Warmth in the Siberian Prison Weekly Story by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon

As this coming Wednesday, is chof Manachem Av, the seventy-fifth yahrzeit of the Rebbe’s father, HaRav Levi Yitzchok, many of the stories that are related to him, especially during the final years of his life, bring out his firm belief that nothing – even the frost of the Siberian winter – can cool off a Jew’s connection to Hashem. The essence of a Jew is always warm to Hashem.

The purpose of relating these stories is not merely to bring out his greatness, but to recognize that he blazed this path, and we all can emulate him and go in his ways.  

I am therefore posting a story which I heard this week from Reb Fishel, who heard it directly from the person it occurred with, Reb Meir Kanievsky.

Reb Fishel related:

Some years ago Reb Meir Kanievsky, visited me in my house in Monsey, and said, I came here specifically as I want to meet the son of my dear friend Reb Chaim Weiss, a”h, a fellow Jew with whom I spent many years in the Siberian prison. 

Among the thousands of prisoners in or prison, there were seventy Jews, and eight of us were shomer Shabbos. [Reb Fishel mentioned that Reb Simcha Goredetsky was among them.] The commander was understanding of our plight and saw that we were willing to really work for six days, and we figured out how to grow some food there, which benefitted all the inmates, so he allowed us to rest on Shabbos.

However, one day there was a new commander, and he was a Jew. We were afraid that being a Jew he would want to show that he is not showing any favoritism to his co-religionists, and we tried to be as inconspicuous as possible.

But one day our fear was realized as he called me into his office.

After instructing me in Russian to close the door behind me, he asked me in Yiddish, “How many shomer Shabbos Jews are there in the prison?”

Thinking that this was a sting or trap, I replied in Russian that I am not aware of anyone who is shomer Shabbos.

Hearing me out he called for his wife and told her what I replied.

Turning to me she told me who she was. Her family was extremely close to ours and she knows for a fact that I am shomer Shabbos in prison, and her husband is aware of it, but he makes believe that he isn’t aware of it. 

She explained, the reason they are asking now is not to catch me and the others, but because she gave birth to a baby boy last week and today is supposed to be the bris, and she wants a proper minyan of Jews to be present at the bris, which means she only wants to invite those who are shomer Shabbos. [Perhaps also she knew that we would not reveal her secret to anyone.]

I did know her family; however, I was still fearful that this was a set-up to get information, so I maintained my innocence, that I am unaware of others. Furthermore, I clarified to them that while it is nice to have a minyan present at the bris, it is not an obligation.

Upset at not being able to have a minyan, she insisted that I remain and participate in the bris.

I agreed to be the sandek and explained to her what she needs to perform the bris and the bris was done in the commanders’ office.

Although he was an avowed communist, he wanted his son tp have a proper bris.

In honor of Chof Av, let each one of us reach out to a Jew whom we think was affected by the cold and indifference of today’s environment and help bring out the spark of warmth that is within them, and is never extinguished..

Your feedback is most appreciative.

Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran educator and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. He is available to farbreng in your community and can be contacted at avtzonbooks@gmail.com

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