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Tuesday
May122015

REMEMBERING A FALLEN HERO

On that spring evening, the second night of Rosh Chodesh Iyar, Fedayeen terrorists burst through the orchard into the agricultural school in Kfar Chabad and sprayed the forty students who were davening Maariv with bullets. Five were killed along with their madrich, Simcha Zilberstrom, may Hashem avenge their blood. * Much has been written about this tragedy but hardly anything has been written about Simcha. * Let us learn a bit about this remarkable bachur who managed to accomplish so much in his short life.

Simcha with his students

The special personality of Simcha Zilberstrom, the fourth child in the Zilberstrom family, has not been forgotten, even after more than fifty years since his murder by Fedayeen terrorists in Iyar 5717/1957.

Simcha was not a bachur like other bachurim. His energetic personality combined with his cleverness caught the attention of his friends in the various yeshivos he learned in, as well as in the educational frameworks that he worked in. He was a person with many talents, highly intelligent and an energetic doer, with a sense of responsibility and maturity that characterized him even from a young age.

His short life began with constant running from the Nazis during the Holocaust and ended in a massacre that took place in Kfar Chabad when he fell while at his post in the army of the Rebbe.

He was born in Germany on 17 Av 5791/1931. His parents were Binyamin Nachum and Freidel.

Following a threat on his brother’s life by German youth in the period before World War II, the family moved from Germany to France. Simcha was 11-12 years old during the war in France.

“We lived in a small village that was under German rule,” said his sister, Mrs. Levy. “My father wasn’t home because he was busy saving Jews in all kinds of places from German soldiers. We didn’t always have parnasa. Simcha was the one who raised us. My parents knew they could rely on him. I remember how one time, my father came home for a short visit and then said he was going back out to continue saving Jews. I said to him, ‘Who will take care of us?’ and he said, ‘I’m leaving Simcha. He will take care of everything.’ This was despite his young age.”

During the war, the Zilberstrom family stayed in a house they rented from a doctor, far from the public eye. The doctor, who knew their true identity, as well as the local priest, whose job it was to ensure there were no Jews in the village, were given bribes by the Zilberstroms so they would look away. In fact, a friendship developed between R’ Binyamin Nachum and the priest, who would come now and then to learn Gemara with him.

“Whenever they found out that the Germans were planning on conducting a search, they would tell us,” said Simcha’s brother, Eliyahu Peretz. “I remember that one time, they did not manage to warn us in time and an SS officer in civilian clothes called my father to come with him. Simcha jumped out the window and quickly raised money from the neighbors and brought it to the SS officer, who released my father and warned him that he had ten minutes to escape with his family.”

The Zilberstroms fled to the surrounding fields and waited until the danger passed.

It wasn’t easy to obtain food during the war years, especially for those who had to run for their lives and had to hide. “We hid in a small village. In the yard of the house we had a small vegetable garden. It was mainly Simcha who cared for it,” said Eliyahu Peretz.

When Simcha became bar mitzva in 5704, the war was still raging. Although the village they lived in was under German rule, his father made sure to celebrate the bar mitzva properly. He brought a minyan of men to his house and they even slept there, despite the danger. While they davened they closed all the shutters and they had the younger brother, Eliyahu Peretz, stand outside the house to warn them about any unexpected arrival of Germans. He was supposed to knock on the door with prearranged signals if danger was approaching. Simcha fluently leined the entire parsha, Parshas Eikev, Shabbos morning.

BECOMING INVOLVED WITH LUBAVITCH

When the war ended, Simcha and his parents traveled to Eretz Yisroel on the first legal ship to leave the continent. Shortly thereafter, R’ Binyamin Nachum suddenly died and Simcha, then 15, began learning in Yeshivas Kol Torah in Yerushalayim.

Apparently at this time he wanted to go to America, for we see in a letter of the Rebbe Rayatz that was written (8 Adar I 5708) to his brother Aharon Mordechai, “Your brother, the talmid Simcha, should not travel here and should be diligent in his learning and successful in learning and fear of heaven and may he be a yerei Shamayim, Chassid, and lamdan.”

In a letter that Aharon Mordechai wrote to the Rebbe MH”M at the end of 5711, he describes his brother Simcha, “My brother Simcha is 20. He learned until now for five and a half years in Yeshivas Kol Torah here, and plans to attend a bigger yeshiva. His plan for now is to continue shtaiging in learning for another year and then to start teaching, for he is talented in this area and has a good rapport with children. He is a yerei Shamayim and learns diligently.”

It was at that time that he began his first involvement with Chassidus, as his brother adds, “I have tried many times to bring him close to Anash circles, for special days in the calendar, for the Melaveh Malka meal, a farbrengen when someone distinguished comes, and at any opportunity … Now, in light of his decision to change yeshivos, I am trying to get him to go to the yeshiva in Lud.”

Indeed, some time afterward, he joined the group of bachurim learning in Tomchei T’mimim in Lud as we see in a letter of the Rebbe dated 8 Kislev. “I was very pleased to be informed that your brother Simcha went to Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Lud. Surely he will be successful there in Torah study and pure yiras Shamayim. This will also pave the way for his younger brother.”

And in another letter, a few weeks later, the Rebbe notes that he received nice regards from the hanhala of the yeshiva about his brother.

His powerful longing to see the Rebbe gave him no rest. From a letter of the Rebbe to him we see that in addition to the Rebbe Rayatz stopping him from traveling to America, as related earlier, the Rebbe did the same. He describes in a letter to his close friends (including the shliach, R’ Gershon Mendel Garelik) that he slaked his great yearning in a special niggun that he composed to the words that Dovid HaMelech said in T’hillim 55, “And I said would that I had wings like a dove; then I would fly away and rest!” and he would sing it to the tune of “Kol Dodi Dofeik” which is attributed to the Alter Rebbe. His students said they were riveted to him at farbrengens and when he sang these words, he would sob.

Simcha was full of spirit and was very wise. He would always help others with all his heart and soul wherever his help was needed. His friend R’ Moshe Grylak said, “He was my friend despite the age difference between us. He supported me spiritually as I took my first steps in the world of yeshivos, in Yeshivas Kol Torah. He was my guide in avodas Hashem, and although as is the wont of youngsters we also got a taste of youthful foolery, the conversations we had always reverted somehow to topics of hashkafa and avodas Hashem.

“Our souls bonded. When he switched to the Chabad yeshiva in Lud, we kept in touch, mainly with letters. He did not hesitate to candidly share whatever he was experiencing in the new place. In everything he said, what stood out was his longing to serve Hashem in complete purity.”

When a bachur entered the zal of the yeshiva, he would see Simcha bent over a seifer and learning. Even though his background from home was Brisk, and this was apparent in his learning, he loved Chassidus and was constantly occupied with working on himself.

The former Chief Rabbi, R’ Yisroel Meir Lau, said that in his youth he learned the first chapter of Tanya with Simcha. “We would walk back and forth below the yeshiva and he taught me the foundational concepts of Tanya.”

This picture was given to a member of the family by R’ Yitzchok Springer, his good friend from Pardes in Lud. R’ Yitzchok said that after Simcha did not receive permission to travel to the Rebbe, he sent the picture so at least that would be in the Rebbe’s court.CHASSIDIC EDUCATION

When the Rebbe founded a network of Chabad schools in Eretz Yisroel, Simcha got involved in the holy work of saving Jewish souls. It was not easy for him to leave the yeshiva and go to a strange place and start working on registering children for school. He asked the Rebbe about it and received instructions to work in this holy educational shlichus, because “when it’s a time to do for G-d, they annul Your Torah.”

In the first phase, four schools were founded, in Yerushalayim, Zarnoga, Yaffo, and Kfar Saba. Simcha undertook the founding and running of the school in Kfar Saba.

The beginning wasn’t at all easy. He founded the school and served as both the director and teacher, until he was able to bring teachers there to work on a more established basis. At night he slept on one of the benches in the shul in Kfar Saba and he ate in various places. More than once he ate with Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman, considered one of the foremost Litvishe g’dolim today, who treated him with great respect for the holy work he was doing.

Simcha was successful and those in the Mapai party couldn’t stand it. They saw how a young bachur, without any organizational backing, was “stealing” the children one by one and sending them to a Torah school that he founded. One night, they set the shack which served as the schoolhouse on fire. This did not faze Simcha who continued running the school.

At a later point, an attempt was made to start another school in Lud. Simcha was enlisted, as R’ Meir Blizinsky, director of the Reshet, related in his memoirs, “In Lud there were many Moroccan immigrants who mainly spoke French. We appointed Simcha Zilberstrom, who was fluent in this language, and he began teaching them and guiding them. He became beloved to them. Simcha suggested starting a Chabad school for them and they agreed immediately.” However, in the end, the attempt to found a school in Lud was not successful.

After the school in Kfar Saba was firmly established, Simcha handed over the reins to others and joined the staff of the Torah-vocational school in Kfar Chabad. He devoted himself to the young students with all his heart and soul.

One of the students, Asher Kadosh of Kfar Chabad, related, “We went to school as a group of eighteen boys. The madrich (counselor) Simcha Zilberstrom interviewed us one by one and decided who would attend the agricultural school in Kfar Chabad. It was Teves, and until Pesach we underwent all kinds of tests in agriculture and the like. After Pesach, we returned as students.”

We can learn some of what he did from a letter the Rebbe wrote to him on 25 Teves 5716: “In response to your letter of Motzaei Shabbos VaYechi and prior to that, I hurry to respond without waiting for his turn because of the urgency of the matter.

“You ask about the possibility of their asking you to work in the agricultural school too, the proof being that they asked you to go to the Youth Aliya camp in order to choose suitable students for the agricultural school, for you fear this will be at the expense of your work in the vocational school.

“The trip to select suitable students is a one-time thing consisting of one or two days, and it is very important that the students be suitable, obviously. If the hanhala considers you suitable for this task, then obviously you should do as they ask.

“Regarding steady work in the agricultural school, since you do not yet know whether they will offer it, and surely no details are known, if the offer is made – surely you can discuss amongst yourselves how to arrange the work so that no harm will be done. The hanhala of the yeshiva is also interested in the welfare of the vocational school. Perhaps, with the agricultural school being new, special efforts are needed as opposed to the vocational school where things have already settled into a routine and they could well continue with someone smaller than yourself, especially if he will be in awe of you (since you will be able to check in occasionally and when needed – even if only for a few brief moments). Fortunate is your lot that divine providence has given you the opportunity to take part in the founding of kosher schools in the spirit of Chabad and in the direction laid out by the Rebbe, my father-in-law.

“You gave me great pleasure with your first letter in which you write that there is a change for the good in the talmidim. Surely, since then, an additional change and progress is apparent in addition to what you wrote about. It is surprising that you don’t write about it.”

At the end of this letter, the Rebbe urges him to be involved “in a suitable manner” in finding a shidduch, and suggests that he be helped by his brother and to tell this to his brother in the Rebbe’s name.

GUNFIRE ON A QUIET SPRING NIGHT

The start of the new z’man on Rosh Chodesh Iyar 5716 in the vocational school in Kfar Chabad took place after much effort on the part of the staff. It entailed extricating immigrant children from the Leftist schools and transferring them to Torah schools. The alternative they were given was a Torah-vocational combination. Over the month of Nissan, the talmidim of Chabad schools were able to get quite a few boys into the school, for the purpose of connecting them to a life of Torah and mitzvos.

The first of the students began arriving at night. After putting their belongings in their rooms, they gathered for Maariv in the main trailer of the school which served as a shul. One of the madrichim served as the chazan.

“He spent his last Nissan with us at home,” said his brother Aharon Mordechai. “He infused the home with a warm, Chassidishe atmosphere. During the month we attended farbrengens which took place in Toras Emes in Mea Sh’arim. Until today, I can hear the voice of R’ Avrohom Maiyor-Drizin in my head, who said several times, ‘the time comes when the Angel of Death comes to take …’

“The morning of that day, Rosh Chodesh Iyar, my brother Simcha was in bed with a high fever but in the afternoon he got up like a soldier and began preparing his things to go to the vocational school. We asked him why he needed to go back one day early when the official beginning was the following day and he wasn’t feeling well. But Simcha insisted on going in order to welcome the first of the students who were coming from the transit camps.”

While the boys were davening, the tragedy was drawing near. At that time, the south and center of the country suffered from many attacks by bands of terrorists called Fedayeen. They were sent by the Egyptian president Abdul Nasser, and from the Gaza Strip they crossed the border into Eretz Yisroel and perpetrated attacks nearly every night. They also managed to reach the borders of Kfar Chabad.

Among the forty boys in the shul were the brothers Asher and Meir Kadosh who had come from Morocco just half a year earlier. Simcha had gone to the Youth Aliya camp to find out the name of those children whose parents had sent them on their own and who wanted to learn in a religious dormitory setting. He located the two Kadosh brothers and brought them to Kfar Chabad. Asher was 13 at the time of the attack. He was standing next to those who were hurt and was miraculously saved.

Asher recalled, “Before Maariv began, Simcha gave an encouraging talk to the newcomers. He spoke in fluent French, the mother tongue of most of the students, about the special quality of Rosh Chodesh and the opportunity to be armed with spiritual strength for the journey ahead. When he finished, someone went over to be the shliach tzibbur.”

It happened at the beginning of Shmoneh Esrei when screams were heard from the direction of the gate. The main door burst open and a group of terrorists could be seen in the entrance. They opened fire at the boys. Simcha, who immediately realized that this was a group of Fedayeen, yelled at the kids to drop to the ground. Someone shut the light to make it harder for the terrorists to aim accurately. Simcha began quickly getting the children out the window, one by one, but as he did so, terrorist’s bullets hit him and he fell. His focus had been not on himself but on saving the students, despite the mortal danger he was in.

The firing continued for another few seconds and then there was a sudden silence. Some more time went by before someone turned on the lights. The scene was horrific. Dozens of boys were lying on the floor, wounded, writhing in pain and crying for help. Siddurim covered with blood lay scattered. The most horrifying thing of all was some of the boys had been killed.

“I noticed many who were injured and also Simcha, the madrich, who was seriously wounded. I tried to pick him up and take him to the porch but saw that he could do nothing,” said Meir Friedman, who was also a madrich.

“When the door burst open and a volley of bullets sprayed the room,” said Asher Kadosh, “I hid to the left of the door and suddenly felt someone fall on me. It was very dark but a few seconds later I moved aside and saw the madrich Simcha lying on the floor covered in blood. As I began to assimilate what had happened, I loudly called my younger brother Meir’s name but heard no response.”

Meir Friedman is the one who took care of transferring Simcha to the hospital. “At first, I took many children out of the school area and brought them to the home of R’ Shlomo Chaim Feldman, who lived in the house facing the school. Then, together with Yeshaya Gopin and others, we began to expend terrific effort to get the wounded out, especially my friend, Simcha Zilberstrom, who had been hit by several bullets and was in critical condition.

“I went to the center of the Kfar where many residents had gathered upon hearing the shots, but they were afraid to go closer to the school thinking the terrorists were still in the area.

“In the meantime, Simcha continued to bleed. It took time until we got the weapons we had in the Kfar and were able to evacuate the wounded. The hardest moment for me that night was when I dragged Simcha myself and he bled all over me. I couldn’t help him. In the end, R’ Rivkin came with his car, the only vehicle in Kfar Chabad, and we went to the hospital in Tzrifin where I stayed with him for several hours. I parted from him only when they took him into the operating room. Simcha did not survive the operation.”

That awful night, another three of the wounded died: Nissim Asis, Peretz Moshe, and Shlomo Mizrachi, may Hashem avenge their blood. The following night, Albert Edery died. Another student, Amos Ozen, died a while later.

Simcha’s talmidim were incredulous at the news of his passing. One of the talmidim sat silently with his gaze fixed on the door of the building from where the terrorists had shot their bullets and he cried out in a choked voice, “Simcha, you were my father, you were the father of us all. Now I am an orphan again, as I was a year ago when I became orphaned of my father in Yerushalayim. Who will take care of food and clothing for me now? Who will go for walks with us in the fields around the school?”

DEALING WITH THE BEREAVEMENT

Poor communications between Kfar Chabad and Yerushalayim, along with the helplessness of the residents of Kfar Chabad, engendered a tragedy within a tragedy. A few hours after Simcha passed away, his brothers and mother continued life as usual in Yerushalayim, being unaware of what had happened. The chaos in Kfar Chabad made people forget that Simcha had a mother and brothers in Yerushalayim.

“I was living with my mother in Yerushalayim,” said Eliyahu Peretz. “Radios and telephones were not common in those days, so we did not hear the news of that night. My brother Aharon Mordechai, who did not live in our neighborhood, returned from Shacharis at daybreak and as he climbed the stairs leading to his apartment he saw a copy of HaAretz and the headline: Murderous Attack by Fedayeen in Kfar Chabad. Madrich Simcha Zilberstrom and Five Students Killed.”

“I leaned on the wall so as not to collapse,” said Aharon Mordechai.

Here is where R’ Aharon Mordechai’s great mind came to the fore. Despite the terrible news that had just traumatized him, he kept his wits about him. “I went upstairs, had a hot drink, and got hold of myself.”

Since he was afraid that his mother would hear the news via radio, he quickly made sure to have the wires disconnected so she couldn’t listen. “I sent other people to my mother with instructions to tell her the news in stages so she wouldn’t collapse. Only then, did I leave for Kfar Chabad.

“When I arrived at the scene of the bloodbath, police and UN officials surrounded the building and refused to let me in. I went with the body to the forensic center in Abu Kabir so they would only do a superficial examination and would provide the necessary certificates. Before I was about to leave, one of the pathologists said to me, ‘You should know that your brother threw himself at the murderers in order to defend the boys.’ I asked him how he knew that and he took a pen and paper and drew the points where he was hit on his body and explained: According to the angle of the shots the bullets did not hit a person standing facing his attackers but a person in motion throughout the shooting.

“The next day, the funeral left the Shaarei Tzedek compound in Yerushalayim with thousands of people following those who had been slain. I walked behind my brother Simcha. During the Shiva, thousands of people came to console us. The most moving of all were the children, students and charges of my brother who came to console his mother. Then we all cried together like little children.”

TERRIBLE DREAM

Journalist Dov Goldstein described with great vividness what occurred in Kfar Chabad that terrible day and included details about Simcha:

“Shafrir, where the Chabadnikim live, was a vale of tears yesterday. Groups stood near the shul of the Kfar in the center of which is the agricultural school for youth. My ears picked up numerous variations on the question that cries out to be heard, ‘What sin did these children who study Torah commit?’

“ … The cars [with the bodies] stopped at the small plaza in front of the shul building. From a distance one could see a group of about twenty-five children, ages 12-13, approaching the car. Madrichim hurried toward the group and tried to stop them but the children broke through the circle of adults and with bitter cries they jumped on the steps of the vehicle that carried the body of their madrich. ‘Simcha, you never wanted to part from us and we don’t want to part from you now,’ cried one child, with his small, thin body rolling in the dust in front of the vehicle.

“ … On the step leading to the porch of the shul, I noticed a little boy, sitting silently with his eyes fixed on the door of the building from where the murderers had shot at the praying children. Upon my asking he said, ‘Why am I sitting here like this? Last night they killed Simcha the madrich and Simcha was my father. He was like the father of us all, and now I am orphaned again as I was last year.’ His father had died the year before and he had been sent to this agricultural school in Shafrir. Here, within a short time, he had found a father figure in the madrich, Simcha Zilberstrom.

“The other forty-six children in the school also dearly loved their madrich. Simcha took care of their food and clothing, took them on walks in the expansive fields surrounding the school, played with them during free time even when he himself was exhausted by the day’s work. He implanted in their hearts love for mankind and joy, as per the teachings of Chabad.

“ … Simcha joined Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim at the beginning of 1951 and immersed himself fully in his studies … Throughout the time he spent learning in yeshiva he was strongly connected with a friend from Yerushalayim, Yisroel Dubraskin, who later taught Chassidus in the school in Shafrir. Last year, on the fifth day of Chanuka, Arab infiltrators murdered Yisroel on his way to school.

“For a long time Simcha kept away from his other friends, choosing to wallow in his pain in solitude. His eyes were red from crying. He found only one way to alleviate his sorrow, to leave the yeshiva for the school where his friend Yisroel taught in order to work as a teacher and madrich. He would captivate the hearts of the children and madrichim, as madrich Meir Friedman said.

[Incidentally, the shochet, R’ Moshe Beitch told a shocking story. One day, Simcha met him. Simcha was all riled up. He told him about a dream he had the previous night in which he skipped over tables, jumping here and there. Suddenly, in his dream he saw his friend Yisroel Dubraskin who had been killed by Fedayeen terrorists who yelled, “What are you doing here? They will slaughter you all here!”]

“He had an elderly mother in Yerushalayim. She often begged him to come home and stay with her. After reading her letters, Simcha would stay in his room and cry. He wanted to go to his mother but how could he leave the school and his charges, young children?

“Even the final moments of his life were dedicated to his charges. While he was dying in the hospital and was conscious, he pleaded with the doctor and mumbled with the last of his strength, ‘Doctor, give me another minute and tell me how my children are’ – referring to his students.

“When the doctor reassured him, Simcha mustered his strength and cried out ‘Shma Yisroel Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.’ His voice could be heard outside the room and his friends burst in and stood and cried. Simcha had passed away.” (Maariv, 2 Iyar 5716)

ENCOURAGEMENT FROM THE REBBE

In response to the tragedy, the Rebbe asked the leaders of Kfar Chabad and askanim to expand the Kfar and to continue developing and building it.

On the Shloshim, thousands of Chassidim and admirers of Chabad went to Kfar Chabad for a memorial ceremony along with the laying of a cornerstone for a printing wing called “Yad HaChamisha” (Memorial to the Five, for the students and madrich who had been killed, as the sixth student was still fighting for his life). The ceremony was also meant to salute the handful of Chassidim who had suffered in Soviet Russia and in Eretz Yisroel and were forging ahead by building another mosad. After the speeches, the bereaved families lay the cornerstone with Mrs. Zilberstrom and her sons among them.

A short while later, the Rebbe sent a delegation of bachurim to Eretz Yisroel to raise the morale of Chabad Chassidim there.

The Rebbe sent a letter of consolation to the bereaved mother, Freidel Zilberstrom:

“I received news about the cornerstone laying for the school in Kfar Chabad and was pleased to find out that you were present and participated, for all Jews are believers, children of believers, that the main part of man is his soul, a portion of G-d above, literally, and that the soul is eternal. Since the purpose of man’s creation on earth is to accomplish in the world … thus, when one makes a connection between the soul and an activity in the world, especially an ongoing activity which will produce fruits and fruits of fruits, this is a victory against death and the greatest pleasure one can cause the soul, especially when things are done in the place where the event occurred. I strongly hope that the Creator of the world and the One who runs it, will bless you with long life and you should see the students of the school for Torah and a vocation where you participated in the cornerstone laying, students that are a credit and glory for the Jewish people, continuing on the same path on which Simcha trod and to which he devoted his life, until the fulfillment of the promise, arise and sing those who dwell in the dust.

“Surely, you have settled into a suitable job in light of your health and may Hashem give you strength and may you receive much real nachas from all your descendants. With blessings for a long, good life and good news in all the above.”

The older brother, Aharon Mordechai, who as always did not make a move, big or small, without asking the Rebbe, sent a letter asking what to do about the inheritance his brother left. He received a detailed letter in response. Among other things, the Rebbe wrote, “From this sum, one lira ought to be given to each of the inheritors – this can be understood in light of what is written in a number of s’farim regarding the spiritual idea of an inheritance … and the primary sum should be dedicated, in my opinion, to something or some mosad in Kfar Chabad, and even better if it were connected with the camp this year or founding an institution for the continued learning of students of the Reshet. It would also be proper to buy with the money, on a one time basis, Siddurim for the entire class or even the entire school that was under the administrative care of Simcha, may Hashem avenge his blood.”

It is surprising that the Rebbe commented on what should be written on the gravestone, “It should be worded so that the name of the Rebbe, my father-in-law is mentioned or at least the name of Chabad Lubavitch. The reasons for this are self-understood, for whoever reads the gravestone will also mention these words and will thus arouse the merits of others.”

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