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Tuesday
Dec242013

TO LIVE AMONGST CHASSIDIM

Stories and memories about the Chassid, R’ Herschel Lerner, recounted by his granddaughter and suffused with Chassidic flavor. * Part 3

By his granddaughter T. Maidanchek

A NEW PERIOD – IN SAMARKAND

As recounted in the previous chapter, my grandparents heard that there were many Chassidim in Samarkand who had obtained forged Polish passports to be used to escape the Soviet Union. The two of them wanted to leave Stalinabad (Dushanbe) and go to Samarkand in order to obtain the documents that would enable them to leave Russia. This wasn’t easy for them. Since my grandmother was a stellar employee in a textile factory, her employers did not want to let her go.

It was only after much effort that my grandparents managed to arrive in Samarkand in 1946. At the train station, my grandfather hired a donkey and wagon and they rode eight kilometers until they reached Machla, the neighborhood on the outskirts of the city where many Jews lived.

As they entered the city, my grandmother noticed that fresh rolls were being offered for sale on the side of the road. She hadn’t seen a treat like that in a long time, so she stopped the wagon and bought some rolls for the children.

Upon arriving in the city, they went from house to house, looking for a place to live or at least a temporary dwelling. In the evening, they found an “apartment” which was no more than a room constructed of clay that was open to the elements as well as to passersby. Having no choice, they unpacked their few possessions and prepared to go to sleep, their first night in Samarkand.

A POSITIVE ENVIRONMENT

With the light of day, they went to look for a shul. The first Jews they met were Chassidim, Avrohom Yosef Antin and his wife Yenta. It was only after they saw the Antin’s home that they realized that the apartment they had rented was “luxurious.” 

They eventually became acquainted with the family of R’ Shraga Feivish Henkin and his righteous wife Chasya. The two of them maintained the local mikva with great devotion. She helped the women and he made sure it operated properly and halachically. R’ Shraga Feivish’s personality was one of g’vura. He helped everyone even when he seemed angry. If a Jew was in need of help, he did all he could to assist him.

Chasya was all chesed. The couple understood one another perfectly. It was enough for him to utter the first syllable of her name, “Cha” and she immediately knew what he wanted and did it. She too did not require long elaborative sentences in order to get him to do something.

“We used code names for them,” my father, R’ Yaakov Lerner, told me. “For example, if you wanted to know whether the mikva was open, you would ask, ‘Did you see Dadya Fiedya.’ Fiedya is a Russian name and so, of course, nobody suspected you meant R’ Shraga Feivish. If you wanted to find out whether a message was conveyed to R’ Feivish that today is Yud-Tes Kislev and that there was a farbrengen in a certain place, they would ask, ‘Does Fiedya know that there’s a soccer game today? Ask him not to be late so we don’t lose the game.’ And when you wanted to say something that pertained to Doda Chasya, you would say, ‘Tell Tutia Prosya that guests are coming and to get tickets for the movies.’”

The Henkins lived for a long time on Denauskaya Street with the Mishulovin family. The Mishulovins were the ones who provided the light of Judaism to all of Anash. The head of the family, R’ Eliezer, with his righteous wife Basya and their four children, were a model of Judaism even in the horrific conditions of that time.

My grandfather and R’ Eliezer were great friends. The two of them would walk together to the shul even as minyanim took place in their homes. They did this in order to give the slip to those spying on where people gathered and davened. In general, at the shul there was great interest about where the Mishulovin children davened. Whoever knew R’ Eliezer knew that his children certainly davened; the question was where.

On holidays, many people asked where the children of the Goldschmidt, Zaltzman, Lerner, Schiff, etc. families were. Great care needed to be taken because of those curious Jews who loved to ask questions.

There was a Jew from Chernovitz who asked about every little change in the shul, about whoever was supposed to come and did not come or the opposite. When someone new walked in he would immediately inquire where he came from, what he did, where he was staying, etc. If Tachanun was omitted he would go from person to person in order to find out the reason.

They did not say Tachanun one day and most of the people did not know the reason. The ones who knew did not pass along this information to the snoop. When the man pressed one of the Lubavitchers to tell him, the Lubavitcher said, “Don’t you know that today marks the passing of Moshe Rabbeinu’s mother-in-law?” That satisfied him and he even said, “Oy, how could I have forgotten!”

TRUE FRIENDSHIP AND HUMILITY

R’ Eliezer Mishulovin and my grandfather, R’ Herschel had a trait in common; they were both humble. At the same time, they both esteemed the other. My grandfather would say, “An anav (humble person) is not someone who constantly announces I am a ‘nothing’ and everyone else is more important than me. A true anav is someone who accepts it with love when someone else says this about him.”

Then he would point at R’ Eliezer as the best example of “be of lowly spirit before every man.” Often people would attack R’ Eliezer and remonstrate, “Shame on you! Why don’t you say where your children are learning? Where are they davening?” They would add terms that I couldn’t possibly write on paper. But he would answer in all innocence, “You are right. I need to do t’shuva.”

Sometimes, he was the chazan and then the davening was very Chassidish, but there were always those who shouted that he davened too slowly. He would say to the complainer: You’re right, I will try to work on myself … He would answer each person in a gentle way. He never tried to justify himself since he figured that if someone was pointing something out, he was right. 

At home he also conducted himself with a gentleness that is hard to describe. When he walked into his house, he always used the back door so his children wouldn’t stand up for him. His sons were models of b’nei Torah and this is why he did not want them to stand up for him. They knew his ways and always greeted him as they ought.

My grandfather’s trait of humility also stood out. For example, there was an incident in which a local Jew attacked my grandfather with scornful and humiliating words. He maintained that my grandfather had taken the boards meant for his sukka. The man lived far from my grandfather’s house and his claim made no sense. Even if someone wanted to do this, he could not carry out this theft with boards five meters each. The man eventually found the boards somewhere but my grandfather in his humility said to him, “I guess I deserved it, maybe not for the boards but because I needed to get it.”

NEW JOBS

In Samarkand, my grandfather could not continue teaching since he would not be able to refrain from working on Shabbos. So he did all kinds of manual labor. He was even nicknamed “Herschel der tregger” (Herschel the porter). His family was in financial straits like the rest of the refugees who filled Samarkand. 

Pita was baked out of flour they obtained, and for Shabbos they made wine out of grapes that they grew near their home. And yet, my grandparents’ home was open to all Jewish refugees from the war.

My grandmother Sofia would cook a big pot of soup which satisfied many people. They would sit in groups around one big pot and eat. 

They all gathered for Chassidishe farbrengens. Among them were: R’ Meir Itkin, R’ Yisroel Noach Blinitzky, R’ Nissan Nemanov, and R’ Bentzion Maroz. Most of them left in the great escape from Russia and the Chassidim who attended farbrengens changed. Among them were R’ Yerachmiel Chadash, R’ Eliyahu Paritcher (Levin) who was a chozer by the Rebbe Rashab, R’ Yehuda Levin, R’ Berel Itkin, and R’ Boruch Duchman (Boruch der shochet) who were joined by R’ Eliezer Mishulovin with his sons: Dovid, Eliyahu, and the little children Michoel and Yitzchok. R’ Avrohom Zaltzman and his sons Berele and Hilke also attended, as did R’ Michoel Goldschmidt with his sons Mordechai and Bentzion, and my grandfather and his sons Yaakov and Moshe.

This group was augmented only after one of the old timers could vouch for a newcomer that he would cause no harm.

To be continued, G-d willing

 

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