Eileh Ezkerah – The Rebbes’ Boulevard
By Shmuel Rothstein
Every pain, ancient and recent, is rooted in the Churban that we mourn in these Three Weeks. The tears are not just for the suffering; they are for the loss of the greatness we glimpsed and will not see again until the ultimate Geulah. This series, b’ezras Hashem, will remind us of those great worlds that are no more.
To Warsaw’s Jews, the long, nondescript Pawiak Street was known as “the Rebbes’ Boulevard.” It stretched from the Jewish cemetery to Zamenhof Square, which was named in honor of the Jewish ophthalmologist who invented Esperanto, an experimental international language. It was a typical Jewish street; no Polish non-Jews frequented it other than the guards at the gates, and they were “half-Jewish” themselves, speaking as fluent a Yiddish as any Jew from birth. And of course too, there was the infamous Pawiak Prison for political prisoners; its high, uncompromising walls were witness to Jewish bravery and ingenuity during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising just before Pesach of 5703/1943.
During World War I, many Chassidic Rebbes fled to Warsaw from their small towns, and a good number settled there permanently. Most of them made Pawiak Street their new home. Each one contributed to a Chassidic atmosphere that influenced the image of Warsaw’s Jewry during those years. Let’s feature several of them.
The venerable Harav Uri Yehoshua Asher Elchonon Rabinowitz of Parisav, who descended from the Holy Yid of Pshischa and who had held court in Kolbiel, resided in Building No. 5. He attracted simple, dependable but poor Jews, and his home was constantly filled with men and women who brought their sorrows to the Rebbe. One came to plea on behalf of a desperately ill family member, another came seeking advice regarding a business deal, and someone else came simply to receive a blessing from the oldest living Chassidic Rebbe. Of course, on Shabbos and Yom Tov the house bustled with activity, with crowded minyanim for davening and sumptuous tischen.
Building No. 10 housed Rav Elimelech of Kozhnitz, a descendant of the Maggid of Kozhnitz. He was a modest man, spending most of his time alone davening and learning Torah. He did not get involved in community affairs and he knew little about the upheavals taking place in the world around him.
The private residence of the famed Radzyminer Rebbe, Harav Aharon Menachem Mendel Guterman, was in Building No. 14. He was a brilliant Torah scholar and led a yeshivah, besides being heavily involved in community affairs. He worked on behalf of the poor and those in prison, as well as headed committees devoted to promoting Shabbos observance and other mitzvos. An entire book could be written about his many activities.
Two Chassidic leaders shared Building No. 16 — the Zvoliner Rebbe and the Opole Rebbe. Harav Chaim Yerachmiel Taub of Zwoleń was a descendant of the first Kozhmir Rebbe, who was famed for his original tunes. Harav Taub was likewise known for his pleasant voice and his talent for composing new tunes; people crowded in his shul to listen to his emotional davening.
Harav Yirmiyahu Kalish of Opole was the son of Harav Yaakov Dovid of Amshinov and the grandson of the first Vorke Rebbe. In his shteibel there were no boundaries of day or night; he often davened Shacharis through the day until after nightfall. He ate and drink very little, and anyone who wished to petition him would have to wait until the wee hours of the morning.
Building No. 24 was the home of Harav Menachem Mendel Kalish, the Skernievitzer (Skierniewice) Rebbe. He was the son of the first Skernievitzer Rebbe, and while his father was alive, he was a successful businessman and a devoted community leader in Warsaw. Unfortunately, his gentle heart was unable to bear the trauma of his people’s suffering, and he passed away at a young age.
Nearby, at Dzilna 5, was the home of Harav Klonimus Kalmish (Kalman) Shapira of Piaseczna, a great Torah scholar and master kabbalist who led a yeshivah. He gained fame for his brilliance in understanding the workings of the human soul. He also was well-versed in modern medicine, and both Jewish and non-Jewish physicians consulted with him. When an ill person would come to the Rebbe, he received not only a brachah, but also a referral to a specialist or a prescription to take to the pharmacy.
One of Warsaw’s leading physicians, Dr. Zalman Biborsky, was also a member of Warsaw’s city council. He complained to a Chassid of the Piaseczna Rebbe that the Rebbe never sends him patients, and instead sends them to non-Jewish competitors. The Rebbe replied that he often sends people to Dr. Biborsky when they need help from municipal authorities, but he does not send medical patients since the doctor had not participated in international medical conferences for many years and he is not up to date with modern medical discoveries.
This is just a sampling of the many Chassidic courts located on the Rebbes’ Boulevard in Warsaw. Each one contributed to the spiritual makeup of the Jewish quarter. Each Rebbe was busy with his own Chassidim, but they occasionally met for family celebrations or for rabbinical conferences. Once a year, however, all the Rebbes met in one place, and that was the evening of 14 Nisan when they all went to fetch mayim shelanu in preparation for the next day’s matzah baking.
On the afternoon of 13 Nisan, wagon after wagon made its way out of town, each one carrying a Rebbe, his attendants, and prominent Chassidim. They were joined by wagons filled with Rabbanim, Roshei Yeshivos, and other good Jews. They all made their way down Pawia Street and turned onto Okopowa Street, which went around the Gensha cemetery and reached the Powazki neighborhood. An ancient pump still stands. All of Warsaw’s other water pumps were no longer functioning because the city was supplied with running water.
It was an unforgettable scene. Venerable Chassidic Rebbes dressed in their Yom Tov best, their faces reflecting their inner nobility, stood in line together with their attendants, each one holding a pitcher or jerry can, waiting for his turn to fill it with fresh water from the pump.
The Rebbes met and greeted one another, wishing each other “ah freilechen Yomtov.” Here and there one could hear a quick mention of some important community issue, but that was all. There was no time — everyone hurried back home to perform bedikas chametz.
At this time, the erev Pesach bazaar would get underway on Pawia Street. Most of the street’s residents, however, were destitute, and they began cleaning their homes only now. The men stood outside selling fruits and vegetables, including frozen, wormy apples and muddy fish, crackers, honey cakes, and sewing items. Other stands offered Yom Tov needs, such as lettuce, horseradish, and radishes (for karpas). Even the penniless were busy, running to trustees of tzedakah organizations like Beis Lechem or Tomchei Aniyim and asking for certificates entitling them to receive food packages.
The leaders of these organizations worked day and night collecting funds and Yom Tov food for the poor who could not possibly afford to buy their own. The Beis Lechem organization was headed by Itchele Stickgold, who was recognized for his care for the community and elected to the Jewish community council. The Tomchei Aniyim was headed by Herman Rogova, who received a medal from the Polish government for his work.
Today, there is no Jewish quarter left in Warsaw. The Rebbes’ Boulevard has been totally razed. The Chassidic Rebbes, their wives, their children, and their followers were all murdered, Hy”d. The cruel, heartless Nazis, yemach shemam, destroyed everything and everyone in cold blood. Still, they were not successful in dampening the Jewish people’s longing for the arrival of the Moshiach. Our hope survives. They were not the only ones to rise up against us, hoping to annihilate us. The Blessed Holy One is always there to save us.
Excerpted from She’arim magazine of 5708/1948
To Read The Full Story
Are you already a subscriber?
Click "Sign In" to log in!
Become a Web Subscriber
Click “Subscribe” below to begin the process of becoming a new subscriber.
Become a Print + Web Subscriber
Click “Subscribe” below to begin the process of becoming a new subscriber.
Renew Print + Web Subscription
Click “Renew Subscription” below to begin the process of renewing your subscription.