Nothing was easy

At this point, my husband was no longer able to eat everything. He deeply wished to regain his health, which would enable him to live productively. He saw so many people desiring to see him recover, telling him they needed him and his positive influence. He therefore forced himself to do whatever could possibly lead to his recovery.

The doctor gave orders that he eat chicken soup. This was not easy to follow. The chicken had to be purchased, taken to a shochet for slaughtering, and then cooked. Each of these tasks was problematic.

Hirscheh Rabinowitz took care of everything and brought us the finished product. The route from his home to ours took him over a bridge and up a hill. Yet not a day went by that he didn’t come to us two or three times a day, leaving at one or two o’clock in the morning.

When he brought us the chicken, it had to be reheated. Often there were no matches to light the stove which was out in the yard. We weren’t the only ones short of matches; it was a general shortage. When no matches were available, we rolled up a newspaper to form a tube, brought it across the street to a neighbor who had matches, and after lighting it there, ran back quickly so it wouldn’t go out before lighting the stove.

The next day, the neighbor himself did the same, coming to us with a burning newspaper. This may seem a minor problem, but I’m describing it to show the conditions under which we lived.

Hirscheh took care of this as well when he brought the pot of chicken and soup. Then he would sit next to my husband and feed him. He did this with such great love! Seeing how much pleasure he gave Hirscheh with every spoon-full he swallowed, my husband made the effort to eat it, although it was already very difficult for him to do so.

“Who is considered wealthy? One who has a lavatory not far from his table.”1 Since we weren’t “wealthy,” we had to walk quite far in the yard for that purpose. I therefore arranged such facilities to be installed in our second room.

My husband used to tell me how difficult it was for him to watch me expend so much energy on doing all these things. But there was no one else to take my place.

“I want to keep my body joined to my soul”

My husband reached the point where he had to lie continuously in bed and couldn’t get outside into the fresh air. The professor therefore instructed that he sleep with the windows open to let in the fresh air.

To keep the windows open even at night, we had to install iron window-bars to keep out thieves. But to obtain a piece of iron or a welder was out of the question for private citizens. They were normally available only to government employees.

Yet, by ten o’clock in the morning following the professor’s orders late in the previous afternoon, the bars were already installed! A Jew who served as a senior supervisor of a military factory had obtained the iron bars from his director and brought them personally, accompanied by a welder. The latter installed them immediately.

The gentiles passing by would stop and question where and how the bars were obtained. We had to give some answer to every one of them.

All this was accomplished by a Jew from Kharkov. He became so devoted to my husband that later he even stayed at our home for several nights to give him assistance. I overheard him once imploring with all his heart, “Rabbi, you don’t need to endure this constant pain. Better let me endure it for you!”

Those friends who often visited us observed that I could no longer cope with all the physical effort involved. They therefore hired help for me. By day, it was an evacuee from Gzhatsk2 who was a shochet,3 and he helped my husband in various ways. At night, two younger men took over, a university student and a yeshiva student, both of whom were among those close to us.

One night, as I stood by the open window, my husband said, “I’m breathing in the air coming through the bars because I want to keep my body joined to my soul.”

Final hours

During this period, my husband recited his prayers in bed. For the morning prayers, others assisted him with putting on his tefillin. His head had shrunk in size to the point that the tefillin straps around his head were too loose to stay on firmly. Three days before his passing, he asked me to call Yaakov Yosef [Raskin] to tighten the knot of the head tefillin, which he did. My husband continued wearing them for his prayers for the next three days.

On the last morning of his life,4 his lips moved incessantly as he recited holy words. But he wasn’t in a state that day for others to help him put on tefillin.

He was suffering terrible pain. In the course of the day, he asked me several times to help turn him from side to side and from a lying to a sitting position and vice versa. I did whatever he asked and it wasn’t at all difficult for me—at such a time, it seems, hidden powers become revealed.

Late in the afternoon, my husband felt much worse. There were many visitors in our home, and they called a doctor, who prescribed several medications, which were brought immediately.

I realized that his condition was critical, but I thought his struggle for life might continue for another day or two. I gave him a few spoons-full of the medications, which he swallowed. He seemed to be well aware of the critical nature of his condition.

My husband was surrounded by close friends whom I could trust, so I decided to take a short nap in order to gather strength to be to take care of whatever may become necessary to do.

When I awoke half an hour later, my husband’s room was already full of people. One man approached me and suggested I spend the night at a neighbor’s home in order to get some rest. In fact, it was already all over, and this was a well-intentioned effort to conceal the bad news from me. Naturally, I didn’t take his suggestion.

I was asked which practices my husband had considered important to be performed at his burial. I mentioned those I remembered: Making the shrouds of pure linen—an item most difficult to obtain—and that everyone involved in the tahara purification of the body should first immerse themselves in water. As there was no mikveh, a few dozen men immersed themselves in a stream, walking quite a distance to get there. Among them was Yosef Nemoytin,5 despite the fact that he was generally physically frail and running a fever of 40°C6 at the time.

For three whole days, all these friends present there didn’t go to work. Most of them worked on machines as knitters who supplied the government with quotas of knit-ware. But for these three days they didn’t fulfill their quotas.

During my husband’s last two days of life, these strangers, who had become so close to us in recent months, left their homes and work in order to be with us all the time. One member of each family might now and then make a quick visit home just to see how things were.

Our visitors included young and old, non-religious and religious Jews. Some had sharp business disputes with each other, and others were involved in the quarrel between Chassidim and non-Chassidim. Here, however, all became united. Under my husband’s influence, they became divested of their ordinary concerns and entered a higher world.

Preparations for the funeral

My husband passed away just before nightfall. The next morning, several Jews—including members of both sections of the community—travelled to the cemetery to select a suitable plot. Several gabbayim (officers) of the shuls in Alma-Ata also went along, together with a son of Medalya,7 who served as rector of a local college. Six [adjacent] plots were purchased so that no one inappropriate should be buried next to my husband.

In my husband’s room, everything had been done as required. Several friends stayed over in our home, while I stayed in the room where my husband’s body lay on the floor.

In the morning, another problem arose—where to find boards for a coffin. It was a difficult task, but they were obtained for a large sum of money, and the coffin was constructed in the lumberyard. It was transported a long distance through the streets on a wagon, and passers-by stopped to look. To avoid too many queries and prevent problems from the authorities’ all-seeing “eye,” the young man driving the wagon dressed in a military uniform. He had kept this uniform from his employment days in the NKVD, and if he ever needed to obtain anything of questionable legality, wearing that uniform made it easier to accomplish.