February 24, 2012
Rabbi Yehoshua Dubrawski a”h in #824, Memoirs

During the time I said Kaddish daily for my father and sister Tziva’le, I mostly davened at a minyan not far from the clay hut that served as my home, by the Perkars who lived in a second floor apartment. The minyan consisted almost entirely of Russians from the Chabad community who were saying Kaddish. In the 40’s, in the years following the war, victims of the ever present starvation and epidemics were buried daily in the mountainous cemetery of Samarkand.
Among those saying Kaddish was a Chassidic boy, Itzele, the only child of R’ Chaim Sheps, a Chassidic and G-d fearing scholar, one of the elder T’mimim who had learned in Lubavitch. In all of Russia there remained just a few children who were religiously observant; most of them from Chabad areas and their environs. But I knew that among the Chassidic, religious children there was nobody like Itzele.
All those who said Kaddish screamed it more than they said it. Each of them wanted his Kaddish to be heard. All put their hearts into the saying of Kaddish and more than one burst into tears in the middle. Itzele did not shout when he said his Kaddish and he did not cry; yet his Kaddish was heard more than all the others since it was a pure cry from the heart; the words themselves cried.
It was not easy, among the many people obligated to say Kaddish, to be able to be the chazan, but Itzele was different. They let him daven for the amud more often and out of turn.
R’ Chaim and his son Itzele would come together, and they would hold hands, which looked odd. Afterward, I found out that R’ Chaim suffered from a form of blindness caused by starvation which mainly affected his eyes at night. Later, they both suffered from the same blindness and they held onto one another even more firmly.
For a while they dragged themselves to the minyan and Itzele said Kaddish. After some time, we noticed that they stopped coming. People shook their heads sadly and sighed, for this was not a good sign.
A few weeks later, I saw R’ Chaim again, alone. He looked thinner, more bent over, and his eyes were red and swollen. Just as before, he made dismissive motions with his hand about everything. He said the Kaddish himself, for Itzele and his wife.
Even in my unfortunate circumstances, I very much wanted to know; such a helpless Jew, sick and alone, and such a Chassid and lamdan! Who was looking out for him? Who helped him? I was unable to find out even though R’ Chaim befriended me.
Actually, it was the other way around – R’ Chaim only wanted to hear from me about me and my grandfather. “I share your feelings,” he would say. “I already know what it is like to say Kaddish for the two people closest to me. Now I have no one. There is only our Father in heaven.”
On several occasions, R’ Chaim would say to me in a fatherly way: Remember and don’t forget, even when Father hits, and sometimes he really hits, don’t ask any questions. Avrohom Avinu gave us this ability; he led his son to the Akeida and he did not have even the tiniest question.
R’ Chaim once quietly added: My son Yitzchok-Itzele also went up to heaven as a perfect korban.
Following that exchange, I never again saw R’ Chaim at the minyan. I fell sick with typhus, which was complicated by severe malnourishment and I did not leave the house for many months. Afterward, I heard that R’ Chaim had left this pathetic world.
There were times I went to the minyan further away, on Dunavska Street. I wanted to go there more often but I lacked the necessary intrepidity, especially if it was raining and muddy. I couldn’t walk that far with my torn galoshes that were tied with string (I did not have shoes for a while already; in the house I went barefoot and outside I wore tafkes, a sort of shoe made of woven cotton, one of the most critical inventions in Samarkand during the war).
I went there to daven in R’ Dovid’s minyan, not because of the minyan as much as for R’ Dovid. I was surprised at myself for wanting to see how a real Chassid davens, and how a real Chassid suffers from starvation. The biggest chiddush was that I heard and knew that R’ Dovid suffered from hunger and still thought Chassidus; not about bread and butter but about Elokus, and at length, and he davened for even longer.
I remember his long, white beard. I remember his heavenly ruminative eyes in his pale luminous face that looked at you, but seemed to wander somewhere else and not focus on you. I saw him during the starvation years in Samarkand, before typhus and malnutrition knocked me out, half-alive, for months. Then I saw him a few more times before he passed away.
R’ Dovid Kievman or R’ Dovid Horodoker as he was known, lived at the time in a “balcony.” It was a dilapidated clay attic that could be reached, with difficulty, by climbing a crumbling wood staircase. For a period of time there was a minyan there. I sometimes went there to say Kaddish for my father and sister. I would often wonder how R’ Dovid got up those warped steps, which those younger and healthier than he had a hard time climbing.
I knew and had heard that R’ Dovid Horodoker was a special Chassid and rare oved amongst the elite of the Chassidic cadre. I got to see him up close during davening (or, to be more precise, during preparations for davening) and during meals.
After the minyan finished davening, R’ Dovid remained lost in thought, in a state of d’veikus. In the small clay room it was empty and very quiet. In a corner on the side near the door was something that served R’ Dovid as a bed. There was a little table that wobbled, either because the legs were cockeyed or because the mud floor was uneven. Two or three stools were scattered in the hallway and that was all the furniture if you don’t count an old, colorful Uzbeki box that contained all sorts of things and was covered with a piece of torn material.
And it was quiet there, very quiet. R’ Dovid’s son, an older bachur, stood with his face to the wall. He held a Siddur or some volume and shuckled slightly. Was he davening? Learning? Who knows? I was preoccupied with R’ Dovid. He sat on his “bed,” with his aforementioned brooding eyes and meditated on Chassidus.
On very warm days in Samarkand, R’ Dovid would sit there in d’veikus with his head and arm t’fillin but without a tallis; also without a shirt, just an undershirt and tzitzis. He would sit like a prisoner in chains, without moving, not seeing, not hearing what was going on around him, not even when I purposely made noise.
It often happened that I was the only one remaining in R’ Dovid’s room. First, because most of the time there was no breakfast awaiting me back home. Second, because sometimes I was bothered day and night by the thought of a piece of bread or a potato, and the quiet atmosphere of d’veikus in R’ Dovid’s presence strangely dissipated those thoughts of hunger and the feeling of starvation (though it happened occasionally that even the sublime atmosphere at R’ Dovid’s did not assuage my hunger).
Next to the sort-of-bed was a wide Uzbeki pitcher with water, in which beets and sugar were steeped. Why beets? Why steeped? Who knows? What was known at the time was that sweet beets are a good food when experiencing constant hunger. This pitcher often stimulated my cravings and aroused the constant hunger within me.
I also remained because of my insatiable curiosity even during those bitter times. I waited and waited. Maybe R’ Dovid would finish “thinking Chassidus” and would stand up and daven. I wanted very much to hear how he davened. I heard it said that R’ Dovid’s t’filla was something special, geshmak ahn a shiur (immensely delightful), but I had hardly ever managed to wait until he davened. One time, I even fell asleep as I waited and when I woke up, I found that R’ Dovid was in the same d’veikus as before.
When the cruel hunger in Samarkand subsided somewhat, the Lubavitchers broke the cruel Soviet restrictions on profiteering, and began working and earning a living. Chassidishe askanim immediately began organizing a yeshiva for the children of Chassidim. I was among the first talmidim, as soon as I could get back on my feet that were swollen from hunger.
When I began learning, they arranged essen teg for me in Chassidishe homes that had something to eat. All the places I ate at were satisfactory; they provided enough food to make up for the days of starvation. But at R’ Yeshaya’s it was especially good since he made me take food and fruits back to yeshiva.
One time, when I went to R’ Yeshaya on a Wednesday to eat lunch, I met R’ Dovid and his son who had also come there to eat. Later, I heard that R’ Yeshaya’s wife would bring pots of food every day for R’ Dovid and his son, but R’ Dovid refused to allow R’ Yeshaya’s “good balabusta” to shop and cook and then bring the hot food to his house. Instead, he and his son went to eat at R’ Yeshaya’s house.
I ate with R’ Dovid and his son only one time. As far as I can remember, I hardly ate anything at the time. Why? Both then and now, I cannot explain the reason for it, but to sit and eat with R’ Dovid? I just couldn’t do it (maybe because I knew that the ravenous eating and swallowing after a prolonged starvation were not normal and I was embarrassed by it). It is possible that it is because of this that they arranged that I would not eat at the same time as R’ Dovid.
That one time is engraved in my memory. They served us the food in the Bucharian courtyard of R’ Yeshaya’s house. R’ Dovid washed his hands for the meal and then his son began examining the old, Bucharian washing cup (he was very punctilious in mitzvos and nervous and he sometimes acted as though he was older than his father). When R’ Dovid saw how he ran his finger over the edge of the cup, he got annoyed and told him to stop his vilde shtick (i.e. extremism) and stringencies that were inappropriate. He said he should wash his hands right away and eat! At times like these you need to take care of your health and this was surely G-d’s will!
Later on, in the middle of the meal, R’ Dovid said to me:
“You are a bachur, a talmid in Tomchei T’mimim, right? A Chassidishe Tamim begins to learn Chassidus, to think Chassidus, daven at length with a Chassidishe vort, definitely! That’s the way it is! That is how a Tamim begins to work with himself. But I will tell you; no I am warning you, don’t you dare think about fasting and self-mortification and not eating. It is possible that this is a sin and possibly a big sin, especially in times like these of hunger, diseases, and weakness. Do you hear?
“I am telling you from experience. I myself as a bachur was foolish for a while in matters like these such as self-mortification, fasts and the like. Do you know what I got out of it? My Evil Inclination and animal soul remained as strong and healthy as a goy but my health is ruined now; I have no strength to learn and daven. You hear? Now, I am sorry that in the past I ruined my health. Now, I am doing t’shuva for my privations; yes, I am doing t’shuva.”
If I had a mirror in front of me, I would surely have seen myself blushing in embarrassment. What did R’ Dovid, the great Chassid, the outstanding Tamim, suspect of me? How very far I was from seeking to break my desire for food!

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