The Fire Still Burns: Rebbe Nachman’s Direct Descendant Rebbetzin Sara Gelbach

The Fire Still Burns: Rebbe Nachman’s Direct Descendant Rebbetzin Sara Gelbach

This article made me sob. Such a phenomenally difficult life accompanied by such phenomenally unshakable emuna.

This article, written by Rhona Lewis. was reprinted from Mishpacha Magazine

A flight of brown, stone steps twists and turns as it leads up to an apartment on Amos Street in Geula. A knot of purple flowers hangs on the small metal gate that swings open and closed in the breeze. I knock on the door and Rebbetzin Sara Gelbach welcomes me inside. Rebbetzin Gelbach, an octogenarian, is a sixth-generation descendant of Rav Nachman of Breslov, who in turn was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. She paints a verbal picture of world long gone in startling detail.

“The Rebbe’s great-granddaughter Esther lived with us in Uman,” Rebbetzin Gelbach begins. “She never married and my mother took her in. I clearly remember how she held me, wrapped up warmly in a shawl, as we sat together on the steps outside our house. My bed was a hammock that hung from the ceiling in the main room. Esther would push me gently and I fell asleep to her rocking.”

When she got older, Rebbetzin Gelbach slept at Esther’s feet, close to the wall warmed by the huge oven. That was how she was the first to know that Esther, at 66 years old, had passed away. “I felt her cold feet and ran to tell my father that the malach hamaves had visited,” she recalls.

Sacrifice in Uman

Uman — a primitive village on the banks of the Umanka River — boasted a Jewish community since the 18th century. The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution paved the way for totalitarian rule, under which Jewish life in Uman was almost wiped out.

Rebbetzin Gelbach’s father, Avraham Berjegovski, was a Gerrer chassid who hailed from Poland. When he was twelve, he traveled to Breslov, where his brother-in-law Mattisyahu Berjevski was living. There he became a Breslover chassid and later married Rochel Libovna, a granddaughter of the Breslover Rebbe.

All the chassidim lived on a street dubbed Breslover Street by locals. Rebbetzin Gelbach reels off familiar names such as Hirsch Leib Lipin, Levi Yitzchak Bender, and Eliyahu Chaim Rosen.

When the Communists began their persecutions, the shul and mikveh were closed. In 1918, Rebbetzin Gelbach’s father, a merchant and the shamash in the shul, built a mikveh in one of the rooms of their large house. “Even nonreligious people used it,” Rebbetzin Gelbach recalls. “It had a heating element in the middle to warm the water. There was no shortage of rainwater to fill the mikveh, but the water had to be changed every day. Since we had no plumbing system, I had the job of carrying out the water. I had to make several trips, carrying two pails on a stick across my shoulders and a third one in my hand. I was ten years old at the time.”

Kosher meat was another problem that Rebbetzin Gelbach’s father tackled head on, by designating one room in the house as an abattoir. Rebbetzin Gelbach accompanied her father to the local market where her father would choose the cow and then leave. She would approach the Ukrainian farmer, hand him a small sum of money and tell him to bring the cow to her home, following her at a safe distance.

“Once the cow was slaughtered, I helped my father remove the hide and cut it up. Father buried the hide and buckets of blood. Then I carried parcels of meat to our customers. One regular customer was the mother of the head of the KGB. She kept a kosher home — I’m not sure whether her son knew it or not. I was chased out of there regularly by his shouts.”

One day, a fellow Jew spotted her father covered in blood from slaughtering and reported him to the police. “My father stepped out of the house and was arrested. He stood under the window, loudly denying the charges in an attempt to warn us. My mother became ill with worry and took to her bed. She told me to throw away the meat, but after all our hard work, I wasn’t prepared to do that. Instead, I ran to a relative and asked him to help me carry it to a trustworthy Ukrainian woman. Then I washed the floor in the slaughtering room, painted it to hide the splatters of blood, and cut my hand a little.”
Sure enough the police came to the house. When her mother claimed she couldn’t speak Russian, they spoke to Sara. First they offered her chocolate, hoping the bribe would induce her to incriminate her father. Sara refused the treat, claiming she had toothache. The police then turned nasty, threatening to take away her mother. Sara held fast, declaring that she had been sleeping and knew nothing. When they found a bloody cloth, she showed them her hand and claimed that she had cut herself. While searching the property, the police found the mikveh. Rebbetzin Gelbach’s mother was arrested.

“My elder sister had already married and I was left to care for three little children alone. I told them to pray and we spent the hours till the evening crying out to Hashem. When we got hungry, I cooked potatoes with sugar for supper!” She laughs at her amateur cooking skills and I glimpse the humor that must have helped her through the tough times. Thankfully, her mother returned that night and her father the following day.

When I admire Rebbetzin Gelbach’s pluck and courage, she shrugs. “We were children of iron,” she says simply.

But life was not gray. “There was a lot of joy in our hearts, even though we had very little,” Rebbetzin Gelbach recalls. “My friends and I spoke about happiness. We lived with an inner fire. The men in the shul learned hard and at the end of their learning, they always sang and danced.”

Still, there was a pervading fear — a policeman could arrest a person simply for looking pale! “Whoever went on any type of journey had to report to an official on arrival. When I was 15, I went to Kremenchuk to visit my sister. The registration office was closed when I went to report, but because I hadn’t registered myself, I was almost arrested the next day.”

Twenty-seven men who had been learning in the shul were arrested, the work of an informer. They were never seen again.

With so few material amenities and a sense of fear, I wonder how they could have been happy. “I don’t know,” Rebbetzin Gelbach admits. She pauses and then adds, “If we bentsched we were happy because we knew we had done something for Hashem.”

Fleeing the Germans

In 1941, the German army encircled Soviet positions and the Battle of Uman was fought. Realizing the futility of the battle, trainloads of Russian soldiers fled deep into the interior of Russia. The Jewish community did the same. “We fled the Germans by wading through rivers, running through forests, and by traveling on the Russian trains — but not in the carriages. My parents and we seven children hung on wherever we could. We didn’t know or care where we were headed.

The point was to flee,” Rebbetzin Gelbach recalls.

The Germans deported the entire Jewish community, murdering 17,000 Jews. They destroyed the Jewish cemetery and the burial place of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

“Eventually we reached Stalingrad, where we lived for three and a half years,” Rebbetzin Gelbach continues calmly. “We worked on a farm: my father guarded the produce, my mother and I ground wheat by hand, my brother looked after the horses and the younger children remained at home. Every day was a fast day. We ate rotten fruit and on Shabbos beetroot soup.”

Rebbetzin Gelbach’s eyes crinkle in pain. “My father and two sisters died of starvation.”

Can dead people dance?

Near the end of the war, in 1944, Rebbetzin Gelbach, her mother, and two siblings returned to Uman. Two siblings remained in Stalingrad. As former residents, they were granted a house. Soon after, a shidduch was suggested for Sara. Yitzchok Gelbach had spent the previous five years in Siberia, for the crime of giving out calendars detailing Yamim Tovim and davening times.

“When my mother told me it was time to get married, I laughed and asked her if she thought that two dead people could really dance.” But despite the recent trauma of war, the wedding was planned.

“‘A bottle of vodka is all we can provide for the wedding meal,’ my mother declared, but my chassan wanted a real meal, so he went to the black market.” In Uman, paper was such a scarce commodity that people wrote on the margins of newspapers. Yitzchok had somehow procured a roll of paper to sell on the black market. Barely had he begun when he was caught by two policemen. Rebbetzin Gelbach’s mother, who was buying sardines for the wedding feast, saw this and rushed home distraught.

In the meantime, Sara had gone to her mother’s friend to collect a dress that the friend had promised would be a suitable wedding dress. “I’d like to sew such a dress to give you an idea of what it was like — black and made for a short, fat woman.” Today, Rebbetzin Gelbach laughs, but on the eve of her wedding, she cried.

A man saw Sara crying. He listened to her story and, realizing that he had known Sara’s father, he promised to help. “He gave me some potatoes, onions, and eggs, which I put into a sack. Then I threw in my dress because I didn’t really care if it got dirty!” Again she laughs.
She got home to find her mother in tears. Hunger forced them to be practical and they decided that since there wasn’t going to be a wedding, they may as well eat the food. Then the chassan walked in!
“He had convinced the three policemen to divide the roll of paper between them, instead of putting him in jail. That way, they all stood to gain. Besides, he told them, he had already spent time in prison!”
In honor of their wedding, Yitzchok brought Sara a gift: a pair of black shoes. “They were size 40, and I’m size 37. One heel was broken off, so I couldn’t walk properly with them, but my chassan asked me not to break off the second heel. I traveled all the way to Israel with that pair of shoes.”

He also procured a tallis and four poles for the chuppah. One of the men who held up the chuppah was Moshe Birstock, a friend of Rebbetzin Gelbach’s father. The only one who didn’t eat at the wedding was the chassan; he was happy to have something to give his friends to eat.

Their new home was the corridor of an apartment shared with two non-Jews. “My bed had one leg; the other corners of the bed were propped up with bricks. My husband slept on the table.”

Traveling to Eretz Yisrael

“In 1946, my husband decided that he wanted to move to Israel. He told me that if I didn’t want to accompany him, he would give me a get and I could stay in Uman.” When I express my shock, Rebbetzin Gelbach simply smiles mysteriously. “I went to daven at the kever of the Breslover Rebbe. When I felt an inner happiness and tranquility, I knew I could go. We left Uman with our baby daughter and traveled west to Lodz in Poland. We went to the rosh yeshivah of Kamenitz and he helped us join up with others to make a group of ten.

“While trying to cross the border into Germany, we were arrested and thrown into jail. Our fellow inmates were shocked that we were still alive — that there were still Jews in the Ukraine — and they threatened to finish us off. Somehow we got out alive and the American Joint helped us find a temporary home. But there, we were attacked by goyim who shouted that they wanted to kill us. I remember throwing chairs down at them.” Rebbetzin Gelbach relates these terrifying facts as casually as she would dictate a shopping list.

Eventually, the Gelbachs made it to France where the American Joint gave them an apartment. Although they had no running water, they finally had food. The young couple invited Rav Mordechai Pogremansky to live with them. Rebbetzin Gelbach remembers how even though he was already ill, the Rav would pace the apartment deep in thought. After a year, the Rav remarried. His new wife declared that she was willing to marry a sick man because he was so great.

“One Friday morning as I was preparing for Shabbos, I saw that the house opposite me was on fire. It belonged to a childless couple. I panicked, but Rav Pogremansky told me to call the woman into my home and tell her that even though she had lost her home, she would have a child. In fact, she had two boys and a girl. Years later, in Israel, our children learned together.”

In 1948, on Isru Chag Succos, the Gelbachs finally left France. They had been journeying for two years and by now they had three children. Since immigration was still illegal, they sailed on a cattle ship, the Panjork, provided by the American Joint. The journey should have taken three days; instead, it took three weeks.

“We were all seasick. I had contractions, so I prayed that the baby would be two weeks late.” Rebbetzin Gelbach skims over the details of a horrendous journey.

Hurdles in her Homeland

Finally, in the middle of the night, they arrived in Haifa, where Rebbetzin Gelbach gave birth immediately. From Haifa they traveled south to Pardes Chanah where they lived for three months. Promised subsidies lured them to Zarnuga, a secular-Zionist settlement near Rechovot. They lived there for a year and a half, while Rav Gelbach served in the army.

With the farming knowledge she had gained in Stalingrad, Rebbetzin Gelbach was able to establish a vegetable garden, raise goats, and take care of a horse. Despite this relative wealth, she decided to leave Zarnuga. “My neighbors taunted me about my head covering and modest clothes,” she explains, “so I had to leave.

“I came to Jerusalem with the children and stood in Geula, where the bus let me off, asking every passerby if they knew of Rav Eliyahu Chaim Rosen from Uman, who had founded the original Breslov community in Jerusalem before the war. No one could help me, so I walked to Meah Shearim. Finally, I was shown where he lived.”

As Rebbetzin Gelbach was crying to Rav Rosen, a man called Chaim Baruch Ternovski came in. He said that he had lived in her parents’ home for a year and a half, and he offered her an apartment in Givat Shaul. The apartment had a single window, and no indoor bathroom. Still, Rebbetzin Gelbach was thrilled. She immediately arranged the sale of her house and vegetable garden for 200 liras so that she could cover the rent for the next four years. Rebbetzin Gelbach’s decision to leave Zarnuga was blessed: “I asked the army to let my husband help me move as I was expecting. He was released and never called back.”

The family later moved to Zichron Moshe, where they raised a family of ten children in two rooms. Poverty typified their life: “Sometimes, I couldn’t even buy a needle to sew up the holes in my dress. So instead, I bunched up the material to look like flowers. I never bought clothes for the children and instead sewed pants and dresses from rags. Water dripped through the ceiling into our food. On Shabbos we ate a soup made from chicken heads and intestines. I used to ask Hashem to make my children strong and healthy as if they had been eating good food, because I really wanted to feed them well, but lacked the means.”

I look at a beautifully framed photo taken at the bris of a great-great-grandson and I see that Rebbetzin Gelbach’s prayers were answered.
Before I leave, I take a last glance around the apartment: the walls are adorned with beautiful embroideries, bead work, and paper cutouts that Rebbetzin Gelbach has made at the Senior’s Club where she spends her mornings. “I don’t go to the parties,” she says, “I don’t have time for that. I enjoy the lectures. I never went to school; I taught myself to read and write, but I still have a lot of learning to do.”

Then she tells me she will be going to the bris of a great-grandson on Friday. As she hugs herself in excitement and almost dances on her chair, I glimpse the fire that burns within her — a fire bequeathed from her years in Uman. She grasps my hands tightly and gently swings them back and forth. Her eyes are closed tightly and she sings, “Tatte, Tatte.” I realize we are dancing together and I am caught up in the moment, sharing a little of her fire.

Here’s an additional story about the Rebbetzin that was printed with the article entitled:“On the Wings of Her Prayer”

Throughout our interview, the Rebbetzin fields calls from family and friends who are seeking her blessing: a father-in-law is undergoing an operation; a granddaughter has a test in seminary: a former neighbor wants to visit; a preschool teacher makes her daily phone call so that her charges can pray together with the Rebbetzin. When Rebbetzin Gelbach tells me about the lost mezuzahs, I understand why everyone believes in the power of her prayers.

“My son Lazer is an excellent sofer, so when my grandson recently got married in England, he asked my son to write a mezuzah for his new home. He asked for only one, because he knows that his uncle writes following all stringencies and that this is very demanding. Shortly afterwards, my son proudly told me that he had written not one, but seven mezuzahs. A friend traveling to England had promised to deliver them.

“Then the unthinkable happened — the friend lost the mezuzahs. No one breathed a word to me because they didn’t want to upset me. One winter day, three months later, I heard my son, who was visiting me, whispering and muttering suspiciously into the phone. I drew the sad story out of him.”

It is known that Rebbe Nachman attributed his accomplishments to the way he prayed to Hashem in his mother tongue, Yiddish, using his own words to pour out his heart. As Rebbetzin Gelbach tells me how she prayed, I imagine her prayers echoing those of her ancestor.

“I stayed up half the night reciting Tehillim and I said to Hashem: ‘Hashem, my daughter just married off her son. She doesn’t have money to pay for more mezuzahs. We’re all so sad. You know where everything is. You know where the mezuzahs are. It’s not hard for You to bring them back to us.’”

The next morning, her daughter from England called to tell her that the previous night someone from Israel had called saying he had found the mezuzahs and would bring them to Rebbetzin Gelbach’s home.

Handing over the mezuzahs, the man told her that he had recently taken a taxi from Ben-Gurion. When the driver took a wrong turn and ended up in an Arab neighborhood, they were shot at from all directions. Somehow they made it out safely and the man told the driver that he was certain there was some sort of segulah in the car.

They searched the car and found the packet of mezuzahs with a phone number on the outside.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.com user Adam Wyles

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2 comments

  1. What an amazing story…

  2. Wonderful, impressive, heartbreaking. And wise.
    Thank you so much for sharing!

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