Rabbi Shmaryahu Smorgonski ZT"L (1854-1937)  

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After reading a lot of material from the Dolhinov Yizkor book, I decided to translate a few sections that were written by my grand-uncle, Shlomo Shamgar. It was harder than I thought because the way he wrote it in Hebrew was very poetic and I was afraid I wouldn't do it justice. Anyway, here is my first translation. It's Shlomo's memories of his uncle (my great grand-uncle).

Rabbi Shmaryahu Smorgonski (ZT”L)

Eighty-three years old was Rabbi Shmaryahu when he passed away on Isru-Hag of Pesach 5697 (1937). I begin my tale with his passing. His departure from our world at the end of an era – the era between two world wars: 1918-1937.

A big man of great stature was he – his intelligence, his wisdom and his knowledge of the Torah and the passages. His majestic appearance, beautiful and noble face and his eyes blazing with the holy-fire stored in them. Adorned by a full white beard and always clothed impeccably in a silk coat and soft boots. In the winter he wore a hairy robe and a fur hat. Although these were external characteristics, nevertheless they have the power to testify of an organized and meticulous man, who demonstrates in practice the Talmud saying: “Talmid-haham u-revav al bigdo hayav… mita”. But the essence of his greatness was during the “Days of Awe” (Yamim Noraim), on the days of Rosh-Hashanah and Yom-Kippur – when he descended upon the Holy Ark in the grand synagogue. He possessed a clear and strong voice and his prayers and recitals were said with emotion and pleas, a kind of lyrical dialogue between him and the creator, in which he would plead and pray for the well being of his children and family and all the people in his congregation. His townsfolk still living among us today won’t forget prayers said and sung by him, like: “Kol Nidre”, “U-Netaneh Tokef Kedushat Ha-Yom”, “Hineni Ha'-ani Mema'as…” and more – events that enchanted and shook every heart and brought tears even to the eyes of men. I also remember as if it were today, how the important Christians, like the Vayit (head of the local council), chief of police and others, would invite themselves to the synagogue on Kol Nidre night to listen to Rabbi Shmaryahu’s prayers, to the songs of the choir with the guidance of my father-teacher Avraham Smorgonski (Z”L) and the songs of the “poets” Efraim Shprirgan and the brothers Rapson. That was Rabbi Shmaryahu’s habit with his God and mankind in his twilight days, when he was past his “courage”. The walk to the synagogue was hard for him; on his way there from his home he would be forced to stop several times to rest. But when he approached the prayer podium, facing “Shiviti…” displayed above his head, he shook himself like a lion and his strength returned to him. His prayers, pleas and recitals, as if came from the mouth of a youth, a clear and strong voice, like good, old wine.

Until the last year of his life he prayed during the days of awe (Yamim Noraim) in front of the ark. He was a very physically healthy man who was never sick and, as stated earlier, he passed away on Isru-Hag of Pesach after praying Shaharit at his home, in his bed, a painless death. I got to learn from him biblical discourse and good manners in the last years of his life, when he lived alone. His wife passed away about 10 years before him and he lived in his house, with assistance of his daughters who lived nearby, each and every day, until his final moments. All his days he dealt with Torah and according to a schedule he set: wake up at daybreak, drink tea and pray Shaharit in solitude for about 3 hours and after that – Torah studies until the late hours of the night. In those years my uncle, Rabbi Shmaryahu, made efforts to draw me closer to him for a conversation and explanation and in fact – tried to convince me to choose a way of purposeful Torah studies. Even today I can remember his words to me, a sort of self confession by him: “See here my son, I did not get to see my own sons follow a path of Torah. They invested themselves in secular affairs and other matters (indeed, both his sons were not in Dolhinov; his eldest Reuven-Leib, immigrated to the USA before WWI and in the 1950’s passed away there. His other son Yermiyahu-Nahum resided with his family in Butrimonys, Lithuania, where they all perished without a trace). At least you, my brother’s son, could continue our legacy, maybe you will have the strength to carry the flag of Torah in our family.” From the stories of my father-teacher Rabbi Avraham Smorgonski (Z”L) I know and remember that Rabbi Shmaryahu was the leader and manager of the Dolhinov Yeshiva, in which about 100 young men studied until WWII and some well known Torah-greats came from, like Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchok Ruderman – the Rabbi of Philadelphia, USA, and others. The Yiddish newspapers in the USA featured articles about the character and greatness of Rabbi Shmaryahu.

Another illustrative story that deserves a special and informative mention: An incident that occurred to my uncle at the beginning of the Polish rule of the town in 1919, after WWI. During the reign of Czar Nikolai II and until WWI, Rabbi Shmaryahu was the head of the Jewish community in Dolhinov and had the authority to register births and deaths of the town’s Jews as well as issue formal documents (birth certificates and passports). This appointment was revoked with the establishment of the Polish control of the town. All those matters were being handled by the Polish “Gemayna” in town (a municipal organization for smaller towns that did not have a full municipality). With time everyone had forgotten about this whole matter and nobody remembered the “authority” that my uncle Rabbi Shmaryahu had. However someone did remember one day. Ten years later policemen and Polish secret police showed up from the Vileijka district and performed a meticulous search of my uncle’s house. In the attic they found old forms for birth certificates, passports and Russian booklets that where moldy from years of deterioration – with the Czar’s regime symbols on them. All those materials were taken, of course, for examination, and Rabbi Shmaryahu was arrested for holding anti-government materials and being a Russian spy.

News of his arrest sent shockwaves through the town and stirred up emotions throughout the surrounding areas. Everyone knew of his pure character, his honesty and integrity. Especially involved and active in his favor were the head of the community in Vileijka, Mr. Dubin, and the head of the Jewish community in our town during that time – Rabbi Gershon Eidelman (ZT”L). My uncle was released after five days under arrest. But the investigation and interrogation continued for some time after that, until no condemning evidence could be found against him. I can still remember how my uncle would joke about the matter and say: “Man must always experience everything in order to endure and know, that life is the Torah, and you must toil in it and learn from it. Life is short and not enough to learn everything. If you are given the opportunity to experience what it is like to be in prison while innocent, obviously this is a chance to learn something for the future.”

My uncle was granted a ripe old age and saw during his life grandchildren and many shilashim(?). Many of his grandchildren made aliyah to Israel in the period between the two world wars. Those descendants who made aliyah always received his blessing on their departure. He was a Zionist in his own right – Zionism interwoven with Torah and Mitzvot – which by his recognition, was the true essence. In his house, on the eastern wall, hung pictures of the Western Wall and of Rachel’s Tomb.

Rabbi Shmaryahu was amongst the student of “the Gaon” Rabbi Eliyahu from Vilna and the “Chofetz Chaim” of Radin. A man of a bygone generation, singular and unique – in his Torah, his behavior and his appearance – exceptional in Dolhinov and in the entire region.

Yehi Zichro Baruch!


Source: Chrust, Josef and Bar-Ratson, Matityahu, editors, Yizkor le-Dolhinov (Israel: Organization of Dolhinov Survivors in Israel, 1984 or 1985), pages 208-210, written by Shlomo Shamgar (Smorgonski), translated by Amir Dekel Aug. 30, 2008.

I remember seeing this book at my grandparents' apartment when I was a child, but regrettably I don't think I ever read it before this past week. I also regret not sitting down to talk to Dod Shleymke' as an adult. My memories of him are from my childhood, mainly during the time I studied for my Bar-Mitzvah. Shlomo taught the majority of the boys in our family for their Haftarah. I taped him reading it and then practiced at home over and over again until I got it right. 25 years later, I can still sing part of it and recall what his voice sounded like.

Sadly, Shlomo Shamgar passed away in Jan. 2005. Leon Rubin, a fellow Dolhinover wrote the following:

In Memoriam
It is with sorrow that I announce the passing of Schlomo Schamgar ( Smorgonski ) on the twelfth of January 2005. Schlomo was born in Dolhinov and was the only survivor of his family in the Holocaust. He made Aliya to Israel in 1948 and since served the Country and the Community with devotion. Schlomo was a man of great integrity, loved and respected by all who knew him, renowned for his good deeds and friendly human relations. He was one of the oldest and most venerated men of Dolhinov and played a central role in preserving the Memory of the perished Dolhinov Community. His death is a great loss to all of us. We extend our deep sincere condolences to his bereaved family.

May his Memory be blessed.

Leon Rubin, Israel

This entry was posted on Saturday, August 30, 2008 at 1:11 AM and is filed under , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .

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