Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

5 Shevat 5764 - January 28, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Man with a Grave Mission

by Yisroel Friedman

Part II

Jews were always deeply concerned about graves, both their own and the graves of their ancestors. This reflects their belief in the continuation of the person after the death of the body: the soul continues and the body also has a role in the future. Many of our ancestors lie buried throughout the world, in every place that Jews have wandered in our long Golus. There is no central agency of the Jewish people to care for the many resting places of Jews throughout the Diaspora, but there are many smaller initiatives to try to help. Here we present the fascinating story of one individual who is involved in fixing and preserving Jewish gravesites throughout the world.

The first part of this article appeared in the issue of parshas Vayechi.

Gravestones in the Jail Yard

The connection with Eliyahu Chovah that I made in Izmir, Turkey, led me to a surprising new discovery.

I had spent a long time searching for the grave of R' Yaakov the Baal HaTurim. In Seder HaDoros his resting place is identified in different ways: Sius and Sakis. Therefore I didn't know where to start looking. But Eliyahu Chovah explained to me that these places were one and the same -- one was the name of a place in Greek and the other in Turkish.

Sius is a Greek island near Izmir that was under Turkish rule for a period of time -- which is the reason that there is also a Turkish name. Until then it was commonly held that the Baal HaTurim was buried in Toledo, along with his father the Rosh. But in reality this is a historical error: In his writings R' Nosson of Breslov says that when he returned from Eretz Yisroel [150 years ago] he passed through Sius in this area and paid homage at the grave of R' Yaakov Baal HaTurim. This is solid historical fact, testimony from a time not too distant.

I traveled to the island, of course, and indeed there is a town by this name. I asked about the cemetery but nobody had heard of it. I went into a hotel and asked. At the guest information counter I didn't receive any information. I called a taxi and we went out to look.

At first we found a cemetery for goyim. Suddenly, someone told me at the local museum that there are ancient gravestones lying around in the yard at which I should take a look. According to the inscriptions, there was no doubt that the gravestones belonged to Sephardic chachomim and rabbonim. When I asked from where the gravestones were taken, I learned they had been brought from the yard of the local jail. I went there and asked the guards to let me in. My request was granted and then I saw other gravestones lying in the yard in a state of desecration and disgrace. It was clear as day: the cemetery was located here on the jail grounds.

Later I went to the local archives of the national library. After waiting I received very valuable information. The local documentation stated clearly that R' Yaakov Baal HaTurim had lived here. The mystery was solved! But now the cemetery had to be redeemed from its state of desecration.

I went to the city hall, asked to speak with the mayor and laid forth my request. He replied that a request had to be made by an official organization. I contacted the Greek consulate in Israel, but to no avail. Maybe Greek immigrants in Israel could lend a hand. Maybe by placing a newspaper ad I could get in touch with whoever would be able to help.

Are other tzaddikim buried in Greece?

In Salonika there are a lot of graves of tzaddikim. I went to the kehilloh and there I met an elderly local rov. He told me all of the big talmidei chachomim buried in Salonika had been transferred to the new cemetery and the local university had been built on the site of the old cemetery, but more gravestones remained in the courtyard. The cemetery there is desecrated.

Gedolei Yisroel are indeed buried in the new cemetery. Three of the Beis Yosef's son's are buried there, as well as the Mahari Ben Lev, the Maharsham R' Shmuel deModena and others. One way or another, the cemeteries in Greece are badly in need of help and calling out for rescue. The leadership of the local communities has the power to handle this painful issue. How can they be roused?

The 20th of Sivan

Earlier you spoke about Izmir, Turkey. What about Istanbul?

In Istanbul, it wasn't I who located the gravestone of the Baal Smichas Chachomim. HaRav Naftoli HaKohen Katz was from the Maharal of Prague's family. In his youth he was taken captive by the Tartars, but managed to escape. He was rov of Stefan in Volhynia after his father passed away, and later served as the rov of Ostraha, Posen and Frankfurt-am- Main.

During that period a fire broke out in his house, spreading through the entire Jewish neighborhood. After the fire, he was falsely charged with obstructing the effort to extinguish the flames because he wanted to try to put it out using amulets. He was even jailed. Forced to leave the city, he moved to Prague and from there to Breslau, where he waged a war to oust the Shabsai Tzvi followers. Later he returned to Ostraha, where his son Rav Betzalel served as rov. A short time later he decided to move to Eretz Yisroel, but while passing through Turkey he got sick and died.

He gained renown primarily for his sefer Smichas Chachomim, which draws a connection between the end of every maseches and the beginning of the following maseches. But he also left behind four other seforim: Kedushoh Ubrochoh on maseches Shabbos, which together with Smichas Chachomim was included in Sefer Bircas Hashem, Pi Yeshorim on nistar and a book of songs and piyutim called Shaar Naftoli. His other works remained in manuscript. He was one of his generation's leading morei horo'oh and a great mekubol.

The fact that the author of Smichas Chachomim was buried in Istanbul was not a secret, but it was hard for people to visit the grave, because the inscription on the gravestone was in Turkish and contained many errors. There we just made a gravestone worthy of a godol beYisroel like him.

Maybe we should return to the original question about accuracy in identifying site locations . . .

There are places where Jews have never stopped visiting the grave and everything is clear. In other places we rely on clear testimonies over the years. HaRav Eliezer Papo, author of the Pele Yoetz, for example, is buried in Salistara, Bulgaria. He went to Romania at the age of 24. Because the borders have shifted, today the site is situated in Bulgaria. He lived in Salistara for 14 years, and according to what's written in the chevra kadisha's books, nobody passed away as long as he was living there.

Recently only a single Jewish woman remained in the town of Salistara, the last of the Jews who lived there. From her childhood and until old age she would regularly visit the grave, in accordance with the local Jewish custom. She was just a single woman, but the continuity was never broken. Before the location of the grave vanished into the abyss of the forgotten we managed to preserve the gravesite, rehabilitate it and rebuild it.

But aren't there cases in which the picture is less clear?

True, and then more involved research has to be conducted, such as what we did in the case of Baalei HaTosefos.

I'll give you another example: a mass grave in Nemirov. For a long time we searched for the burial site of the martyrs of the 5408-5409 (1648-9) pogroms, Hy"d. The pogroms erupted in the city of Nemirov, where the Chmielnicki Cossacks broke in and drenched the Jewish homes with blood. Three thousand Jews were massacred. Only when the fury had subsided were they brought to a mass grave dug on the edge of the cemetery.

In order to locate where they lie resting we had to search at length in the Nemirov historical archive. It contains documentation of the number of martyrs buried in the old cemetery, as well as a description of the area. We made use of the services of a major historian who helped us plow through the obscure paperwork.

By the time we went to the old cemetery it was already not hard to recognize the grounds. With the help of unequivocal verification by experts, we were able to establish and verify the location. For this there are known methods that leave no room for doubt. About the massacre at Nemirov, the kinoh we say in the 20th of Sivan selichos was written: Keil molei rachamim . . . zohir vezoriz bemitzvos Keil, ha'aluf haGaon HaRav Morenu HaRav Yechiel/ Noso yodo velibo -- hoi Ariel Ariel!/ Chomid verogig le'eilo uletato, bedorei ma'aloh uvedorei matoh/ Gozru rosho becherev lehutoh, re'eih Hashem cherposeinu vehabitoh . . . (G-d full of mercy . . . careful and quick in the mitzvos of Hashem, carried by his heart, the Gaon . . . HaRav Yechiel, . . . Oy! Ariel, Ariel!/ Beloved above and below, among those who live above and below/ They severed his head with an eager sword. Hashem, see our shame . . . -- Free translation)

In these pogroms HaRav Shimshon Ostropoler, whose place of rest has still not been located, was also murdered.

Six Feet Under

When we arrived with Rav Gabai at the area of the cemetery in Nemirov we crossed through a yard belonging to the goy in charge of guarding the place, marching through fruit trees. On the ground a large amount of unpicked fruit lay rotting. As you draw near you can discern the broken gravestones covered with plants sending forth their tendrils. Moss dominates here.

And then, from a distance, you can see that the ground looks different. Like a path and a very long mound covered with growth, a mass grave tens of meters long becomes recognizable. And only at the edge, where the hillock starts to slant toward the lower level of the ground, a memorial stone is erected at the top of the hill, as if the silent gravestone is surveying the course of the drowsy river -- about to fall asleep in the autumn sun -- which has not ceased flowing since then.

All is green. Goats graze on the graves undisturbed. The water flows and houses appear in the background. Perhaps there is where they were slaughtered. Perhaps from there the rioters set out. The river divulges nothing. The large, coarse stone remains silent.

On a marble tablet are the words: "The place where you stand is holy ground. On this site three thousand Jews from Nemirov (and the surroundings) were murdered sanctifying His Name in the pogroms of 5408 and among them, of a higher holiness, unique in his generation, the holy and pure, the light of the world, author of the sefer Shivrei Luchos, HaRav Yechiel Michel Ben HaRav Elozor of Nemirov, zt"l. Hashem yikom domom."

The heart throbs and sears with pain in the face of the cold stone. Chapters of Tehillim. It is hard to hold back the tears. What a sharp contrast between the pastoral hush all around and the emotions that rise and break to pieces like a wave on the shores of the heart. And the trail of foam accompanies you as you leave, and there is no consolation.

Rav Gabai, isn't there a worry that graves will be disturbed while searching?

Extreme caution is always needed to protect the graves of tzaddikim from harm, choliloh vechas . Everything has to be done with apprehension and fear, and most of all expertise.

Nevertheless, burial in those days was entirely different. In Kaminka, for instance, the brothers who were talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov were buried. It is known that the Baal Shem Tov would come here once a year to spend time with them on Shabbos. For this reason, I invested great efforts into locating the plot of those who were among the Baal Shem Tov's greatest talmidim.

The problem was that there are numerous towns called Kaminka throughout Eastern Europe. There is a Kaminka next to Shpitovka, next to Charkes, near Venice and not far from Lvov. And in some of them there is no cemetery at all.

In the sefer Shivchei HaBeShT, Kaminka is mentioned as the town neighboring Mariapoli, "which is located on the other side of the river." It was not hard to identify the modern Mariapol. Kaminka no longer exists as an independent municipal entity, but has been absorbed into Mariapol as a suburb on the other side of the river. Still, Kaminka has a cemetery of its own.

When Rav Gabai arrived there, without asking any questions he went ahead and posted a sign. He saw part of a gravestone peeping out of the ground reading, "Here lies a pious man," (P"N Ish Chossid) but he attached no importance to it. Although it bore the typical decorations of gravestones for important rabbonim long ago, the brief title, uncharacteristic of gravestones set up for gedolei Chassidus, diminished his interest.

Just two years ago memories of that bit of gravestone began to keep him awake at night. He asked the goy who guards over the land and maintains the cemetery--for pay, as at the other places -- to pull the full stone out of the ground.

A big surprise lay waiting for him. The dusty stone read, "Here lies a pious man, the eminent Rabbi . . . " It turned out the gravestone belonged to HaRav Tzvi, one of the Baal Shem Tov's leading talmidim. Then he made what would prove to be an important decision: He decided to dig another 30 cm deeper.

"Here they used to bury [the deceased] much deeper than in Eretz Hakodesh and the graves themselves lie about two meters [six feet] down!" says the father of kivrei tzaddikim. "There is almost no reason to worry that the grave itself would be disturbed." When digging continued, they discovered the gravestone of HaRav Yosef, and later the graves of the other brothers were found nearby.

"This is also how we found the grave marker in Pulna, where the Mochiach and the Toldos Yaakov Yosef, talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov, were found," explains Rav Gabai. The cemetery had not been destroyed. However at their burial site just one small stone structure stood, tightly shut. It was known that they lay buried together. When the stone structure was taken apart, it turned out it had been made of shattered pieces of gravestones. Little by little the gravestone of the Mochiach was uncovered, making it clear the Toldos was also there. When a contractor arrived to dig the foundations of the Ohel, he found pieces of his gravestone, which Rav Gabai later used to put together a new gravestone.

According to past reports you arranged to have a gravestone indicating the resting place of HaRav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy"d, flown to Lithuania.

Maran HaRav Elchonon Wasserman is generally believed to lie buried at the 9th Fort in Kovna. This is actually a mistake. According to testimony by local residents including HaRav Moshe Gibraltar, Hashem yichyehu veyishmereihu, who was at the site, the massacre took place at the 7th Fort. On the mass grave there was a Russian gravestone that told nothing about all that took place there. Time took its toll on the stone and it had to be restored. We prepared the gravestone and sent it to Kovna. There were delays because of a lack of permits from the authorities. I have to look into what's happening with that gravestone, what has been done with it.

We also brought a gravestone to the resting place of the author of the Mogen Avrohom from Kalish. His grave is located in the school yard and they won't allow the gravestone to be erected there. There are problems with the authorities. In the meantime the gravestone is being kept by a local goy.

Activists from Agudas Yisroel of America, particularly Rabbi Yechezkel Besser, are working extensively on this matter. I hope the matter works out and the gravestone is erected there as a monument to a living soul.


A personal note: This is a chapter in the chronicles of a man who dedicated his entire life to an idea. His is a life of hard work, all of his aspirations devoted to the task of restoring kivrei tzaddikim. Givers of this kind are a rare find. The more time you spend watching such people at their work the more you gather something intangible from the power that drives them, from the hidden light of their soul.

Yes, there are people whose whole existence is devoted to others. And when you confront this fact it has a certain rousing effect that silences the yearning to see a bit above and a bit beyond. And the message is inescapable. It is hard to escape the blinding light shining forth from such selfless endeavors.

!!!!!!! BOX


Mezhibezh is a concept, not just a place. We arrived toward evening. The sun was throwing its last rays of light before finishing its shift. Night fell and the famous Ohel above the gravesite of HaRav Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chassidus, was illuminated with a soft light. Surrounding it was a string of restored, white graves standing out against the background of the dark cemetery. In the morning, when heavy fog still covered the area, we entered the Ohel.

Inside lie HaRav Boruch of Mezhibezh, the author of Degel Machaneh Efraim, HaRav Yisroel of Apta, HaRav Zeev Wolf Kitzes and others. Many of the gravestones in the ancient cemetery have been restored and improved. Fragments of gravestones appear among the stubborn weeds. In the background is the Bug River with its placid waters. The only sound here now is the melody of Tehillim echoing in the open spaces.

At the sites of many kivrei tzaddikim Rav Gabai built a guesthouse, but here there is an entire complex consisting of houses purchased for visitors to use, a mikveh, a kitchen and most importantly a beis knesses.

And how do you know you set up the Ohel in exactly the right place?

"First, precise surveying was performed and the top experts were consulted. But for the most part it was [based on] the opinion of HaRav Moshe Bik, the last rov of Mezhibezh, who remembered the spot from before the war. He was the last of a dynasty of rabbonim who served for many generations in the Mezhibezh rabbinate. According to a detailed sketch he drew, [we] found graves and parts of gravestones, that matched the sketch with striking accuracy. On the spot, an outline of a grave was clearly discernible. This guesthouse was built alongside the grave."

The Ukraine is a land of little hope. In terms of modern advance, it is stuck about 100 years behind the times. Like the other towns here Mezhibezh is awash in green, but also drenched with blood. Its Jews were slaughtered and lie buried in a mass grave similar to many others scattered around the country.

Although the Bug River flows nearby, irrigating the land and stretching across its length, houses in Mezhibezh lack indoor plumbing. The well, like the horse and carriage, are part of the way of life here. The street is like a living museum. History, including Jewish history, does not belong to the past but lives and breathes here.

Likewise the dark shadow of antisemitism does not belong to the past. There are isolated incidents in which the mask of tranquility is broken and slurs are hurled at the Jews who return to visit the place. Sometimes the look in their eyes is enough, for the eyes are a window into the heart that despises Yaakov.

In some of the alleyways of Mezhibezh the houses are made of wood. Once there were 14 botei knesses in town. The beis knesses belonging to Ohev Yisroel of Apta, whose beauty is apparent in its stately facade, is held captive in the hands of the local fire department, waiting to be redeemed. Only a mound of ruins remains of the Bach's beis knesses and the Baal Shem Tov's beis knesses is currently being rebuilt.


The murder of Mezhibezh's Jews began with riots by the locals. Ukrainian nationalists broke into Jewish homes and slaughtered whoever they found. When the Nazis invaded, all that remained for them was to finish the job. Miraculously, they were unable to ignite the Baal Shem Tov's beis knesses. Only after eleven months did they manage to raze it down to the foundations.

The beis medrash was located not far from Beis Haknesses Hagodol ("The Bach's Shul") slightly separated from the street by a wooden fence. Alongside it was a small room known by town residents as the Maggid's room. This is where the Maggid of Mezritch would pray when he came to Mezhibezh. The Baal Shem Tov himself would not allow the wooden walls to be painted although they had been slightly blackened by a fire. The local residents preserved the building as it was, but did not do any repairs.

Rav Gabai, after returning to Mezhibezh, took upon himself the task of restoration. He hired the services of an expert in restoring botei knesses to build the mikdosh me'at just as it was in the past. Everything was restored precisely, including the shtenders and the benches. The floor was even made of mud, just like the original floor. The positioning is also precise, based on clear signs provided by a former resident of the town who now lives in Ashdod.

The building is nearly complete except for the roof shingles. And when the job is finished, says Rav Gabai, the place will not be a museum replica. He hopes it will turn into a living place of Torah and tefilloh. He has drawn elaborate plans but he does not have time to describe them in detail. Time is short and there's much work to be done. He wants to move on. He has other matters to attend to.


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