Machberes: Inside The Chassidic And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
During the 24 hours of Sunday, the 21st of Adar, March 3, more than 30,000 chassidim made their way into the ohel (mausoleum) in the old Jewish cemetery in Lizjensk, in southeastern Poland. Individuals and groups came from the corners of the globe. Their prayers and their tears pierced every heart. They came for themselves, they came for their loved ones. They came for Klal Yisrael. And when they left, they withdrew confident that their prayers will be answered.
The day was that of the yahrzeit of, and the ohel is that of Rabbi Elimelech Weissblum, zt’l (1717–1787), Lizjensker Rebbe and revered author of Noam Elimelech, disciple of Rabbi Dov Ber, zt’l (1700–1772), Maggid of Mezeritch. The Maggid was the direct successor of Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, zt’l (1698–1760), founder of Chassidus. The Noam Elimelech is credited with the spread of Chassidus to all of Galicia and Poland. Almost every day of the entire year, Jews, chassidic and non-chassidic, are found at the ohel, beseeching the Sage for Heavenly intervention. On Motzaei Shabbos and Sunday, all 150 chapters of Tehillim were publicly and tearfully read aloud, again and again.
The City of Lizjensk
Lizjensk (Lezajsk) (Lizhensk), Poland: (In Yiddish: Lizansk, Lezansk, Lizjensk) A town in the Podkarpackie Voivodship that was granted a town charter in the late 14th century. Its population today is 14,127 (2009 census), none of whom is Jewish. Jews are first noted in the town’s municipal historical records as residents in 1521. In the county tax list of 1538, seven Jewish family names appear. Twenty Jewish names in 1563. Historical sources note that a Jewish street and synagogue existed in the early 1600s. The Jews of Lizjensk were engaged in crafts, trade, and finance. Sources from the 1600s list Jewish artisans in 51 different professions, including butchers, carpenters, as well as medical doctors. In 1635, King Wladyslaw IV (1595–1648, king of Poland from 1632 to 1648) gave Jews the right to brew and sell beer. In addition to local trade, they also sold cattle, hides, and fish at markets and fairs near and far. Jews also served as governmental officers collecting customs, duties, and tolls. According to the census of 1765, there were 909 Jews living in Lizjensk and in the immediate nearby villages.
In the late 1700s, the revered Noam Elimelech settled there. The sefer Noam Elimelech is one of the foundation works in Chassidus and many keep a copy of the sefer as an amulet in their homes as well as in their cars, workplaces, and on their persons. The sefer Noam Elimelech is often placed under the head of a newborn baby boy on the night before his b’ris, and under head of someone that is ill. After his passing, the Noam Elimelech was interred there and the city became a chassidishe landmark.
In 1800, approximately 2,000 Jews lived in Lizjensk (38% of its then total residents). During the entire 1800s and 1900s, it was quite provincial, the large brewery being the most important element of its economy. In 1921, the Jewish population was just more than 1,500 (31% of the town’s population). In 1939, immediately prior to the Holocaust, this number was about 3,000.
During WWII, the Nazis destroyed the Jewish cemetery there. They deliberately used the Jewish tombstones as pavement in the town square and for streets. The Germans maliciously razed the ohel to the ground and contemptuously forced Jewish captives to open the tzaddik’s tomb. When the grave was opened, the body of the Noam Elimelech was uncovered. He had died in 1787, more than 150 years earlier. Apparently, the body was in perfect condition, flawlessly preserved by Heaven. As the tzaddik’s open eyes stared at the evil perpetrators, penetrating their very souls, sheer terror took hold of them and they fled in panic. Local legend has it that they lost their minds. Germans never dared to tamper with the grave again and, in fact, never again returned to the cemetery. The cemetery became a safe haven, literally a life-saving shelter for Jews, for the remainder of the war.
After the war ended, solitary Jews came back to Lizjensk to pray and dreamed of restoring the ohel. Funds were raised throughout the world to reconstruct the ohel, but the initially accumulated funds had to be used to bribe skeptical officials. Without necessary approvals, no stone or pebble could be moved. Permits had to be obtained from officials at several different levels of government. After the bribes exhausted the initial sums, more money had to be raised for the actual rebuilding. However, by the time the necessary funds were again collected, the official permits expired and new “timely” bribes had to be applied again. This cycle continued until 1963, when a bare structure was rebuilt.
The officially appointed Jewish overseer installed metal doors, mounted a heavy lock, took the key, and left. He was fed up with continuous criticism. The first Jewish visitors from abroad arrived in April 1963. A group of men all dressed in black got out of taxis and started complaining that the building of the ohel had cost way too much. But how could anyone possibly explain to people from the West the complicated arrangements of religious investments in a communist regime?
On the very night when the overseer left, a married chassidishe couple came to Lizjensk with a very sick child. They came to pray for Heavenly help, but the doors to the ohel were locked. It was the first time in 20 years that Ordyczynska Gdula spoke Yiddish. Before the war, hers was the only Polish home in the Jewish district of Lizjensk. She lived on Bath Street, so named after the nearby mikveh. She found a solution to the immediate problem. Together, they broke into the ohel in the presence of a summoned military officer, who wrote an official report.
When the overseer came back, Ordyczynska wanted to return the hastily made new key, but he told her to keep it. He could not properly look after the ohel any longer because his official duties required frequent trips away. He would come to Lizjensk occasionally on the eve of a Shabbos and ask for the key in order to personally pray in the ohel. In this way, Ordyczynska became the official custodian of the tzaddik’s tomb.
Initially, very few Jews came and it was only in the early 1970s that Mendel Reichberg, zt’l (1922–2011), holy sites activist, started organizing the first group pilgrimages to Lizjensk. At first, a few tour buses arrived sporadically during those earlier years. Then, larger groups came every month. Communist authorities were not pleased about the visits of foreigners. After each group visit, after the last bus disappeared from sight, a security service officer would routinely come to Ordyczynska and ask: “What were they talking about?”
“They prayed intensely,” she answered every month.
The selfless efforts of Mendel Reichberg resulted in the cemetery being fenced and cleaned up. He had lights installed and the ground inside the ohel paved. Then he had a roadway leading to the ohel paved. In the 1980s, Mendel Reichberg oversaw the return of purloined tombstones back into the forlorn cemetery. Lizjensk’s Market Square was being renovated at that time and while digging, workers found some of the pilfered Jewish tombstones. The tombstones would have ordinarily been sent to the dump, but Ordyczynska ingeniously paid $5 and a bottle of vodka for every tombstone returned. In this way, she saved more than 60 tombstones, including that of one of the sons of the Noam Elimelech, now restored inside the ohel.
Sadly, in 1990, the good soul Ordyczynska Gdula suddenly died. “Four hours after my mother’s death, Reichberg came to console me,” said Krystyna Kiersnowska, her daughter. “What should I do with the key?” she asked him.
“Krysia, can’t you see that G‑d has given you the holy key?” Reichberg responded.
She burst into tears realizing that the gravesite was now her sacred duty. She meets and gets to know thousands of people every year who journey to the ohel in Lizjensk.
Today, the city of Lezajsk is popular in Poland for the Lezajsk beer that is brewed there and is consumed by Poles all over the world. Increasingly, with greater ease of international travel to Eastern Europe, the pilgrimage of chassidishe Jews visiting the Noam Elimelech’s gravesite is eclipsing all other aspects of the city’s functions. Its economy is beginning to focus on the unique tourist influx. Governmental agencies are helping engineer developments and are working to provide increased security and comfort to ensure that the sojourn of chassidim is pleasant and inviting. A public-address system has been installed to help guide guests. With no full-time Jewish residents in Lizjensk, hachnasas orchim organizations are given every courtesy and consideration. To the townspeople, chassidishe visitors are the welcomed new toast for the glasses of Lezajsk beer in their uplifted hands. Chassidim represent new cash revenues.
As this year’s yahrzeit was on Sunday, thousands came to Lizjensk for Shabbos. Nearby cities were also visited during the Lizjensker trip, such as Lanzut, Pshervorsk, Sokolov, Reisha, and others, recalling the great tzaddikim and the pious chassidim that once lived there.
The Lizjensker ohel has become one of the important holy sites that draw tens of thousands of visitor throughout the year and huge crowds on the yahrzeit itself. Lizjensk has joined the ranks of Meron and Uman. In years past, as the day preceding the yahrzeit drew to a close, chassidim jockeyed for positions as close as possible to the gravesite, to begin the “Prayer before the Prayer” authored by the Noam Elimelech. Once completed, the entirety of the book of Tehillim is slowly and movingly read, uninterrupted, and reread aloud by all present. The intensity and fervency of the Tehillim recitals elicits tears from all who are there.
Several thousand chassidim spent Shabbos in Lizjensk itself. The beis midrash there has recently been rebuilt and enlarged. Huge portable heaters had been specially bought, brought, and put into place to provide warmth and comfort. The mikveh had been continuously upgraded and prepared for massive use. Several buildings in the immediate area, especially schools, had been vacated and outfitted for dormitory use for these special days. A large loft near the gravesite had been designated for meals, served at no charge. In addition, dozens of huge heated tents were erected and made available to sojourners.
Huge quantities of kosher food had to be imported, at great effort and great cost. Several contributors joined to sponsor the public meals and dozens of young men volunteered as waiters, in the spirit of chassidishe gatherings of eras gone by. Lucky are those that were able to see all this with their own eyes. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org