By Rabbi Avi Shafran
Having recounted the story in talks and in writing, I apologize if any readers are encountering it here not for the first time. It’s actually my father’s story; in fact, I only heard it from him when I was an adult (and not a particularly young one, at that).
It was the winter of 1941, the first one my father, may he be well, as a 14-year-old, along with his Novhardoker colleagues and rebbe, spent in Siberia, as guests of the Soviet Union. It was a most challenging season for the deportees, as they had no proper clothing for the climate.
As the youngest member of the group, my father, known then as “Simcha Ruzhaner,” after the Polish town of his birth, was assigned to guard a farm a few miles from the kolkhoz, or collective farm, where they were based. The night temperature often dropped to 40 degrees below zero, and he had only a small stove by which to keep warm.
One night, he couldn’t shake the chills and realized he was feverish. He managed to hitch his horse and sled together, and set off for the kolkhoz. Not far from the farm, though, he fell from the sled into the deep snow and the horse continued on. He remembers reciting Tehillim, knowing that trying to walk to the kolkhoz would mean certain death from exposure. Somehow he forced himself to get up and run after the horse and sled.
Inexplicably, the horse halted; my father reached it and collapsed onto the sled. The horse took him back to the kolkhoz and the next day, shaking uncontrollably, he was transported to a town, Parabek, where there was a hospital.
There, after two days in a fevered daze, the patient began to feel a bit better. As he lay in bed, the door opened and he saw a fellow yeshiva bochur from the kolkhoz, Herschel Tishivitzer, before him, half frozen and staring, incredulous. The visitor’s feet were wrapped in layers and layers of rags —the best one could manage to try to cope with the Arctic cold without proper boots. My father couldn’t believe his eyes. Herschel had actually walked the frigid miles from the kolkhoz!
“Herschel!” he cried to his equally shocked visitor, “what are you doing here?”
The answer that came is something my father has never forgotten and surely never will.
“Yesterday,” Herschel said, “someone came from Parabek, and told us ‘Simcha umar,’ [‘Simcha died’]. And so I volunteered to come and bury you.”
That degree of dedication of one Jew to another, even in such trying circumstances and for such a reason, is a tribute, of course, to the would-be undertaker. But it is also a lesson to us all about what it means to be a Jew, to be part of Klal Yisrael.
Boruch Hashem, Herschel’s services weren’t needed, and my father eventually went on, as did Herschel, to immigrate to the United States, where my father became and remains a respected rov in Baltimore. Herschel moved to Boro Park.
Recently, our daughter Chedva and her husband and family moved to a lovely fledgling Jewish community in Ramapo, east of Monsey, called Chestnut Ridge. Among the new acquaintances my daughter made is another young woman, Dini; the two are occasional “carpool partners” and their respective 4-year-old daughters, Shaindy and Tehilla, are developing a budding friendship.
One recent Shabbos night after davening, my son-in-law Yehoshua overheard a guest in shul being introduced as a writer. He was actually the editor of the Five Towns Jewish Times. Yehoshua asked the guest, Mr. Larry Gordon — Dini’s father — if he knew his father-in-law, who writes for Ami. Mr. Gordon and I are in fact well acquainted; he often republishes this column in his paper with Ami’s permission.
Mr. Gordon’s own father-in-law, as it happens, is one Herschel Nudel, may he be well, who was once known, long ago, as Herschel Tishivitzer. The connection between Yehoshua’s and Mr. Gordon’s respective fathers-in-law quickly emerged.
And so, in a new Jewish neighborhood, great-granddaughters of Herschel Tishivitzer and Simcha Ruzhaner play together.
Rockland County is a long way from Siberia. But in a way, at least for two families, it really isn’t at all.
This column originally ran in Ami Magazine.