Reb Moshe Yitchok was born in theyear 1882 (5642) in the town of Gorlitz in Galicia to Reb Naftoli Meilich and Chana Breindel Gewirtzman. A few years later they moved to Shinev, where he spent many hours with his father’s brother-in-law, the Shinever Rav, and where he absorbed the holiness and saw greatness firsthand. After World War I, when he was a married man, he moved to the town of Pshevorsk. It was there that the first small seeds of his rabistever were planted, when he began making a tisch on Friday nights.
Soon, though, winds of war swept through Europe. Germanyand Russia made a pact to conquer Poland and split it in half. Reb Itzikel, who had been living in Poland, found himself under Russian jurisdiction. The Russians issued a law that everyone had to register; they would then be issued a Russian identity card. Reb Itzikel strongly advised the people against registering. Soon afterward the Russians rounded up all the people who hadn’t registered and herded them off to the frigid wasteland of Siberia. The people who had followed Reb Itzikel’s advice were obviously distraught. “For this we didn’t register?”
“Today is the 23rd day of Sivan,” said Reb Itzikel, calming down everyone. “On this day, Achashveirosh sent the second letters, which annulled the decree. Surely this is an auspicious day and we will merit to be saved.”
Just a little while later, the Germans broke the pact and conquered the part of Poland that had been controlled by the Russians. The Yidden who had registered were deported. Those who had been sent toSiberia eventually survived the war.
After the war Reb Itzikel lived in Paris. When people from Antwerppleaded that he come there to live, he moved to Belgiumin 1957, settling in Antwerp’s Mercator Straat. Antwerpin the postwar years featured a mix of survivors. The majority were more modern. All were still broken and pained by their experiences during the war.
When the Rebbe arrived he brought with him the fire of prewar Chassidus. The survivors, many of who had never seen a chassidishe rebbe before, were drawn to the warmth of Chassidus and basked in its fires. In time, going to Reb Itzikel during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah was part and parcel of the Yamim Noraim, as much a part of those days as doing kaparos.
What began as a small trickle of visitors eventually grew over the years into a stream of Yidden who would come even from London to see the Rebbe. One of them was Reb Y. Honig. After several years of going to Antwerp, he sent his son, a young bochur, to spend Succos with the Rebbe. This son stayed for four years. Reb Itzikel had said, “Stay here by me.” And so the young bochur, Chaim Honig, remained and served as gabbai until the Rebbe passed away four years later.
What is the image that one envisions of a rebbe’s hoif (court)? A beautiful building surrounded by a huge courtyard? Hundreds of people milling about, each one waiting to catch a glimpse of the rebbe? Long lines of people snaking their way forward, awaiting their turn to make their request? And secured in the inner sanctuary is the rebbe, who has closeted himself inside, until the door handle turns — and when it does, the chassidim surge forward with bated breath?
Reb Itzikel’s hoif was nonexistent. Neither in the physical realm, in the way things looked, nor in the way people approached the Rebbe was there a resemblance to the picture painted above.
“It was all very old and dilapidated, with a total open-house policy. The Rebbe’s bedroom, kitchen, and beis medrash were all on one floor, and everyone was invited to come in at any time,” Reb Chaim Honig, the gabbai, explains. “This heimishkeit was so discernible that an elderly Yid who wasn’t one of the chassidim — I don’t know if any of the chassidim would have gone so far — once saw the Rebbe washing for bread. ‘Ah,’ he said, clapping Reb Itzikel on his back, ‘have a good appetite, Rebbe.’ I try to imagine such a scene happening today with any of the rebbes. It’s so unthinkable that it’s laughable.”
Since hundreds of people strove to consult with Reb Itzikel, one would imagine it was difficult to get in to see him. “Not at all,” says the gabbai. “People would stride into the Rebbe’s room at any hour of the day. The door to his room was never allowed to be closed. He yearned to be available to every Yid who sought him out. The chassidim would push the door open completely and hand the Rebbe their kvittel. A Yid once hurried in and said, ‘Please read my kvittel quickly. I have to travel now.’ If I would close the door to afford the Rebbe some privacy, he would open it, saying, sharply, ‘We don’t close doors.’ ”
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