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15 Adar II 5759 - March 22, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Cellar Under a Cellar -- The Inspiring Story of the Maizlik Family of Kiev

by Yisroel Spiegel

In his search for a home where one could eat kosher food in Soviet Russia, Rabbi Tzvi (Harry) Bronstein z"l discovered the amazing house of Mrs. Baila Maizlik o"h, where she resided with her only surviving daughter who now lives in Yerushalayim. This is a report of that first captivating, thrilling description from over forty years ago, which was then kept as a deep secret.

This is the heroic tale of a righteous woman, Mrs. Baila Maizlik o"h, who made aliya to Jerusalem at the end of her days. She was niftar here a few years ago, and tbdlcht"a her daughter, Mrs. Batya Berg, who moved to Jerusalem with her mother at that time, still lives here. Mrs. Berg is well-known for her lectures, her shiurim, and her wide-ranging involvement in kiruv rechokim, especially with immigrants from the former Soviet Union. This story has been published at length several times, and the book Kol Bedmomo Nishma, the work of Rav Shlomo Zalman Zonenfeld of Jerusalem tells it well.

I was privy to this story many years before it was known to the public. Our acquaintance Rabbi Tzvi Bronstein, z"l revealed this to me as a trusted secret, for reasons soon to be understood.

I cannot forget the excitement and the thrill that surrounded him after his amazing discovery in the city of Kiev. He literally trembled when he told me the details about the mother and her daughter, about their basement apartment in which a vibrant Jewish life thrived, under the almost impossible conditions. I had the feeling that more than the chizuk that he gave them, he drew chizuk from them. They gave him the impetus to continue his devoted but risky work, for which he later paid a dear price in imprisonment and cruel interrogations from which he emerged a broken vessel.

Even though the story of this outstanding family is well- known, as we said, it seems to me that it's worthwhile to tell about the first time they were "discovered," as Rabbi Bronstein transmitted to me at the time on condition "not to publish it." Here we write about the moments of fear and about the first contact that was formed between activists. These bonds continued afterwards for many years, in a joint effort which I later observed, when Mrs. Berg was already living in Jerusalem. Together they planned various projects both for Jews that were still living there and for others who had managed to emigrate from the Valley of Tears and to settle in Israel.

In the rest of this article, in which Rabbi Bronstein describes the events in first person, we present a few more fascinating episodes from that dreadful period in the Soviet Union.

Full of Glory

I visited Kiev many times, but I didn't always have kosher food on hand. So, on one of these visits, I had reached a situation in which I was no longer able to stand the hunger. I got up my nerve and asked the shamash in the shul to help me find a family that was shomer mitzvos, where I could get kosher food.

"You are an American," the shamash, Reb Hirsh Bernstein, answered me. "Jews are wary of inviting you to them."

"I am aware of this problem," I said, "but nevertheless, I am asking you. It is simply hard for me to bear anymore."

R' Hirsh Bernstein was a good man. Throughout my short stay in that city I managed to become very close with him. "I will do my best," he told me, after thinking about it a few minutes. "Not far from here a widow lives with her daughter. Her name is Baila Meizlik, and her late husband was an outstanding talmid chochom. In the past he served as a rosh yeshiva. I will discuss it with her and I will give you an answer tonight in the evening, between mincha and ma'ariv."

Indeed at the evening services Reb Hirsh Bernstein told me that he had arranged meals for me at the Meizlik family. "Of course I will not be able to escort you there, but I will direct you to the house," he said. "After ma'ariv I will go in the direction of the widow's house. You come after me. But don't stay closer to me than necessary. I will stand a few moments across from the gate that opens to a courtyard. There you will find a staircase that leads to a cellar. The Meizlik apartment is there, in the cellar."

Collapsing at the Door

I was only looking for a little food, but I was soon to discover a shining light, a real heroic story, a splendid tale of a Jewish family that stood up to the rosho himself.

After the tefilla the shamash went along his way. I followed him from a distance. We reached 52/17 Yaruslavska Street, where the gate he had talked about was. I turned into the courtyard, and despite the darkness I made out a staircase. A strong wind was blowing, the cold was bone- chilling, and a heavy snow was falling. As a result of all of this, the ground was very slippery. When I tried to go down the stairs to the cellar, I stumbled and slipped -- and I fell down until the bottom of the staircase, where I landed with a loud thump and my feet banged on the cellar door.

A woman opened the door in front of me: "What happened? Who are you?" she asked alarmed.

"I am Rabbi Bronstein," I identified myself, while I was still trying to get to my feet.

"Oh yes, I heard about you," she answered in a friendly voice. "Please come in."

After I sat down at the table, the woman took my overcoat and tried to shake off the snow and mud that was stuck on. After a few minutes she served me supper: black bread, salty fish, and tea. It was not a lot, because she had no way to offer me any more than she and her daughter were to eat. But I definitely filled up with the homey atmosphere and with the simple changes in my diet.

I asked Mrs. Meizlik if her daughter Batya was her only child.

"She is the only one left of eight," she responded sadly.

"What was the fate of the others?" I asked.

"Babi Yar," was her reply, and she went on to tell me that between 70 and 80 thousand Jews were murdered in Babi Yar by the Germans and the Ukrainians. For several days the earth shook in Babi Yar, because not all the Jews that were shot with machine guns died immediately. Many of them writhed for days, dying a slow death in the mass graves.

Her daughter Batya, who was a little girl in those days, hid under the bed when the German and Ukrainian murderers came to take them. The woman and her late husband also managed to remain undetected by the murderers.

While I was eating I noticed that the fork that the woman had given me with my food was almost no longer fit to use. Three of the four teeth were completely eroded. "This is what we have," the woman explained, when she saw me examining the fork.

I ate this meal in the early hours of Wednesday evening. I arranged with her to eat my Shabbos meals with her also. I asked if she would be able to buy wine, fish and meat, and I placed a bill of 25 rubles on the table.

"Tomorrow morning before my daughter goes to work, she will go to the market to buy fish and chicken, and then she will take the chicken to the shochet," the woman told me. "We generally do not eat meat, because it does not fit into our budget. But this Shabbos we will also eat chicken, in honor of our guest. As far as the wine, we don't buy it at all. We make it ourselves, from raisins."

A Cellar Within a Cellar

While I was still sitting at the widow's table, I felt a large metal ring on the floor. When I examined it close up, I discovered that it served as an opening to a door in the floor. "What is under this floor?" I asked with wonder.

"A cellar," the woman replied.

"But this room we are in is the cellar," I continued questioning.

"If so, that is a cellar under a cellar," she smiled at me. "Open the door yourself and you'll see."

I grabbed the metal ring and pulled. The small wooden door opened wide. In the dark I couldn't make out what was in that room down there. A ladder stood next to the opening in the floor.

"What is the purpose of this cellar?" I inquired. The woman kept quiet. I repeated the question.

"If you can keep a secret, I will tell you," she said. "Down there is a mikveh."

"A mikveh!" I repeated after her, amazed. "But there is a mikveh in the shul. Why do you need a mikveh in the cellar of a private apartment?"

The woman explained to me that in Kiev there is still a significant number of Jews who keep Torah and mitzvos -- Chassidim of Square and Vretzlev. And there are also women who keep the laws of taharas hamishpocha. For those who are worried about using the shul's mikveh from fear of the Communists, this secret mikveh was made.

"My late husband built this mikveh especially for those who wouldn't dare to use the official mikveh," Mrs. Maizlik continued to explain. "They come here not only from Kiev and the surrounding cities, but even from faraway Lvov."

"It's not easy to run an underground mikveh," she said. "Right now we have a problem with heating the mikveh water. Recently the price of heating lumber soared."

I was deeply moved by what my eyes saw and my ears heard. I placed on the table a much larger sum of money and said, "This is for the heating and for other maintenance of the mikveh."

In Search of Judaism

Upon further discussion with the woman, I discovered that she herself was an expert in matters of Torah and mitzvos. Not only did she know all the tefillos by heart, but she also knew Pirkei Ovos, for example. I was surprised to find out that her daughter was also strictly shomeres mitzvos and knew quite a bit about Judaism.

The daughter had completed her studies in engineering and at that time was working as manager of a furniture factory. I asked her how she had managed to keep mitzvos, especially Shabbos and the Jewish holidays, during her studies, and how she managed to keep mitzvos now that she held a senior position in a state plant. Her answer was: "If a person very much wants to do something, HaKodosh Boruch Hu helps him!"

She pointed to several scars on her hands, particularly on her palms, and she said, "These scars are not the result of accidental wounds."

Her wounds, she explained, she had inflicted on herself. They helped her get out of certain work she was supposed to do on Shabbos or holidays. She was adamant not to do them, so that she wouldn't desecrate Shabbos or yom tov. She also told me that she frequently visits the shul and takes part in davening on Shabbos and yom tov, along with her mother. She mentioned to me the names of certain officials in the Israeli embassy in Moscow, whom she had met in Kiev when they were visiting the local shul.

Here Batya Maizlik asked me a most meaningful question. "Rabbi," she said, "can you tell me the purpose of your visit here? I have seen many, many American visitors to the shul who looked at us as if we were museum exhibits. I want you to know that even I, my mother's only daughter, am not the only Jewish woman in Kiev who knows a little about Judaism."

In Kiev, she told me, there is a group of young Jews her age, and even older, who thirst to learn and know more about their roots, about Jews, and about Judaism. These young people are desperate for books and other learning materials. Would you be able, she asked, to supply their needs in this area?

Replying to my inquiry, she explained that similar groups were also active in other cities. This awakening was assisted a lot by young Jews from Lithuania and Latvia, from Georgia, from Bucharia, and from Carpathian Russia, because Jews from those areas were still pretty familiar with their Jewish heritage. Those who had influenced their offspring, even if they were born amidst the Soviet regime, had a sense of love for Jewish tradition and for Am Yisroel.

Since the hour was late, and I had to leave, we decided to continue our discussion the next evening, when I would come again to eat supper with them.

A Request for Seforim and Tashmishei Kedusha

When I arrived at the Meizlik home the next night, the daughter told me that she had gone to the market at five o'clock that morning and, after standing two hours in line, she realized that there was no fish left. That being the case, she bought herring and asked if I would be satisfied with this for Shabbos. I responded with the old Yiddish expression, "Bemokom she'ein ish, iz herring oich a fish!"

She also told me that she had bought a chicken and taken it for shechita to the shochet. When I questioned her, she told me that the shochet is an elderly man who also serves as a mohel. But in recent years, because of his fear of the powers, he refuses to perform mila. Only in exceptional cases, when he is a hundred percent sure that no one else would know about it, does he agree to circumcise. She also told me about another shochet in Kiev, by the name of Twersky.

At this point in the conversation, I revealed to the Meizlik family that my coming to the U.S.S.R. was a result of the explicit invitation of HaRav Yehuda Leib Levine, the rav of Moscow, who asked me to teach the profession of mila to the talmidim in his yeshiva. I added that my official license expires in only three more weeks, and therefore I will have to leave Russia soon, but in the meantime I am ready to circumcise. If she knew anyone who wanted his sons to have a mila, I could do it.

The daughter replied immediately that she knows some young people who want to be circumcised. These are people who hope to make aliya some day, and they know that without a bris mila, they are not complete Jews. We then went back to the topic we had discussed the previous day. She told me that she hopes that when I return to the United States, I will take action for Russian Jews.

"What exactly do you want me to do?" I asked her.

"I told you about the young Jews here in Kiev and in other places, who are searching for their roots. They want to learn about Israel, about Jews and about Judaism," she answered. "We are in dire need of seforim: books about the essence of Judaism, books which teach alef- beis, books from which one can learn the Hebrew language, books written in Russian, but which describe Jewish history. We need tapes and records of Jewish songs; transparencies which contain all of this educational material; small mezuzas and even Mogen Dovid's that we can wear around our necks."

"I can get whatever you request," I said, "but I must find a way to get this material into the U.S.S.R."

"We also need matzos for Pesach, because many young people want to eat matzo on Pesach," she continued. "We are happy to receive clothing packages and other objects. Also Russians, and not only Jews, who receive these packages, sell their contents. We can use the money to finance our activities."

Hundreds of Defective Sifrei Torah

This conversation convinced me to set up a meeting with Rav Levine regarding the religious needs of Russian Jews. I continued this discussion on some of my other visits to the U.S.S.R., when I focused on the claim that the most essential Jewish religious needs are not at all available to Russian Jews. This situation was the result of two causes: one, the general lack of all merchandise in the U.S.S.R. and two, the government's absolute control over raw materials and production.

In those years at the end of the 50's and the beginning of the 60's, for example, the communities did not have official permission to bake matzos for Pesach. Without this permission, the communities could not do anything to provide their Jews with this vital commodity. In order to bake matzos, first they had to acquire a license to build an oven, and then to obtain flour, wood or charcoal to run the oven. All of these were impossible to procure without special licenses.

An interesting point -- and I made sure to point this out in my conversations with Rav Levine -- was that while the Russian government did not allow the Jewish communities to bake matzos, they allotted the Greek Orthodox church a quantity of flour for baking their Easter bread.

Rav Levine told me that even though there are hundreds of sifrei Torah in the U.S.S.R., it is impossible to read from them, because they are full of various defects. "In the yeshiva we teach our students to serve as sofrim, but even they are not capable of fixing these defects in the sifrei Torah. We do not have the proper ink, we don't have the sinews (gidim) to use as string," Rav Levine explained. Also shechita knives (chalafim) and instruments for bris mila were very rare.

And of course there was a serious lack of siddurim. Since the end of the 19th century no siddurim were printed in the U.S.S.R., besides the limited edition of Siddur HaShalom, which Rav Levine had published himself. It was impossible to acquire shrouds for the deceased, so they used to bury the dead in their nightclothes.

Smuggling in Esrogim

There were no esrogim in the Soviet Union. Different organizations had tried to send esrogim to Jewish communities, but in general the recipients did not get anything but the certification.

One time I had a chance to bring some big, beautiful Israeli esrogim into the Soviet Union. While I was in Paris on my way to Moscow, I bought myself a bunch of fruits of various species, which I placed into a plastic bag -- among them were the esrogim. When I arrived in Moscow, the customs agent asked me why I had brought a bag of fruit with me. I explained to him that I suffer from a Vitamin C deficiency, and I am forced to have a continuous supply of fresh fruit. He asked me to empty out the bag, and when I complied, his eyes shot straight at the esrogim.

"Where did you get such large lemons?" he asked me.

"These are California lemons," I replied.

There was no limit to his admiration, to the point that he called over his superior. "Look how big the lemons are in California."

I was fortunate, since he finally let me go by with the bag of fruit -- and the esrogim.

At another opportunity I brought with me an extra pair of tefillin, and when the investigator asked me why I have two, I answered, "One pair for the weekday, and the second pair for Shabbos."

The Butcher's Wife's Fear

As we already mentioned, Mrs. Meizlik told me about the old butcher in Kiev, who was also a mohel. I yearned to meet him. The man was a tremendous yirei Shomayim, and his shechita was accepted by everyone, even by the stringent Skverer Chassidim. His name was Edelman, and he lived only two streets away from the Meizlik family.

Being a mohel, I wanted to speak with this mohel from Kiev about his method of work. I also wanted to see and examine his chalaf. When I asked Mrs. Meizlik to lead me to the shochet's house, she hesitated. She was worried about being seen in the street in the company of an American citizen, even for such a short time as was necessary for the walk of the two short blocks.

She finally agreed, but only on condition that she would step out first and I would come after her, at a safe distance. This method of being in the streets and cities of the Soviet Union was the most recommended. "When we get to the house, I will go my way," Baila Maizlik added, "and you go straight in. His house is the one with the low windows."

The old widow started her stroll with her slow gait, and I was forced to keep the same slow speed, no less, in order to fulfill the conditions I had accepted on myself. When I finally arrived at the courtyard of the shochet's house, I had no difficulty identifying the place. At the sound of my first knock on the door, a reply came immediately in the voice of a woman. When she slightly opened the door, I asked her in Yiddish, "Does the shochet live here?"

Her answer was in true Jewish fashion, with two questions to my one question: "Who are you, and what do you want?"

"I am a rabbi from America," I said, "and I want to meet with the shochet."

"You are forbidden to come in the house," came her immediate, aggressive response.

I was stunned for a moment. "Then I will meet with him outside," I finally said.

Again her reaction did not take long to come: "I do not want him to be seen in your company."

At that time, I was not yet accustomed to thinking like most people did then in the U.S.S.R. in the 50's and 60's. "Why not?" I asked.

She took a deep breath and replied, "I don't want my husband to be seen with an `Americano,'" her voice started to tremble. "Do you see how many pairs of eyes are staring at us?" She hinted to the direction of the courtyard, and in her eyes I saw sincere fear.

"If you have a drop of mercy in your heart, then do not ask any further questions! Simply go away, please. And you should have a good Shabbos," she whispered.

With these hesitant words, our conversation came to an end. She retreated into her home, closed the door, and locked it in my face.

With a feeling of sadness I left, from a visit that would never be. It was clear to me that in her heart she wanted to let me into her house but her fear of the government prevented her from doing it. It was a shame to miss this opportunity, a real shame.

Hysterical Fear of the Regime

This was not the first occurrence of its kind, and certainly not the last which I encountered in my experiences and involvement in projects of hatzala and chessed. Many times it happened that people did not receive me as a desired guest. I got "the red carpet treatment," Russian style.

I remember a similar episode that happened to me in a later trip that I had arranged to the Soviet Union. Before that trip I was asked by a Chabad activist to transport a small Tanya to Rav Yanish Gur Arye, the elderly Chabad Rabbi of the city of Lvov (formerly Lemberg).

A short time after I arrived in Lvov, I went to the address that I had been directed to. I went on the side streets, with the Tanya hidden well on my body, until I found the place. I discovered that Rabbi Yanish was living on the top floor, in part of a housing project of simple apartments connected to each other. Without particular difficulty, I found the door that bore his name. I knocked loudly, so that the residents inside would hear, but not too loud, for fear that the neighbors would hear. Almost immediately the door opened and I entered into the front room.

I looked at the man who had opened the door for me. "Is the Rabbi here?" I asked.

"He is sick and confined to his bed," came his quiet reply, almost in a whisper.

"Am I permitted to see him?" I asked breathlessly, remembering my visit to the shochet in Kiev. I sighed from relief when the man signaled for me to follow him. He walked the length of the corridor, and I followed him. We passed one room and entered the second room, which was small and dark. While I attempted to get my eyes used to the weak light, I managed to discern the poor furniture in the room: a table on the verge of collapse, an old bed, and in the bed- the honorable Rabbi Yanish himself. His head was supported by three thick pillows, so that he was almost in a sitting position. His face was pale and his eyes were feverish. I saw that the man was indeed sick. When I greeted him with "Shalom," he extended a trembling hand to shake my hand.

"My name is Rabbi Bronstein. I have come from America with a gift for you." I took out the sefer Tanya from its hiding place. As soon as Rav Yanish saw the sefer, his whole bearing changed. His face lit up, and even the room seemed lighter.

Now he made great efforts to put himself into a complete sitting position, he reached towards me with great difficulty to take the gift that I had brought him. In a quiet, whispering voice, that was almost impossible to hear, he tried to say a few words of thanks. I bent down to him to catch his words, but suddenly the silence was broken by a loud noise. We heard hurried, excited steps from the direction of the corridor. I turned towards the door and, standing in the doorway was a woman burning with anger. It was obvious that she was the Rabbi's wife.

With shining eyes she got straight to the point. "Who are you?" she asked without any formality whatsoever. The memory of my visit to the shochet in Kiev came flooding back amidst the darkness. I was totally shocked. Before I even had a chance to answer, she demanded an answer from me. In a voice not my own, I found myself whispering and telling her who I was, that I had come from the United States!

Her face froze in terror. A Jew from America -- here, in the house! Her reaction was immediate and unmistakable, "Get out of here!" Before I could move she came towards me, ready to speed up my exit in case it was necessary.

Suddenly, the woman spotted the small sefer in her husband's hand, a book she did not recognize as belonging in her house. "What did you bring to us?" she screamed, and before I could reply, she was already ordering me, "Take it back!"

She repeated her words again more emphatically.

Out of despair, her husband buried the precious book in his chest. "Nein, nein, nein," was heard in his weak call. "I will not let you take this from me!"

She looked at her husband, but she understood that she had been defeated. Not entirely, though. While I was approaching the stairs and the door, she also followed in my footsteps. When I reached the entrance of the building, she parted from me in a special way. She screamed after me in a very loud voice, which I felt could have been heard in the whole city.

There is a happy end to this story. A number of years later, that angry woman managed to leave the Soviet Union. I met her in the United States, where she had immigrated. Her bewilderment at seeing me was great. With tears in her eyes, she asked my forgiveness for her disgraceful conduct back in Lvov. "You understand why I behaved that way." She repeated, over and over, "You understand!"

Yes, I understood.


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