Czar Nicholas was a rabid anti-Semite and constantly sought means and methods to convert the Jews to Christianity. But the harsher the decrees he issued against the Jews, the more tenaciously they adhered to the tenets of their forefathers.
One day one of his ministers had an idea. “You will never be able to convert the Jew to Christianity as long as he remains clannish and speaks a different language then us,” he said. “Jews speak only Yiddish, and no Russian. If you convince them to enroll in government schools and learn to speak Russian, it would be much easier to persuade them to change their religion.”
The czar liked the idea. He issued a decree establishing government schools throughout the country and offering free courses in Russian. To implement this plan he hired a prominent young German, Dr. Lilienthal, who was well versed in Russian and in many other languages. He sent Dr. Lilienthal to visit every Jewish community and use his persuasive powers to get them to enroll in the government schools.
The Difficult Task
But the task proved to be very difficult. Dr. Lilienthal decided to visit Vilna, known as the “mother of European Jewry” and the “Jerusalem of Lithuania.” When he arrived in the city he sent out notices to all the prominent people asking them to assemble in the main synagogue. When they gathered, Dr. Lilienthal began to explain the government’s plans.
Fearing repercussions the audience remained quiet. Soon one prominent member arose. .
“I wonder why the government is going to such an expense to teach us a language. Most Russian peasants barely know how to write their names, something almost every Jewish child knows. Yet the government is not concerned with Russian peasants. Why are they so concerned with the Jews, is it not because they want to convert us?” he asked.
Dr. Lilienthal was embarrassed by this question so he tried another tactic.
Mordechai Knew 70 Languages
“Listen to me, my friends,” he said, “we all know the story in the Megillah about Mordechai and Esther. How the two trusted servants of the king Achashverosh, Bigsan and Seresh attempted to poison the king. Mordechai heard and revealed their plans to Queen Esther who passed it on to the king and soon the two were executed.”
“The Talmud (Megillah 13b) explains that these two servants were Turks and they spoke in the Turkish language, thinking Mordechai would not understand them. But Mordechai was a member of the great Sanhedrin, and knew many languages.”
Turning to the audience Dr. Lilienthal exclaimed: “This is positive proof that for the best interest of his people Mordechai had to know other languages. For if Mordechai had not known Turkish, he would never have been able to save the king. And Haman, being an opportunist, would have seized the throne and put through his plans of killing the Jews. Thus we see how important it is to know another language, such as Russian.”
Dr. Lilienthal completed his lecture and felt satisfied that he had scored a victory. Soon, Reb Abraham Efron, a well-known scholar arose and said:
“You are mistaken, my doctor. On the contrary, from your story we can deduce the opposite. If Bigsan and Seresh knew that Mordechai and all the Jews were fluent in other languages, they would have refrained from speaking in front of him and they would not have plotted the king’s death in his presence. But they were sure that Jews did not study other languages, that they were loyal to their mother tongue, therefore they did not guard their speech. It was because of this fact that the Jews were saved.”
Discontinues His Mission
From Vilna, Dr. Lilienthal traveled to Minsk and spoke before large crowds, but the people wouldn’t listen to him. In the middle of one of his speeches someone called him a traitor. The crowd took up the chant and he had to quickly leave the city. The same thing occurred in other cities and he soon grew disheartened. He then appealed to the Gaon, Reb Yitzchok of Volozhin for help but the Gaon refused. Finally Dr. Lilienthal offered his resignation to the czar, admitting his failure.
The czar then sent one of his educated ministers to Reb Yitzchok to persuade him to cooperate. The minister however, got into an argument with him.