The rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Rabinowitz
Biala Rebbe Ramat Aharon Shlita
(Hebrew Text provided by the Rebbe’s granddaughter, the author Yochi Brandes)
Translated from Hebrew by Mr. Yuval Romano
I was born in the month of Tevet TRP”Z, December 1926, in the city of Shedlice in Poland (East of Warsaw). My father (born in 1900), the holy Rabbi Yechiel Yehoshua Rabinowitz, of blessed memory, was the Rebbe of Biala, near the city of Brest, not far from Warsaw. He was orphaned at an early age from his father,the Holy Rebbe Yerahmiel Zvi, and his righteous mother Hava raised her five young children by herself.
My mother, Hana Pasha (born 1899), was born in Volodeva in Poland, her father, Rabbi Chaim Eliezer Hacohen Bernholz and mother Hava. My grandfather was a wealthy and powerful person, employing dozens of workers in the power company flour mill he owned. My mother was a beautiful and progressive girl, who didn’t see herself as a Rabitzn (a Rebbe’s wife), but she was forced by her father’s pressure to marry a Rebbe.
I remember our family vacations every summer in grandfather’s villa in Otwocek (near Warsaw). He was considered by all to be firm, but us, his grandchildren, he frequently indulged and showered us with plenty of gifts and toys.
At a certain point, my parents moved to live in Shedlice, where his father moved and established a Hatzer (a Jewish community) and a synagogue, but continued to be called as previously described “the Biala Rebbe”.
My parents had five children, the eldest daughter, the late Gitl Dreizl (we called her Gitl’a, and after immigrating to Israel has changed her name to Gila, and her surname after her marriage was Gotthelf); The second son, the late Herschel-Zvi (which we called Hersheleh), third son is I, Isaac Yaacov (called Yankale), the fourth son the late David Matitiahu (whom we called Dobtz’e); And youngest son Ben Zion (which we call Bentzal’e, Now lives in the city of Lugano in Switzerland).
Shedlice had forty thousand inhabitants, half of them Jews. There were entire streets where only Jews lived. The houses were built around courtyards, and each yard occupied a Goy who did all maintenance work: cleaning trash, cleaning the shared toilets, painting and so on. The yards had wells or cisterns, from which we drew buckets of water for consumption of all the surrounding apartments. The courtyards were also used to build Succoth on Succoth, and, of course, the children’s games.
The boys’ favorite game was “stones”, a game similar to marbles nowadays, which is played with a ball-shaped fruit we rolled into holes dug in the yard. The girls loved jumping rope, and both sexes loved running and hiding games. In the winter we liked to make snowballs and to slide on the snow with planks. In the Talmud Torah where we learned we could not play because it had a small courtyard.
The thing that scared us most was “the Shrews” – the Gentiles’ children that plagued us and beat us at every opportunity. My brother, Dobtz’e, who was a strong naughty boy, set up “troops” to fight back and didn’t hesitate to fight back the assailants. Of course, he appointed himself chief commander (commandant), and all children accepted his authority.
When I was three years old, they wrapped me in a prayer shawl, took me to the teacher and showed me the letters of the alphabet. The melamed smeared the letters Aleph-Mem-Tav (Truth, in Hebrew) with honey, to teach me how sweet truth is and all Jews must get used to tell the truth. Even the Gentiles must not be cheated.
I studied with the melamed until the age of five and then went to study in the Talmud Torah, which was recognized as an official school by the Polish government. We studied Talmud Torah religious studies (Bible, Mishnah, Talmud and rabbinic literature), and even secular subjects for two hours a day: writing, math, Polish, geography, history and Yiddish. The daughter, Gital’e attended a regular school, because there was no Orthodox school for girls in Shedlice. In those days girls did not study Torah, but in exceptional cases. I had an aunt, a sister of the grandfather, called Meta’le, who was a “scholar” and had followers who would give her “Kooitlac” (notes with personal requests usually given to great Rebbes).
As we were the Rebbe’s children, we were demanded mare than other children were, and we had to receive tutoring in the evening. My brother Dobtz’e was not happy with this duty, he was a naughty boy and he liked to play, but I actually enjoyed it. I always liked to learn and I could sit on the books from morning to night.
But at the age of thirteen my studies were interrupted all at once.
Elul Trtz”t, September 1939. The Germans bombed Shedlice for four days. We did not have shelters and people were hiding in trenches dug with their own hands, or ran to the fields outside the city.
On Saturday, while praying, we heard a particularly heavy barrage of bombs, and Father ordered all the Hasidim to stop praying and escape to the fruit orchards out of town (pears, apples and cherries were grown near Shedlice). One of the bombs fell into our synagogue, and it began burning. The Hasidim became aware of this, and with indescribable devotion they returned to the burning synagogue and were able to extract the Book of the Torah from it. Our synagogue was burned down, and our house, which was close by, was severely damaged and could not be inhabited any more. In a moment we became homeless, and my father and his followers were left without a synagogue. My mother, who was a resourceful woman, managed to save the money hidden in the house and put it in her belt. The Hassidim gave us shelter and donated blankets and clothes to us. A few days later the German entered Sieldce. We did not know what we can expect from them, but we were afraid of them, so we fled to the house of good-hearted Gentile we knew, and he gave us shelter and let us hide in his barn.
Ahead of Rosh Hashana (September 14th 1939) father made up his mind he must return to the city and organize a prayer for his followers. One of the richest men in the city agreed to provide his home for the worshipers. Dad went to that rich man, and we went with Mother to another Hasid’s home. On the holiday’s Eve father asked his Gabay, Rabbi Asher Zelig, to bring him water far handwashing. On his way to the well he was caught by Germans and they cut off half his beard. Dad tried to console him saying his beard will grow back, but Rabbi Zelig was unable to recover and cried loudly. I remember him crying to this day.
After Rosh Hashana, the Germans seized three Poles, claiming they were spies, and killed them. They then broke into houses with firearms and forcibly removed all the Jewish men. Mother tried to save Father. She put him in bed and put medication next to him, as if he was sick, but it did not help. The Germans took Father to prison and ordered him to bury the bodies of the executed Poles. The ground was hard, and my father, who was short and weak, could not dig the hole. His followers were quick to assist in the, but the Germans were angry about his “laziness”. As punishment, they beat him and cut his beard off.
I remember how frightened we were and how much cried when he saw father without a beard.
After Yom Kippur, the Germans took thousands of men from the age of seventeen and up, old and sick too, and marched them to the town of Nemirov, fifteen kilometers away. The road was very difficult and the Germans shot anyone who fell. Father felt that he too was about to fall and decided to run away. When the caravan passed by a Jewish bakery he fled toward it. The Germans allowed the bakery owner to stay in place, so that she would continue to supply bread to the residents. One of the German soldiers ran after Dad and shot at him, but he managed to enter the bakery yard, knocked on the door, and asked the owner of the place to save him. The woman hurried to hide him in the attic in a crate of apples. The German chased him to the bakery and searched it carefully, but fortunately he could not find him.
The next day the bakery owner came to mother and told her the Rebbe was hiding in her house. Both women thought how can we bring him back home without the Germans noticing, and decided that the safest thing to do was to dress him as a baker. The bakery owner gave Dad baker’s clothing and went into town with him. The Germans who saw them thought he was a baker and left them alone.
On Sukkot eve (end of September) the pact of partitioning Poland between Germany and Russia was signed. Sieldce, being between the Vistula River (Wisla) river and the Bog river, was invedad by the Russians and the Germans got out. We celebrated Sukkot with great joy and thought that our suffering was over and that we would not live under the German occupation, but a few days later the agreement was changed. The Bog became the boundary line, and Shedlice came back under the control of Germany.
On Hosha’ana Raba evening (October 3rd) the Russians were to leave the Shedlice, and we all waited fearfully for the entry of the Germans.
Gitl’e came to father and begged that we escape from Sieldce. Dad did not want to leave his disciples and tried to persuade her not to worry. He told her, it was always difficult for Jews, after all, even under the Poles we were not licking honey. Gitl’e told him that the Germans were far worse than the Poles and any other ruler and reminded him how they cut his beard off. Father told her there’s nowhere to run to, and she reminded him of our uncles, my father’s sister and her husband the Rebbe, who lived in the city Baranovitch in Belarus, , and we can escape there. Dad was afraid to go in the evening of Simchat Torah, lest he be forced to violate their holiday while on the road. But Gitl’e burst into tears and cried out that now is the last chance to escape Sieldce, as the Germans will arrive soon.
After two hours of crying father’s heart softened, and he told Gitl’e that if she will get a cart, he’ll be willing to escape from Shedlice. Providing that first they’ll journey to the city Simiatitz, located across the Bog, under Russian rule, where they will be celebrating the holiday and Sabbath, and only on Sunday will continue to Baranowitz. He was sure that his daughter will not be able to find a cart so quickly, but Gitl’e, who spoke fluent Polish, could handle any situation.
Within a short time, a wagon was parked in front of the house. We loaded it quickly with some clothes and bedding that we received from the Hasidim after the fire, we took some basic foodstuffs, and escaped from Shedlice.
I have not returned to my hometown since. Until two years ago (2003), when I went to visit with family and some of his followers for roots’ searching in Poland.
Half an hour later, the wagon arrived at the train station, which was filled with Jews who had fled the cities and places that had returned to German rule.
We managed to find a place on the train to Simiatitz, but before it arrived at the station, the holiday has already entered. The train began to slow down, and Father did not wait until it stopped, but immediately jumped out of the car. His fear of desecrating the holiday overcame the fear of falling from a speeding train. Mom saw him jump and shouted “gevald”, and the engine driver panicked and immediately stopped the train. We got off and it continued on to the station.
Together with us got off some of Dad’s followers who joined us on the journey. At the train station father was recognized by one of the Jews who invited us to his home. The Jew, who lived in a small room, gave us his room, and he went to sleep in the hayloft. In this room we performed the holiday prayers and the Hakafot in honor of the Torah. Dad danced and sang with great joy, as if he was in his synagogue, and not fleeing for his life with small children and facing the unknown.
For three days (September 28-30), we stayed in the small room in Simiatitz – two days of the festival, which occurred that year on Thursday and Friday, and Saturday – and on Sunday afternoon we went to Baranowitz.
On the way we made a stopover in Slonim. We stayed with family members who cleared one of the five rooms for us. In this house were more refugees who fled from the places returned to German control.
My father’s sister lived in the city of Baranovitch. She was married to the Rebbe of Koidinob (a small town near Minsk). We spent more than six months in Baranovich– from Cheshvan to the beginning of Tammuz (October 1939 to July 1940). Our uncless had a big wooden house with five rooms. The house was near the synagogue of my uncle the Rebbe, and it was made of wood too, and gave shelter to many refugees. Three families shared the house: the aunt’s and uncle’s family, the uncle’s sister’s family, and our family. The three families shared a living room. Each family had a room, but the place was small, and some of the children were forced to sleep on the floor.
We lived under the communist rule of the Russians, and although it also decreed upon the Jews, compared to the Germans it was a rule of grace. The Communists forbade Torah study, but allowed praying. Baranovitz Yeshiva, headed by the Gaon Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, moved to Vilna, and father was afraid the children will not be able to learn. But the Russians did not require school children to learn in Russian schools, so that could be the time to secretly organize private school. I studied with Rabbi Wasserman and prepared for my Bar Mitzvah.
In Tevet (December 1939) I went up to the Torah. Twenty people attended the event. Only twenty people. I envied my brother Hersheleh who, two years earlier, celebrated his bar mitzvah in great joy and with many guests, while I celebrated as a refugee, far from home, without joy. I thought sadly, if I was born a few months earlier, I could have a beautiful celebration like my brother. I am sad to this day that I missed my Bar Mitzvah celebration.
During the first weeks we were taken care of by the Rabi of Koidinob, but Over time, Mother tried to ease the burden and began selling cloth. Mother possessed excellent economic instincts, and she always managed to make money. Once a month she was going to Bialystok, bought fabrics for cheap and sold it to Russian officers, who used them for sheets and pillowcases. Sometimes she took me with her and tied the fabrics she bought to my body, so the cops would not find them. She brought home the rubles she had earned, and we did not know hunger. We ate meat, fish, bread and buckwheat. We fired the ovens with the husks of buckwheat. It was a bad winter. The cold and snow were stronger than we knew in Shedlice. Despite everything, there was no concern for the physical existence but merely for spiritual existence. Our parents knew there was no Jewish future in Communist Russia and they thought about getting us out of it.
Suddenly, a ray of hope shined on us. The Russians have announced that any refugee who wants to could travel to Vilnius undisturbed. At that time Vilnius was a free and open city, under the Lithuanian regime and hosted the consuls of Turkey, UK and USA. In addition to these advantages, industry of forged passports to Palestine flourished there. Rabbi Soloveitchik was there and was given a Turkish passport to Eretz-Israel. Lithuania attracted yeshiva students and rabbis, and masses of Jewish refugees filled its streets.
As soon as the news reached us about the opening of the border to Lithuania my parents registered for the trip. We were all very happy and believed that we could go out to freedom.
Who could have imagined that the registration for the trip to Vilnius was a snare trap set by the Russians?
The Deportation to Siberia
On Saturday morning, Rosh Chodesh Tammuz T”SH (July 1940), Russian soldiers surrounded the house and told us we were arrested. Anyone who wants to travel to Vilnius indicates that he is an enemy of the Russians and is taken to prison. They gave us two hours to pack our belongings.
Everyone started to cry. The Russians also informed the refugees in the synagogue that they had to pack. Despite the Sabbath, without Father’s knowledge, Mother tied the little money she had left around her body. She knew it was life-saving, because money could save our lives. Mother also understood that we were being deported to Siberia, because that was the location of the large Russian prison camps, so she packed warm clothes and thick coats. Father, however, took a Sidur, a prayer shawl, Tefilin, Talmud and some religious books.
The aunt wanted to hide my five-year-old brother, Ben Zion. Father almost agreed, but Mother objected. She decided we’d all stay together, for better or for worse.
A few years later we realized that the expulsion saved our lives, because in the end the Germans occupied Baranovitch and killed all the Jews. But at that moment we felt desperate and miserable and thought there was nothing worse than being deported to frozen and far away Siberia.
Even before, when our synagogue was burned, we felt a terrible thing happened to us, but ultimately it’s what saved our lives. If we had a synagogue, my father would have never agreed to Gitle’s pleas and escape Sieldce.
The events of the war have taught me that many things that seem at the moment as a tragedy will turn out, in retrospect, to be a rescue.
But that Saturday, when we crammed into a truck to be deported, we thought we went through a disaster. Only Father remained calm. He comforted the people whining and said to them: If it happened to us on Saturday, it will all be for the better.
The truck arrived at the train station, and the Russian soldiers ordered us to enter. I remember crying terribly. The aunt from Baranowitz came to see us and fainted with grief. The train was a freight train crowded and stifling, with small windows and narrow hatches for air. Russian soldiers were standing on the steps, guarding us not to jump outside. Dad took a blanket and made himself a small prayer area. He did not give up any prayer: Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and Mussaf.
They did not tell us where we were going, but anyone who knew a little geography realized that the direction was east, to Siberia. Every two-three hours the train stopped in the middle of the field and people climbed down to relieve themselves. In the stations, each family was allowed to receive “Kifiatok” – drinking boiling water. They gave us food, we did not starve. The Russian soldiers were not sadistic like the Germans and did not want to abuse us. On the contrary, they tried to ease our travel conditions and helped us as best they could.
It was a long drive in difficult conditions. Two weeks later, we arrived at Sverdlovsk in the Ural Mountains. Some of the cars continued to drive, but they took us off. We went to a small town named Otago. We reached a river on which rafts were moving. The rafts were constructed of two pallets, one upper and the other two meters deep. We rode on a raft for three days until we reached a small village where wagons with horses were waiting for us. We went on the wagons for a whole day in the forest, and at the end of July 1940 we reached our prison camp – Chuash.
The place we reached was largely abandoned. Only a few members of the administration lived there. There were hundreds of empty houses now filled with deportees.
First we went for disinfection and then again we boarded carriages that led us to the houses. Each family received one room and a kitchen. The parents slept in the room and the kids in the kitchen. There were hordes of mosquitoes and we did not know how to defend ourselves against them. At first we put nets on the windows, but over time we learned to smoke out the mosquitoes and we would place smoking trees at the entrances to the house.
The adults had to go to work. Whoever did not work did not receive food stamps. Women and children up to the age of 16 were exempt from work. The workers were equipped with nets against mosquitoes and received food coupons. Each man received a two-wheeled cart and a horse (the horses also suffered from the mosquitoes). On the wagon they loaded trees that were stripped off branches. The work was very hard, because the horses had to be pushed uphill, but the workers could stand on the trees when driving a flat road. There were people whose produce exceeded the norm. They got more food stamps and could sell them and make money. Those who produced less than the norm could be punished by the camp administrators. But it is important to note that the Russians were not sadists and generally treated us fairly.
People worked seven days a week. There was no sabbatical. Half of the Jews were ultra-Orthodox. They knew what day of the week it was and when Rosh Chodesh was. Whoever had pocket calendar let others copy it and everybody knew what the Hebrew date was and when holidays occurred. Jews came and asked Father what to do on Shabbat. Father told the Chassidim to malinger. The work managers were Jews and you could get along with them. But the camp directors realized that it did not make sense that every week, on the same day, so many Jews became sick. Many times the “sick” were sent forced labor. There were also those that were put in jail for one day. Anyone who wanted to keep Shabbat needed self-sacrifice.
Father did not go to work. Mother went to management and announced that she would work instead. Mom, as noted, was an educated woman, she knew Russian and was appointed to the job of director of the women, who worked washing sacks in which the produce came to the camp. This arrangement lasted until a new Neczelnik (commander) came and saw that Father was sitting and teaching children. He dismissed Mother from her job and claimed that her husband had to work and not her.
Every day the Neczelnik came to see what Father was doing. One day he snatched father’s “Noam Elimelech” (an important book of Rabbi Elimelech Lizhensk, one of the great Chassids during the second generation in the second half of the 18th century) and threw it in his office. Dad could not bear it. He wanted his book back. Although the guards guarding the office were armed, Dad managed to enter secretly and undetected. He searched through the documents, found his book and left the office safe and sound.
Dad had to go to work. There was no choice. After mother had been fired, no one worked (Gitl’e, who was 17, pretended to be 14 years old, and the rest of the children were really young), and without work there are no food stamps. As mentioned above, Father was a weak man and found it difficult to keep up with the work he was assigned, and we, the children, helped him as best we could. We have cut twigs and helped him gather and carry them. We worked eight hours a day. Autumn came, it was cold and we wore a padded jacket, kopeks (a cotton garment) and a cap that covered the entire face, leaving only an opening for eyes. Two months later came winter, the day shortened, and the temperatures dropped even more. When they reached minus forty degrees, no one went out to work. Dad managed to leave the outside work and started working as a ropes’ maker in a warehouse, along with others recognized as disabled or infirm. In the winter, they did not work at cutting down trees, but loading and moving them on the frozen river. For this they needed ropes. The warehouses had linen, which was used for ropes manufacturing. We helped Father in this work, too. Twice a day father stopped working and went out to pray. He prayed there alone just as passionately as he prayed in Shedlice with hundreds of his followers. The people who worked with him said that they saw the Divine Presence descends on him from above.
Despite the harsh living conditions in the camp, Father did not give up any custom or commandment. A Rebbe used to go every day to the mikvah, and father continued his habit of dipping each morning in the cold river. Mother cried and screamed not to endanger his health, but father continued to dip. When the river was frozen he took with him a stick, rope and an ax and went to take a dip with a companion. He would break the ice with the ax, push the stick into the water to test the depth and dip while grabbing on to the rope held by his companion. He did it consistently, winter and summer, even on very cold days. He had to give it up only when the temperature dropped to below thirty degrees below zero.
One morning father went as usual to the river. A hunter who was there saw him from a distance and was convinced that it was a duck (he never imagined that one can dip in the icy water …), and he pointed the gun at him and fired. Fortunately (or by miracle) there was a brake on the weapon, and my father’s life was saved.
The food we ate in winter was poor. It included bread, potatoes and lentils, but we were not hungry. In late May, when the ice thawed, the food became rich in blueberries, mushrooms and fish. Sometimes mother would go to the village to buy groceries with the money she had hidden. The camp was fenced, but it was possible to bribe the guard and go out. One time I went shopping with my mother. We walked and we got lost on the way. Mother was terrified, and I, a boy of 14, had to guide her. I had a good sense of orientation, and eventually we were able to get back safely to the camp.
The situation of those who had relatives in Russia was better than others, since they received food parcels. Luckily, we also received packages from the aunt at Baranovich. Since leaving Baranovich aunt worried for our safety, and when notified of our whereabouts, she began sending packages. Each month a package has reached us, weighing five kilograms, which contained bottles of oil, barley, buckwheat and warm clothes.
Towards Purim father wanted to have a genuine Book of Esther, on parchment, which is the only way to fill the Mitzva of reading the Megillah. He wrote and asked the aunt that to put a scroll in the next package she sends us. As Purim approached Dad asked Mom to go to the post office, but no package has arrived. On the eve of Purim, just hours before the time reading the Megillah, Dad asked Mom go to the post office again. Mother went and came back empty-handed. My father was very sad that he could not fulfill the mitzvah of reading the Megillah. Immediately in the morning, he asked mother to go to the post office, maybe he could at least fulfill the mitzvah of reading the Megillah of that day. Mother refused and said she no longer has the power to run to the post office every few hours, but Dad begged her, until she agreed. And indeed, finally the package has arrived. But when we opened it, it turned out that there is no Megillah. Dad did not give up. He said he was confident that his sister did not disappoint him. He fumbled and felt thoroughly every object, and indeed, in a costume with a thick lining, the scrolls were found. The happy news spread among the Jews in the camp. Everyone gathered in order to practice their reading of the Megillah.
Aunt took care of us all the time in the camp. For Passover, she was able to send us matzos. Without her our lives in Siberia were even more difficult. Only at the end of the war, we learned of the end of the Aunt from Baranovich, Father’s devoted sister. Her neighbor told us about the last moments of her life. After the German invasion of Russia aunt hid with her family in the city of Leda. The Germans caught her husband, the Rebbe, and wanted to shoot him. Aunt pleaded: “Shoot me instead.” The Germans shot her, and then they shot her husband.
On June 22nd, 1941, Germany attacked Russia, and Stalin decided to lock in closed camps in Siberia all Germans citizens living along the Volga (for fear that they will be loyal to Germany and help the German army). To make room for the new prisoners, the Russians decided to release us.
Mother got a cart, packed our bags, and we were off. We went to the village, just ten kilometers from the camp. Mother rented an apartment (she kept her money on her body all this time), so that we had a place to stay until it was time for the ferry and we could sail. We planned to reach Sverdlovsk and then continue south. The assumption was that in the southern regions it was easier to get food and get by. A few days later a truck arrived and took many people. We got on the truck and Dad sat at the end, because he did not want to sit among women. During the travel people fell off the loaded truck. In one of the curves father almost fell, but the people around him managed to catch him.
We arrived to Tebreen and then sailed on towards Pevda, because from there you could go to Sverdlovsk by train. The voyage lasted ten days. When in port we would go to the villages and get food. On one occasion, the boat resumed sailing and my mother did not get back on. We shouted in fear. We are certain that she will stay in the village. But swift and strong mother was able to jump on it at the last moment.
We arrived to Pevda on Rosh Hashanah TS”B, September 1941. We held the prayers in the belly of the ship. We were told that the train to Sverdlovsk will set off on the night of Yom Kippur. According to Jewish law it’s allowed to go on the train before Yom Kippur and to ride it if the driver is a Goy. Mom persuaded the driver to let dad get on the train before the holiday.
We reached Sverdlovsk and immediately continued to Turkestan in Kazakhstan. We arrived during Sukkot. The weather was hot. We settled in to sleep at the train station, but the workers drove us away. We found a large garden near the station and slept on the damp ground. Dad did not want to sleep without a Sukkah and decided to build one. Mom yelled at him: “The children are sleeping outside, and you think about the Sukkah!”. But Dad did not give up. He walked the streets and met people who told him about a Jew who built a sukkah. Dad knocked on his door and the Jew was moved by the sight Rebbe and hosted him in his sukkah throughout the holiday. My father stayed in the sukkah, and his family spent the holiday outdoor in the garden…
Mom was looking for a shelter for us. She turned to a collective farm named Aortak, between the railway station of Turkestan and the city, and with the help of the head of the kolkhoz (the commandant) found us a suitable house of two rooms. Contrary to what we thought, there was no food in the kolkhoz. All was reserved for the soldiers in the front and only flour remained for the farmers.
Mother begged the commandant and he took pity on her and gave her flour. She cooked it in water. This was all our food in the kolkhoz, but it, too, was running out. Herschel and I went to work in construction. The work was very difficult, and Mom decided against us continuing.
Conditions were very difficult. When winter came and the beginning of the epidemics, we realized how good we had it in Siberia, without diseases and with food. The kolkhoz was infested with lice, and there was no soap for washing. I fell down with Typhus. I was groggy and suffered chills. Mother took me in a cart to the hospital. Two days later, my brother David was also ill. Soon all of us fell ill, and only strong mother remained healthy and cared for us. We lay in the hospital for two weeks and the mother ran from the kolkhoz to the hospital. I got out of the crisis, but remains weak and it was hard for me to get stronger and recover without food.
We all returned home except Gitl’e. Two days later, they released her from the hospital and told her to walk back to the kolkhoz. Weak Gitl’e walked alone in the darkness and storm and almost lost consciousness. Miraculously, she suddenly met mother, who went out to look for food for us. She picked Gitl’e up, carried her home, put her on the floor, covered her and fed her some food she found.
While getting ready for Passover father fell with Typhus too. But even during this difficult time only one thought bothered him: how to get matzos for Passover, so you do not have to eat chametz (flour boiled in water). He learned that in the railway station of the city of Turkestan lives a Jewish Shochet, who arrived from Kiev, Ukraine, who managed to get flour and baked unleavened bread. Mother sent me to buy unleavened bread for the family. I walked from the kolkhoz into town and bought the unleavened bread. I began my long back to the kolkhoz. I was hungry and so I wanted to sample the matzo, but I knew that if I would, they would not provide for my family for the days of the holiday. I tried to resist, but I could not resist my hunger. I could not resist and ate some unleavened bread. The Matzos ran out two days before the holiday’s end, and I had a guilty conscience, because of the unleavened bread I’ve eaten I brought hunger on my family. We are destined to go through two days without food. I saw my family was starving and I was tormented with guilt feelings, but did not tell anyone about my sin. On the sixth day of Passover we were able somehow to resist hunger, but on the seventh day the hunger overwhelmed us and my mother put a pot on the fire heater to cook flour. Father shouted to us from his sickbed not to eat chametz. He pleaded we resist the temptation for just one more day. But hunger was unbearable.
After Passover father was hospitalized in the hospital, where they shaved him completely. He lay in bed, skinny, just skin and bones, without a beard and sidelocks, and with high fever. When Gitl’e saw him, she burst into tears.
We were not allowed to enter the room and take care of him, but mother has found a workaround. His bed was located near the window, and she was able to feed him through a window and take care of him.
On Shavuot father recovered and returned to the kolkhoz.
Getting ready to depart
After Shavuot mother decided to return to the city. She realized that if we stay in the kolkhoz we’ll starve. In the city there is the Train Station and possible trade. We returned to Turkestan and lived in a two-room mother rented from Kazakhs. It was a very hot clay hut, and at night we preferred to sleep outside on the ground. Mom went with Gitl’e to trade in the market. They were able to buy and sell on the black market and earned little money. But the money was enough for little food only. I almost fainted from hunger and mother gave me a sweet melon. The melon revived me. Its sweet taste still stands in my mouth. Never have I tasted anything so delicious … due to food shortages I had night blindness which lasted throughout our stay in Turkestan.
Meanwhile, the Polish army began to organize and set up orphanages, to which were brought orphaned children by the age of seventeen. Mom decided she had to find a way to rescue her children from Kazakhstan through the orphanages, but Gitl’e was older than seventeen. She knew a Polish officer from Tashkent who lost his daughter. The officer advised that mother will give Gitl’e to him, and she could pose as his daughter (Gitl’e had blue eyes and blond hair and she looked just like Pole). He promised to transfer her to Tehran and to ensure that she will immigrate to Eretz-Israel. Mom agreed. She deposited Gitl’e with the officer and returned home without her. Dad was very concerned about his daughter. He was angry at mother, who had done something so crucial without asking for his opinion.
The Polish officer kept his promise and took care of Gitl’e as if she was his own daughter. He brought her to Tehran, and from there she went to Eretz-Israel in the first group of children. Gitl’e has kept in touch with the officer, and when he served in Egypt he visited her at her uncles – my mother’s brother, Uncle Bernholtz, who changed his name to Bar-Nahor, and his wife Pnina. When I came to Israel I met him. In the same year he celebrated the Seder with us.
One day the contact has been lost. I do not know what happened to him. Apparently he was killed.
Before Rosh Hashana (September 1942) a delegation has reached Turkestan that had Jews and Poles who registered all the orphans to orphanages so they can leave for Tehran with the Polish army. Mom came and went in to speak with the delegation. She said she had four starving children. She cried and begged them to take the children, although not orphans, for if they remain in Turkestan they will die. The Polish delegation members agreed, and the Jews objected. My mother went out and pretended to faint. There were Jews there who knew her and Dad. They tried to find out what happened, and when they realized that her request was denied, went immediately to the committee and protested. They shouted: “the children of the Rebbe are starving, and you are not prepared to accept them to the orphanage and save lives?” At the end the committee approved the admission. The four of us were registered and we went to the orphanage.
Between Yom Kippur and Sukkot we arrived at the temporary orphanage, which was within the city. Finally we had food. We really could not believe our eyes. Bread, noodles and fruit were served, and we weren’t hungry. The orphanage had a large courtyard with a terrace surrounding it and many rooms. Each room had four beds, and hosted four children. During the day we were playing in the yard. There was no children’s education, but only survival, and they made sure we eat and rest. We waited for the train that would take us to Ashkhabad. Three weeks later, we went to the train station and there waited for three days. Mom was with us there. She picked us up and told us she did not expel us, God forbid, but want to save our lives, for we have no chance of living should we stay with her and father in Turkestan. She asked me and Herschl to keep an eye on young Ben-Zion, who was nearly seven (I was already fifteen and a half years old, and Herschl was over seventeen years old).
The trip to Ashkhabad lasted two weeks, instead of two days. The train had two hundred children, most of them Jews. The commander provided us with food. He had coupons with which he bought bread for us in the stations. We were barefoot and our clothes were torn.
Polish army trucks were waiting for us in Ashkhabad that brought us to the orphanage. We were greeted by two Polish officers. The officers checked the age of the children and removed the oldest ones. They took my brother Herschl. They just took him away. It was clear to us that the situation is very bad, but we could do nothing. Barefoot and with torn clothes Herschel had to return to our parents somehow, with no money for the train. The trip took two months. I do not know what he ate. When we asked the officers where he was, they replied that we shouldn’t worry, that he returned to where he came from. We did not have any contact with our parents, and they did not know he was expelled from the orphanage. Only after the war, when the letters started coming from our parents, we learned that Herschl was saved. One day he entered the house and fell on the bed, sick, exhausted and dying of hunger. Only three days later was he able to tell them what happened to him.
We three brothers stayed at the orphanage. The Guides treated us gently and not firmly. We had it good. They took us to a bathhouse, cut our hair, threw away the tattered clothes and gave us clean clothes and Sandals. The food included bread, margarine, jam and tea. At noon they even gave us canned beans and Polish army canned food. We were kept very clean, and every day we cleaned our rooms. There were separate Divisions for Jewish and Christian Children. We weren’t required us to cross ourselves, but had to get up and stand together with Christian children during their prayers. The older children kept their Sidur and Tefillin under the covers. We did it in secret. We did not know holidays’ dates, but knew what day of the week it was according the prayers. After the meal we were said the blessing of the food silently. On Sundays we had extra food, but not on Saturday.
We played football together with the Christian children. When they lost, they threw stones on us. The Christian manages was a very good woman. She helped the Jewish children and lectured Christian children who were bothering us.
We kept asking the instructors when traveling to Iran is going to occur, and they told us: “When the border opens, and once it buses are available”.
In January 1943, the principal assembled us and called out names from a list she held. All children whose names were called were Jews. Outside, three trucks waited, covered with tarpaulin. The weather was good, but when the trucks arrived to the mountains, they stopped. Chains were installed on the wheels so that they will be able to continue in the snow. We were dressed well and didn’t freeze in the cold.
Twelve hour drive later we arrived at the city of Mashhad. It had a Jewish community. The Jews took us to the synagogue next to which was a children’s home, and fed us. I and my two brothers were taken to the house of a Persian Jew. Communication was by sign language using our hands. We waited for the weather to clear so we can continue to Tehran.
After three days the weather improved. In the morning of the 4th or 5th of January the buses reached Tehran. The road went through snowy mountains. After nine hours of traveling we arrived, at dusk, to the Polish camp in the city.
The camp director was a Polish Jew named Greenberg, who lived there with his wife in a small room. The manager was stern and strict about cleanliness and discipline. There was one hall for boys and one for girls. We slept on bunks and had blankets. There was order in the camp. We would get up in the morning, shake the blankets and arrange the beds. The counselors were checking we arranged everything. After breakfast we learned in the school that was in the barracks in the camp. We were busy all day. The agenda included: dining, prayer, study, play, a walk in the yard and a trip to the garden. We learned Polish, math, history, and some geography. I liked the school and especially arithmetic. Once we went to visit the zoo of Tehran. When we went for walks we used to walk in fours with the guides.
In Tehran were representatives of the Agency. An Israeli guide came, who taught us songs in Hebrew. We sang songs from Psalms and Bialik’s songs, and learned Israeli dances. The guide founded a choir and my brother, David, sang there. I and my brother, Ben-Zion, did not get the chorus. Every evening the guide gathered us and told us about Israel and the kibbutz. During hours of leisure we were playing chess and football. Sometimes they got us together with gentiles Polish children from another camp for football games.
The ultra-Orthodox children were given the opportunity to observe their customs. The ultra-Orthodox children were known in the camp and were allowed to pray three times a day. A Rabbi named Levi was brought to the camp. After the war he remained for many years in Tehran. The older children used to go out with Rabbi Levi to explore the city and visit the Jewish ghetto. It was necessary to get a permit to leave camp. Rabbi Levi also took us pray in a synagogue that walking to lasted half an hour. For Passover Rabbi Levi organized a Seder for all children. He arranged to have Mattzos and wine and read the Haggadah.
When asked about the fate of our parents they told us that we should not worry, that the situation has improved and they are no longer hungry. I became ill with scarlet-fever after Passover) and was hospitalized, and soon afterwards also had the mumps. I was in the hospital for five weeks and I was treated reasonably. My younger brother, Ben-Zion, also fell with scarlet-fever, and my brother David was strong and did not get sick at all.
On the way to Eretz-Israel
After Tisha B’Av we joined the children who were in Tehran from the first shipment, and to the children who remained in Ashkhabad and arrived to Tehran later. We began getting ready for exit to Eretz-Israel. Lorries has arrived, again. We packed clothes, Teffilin and holy books in a tied-up blanket and got on the truck. The convoy was seven trucks long. In the cab sat two Indian drivers. They told us that the journey to Eretz-Israel will take three weeks, because we do not go at night.
It was very hot, terribly hot. On the first day we arrived to the city of Hamdan, where the tomb of Mordechai and Ester is. Many Persian Jews come to place this place every Purim. The tomb was not damaged by Russians bombs, and still exists today. We stayed at British army tents. Again we went for a whole day until we reached the city of Canicin, on the Iran-Iraq border. The heat was terrible. They dropped us off at a British army base, and immersed us in ice water in order to cool us off. We stayed there for a few days and went to Baghdad. The Jewish community in Baghdad knew Jewish orphan children were comming, and they prepared sweets and chocolate for us. An arab messenger arrived, bringing us baskets with candy, cookies, dates and water. For years many of us have not tasted candy, and of course we devoured it with joy. The city authorities were told that we were Christian Polish children. We were warned to speak only Polish and put on tefillin under the covers. Weather in Baghdad was very difficult. The heat was terrible. We were constantly under a hose that sprayed us with water. We had to wait until the heat wave pass, because they were afraid we shall not survive the trip in the heat.
Four days later the weather improved, and the drivers drove on toward Transjordan. We went for three days in the wilderness. At night we stopped, and traveled at daytime. We drove on Saturday as well. We spent the night sleeping in covered trucks. We would stop every now and then in British army camps, which gave us water, arriving in tankers, as well as biscuits and sardines.
We arrived to Jordan. Again we were warned not to behave as Jews; despite the Jordanians having lists of children names. We entered a large hall, in which were Jordanian Legion soldiers and British soldiers, who called our names and checked attendance. Then we went to another hall and got drinks and food. We stayed there overnight and on Friday morning we went to Eretz-Israel.
Director Greenberg told us that when we get to Eretz-Israel we should descend from the truck, bless a blessing of thanksgiving and kiss the ground. And so it was. We drove on, we went over the Jordan river near Naharaiim, we stopped, we recited the thanksgiving and kissed the rocks. At that moment we began to understand that for us the war was over.
On Friday night, K”V TS”G, August 27th 1943, four years after the war began, we reached the British camp in Atlit, and there we remained on Saturday. This was on Parashat “Re’e”.
It was a hot but happy Saturday. We fervently prayed and sang. We felt that our troubles ended, and now we reached a state of tranquility.
Integration in Israel
Representatives of the Agency waited in Atlit, taking us from Greenberg and informed him his job was done. He left us and went to Jerusalem. There were representatives of all the political movements in the country. The Ultra-Orthodox representative was Yankl Katz, of Poalei Agudat Israel.
On Sunday, we were taken to shelter Youth Aliyah. Henrietta Szold told us, that we are now under her protection and that is the mother of us all. We liked her, and we felt we could rely on her. Hans Bate, Szold’s deputy, told us that tomorrow we move to a beautiful place named “Ahava” in Kiryat Bialik, with a dining room and bedrooms. We arrived in the morning and took a shower. The Haredim children prayed in the synagogue, and we entered the dining room. The meal was wonderful. We had cheese and eggs and vegetables. I have not eaten such foods for many years. We really felt we got to the land of milk and honey. The Directors have decided that we need to rest and eat well for several days prior to sending us to institutions and kibbutzim. We were fed five meals each day. The rooms were spacious, and every two children were given their own room. I shared a room with my little brother Ben-Zion.
Till today rumors claim that Tehran children were abducted to kibbutzim, and were forced to stop observing mitzvot. Maybe it happened in the first delivery, I do not know. But in our transport, each child chose where he wanted to reach and how he wanted to live and nobody was forced. Henrietta Szold told us explicitly that no one will be kidnapped. She told us that each one defines himself as orthodox, religious, or secular, and according to that we’ll be placed where it fits. There was a committee of representatives from of all movements. The younger children, who could not remember which house they grew up in, they asked a lot of questions and tried to find out if any of the older kids knew them, to know what education they should get. My uncle, David Bernholtz, my mother’s brother, was a member of the committee on behalf of the Poalei Agudat Israel. Meeting him was very exciting.
On the second day they brought us a band and we danced and sang. On the third day children began to appear before the committee. The older children were placed according to their wishes. I said my father was a Rebbe, and they immediately sent me to Poalei Agudat Israel. The division was organized. Forty ultra orthodox boys and girls went to Poalei Agudat Israel. The religious Mizrachi went to Mikveh Israel, and all the other – to kibbutzim. On Wednesday night, Rabbi Cahanman, Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevezh came, and informed us that haredim children will go his yeshiva in Bnei Brak. The Haredi girls were led to Gestetner in Jerusalem, an Orthodox institution, such as “Beit Ya’akov”.
Youth Aliyah promised payment for each child under the age of eighteen. We received one Lira (a pound of Eretz-Israel) from Youth Aliyah as pocket money. I decided to keep my and my brother’s Lira and did not spend the money.
We traveled with Rabbi Cahanman’s representative to hotel Bab”ad in Haifa, we had dinner and lay down to sleep. The next day we went on a bus in Tel Aviv. We were greeted by Aunt Pnina, Uncle David Bernholtz’s wife. She spoke Polish to us. The aunt wanted to give us a couple of hours off and brought us home. The room was full of family members. Uncle Abraham, another brother of mother’s was there too.
After the visit, we arrived to Ponevezh Yeshiva, which was located on a high hill. We were greeted, aside from Rabbi Kahneman, by Rabbi Haim Greinman, and Rafael Halperin who came to entertain us with calisthenics. The Yeshiva consisted of a hut used for dining, another one for sleeping and one more for laundry. This was a Yeshiva which was founded for the children from Tehran. We were the second group to arrive. All the equipment was purchased thanks to donations. The plot was donated by Rabbi Yaacov Halperin. Conditions were less favorable than in Mikveh Israel. The food was pretty poor.
We had an aunt in Bnei Brak, my dad’s sister, Hanale’h, the wife of the Rebbe of Kalisz, who was the Rabbi of Bnei Brak. Aunt Hanale’h asked Rabbi Kahneman to allow us to sleep at her home. I preferred to remain in the Yeshiva, and my brother, young Ben-Zion , who suffered from rickets, has lived with his aunt, and she raised him.
One morning a young woman appeared at the Yeshiva and announced she was looking for the Rbinobitz brothers. One of the guides pointed at me and my brother David. The girl ran towards us and then we saw it was my sister Gitl’e. We kissed and hugged. She was not comfortable to be among the boys, and wanted to move to the woods across the street. We lay down blankets among trees and sat with her for three hours. Each told his story since we parted. Then she went to our uncles to meet Ben-Zion.
My sister, Gitl’e came often to visit us in the Yeshiva. We would spend half a day in the woods together, talking and eating. The uncles came to visit too. On Saturdays and holidays I stayed with family, especially at my aunt’s in Bnei Brak.
Ponevezh Yeshiva had religious studies and general studies. We studied math, Hebrew, geography and history. Orchards were surrounding the Yeshiva, and at night we heard jackals howling. In the orchard was a pool for children. Henrietta Szold occasionally came to visit us and was honorably welcomed by Rabbi Kahneman. There was mutual admiration between them.
I was at the Yeshiva for four and a half years, until Tashaz. These were pretty good years.
The Wondering of the Parents
We received mail for the first time from our parents in Ponevezh Yeshiva. Father sent a postcard to the Rabbi, and thanked him for taking care of his children. He asked him if we have good friends, if we study well, and if we observe the commandments. Rabbi Kahneman was very impressed and said to everyone: Look at what a great man is the Rabbi from Biella. He does not ask if his children, who were skin and bones, eat well and if they gained weight, but interested in their studies and their observance.
Each month a letter came to us from our parents. The letters were sent to uncles Bernholtz at 24 Ahad Ha’am Street, Tel Aviv. We found out, after the defeat of the Germans in Leningrad in 1943, postal relations between the Soviet Union to Eretz-Israel were renewed, and Hassidim from Biella in the country were able to send packages. There were two Stiblac (Hasidic synagogues) of the Hassidim of Biella.
The parents wrote us that our big brother, Herschel, was able to come to them. Until then, we did not know what happened to him, after he was expelled from the delegation of the Tehran Children.
My brother and I decided to send them packages. We packed soap, margarine, sardines and especially canned food. It took about eight weeks for the package to reach Russia. I collected the money for the packages. I went to the Hassidim of Biella in Jerusalem, and they gave me three Liras.
The parents have told us all the stories in their letters. After the war they came from Russia to Lemberg (Lvov), and a Jewish senior officer gave them a license to exit for Sosnowiec. The parents came to Sosnowiec with my brother, where a representative of the JDC resided. Tthey met the Rebbe of Radzin, who was a partisan during the war, and its end came to Sosnowiec and organized the community of survivors. The Rebbe Mof Radzin gave Dad money to buy him clothes suitable for a Rebbe. It was there that my parents learned what happened in the Holocaust. Dad heard about it from the Rebbe. Then he entered the synagogue, fell to the floor and wept. He realized that his whole family perished. My father cried on the floor of the synagogue for hours, and no one was able to talk to him. He realized he had lost his loved sister, who helped him so much, his cousins and his thousands of followers and their families.
From Sosnowiec the parents went to Lodz. Mother traveled alone by train to Sieldce seeking a cousin named Auerbach, but found nothing. Mom realized that there’s nothing to return to, as Polish Jewry was wiped out. They desperately wanted to go to Eretz-Israel, but the British locked the gates. Rabbi Hertzog, who obtained certificates for rabbis, tried to assist, and in the meantime they remained in Lodz with the assistance of the JDC.
After several months in Lodz my parents decided to go to Paris and stayed there for nine months.
My brother Hershel did not migrated with their parents. He left Lodz with Rabbi Shneider to his Yeshiva in London. He studied at the Yeshiva while the parents migrated in search of a way to get to Eretz-Israel.
Meanwhile my sister Gitl’e, who changed her name to Gila, married with a son of our town (Shedlice) Haim Gothalf. The parents were not present at her wedding, dated at the beginning of the month of Nisan TS”V. Only on the eve of Passover TS”Z (1947) have they received a visa to Eretz-Israel.
The Parents arrive to Eretz-Israel
Many people came to the port of Haifa to welcome my father the Rebbe. We were there too. Standing and waiting for the ship for hours.
The meeting was very exciting. Dad came out first, and was followed by mother, with a lot of things.
The first thing my father did after seeing us was a mikvah. He looked at us from afar, never hugged, kissed, and immediately asked to go to the mikvah. We were not hurt. Such was our father. He always wanted to maintain the way of life of a Rebbe first of all.
After mikveh he went to Rabbi Gershom Ariel in Haifa, and said the prayer “every living soul” with great excitement, until the walls shook.
The parents went to Geula Street in Tel Aviv, the home of my sister and her husband. The young couple gave them their room and slept in the kitchen on the floor. The parents lived there from the month of Iyar until the month of Elul, and then they moved into an apartment bought for key money in south Tel Aviv, on 25 Zebulon Street, on the third floor. The apartment was purchased with the money collected for them by the Hasidim. My young brother Ben-Zion went to live with them, and I and David stayed in the Yeshiva.
Mom loved Tel Aviv, but Dad wanted to live in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem. Mother did not agree. She wanted to stay in a town vibrant with different kinds of people and not close up in Mea Shearim.
Eventually mother gave up and moved with father to Geula neighborhood in Jerusalem, which is near Mea Shearim.
At twenty-three I married Yafa Kenner, the daughter of the Rebbe of Iasi, in Romania. We first lived in Haifa, then Petah Tikva and now we live in Bnei Brak.
Seven children were born to us. The eldest son died at the age of one month. We have, thank God, dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
For forty years I worked as a bookkeeper and secretary of the “Keret” construction company. Every day I was at work, and in the evenings I studied Torah until late at night. Although I’ve worked, I’ve always found the time to give Torah lessons and sermons. I did it mostly on Saturdays and holidays.
Today, as the Rebbe, I can afford to study from morning to night. I also meet with people and give daily lessons in my synagogue.
My father died twenty-three years ago (1982), and my mother died thirteen years ago (1992). In recent years, my sister Gila and her husband Haiim died, and my two brothers, David and Herschel. My brother, Ben-Zion lived in Switzerland (he is the Rebbe of Biala Lugano, and I’m the Admor of Biala Beit-Hannan).