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7 Nisan 5766 - April 4, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








A Novardoker Rebbetzin — Rebbetzin Menucha Ettel Nekritz o"h

by M. Samsonowitz

With each passing year, we advance into the 21st century and the old Jewish world that existed in Eastern Europe before World War II becomes a dimmer and foggier memory. Our perception of that glorious era grows fainter, and those unique individuals who could relate personally of those times become fewer.

Who can evoke for us the stories of pure faith and mesirus nefesh for Torah? Who will inspire us with the details of the great spiritual world that existed in the old Lithuanian yeshivos, the Polish Chassidic courts, the fervent Hungarian communities, the unswerving German Jewish kehillos?

Another illustrious figure was taken from us when Rebbetzin Menucha Ettel Nekritz passed away on Rosh Chodesh Shvat this year at the age of 91. She was the granddaughter of the Alter of Novardok, and the daughter of Rav Avraham Yaffen, the rosh yeshiva of the Novardok yeshivas in Poland. A Novardoker in blood and soul, she had passed through her own crucible of emunah with the best of the yeshiva's students and came out on top like the true Novardoker that she was.

Steeped in Novardok Yeshiva Values

Rebbetzin Ettel Nekritz was born in 1914 in Bialystock, Poland. She was named after Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz's mother Ettel — the sister of her mother — with the name Menucha added because her aunt had died young.

Her illustrious grandfather, the Alter of Novardok, HaRav Yosef Yoisel Horowitz, passed away when she was a young child of 6, but she grew up under the inspired tutelage of the Alter's wife, her grandmother Chaya, who lived with the family and whom she personally cared for, for many years until her passing.

Rav Yaffen ran the large network of Novardok yeshivas that were spread out all over Poland. Its nerve center was in Bialystock, where the family lived. Bialystock gained prominence in the Novardok constellation after World War I.

In 1922, as the Communist oppression increased and Torah study was outlawed, the branches of the Novardok yeshiva in Russia were ordered to smuggle themselves across the border into Poland. The Yaffens, and small groups of the yeshiva's students, clandestinely traveled at night from one city to another until they crossed the Ukrainian-Polish border and gathered together in cities like Baranowitz and Bialystock, which soon became the Novardok nerve center.

One of these groups of students was led by Rav Yaakov Yisroel Kanievsky, a mere 19-year-old at the time who later became the famous Steipler Rov. In his group was a young 13-year-old called Yehuda Leib Nekritz, who in his home town was so impressed with the group that he decided to cast his lot with the yeshiva students. He disappeared in the night without telling his parents good-by, afraid that they would prevent him from leaving.

Rav Yaffen went on to establish 80 Novardok yeshivos all over Poland between the two World Wars in which more than 4,000 talmidim studied. Novardok was the powerhouse of Torah study in Poland, unparalleled in numbers by any other yeshiva.

It was in this home steeped with bitochon and devotion to Torah study that the young Menucha Ettel grew up. Although she had no formal Jewish education, she was steeped in the intensive Novardok worldview of emunoh, devotion to Torah study and mitzvos, and relentless study and application of mussar that suffused her home.

The Yaffen children knew from their youngest years that the family's resources were dedicated to the yeshiva and the bochurim. If there was any food left, then it went to the children. Torah study and bitochon were the only goals in life.

She married Rav Yehuda Leib Nekritz in 1935. An uncle who lived in the U.S. sent her a generous 500 rubles for a wedding gift, but she gave it away to the yeshiva because the yeshiva needed the money. The young couple settled down in Bialystock, and Rav Nekritz joined the administration of the yeshiva.

Insisting on Siberia

World War II came crashing down on them in 1939. In his efforts to find a safe haven for his yeshiva and its students, Rav Yaffen managed to get a U.S. visa for his family and left in the beginning stages of the war. But the young Nekritz family could not go on the same visa, so Rav Nekritz remained behind to run the yeshiva. When the Molotov- Ribbentrop agreement was enacted splitting up Poland in 1940, the Nekritzes fled to Lithuania with the yeshiva's students and reestablished the yeshiva in the town of Beersh.

This rescue was only short-term. The Russian authorities demanded that the Polish refugees accept Soviet citizenship, but Rav Nekritz, who was familiar with the oppressive atheist agenda of the Soviets, refused the offer. Mass arrests of "clerics and clerical students" and other individuals whom the paranoid Communists deemed dangerous to their regime began in the beginning of June 1941.

The Novardok rosh yeshiva and his students were given notice to prepare for the journey to Siberia. The authorities "sympathetically" permitted Rebbetzin Nekritz and her children to remain behind.

In a move that in retrospect she herself couldn't explain, the young rebbetzin refused to be separated from her husband even at the expense of being sent with her babies to Siberia. She visited the Soviet Jewish official and pleaded again and again to be sent to Siberia with her husband. The official — whose father had been a pious man — finally acquiesced to the insane demand. When her husband was shipped out to Siberia just weeks before the Nazi juggernaut overran Lithuania and Russia, she was at his side for what would become the five most memorable years of her life that forged and crystallized the person she became.

The train traveled northward for weeks, finally dumping the prisoners in the huge wasteland of Nizhne. The refugees had turned into slaves who had to do hard labor for the Soviets in exchange for a piece of bread to keep themselves alive.

Siberia — the Crucible of Her Life

The Nekritzes were placed in a 10 x 15 yard hut together with a non-Jewish family, who kept their pig and sheep in the hut with them. They slept on the freezing floor and the oven only barely dispelled the minus 40 degrees cold that penetrated to their bones.

Since they only got bread in exchange for work, and Rebbetzin Nekritz had to stay at home and take care of her two girls, the whole family had to subsist on Rabbi Nekritz's paltry bread quota. One of the sturdier bochurim who was able to fulfill more than his work quota would occasionally supply the family with a few more pieces of bread.

Their circumstances could hardly have been more depressing, and the prognosis for the future could hardly have been more pessimistic. But the emunoh which had bolstered them in Bialystock, stood them in good stead in Siberia.

Even in this frozen, harsh wasteland, threatened by cynical government officials, the young couple sought every opportunity to keep Yiddishkeit. It was relatively easy to keep kosher because the only food available was bread and potatoes. But Shabbos was a serious concern.

Rav Nekritz refused to work on Shabbos. When the Soviet official threatened to shoot him for sabotage, he whipped open his shirt and replied defiantly, "Go ahead and shoot!" The Soviet official was so stunned by his display of defiance that he closed his eyes to Rav Nekritz's evasion of work on Shabbos. Rav Nekritz went into hiding every Shabbos but never worked.

At night, when Rav Nekritz and the yeshiva students had finished working, they sat down to study Torah and mussar to bolster their souls. The authorities were suspicious of the "cleric" and took him away at night for questioning countless times. His worried wife never knew if he would return.

The local villagers realized that a holy "rabbin" was living in their midst. They once asked him, "What did you to before you came to Nizhne?"

"I was a rabbin and a teacher."

"Why were you exiled to Siberia?"

"So you would see that there is a G-d in the world, and so that we, too, would see that there is a G-d in the world!"

To assuage his daughters' hunger, Rav Nekritz told the bochurim to tell them stories of Torah and Chazal before they went to sleep. The girls looked forward to hearing their daily story, which helped them fall asleep. Rebbetzin Nekritz also fed her daughters food for their souls by teaching them songs of emunoh and bitochon which filled them with the desire to survive and live.

Due to their caution, their oldest daughter — who was 10 when they left Russia — had no anxious and bitter memories of the period they had stayed in Siberia, other than the constant cold and hunger.

Relief came to the family in 1942 when Rav Yaffen in the U.S. had obtained their address in Siberia and began sending them food packages. Rav Nekritz would walk 30 kilometers through the night in zero degree (Fahrenheit) weather to the nearest town, where he could exchange coffee and soap to get a few potatoes for his children.

During all this time, Rav Nekritz gave sichos mussar and chaburos to the yeshiva students. (The sichos given in Siberia were later collected by his son and printed in a collection called Lev Ari.)

Despite the harshness of their existence, the Nekritzes were to look back at their five years in Russia as spiritually elevating and many times they said that they would never exchange those years for anything.

A Dream of Assurance

Rebbetzin Nekritz was her husband's faithful partner in everything. She cooked meals for the yeshiva students, and always had a good word and encouragement ready for her husband and the students.

It was during the long days in Siberia when there was nothing to do, that her Siddur and Tehillim became Rebbetzin Nekritz's closest companions. Alone with her two young children, Rebbetzin Nekritz had no one to turn to but Hashem and she tangibly felt how He was caring for them.

From then on, and especially in the last decades of her life, Mrs. Nekritz spent a considerable part of every day in heart- rending tefilloh and recital of Tehillim. People felt it was a never-to-be-forgotten experience to be in her presence when she was reciting Tehillim.

Once her one-year-old daughter was very sick, and Rebbetzin Nekritz was fearful that the child would not recover. That night her grandmother appeared to her in dream and told her cryptically, "The cat will be a kaporoh for the child."

The next day, one of the bochurim came in from work and wanted to boil potatoes. When he removed the potatoes from the fire, the pot shook and the boiling water spilled over and burned a cat standing nearby. The cat ran out and died, but shortly after her daughter recovered.

On another occasion, the authorities brutally called in Rav Nekritz for an interrogation, and Rebbetzin Nekritz was sure that she would never see him again. But her grandmother came to her in a dream again and assured her that the whole family would leave Siberia intact.

Freed from Siberia

When an agreement was struck between Stalin and the Polish government-in-exile freeing the Polish refugees, the Nekritzes were freed from slave labor. They traveled to the Caucasus where the living conditions were milder, and at the end of the war in 1945 they returned with the other Polish refugees to Poland. On the way, Rabbi Nekritz stopped by his hometown to meet his elderly mother, and introduce her for the first and last time to his wife and two children.

When they passed through Beersh on their way back, Rebbetzin Nekritz discovered to her shock that not one Jew survived of all those who had rebuked her for following her husband to Siberia.

The young family went to France while waiting for Rav Yaffen to arrange their immigration papers. In the refugee home where they were staying, they made many shidduchim between Holocaust survivors. One young yeshiva student for whom they served as unterfierer was HaRav Mordechai Zuckerman, a famous tzaddik in Yerushalayim (who passed away two years ago).

Rebbetzin Nekritz and her daughters received immigration visas, but Rabbi Nekritz's application was rejected. The couple had a harrowing two years until they joined each other in the US in 1948. Rebbetzin Nekritz had traveled earlier, but was delayed many months in Ellis Island with her three children.

The feeling of their miraculous escape from Europe's cauldron never left the Nekritzes. Rebbetzin Nekritz spoke about her sense of gratitude frequently. She often told her children about the totally different worlds she had lived in before and after the war, telling them never to take their comfortable life for granted.

A New Life in America

A new period began in the Nekritzes life. Novardok, Bialystock, and Siberia were now not only distant geographically, but also light-years away from American life. There was a new language to learn, a different mentality, a different yeshiva, and a whole new environment to raise the family in.

Rav Nekritz joined his father-in-law (and later brother-in- law) in running the Novardok yeshiva in Boro Park.

Rebbetzin Nekritz settled into a routine. She raised their six children and was involved in the yeshiva's affairs including helping run the women's auxiliary and hosting many guests. She collected money for the poor before Yom Tov and was sought for advice by many of the wives in the Beis Yosef kollel.

During the decades that followed, thousands of guests of every kind passed through the Nekritz home. The Nekritzes were noted for the many onerous cases they welcomed into their home — people who were broken physically and mentally. Rebbetzin Nekritz was available for everybody who sought her and her encouraging words infused many with new life and hope.

Some of their guests stayed for lengthy periods. One woman, the daughter of an old Novardoker student who needed urgent medical treatments, came from Eretz Yisroel and stayed with the Nekritzes for months.

A childless woman became ill. Every Shabbos in snow or heat, Rebbetzin Nekritz walked more than 10 blocks just to feed her because the woman trusted only Rebbetzin Nekritz.

Rebbetzin Nekritz also occasionally gave Shabbos shiurim on the parsha for Neshei Agudas Israel.

A Life of Singing and Praying to Hashem

Although the Nekritzes settled into normal life, the vivid and harrowing five years they spent in Siberia perpetually accompanied them. It evidenced itself constantly — not in depressing memories or phobias but — in constant talk about the Ribono Shel Olom, His chesed and His righteousness.

A favorite saying of Rebbetzin Nekritz's was, "Eibishter, dein mishpot iz gerecht." (Hashem, Your judgment is correct.) She loved to sing, and many of her songs were about the kindness that Hashem does to us, His righteous judgment, that we can't say He is doing bad, He knows what He is doing, He is not punishing us, and He has a reason for all He does. Until the end of her life, she was teaching her children new songs with these themes even after they thought they knew all her songs.

Her children married, the years passed, and Rav Nekritz passed away in 1985. Rebbetzin Nekritz came to Eretz Yisroel with the aron, and remained for a year before going back. She lived the rest of her life in Far Rockaway with her son-in-law and daughter, Rav Yechiel and Rebbetzin Shonie Perr, and was active in Rav Perr's Yeshivas Derech Eyson.

She filled up her day with shiurim, helping run the home, yeshiva functions and prayer. She spent many summers in Camp Bnos, which was run by her daughter.

Although she suffered weakness in her last few years, she remained lucid until the end. People came to visit her to experience the flavor of a Novardok Rebbetzin from Europe. Many sought her blessings, the most frequent of which was, "Vaks ois a talmid chochom."

She was a fighter who didn't give up. With a strong will, she regained physical abilities that doctors thought were impossible. "Please don't make me depend on people. Help me do things myself," was one of her requests towards the end of her life.

She spent hours davening from a siddur and saying Tehillim every day. Her worn Tehillim didn't leave her side a minute. On top of that, she spoke constantly with Hashem. She spoke her words feelingly. She had a very personal relationship with her Creator.

She was daily surrounded by family and friends. She was in touch with her nieces, nephews and grandchildren and they frequently came to visit her.

Last Days and Levaya

Her passing was as dignified as her life — with a missas neshikoh. On Rosh Chodesh Shevat, the nursing aide who was with her noticed that her breathing was heavier. The family called a doctor. As soon as he came, she began to lose consciousness. Family members gathered around her, and in her last seconds she recited viduy with her son-in- law. Before they realized what had happened, she was gone.

The levaya started out in the old Yeshivas Beis Yosef building on 49th Street in Boro Park, where the levayos for her father and husband had commenced. From there her aron was flown to Eretz Yisroel, where large posters all over Yerushalayim announced her levaya, and many hundreds turned out. Hespedim were held on Avraham Yaffen street (near Slonim) where a Novardok mussar kolel had been established many years before.

The aron then proceeded to Har Hamenuchos where she was buried in the family plot with her grandfather, the Alter of Novardok, her parents, uncle and husband.

She left behind five distinguished sons and sons-in-law: HaRav Naftoli Kaplan, a mashgiach in Eretz Yisroel, HaRav Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Derech Eyson, HaRav Yisroel Tzvi Nekritz, rosh yeshiva of Beis Yosef in Flatbush, HaRav Daniel Nekritz, a ram in Yeshivas Derech Eyson, and HaRav Avraham Shmuelevitz, a ram in the Mirrer yeshiva in Yerushalayim.

She left behind an illustrious family of hundreds, who continue on the family's unique Novardok legacy of emunoh and bitochon.


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