Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

3 Sivan 5763 - June 3, 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 III

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.

In the second part, Rav Waldshein told of his experiences in Siberia. Thankfully, he and all the Polish citizens only had to spend six months there. After that they were all released on Simchas Torah. Most of the yeshiva bochurim went as far south as they could, to Uzbekistan. Rav Waldshein stayed with Rav Orlansky, to search for his mother and his wife, respectively. They were able to locate Rebbetzin Orlansky, but not Mrs. Waldshein, so Rav Waldshein went south to Jambor, Uzbekistan.


I boarded the train on Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan and arrived in Jambor on a Thursday after three days of traveling. During the trip I ate some bread that kind Jews had given me and drank at the train stations along the way, where local villagers sold bottles of milk. The milk gave me a bit of strength. In Jambor I set out to look for my friends and found them in a nearby village. I registered myself at the local police station, where I received a residential permit after presenting my released-prisoner certificate.

The main problem in Jambor was procuring food. At first we were given only flour. We would gather twigs and branches, build a fire and bake a rudimentary dough. This technique produced small biscuits that sated us a bit.

A month later another bochur arrived. He had not traveled together with everyone else upon our release from Siberia, but had stayed elsewhere for a time. "I saw your mother in the train station!" he said right away. "She's here, just a few stops away!"

The feeling of excitement that seized me is beyond description. Ima was alive and nearby! I decided I wouldn't lose even a moment's time. It was Chanukah time. The weather was cold and rainy, but I set out running and waited, exposed to the elements, for the train that departed only once a day. Once aboard I felt like I wanted to push the train to make it go faster.

I can recall every detail of our reunion. For a long time I had not known what had become of her. When we finally saw one another healthy and well we were overjoyed. On the way to the village outside of Jambor she told me what had happened to her.

She had been taken to Siberia because her husband taught Torah. They kept her in a camp near a small village. The women's task was to gather grain under the hot sun. It was arduous, exhausting work. Ima would get up at 4:00 a.m. to wash everyone's clothes and then would go out to work. She would return to the camp completely exhausted.

Eventually, Hashem delivered her from these arduous conditions. One day a policeman came looking for her and said, "You're coming with me now!"

She didn't know what he wanted, but she had no choice other than to climb onto the wagon and set out with him on a journey that lasted several hours. She wavered between hope and despair, growing more and more afraid as time went by. Finally they arrived in a major city where they stopped at a large building that turned out to be a big textile factory. There were hundreds of women working there. The woman who ran the factory said, "We heard you are an expert seamstress and we're looking for an overseer. From now on you will be the overseer here."

Ima did not know how to thank Hashem enough for the new job. Although her expertise was very limited she managed to get by and performed her task very well. It was not tiring work and she even received plenty of food, which was an important factor. For several months she was living like a queen. It didn't get any better than that in Siberia!

She remained there until her entire group was released and then was sent to the Jambor area like me. She moved into my quarters, which I had been sharing with several other bochurim, including Dovid Zaritzky.

After a certain period without work one of our group traveled to the nearest city, assessed the local conditions and told us we could get by there. We rented a room in the city and began to look for work. All of us found jobs in various factories.

I got a job in a walnut-oil factory. Each of the workers would receive several sacks full of walnuts and had to crush them with a hammer. I had to produce 4 kilograms of shelled and crushed walnuts. If I didn't meet my quota or wanted to pocket a bit to eat in the evening I would put a few pieces of gravel in the sacks to increase their weight. The problem was what to do on Shabbos. We asked permission to take the sacks home on Friday so we could do all of the work on motzei Shabbos. We promised to bring in the set quota on Sunday. They agreed to our request and thus we had work that provided both income and nourishment--for we would eat some of the walnuts of course--without having to transgress any Shabbos laws, even in Communist Russia.

Ima's job was to prevent pilfering in a factory, although during this period of hunger and deprivation everyone stole.

"Aliya" from an Israeli Kibbutz to Russia

At the factory my mother met a Jewish Communist lady whose husband was a high-ranking officer. She took Ima aside and told her she wanted her son to know something about Judaism and asked whether Ima knew of someone who could teach him. Ima replied that her son had "once" learned Torah and could tutor the boy.

The woman was very enthusiastic and I began to teach him every day. How did they pay me? The woman's husband was in a position of responsibility: During that period everyone received bread in exchange for coupons. The husband would gather all the coupons that had been collected, check their validity and throw them away so they couldn't be used again. He began to put a few of them off to the side to give me as a gift. Thus I was able to receive a double portion of bread and to really eat my fill. I even had a few left over, which I would exchange for other foods such as eggs or fruits and vegetables.

Once I began teaching my talmid our circumstances improved considerably, both spiritually and economically. For the first time since I had been taken away from the yeshiva I sat and learned without any worries about my subsistence-- although it was still a far cry from yeshiva-style learning.

The boy's parents' had lived in Kiev but they fled south to escape the Germans. They tried to keep mitzvos as best they could under Communist rule and under war conditions.

The woman told my mother that when she was 19 she had gone to Eretz Yisroel where she lived on a Shomer Hatzair kibbutz. One day she was notified that her parents had been killed back in Russia, leaving no one to look after her five little brothers and sisters, and she felt compelled to go back to take care of them. "Had I remained at that secular kibbutz in Eretz Yisroel I would have become a total shiksa a long time ago," she said with insight, "While here in Russia I have remained religious, boruch Hashem, and I try my best to keep mitzvos."

Further help came to us unexpectedly from a faraway place. I recalled that my father had corresponded with HaRav Ben Tzion Bruk, who had moved to Eretz Yisroel several years before the war. They knew one another from Yeshivas Novardok. Later R' Ben Tzion set up Yeshivas Novardok in Jerusalem and I remembered the address by heart: Botei Neitin 2, Jerusalem, Palestine.

I sent him a letter that must have roamed from place to place across thousands of miles before reaching its destination. I didn't know whether the letter would make it past all of the censors and across the great distance, but I did my hishtadlus. In the letter I hinted to him about our plight.

One day one of the bochurim went to the post office and the clerk, who was himself Jewish, told him there was a package for us from Eretz Yisroel. Had one of the clerks coveted the contents of the package we would never have known it had even been sent, and such interceptions occurred frequently during periods of austerity. But Hashgocho protis guided the letter all the way from Jerusalem to Jambor, Uzbekistan. A package sent from the warm heart of a talmid chochom who had acquired the items it contained through mesirus nefesh, for neither in Eretz Yisroel were they easy to obtain.

The clerk would inspect all packages so he knew its contents and even separated "ma'aser" for himself- -a comb that he happened to like-- but handed the rest over to us. We received a package of Lieber cocoa, a large bar of soap and several other small items. The soap and the cocoa were rarities and could be sold in the city for food staples, earning us a nice profit.

Flour or Tea?

Ima told a Russian woman she became friends with that her husband had remained on the side occupied by the Germans and she did not know what became of him. The woman replied, "All of the Jews who fell into German hands are no longer alive."

On the Soviet broadcasts we heard stories about German atrocities but we dismissed them as Soviet propaganda. After the war we realized that in this case the reports had been all too true.

Eventually we received permission to set up a beis knesses, where we davened regularly. We called it "The Minyan of Polish Refugees." The Soviets permitted all of the bochurei yeshiva from Poland to participate. This was no small thing in Southern Russia, which had previously been devoid of any Jewish presence.

In the city of Samarkand was an ancient Jewish kehilloh and we decided to write a letter telling them of our existence and our circumstances. After several months one of the locals brought me a package, saying it was addressed to R' Rafael. Inside I found a copy of maseches Gittin! I had written in the letter that I would like to study Gittin but didn't have a gemora. There was a very affluent Jew in Samarkand who had purchased the gemora for me and sent it.

We also sent letters to Jewish organizations in the U.S. asking for assistance and food. Our requests were forwarded to Rav Levy, who was on shlichus in Teheran. He sent four sacks of flour, each wrapped in several pieces of white cloth. We were very happy and even made use of the cloth, selling it for money or food.

In our next letter to the kind Jews in Teheran we thanked them for the flour and asked Rav Levy to send tea, because in Uzbekistan flour was fairly easy to obtain whereas tea was much more expensive. The tea eventually arrived, but not without a reaction from the authorities.

One of the bochurim listed among the addressees was ordered to report to the NKVD offices. He left home at 10:00 p.m. very distressed and returned at 5:00 a.m., trembling from head to toe. When we tried to get him to talk he kept his mouth shut! But after a few hours he could no longer contain himself and began to tell us the story.

The NKVD agents told him they knew he had received flour, but were not indicting him for this. The tea, however, was an act of smuggling because it was typically sold on the black market. His punishment for this violation was exile to Siberia. Yet they would be willing "to take pity on him" and forego the punishment if he agreed to start providing them the names of the "Poles" living with him. They maintained that some of us were spies. Therefore he should report any suspicious movement or illegal act to the authorities, which would exonerate him and reverse his sentence.

The bochur was deeply disturbed at the idea of becoming an informer. The officer's wife was present during the conversation and seeing his state of dismay she said to him quietly, "You have no idea, but there are Jews who come in to snitch on one another."

Unfortunately there was indeed a small minority of Jews without a conscience who wanted to gain the authorities' favor by informing on their brethren. On the other hand, these informers sometimes helped their Jewish brethren, using their connections with the authorities. I was once jailed-- though I was completely innocent--and an informer, using a sum of money they had given him, intervened to have me released.

From that point on every package sent to us was inspected. In keeping with the accepted practice under the Communist regime we had to share the contents of the package with the postal clerk and his wife. If she said, for instance, "This time you received cocoa in your parcel," we knew we would have to give some or all of the cocoa to the clerk's wife.

Yet we were still left with plenty of the goods sent. We would sell them for rice, potatoes, bread and some clothes. Who needed more? This was living well!

Once we bought a chicken and had an old shochet among us shecht it. How wonderful it tasted! It was the first time I had eaten meat since my arrest. The few fruits that grew there, mostly melon and watermelon, added a bit of variety to our diet.

We even managed to bake matzos. We had our own oven and if we were able to get flour we baked matzos. If not we would buy corn, grind it and make corn-flour matzos. Due to our conditions we were given a heter to eat kitniyos on Pesach.

During our last years there we even obtained raisins and made wine for arba kosos and Shabbosim. Raisins were one of the rare products we bought with the money from our tea shipments.

But before the packages began to arrive we suffered real hunger. I recall the frightful story of a mother who found out the patients at the hospital where her son was staying did not receive food in sufficient quantities to facilitate their recovery. We cut back and from the little rice in our possession, Ima would cook him hot cereal. Every day I was sent to the hospital to bring him a bowl of cereal, which was a real nisoyon since the smell of the cereal would remind me of my hunger pangs.

Upon arriving at the hospital one day I was notified he had passed away. What was the first thing I did? I ate the bowl of cereal! Only afterwards did I feel sorry over his passing. I should have begun attending to his burial arrangements, but my first instinct was to eat! That shows how difficult the situation was.

Ima tried her best to keep us from suffering from hunger. She would get up at 4:00 in the morning to cook something for us. We never went to work hungry. That held us over. People died not only of hunger, but also of despair and lack of care. Ima helped us persevere throughout those difficult years and gave us strength.

Somehow we made it through the war, living in Uzbekistan. In the summer of 5705 (1945) we heard on the radio that the war had ended. Our happiness was mixed with worry. What had happened to our families? Who among them remained alive? What were Poland, Lithuania and the rest of Europe like, now that the war was over?

I began to send letters to the places where my relatives lived. During all of our years in Siberia and Uzbekistan, Ima and I wavered between hope and despair. Now I hoped the survivors would return to their homes; perhaps they would find my letters and tell me what had become of my loved ones.

Eventually I did receive a reply. It came from my grandfather's town. The exact date was blotted out. We found out that Abba had been captured by the Germans in the middle of a shiur at the yeshiva and was taken away together with all of the bochurim at the yeshiva. They were murdered immediately. In areas of German occupation in Russia the Jews were not brought to concentration camps first, but where killed on the spot. My little brother was also killed together with the members of his yeshiva, the year before the war ended. Hy'd.

Ima was a strong woman. She encouraged me to accept the din. Only then did we begin to comprehend how great the miracle we had been granted. Ima and I were the only members of our family left alive, thanks to the fact that through Divine Providence both of us had been taken to Siberia, which saved us from certain death. We also made it through the war in relatively tolerable conditions both in terms of ruchniyus and gashmiyus.

From Russia to Eretz Yisroel

Six months after the war, the Soviet Union was still in a state of chaos and nobody had found the time to consider what to do with us. Just days before Pesach we were notified that on erev Pesach a train would come to take us away. Ten people would travel in each car and each passenger could choose with whom he wanted to travel. There was still some time left for us to prepare for the departure. We baked a sufficient quantity of matzos, made raisin wine and packed potatoes for the journey.

In my car were my mother and several bochurim from various yeshivas and together we held a Pesach Seder on the train. That was the first happy Seder night we had known for years. We truly felt we were departing for freedom after years of difficult enslavement.

After two weeks of travel we arrived in the city of Lodz, Poland, which had a large concentration of Jewish survivors. The Lodz Ghetto had not been destroyed like the ghettos in other cities. For the time being refugees squatted in the many houses that stood empty.

We stayed there for several months until the Joint helped us travel to Czechoslovakia. From there we went on to France to a large castle the Joint had rented in a little village. Jewish refugees, including many yeshiva bochurim, filled the hundreds of rooms in the castle. All of them were looking for a way to leave Europe.

With us in the castle, in separate quarters of course, were Bais Yaakov girls who had survived. Many of the bochurim found their zivug there and married. The castle became a place of simchah following the great mourning. We were going on with life and building new Jewish homes!

Some stayed in France for a few months, while others stayed for as long as a year or two. We were among the first to leave. During Chanukah 5707 (1946) we set out for the destination almost everyone was hoping to reach -- America. A dear American Jew, Stephen Klein, arranged entry visas for us, i.e. all of us yeshiva bochurim who managed to survive and had gathered in France waiting for an opportunity to go to a land where we could resume studying Torah in peace. We bid farewell to the bochurim staying on in France and set out on the journey.

We sailed on a military vessel with numerous American soldiers who had taken part in liberating the camps and were now returning home. With us were all of the members of Rav Weissmandel's yeshiva. Those who sailed to America after us got to travel in more comfortable passenger ships, but who felt the difference? All we cared about was leaving blood- drenched Europe and traveling to the land of freedom.

The crossing lasted several weeks and upon landing my uncle, HaRav Avrohom Jofen zt'l, was waiting for us. He had made it to America before the war, together with HaRav Aharon Kotler zt'l and HaRav Zacks, and they set up yeshivas there as a way of continuing the yeshivas in Europe that had been destroyed.

I had maintained ties with my uncle ever since my arrival in Siberia. I sent him a letter and he sent me $100, which was an enormous sum for me. The Russians were sorely in need of dollars, but the law required that they obtain the recipient's signature before taking the dollars. Thanks to this system I received the full value, 500 rubles. We continued to correspond throughout the war years and he even handled my entry visa to the U.S., personally.

After picking us up at the port, he provided lodgings for Ima and me and soon afterwards I began studying at Yeshivas Mir with the talmidim from Shanghai. During my three-year stay in America I made up for all the years I had been severed from my learning in Siberia and Uzbekistan. Again I was learning all the time--my dream throughout the war years.

In 5710 (1960) I married an American girl, but on condition we move to Eretz Yisroel right away. Although I had established myself in America I did not want to remain there, primarily because I wanted to live near my mother, who had moved to Jerusalem after marrying HaRav Chaim Zeev Finkel, the mashgiach of Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem.

We arrived in Eretz Yisroel that same year and settled in Katamon. In the Israel of the 1950s we were considered well- to-do because we brought an electric refrigerator with us! The whole neighborhood would bring their food to us, especially during the chagim. Everybody else still had iceboxes, and our refrigerator, along with the washing machine we brought, were real marvels for the neighbors.

Here in Israel I continued learning at Mir since part of the yeshiva had moved to Jerusalem; to this day it perpetuates its glorious tradition, in the Holy City. And I have remained in Jerusalem ever since, boruch Hashem.


Of the 320 bochurim who studied with me at Yeshivas Baranovitch only 20 survived. Some of them were with Yeshivas Mir in Shanghai and others went to Siberia, like me. One of them survived the extermination camps.

When I read books about Siberia or about exile in Southern Russia, I feel like I'm reading a biography on my own life. Every word rings true. I had a relatively easy experience in Siberia since I was there for only six months and during the summer. Many were sent to the middle of Siberia during the winter, when temperatures can dip to -46 F, and in fact many prisoners there died of exposure. Others were devastated by hunger and diseases such as malaria. HaKodosh Boruch Hu spared me from all of this and kept me alive in Siberia. He was at my side until I left and has been at my side to this day.

HaRav Yaakov Galinsky, shlita, who was also with us in Siberia, once said, "What did we dream of in Siberia? We did not dream of setting up a Jewish home, of marriage and family life. We did not think of freedom. Our only dream was to receive a Jewish burial. And now, boruch Hashem, we have had the zchus to get out of there, lehokim bayis beYisroel and to have sons and grandsons learning Torah. Who would have thought . . . ?"

The End


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