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Yosef Arshinov, the only Jew in town, waited for the day the Soviets would disappear, leaving him to dig up a nearby playground and find the lost grave of the Maharsha
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
T wenty-five years have passed since Ukraine gained its independence from Russia, leaving many of those who valiantly fought for freedom bewildered and unsure of how to adjust to the new reality.
Yet in the town of Ostrowo, about 200 miles west of Kiev, there was one man who was never confused, and knew exactly what he was going to do as soon as the Soviet Union fell. On that August morning in 1991, Yosef Arshinov z”l hurried to his backyard and grabbed some old digging spades.
Arshinov took the shovels and, accompanied by his son Gregory, made his way to the playground near his home, where he politely but authoritatively asked the young mothers and children playing there to quickly leave the grounds. Years of tyranny had taught these former Soviet citizens to obey orders without asking questions.
Father and son worked quickly, tearing down the swings and slides as they began to dig. “We could see the tombstones under the ground,” Gregory (Gershon) Arshinov remembers, as he stands at the gateway to the old Jewish cemetery in his native town of Ostrowo, where 25 years later he is a successful building contractor and popular city-council member — and one of about 50 Jews living in the town today. “Within hours we found hundreds of tombstones, with the inscriptions still very clear and readable, making them easy to identify.
For decades the Communists had tried to erase anything Jewish from this picturesque town and in 1968, the site of Ostrowo’s ruined ancient Jewish cemetery — estimated to contain between 14,000 to 16,000 graves — was poured over with cement and turned into a park. But Yosef Arshinov always believed the day would come when the cemetery would be restored.
His patience paid off. Even before the new mayor and his staff established themselves in Ostrowo City Hall after the Soviets retreated, Arshinov took advantage of the vacuum and set to work.
Gregory Arshinov, 55, says his father’s determination didn’t surprise him. Yosef Arshinov, born in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia (Vinitze in Yiddish) in the thick of the Communist regime, knew almost nothing about Torah but made a point of going regularly to Vinitze’s only shul, which was open and functioning throughout the years of Communist rule.
In 1941, Yosef was drafted into the Red Army. “Anyone familiar with a little history knows that surviving those battles was a real miracle,” says his son. “Yet my father made it through, and even reached Berlin during the last days of the war.” When the war ended, Yosef Arshinov was sent to Ostrowo, near his hometown of Vinitze, to be a schoolteacher there.
“He knew there had been a large Jewish community here for hundreds of years and as soon as he arrived, he made it his mission to uncover the remains of Jewish life that had flourished here in the past.”
But in postwar Ostrowo, that wasn’t simple. The Jews were gone, their homes occupied by poor, unemployed Ukrainians. Still, Yosef Arshinov never gave up his dream.
Years later, when the cemetery was finally exposed again, Arshinov sifted through the remains of a few hundred tombstones out of the many thousands that had been destroyed; but would he find the particular one he was searching for? It was the grave of the Maharsha — Rav Shmuel Eliezer Halevi Eideles, one of the leading gedolim of all time, who contributed greatly to the widespread knowledge and understanding of Gemara among Klal Yisrael for over four centuries. The Maharsha was born in Krakow in 1555, led a yeshivah in Posen for many years, and later became rav in nearby Ostrowo, where he led the local yeshivah, wrote his famous commentary, and was niftar on 5 Kislev, 1631.
In the early 1990s, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Gabbai and Rabbi Leibel Surkis came to Ostrowo to help restore the cemetery. Rabbi Gabbai of the Ohalei Tzaddikim organization is an international expert on kevarim, and Rabbi Surkis is a Skverer chassid and researcher who had been going from town to town in the Ukraine in order to find lost graves of tzaddikim.
“When they arrived in Ostrowo,” Gregory Arshinov says, “my father pointed them to the place where, according to drawings, the Maharsha was buried. Together we started digging and soon enough found the old tombstone and remnants of the monument on top of it. We marked the place, and later Rabbi Gabbai reconstructed the tomb and the ohel.”
But work on the cemetery, so obviously an ancient Jewish site, was complicated. “The cemetery is still registered as a children’s playground,” Arshinov explains. “Every small modification requires bureaucratic municipal approval.”
Things got moving though, when Rabbi Hillel Cohen — an Israeli-born Breslover chassid who’s been living in Kiev for the last 18 years — appealed to Reb Eliezer Kestenbaum, a Satmar chassid and major philanthropist from Williamsburg, whose immense wealth has been targeted to help yeshivos and other organizations .
He arranged for Reb Leizer to visit Ostrowo and introduced him to city councilor Gregory Arshinov. Restoring the several hundred matzeivos that were left and returning the area to the status of a cemetery would cost over $100,000, but Kestenbaum didn’t blink — in fact, the restoration of the Maharsha’s grave became a focal point in his life. He himself travels there often, and for the past few years has financed a group of avreichim to travel to Ostrowo to say Tehillim at the Maharsha’s grave on the yahrtzeit.
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