The very stones were dancing

Sukkot [5703 (1942)]: For a sukkah, we paid to build an ante-room to our room—ostensibly for the purpose of preventing cold winter air from blowing straight through our door. When our landlady demanded that we finish the room with a roof, we told her that presently we couldn’t afford it but would do so before the onset of the winter cold.

Simchat Torah: We didn’t yet have a Torah in our possession. Our guest who ate his Yom Tov meals with us had found work as a night-watchman and had to spend his nights in the fields guarding the produce, so now he could come only during the day. Thus, only I was present with my husband in our room at night.

The time of hakafot1 arrived. It is most difficult for an ordinary person like me to describe my husband’s emotional experience, as was evident on his face. He started reciting the customary verses2 preceding the actual hakafotAta horeta ladaat ki Hashem Hu haElokim, ein od mil’vado3—using the same tune he used back at home [in Dnepropetrovsk], when he celebrated hakafot in shul together with many hundreds of Jews. The following night, he used to celebrate hakafot in our home with several dozen of those close to him. Whether at shul or at our home, it was not just [his] dancing—it seemed like the very paving stones danced along to his joy.

Here, too, he enveloped himself with such joy. He recited every verse, and after every circuit he sang and danced, alone, to the melody known in our hometown as “the Rav’s melody.”4 He circled around in the narrow space in our room between his bed and the table, reciting the verses of the hakafot:

“…Pure and upright One, please save us… Benevolent One and bestower of goodness, answer us on the day we call.”

He wanted this to be pure joy, and his deep emotion was manifest in the words he recited:

“He who knows thoughts, please save us… He who is garbed in righteousness, answer us on the day we call.”

This was a most difficult experience for me to endure. Sitting on a wooden stool in the corner, I observed the immensity and intensity of my husband’s love of the Torah as he danced away all the seven hakafot.

Following hakafot on Simchat Torah morning, he recited Sissu v’simchu b’simchat Torah [“Rejoice and exult in the joy of the Torah…”] with similar enthusiasm.

The Rav’s final month of Tishrei

This year [5704 (1943)], however, there were quite a number of evacuated Jews in our village, forming a small community.

In Russia, during the month of Tishrei, even non-observant Jews become religiously oriented. Accordingly, people started to visit my husband, recognizing him as a central figure for religious affairs. Each had personal questions and requests. They included Jews from Bessarabia, Poland and many other places. Most were women, because the Soviet occupational army in Bessarabia had deported entire Jewish families and, on their journey into exile, had separated women from their husbands, so now they were asking for help in locating their husbands. Everyone’s heart was utterly broken by their experiences.

An exception was some evacuees from Moscow and similar cities, who were gratified that they had been spared from the danger of the war zone and had even managed to bring some of their possessions—which they immediately traded on the market. But they, too, found the cramped conditions, the primitive state of the homes, and the poor climate very difficult to tolerate.

Many of the younger evacuees found employment in various concerns. But they were regarded with envy and lived in constant state of anxiety.

From all these Jews, a large group assembled for High Holiday prayers. None were qualified to serve as a chazzan, Torah reader, or shofar blower. They were simple Jews, and not Torah observant. We had received a Sefer Torah, and I had brought a shofar from home. Since there was no one else, my husband performed all these functions himself. He performed it all with such deep emotion—“My entire being declares”5—for he hadn’t had the benefit of such prayer for five years—the entire congregation in a refined state of spirituality, accompanied by copious weeping; it was absolutely awesome.

The walk from the apartment where the prayers took place to our own room was quite a distance. We had to cross two “valleys,” walking downhill and then uphill. On the evening following Yom Kippur, after the Kiddush Levana6prayer, when my husband walked into our room, I could barely recognize him—his face had so changed. But he was very happy at having successfully completed all the High Holiday services.

For the first two days of Sukkot, services could not be held at that apartment. For the final days, however, the rental arrangements were renewed. It is impossible to describe that Simchat Torah’s great joy—real dancing! Participating in the dancing and singing were Jews who back at home, had never done this. Many declared that spending Yom Tov together with my husband in shul enabled them to forget all their troubles, as they felt only his inspirational effect upon them.

Several participants even held special “Kiddush” celebrations at their quarters, inviting others to partake of food and drink. This didn’t happen in any of the surrounding towns; only in our village, because of my husband’s presence there. People declared that they would never forget him.

Witnessing my husband’s rejoicing, one could think he had never experienced any misfortune. But his face already betrayed his poor health. On the other hand, his spirit remained quite resolute.

“The Jews have brought the bad weather!”

The Yomim Tovim came to an end. They had conveyed us, to some extent, out of our usual disheartenment, divesting us from the ordinary, and raising us a little higher. We now resumed our daily routine—not too interesting.

The weather turned extremely cold, and it even snowed, which was unusual there. The gentile residents reported that they had not experienced such cold weather for the past thirty years. They blamed it on the Jewish evacuees—“The Jews brought the bad weather!”

The houses in the area were not constructed to accommodate heating, and had no furnaces to heat the rooms. The walls were built of clay, “asman” in Kazakh. In the summer, it isn’t so bad. But in the winter, everything gets damp. In the morning, when you have to put on shoes or the “volenkes7 worn there, they were always wet. It was so unpleasant, until the moisture dried up and the feet got a chance to warm up. Often the walls there were mildewed.

I found a Jewish furnace-builder, who started building a sort of furnace in the middle of our room, which we could use for cooking and baking and, at the “same time”8—as they say here—would also heat our room. But he had no bricks and couldn’t obtain them elsewhere, as none were available for sale. Mind you, I managed to find more than one hundred odd bricks, and resourcefully gathered them and brought them home. Thank G‑d, we had the furnace completed.

I would prefer not to elaborate on this.

Another problem with heating was that fuel wasn’t easily available. But somehow or other we managed to take care of that, too.

A further problem concerned the chimney, which we shared with our landlady. When both our furnaces were burning, the smoke from the fires merged in the chimney and it all backed up into our room, making it impossible to stay there. The smoke’s soot also blackened everything. We tried to avoid using the furnace at the same time as the landlady used hers. But when her anger burned against Jews in general, she would immediately light her furnace so that the smoke would blow into our room. The strong winds, too, conspired to blow the smoke into our room with even greater intensity.