The baal tefillah has already finished the Seder Avodah of Yom Kippur, and the tearful rendition of the Asarah Harugei Malchus has concluded. Kohanim, standing at the front of the shul, sway to and fro, talleisim draped over their heads and arms in preparation for Birkas Kohanim, while the tzibbur shields their eyes with their own talleisim.
As the baal tefillah’s voice calls out, “Yevarechecha,” the response of the Kohanim reverberates throughout the building. “Hashem… v’yishmerecha!” The Kohanim start singing the ancient tune for duchening as the tzibbur recites the tefillah to sweeten any harsh dreams they have had. Under his tallis, one person begins reciting Hatavas Chalomos. He does this each Yom Tov, but on Yom Kippur it is different, and he dons an old pair of gold-rimmed spectacles once worn by his ancestors. Only on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and only during Hatavas Chalomos, would he even contemplate wearing the eyeglasses.
Chafeitzim of tzaddikim, artifacts that once belonged to Rebbes of yore, are a precious commodity and are used by their present owners on special occasions throughout the year. On Yom Kippur, the Skverer Rebbe, shlita, wears a gold embroidered yarmulke that belonged to his ancestor, Harav Yitzchak of Skvira. On Rosh Chodesh, the Machnovker Rebbe, shlita, reads from the sefer Torah of the Baal Shem Tov. The Vasloyer Rebbe, shlita, uses the walking stick of the Ruzhiner Rebbe, while Harav Moshe Halberstam, zt”l, wore the gartel of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz.
Have you ever heard of the yerushah eyeglasses?
The Gold-rimmed Eyeglasses of Reb Mottele Chernobyler (1770-1837)
Harav Mordechai Twersky (1770–1837), known as the Maggid of Chernobyl, was the son of Harav Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl and the second Rebbe of the Chernobyl chassidic dynasty. A fascinating story about him is printed in Sefer K’hal Chassidim Hachadash (Lemberg, 5662/1902).
Rav Mottele, as he was known, once traveled to Radomyshl for Shabbos, and Harav Abish Rappaport, the Rav of Radomyshl, came out to meet him in a village on the way. Rav Abish stopped at an inn there managed by a widow, and she made a request of Rav Abish.
“When the Chernobyler Rebbe passes through the village on his way to Radomyshl,” she said, “please make sure he stops in at my home for a moment. I have something very important to discuss with him. In exchange for allowing me to make a request, I will give the Rebbe a gift — a pair of solid gold-rimmed eyeglasses.” She then gave the glasses to Rav Abish to give to the Rebbe.
As the Rebbe’s wagon stopped in the village, Rav Abish greeted the Rebbe. He relayed the widow’s request and presented the gift to the Rebbe. When the Rebbe received the gift, he immediately put on the glasses, but he refused to leave the wagon to speak with the widow.
Rav Abish joined the Rebbe in the wagon as he continued on his way to Radomyshl but, try as he might, the Rebbe refused his numerous requests to visit the widow. Instead, the Rebbe took out his siddur and, while still wearing the gold-rimmed eyeglasses, he searched for the section of Hatavas Chalomos (the recitation one says to “sweeten” a harsh dream). He then said three times, “Chelma tava chazisa — you have seen a good dream.” He put down the siddur, took off the glasses, and continued his journey to Radomyshl. The Rebbe no longer spoke to Rav Abish concerning the widow from the village they had passed through.
After Shabbos, the widow traveled to the city of Radomyshl and asked Rav Abish to arrange a meeting for her with the Rebbe, as it was an urgent matter. She told Rav Abish that the night before she met him in the village, she had a very bad and bitter dream that was very disturbing. Rav Abish replied that the Rebbe had already interpreted the dream for good, even without her telling him the story. The Rebbe did not need to hear the request from the widow, as he miraculously knew what it was beforehand and had performed Hatavas Chalomos for her.
Where is the siddur of Reb Mottele Chernobyler?
Although it can be ascertained that Reb Mottele Chernobyler had many siddurim, only two of them are extant.
The first one, a handwritten siddur, was sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 2011 for $572,000 in a sale that was covered in the Jewish media. The siddur was written in 1750 by Moshe ben Yosef of Luboml, has 223 pages and is a mere 7×4 inches.
There is conflicting information as to the siddur’s provenance. One version relates that the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson gave the siddur to Rav Mordechai of Chernobyl, while a second one has the Baal Shem Tov presenting the siddur to his student Harav Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, who subsequently gave it to his son Rav Mordechai of Chernobyl.
In 1960, commemorating the 200th yahrtzeit of the Baal Shem Tov, the siddur was displayed at a once-in-a-lifetime exhibition of 193 Rebbeshe artifacts held in Tel Aviv from September 9 to October 15. The Panim El Panim Literary Journal lists over 25,000 visitors who attended the exhibition.
In the exhibition catalog, item #56 is listed as “Handwritten Siddur Ari, 1750 Yampol, in which R’ Mottele Chernobler davened — in possession of the Skvira Rebbe–Tel Aviv.” The catalog did not, however, describe the siddur as belonging to the Baal Shem Tov. The Skvira Rebbe-Tel Aviv was Harav Yitzchak Twersky of Skvira-Tel Aviv (1886-1978), whose son Mordechai later sold the siddur in 1976.
The second siddur known to have belonged to Reb Mottele is a Siddur Kol Yaakov (Zlavutta, 1803). It is currently in the possession of Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Zupnik of Brooklyn, New York, who bought it in 2009. In Kovetz Sifsei Tzaddikim (Kopycznitz, vol. 12), the siddur was featured in a lengthy article unequivocally proving its provenance. It is one of the most unique examples of a siddur of an early chassidishe Rebbe. It was a custom among Chassidim to inscribe their names in the Rebbe’s siddur, and this siddur is filled with hundreds of handwritten inscriptions of family members and Chassidim of Reb Mottele Chernobyler, as well as the handwriting of the Chernobyler Rebbe himself.
So, which of the two siddurim is the one mentioned in the story with the widow? After reviewing both siddurim, it must be the second of the two, as it includes Hatavas Chalomos, while the first siddur does not. In addition, Reb Abish Rappaport’s name, as well as the names of his extended family, is handwritten in the second siddur twice.
What happened to the gold-rimmed glasses of Harav Mottele Chernobyler?
It is believed that the gold-rimmed glasses were passed down to the Rebbe’s oldest son and successor, Harav Aharon Chernobyler (1786-1871). In his only known portrait, Rav Aharon is seen wearing the glasses from the Radomyshl story.
The portrait was brought to New York in 1934 by his grandson Harav Shlomo Shmuel Twersky of Chernobyl (1866-1935). There is an alternate version of this portrait where the Rebbe is seen wearing white socks — not pants, as is the custom among some of his descendants — although the provenance of this second portrait is unknown. Yet in both portraits, the eyeglasses of the Rebbe can clearly be seen.
The glasses were passed down from Harav Aharon Twersky of Chernobyl to his grandson, Harav Baruch Meyer Twersky of Azarinitz (1852-1911). (Rav Baruch Meyer’s father, Harav Menachem Nachum Twersky [1820-1870] passed away when Rav Baruch Meyer was only 18.) The glasses were then passed to his son Harav Mordechai Yisrael Twersky of Azarinitz-Khotin.
The Khotiner Rebbe — Hy”d
The Rebbe’s family lived in Khotin until the war broke out between Russia and Germany in July of 1941. On the first day of the war, Khotin was bombed heavily, creating mass confusion. The Rebbe’s family took refuge in underground cellars, and when the bombing subsided and they emerged, they saw a city in ruins. The Russians, who had burned many houses as they retreated, left Khotin unprotected.
Upon their arrival, the Germans, assisted by many Romanians who returned and collaborated with them in their persecution of the Jews, transferred the city’s inhabitants to the far side of the town, where the houses were still intact. The following day, July 9, 1941/15 Tammuz 5701, the Jews of Khotin were ordered to assemble in the yard of the local high school. The gates were locked and the Romanian secret police conferred with German officers outside. Orders were issued for all the Jews to enter the school’s classrooms, filling them beyond capacity.
The bi-weekly Romanian newspaper Renaşterea Noastră published an article on March 29, 1945:
In the morning, a detachment of German soldiers appeared in the courtyard of the gymnasium. An officer climbed a ladder, his eyes searching in the yard among the thousands of Jews like a bird looking for its prey. He looked for the most presentable, asking aloud, “What is your job? Lawyer! Good one? How many years of practice? Let’s say… 20 years of practice?” Then he ordered the lawyer to move to the side. He called the second one, the third, all representatives of the intellectual community.
In a corner of the courtyard was a group of elders with patriarchal appearance. The officer called them. Among them was the famous Harav Twersky and his son Arele, and other Rabbis and Jewish hahams.
The executioner then asked [Harav] Twersky, “What is the translation of the verse Bereishis bara Elokim es hashumayim ve’es ha’aretz?” After the Rabbi translated, the officer said, “Good Rabbiner! Away!”
That fateful evening, the German SS from Einsatzgruppe D (Special Action Unit), headed by Commander Otto Ohlendorf (later executed on June 8, 1951), Einsatzkommando Unit B10/10B under Commander Alois Persterer (now deceased) and Deputy Commander Felix Ruehl, and the Romanian secret police under Commanders Carare and Smadu, selected physicians, attorneys, butchers, pharmacists, Rabbis, and other community leaders from among the group. A total of 58 individuals were chosen, including the Khotiner Rebbe, Harav Mordechai Yisrael Twersky. The Rebbe’s son Aharon was not chosen, but he refused to leave his father’s side. The group was taken out to the courtyard for questioning.
The families left behind were told that the group would be sent to a political camp. There would be no chance to say goodbye. Only later would they learn that all 58 individuals were murdered outside of Khotin’s city limits.
The Khotiner Rebbe’s last moments are chronicled in Solomon Shapira’s B’Darchei Geirush, Israel, 1988 — a chilling autobiographical account of the murder of Khotin’s Jews: “As the 54 Jews were led to their deaths, the Khotiner Rebbe broke from the line and jumped into the Dniester River. ‘Der Rebbe toiveled zich!’ the stunned Jews cried. The Germans pulled the Rebbe out of the water, beat him severely and cursed him. Upon reaching the forest outside of the city, all 54 Jews were ordered to dig a ditch with their bare hands. They were told to enter the pit and were ruthlessly shot to death; many were buried alive. The date was July 9, 1941. Hashem yinkom damam.”
The miracle of the holy Khotiner Rebbe and the wondrous recovery of the glasses
The “Extraordinary State Commission for Ascertaining and Investigating Crimes Perpetrated by the German-Fascist Invaders and Their Accomplices” was a Soviet State Agency formed in 1942. It was tasked with investigating World War II crimes against the Soviet Union and collecting documentation that would confirm material losses caused by Nazi Germany for the purpose of seeking reparations. According to its own data, 32,000 regular organization staff took part in the work of the Commission. On top of that, around 7,000,000 Soviet citizens participated in the collection of materials and evidence. The delegations interviewed survivors and conducted the gruesome task of opening mass graves in every city and town in the Soviet Union.
In Sefer Beis Aharon by Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Horowitz (ABD Potok, NY, 1995), as well as in a recorded interview in 1987, an amazing tale is told. Following the war in 1945, the Skulener Rebbe, Harav Zusia Portugal, zy”a, lived in the city of Chernowitz. He appointed Harav Shlomo Zalman Horowitz, the former Rav of the city of Potok, as the Rav of the city of Khotin. He was to tend to the religious needs of the returning survivors. The Skulener Rebbe accompanied the Potoker Rav to Khotin and gave a drashah in his honor. With this endorsement, the remaining Jews of Khotin signed a contract with Harav Shlomo Zalman Horowitz accepting him as their Rav.
The Soviet Commission arrived in Khotin on Rosh Hashanah of 1945 and demanded that Harav Horowitz identify the exact location of the mass grave outside of the city limits. It was their intention to excavate the grave on Yom Tov, which was an affront to the Jewish community, and Harav Horowitz refused to assist them. The delegation commenced with its dig but could not locate the mass grave.
After Rosh Hashanah, Harav Horowitz and the surviving Jews of Khotin identified the location of the mass grave. They opened the grave and were shocked by what they saw. Although the entire mass grave was filled with bones, one body remained completely intact, as though it had been freshly buried: It was the Admor of Khotin, Harav Mordechai Yisrael Twersky, Hy”d, dressed in his rashavilka, bekeshe and tzitzis, his peyos still wet from the tevilah. He looked as though he were asleep. Everyone present saw this tremendous kiddush Hashem!
“It’s the holy Rebbe!” shouted Avraham Cherkes, a member of the community. He wanted to jump into the grave and kiss the Rebbe, but Harav Horowitz forbade him.
Harav Horowitz, who had never met the Khotiner Rebbe, sought to confirm the Rebbe’s identity. He cut open the Rebbe’s bekeshe and from within the inside pocket removed the family’s passports, which confirmed his identity, and a pair of gold-rimmed reading glasses.
Rabbi Horowitz, amazed by what he saw, phoned the beis din of Chernowitz and asked for a ruling: Should the remains of the Khotiner Rebbe be removed from the mass grave and be buried separately, or should he remain untouched? The ruling, handed down by the Skulener Rebbe himself, was that all Jews who were murdered together are considered kedoshim and should remain together in one joint kever achim. The grave was subsequently closed, and a monument, which remains to this day, was erected at the location.
Hashavas aveidah in New York
In late 1945, due to communist interference, the Potoker Rav left Romania and became the Rav in Warsaw, Poland. In 1946 he traveled to Prague, and later became the Rav of a shul in Hanoville, France. In 1949, he traveled to America, first settling in Boro Park and later on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He kept the eyeglasses of the Khotiner Rebbe with him all those years. Unfortunately, the passports of the Twersky family were lost.
One morning, the Potoker Rav had the honor of accompanying the Kopycznitzer Rebbe on his morning walk to the mikveh before Shacharis along Henry Street. They saw a Jewish woman sitting on the curb, crying bitterly. They inquired on her behalf and were told that she rented an apartment in the building, but because she was unable to pay her rent, the landlord had evicted her.
The Rebbe and the Potoker Rav climbed up many flights to the landlord’s apartment and asked how he could put the poor women out on the street. The landlord replied that she had not paid rent in a few months and was $200 in arrears. The Rebbe promised to pay the balance owed. The landlord then asked what would be with the next month’s rent. The Rebbe stated that he would cover the rent for the next six months.
They climbed down the stairs and as they continued on their way, the Potoker Rav told the Rebbe, “We can now go to daven, because we have completed our preparation for tefillah — we saved a Jewish neshamah.”
In 1961, the son of the Khotiner Rebbe, Harav Yaakov Yosef Twersky, was engaged to Chaya Pearl Heschel, the daughter of the Kopycznitzer Rebbe. Harav Twersky had been orphaned at the age of 14, and survived the war in work camps, finally coming to America in 1946. The vort was held at the Kopycznitzer Shul at 132 Henry Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
Harav Yehuda Aryeh Leib Perlow, zt”l, the Novominsker Rebbe, spoke first, as he was related equally to the chassan and the kallah; the Rebbe’s brother, Harav Alter Yisrael Shimon Perlow of Novominsk, was a brother-in-law of the Khotiner Rebbe. The Rebbe’s sister, Rebbetzin Rivka Reizel Heschel, married to Harav Moshe Mordechai Heschel of Mezhibuzh-Warsaw, was the kallah’s grandmother.
The Potoker Rav then asked to speak. With tremendous emotion, he began by speaking about the chassan and the incredible nisyonos he had encountered during the war years; he had been transferred to various ghettos and work camps, was severely beaten and tortured, and walked on death marches. He then related the miraculous story of finding the body of his holy father, the Khotiner Rebbe, intact, stating that this is a true siman of an ish kadosh me’od. All the assembled were silent and sat in awe. In a most dramatic moment, he then presented the pair of gold-rimmed glasses to its rightful owner, having carried them and this great burden for nearly 16 years.
Yehi ratzon milfanecha… sheyihyu kol chalomosai alai v’al kol Yisrael l’tovah.
Once a year on Yom Kippur, the current owner of those precious eyeglasses, Yitzchok Meyer Twersky, an eighth-generation descendant of Harav Mottele Chernobyler, completes the supplication during Birkas Kohanim, hoping that the holy words of his zeide come true for the entire Klal Yisrael.
“Chelma tava chazisa, chelma tava chazisa, chelma tava chazisa.”
Description of the Khotiner Rebbe
Der Khotiner Rebbe – Reb Mottele
A recently discovered Yiddish article penned in 1980 titled “Der Khotiner Rebbe – Reb Mottele” appeared in the Buenos Aires newspaper De Press, written by Liza Hager of Argentina. She portrays a rare glimpse into the life of the Khotiner Rebbe’s family and the great risk taken to save the Rebbe’s holy artifacts when the Rebbe’s family had to flee the town of Mogilev-Podolsk after the revolution in the early 1920s:
Fast forward several months and we’re already in Ataki (Bessarabia), sitting on our valises, fraught with worry and uncertain of the future. The Rebbe’s family is also with us, all their possessions bundled up in many bags and knapsacks. The mood is somber. Chassidim — at great personal risk — succeeded in smuggling all of the Rebbe’s sefarim and silver heirlooms across the perilous border. The Rebbe — amid all this melancholy — sat wrapped in his tallis and tefillin for days, absorbed in prayer as if in another world, knowing no worries.
News travels fast, and soon Jews all over knew that Reb Mottele crossed the border to settle in Bessarabia. No one knew why the Rebbe chose Khotin, a far-flung town without access to the train system, consisting of little more than a dozen homes and shacks, and right at the border of the country they had just fled in terror. And so it was that Reb Mottele, the Azarinitzer Rebbe, became known as the Khotiner Rebbe.
The manner of the Chassidim of Chernobyl began to influence town life, and a sense of normalcy resumed. Life here was not easy; Khotin was remote and far from any train station. To reach Khotin, visitors had to ride hours on dilapidated roads, enduring ever-present potholes and rocks. Reaching the Rebbe required great effort, but it paid off immensely. The town radiated tangible warmth, and the Rebbe’s house — bridging the wealthy and poor sections of the town — was aglow with happiness. Jews came from far and wide for a blessing for the sick, salvation, advice or just to be at the Rebbe’s tisch.
I remember the Yamim Tovim with the Rebbe, and how his face shone with a heavenly glow, invigorating the crowd all around. Attending a Pesach Seder with the Rebbe was a great merit, and those who did cherished the experience and preserved the memory all their life. The Rebbe, [with his] regal bearing, [wore] a white kittel, gold atarah and a wide sable shtreimel. The gleaming silver dishes, imposing candelabras and superbly carved goblets — inherited from his great ancestors — sparkled in the candlelight and together with the towering silver ke’arah at the center, cast the room in a royal brilliance and holy atmosphere.
The joy of Simchas Torah is difficult to describe. The whole town would encircle the house, some even clinging to windowsills and joists while trying to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe. And the Rebbe danced fiercely with fervor and intensity, every so often raising the sefer Torah, then lowering it with respect.
Testimony of the Khotiner Massacre at the Bucharest Tribunal
Newly discovered documents, supplied by the Special Archives Collection of the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, tell the tale of the massacre of 58 citizens of Khotin, including the Khotiner Rebbe Harav Mordechai Yisrael Twersky, Hy”d, and his son Rav Aharon, Hy”d. Rav Yaakov Yosef Twersky, son of the Rebbe, testified at this tribunal.
The Bucharest Tribunal (Tribunalele Poporului) of 1945 was one of two set up by the post-World War II Romanian government, overseen by the Allied Control Commission, to prosecute suspected war criminals, in line with Article 14 of the Armistice Agreement with Romania. The Tribunals examined a total of 2,700 cases, finding that there was enough evidence to bring prosecution for about half the cases. In all, 668 were found guilty of war crimes, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. The Bucharest Tribunal sentenced a total of 187 people.
Rav Yaakov Yosef Twersky, 17 years old at the time, delivered his testimony on June 19, 1945. Testimony was also given by members of his family and many other Khotiners who came to Bucharest to testify against people whom they knew their entire lives. These testimonies were firsthand accounts of documented atrocities that had occurred just a few years earlier. The testimony clearly proved that although the Jews were actually shot by Nazi soldiers, local Khotin citizens, the police chief, and the Romanian secret police collaborated with the Nazis in preparing the round-up and massacres.
The German officer chose a total of 54 people, including a woman, who were photographed in groups and were driven to the local police station; among these 54 civilians, there was also my father Mordechai I. Tverschi, first rabbi of the city, and my brother, a rabbi as well — Aron Tverschi, age 32 yrs. I mention that the agent Miron from the town police and commissioner Cărare took part in this sorting operation.
The agent Vasile Miron, whom I recognized today, represented a terror for the civilian population of Khotin, him being the person who would arrest civilians directly from their houses, men, women and children, for the purpose of bringing them to the local high school for girls. This Vasile Miron, police agent, was the one who accompanied the group of over 60 civilians, led by the platoon of soldiers commandeered by a Romanian Second Lieutenant. This Vasile Miron is the one who hit my old father on his way to the place of execution because he was not walking quickly enough. My father was First Rabbiner in the town of Khotin, a very well-known person in town, as well as in the whole of Bessarabia. He was found with his pockets inside out and robbed of the valuables on his person. I declare that my father, when he was arrested from his home and imprisoned at the high school for girls, had on his person my family’s valuables. – Testimony of Jacob Tverschi, Language: Romanian
If I mention Rabbi Twersky, I’ll repeat a few words of his. Seeing him from the school, I asked him what his opinion was regarding the happenings. He answered me with these words: “If I’m here, I believe that all will be well.” This is how he was, with the full faith of an Orthodox Jew that G-d will help, and with that faith of an Orthodox Jew he went on to the next world. – Anonymous Testimony from Yad Vashem, Language: Hebrew
“… As we passed a brook, Rabbi Twersky slipped away from the procession and jumped into it with incredible speed. A tremor went through the crowd and I heard voices: ‘The Rabbi is immersing in the mikveh!’ It was a shockingly dramatic moment. The executioners fell upon him with horrible beatings and vile curses and dragged him out of the water. Not a word came from him, not a sound — just the dull murmur of the water and the long mournful croaking of the frogs in the darkness of the night that swallowed us. Our procession, in holy silence, proceeded faster still, to our death.
“…We arrived at the ditch. It was full of standing, dirty water. The people of Khotin called it ‘the Rotting Bog,’ because it’s full of weeds and rotting plants. Suddenly, I heard a command to split to two lines, but before that order could be carried out, a shot rang out. They began shooting with their machine guns. We threw ourselves into the ditch, just like during a bombing. I apparently was the last one to fall in. A horrifying shriek rent the air.
“The machine guns are firing. I’m lying in the ditch, stretched out in the water, barely keeping my mouth above the water, and waiting for death. The rotten grass covers my head. I hear the soldier near me constantly activating his machine gun and cannot understand how it is that no bullet hits me.
“…See, I’m breathing, I move my hand, move my head… I’m alive — how is that possible? Perhaps the soldier hasn’t gotten to me yet… – Testimony, Raschela Katz, Language: Romanian