A Jewish Woman in the Russian North

By Y. L. Ushpiz

Written for the first anniversary of the death of Mrs. Sheyne Rachel Klibansky[1]

Last year we learned the sad news of the passing of one of our most outstanding women, Mrs Sheyne Rachel Klibansky, of blessed memory, somewhere in the far-flung northern regions of the Soviet Union, a place where many Jewish families from Lithuania were exiled. She was responsible for a numerous activities that strengthened the Jewish community there.

Her death has greatly saddened the entire Jewish population there, as well as those in Israel who knew her, because she was a most wonderful woman and a noble personality, of a type that is rare indeed among us. She was inspirational and refined. She excelled in all those fine qualities with which the daughters of Israel are blessed. She was highly educated. In her youth she acquired valuable knowledge of the holy books, the Bible, Jewish law and legend, and her expertise in these areas resembled that of a scholar. She was especially staunch in her faith and belief that God would realize the visions of our prophets for the Jewish people’s future and their land.

She tried constantly to reach Eretz Israel, but did not realize this in her lifetime. Two days before she died, she expressed it this way: “Master of the Universe, you have allowed me to live many good years. I have endured years of suffering in my double exile with love. I have no complaints against you; my life’s plan has been partially fulfilled. Yet if only you had allowed me to make aliya to our holy land, my entire plan would have come to fulfillment.”

The deceased, of blessed memory, devoted herself totally to extensive communal work while in Lithuania, and continued her great work while in exile in the far north. There the exiles came to recognize her as the consummate communal worker, especially under the difficult conditions in which they lived. It is thanks to her that many families survived in those inhuman conditions. They owe her thanks for her exceptional dedication, charitable deeds and merciful acts.

This took place in 1941. On June 14, thousands of Lithuanian Jewish families were unexpectedly ordered into exile. They were transported in sealed train cars to the Siberian steppes, and some were transferred to the farthest regions of the north.

After much roaming from place to place, a few hundred families arrived at a remote village somewhere in the farthest north. The exiles included wealthy people from Kovno, the former capital of Lithuania, people who were well established financially and well integrated into society. Many were activists in political parties, socially influential people with connections in important circles. Eventually they became broken and shattered, consumed by despair, steeped in overwhelming depression.

When they reached that place, a long story of tribulations and troubles began. There were among them many families who had lost everything and were simply doomed to annihilation. The situation was horrendous. Each one was concerned first for himself, with how to improve his situation and escape from the demeaning starvation. Was it possible for anyone to be concerned for others, when he himself could barely exist?

But behold! Among these exiles there was one exceptional woman, who wouldn’t yield to the dire conditions, to despair and bitter disappointment. Her goal was not just to find bread for herself. Her first concern was to find the financial means to sustain the tender souls of the children who were screaming and pleading for food. “Mommy, daddy, I am terribly hungry and want to eat. Please give me a little piece of bread.” Parents cried to see their children’s agony, helpless to respond.

This didn’t come easily to her. Nevertheless, after great effort she managed to gather a few of the most affluent, and after great exhortation she raised money for a free-loan and charity fund. She provided loans for those who had just begun to work and had not yet received wages, and gave financial aid to those unable to work at all. With this she managed to sustain many families. As a result, bread appeared again in many houses, and as the Bible says, “there was no hunger in the land.”

This was among her greatest achievements in that place of exile. However Sheyne Klibansky, of blessed memory, wasn’t satisfied with such deeds. As a woman steeped in the spirit of Torah Judaism, she was convinced that while the economic situation was dire, the spiritual situation was worse.

In the village were many young people who had not even an inkling of Judaism, and it was entirely possible that they would forget their roots. She assembled them in her room, which was actually too small to hold them all, and began teaching them Hebrew. She drummed Jewish values into them, with amazing results. Her pupils remained faithful Jews, both religiously and nationally, full of Jewish knowledge.

After 15 years, as a sign of their esteem for their devoted teacher, her pupils carried her coffin to the cemetery, a few kilometers away, at the peak of winter in the Arctic Circle.

The following story characterizes her essence and devotion to Jewish values, and also describes the early situation of the exiles. Passover was approaching, bringing its particular challenges. The deceased, of blessed memory, raised the issue of baking matzo. The reaction she received from all was indifference and doubt. How was it possible to even consider such a thing in the exiles’ difficult and inhuman conditions? The general opinion was definitely negative.

Here her brave spirit was revealed. She refused to back away from matters of religious or national importance. After overcoming enormous difficulties, she obtained flour, hired a room for this purpose and with some others, began baking matzos. When those who had been indifferent saw her devotion to the task, they joined in her enthusiasm and all began baking matzos for Passover. Thanks to her actions, this remote community learned that Passover exists in the Jewish world.

She organized a communal seder (also with great opposition), intending to encourage the exiles, and it was very festive. Gentiles from the village stood beneath the windows and watched. The great enthusiasm inside the building affected those standing outside, and they also began dancing with great enjoyment.

That is how the spirit of Judaism penetrated the remote far north. Inhabitants of that place said truly that the deceased, of blessed memory, did much for the Jewish community there. Her activism saved them from extinction, in all senses of the word.

The writer of these lines, who was unable to participate in her funeral last year and make a worthy eulogy, dedicates this article to her unforgettable memory. May her soul be bound up in the eternal life of the people of Israel.

Translated by Bella Golubchik


[1] Originally published in “Shearim,” newspaper of the Poalei Agudat Israel party.

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