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Wednesday
Jul292015

FLAMES OF DEVOTION IN FROZEN SIBERIA

Mrs. Chana Rochel Hurwitz who recently passed away, was a Chassidishe woman, a mekusheres, with fiery faith in Hashem and His anointed one. She told me some incredible stories of mesirus nefesh from the days of terror in which she grew up, when World War II was raging and she and her family found temporary shelter in Siberia.

R’ Sholom Lishner | Cutting giant trees in forced labor
By Molly Kupchik

My parents were RSholom and Perel Lishner. When I was seven years old, we fled the Nazis from Poland to Russia. We lived in Siberia in a small town on the banks of the Hop River.

FATEFUL MISTAKE

My mother and sister Taibe (Bruchshtat) regularly sailed to the big city, Novosibirsk, in order to buy food and Jewish ritual items. Before every trip, my mother would take some item from our poor home and trade it for the various basic things we needed.

Once, on their way back home, they made a mistake and boarded a boat that did not have a stop at our town. It was Friday and we waited excitedly for them at the station in order to help them carry the packages. Oy, calamity! My mother and Taibel stood on the boat helplessly while it continued on its way and sent them further and further away from us. We could do nothing for them.

Then it was Shabbos and my mother lit candles on the boat. When the gentiles saw this, they began shouting, “She is a Jew and she wants to burn us all!” They immediately stopped the boat and put them on the shore in a place where primitive people were, who would light bonfires and lived like animals.

My mother was terrified. “Who knows what would be our lot if the natives discovered us … We must get out of here,” she said to my sister.

My mother and sister walked from this forsaken place for a few days until they reached the city where the boat made a stop traveling in the opposite direction. They finally made it back to Novosibirsk and from there they sailed home, this time on the right boat.

Another time they returned from Novosibirsk late on Friday. My mother got off the boat, left her packages at the harbor, and ran home to make it in time to light the candles. We children brought the packages home.

WAITING TREES

My father worked in a labor camp as part of a work brigade. Each group had a quota of trees that the members had to cut down. My father would say these trees were so tall and wide that seven men were needed to encircle one tree. My father would conclude, “These trees waited for us since the six days of creation so we could cut them down and bring them to their tikkun (rectification).”

HIDING PLACES – THIS WAS NO GAME!

At first, my father did not show up to work on Shabbos. They once came to look for him and at the last second he jumped into our “refrigerator.” The refrigerator was a “bunker” whose opening had a cover with a hole that made opening it easier. My brother Yaakov Noach was quite mischievous and he bent over to peek in at our father. When the commander, head of the search party, saw this, he politely asked my mother whether he could spit into the hole.

It was a miracle that my mother did not faint on the spot. However she did look terrified. Boruch Hashem, they did not find my father and they left.

My father was Polish and did not know Russian so he needed a translator to translate from Russian into Yiddish. That translator was present at the time and when the Russians left he yelled at my mother, “What did you do? They could see on your face what was hidden in your heart! They could see your neshama on your nose!

“Do you know what you almost caused? They would have sent him to Siberia where the polar bears live and you would never know where his bones are.”

KIDDUSH FROM UNDERGROUND

Following this search, they decided on a plan that would prevent my father from desecrating the Shabbos. My brother would join the work force on Friday and together, they would prepare the quota for Shabbos. On Shabbos, when the manager appeared, they would occupy themselves with eating or something else and would show him that everything was ready.

However, this ploy did not work for long, because the Russians discovered that my father did not work and was unwilling to work on Shabbos.

In order to break his stubbornness they would put him into solitary confinement every Shabbos on a desolate island, in a place where he could only stand. There, in the Siberian cold, he would stand for hours every Shabbos.

One Shabbos, we knew where he was confined and we went there, my mother and the children. The little kids dug a hole in the dirt through which we gave my father pieces of bread. We gathered above the cell, silently listening to my father’s voice which rose from the depths of the earth, as he recited Kiddush.

They did not succeed in breaking him! Nor could they do anything further to him (as though that wasn’t enough) since he was a Polish citizen. They gave him other work to do, making brooms out of straw. It seems that in every galus there are remnants from the galus in Egypt, because in our galus too they would supply sticks and straw but not the iron threads to tie them together. To help him, I enlisted my sister who would go a few kilometers to the seashore where there were old barbed wire fences and from there she would bring iron threads to my father for his brooms.

MIVTZA SHOFAR ON A FORSAKEN ISLAND

They were also particular to observe the Jewish holidays. My mother once got a shofar in Novosibirsk. On Rosh HaShana, my father took it to an island where there were Jews and called out: I am going to blow the shofar. Whoever wants to hear can come with me.

He put himself into danger so that other Jews would be able to do this mitzva of the day, hearing the shofar.

FOUR CUPS OF BORSCHT

One day, the beautiful velvet tablecloth disappeared from the table. It turned out that my mother took it with her to Novosibirsk in order to buy provisions for Pesach in exchange.

For the tablecloth she got a pail full of beets, which she used to make borscht, and that was our “wine” for the four cups.

INTO THE FOREST WITH THE POT

We were particular about what entered our mouths. When we would take long, exhausting trips by train, at the stops on the way they would serve porridge that was covered with bugs. Of course, despite our hunger, we didn’t touch it.

When my father worked hard labor in the forest cutting trees, they would give 400 grams of bread to the workers and non-kosher food. Every day, my mother would go to the forest with a pot of food she had prepared from something she found in the house or that she obtained somehow or other. She would bring this food to him so he would not have to withstand the test of eating treif.

Other Jews who worked with him were envious of his religious devotion and would call out to him, “Here she comes with the pot …” However, even those who ate the non-kosher food ate it in order to be able to live and serve Hashem. My parents kept mitzvos even when it entailed great mesirus nefesh.

WHO TO ENVY

We only ate matza on Acharon shel Pesach. These were matzos that came from Poland shortly before the outbreak of war when mail service still operated between Poland and Russia.

One of my aunts from Poland sent us a package of machine matza and our parents let us children eat them on Acharon shel Pesach. It’s frightening but worth noting that in one of the last letters that we received from this aunt, she wrote that she doesn’t know who to be more jealous of, the dead or the living.

DANGEROUS HOSPITALITY

Pesach night was an experience. In our town lived a young man who came from Lithuania. When the communist revolution was at its height, he was captivated by its lure and left his parents’ home and way of life, as did many of his friends in Litvishe yeshivos. He went to Russia in order to help launch the communist revolution.

For some reason he was sent to Siberia and he would cry and tell us what a great rav and tzaddik his father was. In his despair over his having been deluded, he tried to commit suicide. At the last second, my mother managed to get the noose off his neck.

He tried again and again to commit suicide. When it happened the third time, my mother decided to adopt him and to take him into our home. This was very dangerous since it was forbidden for three adults to sit together in one house lest it turn into an agitation meeting against the regime.

Pesach night, the communists knew that surely there would be something illegal going on at the Lishner home, and they were right. When we heard knocking at the door, we panicked. It was one thing that we ourselves were gathered, as we were all from one family, but what about the young man?

Within seconds we had found him a hiding place and Boruch Hashem, after long minutes of rapid heartbeats we were able to breathe easy and continued to pray for redemption from our Egypt.

CHINUCH WAS ALL IMPORTANT

That is how we spent the war years. Constantly, even in the hardest times, our parents were particular about mitzva observance to the nth degree with great mesirus nefesh.

At the end of the war, my mother met someone in Novosibirsk who said that the Russians would be letting Polish refugees out of the country to go where they pleased. Hearing this, my mother asked, “Where can we raise the children in the meantime?” and the man said Samarkand was the place.

So we got up and traveled to Samarkand where there was active Jewish life and most importantly authentic Jewish chinuch for us children. The long trip there took seven miserable weeks by train.

NACHAS

My parents’ mesirus nefesh shone forth throughout, and as a result, the other Jews who lived near us in Siberia joined us. They said, “If Lishner stays, we stay. If he goes, then we’re going with him!”

My parents merited Yiddishe-Chassidishe nachas from their descendants who left Russia and established beautiful families.


ABOUT THE ONE TELLING THESE STORIES

Mrs. Chana Hurwitz a”h, the wife of a scion of Hassidic royalty, R’ Pinchas Hurwitz, and the daughter of R’ Sholom Lishner, may Hashem avenge his blood, was survived by a blessed, upright generation of thirteen sons and daughters who serve as rabbanim and klei kodesh and are known baalei menagnim (cantors and singers), as well as hundreds of grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Chassidim and men of good deeds including many who serve as shluchim around the world including Russia and Ukraine.

Her home, in the heart of Geula in Yerushalayim, was constantly open to all, and hundreds of brokenhearted people found chizuk and comfort in her home. Throughout the week, there were numerous shiurim in Torah and Chassidus in her home and many farbrengens with the participation of the leading lights of Yerushalayim.

She was moser nefesh for the chinuch of her descendants, after she herself underwent a difficult childhood from when she escaped the Nazis with her family to Siberia, and from there to Samarkand – where her father was killed in jail when he was moser nefesh and did not want to tattle nor desecrate the holy Shabbos.

May we soon see the fulfillment of the promise, “arise and sing those who dwell in the dust,” with her among them.

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