CHILDHOOD MEMORIES FROM A LOST WORLD
September 9, 2015
Menachem Ziegelboim in #989, Memoirs

Last winter, Mrs. Tzivya Bravman a”h, one of the old-timers in Kfar Chabad, passed away. Mrs. Bravman was a special woman, a real Chassidishe personality who absorbed in her soul the life of mesirus nefesh of Chassidim in Russia in the harshest of times.

The train station in Chili | Rashag [center] with the T’mimim in Poking, to his left is Rabbi GorodetzkyA few years ago, I had the privilege of hearing stories from her about her childhood in the shadow of the great Chassidim, at a time when mesirus nefesh was not meant figuratively but was a daily reality.

***

I will begin with some background about my parents and their families.  My mother Draiza was the daughter of the renowned Chassid, R’ Menachem Mendel Kaplan.  They said about him that when he heard the news about the passing of the Rebbe Rashab, he decided to travel by train from Bobruisk to Rostov to convince the Rebbe Rayatz to be the Nasi.  He was attacked by bandits on the way, despicable Cossacks, who threw him off the moving train.

My grandfather was badly injured.  Farmers who lived in the village that he stumbled into took him in and cared for him for several weeks.  My grandfather said to them, “I want a Jewish burial.  Please make sure of that.”

However, he recovered and continued on to Rostov.  When the Rebbe Rayatz came out to farbreng the first Shabbos, he said, “How could a Jew think to ask for a Jewish burial? A Jew must live!”

Three weeks later, my grandfather contracted a severe case of pneumonia and died when he was only 52.

My mother told me that during the war between the Reds (the communists) and the Whites (those loyal to the czar), the Whites caught a Jew and wanted to kill him for being a Red.  The Jew said he wasn’t a Red.  They said that if he could find a distinguished person to testify that he wasn’t a Red, they would release him.  They spoke to my grandfather who said he knew the man wasn’t a Red and they released him. 


Later, they asked my grandfather how he could say with certainty that the man wasn’t a Red.  He said, “I am a Jew and therefore, I could not possibly say, even for a second, that I am not a Jew.  The fact that he said he is not a Red indicated to me that indeed, this is true.”

A CHASSIDISHE SHIDDUCH

Years before he died, my grandfather traveled to the Rebbe Rashab.  As he waited on line for yechidus, he met another Chassid, someone he did not know, R’ Chaim Bentzion Raskin.  They shook hands and said shalom aleichem and got to talking.  On the side stood a Chassid, R’ Yaakov Moskolik.  He went over to them and said, “You have a son and you have a daughter, I think it’s a good idea!”

My father was only 18 and still, since the suggestion was made, my grandfather asked the Rebbe about it.  The Rebbe said, “May it be in a good and successful time.”

My Raskin grandfather came out of yechidus, held out his hand to my other grandfather, and said, “Mazal tov, I got the Rebbe’s bracha.  Now you go in and ask for a bracha too.” 

My Kaplan grandfather said, “G-d forbid.  It’s enough that you asked already.  I won’t ask too.”

When they told my mother about the shidduch, my Raskin grandfather came with lots of jewelry.  He put it in front of her and asked her to choose what she liked, but my mother did not want the shidduch or the jewelry.  My grandfather left the room and my mother noticed that the gentile cleaning lady was eyeing the jewelry.  She quickly took it all off the table and hid it.  In the meantime, my grandfather came back into the room and thought she had taken all the jewelry and said, “Nu, let it be, the main thing is, in a good and successful time.”

NO PRIVILEGES AS THE ONLY DAUGHTER

My parents had four sons and one daughter, boruch Hashem, all Chassidim and involved in the Rebbe’s matters.  My brother, R’ Mendel a”h lived in Kfar Chabad; R’ Sholom Ber a”h in London; R’ Dovid a”h in Crown Heights, and R’ Leibel a”h in Morocco for over four decades.  We have all merited children and grandchildren, shluchim of the Rebbe, and this is a great merit for my father.

I was the only daughter but instead of being the princess, the burden fell upon me.  My brothers as bachurim had beards and in Soviet Russia this was dangerous.  So I was sent on dangerous missions instead.

From a very young age my father did not want to send his boys to public school in Leningrad.  My father said: One of my children must go to school so the government won’t come with accusations.  Since I did not wear a yarmulke and did not have peios, I had to “represent” the children of the family and attend school on weekdays.  On Shabbos and Yom Tov I always looked for an excuse: my stomach hurt, my hand, sometimes my throat looked swollen…  I made up the lessons by a “good” friend who went and tattled on me, saying that because of my religious father I did not go to school.

The situation continued until I got to fifth grade.  In the summer after fifth grade, my father sent me to his sister, Mumme Sarah Katzenelenbogen, who lived south of Moscow.  The authorities wanted to know where I was and my parents said I had gone on vacation and still hadn’t returned.

In 1938 it was a terrible time for Anash.  Many were arrested and killed.  My uncle, Michel Katzenelenbogen, was murdered al kiddush Hashem after interrogations and torture.  My father was also arrested but when they learned that he had a job as a photographer (independent work which enabled him to observe Shabbos relatively easily) they released him after an interrogation and a warning.

In the middle of the school year I returned to Leningrad and began attending a night school for adults where I was able to be absent on Shabbos and Yom Tov.

A PATHETIC ROOM IN A FORSAKEN VILLAGE

Sunday, 27 Sivan 5701/1941 is a date engraved in my memory. At four in the morning they announced that war had begun.  The Germans invaded from Poland into Russia and with giant steps passed Minsk and Bobruisk.  They conquered and destroyed and at the beginning of 5702 they began bombing Leningrad.  This city is surrounded by water and rivers and in order to leave it you had to cross one of eleven bridges.  When the German army came, they bombed the bridges and at a certain point, only one bridge remained which was near the power station.

Thank G-d, we left Leningrad on the last train, as far as I can recollect, and then they immediately began bombing the last bridge.  Many of the people who remained in Leningrad, including many of Anash, died of starvation that winter.  Many Lubavitchers were on the last train which was a freight train.  We traveled for three weeks, my parents, four brothers and me, and two daughters of my uncle Yitzchok, may Hashem avenge his death, Rochel (Pinson, shlucha in Tunisia) and Sarah (my brother Mendel’s wife).  At the stations they gave us kipituk – hot water to revive us and in exchange for clothing and some money we could also get a bit of black bread.

Where were we going? At first my parents still hadn’t decided what to do, but when we got to Omsk in Siberia a few days before Rosh HaShana and we thought we would settle there, we saw that tens of thousands of refugees were already there and there was no place to live.  So we continued to Kazakhstan, to the city of Alma Ata.

The train station was about eight kilometers from the city of Alma Ata.  When we arrived, the authorities did not allow refugees to enter the city so we spent weeks living outdoors in the heat of summer.  After a while, we managed to sneak into a forsaken village near Alma Ata where we rented a room from an Uzbek lady.

The conditions were awful but even there, in the pathetic room, my parents managed to host guests.  The suitcase became our Shabbos table and the food was divided into smaller portions.  I remember some of our guests, Dubrawski and Slavin.  I also remember that one time a person came who was sick with typhus which is contagious.  He begged my mother not to send him to the hospital where many sick people died.  My mother agreed to have him with us and Hashem repaid her and none of us caught it.

After a while and much effort, we procured an apartment in Alma Ata.  Somehow my father got some thread and opened a workshop for piecework.  Thanks to this work there were also food coupons and we were able to observe Shabbos.  In the meantime, my brother Mendel and his wife Sarah joined us.

FREEING THE RAV

Rumors had it that R’ Levi Yitzchok, the Rebbe’s father, was in Chili in Kazakhstan, where he had already completed five years of exile.  His wife, Rebbetzin Chana, was there with him too, although she wasn’t a prisoner and was allowed to come and go, but because of her devotion to her husband she joined him in his place of exile.  I cannot fully convey to you how they lived in that forsaken village.  The houses were made of clay and the roads were covered with mud.  If you put a foot into the mud you couldn’t take it out to take another step.

The people in the city described R’ Levi Yitzchok’s living conditions. He lived in a neglected dwelling among impure animals belonging to gentiles.  Those who knew of the rav’s greatness and position in his city and compared the past with the present could not help but cry out bitterly about it.  Hashem arranged things so that we could help a little.  My mother and I became sick with dysentery so we had to be hospitalized.  At the hospital I met a judge from Dnepropetrovsk-Yekaterinoslav, where R’ Levi Yitzchok had lived.  Her name was Tanya and she told us that she also belonged to the local courthouse.  Yes, she remembered the rabbi and was willing to try and help us.  We heard from her that the government in Moscow had announced not to release any prisoner, but in that era, sending a letter from Moscow to Kazakhstan took a long time, even months.  So the judge said we had to hurry and try to have him released before worse orders came from Moscow.

When we returned home from the hospital, local Chassidim made contact with judges who dealt with prisoners.  They started with bribes, giving the judges goods that were unobtainable in regular stores due to the war: vodka, oil, sugar, etc. Along with that, they began working to convince them to transfer the rav to Alma Ata.  Contacts were made and boruch Hashem, we also got the necessary paperwork.  Then the question arose – sending the papers to R’ Levi Yitzchok by mail was out of the question.  Sending bearded men with these important papers? Absolutely not.

Mrs. Bas-Sheva Altheus said she was willing to hide the papers for the rav under her clothing and bring them to their destination.  She was smart and spoke a good Russian and therefore it was less likely they would arrest her.  She had only one request, “If something happens to me, don’t forget about the chinuch of my young son.”

Bas-Sheva arrived in Chili.  It was dangerous to ask where Rabbi Schneersohn lived, so she walked around hoping to find someone who could help her without endangering herself.  By divine providence, she met the rav himself near the post office and after a few hours, toward morning, under the protection of darkness, they set out for Alma Ata.

NOBILITY AND DIGNITY

R’ Herschel Rabinowitz made a nice apartment ready for the rav.  They brought a top doctor from the university in Petersburg to treat him.  After the doctor left, they did not ask many questions. People looked at one another and understood what the results of the exam were. 

The rav lived another few months after that.  I remember the rav’s high hat.  When he walked in the street with his walking stick, with his royal visage, people would cross the street to the opposite pavement in awe of him.

I remember Rebbetzin Chana’s noble appearance.  Even there in exile she was very organized and always smiling.  She usually wore a wig with a small hat or a kerchief on it.  Their apartment was illuminated, at first, by a kerosene lamp, and sometimes R’ Levi Yitzchok would ask me to light the lamp for him.  What a z’chus it was for a young girl!  The small community which lived in the city constantly sought ways to make life easier for the rav and after a while they exchanged the lamp for something more up-to-date.

By the way, throughout all these months since the rav and rebbetzin arrived in Alma Ata, the government had people monitoring the house.  They reported who came to the house and who took an interest in him.  They conveyed this information to their handlers and it was all filed away.  After they reported about my father, who was seen at the rav’s funeral, they began persecuting him.  They dragged him to interrogations and made him enticing offers if he informed on Anash.  When the torment became unbearable, my father and I ran away to Moscow.  My father described this trip in his diary:

“… After we returned home from the terrifying night at the ‘big house’ of the KGB, it was around Rosh Chodesh Elul 5704, about two weeks after the passing of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok zt”l.  I was afraid to sleep in the house at night and even by day.  I did not go out of the house at all.  Then we decided that we had to run away from there, but it was very hard to obtain tickets.  We decided to travel to Moscow, because we didn’t know of any place where there were people we knew and even in Moscow it was unclear.  I had heard of one of the bachurim whose name is Dovid Bravman of Malachovka and got his address.  When we arrived at the train station in Moscow, I found out that we had to travel there by a trolley which went to the city of Rezaian.  We bought two tickets to travel on 15 Elul because my daughter Tzivya went with me till Moscow (it was scary to travel alone, especially for such a long trip of thousands of kilometers).

“Of course we prepared secretly so nobody should realize we were getting ready to go and we left the house under cover of the night for the train station of Alma Ata which was eight kilometers away.  When we were ready to set out, I secretly went to Rebbetzin Chana to say goodbye.  I told her that since we were going far away in the middle of Elul and I did not even know where we would be for Rosh HaShana, I asked her for a shofar since I knew that she had two shofars, one short and white that belonged to the Tzemach Tzedek and one black and long that belonged to the Rebbe Maharash.  The Rebbetzin gave me the Rebbe Maharash’s shofar and I received her blessing for a successful journey.”

A REFINED FACE

As my father mentioned, when we arrived in Moscow, we had the address of the Bravman family.  Dovid, their son, was from a religious, though not Chassidic, home.  He went to the gymnasium and studied secular subjects and continued on to higher education.  There was once a farbrengen in Rostov and Dovid walked in.  He was not yet bar mitzvah.  He enjoyed the farbrengen and went under the table to be able to hear better.  Someone stepped on his foot without realizing it.  He let out a yell and they took him out. 

The Rebbe saw him and said, “This child has a very refined face.”  The Chassidim understood what the Rebbe meant and since they had to move to Nevel because of the persecution, they said to the child, “It’s vacation now.  Come with us to Nevel for a while, at least until the first of September when school starts.”

Dovid agreed and joined the Chassidim.  Before school started, urgent telegrams began arriving from home: “Mother is sick, come home immediately.”  The mashpia showed the telegrams to the Rebbe but the Rebbe dismissed them.  It was only at the end of September, when school was already in session, that the Rebbe allowed the child to go home but then he no longer wanted to go home.  Although he grew up in a wealthy home and in a warm family, he preferred staying with the Chabad Chassidim.

We arrived in Moscow a few years after Dovid was already well integrated among the Chassidim.  We opened a home-based piecework operation again and immediately settled down to work.  We rented a room in a suburb of Moscow, Kraskova, and later the rest of the family joined us.

A year later, at the beginning of 5706, they began discussing a marriage proposal for me with this bachur.  I loved his parents’ house.  Even though they were not Chassidim, many Chassidim frequented their home and the house was elegant by the standards of those days. There was an impressive linoleum floor (it’s funny but I still remember a stain that did not come off the linoleum, a memento from one of the farbrengens) but the main thing was that the family was warm and loving.

We agreed to the shidduch and decided on a date for the wedding.  Someone from the Chassidic brotherhood pleaded not to make a big wedding because “they” already knew Dovid’s name.  He did many favors for the Chassidim and the friend did not want to see him arrested the night of the wedding.

WEDDING ON A SNOWY NIGHT

We did not see one another for the week before the wedding, as is customary, even though we lived in the same house with a shared wall (in the house opposite lived the sisters, Mina Rivkin and Tova Altheus, nieces of my mother).  Under these conditions Hashem gave us the strength and we were both G-d fearing and modest.  The chassan spoke to me through the wall and said, “The situation is not good.  We have to decide right away whether to have the wedding or not since it is likely to wake the wolves up …”

I replied, “What is decreed from heaven is what will occur.  We won’t cancel the wedding and we will pray and hope for the best!”

In the end, the dancing took place at his parents’ house and lasted all night.  It was a snowy night, 8 Teves.  The snow also fell on the chuppa.  Everything around us was white and we felt a special purity.

All of Anash, survivors from here and there, gathered to celebrate with us.  I particularly remember the dancing of R’ Nachum Zalman Gurewitz (who lived in Australia later on).  He danced as the crowd sang, “Tantz a bissele, leb a sach, lern Chumash mit Tanach, un Gemara gor a sach” (Dance a little, live a lot, learn Chumash and Tanach and lots of Gemara).  The dishes on the tables broke from all the dancing and spinning, and the courtyard of my in-laws’ house was raised by at least a handbreadth.

Life became a routine, a routine of fear.  We constantly sensed them following us.  We moved to the other side of Moscow (we became neighbors of the Chassid, R’ Berel Rikman).  My husband would return from work and report that he felt constantly under surveillance.  My aunt, Mumme Sarah, was busy forging documents that helped Chassidim leave Russia in the guise of Polish citizens.  We received travel papers from her and left the city; my brother Leibel, my husband, and me.

TERROR IN CZECHOSLOVAKIA

We left Moscow on Wednesday, 18 Tammuz, 1946 and arrived in Cracow on Thursday.  We had traveled in a regular train until Cracow and from Cracow until Czechoslovakia we had to travel in freight trains.  We crossed the Czech border at night, on foot, each of us carrying our belongings.  Activists from Eretz Yisroel came to arrange our escape.  They paid a lot of money to bribe the border guards and tried to make some order within the chaos that prevailed.  In the row behind us was a Chassid with his wife and two young children.  The woman was asked questions including her identity: What’s your name?

She forgot the name written in her passport and remained silent.  The soldiers saw something wasn’t right and they took the couple off the train and left the two children with the father’s brother.

Among the passengers on the train with us were many people who were not Polish and who did not know even a word of Polish. We arrived on Friday and the people in charge wanted us to continue traveling.  We insisted on remaining for Shabbos for this was a free country …

My father described our trip in his diary:

“On Shabbos Mevarchim Elul, Parshas R’ei 5706, we farbrenged for a few hours after davening, led by R’ Avrohom Eliyahu Plotkin, R’ Peretz Mochkin and others.  On Motzaei Shabbos they transferred us all through a hidden twisted path from Poland to Czechoslovakia.  When we arrived at the Czech border in the middle of the journey, we had to go from the Polish train to the Czech train.  We had to carry all our belongings for several hundred meters until the border between the countries.

The road passed through mountains, hills, and valleys and we had to be quiet so that the border guards would not notice us.  They warned us not to speak Russian at all.  If we were asked what country we were from, we were told to say we came from Persia.  Obviously, we were terrified until, thank G-d, we all boarded the other train in Czechoslovakia.”

At that time, we received a letter from the Rebbe Rayatz telling us to stay put since R’ Yisroel Jacobson from the US was about to come to us.

Before Shabbos was over, two soldiers came and began yelling outside the barracks we were in, “Get out, get out! You have to leave these barracks!”

My husband went out to them and began asking them not to chase us out.  Then some soldiers came and began shooting so the refugees would get out and vacate the barracks.  Dovid tried to prevent this and one of the soldiers aimed a gun right at him. 

Instinctively, without thinking, even though I was in my ninth month, I jumped at the soldier and twisted the gun so that a bullet flew out aimed right at the bottom of my spine.  I was wearing several layers of clothing and still, I began bleeding heavily.  One of the women screamed, “They killed Tzivke,” and the soldier mercilessly killed her on the spot.

Mrs. Mussia Nimotin quickly took sheets out of her luggage and bandaged my back and that is how I went to the hospital, even though Jews were not allowed to walk in the streets (although the war was over, anti-Semitism and Nazis were all over the place and the situation was very dangerous).

We got to the hospital on Sunday, a day when the doctors were off.  I sat down to wait and I was called by the name that appeared in my passport.  At first I didn’t react since I didn’t remember that this was my name.  I looked fearfully around me.  Nuns walked back and forth, there were big crosses on the walls and I couldn’t drink even a cup of water there.  I was also afraid to speak in Russian because I was listed as a Pole and yet I knew no Czech or Polish.  I told the nurses that I could only speak in English.  Some time later, someone from the government came and asked me to sign that the bullet had accidentally fired after I had pushed the soldier’s hand.  I hesitated but one of the activists who came from Eretz Yisroel and knew there were still other groups who needed to come, asked me to sign in order to prevent problems for other Jews.

Anesthesia was not available and so they numbed the area with ice and removed the bullet.  About three weeks later I gave birth to my oldest, Rochel.

When my parents arrived in Czechoslovakia, some time after us, my husband went to meet them.  My father said that when he saw my husband he became very frightened.  Dovid looked afraid and worried and the hair on his temples had turned white overnight.

CHASSIDIC COMMUNITY IN POKING

From Czechoslovakia we went to Austria and from there to Poking in Germany.  The camp we were assigned to live in had been a military camp during the war and had long barracks.  Each family was given a place to live and the Americans from the Joint Distribution Committee gave us food.  After some time, Rebbetzin Chana joined us. Mrs. Mussia Nimotin cared for her devotedly.  I remember only a few of the names of the many Lubavitchers who came there.  There were R’ Nissan Nemanov under whose influence a yeshiva was founded, the Plotkins, Drizins, Mochkins, Brods, Katzenelenbogens, Chanins, Minkowitzs, and others.  I remember the orphaned children from the Margolin family, Tova (Altheus) and Mina (Rivkin) and their cousins Shmarya and Dovid.

In the refugee camp in Poking the community began to take shape.  The children learned in barracks designated for that and the men also established regular times to learn Torah.  There was even a course in sh’chita that was given by my father.

At this time, the Rebbe (who had been appointed by his father-in-law, the Rebbe Rayatz, as director of Kehos) asked that s’farim be printed in Germany. My husband, a communal activist, played a major role in this.  It was necessary to obtain major funding, which is why we remained in Poking a long time after everyone else left, in order to finish up the printing of the s’farim.  I still have a letter that the Rebbe wrote to my husband in Av 5707/1947 in which he guides him about printing the s’farim that they should be as nice as possible and about money matters.  The Rebbe concluded the letter with quotes from the Rebbeim which emphasize the importance of s’farim that are printed for generations to come.

A GIFT FROM REBBETZIN CHANA

Each of the refugees in Poking had to decide where to move on from there.  We got a visa for the US but my husband, who saw how much my parents helped me, encouraged me to change our plans and we went to Nurenberg to get a visa to Eretz Yisroel. 

This decision was fortified by a letter from the Rebbe Rayatz in Cheshvan 5708 in which the Rebbe wrote that it was good to go to Eretz Yisroel but he should remain until he finished the printing.

As I said, after the Lubavitchers left and the camp was closed, we remained a while longer to carry out the Rebbe’s wishes and finish the printing of the s’farim.

Our third daughter was born in Munich and then we received a letter from my father that there was a nice apartment for us (he did not mention that it was full of mice and that we had to draw from the one well that was in the center of the Kfar and carry the bucket of water home so that a third of the water spilled out on the way) and he had even prepared a luxury (i.e. a modern lamp that used kerosene) for us.  We arrived in Eretz Yisroel with our three daughters, delightful dolls, to face the harsh conditions in the new Kfar Chabad.  We lived among turkeys in the Arab houses until the new houses were built in 5717.

After my husband passed away (he was only 49 and died of a terrible illness in Sivan 5719), I was offered a job as an assistant to the preschool teacher, Freida Segal.  I worked with her for a few years until I made a career change and began working as a housemother in the Beis Rivka dormitory.

From Rebbetzin Chana I received as a gift two books that I still have, as well as letters.

I thank G-d for enabling me to raise my daughters and to marry them off to Chassidishe bachurim, rabbanim, who all hold key positions in our communities.

I thank G-d that I see my grandchildren and great-grandchildren serving as shluchim of the Rebbe in Eretz Yisroel and the world.  The Rebbe Rashab blessed my grandfather to merit “Yiddishe” children and indeed, boruch Hashem, I see the fulfillment of that holy bracha.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
See website for complete article licensing information.