Remembering 5000 Lyakhovichi Jews
Murdered in the Holocaust
by Deborah Glassman, copyright 2007
Around five thousand Jews are reported dead in three Aktions in Lyakhovichi. More, who took refuge in other towns, died at Nazi hands in those places. We posted the list of 747 Jews who were born in Lyakhovichi who were reported killed in the Holocaust. There are three more Lyakhovichi lists at Yad Vashem. A list of 599 Jews who died in the Holocaust who had been resident at some point in Lyakhovichi. A list of 982 who lived in Lyakhovichi before the war. And last, a list of 567 who died in Lyakhovichi, including those born there and born elsewhere. Many of these lists overlap, with multiple people commemorating the same individual, and others remembered by their neighbors by just first name or last. So, at best, we know the names of around 300 to 350 of those killed in Lyakhovichi’s 5,000 person massacres.
A Biographic Sketch of A Lyakhovichi Resident, Murdered in the Holocaust,
Not Yet Found in Yad Vashem
Rabbi Michael Rabinowitz of Lyakhovichi
Rabbi Yehiel Michael Rabinowitz was the product of one of the Lithuanian Yeshivot where he grew a great reputation as a scholar, even by his earliest adulthood. He was brought to the town of Lyakhovichi by Abraham Yankel Kaplan, a rabbi in the Kalter Shul, a wealthy philanthropist active in the Groyser Bais Midrash, and founder of the Bais Yakov Shul: three synagogues of Kaplan’s native Lyakhovichi. Rabbi Rabinowitz was married to Abraham Yankel’s daughter and spent his days in the synagogue and in study. In 1894, after a long period of residence in the town, Rabbi Michael became the official rabbi of Lyakhovichi, contesting against Rabbi Israel David Ratkowitz for the appointment. He was a noted scholar and would eventually be famous for the book "Afikei Yam." In 2007, as this update was prepared, over 100 separate Google Hits were found, where rabbis quoted this work for discussions of law or parashot of the week.
Rabbi in Lyakhovichi, he evacuated with his family and the community to Slutsk in World War I. Following the War, he moved to Baranovichi where he was an integral part of the vibrant traditional rabbinical leadership in that town, working closely with the Gaon, Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman. The Chevra Shas, he founded in Lyakhovichi, became in the 1920s, a model for a new kind of Chevra Shas in Baranovichi. Unlike others, which were created for people who could spend their lives in study, Rabbi Rabinowitz founded his chevra as a forum in which laborers and artisans could learn. Soon, the reputation of the organization had grown so much, that scholars eagerly joined and sat adjacent to those hard-working men who could only study in the evenings. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, describes his Chevra Shas thus, and also attributes him with establishing a free loan society, and starting the first local chapter of Agudas Yisroel in Baranovichi.
He had lived in Lyakhovichi for more than a quarter century. He lived in Slutsk during the War and fled the Communist government back to Baranovichi in 1919. He lived in Baranovichi for another seven years and built a reputation for scholarly activism, you see described above. In 1926, a great Torah Scholar and Torah activist named Rabbi Leib Chasman was the right hand man of the Chofetz Chaim and Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzanski. Chasman had rehabilitated old Yeshivot and had established the Orthodox newspaper "Das Wort". Such a visionary was needed in many places and he was offered and accepted the leadership of the Slobodker Yeshiva in Hebron, Eretz Israel. But Rabbi Chasman, had been rabbi in Shtutin, in the Novogrodek area of Poland (today in Belarus), and was determined to leave his long-time charge in good hands. He personally recommended Rabbi Michael Rabinowitz to the position who accepted it.
Though many sources agree that Rabbi Yehiel Michael Rabinowitz was an ilui, (a Torah genius evidenced at an early age), they disagree about when that evidence came to light. Sources state that he came directly from schools in the Vilna region to his settlement in Baranovichi, assuming a yeshiva education for him in the 1890s. But his appointment in Lyakhovichi in 1894, suggests that he was in his sixties when he moved from Baranovichi to Shtutin. Nevertheless, he took care of the people of Shtutin through the 1920s and 1930s and in 1941, he was among the first to die at Nazi hands. Many Nazi murders had no surviving witnesses, but the murder of the Gaon, was reported by a Jew who momentarily lived through the event, though he had also been shot and thrown into the same pit. The shochet, Yakov Abramsky, was among ten teachers, doctors, rabbis, etc and their families (around fifty people), who were rounded up in Shtutin that first week. The first named among them was Rabbi Yehiel Michael Rabinowitz. The group was taken to the village of Topilishky, and shot and dumped into pre-dug pits. Abramsky crawled out of the pit, hours after the Nazis had left. Though a year later, he was again captured, and this time killed, by the Nazis in August 1942, he had time to create a diary that he hid when his own death seemed likely, and the testimony survives according to the Shtutsin Yizkor book. Rabbi Michael Rabinowitz’s death is reported by the Simon Wiesenthal Center and by the Shtutsin Yizkor book, and the death of his only son Rabbi Yitzhak Rabinowitz of Wolkowysk is also reported. He and his son also each appear in Otzar HaRabbanim, a rabbinical biographical encyclopedia, both with the notation that they died in the Holocaust. But there is no Page of Testimony for either the father or the son at Yad Vashem. And because the general histories detail the Baranovichi residence but never mention his role as rabbi in Lyakhovichi for over a quarter-century, he is not reported among the dead of Lyakhovichi, in the Holocaust.
The story that follows is one of my favorite Lyakhovichi stories. It is from the Lyakhovichi Yizkor book but it dates from when Rabbi Michael Rabinowitz lived in the town before the First World War. Written by Nisan Tuckachinsky, it has been abbreviated by the webmaster throughout.
1915. The Germans are invading Russia. Everyday there continues through Lechowitz a stream of covered wagons with refugees. They flow through our village to the Slutsk highway. Whenever an axle breaks or horse collapses, the entire stream halts. ...Lechowitz is already used to this. One day, at 10 in the morning, suddenly the line of wagons stands still! Curses and cries are heard! Goyim jump down from the wagons. In the air wave whip handles, shaft-braces, shafts. Jews: shopkeepers, butchers, teamsters - all run to the place. And ... a tall goy stands on a wagon, thrashes his horse with the whip, yanks the reins, swears with deadly curses. But his horse - doesn’t budge! What is going on? Several Jews managed to penetrate into the thick of it and there they saw - Father in heaven! Who would have known it? Who could have predicted this, that Rabbi Mikhal Rabinowitz, the most gentle, the kindest, the son-in-law of the wealthy Avraham Yakov, that he alone should be the culprit in the whole mess? .. Sweat glued to his forehead, lips bloodied, long coat torn, clenched hands twisted in the horse’s bridle as in a tefillin strap, there dangles Rabbi Mikhal, hanging and dragging the horse’s head down to the ground! ..."You must give it to me, scoundrel! Here, the Torah! You will not move!..."And when he saw Jews: "Here, here, brothers, rescue the Torah!" It’s as though a thunderbolt has struck the Jews! Rabbi Mikhal? He, who was always afraid of a fly? Rabbi Mikhal who, his whole life, knew only one path - the way from home to the House of Study and back again! ... But as soon as the Lechowitzer Jews hear the words: TORAH! RESCUE THE TORAH! they jump close - "Rabbi Mikhal, what are you saying? Where Torah, what Torah?" "There, Jews, there, go quickly, by the goy on the covered wagon!" ... In an instant several teamsters replaced Rabbi Mikhal by the horse and other Jews went up to the covered wagon. - The wagon is in fact covered with the parchment of a Sefer Torah! At another time such might have been killed by the Lechowitzer Jews, as he deserves. But at that time, God forbid! ...The butcher hit upon an idea - buy it up. And the goy did not permit himself to act too reluctant: it was apparent with whom he was dealing. The Torah was transferred to Jewish hands ... Tired, pale as chalk, but with a holy fire in his good blue eyes and with a contented smile on his bruised lips, he went with measured little steps on his customary way, on the way to the House of Study. The Torah, now already wrapped, covered with a bridal veil of new velvet, pressed to his heart like his own only child. The whole gathered multitude of Jews followed Rabbi Mikhal in dead silence ...". End.
May the memory of Rabbi Yehiel Michael Rabinowitz be for a blessing.