• Poltava – The City Behind The Niggun

    There’s a soul-stirring niggun named after it; it was at one point 25% Jewish; its legendary Rav was the Rebbe Rashab’s chavrusa — a historical overview of the Chassidishe city we know from the stories: Poltava • By Beis Moshiach MagazineFull Article

    Shneur Zalman Berger Beis Moshiach

    In eastern Ukraine, on the banks of the Vorskla River near Charkov-Kiev, not far from Haditch is the city of Poltava. It is a central city that also serves as the district capital. Over the years, Jewish life thrived in Poltava. At its height, the Jews were twenty-five percent of the population.

    Chassidic tradition says that the Shpole Zeide sat in prison in this city for a few months.

    As a district capital and an important economic center, Poltava was also the spiritual center of Jews of the region, whether in terms of the educational institutions that were founded there or communal representation of the Jews of the region before the authorities.

    Within the larger Jewish community, there was also a presence of lively authentic Chassidic life for several generations. The following article will document the story of the Chassidic community that was hit time after time by the Communists or the Nazis. Descendents of the Chassidim of Poltava live among us today and are living testimony that the Chassidic chayus of Poltava is still alive among us.

    CHASSIDIC RAV OF STATURE

    A little less than 300,000 people live in Poltava today. The notable historic events in the city date back, according to the historians, as far as 1100 years ago. Over the years, the city experienced ups and downs and many bloody wars.

    It was only 200 years ago that many Jews began to settle in Poltava. They were the nucleus of the Jewish community. The community grew and was mostly comprised of Chabad Chassidim. During World War I there were nine Chassidic shuls and only one shul belonging to the Misnagdim.

    One of the noble personalities who served as the crown of the Jewish community in Poltava was the Chassid, Rabbi Yaakov Mordechai Bespalov, a distinguished Chabad rav who served as the rav of the city. He held this position for about thirty years. He was a follower of the Rebbe Maharash and the Rebbe Rashab. Before the nesius of the Rebbe Rashab, he was considered one of his close friends.

    R’ Bespalov was born on 12 Iyar 5615/1855. He was known as a lamdan and an oveid. He was one of three Chassidim who received a handwritten semicha from the Rebbe Maharash.

    His father, R’ Nissan, was wealthy. Despite being a Chabad Chassid he was not pleased that his son was completely devoted to Torah and avoda. He once went to the Rebbe Maharash and asked in a complaining tone, “What will be with my son? Has it been decreed that he will be a batlan (layabout)?”

    The Rebbe Maharash replied: “Don’t worry. With Hashem’s help he will be the rav of a big city and will receive a weekly salary of twenty rubles, twenty-five rubles, even more.”

    The Rebbe’s prophecy was fulfilled precisely. When R’ Bespalov became rav in Poltava in 5646/1886, he was given a weekly salary of twenty rubles, a nice amount for those times. Then he was raised to twenty-five rubles and the third time he was raised to thirty rubles. His brother, who lived in Charson, was very rich and G-d fearing. Now and then, he offered his brother tremendous financial support but R’ Bespalov would decline and say, “Am I lacking, G-d forbid, for my expenses?”

    R’ Bespalov led his community with a firm hand and did much to buttress the kashrus of the city. As rav of the city, he faced many challenges and obstacles but with great wisdom and help from Hashem, he overcame them. Over the years, he acquired a reputation as a posek. On various occasions, the Rebbe Rashab sent him halachic questions to get his opinion.

    R’ Bespalov always davened with a niggun deveikus replete with emotion that stirred the soul. This niggun later became known as “Niggun Poltava” (some call it “Niggun l’Rav Yaakov Mordechai of Poltava”) and it appears in the Sefer Ha’Niggunim (niggun 45).

    R’ Bespalov’s influence extended far beyond the borders of his city and with the encouragement of the Rebbe Rashab, he was involved in general Chabad communal affairs and was also very involved on behalf of Russian Jewry. He was one of those who fought against the Zionist and Haskala movements.

    After his passing at the young age of 60, the Rebbe Rashab wrote to the people of his city, “Please remember his work that he carried out for over thirty years, complete service, work that was loyal and faithful to the true purpose of the rabbinate among the Jewish people. To analyze and oversee every detail regarding kashrus and the purity of the body and soul and he made great improvements in these, and every thing small or big did not stand in his way to fulfill this need. He literally was moser soul and body for this and throughout the years that he graced your camp with his presence, you lived in tranquility and did not soil yourselves ch”v with even a possible concern of prohibition, may the Merciful One protect us.”

    He was succeeded at first by his son, Rabbi Shmuel Bespalov but for a reason that is unclear, he left the position shortly thereafter. The Rebbe Rashab worked to find a fitting rav for the Jews of Poltava.

    In 5678/1908, the Rebbe Rashab asked Rabbi Menachem Mendel Chein, rav of Niezhin to take the position of rav of Poltava. The suggestion was made via letter and telegram and R’ Chein responded, “His holy words are holy to me, and I am prepared, bli neder, to fulfill his holy counsel.” He goes on to write that in his view as well it would be beneficial toward raising the spirit of Chassidus and Torah in Poltava, but he also had other thoughts on the matter which he wrote the previous winter. R’ Chein asked for the Rebbe’s bracha and said that he received a letter from the people of Poltava in which they asked for his consent to serve in the rabbanus.

    We do not know what happened but the one who was appointed as the next rav of Poltava was Rabbi Dovber Greenpress, who had learned in Lubavitch.

    UPHEAVALS AND TRAVAILS

    Rabbi Michoel Lipsker’s recollections are fascinating. He was born in a small town near Poltava but he spent his childhood with his family in the city, where he lived for many years. This is how he describes Jewish-Chassidic life in Poltava:

    “In Poltava there were a number of shuls, the big one, “the Kor shul,” where Rabbi Eliyahu Akiva Rabinowitz [a rav and talmid chacham and editor of two newspapers, Hamodia Poltava and HaPeles] was the rav. Mainly the Misnagdim davened there. The Balnitzer Shul was perhaps referred to thus because it was near the hospital (balnitza means “hospital” in Russian) where the Chassidim davened and where Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim was. The Soldiers’ Shul, where my father, Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Lipsker was the rav.

    “When we grew up a bit, my brother Yaakov and I learned in the Talmud Torah by R’ Avrohom Ber the melamed, which is what the Chassidic melamed was known as, and our brother Aryeh Leib learned in the yeshiva in the city which was called the Mirrer Yeshiva (the famous yeshiva which moved from Mir to Poltava because of the war).”

    In 5651/1891, the idea was proposed by some Chassidim that the Rebbe Rashab move from Lubavitch to one of the places where Chassidim were concentrated and officially accept the Chabad leadership. The suggested places were Kremenchug, Poltava and Chernigov. The Rebbe Rashab did not accept the idea and remained in Lubavitch. Three years later is when he formally accepted the nesius, but the idea of bringing the Rebbe to Poltava demonstrates how many Chassidim lived in the area and the importance of this community from a Chabad perspective.

    World War I began at the end of 5674/1914 and the czar of Russia was replaced by a democratic government that lasted a short time until it was taken over by the Communists. Russia was swept up in a brutal civil war that lasted several years. R’ Lipsker goes on to describe the Chassidic community in Poltava during the upheavals:

    “The years of World War I passed over us in Poltava full of worry and fear. The upheavals and chaos that prevailed during the years 1918-1920 are indescribable; the changes and turnovers of the guerrilla groups [the government of the city changed hands dozens of times and these are the names of the groups that ruled in Poltava during the war and the Communist Revolution – SZB]: the Reds, the Whites, Bolsheviks, Menshoviks, Petliura and more. The city was captured by one gang and then another and there were changes every week and sometimes, several changes in one day.”
    R’ Michoel goes on to describe the travails of war. When peace returned for a period of time, he and his brothers went to learn in underground Yeshivos Tomchei Tmimim.

    LAST MINUTE RESCUE

    Nissan 5678/1918: The civil war was at its height and the tmimim left Lubavitch in small groups as the Germans approached. Some of those leaving Lubavitch went to Kremenchug; that is where many of them went. Some of the tmimim traveled via Poltava where they were arrested for spying.

    In a group of twelve tmimim was Zalman Birnbaum of Poland who wore a small hat as was customary where he came from. When the train stopped in the Poltava station, he ran off the train to get some food or drink before the train got moving again. His Polish attire and conduct aroused suspicion and together with the entire group he was arrested by the Bolsheviks who ruled Poltava at the time. Witnesses to the arrest saw how the detainees were taken at night to a train car far from the station and then shooting was heard. It seemed they had all been taken for execution.

    The next day, some people from Poltava went to Kremenchug to report that at the station in Poltava twelve students of Tomchei Tmimim had been taken to be shot. Two of the students, who were in Kremenchug, Rabbi Yisrael Jacobson and Rabbi Yechezkel Feigin, decided to find out what happened.

    Rabbi Tzvi Gurary, who had many connections with the military, called the commander of the army in Poltava who told him the bachurim were still alive. R’ Gurary begged him not to kill them and witnesses would come shortly from Kremenchug to testify that they were not spies.

    Because of the war, no trains were running between Poltava and Kremenchug which made it hard to get there swiftly. Time was of the essence and R’ Gurary obtained a special permit for the tamim Mordechai Aharon Friedman who went by military train to Poltava. As soon as he arrived, he went to the military office where he was told that if the rabbis of the city would sign a guarantee that they would appear at trial, they would be released immediately.

    Mordechai Aharon did not delay and got the signatures of Rabbi Dovber Greenpress the rav of the city, and Rabbi Eliyahu Akiva Rabinowitz. He then returned to the military office with the letter of guarantee and the tmimim were released. Among them were Rabbi Avrohom Eliyahu Akselrod, later rav in Baltimore, and Rabbi Yehoshua Isaac Baruch, later mashpia and head of the Chabad community in Kovno.

    A few hours passed after they were released and the Bolsheviks withdrew from the city because of the Germans who entered Poltava. R’ Yisrael Jacobson described this in his memoirs and said it was a big miracle. “If the tmimim had remained in the hands of the Bolsheviks when they withdrew, it is hard to describe what would have happened …”

    CHASSIDIM OF POLTAVA COMMIT TO THE REBBE RAYATZ

    Following the passing of the Rebbe Rashab on 2 Nissan 1920, the Chassidim of Poltava sent a ksav hiskashrus to the Rebbe Rayatz. On Sunday of Chol Ha’Moed Pesach, the ksav hiskashrus was signed by the rav of Poltava, Rabbi Dovber Greenpress along with Chassidim of Poltava who were joined by Chassidim outside of the city. Together, they importuned the Rebbe Rayatz to accept the nesius in place of his father.

    The first signature was that of Rabbi Dovber Greenpress and after him were: the shochet Rabbi Shmuel Dobruskin, the shochet Rabbi Pinchas Schreiber, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Dubravsky, Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Hirsh Konikov, rav in Kobilak near Poltava, Rabbi Shneur Zalman Chosidov, and others.

    TOMCHEI TMIMIM IN A CELLAR

    With the start of the Communist regime, persecution against yeshivos began. In Iyar 5681, the Communists closed Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim in Rostov and the tmimim were expelled from the city. In the days that followed, the tmimim wandered to the yeshiva’s new location, Poltava. In the following months, more tmimim arrived in Poltava from various places. The mashpiim in the yeshiva in Poltava were Rabbi Shmuel Leib Levin and Rabbi Yechezkel Feigin. Heading the yeshiva was Rabbi Yehuda Eber. The old Chassid, Rabbi Shlomo Itkin, resident of Poltava, took care of the financial needs of the yeshiva.

    The yeshiva was located in the cellar of the Chabad shul, Balnitza. Due to the war and the revolution, the economic situation in Russia was abysmal, but the Chassidim of Poltava did all they could to provide basic material needs for the tmimim. Nevertheless, the difficulty was immense and many of the tmimim had to sleep on tables and benches. Despite this, the joy and love and brotherliness were visible on their faces and they were involved in Torah and avoda despite their material circumstances.

    The hanhala of the yeshiva tried various ways of obtaining money for the yeshiva. They sent urgent letters to other countries to get donations to help them maintain the yeshiva.

    The Rebbe Rayatz, nasi of the yeshiva, concerned himself with helping the yeshiva in Poltava and encouraged the talmidim as well as the Chassidim who lived in Poltava who did everything they could for the yeshiva. The Rebbe sent a special letter to the tmimim and encouraged them in light of the persecution they were experiencing. He told them to be diligent in Torah study and to engage in avodas ha’tefilla and ended the letter with special blessings.

    The Rebbe also sent a letter to the residents of Poltava in which he thanked them for their good work on behalf of the yeshiva.

    Rabbi Michoel Yehuda Leib Cohen, one of the talmidim in the yeshiva at the time, recounted in his memoirs:

    “They learned Nigleh and Chassidus with tremendous diligence and a large number of the talmidim davened at length. Very often, they farbrenged with the mashpia, R’ Yechezkel Feigin and also among themselves. A few talmidim traveled to Rostov to the Rebbe to ask his advice in Avodas Hashem, and each of the talmidim reviewed Chassidus on Shabbos after mincha. The love among one another was indescribable, like brothers who are the children of a single father. Each one worried and took an interest in his fellow’s state.”

    THE YESHIVA WAS INVADED ON EREV PESACH

    The yeshiva operated in Poltava for two years until Nissan 1923 when the secret police arrived before Pesach. The talmidim were making their own wine at the time and the shmura matza that was already baked was hanging from the ceiling. Due to lack of space, the talmidim bought wicker baskets and hung them with the matzos from the ceiling.

    There were rumors that the Cheka (secret police) had its eye on the yeshiva, which is why they were extra careful such as when they wrote letters. Some think that the son of the yeshiva’s cook informed on them as he was a bad person and wild in his conduct.

    Two or three days before Pesach a siege was suddenly laid to the yeshiva. Policemen, members of the Yevsektzia and undercover agents led by the commander Teitel, surrounded the yard of the yeshiva and began a careful search. The hands of the wicked probed every cranny, touching the matzos which particularly angered them (as is apparent from a news item that was published afterward in the local paper). Miraculously, they did not touch the wine.

    After the search, an intensive investigation ensued. Every talmid of the yeshiva was interrogated: who is the menahel, who is the melamed and other such questions. The talmidim, who had planned for this, unanimously answered there was no menahel and they learned on their own and subsisted on what they received from home. The interrogators did not like these answers and they threatened and screamed and continued searching for the roshei yeshiva until they found youngsters under the age of eighteen. They wrote down their names and warned them to leave Poltava within three days.

    It was terrifying, especially since this occurred right before Pesach. After thinking it over, the tmimim realized that the yeshiva could no longer remain in Poltava and so the young talmidim traveled in two groups to Charkov and Kremenchug where a yeshiva already existed, run by Rabbi Yisrael Noach Blinitzky. The rest of the talmidim also left the city and joined other branches of Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim established elsewhere. When the secret police discovered that the financial director was R’ Shlomo Itkin, they arrested and interrogated him and demanded that he turn over the accounts. He sat in prison until Pesach and was finally released until trial and was miraculously exonerated.

    Among the talmidim who learned in the yeshiva at that time were: R’ Zalman Shimon Dworkin, R’ Yehuda Chitrik, R’ Yehoshua Korf, R’ Dovid Leib Morosov, R’ Fishel Demichovsky, R’ Avrohom Drizin, R’ Benzion Shemtov, and many others.

    JUDAISM IN POLTAVA WANES

    For a number of years, Poltava had a publishing house where some sifrei Chassidus were published by Rabbi Chaim Meir Heilman and Rabbi Chaim Eliezer Bichovsky. Among those sefarim were Yahel Ohr on Tehillim and Derech Mitzvosecha of the Tzemach Tzedek, and Pelach Ha’Rimon by R’ Hillel of Paritch.

    Due to the persecution by the KGB, the members of the community could not daven in a minyan in the shuls and they had secret minyanim in the home of R’ Pinchas Schreiber.

    In the following years, the persecution intensified. In 5690, the government closed the large shul of Poltava as well as the Chabad shul where the yeshiva had been. During those terrible years, Chassidim were arrested and imprisoned again and again but no organized documentation remains about what happened in Poltava. Nevertheless, here are some bits of information.

    In the book Jews and Judaism in the Soviet Union, it tells of the arrests of Chassidim who lived in Poltava in 5697. In the book HaMashpia Shelo Chozar (the mashpia who did not return) it says that during the big wave of arrests throughout the Ukraine in Adar 5699, arrests were also made in Poltava.

    Interestingly, when the Communists wanted to exile the mashpia, Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, they sent him to Poltava in order to distance him from the area of his activities. He stayed in Poltava for three years where he was hosted by the family of Rabbi Aryeh Zev Lipsker. He was also in touch with the family of R’ Shmuel Menachem Klein, a Chabad Chassid in Poltava.

    In those years in particular, when the persecution intensified, a branch of Tomchei Tmimim was reestablished in Poltava. A few talmidim learned there. In Toldos Chabad b’Russia it cites recollections from talmidim who learned in the yeshiva in the years 5695-5696.

    The persecution and starvation that prevailed in Ukraine during those years are why Chassidim moved to the big cities in Russia and so, the Chabad community dwindled. During the period before World War II, about 13,000 Jews lived in Poltava, about ten percent of the population. With the German invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941, the Jews of Poltava began to flee far from the terrors of the front. The Nazis conquered the city on 27 Elul 1941. The Jews were required to wear patches with a Magen Dovid and were conscripted for forced labor. In census counts among the Jews of those days, it appears that most of the Jews of Poltava managed to escape before the Nazis entered the city.

    The remaining Jews of Poltava were taken out to be killed by the Nazis, some at the beginning of Tishrei 5702 and some at the beginning of Cheshvan. The Balnitza Shul was destroyed and burned by the Nazis and only the outer wall which faced the street remained. After the war, some of the building was restored and it was first used as a preschool and then as a factory. Later, it was demolished in favor of a market that was located there. Today, there is nothing that remains of the shul or the yeshiva aside from brief mentions in the historical annals of Poltava.

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