Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

13 Elul 5763 - September 10, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Where is Yossele?

by B. Rom

A Shabbos night in Haifa in the year 5720 (1960). Rav Sholom Schwadron returns from the beis knesses where he was learning after the seudah, to the home where he is staying as a guest.

Rav Sholom is absorbed in his thoughts. All is dark and quiet. Suddenly a chilling cry shatters the night air: "Where is Yossele?! (Eifoh Yossele?)" Out of the darkness emerge several 18-year- old boys who had been lounging around. "Where is Yossele?!" they all chime in.

They were sure they would encounter an old man trembling with fear, but Rav Sholom was undaunted. He motioned for them to draw near and they stepped forward in astonishment, not speaking a word. A tense silence pervaded the dark street. Rav Sholom turned to them and said, "Did you call out to me, `Where is Yossele?' "

"Yeah, that's right!" they answered in unison.

"Do you mean to say I am a thief and a killer?" asked Rav Sholom.

"Yeah, absolutely!" they said, echoing the widespread public sentiments of the time.


Born in Russia to Alter and Ida Schuchmacher, Yossele was raised from birth in the home of his maternal grandparents, R' Nachman and Miriam Shtarks. After years of suffering under Soviet Communism the Shtarks left the Soviet `paradise' and moved to Yerushalayim with their 19-year-old son Sholom. Three months later the Schuchmachers followed with their 10- year-old daughter Tzinoh and her brother Yossele, then five.

Upon their arrival in Israel, Yossele and Tzinoh again went to live with their grandparents, who took them in gladly. Yossele stayed there, visiting his parents only infrequently, while Tzinoh was sent to a religious boarding school.

In Russia the Schuchmachers had managed to keep Torah and mitzvas despite the Communist government, but upon arriving in Eretz Hakodesh the Zionist government made a point of housing the new immigrants among secular Jews to encourage the family to abandon Yiddishkeit. This was a widespread practice and in the case of the Schuchmachers it achieved its goal.

Yossele's parents, influenced by the permissive atmosphere in Israel, cast off the Jewish way of life entirely. What they did not do in Russia they did here: the two became Communists and wanted to return to Mother Russia! But there was one obstacle standing in their way, an obstacle that launched the war for Yossele's soul, which later evolved into a war against Judaism and the Jewish way of life in Eretz Yisroel.

Communist Russia was sealed tight. One could not enter unless a relative sent a letter of invitation. Ida Schuchmacher had a sister named Rivkoh still living in Russia. Alter Schuchmacher wrote his sister-in-law about the many hardships immigrants faced in Eretz Yisroel and asked her to send a letter of invitation.

Rivkoh, who kept Torah and mitzvas, was able to discern from the letter that her sister and brother-in-law were in a state of spiritual deterioration and surmised what the outcome would be if they returned. She wrote to her parents about Alter and Ida's plans, which is where the story essentially begins.

R' Nachman was painfully aware of Alter and Ida's decline and knew that the moment Yossele returned to his parents he would become secular like them. Wanting to avoid this at all costs, he whisked Yossele away and, following the advice of gedolei Torah, hid the boy far from home.

As soon as the father heard that his father-in-law had hidden Yossele from him, he turned to the police for help, but they showed little interest.

For the Zionist government the wave of return to Russia, which included others besides the Schuchmachers, was a source of great embarrassment. The authorities correctly assumed that until Yossele was returned to his father, the family would not travel to Russia. Every resident who returned to Russia was an affirmation that the State did not absorb immigrants adequately. Thus at first the authorities, the press--which covered the titillating story eagerly - - and public opinion all sided with R' Nachman Shtarks.

But when the government realized R' Nachman was not trying to prevent the Schuchmachers from returning to Russia but to save the child's soul from apostasy, it soon switched sides and began to wage a war against R' Nachman and his supporters -- the chareidi community in Eretz Yisroel and around the world.

In the winter of 5720 (1960) an Israeli court ordered R' Nachman Shtarks to turn the child over to his parents. Summoning all of the inner powers he utilized in Russia to fight against the Communists, he said, "I was not afraid of the heretics there and I will not tremble before the heretics here!" His bold proclamation rallied the entire chareidi world to his side.

The police now mobilized to scour the country in search of Yossele. Therefore the rabbonim decided to smuggle the child abroad and to find him surrogate parents. Ruth Ben David (later Ruth Blau, the wife of Rav Amram Blau, a leader of Neturei Karta) agreed to carry out the mission and went to meet with the boy in his place of hiding. One of the figures handling the affair, Leibel Freidman, introduced the two.

This is how the conversation might have gone.

"This is Ruth. She has come to take you out of the country."

"Will I be able to go to cheider soon?" Yossele asked her.

"Be'ezras Hashem," said Ruth. "I think so."

"When are we leaving," asked Yossele eagerly.

"Well, that's not a simple matter. I have to travel to Europe first to arrange documents and when I come back, we'll go together."

"How long will that take," asked Yossele, who had been living in seclusion for months.

"A few weeks," she replied. "After all this time that's not too long, right?"

Yossele nodded with a glum smile. But Ruth was not completely at ease. The adventure she had undertaken involved various risks. "Yossele, you should know what we are going to do will not be easy. Are you positive you won't change your mind later and decide you want to go back to your mother and father?"

"I wouldn't want to go back to my parents. They don't want me to live like a Jew. But I will miss my grandparents. I have always lived with them and I love them. But I know as long as I'm here the police could come at any time and return me to my father, and I don't want to go back to him."

"Quite a brave little boy," thought Ruth to herself, resolving to make every effort to help Yossele face the trials lying ahead.


Ruth spent many long hours devising a plan to smuggle Yossele out of the country. The only hope of passing through the airport checkpoints was to disguise the boy well, for his picture was familiar to all policemen and security personnel in the country.

Ruth, who held French citizenship, decided to travel to France to secure a visa for a daughter she did not have. She would then return to Israel, disguise Yossele as a little girl and bring him back to France.

Taking along a picture of Yossele, Ruth set about the elaborate preparations. She was well aware that if caught she would be sent straight to prison, but the image of Yossele and his piercing words remained in her mind's eye, giving her inner strength.

In Geneva she went to a touch-up expert who transformed the picture of the child with his distinctly Jewish face into a cute little girl. His black hair was lengthened and lightened. His chubby face was thinned and his eyes were concealed behind glasses. Ruth took the altered picture to the Israeli consulate to obtain a tourist visa for herself and her daughter, "Claudine."

It was not easy to board the ship with a nonexistent daughter and to pass through passport control, but to ensure Yossele's safe passage "Claudine" had to appear on the lists and the passport had to be stamped with an exit visa. Ruth prayed this important phase of the plan would proceed without mishap. As she boarded the ship Ruth told the border control official who examined the passport that Claudine was dawdling nearby and would come in a moment.

Ruth sat on the deck anxiously. She would have two seats at the table and it would be very apparent there was no little girl with her.

"Claudine!" she heard a voice shout in French.

Ruth turned her head in alarm. To her amazement she saw a young woman with seven small children, including a cute little girl about ten years old who answered to the name Claudine. The woman was very pleased when Ruth generously offered to let Claudine sleep in her berth and eat at her side. When the ship docked in Haifa the girl disembarked with her and then the mother and daughter thanked Ruth as they parted company, while Ruth thanked Hashem in her heart for the open miracle that had been sent to her--and to the boy whose spiritual future now depended on her.

Meanwhile . . .

Meanwhile a tempest raged on in Israel. R' Nachman Shtarks was arrested and put in jail. The media jumped at every scrap of information on the affair coming from the chareidi world and blew it up beyond all proportions. Secular newspapers vilified R' Nachman and the chareidi world backing him. Police entered yeshivas with search warrants in hand and everyone walking the street with the appearance of a chareidi Jew was accused by the masses of being a kidnapper.

In contrast to the frenzied uproar of the anti-religious, Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem, issued a public announcement reading, "R' Nachman Shtarks is preventing his grandson Yossele Schuchmacher from emigrating from Eretz Yisroel. His son-in- law wants to emigrate to Russia and, as is well known, there he will grow estranged from Judaism. According to din Torah R' Nachman Shtarks must prevent his grandson from leaving Eretz Yisroel to go to a place of heresy, for the sons of one's sons are like [one's own] sons according to din Torah. Whoever can assist him in this matter must assist him as much as possible."

Just one week after Ruth returned to Israel, she and Yossele, looking like a girl in every way, boarded a plane bound for Italy and then took a train to Lucerne, Switzerland, where Yossele was known as Menachem Levy. Without any documents he could not enroll in the elementary school like other children his age. Instead he studied at the local yeshiva among talmidim several years older than he was.

After a year in Switzerland, Yossele moved to France. He spent seven months studying at a yeshiva in the city of Foubline where he was able to enjoy life among children his own age.

Meanwhile in Israel the police found and arrested the couple Yossele had stayed with when he left his grandparents' home to go into hiding. They broke down under the police interrogation, naming Yossele's uncle Sholom Shtarks as the courier who brought the boy to them.

Hearing of the arrests and worried the police might come to France, Ruth immediately began looking for a new location.

During one of her visits to the US Ruth met a family of Satmar Chassidim living in Williamsburg who agreed to take Yossele into their home. This was the final stop for Yossele, now known as Yankele Frankel. Ruth's fears came true and gradually other links in the chain of people tied to the Yossele Affair were uncovered by Security Services (the precursor to the General Security Services) agents, employing sophisticated investigating techniques.

The public furor continued. When Prime Minister David Ben Gurion would wake up in the morning the first question on his lips was, "Has Yossele been found yet?"

By this time Yossele was in the US, unfettered and uninhibited, but Ruth was not relaxed at all. She knew it was just a matter of time before Yossele was discovered.

Ruth decided to sell her home to buy an apartment in Jerusalem. She traveled to France and notified realtors that she wanted to put her house up for sale. A few days after her arrival in France a man named Mr. Farber made an appointment to meet with her about the house she wanted to sell.

Only when she arrived at the "attorney's office" did Ruth sense something was amiss. Realizing it was a trap she decided she would try to slip away. As she stepped out of the car she intentionally forgot her purse on the seat.

"Take your purse with you," commanded Mr. Farber in a stern voice.

They entered a house and ascended a narrow, winding staircase leading to a tiny room. Inside the room was a man of average height with a large head, dyed hair and dark sunglasses. "What an evil man," was Ruth's first thought.

He sat down across from Ruth without saying a word. His two assistants grabbed the purse from her hands, opened it and emptied the contents onto the table: rings, papers, documents, address books and receipts.

"Ms. Ben David," he said. "You did not come here to sell your house. You came here with a far more important purpose in mind. Now tell us where Yossele is!"

The man was none other than the head of the Shin Bet. Total calm settled upon Ruth. She was unafraid. Suddenly she understood everything and decided she would resist with every ounce of inner strength she had. But the Shin Bet agents were more powerful and eventually they prevailed.

After a few days of fruitless interrogations, they said her son had been under investigation and he was the one who turned her in (which later proved to be false). Ruth believed them and began to cooperate, telling them about Yossele's various incarnations in full detail. Meanwhile, Yossele's guardians in America had no inkling of what was taking place in France.

One motzei Shabbos Yossele sat chatting with his adopted family when the bell rang. "Is Yankele Frankel here?" inquired the callers.


"Who brought you the boy?" the visitors, who identified themselves as immigration officers, asked the baal habayis.

"His mother," he replied.

"Can we see the boy's passport?" the man requested.

"His mother has it."

"Then we'll have to take the boy with us to verify his identity. Please tell him to arrange his belongings," ordered the man.

Yossele went upstairs to pack, with tears in his eyes. "What will I tell them? How will I answer their questions?" he thought. The baal habayis was invited to accompany Yossele to safeguard him.

Soon the interrogations began. The men were not immigration officers any more than the Shin Bet agents who accosted Ruth Ben David in France were attorneys. At first the brave boy tried to invent a cover story to hide his real identity but within a few days he, too, broke when the interrogators played on Yossele's Jewish guilt.

"You know well who you are and you know that according to the Torah one must honor his parents. How can you transgress this mitzvah openly?" they goaded.

At that point Yossele broke out in tears. "Yes, I'm Yossele, but I don't want to go back to Eretz Yisroel. I want to stay here in America! I want to go to yeshiva."

Back to . . .

The day of Yossele's return to Eretz Yisroel turned into a great media-fest. Photographers, reporters and top officials waited for the young boy to step down from the plane with a heavy police escort.

Yossele received vast piles of gifts, but no smile passed his lips. His parents hugged him happily in front of the cameras and reporters fired dozens of questions. Yet his face remained stony. He waited to be alone and then burst out in tears. Psychologists and other professionals were on hand to attend to the miserable boy, to release him from the trauma he had undergone and to set him "in the right direction." Unfortunately, they succeeded.

"Where's Yossele?"

"Are you implying I am a murderer or a thief?" demanded Rav Sholom Schwadron. The band of boys who had descended on him maintained their accusation. "I'm a thief? You're thieves! The Arabs were in Israel before you! What right did you have to drive them out and found a state here?"

The boys were pensively silent. They realized there was no simple answer. "Rabbi, you tell us . . . "

"I can't explain things to you in an instant. You should have searched for the answer long ago. I just wanted you to start thinking." Rav Sholom continued along his way with tears in his eyes.

"Where's Yossele?!" shouted the masses derisively toward every religious Jew walking down the street during this period.

Yet their scorn is merely an outer shell concealing a warm Jewish heart connected to a brainwashed head. When this klipoh is peeled away underneath there's a neshomoh yearning to rise up and cling to emes.


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