Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky

Historian & Electronics Engineer

M.Sc.

Ph.D.

Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky

Historian & Electronics Engineer

M.Sc.

Ph.D.

 

The Place Where the Repentant Stand

One evening in the summer of 2011 my phone rang. On the other end of the line was our friend Zvi Marshak from Tel-Aviv:

I just returned from a vacation in Lithuania. Amongst other places, I visited the town of my birth, Shaki. I was hosted by the last Jewess in the place, Sarah Ushpitz. During the conversation, she told me that not long before my visit, a local gentile came into her house holding a stone. He said some very interesting things:

“I was in a field today which was formerly the Jewish cemetery. Suddenly I came across a strange stone. I picked it up and cleaned it a bit from dirt that was stuck to it. It looked like it was a fragment from an old Jewish gravestone. I decided to bring it to you since you are the only Jewish person I know.” 

Sarah continued telling that she hadn’t been able to analyze the writing on the stone, but she could tell they were Hebrew letters. Therefore, the man placed the fragment in the courtyard of her home and continued on his way.

Sarah continued telling that she hadn’t been able to decipher the writing on the stone, but she could tell they were Hebrew letters. Therefore, the man placed the fragment in the courtyard of her home and continued on his way”.

Zvi Marshak’s story was quite surprising. I knew that the Jewish cemetery in Shaki had been completely uprooted, probably by the Soviets. My linguistic editor Esther Goldenberg, whose father had been a rabbi in Shaki before the First World War, had sent me several years earlier a picture of the place: a plowed field covered by green grass. Is it still possible to find there a fragment of a gravestone today?

The site of the cemetery in Shaki today (courtesy of Esther Goldenberg)

The cemetery in Shaki during the twenties and thirties

“Did you try and read what was written on the fragment yourself?” – I asked Zvi.

 

“Indeed, I went out to the courtyard to see the fragment in question. The writing was very broken up, but a few words revealed that it was in fact the gravestone of someone who had died at the age of 39 in 1937.  By then I was already an intelligent young man and I remember well the events in Shaki at the time. It was very rare for someone so young to have died in our town in that era. The only one who had that misfortune was your grandmother’s brother, Leib-Hirsh Anachovitch; his untimely death left then a strong impression in Shaki. The further inscription on the fragment that he was survived by his wife, daughter and father, strengthened the likelihood that this was in fact a remnant of Leib-Hirsh’s headstone, as he had an only daughter and his father lived in Shaki. However, one more important detail was engraved onto the stone, and therefore I called you the minute I returned from Lithuania to ask you the date of his yohrzeit (commemoration)”.

 

I had a list of the commemoration days that my grandfather had prepared many years ago, and I remembered that he also marked the day of commemoration of his brother-in-law Leib-Hirsh. I looked at the list. Leib Hirsh’s name was located right at the crease, and the ink had faded considerably. After much effort, I managed to read: “My brother-in-law Reb Aryeh-Zvi son of Rabbi Yosef-David, 20th of Iyar”.

 

A long sigh of relief was heard over the phone line.

 

“Yes, on the fragment of the headstone it has the date 20 Iyar!” – confirmed Zvi happily, like someone who had figured out an impossible riddle.

A short while later I had the opportunity to tell the story to our relative, Yossi Bruker, whose mother was also born in Shaki. “Very interesting”, said Yossi, “I just returned from a trip to Lithuania to visit my roots.  I also saw Sarah Ushpitz, and she told me the same tale. I decided to photograph the fragment, except that I had no idea it was one of our relatives. I will send you the photo right away”.

The remnant of the gravestone in the courtyard of Sarah Ushpitz in Shaki (courtesy of Yossi Bruker)

I was amazed by the unexpected find. I read what was written on the fragment:

 

[Wh]en young in the 39th year of his life

 [On] the HS [=Holy Sabbath] 20th Iyar 1937.                                                     [For h]im mourning his wife, daughter and father.

May his soul be bound in the bundle of life.

I had no further doubt – I looked at the remnant of the late Leib-Hirsh Anachovitch’s headstone.

 

Many thoughts ran through my mind. How did the gravestone survive so many years after the cemetery was destroyed? Multitudes went by the area and never found the fragment... and also, let’s say that no one had ever come across this fragment and only now it “decided” to resurface, how is it that of all the Jews in the town who were buried there, and there were many, only Leib-Hirsh had the merit that his gravestone remained the single remnant of a community with such a profound Jewish history before the war?

From the depths of my memory I tried to recall Leib-Hirsh’s history, as I often heard from his niece, who is my mother, and who also wrote about it in her book.

 

His grandfather, Mayrim Anachovitch, was from a tiny town in the Grodno Province, Big Berestovitza. I don’t know if he ever lived there or if just his forefathers were born there. In any event, his family was associated with the town in the censuses that were conducted by the Russian Empire in the 19th century. Mayrim was a merchant in the main provincial city of Grodno, some 60 km north of that town, and was nicknamed “The Lucky Jew”.[1]

 

Mayrim Anachovitch

Did he get this nickname because he was successful as a merchant? I don’t know the answer; but without a doubt he was blessed in 1870 with the birth of his only son, Yosef-David, who was gifted with genius talents and perseverance. When he grew up, he found his place at a “Talmud study group” in the town of Krinik, which was located about 20 km northwest of Big Berestovitza. It was one of the last groups of its kind to remain at the end of the 19th century, after similar ones closed one after the other because of the influence of the Haskala [Enlightenment] Movement and the dissemination of the desire towards materially productive activity within the Jewish-Lithuanian public.[2]

 

It seemed that the fame of the young Torah prodigy travelled far and wide and in the end he was matched with a young girl from Shaki, Gittel, the daughter of a local prominent man, Yisrael Davidov. At that time, Shaki was a town in the Suvalk Province in the Kingdom of Congress Poland, while Grodno was in the Russian Empire. Since Poland was under the Czar’s protection, there was no difficulty for two young people from these neighboring countries to wed. Therefore, in 1894, the wedding took place according to Jewish Law in the town of Shaki.

 

The marriage certificate of Anachovitch-Davidov with the couple’s signatures (from the Historical Archives in Vilna, 1108/1/13)

 

In 1895 the couple had a daughter, Malka, who was my maternal grandmother. After her, two years later, they had a son, Leib-Hirsh. Over the course of time, there were six more children – four girls and two boys.[3]

 

Leib Hirsh was also considered a prodigy, like his father. When he grew up he was sent to learn in the famous yeshiva of the “Hafetz Hayim” in Radin in the Vilna Province. Soon he became well-known in the yeshiva, and its heads were familiar with his talents and predicted a glowing future for him.

The Anachovitches with four of their children in 1912, approximately. In the middle of the photo – Leib-Hirsh

However, things didn’t really develop in that direction. At the beginning of the 20th century, the new Jewish radical movements began to influence people. Zionism and the Bund, two opposing ideological movements, strived for the salvation of the Jews. One wanted to redeem them from the Exile while the other – from their severe material condition. Each captured significant numbers of the Jewish public, especially the youth who were vulnerable to radical influences. The gates of the yeshivas were not able to stop this either. The students were influenced by the propaganda of both sides, and many left the yeshiva benches in order to find a place for themselves in these movements.

 

The young Leib-Hirsch was amongst those affected. He approached the Bundists and soon he left the Radin Yeshiva. The founder of the yeshiva, the “Hafetz Hayim”, was greatly saddened by the fate of his student and recounted his sadness to his father, Yosef-David:

 

“Radin is a train station. People are coming and going. But such a Leib-Hirsch – I hoped he would be a great sage!”[4]

 

All this happened shortly before the outbreak of World War One. On August 1, 1914 the war broke out. Shaki was situated near the Prussian border, and already at the beginning of 1915 the threat of war was felt. The Jews of the town were compelled to take to the road and turn east. Amongst them was the Anachovitch Family which was blessed with many children.[5] Gittel, the mother, was worn out from the hardship of travel. She didn’t survive the journey and died at the edge of the town of Smargon which was along the way from Vilna to Minsk.

 

Leib-Hirsh’s luck improved and he wasn’t in Shaki at the time of the deportation. However, in the summer of 1915 the German army advanced into the Lithuanian provinces, and captured Kovna and Vilna. Like many other Jews, Leib-Hirsh was sent to forced labor in Germany and spent time there in work camps.

Leib Hirsh Anachovitch in the Zoltao Camp (Hanover), 1916

Over time, Anachovitch Family returned back to Shaki. The war concluded at the end of 1918. Part of the Suvalk Province was added to the borders of Independent Lithuania, and within it also the town of Shaki. It was hard in those days to earn a living there. Therefore, the younger siblings in the Anachovitch family migrated to America while the two older sisters married and moved out of Shaki: my grandmother to Kovna and her sister to Meml on the Baltic Sea coast.

 

Leib Hirsh was jealous of his younger brothers and tried to cross the border in order to go to Cuba and from there to America. However, it didn’t work out; he was caught at the Lithuanian border and returned home.  He chose, therefore, to study to be a dental technician, and after marrying a dentist, he resided in Shaki.

 

Not far from his home lived his father, Rabbi Yosef-David Anachovitch. Since he was a widower, and his children had left home, he was married again, to a woman from the prominent family of Rabbi Akiva Eiger. As one who saw his mission to study Torah, he chose to continue living with his wife in peaceful Shaki. However, not long after new calamity befell him.

 

Since World War One the position of the Shaki rabbi had remained available, and Rabbi Yosef-David was the natural candidate to fill the post. However, there was an air of conflict surrounding this position amongst the Jews of the town. While some supported Rabbi Yosef-David, others found him inappropriate since he was one of the local ba’alei-batim [householders].

 

“Even though his greatness in Torah is without question, have you heard of a local ba’al-bayith being the rabbi in his hometown?”, they claimed.

 

A great conflict divided Shaki, one that caused a major rift amongst its residents. One side appointed Rabbi Yosef-David to be the town’s rabbi and the other side chose another rabbi, Abraham-Leib Schor (1886–1976). Both rabbis therefore filled the same position. The conflict didn’t end when Rabbi Schor left the post. His supporters didn’t want to make peace with their opponents, and they appointed a new rabbi – Moshe Friedman (1874–1934). Although the two rabbis were easy going and there was no enmity between them, they unwittingly found their way into the clash. The rivalry between the two sides lasted for many years and even got the authorities involved.[6]

 

Rabbi Yosef-David Anachovitch

This situation continued in Shaki until the death of Rabbi Friedman at the end of 1934. Rabbis from the surrounding area came to the funeral; on the same day they decided to solve the longstanding conflict and called a general meeting of all the ba’alei-batim in Shaki. Leib-Hirsh Anachovitch also came, one of the town’s residents.

The rabbis heard the quarreling ba’alei-batim. Since Rabbi Yosef-David was a party to the ongoing dispute, the rabbis were inclined to terminate his position. Then Leib-Hirsch rose and asked to be heard:

Gentlemen, a huge injustice is about to take place here. My father has dedicated his life to learning Torah. For dozens of years he has woken up every morning at four, after a short sleep of two hours, and has studied Torah diligently throughout the whole day. Isn’t this the type of person that we want to be the rabbi of our town? This is Torah and this is its reward?![7]

 

His words greatly impressed the rabbis and they decided not to insult his father. In order to put out the fires of conflict completely, they decided to bring in someone from the outside to be the town’s rabbi. However, Rabbi Yosef-David Anachovitch was left on as a dayyan [rabbinical court judge].

 

Rabbi Yosef Goldin (1899–1941) was chosen to fill the opening,[8] and it appeared that the big controversy in the town subsided.

 

Two years passed. Leib-Hirsh began to feel heart palpitations. He found out that a famous Soviet doctor, Professor Platnov, was visiting the city of Riga, in Latvia. Leib-Hirsh went there in order to be examined by him. The doctor received him, and after the exam he notified him that sadly, his condition had worsened and he didn’t have much time left to live... Leib-Hirsh returned to Shaki very depressed.

Leib Hirsh Anachovitch

Despite the dire prophecy, Leib-Hirsh began to recover. He seemed to have been given hope. One day he came to Kovna, to my grandmother. “Malka”, he declared before her, “I have decided to return to a religious lifestyle such as the one I had during my youth when I studied in the yeshiva!”.

 

Leib-Hirsh returned to Shaki with his mind made up. However, he didn’t live long enough to realize his plan. One afternoon, he went to the local ice cream shop that was owned by his relative Zippa-Leah Pozhersky, in order to have an ice cream. Suddenly his heart gave out. He fell down on the spot and died.[9]

 

He was buried in the local cemetery of Shaki, with the attendance of all the residents of the town.

 

Three more years passed. In June 1940 Lithuania was captured by the Soviet Union, and the Soviets began to nationalize all over the country, as well as in Shaki. A bad feeling passed over many of the Jewish residents.

 

In February 1941, Rabbi Yosef-David passed away. My grandmother immediately went to Shaki for the funeral. The general feelings of the Jewish community were expressed in the eulogy for her father, the rabbi:

 
 

 We’re going through very difficult times. There isn’t a man who knows what the day will bring. And behold, Rabbi Yosef has died. If a tzadik [righteous man] such as he leaves us during this terrible time – who knows what awaits us now!?[10] 

Indeed, he prophesied but did not know what he had prophesied. Only a few months passed. On June 22, 1941, Operation Barbarossa commenced, and the fate of the Jews of Shaki was sealed. From the beginning many local Jews were murdered, amongst them some from our family in very cruel deaths at the hands of the local Lithuanians. The massacres of the other several thousand Jews followed soon thereafter; within few months, there wasn’t a single Jew alive from the town.

In 1956, after she returned from exile in Siberia, my grandmother went to Shaki.

A monument in Shaki in memory of its murdered citizens. In the center of the photograph in front – Malka Anachovitch-Langleben

There she discovered a horrible thing. All the gravestones in Shaki had been shattered, robbed or uprooted. Rabbi Yosef Goldin, may God avenge his blood, didn’t even have a grave. And so it was for all the rest of the residents of Shaki, who had lived in the town at the beginning of the Nazi regime. This was the ending to the story of the murdered Jewish community in Shaki.

 

My grandmother returned to Vilna shattered and broken.

 

Seventy years passed since the mass murders. Surprisingly, a remnant of a grave poked up out the earth in Shaki, as though it had emerged to speak in the name of a community that refused to disappear. From all her residents, among them honorable, distinguished and righteous, it was Leib-Hirsh Anachovitch who seemed to have been chosen to represent her. It is just that the Talmudic words seem to have come true here “Where the repentant stand – the righteous are not able to stand”.[11

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[1] Gitta Langleben-Klibansky, From the Ends of the Earth: The Struggle for Survival of a Jewish Girl from Lithuania on the Banks of the Arctic Ocean [Hebrew], Elkana: “History of the Lithuanian Jewry”, 2013, p. 248.

 

[2] About the “Talmud study group” in Krinik it was written that “there were young men and avrechim [married students] who would come from all over to Krinki [=Krinik], to study Torah there together” (Moshe Zinovich, ‘Krinki - a Torah Center’ [Hebrew], Pinkas Krinki, edited by Dov Rabin, Tel-Aviv 1970, p. 83 in the footnote).

 

[3] Another son, born in 1903, died when he was one year old. Apparently he choked on a ring.

 

[4] Langleben-Klibansky (above, note 1), pp. 248–249.

 

[5] In the deportation lists of the Jews that were prepared by the Russian authorities, Minsk was listed as the city to which most of the Shaki Jews were sent, among them the Anachovitch Family (Galina Baranova, Jews Evicted from Suwalki Gubernia in the Summer of 1915, Washington 1999, p. 2).

 

[6] A detailed description of the dispute I brought in my article ‘“In a Place Where There is Desecration of the Divine Name, One Does Not Bestow Honor on the Rabbi”: The Position of Agudath Harabbanim in Lithuania’ [Hebrew], ZION 75 (2010), pp. 319–324.

 

[7] According to Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b.

 

[8] Before that he was the Rabbi of the town of Vishey in Southern Lithuania.

 

[9] According to Zvi Marshak’s testimony.

 

[10] Langleben-Klibansky (above, note 1), p. 57.

 

[11] Babylonian Talmud, Berachot, 34b.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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