“My Father” Weekly Story by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon
Being that erev Rosh Chodesh is the Yahrzeit of my father HaRav HaChossid Reb Meir ben Reb Gershon a”h, I chose to post a chapter of his life.
My father was born on the 8th of Teves 5669 (1909) in the city of Mirgarad, in the province of Poltava in Ukraine. He was the youngest of nine children, and his father was a tailor. Although the communist closed down all of the chadorim throughout greater Russia, the melamed Reb Levi Yitzchok Vichman, was not intimidated and continued to teach every student that wanted to learn. Most of his students were over bar mitzvah, however, he made a second class for boys who were ten and older.
My father learned by him for three years and when he was thirteen and half, Reb Levi advised him to learn in a yeshiva in Kiev. He was there for over a year and then returned home. Throughout the day he learned in the beis hamidrash on his own, besides for a few hours when he learned with Reb Bentzion Rivkin, until Reb Bentzion moved to Eretz Yisroel.
After Pesach of 5686 (1926) Reb Meir Gurkov came to the city to raise funds for Tomchei Tmimim and seeing a seventeen year old teenager sitting and learning in the beis hamidrash throughout the day, especially in those years, astounded him.
Speaking to the melamed Reb Levi, they both decided that it would be best if my father becomes a talmid of Tomchei Tmimim. Reb Levi spoke to my father’s parents that they should allow their youngest son to join the yeshiva in Charkov. He explained that in this yeshiva, the winds of the society have not penetrated and their youngest son will remain religious, and hopefully evade the draft. Reb Levi also took care of the monetary issues of transportation etc., and they agreed.
On Lag B’omer of that year, he was accepted as a talmid in Tomchei Tmimim of Charkov. Reb Yechezkel Feigin was the mashpia in charge, and he was assisted by Reb Nissan Nemenov in Chassidus and Reb Zalman Kurnitzer in Nigla.
Three months later, the Yeshiva went to Leningrad to spend Tishrei with the [Frierdiker] Rebbe. That was the first time my father saw the [Frierdiker] Rebbe and he was in awe of his davening, especially on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, which lasted for close to five hours. One of the points he related was that the [Frierdiker] Rebbe davened Shema with the Alter Rebbe’s niggun (of Tzeina urienna). Perhaps that experience is what inspired him to become an oved himself.
On a regular Shabbos my father would begin his preparations to daven at seven in the morning and we would sit down to the meal at around two in the afternoon. Quite often our neighbors after they concluded their Shabbos meal, would take their children for a walk by our house and linger by the window, so that they hear how a Jew davens.
After Simchas Torah the yeshiva moved to Nevel. There Reb Yehudah Eber became the main maggid shiur. In Nevel, he also learned from the notable chassidim who lived there, especially Reb Zalman Moshe and Reb Meir Simcha who had a powerful impact on him. He also met with Reb Yonah Poltava, who was appointed by the Rebbe to be in charge of the Yeshiva, and his brother in law the Reb Yehudah Leib Karasik, who was the Rov and mashpia of the city. Years later, my father married Ren Leibel’s eldest daughter.
Reb Yechezkel Feigin was not only responsible for the running of the Yeshiva, but he was also one of the Rebbe’s secretaries, which necessitated that he often be with the Rebbe and not in the yeshiva in Nevel. After Shavuos he returned, but was extremely somber. He related that during yom tov the Rebbe said four maamorim, and each one concluded with the words of “All your enemies should be cut down”.
Reb Yechezkel related; after yom tov, once when I was in the Rebbe’s room, I said the Rebbe’s words should be fulfilled!
The Rebbe asked, Perhaps I should curse them? And I nodded in affirmative. However, the Rebbe replied, I am afraid to do so as there are many Jews among them. I don’t want to hurt them.
These fears were not unfounded, as a week later the Rebbe was arrested. Those were extremely difficult times for all the students and almost all of them fasted Mondays and Thursdays until the Rebbe was freed.
The happiness and joy of the Frierdiker Rebbe’s liberation was not limited to that year, but every Yud-Beis tammuz, one could see it on his face. A year or two before my father was niftar, he was walking on Eastern Parkway, and remarked, “Something is wrong; I don’t feel the spirit of Yud Beis Tammuz in the air!”
The following Tishrei everyone desired to be with the Rebbe in Leningrad, however, they were hesitant to go as it might place the Rebbe in danger. But when the students and chassidim heard that the Rebbe was leaving after Sukkos and saw that the leading chassidim left Nevel and went to the Rebbe in Leningrad, they decided they too can go, and arrived there before or after Yom Kippur.
Shortly after the Rebbe left Russia, the authorities forced the Yeshiva in Nevel to close down, and my father who was then one of the elter bochurim was appointed to become the mashgiach of Nigla in Kremenchuk.
Many people who were under his supervision told us although he was in charge of nigla, everyone knew that his “Koch” was in Chassidus and especially in avodas hatefilla. The hanhalo also gave him additional responsibilities such as of raising money etc. One of the reasons he was chosen was that he was then an elter bochur and in case he had to disappear suddenly from the authorities, he would not be leaving a wife and children to fend on their own.
I would be remiss if I don’t mention that Reb Avrohom (Miyour) Drizin saved his life more than once, as he convinced the authorities who came to Reb Avrohom’s home to search for him, to leave him alone.
Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
I thank the individuals who contacted me concerning publishing the biography of the Rebbe Rashab, as well as those who will contact me in the future.