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Tuesday, February 27, 2024 - 18 Adar I 5784
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A Life of Hardship and Miracles
by Rabbi Zalman Bronstein
In 1942 I was drafted into the Red army. The situation at home was terrible. We had no bread and water, there were three little children, and on top of that I was now drafted.

Not many Chabad chassidim were drafted. It was extremely dangerous and whoever was able to, fled for his life. I had the “privilege” of being drafted and served in the Russian army for four years in difficult battles against the Germans. I experienced endless stories and wonders. I saw death before my eyes countless times but something supernatural always happened and my life was saved.

Right after I was drafted I was sent to serve in the 123 brigade. This brigade stood at the ready to serve as reserve units.

It was not easy being a Jew in the army as there was tremendous anti-Semitism. I remember that one of the soldiers once said to me nastily, “When we go on the attack at the front my first bullet won’t be shot against the enemy but at your back.”

When I was first inducted I had a pair of tefillin with me but it wasn’t easy to put them on. I was afraid that I would be caught putting them on, which was dangerous, but I did it anyway. Every morning, when everyone else was still asleep in the bunker, I covered myself with my blanket and put on tefillin and said a quick prayer. The rest I prayed without tefillin.

When we were in the forest, I would wake up early and put on tefillin quickly among the trees. I did so every morning until I lost my tefillin.

At some point during the war I lost my night vision due to a vitamin deficiency. By day I could see and at night I was blind. One night, we went on an exhausting march. Since I could see nothing, two soldiers led me by the arms the entire way. We arrived at a village in the morning and, the way it was done then, the soldiers dispersed among the houses to rest. It was cold with both rain and snow. I also entered one of the homes. I took off my clothes and laid them on the stove to dry. I put the tefillin there too.

I was sound asleep when I suddenly heard an urgent call for all soldiers to appear outside. As a result of the rushing and confusion, I hurried to get dressed and go out and we were on our way within minutes. That is when I remembered that I had forgotten my tefillin but it was too late. I was inconsolable.

During my four years in the army I never ate cooked food, and managed on bread and vegetables. It wasn’t easy but Hashem helped me in this too. Often, when we walked in fields, I pulled out potatoes. I had a pot with me that I filled with rainwater and I cooked the potatoes for myself.

As a result of inadequate nutrition, I became very weak. At a certain point I decided to stop eating almost completely in the hopes that my heart would become weaker and they would release me.

I was stricken with hepatitis and was hospitalized in Sverdlovsk in the Urals. When the doctors tried to give me food so I would regain some strength, I refused, saying I had no appetite.

One day, a Jewish doctor came and she whispered, “Bronstein, start shtuppen zich [Yid. stuffing yourself] and I promise you that if you eat more in the next two weeks, your heart will be a bit stronger and then we will send you on furlough. Right now we are afraid to release you because you will not be able to make the trip home.”

I took her advice and over the next two weeks I started eating bread and vegetables. Two weeks later I was examined again and the doctor said she was pleased with the condition of my heart. She kept her promise and I was given two months off. I immediately traveled to Tashkent where I met my wife and children as well as my fellow Chassidim.

After two months I had to return to the army. I went to the hospital in Tashkent and gave a bribe so they would allow me to continue on furlough. I got another month with difficulty, but in the end I had to return to my unit which was camped not far from Smolensk.

When I returned to my unit a great and most shocking miracle occurred to me. Many soldiers were waiting to go to their next assignment when, suddenly, one of the commanders loudly announced that they needed a thousand soldiers for work. Our unit was a reserve unit and some of the soldiers were supposed to be sent to the front and some to work.

All the soldiers immediately ran to the registration window for they all preferred working to going to the front. Of course, I was among them. The line moved quickly. In front of me were just two soldiers and I was almost at the window when a thought popped into my mind, “acharon acharon chaviv” (the last is beloved). I did not understand why this thought came to me and gave me no rest. I left my place and moved to the back of the line so I could be last.

Then I realized what I had done. Oy, by the time it would be my turn, they would already have a thousand men who would be sent to work while I would be sent to the front! I tried to console myself by thinking it wasn’t for nothing that the thought had come to my mind and there was something to it.

As soon as the registration was over, the thousand happy soldiers went off to work while I remained with the other soldiers, expecting to be sent to the burning front.

The next morning we received an order to start going. As we passed the fields we saw, to our horror, hundreds of bodies of dead soldiers with missing limbs. These were the soldiers who had registered for work but had actually been sent to an attack on the front lines and nobody remained alive.

I suddenly realized what “acharon acharon chaviv” meant. It was an open miracle.


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