Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Uncovering My Family History, the untold story of Chassidism and the Holocaust

Names, dates, locations, place of deaths. This is the last remnant of my ancestor’s stories. Their epic lives, stories, survivals and deaths have for the most part been lost to history. The documents below detail some of the last remnants of my families history. Their stories rekindled, animates my interests in my grandmother’s family’s untold story with Chassidism and the Holocaust.

“Dybbuk” “Emes” “Olivay” “Brezrat Hashem” “Apikorism” … the list goes on. These words were uttered regularly into much of my Bubbe’s vocabulary. Although I did know her family grew up speaking Yiddish at home for their first language, I previously never knew nothing of any connections with Chassidism. In retrospect the signs may have been all around me, but my grandmother’s side had been rooted in one of the centers of the Chassidic movement. More specifically, Breslover Chassidim. My grandmother family are themselves originally from the shteyl, Nemerov, today in Ukraine.

The following excerpt has been documented in the Falstein-Korman Family Tree by Jeanbelle Rosenman. The account below has been made available by Fred Falstein’s account, son of Mortechai Falstein. Brother of Nuchem Folstein (b. 1858 Nemirov), my Great, Great Grandfather.

“My father Mortechai Falstein (b. 1849, Nemirov) studied the Bible and Talmud until his marriage. He was not prepared to support a family when he married Leah. As a result my family went hungry most of the time. My father read Torah in synagogue every Saturday. For that he received 15 rubles a year. He also earned a few kopecki in the marketplace. We had a market every Friday. The peasants from the surrounding countryside converged on the town. My father sold kvass (a fermented drink). My mother (Leah) helped a little. In nice weather she brought out a big samovar and boiled water and sold tea to the peasants for a kopecka a glass. In a day she earned a ruble… We could not afford to pay rent, so my mother’s father bought a house for us on the outskirts of Nemirov. It was one large room with a built in oven for cooking and an oven about three feet high for heating. We had about five acres of land. We planted potatoes and had enough to eat for a whole year. We also had an orchard of plums and cherries. We had to walk five blocks to the well, which was down a deep valley near the Jewish cemetery.”

As early as the 1770’s with the appointment of Rabbi Jacob Joseph of Polonne, the Rabbi of Nemiyrov, one of the most dedicated disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, the city had already became a hotbed for the early Chassidic movement.

The founder of the Chassidic Breslover dynasty was Rebbe Nachman (M’Uman) of Breslov. Reb Norson, born as Nathan Sternhartz, into the tiny shetyl town of Nemerov, became the leader of the Breslover movement after Rebbe Nachman M’Uman’s death. The city later on became the center of Jewish studies and the Chassidic movement in Ukraine. The Breslover’s dominated all Jewish life in the city. Although the Chassidic movement had detractors, they didn’t control access into synagogue life and were unorganized formally as the Chassidic movements were at the turn of the 19th century. According to the records, my Bubbe’s Grandfather’s brother, Modechai Falstein was a Rav in Nemirov, and owned a tiny piece of land for agrarian purposes. And in 1847, a time when my family has all still been residents of Nemiroff, the Jewish population only digiting 4,386, Reb Noson should have known Reb Mortechai, who lived at the same time and would leyn every Shabbos at the Great Synagogue.

At the beginning of the 18th century, the Great Synagogue of Nemirov was built.

It was the only one on record in the city, and therefore, had been the shul Mortechai Falstein had conducted weekly Shabbat services, Torah Reading and Talmudic study at. The city Shul, along with the religious establishment, was dominated by the Chassidic movement.

The Shul and virtually all of the Jewish population of Nemerov was destroyed in the Holocaust. According to IJCP (The International Jewish Cemetery Project), “Shortly after the occupation, the Jewish population was required to make a contribution to be paid in three days. Jews were required to wear a distinctive sign. In early September, the city Jews were imprisoned in the ghetto and used for heavy labor. Nemirova’s Jews were killed in the three trenches in November 1941, July 1942 and in early 1943.” Any relatives, who remained, Shifra Falstein, Mortechai’s and Nachum’s aunt, and her remaining family were surely murdered in these attacks.

My Alter Zaydi Reb Nachem Falstein, his brother, Reb Mortechai, and a few others thankfully managed to escape, moving to different cities in Russia, and later to the United States, Argentina, and Israel, before the horrors befell upon Nemirov. They leave linages and relatives of my own which today number in the dozens.

Today the tombstones where my Alter Zaydi’s brother’s family had once lived lay in ruins, According to the International Jewish Cemetery ProjectThe cemetery was vandalized during World War II and not in the last ten years has there been a single Chassidic burial at the cemetery.” 

My outlook has changed after learning of my families’ history on my Bubbe’s side, in regards to the Holocaust and Chassidism. As I understand it, Chasidism, originally did seek to make sense out of the insanity, to the Jews of Europe by assuring there scarred psyches with indulging their hope with mysticism. The movement took off following the Pograms in the mid 1700s, but some of its philosophies can also be used to cope with the horror of the Shoah as well.

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is an imminent rabbi from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel.
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