Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

26 Iyar 5763 - May 28, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








In a Land of Cold and Hunger

by Esther Vale

At the outbreak of World War II, R' Rafael Waldshein was a young yeshiva bochur learning under HaRav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy'd. Although leaving his home in Poland to study in Lithuania spared him from the Germans, the Russian Communists were hardly hospitable. At the tender age of fourteen he found himself on a train to Siberia.

While imprisoned at a work camp he discovered Siberia was not just a frozen land of hunger, backbreaking labor and misery, but also a land of mesirus nefesh for mitzvos Hashem. R' Waldshein experienced both of these aspects of Siberia personally and set out for freedom spiritually invigorated. Fifty-five years later, as he approaches "gevuros," he lays out his remarkable adolescent years with clear, vibrant memories of harrowing times.

Part II

In the first part, Rav Waldshein described his family and how he grew up. His mother was the sister of HaRav Chaim Shmuelevitz and his father, known as the Shershover, was a mashgiach in several Novardok yeshivas and later, for a short, period in the Mir.

Right after his bar mitzvah, which took place in Iyar 5739, a few months before the outbreak of World War II, R' Waldshein immediately went off to learn in Baranovitch. His father came to visit him that Av, and could not return home to Poland when War broke out.

The Baranovitch yeshiva left its city on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, on foot, for Mir. They eventually went to Vilna, where they met his mother who had made her way there. In Vilna they were subject to the Russian authorities, and their negative attitude towards yeshivas was well-known. After Shavuos of 5741 (1941) a group of Russian soldiers encircled the yeshiva and wanted to arrest a list of bochurim. They accepted it when the bochurim said that davka all those students were not there, but it was obvious that the yeshiva was in danger.

* * *


When I went home, I told my mother what had happened in the beis medrash. She had a strong feeling they would not leave us alone, especially not me, since Abba was known as a melamed in a yeshiva. She told me to leave home. She figured they would not send her and my little brother to Siberia, but I was already a teenager and therefore in danger.

As soon as I set out and walked away from the house, I saw two soldiers go inside. I had eluded them at the last moment, but I didn't know what happened to my mother and brother. I had left so quickly that I took nothing with me except for the clothes on my back.

I fled on foot together with two other bochurim. We walked nonstop from 11:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m., when we arrived in the town of Sussik. There we found Jews and yeshiva bochurim and spent Shabbos with them. Kind, local Jews who saw to the needs of refugees, provided our meals.

On Sunday I was in the beis knesses when I heard that the police were roaming around outside. They arrested everyone before I had a chance to escape. First they asked for ID cards. I was under the age of 16 so I didn't have any ID, but the police took me down to the station anyway. At the station an officer interrogated me. When he heard my name he said, "You're Waldshein? Your father is in such-and-such a town and teaches Torah there all the time. Where is your brother?"

I told him I didn't know, that I had left home several days earlier and my brother had been home with my mother at the time.

I could tell they knew all about me and my family and that we were on the wanted list. I also realized they had taken my mother into custody and only my little brother had escaped. Perhaps Ima had managed to hide him at the last minute. All of this remained a mystery to me. Later I learned that my mother had no idea what happened to me.

For the time being they kept me in detention. Kind Jews who saw me gave me some bread through the window of the jail cell, and the Russian policeman did not object and even encouraged them to give me something to eat.

On a Train to the Unknown

I was left to sleep on the floor of the jail. In the morning they loaded me onto a truck. Two rows of soldiers sat on either side, with me in the middle. The police officer pointed at me and told the soldiers accompanying me in a harsh and forceful tone, "Do you knew who this Jew is? He wanted to be a rabbi!" he exclaimed, essentially accusing me of a severe transgression.

The soldiers looked at me, a young man of about 15. I must not have looked much like a criminal trying to be a rabbi, but of course they didn't dare question a single word.

The truck drove away with the criminal, i.e. me, escorted under heavy guard to a nearby town where there was a train station. I was placed in a boxcar as befitted a dangerous prisoner. Another 24 people traveled with me, all of them Lithuanian fascists who had held positions under the previous government and were now considered political dissidents. I was the only Jew among them. The train started to roll. Where to, nobody knew.

We arrived in Vilna. The train station was packed. Between the wooden planks that formed the siding of our car we could clearly see what was taking place outside and speak with people milling about. One of the Lithuanians sitting in the car felt sorry for me and called out to the Jews in the station. "Jews, we are prisoners and there is a young Jew with us who's just a kid and has nothing."

Within a matter of minutes they brought me money they had collected and a variety of food items they were carrying, as if all of the Jews in the station had been mobilized to give me something to eat. Among the food products was a package of candies. The Lithuanian who had looked out for me earlier turned to me and said, "If you want to maintain good relations with your traveling companions I suggest you share your candy with them. They won't forget . . . "

I took his advice. This established good relations between the Lithuanian goyim and me. We did not remain in Vilna for long before the train continued its eastward journey towards the unknown.

The trip took two full weeks. Our daily rations consisted of a chunk of bread and a sausage. I ate the bread and opted to forego my sausage, not wanting to eat forbidden foods. Instead I gave it to the goyim and they looked for something to give me in exchange. We received warm drinks from a water heater, one cup per person. They decided each of them would decrease his water ration slightly so I could have two cups of water. This was an invaluable gift for me in the frigid train.

The good relations I had formed with my fellow travelers served me well. I was a lonely and frightened child and any form of human contact provided me a bit of encouragement.

One Shabbos night, I remember, one of the Lithuanians asked me to bring him his cigarettes from the other end of the boxcar. At this point the goy who kept an eye on me intervened saying, "He can't, because it's the Sabbath for him!"

I tried to retain my Judaism as best I could. Because I had been arrested unexpectedly and on Shabbos, and I didn't carry anything, my tefillin remained at home. But I prayed three times per day, trying my best to adhere to the proper times. I also tried to review my learning to the best of my recollection, and to keep Shabbos, except for the travel forced upon me.

Keeping Shabbos in a Siberian Work Camp

At the end of two weeks the train stopped in a big forest. Siberia! We waited a full day in the closed car without knowing what would happen to us. No police appeared. Thoughts of escape entered my mind, but there was nowhere to run to. We were in Southern Siberia, in the area of Krasnoyarsk.

On Monday morning the car door suddenly opened and we were ordered to stand beside the car. A camp could be seen in the distance. After a while a sack of bread and a pot of sardines was brought to us. Every loaf of bread and sardine was divided among six of us.

I peered in the direction of the camp and saw a young man with a cap on his head. He looked like a yeshiva bochur to me. I was very glad I would no longer be the only Jew. Later this turned out to be Rav Orlansky, the rosh yeshiva of Bernau. A group of four bochurim from Yeshivas Kletsk arrived with me on the same train. They were in another car and I had had no inkling of their presence. We had to stand outside for several hours and then we were brought into the big camp, one by one.

A small miracle happened to me. I had arrived in Siberia with just the clothes on my back. How would I survive the Siberian climate without suitable clothing? Then a yeshiva bochur who had traveled in my train came up to me and gave me a bundle of winter clothes. "It's a gift. Take it," he said.

They were good clothes and they fit me perfectly. I was surprised and happy to receive the present. I asked him how they had come into his possession.

His younger brother had been on the train, he recounted. They had been taken from the yeshiva along with the rest of the bochurim there, but first the soldiers gave them time to pack their personal belongings. He and his brother, who knew where they were headed, packed warm clothes, each of them separately.

When the train arrived in Vilna his little brother begged the policemen to let him get off the train to go to the bathroom. The police did not allow anyone off, but perhaps because he was so young the policeman's heart warmed to him and he agreed to escort him off the train and into the station. In the large crowds milling about there the boy managed to slip away from his police guard and vanish from sight.

The train continued its journey and the precious set of clothes remained on board. When he realized I had arrived without clothes he decided to give them to me as a gift. Those clothes helped me survive the Siberian cold.

It was then the beginning of Tammuz and the weather was relatively warm and pleasant. At least the sun shone favorably upon us, unlike the reception by the policemen which had been frigid and aloof. Each of us had to step up to a policeman standing beside separate tables, open his bag and report on himself and his family. Most of those in my group had personal belongings, some of them of value. As they searched the bags claiming they were looking for "suspicious materials," the policemen would take "ma'aser" from the valuables for themselves. In searching the belongings of the yeshiva bochurim they found no valuable articles except for one thing that was of great value to the bochurim and of no value to the police--their tefillin.

The first time they came across a pair of tefillin they confiscated them. Bochurim waiting in line for their inspection saw this and immediately hid their tefillin in pockets or in the folds of their clothes. Some of the tefillin were found during the subsequent searches, but eight or ten pairs made it past the policemen and were kept as a precious treasure inside the camp.

I had nothing to hide and passed the inspection quickly. Inside the camp I settled into a hut full of bochurim from Yeshivas Radin who had arrived a few days earlier. About 50 bochurim were crammed into one hut. Among them was a boy named Dovid Zaritzky zt'l who later became a famous writer. Speaking in Yiddish he said, "Here death is the lowest level of suffering. What is waiting for you here is much harder" -- words of welcome that prepared me for the unbearable life in the camp.

There were about 2,000 prisoners in the camp, including 400 Jews. Jews comprised between one-and-a-half and two percent of the general Russian population -- while in the camp they numbered 25 percent. The Jews were on the Communists' most- wanted list, primarily due to their crime of learning or teaching Torah.

It was a work camp and we toiled from 6:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night without a break, in freezing conditions, with inadequate clothing and minimal rations. I was too young to work so I could roam around the camp doing nothing, which allowed me to preserve my strength. One day I saw one of the bochurim from Yeshivas Radin sitting in a chair, his leg bandaged in a large dressing. To this day I can recall his name, Yosef Horodishitz, because of his tremendous mesirus nefesh.

When I asked him why he hadn't gone to work he told me he had worked as a tree cutter and while working the saw struck his leg, breaking the bone and tearing the flesh. They had bandaged his leg in the clinic. "You must be in a great deal of pain," I said.

"The doctor gave me four days off," he replied, "and today is the fourth day. That means I won't have to work until after Shabbos. I get a whole Shabbos without having to transgress any lavim, so all of the suffering is worth it for me!"

His remark was engraved into my young soul. I learned what mesirus nefesh for Shabbos was all about.

Later I discovered an instance of mesirus nefesh for Shabbos by an entire group. Work in the forest involved cutting trees with no implements besides a saw, difficult work and dangerous because of the falling trees. The other task involved turning the fallen trees into logs by burning off the branches, which was considered much better work because it was safer and meant working near a fire, which made the cold more bearable.

The members of the work group decided to bribe their overseer. They obtained a pair of warm, new pants--a valuable find in Siberia--and gave them to him so he would give them the easier work of burning the branches. The policeman accepted the pants and agreed.

That evening the bochurim sat down and thought about the deal they had made in terms of Shabbos. Cutting down trees was also a Torah prohibition, but it took all day to cut down just two or three trees. Burning the branches was much faster work, which meant transgressing the prohibition of lighting fires dozens or even hundreds of times during the course of a single Shabbos. They immediately decided to forego the lighter and warmer job and return to the harder and more dangerous one in order to transgress fewer lavim on Shabbos.

The next day they went back to their overseer and told him about their decision. He wondered if they were out of their minds and even said as much to them, but he gave his consent. Dovid Zaritzky told me all this, teaching me an invaluable lesson about mesirus nefesh for mitzvos.

When everyone went back to work on Sunday the policemen searched the huts to ensure nobody remained in the camp. They found me sitting alone inside. When they asked what I was doing there, I told them I was too young to work. At first they objected to the idea but later they examined my file to see how my strength and ability had been assessed upon my arrival at the camp. They saw a "B" next to my health assessment, the weakest ranking, and they decided to leave me alone.

From that point on it was agreed I would be permitted to roam around the camp without having to go out to work. This was protection from Above for me because the work was difficult and exhausting even for boys bigger and stronger than me, particularly for us yeshiva boys who were unaccustomed to physical labor under starvation conditions.

Bread for Gold

Bread rations were handed out once a day upon returning from work. Everyone waited eagerly for evening to arrive when they would have something to put in their empty bellies. We were also given some warm water, which I kept for the bochurim. I would heat the water before their return so they could revive themselves as soon as they stepped into the hut after an exhausting day of work.

I would gather potato peels from the trash cans and keep them in a tin container I found. Then I would gather together some twigs and light a fire to cook the peels. I can still remember how delicious it tasted-- seriously! Once I found a chunk of moldy bread cast off to the side and was overjoyed, as if I had discovered a treasure trove. I baked it and ate it and felt full for a day.

On Yom Kippur I kept the portion of soup we received in the evening on my bed under the blanket and in the morning I added another portion of soup. I managed to restrain myself despite my constant hunger. After the fast I finally took my little bowl of soup out of its hiding place only to find it had begun to spoil. But I couldn't pass it up. Boruch Hashem it didn't upset my stomach.

I went around hungry for several weeks until I was sent a special job from Above. The bread we got was distributed in the kitchen after cutting each loaf into four equal portions based on weight. If one piece was heavier than another, the excess was sliced off and attached to the lighter piece with a toothpick. Preparing the bread for 2,000 men kept a worker occupied almost a full day. That worker saw me roaming around aimlessly and offered to let me do the work for him on condition that I didn't take a single crumb into the hut. "But while you're working here you can eat as much as you want," he said.

This was a golden opportunity. I took the job right away. All day long I would cut and nibble, cut and nibble . . . The terrible hunger subsided. After about six weeks a Lithuanian goy approached my employer and said, "Why are you letting a Jew work for you? I have a boy too and I want him to help you prepare the bread." Although the bread-cutter was pleased with me, he was afraid to refuse the man. The next day he said he could no longer employ me.

During those six weeks I felt as if I had all of the good things the world had to offer. I would even give away my own portion every evening. Some prisoners suggested I sell my portion of bread in exchange for gold. But I was not in search of business opportunities. I was glad I had plenty of bread and could share with my friends. Bread was almost the only nourishment we received, except for a bit of watery soup doled out every morning and evening.

Once a delegation came from Moscow to inspect the camp. "How is your living situation here?" they asked good- naturedly. "Are you pleased with your conditions?"

Of course one couldn't voice criticism so we kept our mouths shut, but one of us dared to say, "We would like more food!"

In reply the head of the delegation delivered a speech. "You came from Poland, where there is a capitalist government," he explained. "There you ate much more than you needed. Your intestines were enlarged and therefore you now need a lot to eat. Here we will teach you to eat only what you require, and soon enough you'll find you don't need more."

Heading South for the Winter

During the six months I spent there we could at least put on tefillin every morning in our hut--the tefillin we had managed to smuggle into the camp. We tried our best to learn Torah orally during snippets of free time.

In Tishrei of 5702 (October 1941) we heard that Russia and America had reached an agreement concerning us. America was helping Russia considerably in the war against Germany, so Russia agreed to the U.S. demand to release all Polish citizens who had been exiled to Siberia, as a Soviet gesture to the Polish government- in-exile in the U.S. On the night of Simchas Torah the policemen came and told us merely, "In the morning you must report to the office with your belongings."

All night long we tried to surmise what awaited us the next day. On the morning of Simchas Torah we reported to the office with pounding hearts. Everyone there was Jewish. The goyim in the camp were all Lithuanians. They told us we were about to be released and asked where we wanted to go. The news came as a tremendous shock. After just six months we would be leaving Siberia!

The trepidation that had filled our hearts now made room for overwhelming joy, although we knew we would have to remain in the Soviet Union. The war was raging across Europe and the Russians did not allow anyone out of their borders. We asked to be sent to the warmest part of the Soviet Union because the cold is the number- one enemy during the Russian winter. They decided to send us to Uzbekistan, which is in Central Asia southwest of Siberia.

We bundled together our scant belongings and went out to wait for the train. After a half-hour ride we arrived at a nearby camp where the Siberian command center was located. We got off for bureaucratic processing: each of us was photographed, received an ID and a certificate of release from Siberian imprisonment -- which gave its holder numerous rights and was considered very valuable. Upon our release each of us also received a loaf of bread, 100 rubles and a train ticket to Jambor, Uzbekistan.

We were all beaming. But Rav Orlansky was not ready to leave. Turning to me he said, "When they came to arrest me in my home they took my wife as well, and in the train they separated us because they took men and women separately. Now I want to find her. And you want to find your mother. Let's go together to try to find out where they are. We'll buy a ticket to the nearest city and from there we'll begin searching together."

At this point I'd like to recount an instance of kiddush Hashem by Rav Orlansky. In the camp a barber came around every week and everyone had to have his entire head shaved, including his beard. Rav Orlansky was the only one who insisted on not having his beard cut off and eventually the policemen acquiesced. He told me that once, while working in the camp, two brutes grabbed him and tried to shave off his beard, but he fought them and managed to slip away unscathed, beard intact.

Upon our release, the Russians noticed he was the only one with a beard. The commander said, "You're the only one who got out of the camp with his beard still on! You managed to get released with your beard!"

I distinctly heard a note of respect in his tone. They felt a sense of reverence for his mesirus nefesh and courage.

I wanted to leave Siberia as quickly as possible, but thoughts of my mother induced me to join him. The two of us traveled to the nearby city of Karanissiya.

When we arrived there Rav Orlansky decided to go into the lion's den. Since lists of everyone sent to Siberia were held in the offices of the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs (NKVD) we would go there to find out about our families. We started to ask people on the street where NKVD headquarters were and they stared at us incredulously. Everyone runs away from the NKVD as if from a house on fire and we wanted to go there for a visit? Eventually we found out the address and headed in that direction.

We entered the building with pounding hearts, hoping our prisoner-release certificates would help us get out safely. They received us matter-of-factly. An officer heard our request and agreed to search the lists. Eventually he informed us the names did not appear on the lists, but recommended we go to the head offices in the neighboring city to check the general lists. We took a train to the next city and again sought out the NKVD offices.

The clerk who received us was named Shapira. A Jew. He took down the names of my mother and Rav Orlansky's wife and told us to come back the next day. But how could we arrange food and lodging in a place where we knew no one, certainly not a Jew?

The Communist clerk turned to us. "I can see you're a rabbi," he said, addressing Rav Orlansky. "I'm a Jew and I would like you to come over to my house at three o'clock and stay with me until tomorrow.

The Jew in him had already awakened. We gladly accepted the invitation. When we got to his house he set out a full meal for us with bread, salted fish and potatoes-- foods that had no kashrus problems back then. We were able to eat our fill. During the course of the meal he told us how he became a Communist and spoke of his life as a holder of an important position in the Communist Party. He invited Rav Orlansky to sleep in his home and sent me to his assistant, who was also Jewish, although I saw he raised pigs in his yard.

The next morning in total innocence I said to my host, "I have a problem. I don't have tefillin."

He looked at me for a moment and then said quickly, "I have a pair of tefillin for you." He took out a chair, stood on it, stretched his hand onto the top of his wardrobe and took out a tefillin bag. It looked like nobody had touched the tefillin for quite some time. I began to wrap the strap around my arm and it crumbled in my hand almost immediately. It must have decayed from years of disuse.

I put on the tefillah shel rosh at least and felt very happy that someone had come to redeem the tefillin after they had been lying like an unturned stone for so many years. My host didn't take his eyes off me throughout my tefilloh and didn't say a word. I would have really liked to know the thoughts going through his head at the time.

At ten o'clock we were supposed to appear in the NKVD offices. I quickly thanked my host and went to meet Rav Orlansky. Together we went to the NKVD building. Upon our arrival a window built into the wall suddenly opened and a woman's face appeared. The secretary wasted little time. "Listen, we couldn't find your wife's address," she said to Rav Orlansky, "but here is your mother's address," she said, handing me a slip of paper. Then her head disappeared and the window was abruptly shut.

On the note was the name "Mrs. Chaya Orlansky" and an address. They had found her, but had mixed up our requests. I felt a combination of sorrow and joy.

The address listed was quite far away and could only be reached by sailing the length of the Siberian River. Rav Orlansky inquired into the nearest departure dates and be'ezras Hashem found that the boat leaving the next morning was the last departure before the winter. Afterwards the river froze over, making sailing impossible until the spring.

Rav Orlansky went to buy a ticket, but first he asked what my plans were. I had nothing to look for where he was headed, so we parted ways. "I'm going to Jambor to join the yeshiva bochurim from the camp," I told him.

End of Part II


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