Our close friend, Menachem Gansburg

One of our loyal friends deserves to be singled out for particular mention. He was among those special individuals whose outstanding latent qualities were revealed during that period.

Menachem Gansburg was an ordinary Jew. At times he had been quite wealthy, and at other times not so successful. My husband considered him to have a keen intellect, saying he was one of the few who understood the Chasidic discourses he delivered. Like everyone, he worked for the government, finding occupation in home industrial co-operatives, because in that line of work it was easier to keep Shabbat.

The members of his cooperative, realizing his intelligence and honesty in all matters, always designated him as their work leader—a post he never sought because he preferred to avoid the responsibility, in order to make it easier for him to keep Shabbat.

Outwardly, he looked like any other Soviet citizen. Secretly, however, he lived the life of a true, ardently G‑d-fearing Jew.

His children, on the other hand, were members of the Komsomol.1 He had wanted to name his only son Shalom Ber.2 But his wife wanted to name him after her father, Yosef Gurary, who had been a Chassid, so the boy was actually named Yosef Shalom Ber. In the family, they called him “Yosef,” but I noticed that whenever Mr. Gansburg said his son’s name, he instinctively pronounced “Yosef” quietly and “Shalom Ber” aloud.

At a time when everyone who had previously been close to our family maintained full distance from me—I believe they were afraid even to think about me—Mr. Gansburg never missed a single day to visit me, to hear what was new and how we were.

No one in his family was allowed to know about these visits. One of his family members once came to ask if he had visited me. Although he had visited me just the night before, at 1:00 o’clock in the morning so that no one would notice him, I replied, of course, that I hadn’t seen him for a very long time.

When everyone in the war-zones evacuated,3 Mr. Gansburg fled, too, along with his cooperative, taking his whole family with him. His children were considered “privileged,”4 so they managed, after many difficulties, to gain employment in a large industrial plant in Bukhara.

While fleeing, Mr. Gansburg would stay in contact by mail from various railroad stations—where there were opportunities to do this—to inquire about our welfare.

Back home, during the times when food was very scarce, he would spend long hours waiting in line to bring home food for his family. He didn’t give them any non-kosher food, G‑d forbid, but he himself ate only black bread and pickled tomatoes5—one of the items distributed on the food lines.

He worked very hard, taking care not to transgress the slightest iota even of Rabbinic laws.6 Under the difficult circumstances of that era, this required extremely intense effort.

The Soviet five-day-long week

Mr. Gansburg once had the following experience. This took place during the period when the Soviet government instituted a five-day week.7 The day of rest was not on Saturday or Sunday but every five days.

Mr. Gansburg’s cooperative once sent him as their specialist to organize production of a new product in a kolkhoz.8 His duties were highly responsible, having to manufacture completely new products. As a result, he was always busy, getting little free time. He was the sole Jew in the kolkhoz.

The fifth day of his week once occurred on Shabbat. Not realizing it was Shabbat, he prayed the weekday morning prayers wearing his tallit and tefillin.9 Since it was his day of rest from work, he spent the day on such tasks as fixing his watch10—since there was no watchmaker in the kolkhoz, and he possessed that skill.

[Thinking it was Friday,] he recited the Shabbat evening prayers after sunset, as he did every Friday evening. Next morning, he followed his usual Shabbat schedule in all respects.

Then, however, he noticed his gentile landlord crossing himself and complaining that there was no local church to attend on Sunday to praise G‑d, and that he had no choice but to do all this at home. Even a bit of liquor, he grumbled, couldn’t be obtained there on Sunday!

This serious mistake had occurred because Mr. Gansburg had lost count of the days of the normal seven-day week. For a person like him who had such self-sacrifice to keep Shabbat, his violation of the Shabbat was utterly inadvertent.

Tearing bread ration cards before Passover

On Erev Pesach, the Jews who didn’t eat chametz on Passover would collect their bread ration cards for the whole week [of Passover], and then, after the holiday, they used them to obtain flour.

But Mr. Gansburg heard11 from my husband that Jewish law forbids deriving any benefit from ration cards dated for the week of Passover. In our home, we used to tear them up before Passover.

Mr. Gansburg’s family consisted of seven people, some of whom [as noted] were of privileged status. This entitled them to receive white bread instead of black bread. White bread was so scarce that only the most privileged received it. They were also entitled to receive a double ration. Mr Gansburg’s children were physically very weak, and he made great efforts to obtain better quality food for them.

Without regard for all this, he secretly took the ration-card book out of his home and tore up all that week’s ration cards. This was a highly courageous act at such a time. He was the only one in his family to do this. But his children held him in such high esteem that they forgave him.

Besides his anguish on account of his children, he suffered greatly and ruined his health from agonizing over kashrut,always apprehensive that perhaps some food was not at the highest level of kashrut.Often, though, he couldn’t afford to buy anything better. As a result, he starved more than he ate.

When he evacuated to a village in Bukhara, he found a G‑d-fearing shochet whose standards of kosher slaughter he found satisfactory. When his family prepared for him a meal including meat, his stomach could no longer digest such food, causing a fatal stomach disorder which took his life.

His family, who remained living there, informed us of his passing. The news affected us deeply.

Mazel Tovfor us

On the following day, my husband went to the post office to pick up our mail. I stayed at home to do some housework and prepare lunch, which actually meant creating something out of nothing!

On his return, I noticed that he seemed very happy. When he entered, he announced, “We get a mazel tov!”

In that environment and under the conditions in which we lived, the very words “mazel tov” rang very strangely. I waited to discover to what he was referring.

He showed me a letter from our relative, Itkin, in Krivoi-Rog [Ukraine], where he wrote that he had received news from the Land of Israel that our son Leibel12 had married.13 The very news that he was alive was itself wonderful tidings. My husband was overjoyed about the good news, and we felt a special happiness all day, giving us hope for better living conditions and to believe that good days were yet to come.

Conditions deteriorate day by day

Time passed as usual. The temperature became bitterly cold. Every day, the food situation became worse. In part, this problem was created by the influx of evacuees, most of whom were not poor. But the region’s market for food was unprepared for supplying the increased demand. Consequently, those who had more money paid premium prices for whatever they wanted, while most evacuees could not afford to do so, with the result that their circumstances worsened.