened.

Stalin died in 5713 and numerous political prisoners were rehabilitated, Yaakov among them.  He was released in the winter of 5714.

MESIRUS NEFESH
IN TASHKENT

After he was released, he married Sarah Esther Brod.  The young couple settled in Tashkent where there were dozens of Lubavitcher families.  R’ Yaakov could once again live among his Chassidic brethren after years of travail.

In Tashkent, much mesirus nefesh was also required under the communist regime.  R’ Yaakov was very particular that the work by which he supported himself and his family would not require him to desecrate the Shabbos.

Years later, he told a little anecdote that shows what a bond there was between the Chassidim in Tashkent and the Rebbe:

“One day, we [Chabad Chassidim] heard a rumor that a shliach of the Rebbe was coming to Tashkent.  It was R’ Binyamin Katz. We went to the hotel where he was staying and waited for him to come out.  When he came out, we followed him and asked him questions to make sure he wasn’t a plant.  Once we determined that he was indeed sent by the Rebbe, I asked him whether he had brought anything with him.  He said he had maamarim from the Rebbe and they were in his bag.  I asked him to take them out and put them in his pocket and he did so.  We continued walking and as we did so, I removed the maamarim from his pocket and continued on my way.”  That is how R’ Yaakov concealed his relationship with the Rebbe’s shliach so he would not get caught.

Farbrengens in Tashkent took place in the homes of Anash without prior arrangements.  The night before the farbrengen, they would whisper to one another where it would be taking place and thus, an unexpected farbrengen “landed” in the Levkivker home, as his wife related:

“It was one evening shortly after we had married and we were surprised that we would be hosting the farbrengen in our tiny home.  As was typical in those days, the house was empty.  The Chassidim brought the mashke but the host was supposed to provide refreshments.  We had nothing.  We did not even have a few potatoes, not to mention mezonos, which we did not even dream about.

“The farbrengen began and the Chassidim said l’chaim but the absence of refreshments was apparent.  Then one of the Chassidim said he remembered that sometimes fried onion could serve as ‘farbaisen.’  Hearing this, I remembered that this was the only thing I had.  I quickly took out the precious jar with fried onion and placed it in the center of the table and the Chassidim were happy.  The farbrengen lasted long into the night.”

Although chinuch was problematic, R’ Yaakov did not forgo a Lubavitcher chinuch.  When he realized that if his oldest son Boruch would remain in Tashkent the government would force him to send the boy to public school, he sent him to Moscow, even before registration time for first grade.  Despite his son’s tender age, he lived there with the Chassid R’ Yisroel Konson, and the following year he was sent to learn in the Chabad yeshiva in Samarkand.

BANGING ON THE DESK

R’ Yaakov’s dream was to leave Russia so he and his family could keep Torah and mitzvos without fear.  To his great disappointment, although his entire family and his wife’s entire family had left Russia, he was refused time after time with the excuse that he was a released prisoner.

At a certain point, R’ Yaakov suggested to his wife that she leave the country with their children but his wife refused to go without him.  She managed to obtain an interview with a senior official who told her explicitly that her husband would not be given an exit visa because he had been a political prisoner.

The Levkivker family’s plight touched the heart of Mrs. Raizel Estulin, Sarah Levkivker’s sister. When Mrs. Estulin visited 770, she decided to ask the Rebbe for a promise that they would get out.  She later told of her great excitement in yechidus:

“When I saw that there was no one else willing to take it upon themselves to ask the Rebbe, I did.  When we went in [she and her husband, R’ Zalman Leib] for yechidus, I began speaking about the difficult situation of the Levkivker family.  In my passion, I forgot where I was and began demanding that they leave Russia just as we had, to the point that I banged on the desk.  I suddenly caught myself and recoiled.

“As I spoke, the Rebbe listened quietly and did not react.  When I finished, he said, ‘You think that you were able to leave because you are ‘privileged’ or because only you were supposed to get out, or there was no need for a big miracle.  The truth is that for Hashem, a big miracle and a small miracle are the same.’ The Rebbe concluded with a bracha that the Levkivkers leave Russia quickly.”

In addition to this bracha, the Levkivker family also received another special bracha during the Rebbe’s farbrengen, as recounted by R’ Avrohom Mendel (Bumi) Friedland, the Estulin’s son-in-law:

“When my father-in-law attended the Rebbe’s farbrengens, he would sit behind the Rebbe among the senior Chassidim and between sichos he would bless the Rebbe.  One time, the Rebbe suddenly asked him, ‘What do you want?’ He understood that it was an auspicious time for a bracha and he immediately thought of his brother-in-law, R’ Yaakov.  He mentioned his name and his mother’s name and the Rebbe gave a bracha.  A short while later, R’ Yaakov unexpectedly received an exit visa.”

In addition to these brachos, there was also the special t’filla at the gravesite of R’ Levi Yitzchok Schneersohn.  R’ Yaakov called his friend R’ Yosef Nimotin of Alma Ata and asked him to place a pidyon nefesh on the grave and to arouse mercy on him and his family that they be able to leave Russia and reach Eretz Yisroel.  R’ Yosef promised to do so.

The next day R’ Yosef called him and said, “I did as you requested and went to daven for you at the gravesite. When I left the site, I fainted.” 

R’ Yaakov expressed surprise over this and R’ Yosef explained, “As I stood there, I felt that the request had been accepted and I was very moved. When I left the place and I thought that you were about to leave the Soviet Union and I would lose one of my last friends here, I fainted.”

On 26 Shevat 5729, R’ Yaakov Lipsker of Crown Heights and his wife Teibel, R’ Yaakov Levkivker’s sister, had yechidus.  As in every yechidus, they wrote to the Rebbe that they were requesting a bracha for the Levkivker family so they could leave Russia.  The Rebbe looked at the note, looked up, and said with open prophecy, “You will see them this year.”

Mrs. Lipsker was taken aback and said she had planned on sending them a package of American clothing which they could sell and use the money to support themselves. The Rebbe said firmly that there was no reason to send the package.

A few weeks later, R’ Yaakov Levkivker went to the OVIR emigration office and one of the clerks whispered to him that the exit visa had arrived but it was still a secret. In another few days he would receive the long-awaited visas!

The visas arrived and the Levkivker family traveled to Moscow, but it was hard to obtain airplane tickets.  Mrs. Levkivker went to the Dutch embassy which also represented Eretz Yisroel at that time.  She banged on the counter and informed the clerk that they had received visas for Eretz Yisroel but did not have the money to buy plane tickets.

The clerk closed the counter and after a brief while she returned with an envelope without saying a word. In the envelope were five plane tickets, for R’ Yaakov, his wife, and their three children.

R’ Yaakov and his family flew to Vienna where they waited for their next flight to Eretz Yisroel.  There, three Chassidim who had just left Russia, met: R’ Levkivker, R’ Notke Barkahan, and R’ Shmuel Gitlin.  The three wondered whether to continue on to Eretz Yisroel or to America.  They ended up going to Eretz Yisroel. 

The phone connection between Eretz Yisroel and the US in those days was not reliable.  When R’ Yaakov’s brother-in-law went to the Rebbe for matzos on Erev Pesach, the Rebbe told him, “Your brother-in-law is already in Eretz Yisroel.”

The Levkivker family arrived in Eretz Yisroel in 5729 and settled in B’nei Brak.  A short while later, R’ Yaakov went to the Rebbe for Tishrei. He had yechidus for a long time but never said what the Rebbe spoke to him about.

In B’nei Brak he was a role model of a Chassid who, even after leaving the Soviet Union, continued to be a Chassid in every respect.

His son R’ Boruch relates:

During our first years in Eretz Yisroel, my father could not find suitable work. As I approached bar mitzva, my father put in great effort to buy me beautiful t’fillin.  His friends asked him why he put in so much effort and my father said, “When I was in Siberia, I would have given all the money in the world to put on t’fillin, and now that I can put them on, shouldn’t I buy the nicest ones?”

***

A few years after making aliya, R’ Yaakov found a job as assistant manager in the technical department of the Ohr Yehuda municipality.  He was a loyal worker while his office constantly served to strengthen Judaism in the city.  He primarily worked to provide proper chinuch and to build mikvaos for the many new immigrants who settled in Ohr Yehuda.

One time, the Housing Ministry designated money for a mikva in the neighborhood where new immigrants from Georgia had settled, but after a while, after the foundation was built, the money ran out and the construction was halted.  The immigrants asked for more money and the ministry said that there was no more available.  R’ Yaakov tried interceding but to no avail.

Soon after, he went to the Rebbe and when he had yechidus, he told the Rebbe that the Georgian immigrants wanted a mikva but there was no money. The Rebbe said, in Eretz Yisroel they get scared when people scream.  Get some Georgian immigrants together who know how to scream and bang on the table and send them to the Housing Ministry and have them scream that they want a mikva. 

R’ Yaakov said, but the immigrants don’t know Hebrew, how will they communicate?

The Rebbe said, even better! They will scream and the government won’t be able to answer them.

R’ Yaakov returned to Eretz Yisroel and told this to the immigrants from Georgia.  They organized a group of stubborn people led by an immigrant named Yitzchok Nanakshvili.  They went to the Housing Ministry where they burst into the head office and began screaming that they want a mikva.  The clerks and officials did not know what was going on; there was a huge commotion.

In the end, the Housing Ministry decided that they would take direct responsibility for building the mikva.  Within a short time, the Georgian immigrants and R’ Yaakov saw that the Rebbe’s advice had worked.

R’ Yaakov also took care of founding a religious school for the immigrants.  Throughout the years, he was involved in the Rebbe’s mivtzaim.  For decades, every Friday he went on mivtza t’fillin and also did mivtza Sukkos, Chanuka and Purim.

After he retired, he was appointed shliach of the Central Bus Station in Tel Aviv. For seventeen years, each and every day, he manned the t’fillin stand there for hours.  Every day, he put t’fillin on with many people and he encouraged many of them to strengthen their Torah study and mitzva observance.

In recent years, he suffered from health problems and on 17 Teves he passed away.  He is survived by his wife, and his children: Leah Raksin, R’ Boruch, R’ Yitzchok, R’ Menachem, Chana Kreiman, R’ Chaim, and R’ Shmuel.

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