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The Fire Still Burns

Rhona Lewis

It’s 200 years and a different world since Rebbe Nachman of Breslov passed away. In the heart and prayers of Rebbetzin Sara Gelbach, the Rebbe’s great-great-great granddaughter, the fire — kindled

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Uman — a primitive village on the banks of the Umanka River — boasted a Jewish community since the 18th century. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution paved the way for authoritarian rule, under which Jewish life in Uman was almost wiped out.

Rebbetzin Gelbach’s father, Avraham Berjegovski, was a Gerrer chassid who hailed from Poland. When he was twelve, he traveled to Breslov, where his brother-in-law Mattityahu Berjevski was living. There he became a Breslover chassid and later married Rochel Libovna, a granddaughter of the Breslover Rebbe.

All the chassidim lived on a street dubbed by locals as Breslover Street. Rebbetzin Gelbach reels off familiar names such as Hirsch Leib Lipin, Levi Yitzchak Bender, and Eliyahu Chaim Rosen.

When the Communists began their persecutions, the shul and mikveh were closed. In 1918, Rebbetzin Gelbach’s father, a merchant and the shamash in the shul, built a mikveh in one of the rooms of their large house. “Even nonreligious people used it,” Rebbetzin Gelbach recalls. “It had a heating element in the middle to warm the water. There was no shortage of rain water to fill the mikveh, but the water had to be changed every day. Since we had no plumbing system, I had the job of carrying out the water. I had to make several trips, carrying two pails on a stick across my shoulders and a third one in my hand. I was ten years old at the time.”

Kosher meat was another problem that Rebbetzin Gelbach’s father tackled head-on, by designating one room in the house as an abattoir. Rebbetzin Gelbach accompanied her father to the local market where her father would choose the cow and then leave. She would approach the Ukrainian farmer, hand him a small sum of money and tell him to bring the cow to her home, following her at a safe distance.

“Once the cow was slaughtered, I helped my father remove the hide and cut it up. Father buried the hide and buckets of blood. Then I carried parcels of meat to our customers. One regular customer was the mother of the head of the KGB. She kept a kosher home — I’m not sure whether her son knew it or not. I was chased out of there regularly by his shouts.”

One day, a fellow Jew spotted her father covered in blood from slaughtering and reported him to the police. “My father stepped out of the house and was arrested. He stood under the window, loudly denying the charges in an attempt to warn us. My mother became ill with worry and took to her bed. She told me to throw away the meat, but after all our hard work, I wasn’t prepared to do that. Instead, I ran to a relative and asked him to help me carry it to a trustworthy Ukrainian woman. Then I washed the floor in the slaughtering room, painted it to hide the splatters of blood, and cut my hand a little.”

Sure enough the police came to the house. When her mother claimed she couldn’t speak Russian, they spoke to Sara. First they offered her chocolate, hoping the bribe would induce her to incriminate her father. Sara refused the treat, claiming she had toothache. The police then turned nasty, threatening to take away her mother. Sara held fast, declaring that she had been sleeping and knew nothing. When they found a bloody cloth, she showed them her hand and claimed that she had cut herself. While searching the property, the police found the mikveh. Rebbetzin Gelbach’s mother was arrested.

“My elder sister had already married and I was left to care for three little children alone. I told them to pray and we spent the hours till the evening crying out to Hashem. When we got hungry, I cooked potatoes with sugar for supper!” She laughs at her amateur cooking skills and I glimpse the humor that must have helped her through the tough times. Thankfully, her mother returned that night and her father the following day.

When I admire Rebbetzin Gelbach’s pluck and courage, she shrugs. “We were children of iron,” she says simply. “There was a lot of joy in our hearts, even though we had very little,” Rebbetzin Gelbach recalls. “My friends and I spoke about happiness. We lived with an inner fire. The men in the shul learned hard and at the end of their learning, they always sang and danced.”

 

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