Border smuggling, dancing, and prayer - What did Breslov Hasidim do when war made their annual trip to Uman a true matter of life and death?
In the first decade of the twentieth century, some young Jewish men in Poland discovered the figure and writings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. All but unknown in Poland at that time, there were small circles of Breslov Hasidim living in a number of towns in Ukraine and in the Land of Israel, but they had little influence. The journey of these young Jewish men to Uman in Ukraine, where they participated in the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) prayers together with other Breslov adherents proved to be a constitutive event for them. On their return to Poland, the young men began to spread the word and induce others to join their “new” discovery; and so began the Polish Breslov movement. Breslov followers in Poland became famous for their annual pilgrimage to Uman, and in the press and on the street they were referred to as the “Uman Hasidim” and the “Dancing Hasidim traveling to Uman.”
The Uman pilgrimage focused around Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Nachman’s disciple, Rabbi Natan, who interpreted his teacher’s remark uttered at the end of his life, “my Rosh Hashanah,” to mean the period after his death, was responsible for instigating the gathering around Rabbi Nachman’s gravesite. “That people might then receive tikkunim [spiritual rectification], which all year long it was not possible for them to receive in any way […] the main thing is to be with me.”
In 1917, the Bolshevik Revolution swept through Russia, followed by a civil war. The “Red,” “White” and “Green” armies battled each other, but the Jews were often a target for all of them. This made the journey to Uman much more dangerous than usual.
In a Rosh Hashanah announcement from 1955 (courtesy of Rabbi Shmuel Tefilinski), Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Korman (one of the leaders of the Hasidim in Poland who immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in the mid-1930s and worked at the Schocken Institute in the late 1940s) recalls this period:
The many dangers of gathering on Rosh Hashanah at Uman began from then  – even from Ukraine – because of the gangs of murderers (may their memories be erased). And our brethren [Breslov Hasidim] from Poland, out of longing for Uman, endangered themselves, but many were imprisoned and disappeared, God have mercy, and two were killed on the border near the town of Ostra, as is known. And since then the road had become very difficult and visitors from Poland stopped coming to Uman…
Some of the movement’s leaders vociferously opposed the dangerous border smuggling. For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Breiter wrote in a 1923 letter to a young Hasid who was considering traveling from the Land of Israel to Uman:
“And our opinion is that it is unwarranted to travel to Uman at present, when [heavenly] protection shows it does not agree … Furthermore, he is not permitted this nonsense that might endanger himself along the way. And this folly might endanger him over days and rivers and borders and he does so out of fastidiousness, which our Master z”l [of blessed memory] was most emphatically against…”
[She’erit Yitzhak, pp. 42–43]
Instead, the movement’s leaders offered new prayers and rituals as a way to fill the void. With the cessation of visits to Uman, they decided to hold a “kibbutz” (gathering) in the city of Lublin, known as the “Jerusalem of Poland” on Rosh Hashanah. Beginning in 1930, they prayed at the Hakhmei Lublin Yeshiva, at the invitation and with the participation of the head of the Yeshiva, Rabbi Meir Shapira, who also famously initiated the “Daf Yomi” daily Talmud study regimen.
In addition to the hundreds of letters from among his broad correspondence with Breslov followers in Poland and Ukraine, Korman preserved several documents and leaflets of Polish Breslov Hasidim, which he left to the Shocken Institute, including: Kol Kore BaMidbar [A Voice in the Wildnerness] from 1932 (pictured below). According to the handwritten announcement, copied in stencil (for duplication and distribution to the public), when
“the path to Uman to prostrate on the tomb of the late Rabbi on the eve of Rosh Hashanah was blocked and to determine a place for the continuation of the Rebbe of blessed memory’s tikkunim [rectifications] in his synagogue there — then our brethren in Poland decided to gather and determine the place in the city of Lublin where our late Rebbe of blessed memory’s spiritual Rosh Hashanah rectifications [tikunei] could continue.”
The authors of the declaration understood the essence of the gathering in Uman was “to determine a place for the continuation of the Rosh Hashanah rectifications of the late Rebbe.” “Determining the place” worked to sanctify the place, and prepare it as a tool for the appearance of the “light of our late rabbi of blessed memory” in a barren world. Participation in the kibbutz — even just arriving to it and breaking through the obstacles and barriers involved in reaching it — leads to a noticeable spiritual renewal, and to the “longing for a true simple faith … which is the true tikkun olam [repair of the world].”
The rectification that happens in this gathering is not only for the Hasidim — and not only for the Jewish people — but for the whole world: “For his soul and for the whole world”; “And all the judgements shall be sweetened above us, for all Israel and for all of the world.”
Additional documents from the Korman Collection at the Schocken Institute shed light on Breslov “kibbutzim” in Poland during the Holocaust.
In a unique letter from the beginning of the war, in 1940, the Hasid Rabbi Zvi Lasker, a student of Breiter’s, writes to Korman, from Vilnius (where he fled, ahead of the city’s conquest by the Germans):
“Was there a Rosh Hashanah kibbutz this year? Although there was a kibbutz in Warsaw, woe to the kibbutz that prays under a flood of bombs, shooting, fires and strange deaths from the ‘demons of the world’ [מזיקי עלמא]. Let me try to give you on cold paper — which can withstand everything — a brief summary of the battles of our Rebbe’s people.”
With great literary flair, Lasker describes the Rosh Hashanah prayers of Breslov followers during the German bombing of Warsaw, about two weeks after the outbreak of the war (the bombings had come after three days of quiet, which gave the city’s Jews hope that there would be a peaceful holiday, a hope which quickly proved false).
The Hasid Rabbi Beirech Rubensohn (Robinson), who lost his family in the Holocaust, survived Auschwitz and moved to America and later to Israel, wrote in 1947 to Korman about Rosh Hashanah in the middle of the war:
“And in the year 1941, on Rosh Hashanah with God’s help there was a gathering in the city of Apt (Opatów), where they [the Hasidim] prayed together, and also danced.”
I conclude with more recent history. On a trip around Rosh Hashanah (in the pre-Covid era), on a flight from Ukraine to the Czech Republic that was filled to brim with Hasidim and their guitars, I stood in the aisle at the back of the plane to do some yoga. A young Czech flight attendant approached me (perhaps the yoga made him feel like we could communicate), and shared with me his bewilderment at the unconventional pilgrims. He had heard of the pilgrimage (all of Eastern Europe is abuzz because of it), but he wanted to understand what it was all about.
I said to him:
“Buried in Uman is a man who said there is no reason at all for despair. The devotees believe that by traveling to his grave, they project encouragement and hope to all who are in need of it, to all the broken and depressed, all over the whole world, just by their being there.”
He was touched by this thought.
May “all the judgements of the Jewish people and of the world be sweetened,” Amen.