Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky

Historian & Electronics Engineer

M.Sc.

Ph.D.

Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky

Historian & Electronics Engineer

M.Sc.

Ph.D.

 

From Abraham’s Seed

 

A pall of anxiety surrounded Reb Shlomo over the last few days.[1] Ever since his daughter announced her galling news, he couldn’t concentrate on anything.

... Just a few months before, she had gone with her sister to the University of Vilna. Instead of studying properly she was offered a match... “He is a young and promising doctor”, she said. The problem is that he isn’t G-d fearing... woe onto me! Why I, Shlomo Rudaminsky, head of the Kovna community and a beadle in Beith HaMusar [Musar/Ethics House], why do I deserve this “pride”?! I raised my children according to Jewish law, and the result? – A son in law devoid of Jewish commandments, a rotten fruit of Vilna’s Enlightenment. This is Torah and this is its reward?![2]

This is how Reb Shlomo carried himself for many days, lost in his thoughts. Finally, he came to a decision. There was no choice. Even though his daughter would not be happy, he had to cancel the match. Tomorrow he would go see the Rabbi of Kovna, tell him his concerns and troubles and would ask him to agree to this decision. Didn’t the rabbi know him well? More than once he had sat in the rabbi’s home and had been the first to volunteer to perform every good deed. It was inconceivable that a man like him would fall into this situation. The rabbi would certainly understand him and come to his aid in this situation.

The next day Reb Shlomo walked rapidly to Prezidento Street. Rabbi Abraham Duber Shapiro’s house was near the home of the president of Lithuania, Antanas Smetona. The president was no longer there. On the day the Russians invaded Lithuania, Saturday June 15, 1940, Smetona escaped to Nazi Germany. Ironically, thought Reb Shlomo to himself, the president no longer lived in Lithuania, while his neighbor, Rabbi Shapiro, was still here and leading his community, notwithstanding the anti-religion Soviet regime.

 

Antanas Smetona

(a photograph from the Lithuanian National Museum)

 

With these thoughts going through his mind, Reb Shlomo arrived to the Rabbi of Kovna’s home and entered the house. His door was partially closed. Through the small opening, he saw that someone was sitting next to the desk and speaking. No matter, he, Shlomo, would wait a little. The man wouldn’t take long, he surmised. Reb Shlomo knew Rabbi Shapiro. He was known throughout the Jewish world as a great scholar, who was even offered the position of the Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel after Rabbi Kook died. The Rabbi of Kovna didn’t need a long time to ruminate; he was so brilliant that he could decide a matter immediately. In the meantime, Reb Shlomo began to pace the length of the corridor.

A short time later the man came out. Reb Shlomo paused slightly and then entered the room.

“Reb Shlomo, what has brought you to my house? It’s not the New Moon or the Sabbath”, said Rabbi Shapiro after a few pleasantries.

“Rabbi of Kovna, this time it is something personal”, replied Reb Shlomo as he shifted in his seat and leaned towards the rabbi, “I will get right to the point: my daughter, as the Rabbi knows, is learning in Vilna University. A few days ago she informed me that she is about to be married to a local doctor”.

“What is forbidden about this, Reb Shlomo? Indeed for almost twenty years Vilna was closed to us, but now we can travel there freely.[3] Still and all she is a large and important city in Israel”.

“This is correct; today you can get from Kovna to Vilna, the city of my birth, in two hours. The problem is the doctor from Vilna himself – he doesn’t observe the commandments. You probably know, Rabbi of Kovna, that the fear of G-d is something that burns in my bones. It is unthinkable that my son-in-law will not put on tefillin [phylacteries] or keep the Sabbath! What will become of their children, my grandchildren, G-d willing?!”.

Reb Shlomo stopped speaking, swallowed, and finally said in a low voice: “Rabbi of Kovna, I wish to null the match”. 

Rabbi Shapiro stroked his long beard, as though contemplating this complicated situation. The longer he sat, the longer Reb Shlomo shrunk in his seat while keeping his gaze fastened to the books on the table.

Rabbi Abraham Duber Shapiro

 
 

The silence continued. Reb Shlomo felt that time stood still. He waited for Rabbi Shapiro to speak.

Suddenly, he saw that the Rabbi of Kovna was looking directly at him. The silence was broken by a decisive tone:

“Reb Shlomo, the groom is from Abraham’s seed. In our time this is also a great thing”.

Reb Shlomo didn’t react. It was though speech had been taken from him.

“Reb Shlomo, I advise you not to cancel the match. Prepare a wedding like we Jews do, and I will perform the marriage ceremony and the blessings”.[4]

Reb Shlomo thanked Rabbi Shapiro and left his room. As decisive as he had been, there was now nothing left to do. The rabbi had spoken and concluded that the match should stand. Bent over in pain, he walked down Prezidento Street without looking back at the former home of President Smetona.

... The groom is from Abraham’s seed... this is what the Rabbi of Kovna is content with nowadays, and he, Shlomo, head of the community in Kovna, should also be content with a groom from Abraham’s seed... how could it be?? But the rabbi advised him not to cancel the match, so could he possibly reject his advice?! The rabbi even went against his own custom and decided that he would perform the ceremony... this was the fate that had befallen him, Shlomo.

Reb Shlomo glanced at his watch. Suddenly he was shaken from his thoughts and he picked up his pace. He rushed to The Musar House, to the excellent daily lesson given by Reb Hatzkel. This was the only time he felt at peace these days.

Reb Shlomo entered Beith HaMusar and sat in his seat on the “eastern” side. The sound of Torah learning wiped away the sense of heaviness that surrounded him. Indeed, Beith HaMusar remained the only Jewish bastion of its kind in Lithuania in general and in Kovna in particular. This was a very old institution in the city, which was established by Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin from Salant, the founder of the Musar Movement, in 1848.[5] Ninety years had passed, and the institution, in a new building with all the updates of running water and central heating, was still vibrant. Presently, the Torah greats among the ba’alei-batim [householders] from the Jewish community of Kovna were there learning Talmud. And the customs of Beith Hamusar, were like its name; severe and organized as exemplified by the famous Musar yeshiva in the town of Kelm, in central-western Lithuania.[6] Of course, many rabbis who were invited to Kovna found it important to go to the lauded Beith HaMusar and experience a real Musar prayer service or an hour of enjoyment learning with a study partner. The crowning jewel was attendance at Rabbi Hatzkel Bershtein’s daily Torah study;[7] A Talmud intensive class that only very sophisticated Torah scholars could understand its depth. All this Reb Shlomo orchestrated, as the beadle of Beith HaMusar.

After the lesson, Reb Shlomo hurried home, to tell his wife the Kovna Rabbi’s advice. Both of them agreed that it was time to begin the wedding preparations.

The wedding took place shortly thereafter in Kovna with attendance of a large audience and with the in-laws from Vilna. The marriage ceremony was led by no other than the distinguished Rabbi from Kovna.

 
 

Grave changes had taken place to the lives of Lithuanian Jewry from the time of the Soviet incursion. Jewish education was forbidden, youth movements were disbanded, political parties were illegal and large businesses were nationalized.[8] Religion, too, was changed beyond all recognition. The most difficult change was the image of the Sabbath. It stopped being a day of rest, because all the Jewish workers in the factories and stores had to work as though it were any other day.

Reb Shlomo’s long time textile business was also nationalized. With no other choice, he found a job as an agent of the national lottery. This position allowed him to avoid working on the Sabbath.[9] Unfortunately, fate did not smile upon everyone. Many Jews had to go to work even on the Sabbath, and the synagogues had very low attendance. 

Concerns rose. What would be the regime’s next move? Would they forbid kosher slaughtering? Several observant Jews learned the laws of kosher slaughtering and got certified in case the troubles continued. Reb Shlomo was one of them. Who knew? he thought to himself, the day could come when you couldn’t find kosher meat. Therefore, he would learn how to slaughter and be able to give his family kosher chicken to eat.

 

Saturday, June 15, 1941. Exactly one year had passed since the Soviets captured Lithuania. Like on every Sabbath, the worshippers came to the Musar House Synagogue to pray the morning services. On some faces one could see panic. There were rumors that the regime had arrested Jewish families before dawn. One was their friend, Rabbi Ben-Tsiyon Klibanky. He was one of Beith HaMusar regular attendees. From the beginning of the 1930’s he had been the manager of the “Kovna Kollel” – the most famous kollel in the world.[10] The president of this kollel was Rabbi Abraham Duber Shapiro, the Rabbi of Kovna, and Reb Ben-Tsiyon was his right hand man in all matters of this institute. Therefore, he was awarded the honor of a permanent seat on the eastern wall of the Musar House.[11]

Rabbi Hayim Ben-Tsiyon Klibanky

(From the Ends of the Earth, p. 32H)

 
 

For several Sabbaths, Reb Ben-Tsiyon’s seat was empty. Heart disease had confined him to his bed. On the Sabbath when the arrests took place he was also absent from the prayer service. Out of concern for his well-being and his family’s, Reb Shlomo decided to send a messenger to his home immediately. For this task he turned to one of the young members of the Musar House, Shim’on Segal:

 “Shim’on, you are a quick and energetic young man. Go to Reb Ben-Tsiyon’s house and see how he is and what he has to say about the imprisonment of his family members”.

Shim’on hurried to Reb Ben-Tsiyon’s home and found him lying on his bed. Reb Ben-Tsiyon had little to say. He simply requested the young man to tell the sender that the Soviets had imprisoned his two sons and that his wife had decided to accompany them.[12] He was not taken because of his illness and his weakness.

Many were arrested that night, Reb Shlomo thought to himself when he heard the few details from Shim’on, but what was the connection between all of them? Reb Ben-Tsiyon’s oldest son was active in the Beitar Revisionist Movement and was the secretary of the Tel-Hai Fund, and that was apparently the reason for the Klibansky Family’s arrest. However, amongst the arrested there were also merchants. Therefore, Reb Shlomo determined that the Soviets had decided to arrest active Zionists and those who had been affluent in the past. Was it possible that he too was destined to be arrested? Hadn’t he also been a successful merchant before the Soviets nationalized his business? Why, then, would his fate be brighter than the rest of the merchants? Not only that, he was a well-known public figure... At his request, one of the younger members of Beith HaMusar came to his home to see if there was attention being directed there. Indeed, Reb Shlomo’s fears were not unfounded. At the entrance to the house stood a truck...

Reb Shlomo decided not to return home after prayers. Instead, he went to the Rabbi of Kovna, and this time to consult with him how to behave.

Rabbi Shapiro already knew about the many arrests. When he heard from Reb Shlomo that he too was about to be deported, he advised him: “Reb Shlomo, wait, don’t go back home. Maybe your family will be saved because you are missing. If, however, this doesn’t help, and your family is removed from their home, you will join them”.

Reb Shlomo returned to Beith HaMusar and told his friends Rabbi Shapiro’s advice. After a short discussion amongst those present, it was decided that some of the young men would take turns standing near Reb Shlomo’s house in order to see what would transpire. He himself stayed in Beith HaMusar to wait for the updates.

The hours ticked away, and the truck didn’t move from its spot. This is how the Sabbath passed, Reb Shlomo tensely waiting. In the early morning on Sunday, Reb Shlomo’s wife and son were seen led to the truck. Reb Shlomo was immediately notified, whereupon he hurried to his home and turned himself in.

 Reb Shlomo was also ordered to get onto the truck, and it made its way to the Kovna train station.  There he saw a long transport train and on it many deportees.[13] He and his family crowded together in one of the cars. After a day of waiting, the train finally started to move. It travelled day and night, while its passengers suffered many hardships.[14] After several weeks of fatiguing travel, the train began to make stops and at each one deported families were taken off. Reb Shlomo and his family as well as other expelled families were taken off at Kasaruk, which is in southwest Siberia.  From there they were brought to a farm. There they worked in all sorts of odd jobs.

Slowly, Reb Shlomo grew accustomed to his situation. He was, however, upset that he was unable to get a prayer quorum because there were too few Jews in the farm. Even on Yom Kippur [Day of Atonement] he had to pray alone.

Several years passed. The supervision became somewhat less strict, and Reb Shlomo took comfort in the synagogue in the adjacent village. Reb Shlomo’s son, Binyominke, began to spend time with the young people in the area. One day he came home and announced: He had found the girl he wanted to marry.

“Who is the intended?” – asked Reb Shlomo surprised.

“A nice local Russian girl” – answered Binyominke.

Reb Shlomo saw black. His daughter chose a doctor who desecrated the Sabbath and his son went even further to choose a complete gentile! Reb Shlomo was crushed. He couldn’t control himself any longer; he put on his boots and coat, and without saying anything, left on foot to the synagogue in the adjoining village. The synagogue was empty. Reb Shlomo advanced towards the Ark, opened it, and began sobbing and talking to G-d. This is how he stood for several minutes. Finally, he closed the Ark and sat down, broken, on one of the chairs.

Exhaustion overtook him and he fell into a stupor. Suddenly he was frightened. The familiar face of Rabbi Abraham Duber Shapiro, the Rabbi of Kovna, was before him. He was furious. Suddenly he lifted his hand. He shook his finger at Reb Shlomo warningly, and in a strong voice said:

“Reb Shlomo, didn’t I tell you – from the seed of Abraham?!!!”

Reb Shlomo was agitated and shifted in his seat. He opened his eyes. The image of Rabbi Shapiro vanished as though it had never been. Reb Shlomo’s body was covered in a cold sweat. He stood and returned home confused and contemplative. This time Rabbi Shapiro didn’t advise him what to do, and he, Reb Shlomo, was completely out of ideas.

Several weeks passed. One day a knock was heard at the door. Reb Shlomo went to open it. There stood a woman, wrapped in warm clothes, her head covered with a scarf.

“How can I help you?” – Reb Shlomo asked her.

“I keep kosher” – she answered. “I heard you know how to slaughter meat according to Jewish Law. I would appreciate if you slaughtered a chicken for me, so that I can eat meat after a long time that I haven’t been able to do so”.

Reb Shlomo was perplexed. On the one hand, he was the only one in the area who knew how to slaughter according to the Jewish laws, and helping a Jewess is a big mitzvah. On the other hand, how did the woman know he knew how to slaughter an animal...? Maybe she worked for the NKVD, which was trying to entrap him and arrest him for participating in forbidden religious activities?! In Soviet Russia it was like playing with fire. If so, what to say to her...? Perhaps he should tell her that she had made a mistake and he didn’t know how to slaughter animals according to the Jewish law?...

Reb Shlomo cleared his throat. After a hasty internal argument, he came to a decision:

“Honorable lady, bring me the chicken tomorrow and I will grant your request”.

The woman thanked Reb Shlomo and turned to go. He felt he had done the right thing. He couldn’t turn her away empty handed. However, the big fear was still there, and he knew that tomorrow there would be a sign; or the woman would come or the secret police.

The next day there was again a knock at his door. With grave apprehension, Reb Shlomo went to open it. In the entryway stood the woman wrapped in her clothes with a scarf over her head and in her hand a basket... a weight lifted from Reb Shlomo’s heart, and he invited her in. She came in and put her basket on the floor, removed her heavy coat and untied her headscarf. Reb Shlomo was amazed with what he saw.

Before him stood a young and attractive woman.

As he was preparing the chicken he started to chat with her and learn more about her and her background.

“My family has been banished from Riga to Siberia, and here I am, a student in the university”, – she began to tell him – “Just like in the past, I still strictly observe the Laws of Kashruth, and recently, I couldn’t eat meat for this reason. I was told that there was a Jewish man in the adjacent farm who knows how to slaughter chickens, and that is how I got to you”.

During the conversation, Binyominke entered the house. His father presented the girl to him, and they began a lively conversation.

Not long after, Binyominke married this young woman.

Return

 

[1] The last sentence is a citation from the Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b.

 

[2] The name of the main character in the story has been changed to Reb Shlomo Rudaminsky and his son’s name has been changed to Binyominke. All the other details of the story are true to the two sources I had and they complete each other: a) the reports of Reb Shim’on Segal, the founder and manager of “Torat Emet Kamenitz” Yeshiva in Brooklyn, who heard the story from Reb Shlomo. b) the testimony of Binyominke to Dov Levin, which is archived at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

 

[3] A month and one half after the peace treaty between Russia and Lithuania was signed, on July 12, 1920, the Russians handed Vilna over to the young state of Lithuania. This was to the intense chagrin of Poland; on October 9th, Polish troops invaded Vilna under General Lucjan Żeligowski’s command, and captured it from the Lithuanians. The Poles annexed Vilna and its surrounds to their country even though Lithuania strongly protested the move. These events had historical significance and long term implications on the relationship between the two countries. Lithuania decided to cut off all ties including diplomatic ones from its aggressive neighbor. A sealed border was built between the two countries and even direct mail between residents of the two countries completely ceased. Only during World War Two, on October 28, 1939, did the Russians return Vilna to Lithuania, after capturing it from the Poles on September 19, 1939 according to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.                                                                               

[4] It is worthwhile to mention that Rabbi Abraham Duber Shapiro’s daughter, who was offered the greatest Torah scholars from Lithuania, eventually married a doctor from Estonia.

 

[5] The idea to found Musar Houses was Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin’s (1810–1883) since the 1840’s. At the same time, he began to teach his new method, the Musar method, in Vilna. Its teachings were to moderate man’s attributes. The Jews of Eastern Europe generally excelled at following the commandments between man and G-d but when it came to commandments between men, they were sorely lacking. Therefore, Rabbi Yisrael sought to remedy the problem by instructing his yeshiva students as well as Vilna ba’alei-batim in the ways of piety and Musar. He believed that the only way to change man’s attributes was not just through theoretical learning of Musar books, but their studying through repetition of their verses with enthusiasm and melody. He predicted that this type of learning would meet resistance and mockery, so he decided to set up a separate house of study. It was called “The House of Musar”. The first house was set up in Vilna, and scholars and ba’alei-batim began to study Musar books there with deep contemplation and great enthusiasm. After Rabbi Yisrael left Vilna in 1848, when he moved to Kovna, he set up a Musar House there as well, where the local Jews could come and learn. To increase the prestige of this house, he influenced the important people to come and learn there and he too would come to visit the place and study there with great enthusiasm (Hillel Noah Magid-Shteinschneider, City of Vilna: Memoirs of Congregation Israel and History of its Greats, I, Vilna 1900, p. 129; Dov Katz, The Musar Movement, Its History, Men, and Methods, I, Tel-Aviv 1982, pp. 176–177; Immanuel Etkes, Rabbi Israel Salanter and the Musar Movement: Seeking the Torah of Truth, translated by Jonathan Chipman, Philadelphia-Jerusalem: The Jewish Publication Society, 1993, pp. 86–90, 179–180).

 

[6] About the special customs in the Yeshiva of Kelm, see my book, “Ke’tzur Ḥalamish”: The Golden Era of the Lithuanian Yeshivot in Eastern Europe [Hebrew], Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2014, pp. 315–318. These customs came straight to Beith Hamusar from the heads of the yeshiva in Kelm. The director of the yeshiva, Rabbi Gershon Miadnik, had to stay for long periods of time in Kovna in order to collect rent from the residents of a building on Lukshiu Street, which had been donated to the Kelm Yeshiva. Rabbi Miadnik would learn in Beith HaMusar in his spare time and give daily classes on the meaning of prayer. Once a month the head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Daniel Movshovitz, also came at Beith HaMusar and was welcomed warmly. The two of them, Rabbis Daniel and Gershon, brothers-in-law who had married the granddaughters of Rabbi Simcha Zissel Broyde – the founder of the Kelm Yeshiva and one of the great students of Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin – were scholars in their own right, and it was no accident that their famous yeshiva was an example to Beith HaMusar.

 

[7] Rabbi Yehezkel Bershtein (1889–1941) was the head of the “Ohr Yisrael” Yeshiva. The students who studied there were between the ages of 17–19. It was the mechina [preparatory school] for one of the most famous yeshivas in the world, “Knesseth Yisrael” of Slabodka. About Rabbi Yechezkel Bershtein see Bezalel Develitzky, “The Holy Scholar Rabbi Yechezkel Bershtein and His Book ‘Words of Yechezkel’”, in Yechezkel Halevi Bershtein, Words of Yechezkel [Hebrew], Bnei-Brak: “Mishor”, 2013, pp. 585–600.

 

[8] About the exchanges in the lives of Lithuanian Jewry as a result of the Soviet takeover see 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 Lituanian Jewry”, 2013, pp. 48–54.

 

[9] About different solutions that observant Jews found in order to avoid breaking the Sabbath see ibid., p. 53.

 

[10] Kollel – Talmudic institution for married graduates of the yeshivas.

 

[11] More about Rabbi Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky see the story “Regards from the Other World” on this site.

 

[12] More about this imprisonment see Langleben-Klibansky (above, note 8), pp. 41H–42H.

 

[13] Chaim Shapiro, who observed the transport trains wrote in his book: “Casually I looked out the aisle-window. I saw a freight train, comprised of many cattle cars, constructed of boards with open spaces between the slats. Inside the cattle cars I saw masses of people – men, women and children so tightly packed that there was scarcely room to breath. The sight of this horror nauseated me...” (Chaim Shapiro, Go, My Son, New York-Jerusalem: Feldheim, 1989, p. 77–78).

 

[14] About the conditions of the journey, see Langleben-Klibansky (above, note 8), pp. 68–69, 44H–45H.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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