Yohanan Ben Yaakov. Trip to Belarus. Pesach 1990

On the eve of Pesach, on April 1990, I went with the Israeli delegation, one of the 34 organizers of the Pesach Seder in the Soviet Union. It was the first Israeli delegation that met with the Jews of the USSR after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and I was instructed to lead the Pesach seder in Mozyr, a small town in the south of Belarus, near Chernobyl.

When I arrived in Mozyr, which was closed to tourism and foreign visits, I discovered that there are from 3 to 5 thousand Jews. There is no minyan for prayer, there is no place for prayer, there are no Hebrew teachers, there is no Jewish cultural club, there is no Jewish community. I found two Jewish textbooks brought here before my arrival.
Near the place of mass execution of Kalinkovichi jews, September 22, 1941. from the left, Edyk Goffman of Mozyr and Kalinkovichians Grisha Weinger (1920 – 1994, Nazrat Illit, Israel), Aron Shustin and Leva Sukharenko. On the right is a monument erected in 1994 with funds collected by fellow countrymen living in Israel and other countries.
An elderly Jew remembered a few words in Hebrew. Sometimes he went to Shabbat and holidays to pray in the elderly minyan in the nearby town of Kalinkovichi, where he read the Torah. He was the only one in the area who could read the Torah.
On the left is Leva (Leiba) Shnitman from Kalinkovichi .            Yankel Mopsik
Kalinkovichi and Mozyr Jews near the house in Kalinkovichi on the street of Kalinina 31, in one of the room there was a synagogue. In the front in a sweater Aaron Shustin, the founder of the site belisrael.info
                                                                    Yosef Malkin
This elderly man, Yosef Malkin, was the hero of my first Seder, held in Mozyr. The faded and dusty local restaurant hall was decorated with a number of colorful and spectacularly vivid paintings of Eretz Israel, in all corners Jewish national flags flaunted. Pictures of seven plant species and the landscape of the Land of Israel were surrounded by a large Jewish audience that gathered in the evening and darkened the wooden articles of the symbolic Belarusian figures located on the walls of the hall … I started the Seder with the description of the “throne of my God”, which is now in the Peschah Seder in my house in Kfar-Ezione and in tens of thousands of Jewish homes in Israel, which are going to celebrate Pesach. A vacant chair near the Seder table is waiting for them, those who are sitting with us now. Speaking of Kiddush, I respected the elderly Yosef Malkin, who came with many awards on his jacket for his service in the Red Army in World War II. Two days before I managed to find this kind old man, and he accepted my request to consecrate and take part in the preparation of the Seder. The only Jew in Mozyr, who from childhood remembered some Jewish rules of life.
 
 
The reader of the Pesach Haggadah is Sveta Shustin. In the front is Zhenya Kotlyar from Kalinkovichi
With trembling hands, Mr. Malkin took a large silver bowl filled with red wine from Israel, and began to read in Hebrew with a heavy Ashkenazi accent the words of the Kidush. His voice choked with excitement that rose and filled his eyes with warm tears. The people around us did not understand the intensity of his emotions, I realized. Who knew that these images were in the head of this Jewish old man who in his childhood knew the rich Jewish world around him, a bright Jewish life thriving “within the town limits”, old Jewish communities, famous yeshivas, prosperous Hasidism, the awakening Zionist movement. Yosef Malkin knew in his childhood that it was in Volozhin and Minsk, Bobruysk and Pinsk, Vitebsk and Grodno, Brisk and Vilna, Dvinsk and Dubno, Mir and Baranovichi, Slonim and Rakov, Lida and Oshmyany and many other towns and villages. All this was destroyed by the enemies of Israel, past and worn out of the world. From the intensity of his emotions, Yosef’s hands trembled, tears choked his throat, he could not finish Kiddush. I had to do it myself and continue to manage Seder …
At the end of the Seder Yosef Malkin asked me to come to his house. It was very late, so we agreed that I would come on the first day of Pesach. The whole family, his daughters, his sons-in-law and grandchildren, as well as other family members gathered in a small apartment. As a result of my attempt to remember about his childhood, a hearty conversation ensued. The old man said that several times over the past decades he have ate matza for Pesach. He could try some matza on Pesach, which reached him in secret and indirect way.
In the armchair an interpreter from English. Zina Zeltser (Vinokur)  from Kalinkovichi
Suddenly the old man went to the hidden corner of the wall under the ceiling, took off the cover, opened the slot and pulled out a dusty bag of cloth. Inside were moldy canvas wrappers, which filled the room with a cloud of dust. From them appeared the Shofar of Yosef! The shock was huge. No one in the family knew about this, even his wife, it seems, did not know about this hidden object. Yosef gave me the shofar and quoted a verse with a heavy Yiddish accent: “blow a big shofar for our freedom …”. I asked: “Did anyone in the family know what kind of strange object it was? – No one answered, no one knew. I hesitantly asked Yosef Malkin why he hid it from them, why does no member of his family know anything about the shofar? The old man answered in a whisper, as if in secret: my wife also does not know. If they knew, one of them would have reported it and it would all have ended bitterly. To his amazement, his elderly wife, who always listened in silence, said: “I knew!” Shofar was discovered by chance, but she was afraid to tell her husband that she knew that he would not report it! “These two friendly elders
were tearful and we were all with them.” People there realized that the story was a big surprise for me. For seventy years Rabbi Yosef Malkin kept the shofar, perhaps he even occasionally used it once or twice, but his wife, his amazing wife, could not reveal the secret.
When I returned to Israel, I learned something about the nature of Soviet power. Nachman Raz, a member of the kibbutz Geva, then the chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, gave me the memorial book of Nadezhda Mandelstam (Am Oved, 1977). A book that opened a window to the Soviet world and the Jews in it. Horrors of those times of Stalin’s terror created such a deep furrows in the souls of this elderly couple that they could no longer be cured. And I learned more about the term “Stukach” (snitch) in the years of my future work in the countries of the former Soviet Union. The couple’s fear was real, the secret was their only refuge.
Yosef Malkin gave me the shofar, briefly explaining to his family what he had in mind, and asked me with tears that I would take him to the Land of Israel, to be trumpeted on the “terrible days”. The Jewish community in Mozyr will disappear, Yosef said, he is the last in this city who knows what shofar is. I quoted him the biblical stanzas: “Blow the shofar for our freedom and pray to bring all of us from Galut!”. To take the shofar from the borders of the Soviet Union was a risky mission. We were warned not try to take nothing out. I confess that the desire to free the shofar and bring it to Israel exceeded the fear. Shofar got on a plane with me, he wasnt found by the soviet authorities and he got to Israel. On Rosh Hashanah in 1990 and the following years we blew this shofar in the synagogue in Kfar Etzion. I cherish this shofar, and this is one of the most valuable items that we have.
After that trip, most of the families from Mozyr and the district with whom I communicated immigrate to Israel. On Saturday, September 5, 2015, the new commander of the brigade, Colonel Roman Hoffmann, joined the morning prayer in the synagogue. During the prayer he stood beside me, and at the end he stretched out his hand and said: Shabbat shalom, I read your words about Gush Etzion and learned from you about the area where I was appointed commander. I said “I thought we’d never met.” Roman replied, it’s true, but the materials I found on the Internet, I read and heard your lectures. That’s why I know you. His Russian accent was obvious, and I asked: Roman, where did you come from? He answered, from a small town in Belarus, which no one knows. Of course, his name will not tell you anything. When I insisted, he quietly muttered, from Mozyr! Roman and his family repatriated from there a few months after Pesach 1990. It is likely that his parents attended the Pesach Seder I held there, or at a large meeting that was held with members of the community.
After Mozyr Y. Ben Yaakov visited Bobruisk. Below there are the pictures that was taken there
Dina Loykumovich (maybe Leokumovich – editor of belisrael.info) soon repatriated to Israel and later was the envoy of the Sokhnut
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The photo of Yohanan Ben Yaacov, 2016
Letter from Yohanan Ben Yaakov:
When I returned from Belarus, the late Minister of Education Zvulun Hammer invited me to become a his adviser and chief in the process of absorbing immigrants in the educational system, as well as the Jewish educational program in the Soviet Union, which I created with several partners. I called it (חפציב”ה) Heftziba (from the first letters of the words formal Zionist Jewish education in the Soviet Union). This word is mentioned in one of the prophetic verses of the prophet Isaiah, which describes the return from the galut (dispersion) to the land of Israel and the construction of the country. During this period, and after my first trip to the Soviet Union, I also initiated the creation of the Naale program (the repatriation of youth without parents).
I have already been a pensioner for five years, and these programs continue to work.
Happy jewish New Year!
Yohanan Ben-Yaakov
Translate from hebrew Igor Shustin
Published on 09/09/2018 12:21
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