Rivkah Bloch grew up in Telz (Telsiai), a historic township and renowned Torah center in north-west Lithuania. In 1939 the Jews of Telz numbered about 2,800, some 28 percent of the population. Rivkah’s paternal grandfather Reb Yosef Leib Bloch, (1849-1930) zt”l, also known as Maharil Bloch, was a distinguished personality and a prominent scholar and educator. Besides his position as town rabbi, he headed the great Yeshivah of Telz that his father-in-law Rav Eliezer Gordon, zt”l had founded. Its student body numbered around 400 students in 1900.
Rav Bloch resisted the challenge of the secular Haskalah or Enlightenment movement in a positive way, as he understood the need to educate religious youth differently from what had been done in the past. He was the inspiration behind many educational institutions in Telz, including boys’ schools, a girls’ elementary and high school, and separate teachers’ seminaries for men and women. Another innovation of his was the Kollel Rabbanim established in 1921 to train rabbis. His volumes on Jewish law (Shiurei Halacha) and Jewish thought (Shiurei Da’at) were published posthumously.
Rivkah’s father and uncle were outstanding leaders of the Telz community. Her father Rav Zalman-Shmuel Bloch, Hy”d chose to become a rabbinical court judge and mashgiach of the yeshiva after his father’s death. He thus cleared the way for his younger brother, Rav Avraham-Yitzhak Bloch, (1890-1941) Hy”d, to take over as head of the yeshiva in 1930. Although both were murdered by the Nazis, their brother Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch had arrived in America with his brother-in-law, Rav Mordechai Katz, and some students just prior to World War II. They hoped to raise money for the yeshiva and obtain visas to relocate its students. Though their families perished tragically in Europe (except for a daughter of Rav Bloch), starting from small beginnings, they were able to establish the Telshe Yeshivah in Cleveland, Ohio.
One of eight children, Rivkah Bloch attended the high school that her grandfather had founded. At Yavne, which belonged to the high-level educational network of Agudath Israel, limudei kodesh or sacred subjects were taught in Hebrew alongside a broad curriculum. Since the girls were actively encouraged to talk Hebrew during school breaks, Rivkah acquired a sound knowledge of Hebrew and also learned Lithuanian, German and Russian.
When Lithuania lost its independence in 1940, the Russians disbanded the yeshiva and the religious high schools. The disastrous German invasion followed on June 22, 1941, reaching Telz on June 26, where they wreaked slaughter and destruction. Armed Lithuanians under Nazi command brutally rounded up the Jews, stole their valuables and ejected them from their homes. On July 15, Rivkah’s father, brothers and male relatives were shot to death or buried alive with the other Jewish men in mass graves at Rainiai, four kilometers away. In bidding farewell to three of his daughters, Chasya Hy”d, Naomi and Rivkah, Rav Zalman-Shmuel Bloch urged them to remain true to their heritage as religious women.
Most of the Jewish women and children were liquidated at the Geruliai concentration camp on August 30. Children were buried alive, while babies’ heads were smashed with stones. (Many of the atrocities are documented at http://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/telz According to this source a few Lithuanian farmers extended help to the suffering Jewish women on forced labor details, while others abused them severely and murdered them in some cases.)
In the final months of 1941 the Lithuanians and the Gestapo continued their cruel abusive behavior. Fifteen-year-old Rivkah was transported to the Jewish ghetto in nearby Shavli (Siauliai) late in 1941. Aware that death was imminent if she stayed there, Rivkah escaped together with her cousin Miriam Kleiner. The girls sought refuge in a wooded area where they wandered among farming villages and forests.
Although Miriam was blond and could pass for a gentile, dark-haired Rivkah had a Jewish appearance, so the two parted company where necessary in order to survive. Starting in the final months of 1943, Miriam was sheltered for a year by a good-hearted Lithuanian woman named Emilija Vitkeviciene who had already hid two other Jewish women earlier in the war. Vitkeviciene and her 14-year-old son Kazys Vitkevicius lived on the outskirts of the town of Alsedziai. At some point in 1944, Vitkeviciene agreed to take in Rivkah too, and a third girl named Anela Shneider joined them for a while. When keeping the girls in their home became too dangerous, Kazys dug a pit in the forest which he camouflaged with branches, and that became their new shelter. The brave youth rode out every day on his bicycle to throw them some food. Even when his mother was arrested for seven weeks and interrogated for harboring Jews, Kazys took the risk of helping the girls in their improvised hideout. Fear was their constant companion, especially when they needed to emerge above the surface to. In 1997, mother Emilija and son Kazys were honored for their good deeds by Yad Vashem and named Righteous Among the Nations.
During the final years of the war, Rivkah was often left to face adversity totally alone. Sometimes non-Jews in isolated areas would pity her and shelter her for a few days, but mostly she had to hide in barns, cowsheds and pits and forage for food in garbage heaps. Since Nazi sympathizers were swift to alert the police to her presence, the Gestapo almost caught her many times. Once she burrowed deep into a pile of hay to hide, concealing herself just a fraction deeper than the jabbing and poking of her pursuers who finally abandoned their search. Another time she huddled, trembling behind a bed, while the police searched the house of her host. Their daughter covered for her by sitting on the bed, where she busied herself with some sewing or knitting. On another occasion, when the police came to the front door of a house where Rivkah sheltered, she was unceremoniously pushed out the back door into a snow-covered potato field. Famished, she ate some raw potatoes to still her hunger and spent the night without shelter. Even more traumatic than the torments of hunger and cold was her isolation, the heaviest burden she had to bear. Believing that she was probably the last Jew to survive, she pleaded with the Almighty not to leave her all alone in the world.
When wartime finally came to an end, Rivkah’s hopes rose. She was ready and eager to approach the Russian liberators and confide in them as they marched proudly through the streets. She was about to tell them that she was a Jewish survivor when she overheard some drunken soldiers bantering gaily among themselves, “How good that Hitler murdered all the Jews, otherwise we would have had to do it!” Silenced by their callousness, Rivkah quickly disappeared into the crowd. Her brief return to Telz in search of family or friends was an equally bitter experience. She rediscovered neighbors of the family who had worked by the Blochs before the war and been well-treated by them. Not only had these gentiles willingly helped to murder the menfolk of her family, but they had taken over the Bloch house as their own.
Although Rivkah’s two surviving siblings in the USA urged her to join them, she was resolved to resume her life in Israel. Her sister, Naomi Bloch Stein, who married Rabbi Pesach Stein zt”l in 1948, and her cousin Chaya Bloch Ausband were the only two Jewish women to survive the war in Ghetto Shavli. Another sister, Shoshana, was brought to America before the war by her chosson, Rav Mordechai Gifter zt”l. However, because Rivkah simply did not wish to live among non-Jews any longer, she joined up with other illegal immigrants who went to Israel via Italy. They landed in the middle of the night on a rickety Maapilim boat in 1946 near Atlit, and luckily the British authorities did not notice their landing.
Twenty-year-old Rivkah recovered her happy disposition and sense of humor in Israel, putting behind her the years when, in her son’s words, “She lived like a hunted animal.” She immediately found work in Tel Aviv because she knew Hebrew so well and stayed briefly with her elderly grandparents, the Denises of Kharkov. In 1950 she married Akivah Hacarmi, a Ponevezh Yeshivah student who had left Pressburg, Bratislava in December 1939 just after his bar mitzvah. To escape the Shoah, he immigrated alone, was raised by close family and firmly rooted himself in Israel. Rav Hacarmi has served as municipal rabbi of Kiryat Shmuel near Haifa for over 60 years and is still active in his community.
Though Rebbetzin Rivkah was busy raising her six children, she also devoted her energy to the mitzvah of hospitality. Many survivors and those who had fallen on hard times would enter her apartment dejected but walk out smiling. They were always well fed and given a place to sleep. Her son Rav Yehoshua Hacarmi recalls that she used to care for a mentally deranged man who would yell at and frighten the children. A well-meaning neighbor urged him to tell his mother that it was dangerous to shelter this individual. However, when he did so, she told him gently, “During the Shoah non-Jews took me in. How can I refuse to take in poor Jews?”
Devoted to the furtherance of Torah study, Rivkah freed her husband from all household responsibilities so he could learn or undertake community tasks undisturbed. She also helped him run his kollel, by typing all the letters and doing the accounts, and administered a charity fund that she had founded. The Hacarmis personally bore all the expenses of these enterprises.
At every joyful family occasion her husband would look around at their growing family and gently remind his beaming wife, “You see, Rivkah, you’re not alone anymore.”
Though this righteous woman passed away recently at the age of 87, she left many descendants who are active in furthering the causes of Jewish learning and good deeds.
The writer is an editor and translator from French, German and Hebrew into English. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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