Death of Rabbi Mordechai Shiminovitch
The Tragic Death of Reb Mordechai Shimonovitch
May His Blood Be Avenged
It happened on the third day after the evacuation. At that time, we were locked up in a small area of Reb Shmuel Heine’s house, in the attic and in two small rooms, which at one time, served as the kitchen of the yeshiva. Shortly before the evacuation it was moved to the home of Reb Mordechai and his family.
Some young students took over one of the two small rooms. These boys remained as refugees from the former larger yeshiva which Reb Mordechai led.
In all the Study Halls and shtiebelech [informal synagogues], there was no longer any place to study or to pray. Crowdedness ruled in the ghetto. The small area from Koszczelnie until Brovarno, with the market in the center and a few streets on the side, could hardly contain the large number of people whom the Germans had herded there from the entire area, such as, those from: Konin, Lodz, Lublin, and even Jews from Warsaw. People hoped that because of the factory there, they would be saved. People came from all parts of Poland and settled in each corner, almost as if on a beanstalk.
When the typhus epidemic broke out, the Judenrat looked for a place for a hospital. Then, the Judenrat arranged that the entire area of the Study Halls should be turned into a hospital. This particular hospital was managed by the well-known Doctor Meyer, of blessed memory, with the assistance of all the Jewish doctors in the city.
The ideal place for Reb Mordechai and his family, along with several yeshiva young men, was the attic. In the attic they were protected from the German thugs, who had not yet reached that place, and the young men were able to study there undisturbed, focusing on the study of Torah and its holy works, and to serve the Blessed Creator without fear. Reb Mordechai would actually try to go out into the street, and when he would appear outside, he spread around him a type of heavenly awe… Pale from starvation and lack of air, he portrayed a type of heavenly appearance, with his snow white beard and blue-gray eyes that always looked starry and deeply absorbed in thought.
Hunger and cold did not affect him in his behavior at all; on the contrary, being hungry and frozen made him feel loftier, on a higher level, as if completely removed from the materialism of this world. Also, he would comfort his hungry wife and young daughter as they shivered from the cold, with verses and parables, and made efforts to strengthen himself and them in their trust in the Creator. Trust was his daily bread, the air for him to breathe, without which any human being could not survive.
In the ghetto, there was no lack of people who were hungry, such as in his own family who would run around looking for an opportunity to find something to eat, selling anything they could in order to buy something to eat. But Reb Mordechai never tried to go find something to eat, he also had nothing to sell. In his home, in every corner, poverty always whispered. From time to time, their hunger was quelled due to the [kindness] of several righteous women who did not forget about them. [These women] would save [small amounts] from their own children and from their own mouths and bring these morsels to Reb Mordechai’s family, which actually kept the whole family alive.
During the time of the typhus epidemic, his wife Tzippe lay in one bed, and in the second bed was their young daughter. There was no doctor, there was no medication, because for that you needed protektzia [connections] or money, and he had neither. His only source of medicine was his trust in the Creator. Every day he would stand near the sick ones and explain something to them from the book “Mesilas Yesharim” [“Path of the Just”; author Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto 1707-1746; text on ethics] and “Chovos Halevavos” [“Duties of the Heart”; 11th century, author Ibn Pekuda, classic work on Jewish ethics], and other holy books. He empowered them, comforted them, and did not leave them with any trace of despair. A miracle happened and they got better, even though their energy did not return. Tzippe was walking around in a daze, like a ghost; the young girl had no interest in getting out of bed, but who could worry about such things, at least they were alive. They had to just get past this. The redemption was near, and the harder the birth pangs, the closer the salvation.
New evil decrees came forth. Every day brought fresh bad news. There seemed to be no ray of hope, but Reb Mordechai did not lose his trust. The days became weeks, the weeks became months, and the months became years. The cup of Jewish challenges was not yet full. There was the destruction of Lublin, Radom, Kielc, and other Jewish cities. One sees evidence of the rope stretching itself more tightly around our necks, but Reb Mordechai does not lose his faith, the salvation was close, coming very soon.
They were very weak during the evacuation, dazed. They were almost like angels, where “G-d will not forsake us.” Everyone ran to get a work pass which at that time seemed to be the only hope and means to be able to remain in that place. Reb Mordechai was one who sat and did not act: “Many are the thoughts of man, but the counsel of G-d will stand” [Mishlei, Book of Proverbs 19:21, verse recited in daily morning prayers].
On the final Shabbat, when you could already sense the danger in the air, he did not allow the holiness of Shabbat to be disturbed, and he was happy for every minute that he was able to study Torah. His joy was great when the rabbi’s young wife, Reb Yankele Halshtok’s wife, brought them food that she had saved from her own family. He himself was able to have a bite in honor of the Shabbat, and he left the rest for Tzippe and the child who were both so weak.
After eating, Tzippe and the child fell asleep, both of them satiated. Reb Mordechai could not sleep. With the “Chovos Halevavos” in hand, he thought about the dark news that was brought that day, and this disturbed his peace, his trust. Tzippe and the child slowly improved. They believed in everything he told them. But for him, his heart was torn into pieces when he thought about what could happen.
It grew dark, the Shabbat was leaving, and there was sorrow in his heart. Always, during this time of Shabbat’s departure, he felt a terrible yearning. He lit a candle to recite the havdala [special prayer recited at the conclusion of Shabbat], he covered the window so that no one would see the candle. If caught, that would invite a death sentence. He woke his wife and child with gentleness, and he tried to make them understand that they should hear the havdala. Tzippe realized there was no water in the room and soon it would be the “watchful hour” and they would not be allowed to go out. She quickly grabbed the bucket and ran down to the well, drew water, and ran back as quickly as possible to the house. But she was hardly at the first step when she heard a gunshot in the next house where the Judenrat was located. She heard the horrific shouts of the SS man Peter, severe beatings, and cries and pleas of the one being beaten. “Here again with a visit,” she thinks. “This murderer always finds his victims, and if someone escapes from his hands alive, then that is a miracle.” His murderous sadism did not calm down until Jewish blood flowed…
She hurriedly ran up to her room where Reb Mordechai stood in fear, white as chalk, waiting for her return. There was no living person [to be seen] in the entire house. Everyone was in hiding. Hearts were trembling as if the murderer would have shot them. Everyone felt that any minute the door could open and the sadist could come in with his gun in hand, along with his bloodthirsty dog who was trained to torture his victims. First, the dog would tear the clothes off the victim and when he would already be naked, then the dog would attack the person and bite him right in the face, and would not leave the person until his sadism would be satisfied with fresh, running Jewish blood.
The three of them did not shut their eyes the entire night, lying there in embrace with one another, waiting for the next day. The truth is that no one in the ghetto closed their eyes that night. Everyone had packed up a small pack that they were allowed to take with them. The Jewish police informed them that they all had to be assembled at seven in the morning when the factory’s siren would sound from the marketplace. Those who had work permits should go to the Florian place [street in center of the city]. Young and old sat there, as if waiting for their own funerals. There was a deathly silence in the ghetto. The air was stifling, as if there was no air for anyone in the ghetto to breathe.
Reb Mordechai and his wife decided not to go when the siren would be sounded, not go on their own free will into the hands of the demons, even though there was nothing in the house other than a piece of dry bread that was left over from Shabbat. For the child, it would be enough for another day. There was also a bucket of water in the house. Very early, when the siren had sounded and everyone had left their homes with cries and under the rain of bullets and beatings from the murderous Ukrainians, they remained in the house and locked themselves in as caged animals hiding from their hunters.
Two days passed. These were two days of apprehension and pain, the first two days after the expulsion. They were afraid to move from the spot so as not to be discovered by the Jewish police who searched for the illegals who had started to enter the new ghetto. These were mainly families with small children for whom there was no way out. Their cold and hunger did not leave them yet, and in their naiveté, they thought that since their house was in the new ghetto they would be able to save themselves. They considered this to be a miracle from heaven.
On Tuesday morning, the third day after the expulsion, everyone woke up to loud noise in the house. Once again, the murderous voice of Peter the killer was heard. He was running around the yard like a lunatic, screaming with breathless shouts, that they should quickly bring out all the illegals, old, and young, who were hiding in the area of the new ghetto. This time, he was also using the old method of Jew against his fellow Jew, wanting to save one’s own life. He made the Jewish police responsible with their own heads [they themselves would be killed] if they would not clean out the ghetto of the old, the children, and the illegals. The Jewish police quickly went to work and began to chase out the half-dead ghosts, and that’s how they also went to Reb Mordechai and chased him into the yard.
He was hiding the child under his overcoat, and he thought he could escape to another place – anything to prevent them taking away the child. That was what he decided. When he went down the stairs, he met the deadly stare of Peter, who was standing on the first landing and commanding the action. Peter grabbed [Reb Mordechai] by the throat and wanted to tear the child away from under his coat. The little girl held onto her father’s body with all her strength, and the father did not in any way allow the child to be torn away from him, his only child. In this wrangle, Reb Mordechai and the child fell down all the stairs. He quickly got up and continued in his fight to save his child, but his fate was sealed. The murderer jumped right in, grabbed [Reb Mordechai] by his neck, and with all the strength in his body, he pushed the frail Reb Mordechai onto the ground and shot two bullets right into his head. Reb Mordechai tried to scream “Shema Yisroel” [final prayer], and fell dead into a pool of blood. The murderer rolled over the body with his boot, and that’s how the body remained, with his face towards heaven…
Meanwhile, Tzippe had run into the house to get the coat for her little girl, and when she came back out and saw the tragedy she also heard the cries of her child who was thrown on top of the cargo truck. Not waiting until she would be taken away with everyone else, she went to the nearby well and drowned herself. With great effort, later the police dragged her body out of the well and took it, along with the other bodies, to the communal grave.
Let us honor their memories!
*Above is translation from Yiddish from the Ostrowiec Yizkor Book, 1971 Pages 315-317. Translated by Pamela Russ. Excerpt of this translation in Polish can be found by clicking Polish flag or here