THE WATCHMAN AT THE OHEL IN ROSTOV
March 17, 2015
Shneur Zalman Berger in #966, Feature

We dont know much about the secret connection between our Rebbeim and the watchman at the Rebbe Rashabs Ohel in Rostov, RMottel Lifshitz ah. To mark Beis Nissan, the yom hilula of the Rebbe Rashab, Chassidic researcher, RShneur Zalman Berger, tells us a bit about the watchman at the Ohel and reveals that the liaison between our Rebbeim and the watchman was the Chassidic askan, RYona Eidelkopf.

The gravesite of the Rebbe Rashab during the renovations done by R’ Dovid Nachshon and R’ Avi TaubAfter World War II, Russia remained almost without Chabad Chassidim. The majority of Lubavitchers left Russia when they were able to escape via Poland. The Chassidim who lived in Rostov, the city where the Rebbe Rashab is buried, also left the country. Only one Chassid remained living there, RMordechai (Mottel) Lifshitz, and he was in charge of the Ohel (it should be pointed out that this is not the same Mottel Lifshitz who was known as Mottel der shochet, see sidebar).

In this position, he was in touch, covertly, with our Rebbeim, but this special connection was well concealed. It was only after much research that some of the details came to light.

THE CHASSID REFERRED TO AS “TZADDIK”

R’ Mottel Lifshitz was born in 5649 in Agastrunem, Russia. His father was R’ Yisroel Shmuel. In his youth he learned in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch and was one of the chozrim.

He married and for many years lived in Rostov. He was a shochet but he worked as a painter. Now and then you could see his long beard stained in various hues due to his occupation.

In the years before World War II, a group of distinguished Lubavitcher Chassidim were arrested in Rostov. They were interrogated at length about the Chabad activity in the town and R’ Mottel Lifschitz’s name is mentioned in their file. “Lifshitz, Mordechai – a member of the illegal cult, T’mimim, in Rostov.”

During the war, he escaped from Rostov and arrived in Almaty in distant Kazakhstan. At the end of the war he returned to Rostov. After most Chabad Chassidim left Russia he remained the only Lubavitcher in town. He became in charge of the Ohel in Rostov and he had the key.

The Rebbe RashabR’ Mottel Lifshitz, watchman of the Ohel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From 5721 until his passing in 5729, he was considered a sort of rav of the Jewish community in Rostov and some Jews referred to him as a tzaddik.

SECRET CONNECTION

The Rebbe Rayatz and our Rebbe were very concerned about the gravesites of the Rebbeim. Needless to say, the Rebbe Rayatz’s heart and soul were always turned towards his father’s Ohel in Rostov in concern for its condition and upkeep, but in those days, when the communist iron fist quashed anything that had to do with Judaism, it was hard to find out directly what was happening with the gravesites of the Rebbeim and the Ohel in Rostov. Despite the difficulty, the Chabad Rebbeim were able to establish a link through their contact person R’ Yona Eidelkopf, through whom they found out what was happening at the gravesites. Due to the secrecy and the coded letters, we can only try to extrapolate from the little snippets of knowledge that we do have.

R’ Yona Eidelkopf“My soul friend, R’ M Lifshitz”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

R’ Yona Eidelkopf was a dynamic Chassidic activist who lived in Rostov for many years and knew R’ Mottel Lifshitz. In those days, seventy-six years ago, in Adar of 1939, the government was about to destroy the cemetery where the Ohel was. A group of Chassidim, including R’ Yona, transferred the Rebbe Rashab to another cemetery. This was all done under the veil of night.

In the period following the war, R’ Yona was in the DP camp in Poking, Germany. At the end of Adar 5708/1948, the Rebbe Rayatz sent him a letter to be conveyed to R’ Mottel with a cover letter in which the Rebbe thanks him for continuing to correspond with R’ Mottel. The Rebbe Rayatz asked him to pass along the contents of his letter without mentioning the country where he lived (the USA), and inquired about the gravesites of the Rebbeim in the Soviet Union: that of the Baal Shem Tov (Mezhibuzh), the Maggid of Mezritch (Anipol), the Alter Rebbe (Haditch), the Mitteler Rebbe (Niezhen), the Tzemach Tzedek and the Rebbe Maharash (Lubavitch), and that of the children and grandchildren of the Tzemach Tzedek (Liadi, Kopust, Bobruisk).

The gravesite of the Rebbe Rashab, his father, in Rostov was missing from the list. This was because R’ Mottel was the watchman of the Ohel in Rostov and it seems that when the Rebbe Rayatz thanked R’ Yona for his efforts in keeping up the correspondence, he meant that he had already heard details about the Ohel in Rostov from him and now he was asking R’ Yona to ask R’ Mottel about the other gravesites.

In the months that followed, the Rebbe Rayatz urged R’ Yona to find out about the gravesites and to give regards to the Chassidim associated with those gravesites.

After the passing of the Rebbe Rayatz, the Rebbe continued to write to R’ Yona regarding the gravesites but it was all written briefly and in code and until today we do not know details.

Conveying messages through R’ Yona continued. There is a note that was written by the secretary, R’ Nissan Mindel, to R’ Yona regarding a letter that was to be given to R’ Mottel: “When you send the letter, don’t mention the sender’s name explicitly; rather, use the usual name that Anash use, ‘der tatte’ or ‘der Zeide’ and please inform us of his address.”

IN THE OHEL

When R’ Mottel would go to daven at the Ohel with requests that were sent to him, he did so with great humility and awe. This was even though, in the course of his duties, he surely went to the Ohel often. R’ Berel Pruss related:

“When I was in Rostov in 1957, the Chassid, R’ Mottel Lifshitz took me to the Ohel. I asked R’ Mottel to read my pidyon nefesh for me. The way R’ Mottel stood before the gravesite was something hard to describe. What kabbalas ol! I never saw a Chassid stand at the tziyun in such a way. He asked me afterward not to relate in shul that he went with me to the tziyun.”

For many years he would go by himself to the Ohel and when guests came to Rostov who wanted to visit the tziyun, he would go with them to pray there.

In his old age, when he was weak, he gave the key to R’ Shlomo Zak, one of the Jews in Rostov who had learned by the Chafetz Chaim in his youth. The persecution and surveillance forced R’ Shlomo to work under strict secrecy, as we see in the following story:

In 5724/1964, the Jews in general and the Chassidim in particular suffered greatly under communist oppression. One day, the Rebbe’s shliach, R’ Binyamin Katz of New Haven, Connecticut, arrived in Rostov. He came in the guise of a tourist and traveled about the Soviet Union for the purpose of meeting as many Jews as possible and providing them with Jewish ritual items and supporting them in various ways. This is what he said about his brief meeting with R’ Mottel:

“From Moscow I went to Rostov and my first stop was the small shul called the Soldatski shul. From the directions I had been given, I knew that I had to find someone by the name of ‘Shlomo ish neeman” who had the key to the Ohel of the Rebbe Rashab. If you did not know this name, you did not get the key. That was the code.

“In the meantime, I met a Chassidic Jew by the name of R’ Mottel Lifshitz. He asked me a one-word question, ‘Anash?’ I answered with a nod. He asked me in a whisper, ‘How is the Rebbe?’ Beyond that, we did not dare to exchange another word.

“Then I went to carry out my mission. I was not supposed to contact anyone in Rostov, just check the Ohel. After I met ‘Shlomo ish neeman,’ and visited the Ohel, I left town.”

WHY DID R’ MOTTEL SUSPECT THE CHASSIDISHE BACHUR?

R’ Michoel Mishulovin, mashpia in Nachalat Har Chabad, spent one Shabbos in the home of R’ Mottel. To be hosted he had to plead.

This was in 5726 and R’ Michoel, then a young man, travelled from Samarkand to Rostov in order to daven at the tziyun for his brother who was critically ill. He had three flights, from Samarkand to Tashkent, from Tashkent to Moscow and from Moscow to Rostov. He poured out his heart at the tziyun and his brother’s health improved.

Then he had to make the long journey back home, but due to lack of time, he had to spend Shabbos in Rostov. Where should he stay? He knew that the only Chassid in town was R’ Mottel Lifshitz and he wanted to stay in his house but was turned down. He wasn’t surprised since this was normal for Chassidim who did not know one another.

“The fear in those days was great and R’ Mordechai, who did not know me, was suspicious of me. Back then, you were suspicious of everyone, but I had no choice for I had no place to spend Shabbos. I begged him until he agreed to host me. We spent the Shabbos together and it was a spiritual delight to be in the presence of a genuine Chassidic Jew who was alone in Rostov and continued the ways of Chassidus for many years.”

R’ Mottel passed away on Lag B’Omer 5729/1969 and is buried near the Ohel in Rostov.

 

TWO SHOCHTIM WITH THE SAME NAME

During the years that R’ Mottel Lifshitz served as the watchman of the Ohel in Rostov, there lived in Moscow a Chassid with the same name. The latter passed away a year ago. Both were Chabad Chassidim, they had the same name and both were called Mottel, and they were both shochtim. Nevertheless, they were not related.

I’ve made mistakes and others have too and over recent years, there has been confusion between the two Mottels. Some have suggested that R’ Mottel Lifshitz moved from Rostov to Moscow, but this is not correct. The R’ Mottel from Moscow never lived in Rostov. The letter from the Rebbe Rayatz and the note from R’ Nissan Mindel are associated in a few places with R’ Mottel of Moscow but this is wrong. They were written to the R’ Mottel who guarded the Ohel and who was a friend of R’ Yona Eidelkopf, while R’ Mottel of Moscow had no connection with R’ Yona.

R’ Mottel of Moscow

I straightened this information out as I prepared an article eulogizing R’ Mottel Lifshitz of Moscow and deleted stories and details that had been written about him in the past.

While speaking about the R’ Mordechai Lifshitz, for the sake of historical research, the following details can be added:

In earlier years, a rav served in Rostov by the name of R’ Mordechai Lifshitz. The author of the S’dei Chemed wrote halachic responsa to him that are brought in the S’dei Chemed. Is there any connection between him and the Lubavitcher Lifschitzs? I don’t know.

In the letters of the Rebbe Rashab, another R’ Mordechai Lifshitz is mentioned who was also a shochet, but he lived in Paris. The Rebbe Rashab wrote to his brother, R’ Menachem Mendel, that he could rely on the shochet R’ Mordechai Lifshitz.

 

 

 

 

Letter from the Rebbe to R’ Mottel Lifshitz sent via R’ Yona Eidelkopf

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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