Reb Chayim Yehoshua1by
Reb Avraham Abba Persan2

The famous chassid Reb Dov Zev of Yekaterinoslavrelated the following story:

While he was a shadar of the Rebbe Maharash, Reb Dov Zev regularly visited the city of Gluchov, where one of the elders of the chassidim, Reb Chayim Yehoshua, lived. Whenever Reb Dov Zev visited Gluchov, he delighted in listening to Reb Chayim Yehoshua tell stories of the chassidim of the old days.

When Reb Dov Zev arrived in Gluchov in the year 5637 [1877], Reb Chayim Yehoshua was already an old man of eighty-seven. He felt his end approaching, and so he sent for the elder chassidim of the city: Reb Avraham Zalman HaKohen, Reb Shlomo Menachem the melamed, and Reb Ephraim Fishel the melamed; he requested that they also invite the visiting shadar.

Upon discovering that the chassid Reb Chayim Yehoshua was sick, the gaon Reb Dov Zev went to visit him. Reb Chayim Yehoshua’s illness lasted for a month. Although his strength gradually ebbed, he remained in full possession of his mental faculties until the very end, and he told his visitors various stories. The following is his deathbed declaration, as he dictated it to them:

During the year 5593 or 5594 [1832, 33] I spent all eight days of Chanukah in Lubavitch with the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek. There, I heard three chassidic discourses, all based on the theme that the war against the Greeks was a spiritual battle. As the Sages teach us,3 [the Greeks demanded of the Jews that they,] “Write upon the horn of an ox that you have nothing to do with the G‑d of Israel.” But through mesirus nefesh the Jews overcame them. The Rebbe spoke highly of the avodah of mesirus nefesh to sanctify G‑d’s Holy Name, as was performed by Rabbi Akiva and others like him.

At the time, I was a little over forty years old. I, my four brothers, and my two brothers-in-law, lived in a hamlet called Zastke, near Kalisk [in Vitebsk County of White Russia]. Our father Reb Avraham Yisrael a chassid of the Alter Rebbe and of his son the Mitteler Rebbe had originally settled there. He brought us up to study Torah and to be farmers. We also took great pains to observe the mitzvah of catering to guests.

One winter’s night during the year 5595 or 5596, we suddenly heard a knocking at the door. Getting out of bed and opening the door, I saw two Jews wrapped in winter cloaks, covered with snow, standing in the doorway. I extended my hand in greeting, and invited them to take off their cloaks and sit near the stove to warm themselves. I also offered them glasses of tea, and bread with butter and whey.

While they sat down to eat, I went out to check the barn. Once outdoors, I heard what sounded like a child crying. I paid no attention to it, for I assumed it was a cat. But when I came closer to the source of the sound, I heard that it was the voice of a child.

“Who’s that crying?” I called.

“It’s I, Binyomin!” a trembling voice replied.

Following the sound of the voice, I approached the sleigh that the guests had parked at the edge of the courtyard. When I looked inside, my whole body began to quake. I saw two small boys lying there, bound up in chains: one was sleeping, the other crying.

In those days, there were many “snatchers” men who would kidnap Jewish children, take them away, and sell them to other communities to be handed over to the military. Seeing the children, I immediately guessed that the men were snatchers, and that these were stolen children. I was afraid that they would also kidnap some of our own children.

I quickly removed the chains from the two boys, lifted them from the sleigh, and took them to the home of my brother Michael, out in the garden. My brother Michael had already woken from his sleep; I told him of my suspicions, and hurried home.

When I arrived home, I found one of the guests sitting next to my son Ephraim Zalman. I woke everyone in the house and whispered to them that these Jews were snatchers, and that they were carrying two boys bound in chains, who had undoubtedly been kidnapped.

The Jew seated near my son Ephraim Zalman said, “He looks like a good boy. G‑d in Heaven has burdened me with two sons who are insane, and speak lies. I have no choice but to chain them up and take them to the psychiatrist in Vitebsk.”

Meanwhile, my brother Michael gave the children food and drink, and locked them in a room. He then came to my house, and seeing the two Jews he became furious. He went over to them saying, “Shalom Aleichem, Jewish snatchers! Leave this house immediately, or you’ll be sorry!”

The two Jews did not yet realize that they had been found out, and one said to the other, “Let’s get out of here. As you can see, we’ve fallen in among heartless Jews who have no pity for an unfortunate person such as yourself, who is taking his insane sons to a psychiatrist.

“I myself,” the Jew continued saying to us, “live in a small village, just like you. And when I found out that the tar maker who lives in the forest nearby had children who had gone incurably insane, I took pity on him. I harnessed my horse, and am now conveying him and his two sons to the psychiatrist in Vitebsk.”

The Jews left my house in a huff. When they came to the sleigh and discovered that the children were gone, they immediately returned screaming. But they soon realized that screaming would do them no good, and they hurriedly fled the village, leaving the children behind with us.

A month later, it was my brother Michael’s regular time to visit Lubavitch and see the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek. When he entered the Rebbe’s room and told him about the children, the Rebbe’s face beamed with joy. He gave us all his blessing, instructing us to keep the children for a year and then to take them home. The children remained with us and studied together with our own sons under the melamed Reb Yeruchem Zev, doing very well.

From that time on I had an overpowering desire to work at pidyon sh’vuyim. Unable to restrain myself, I went to the Tzemach Tzedek and told him of this great desire. The Rebbe agreed, and prepared an itinerary for me to follow in this work. Three or four months a year sometimes in the summer and sometimes in the winter I would journey to various places, and ransom children who had been kidnapped and handed over to become “cantonists.” I pursued this work for seven years, until I was finally caught and came within an inch of losing my life.

[The story is now continued byReb Avraham Abba Persan]:

The chassid Reb Chayim Yehoshua spent four months in the vicinity of Kazan. At home, his business affairs often took him to the small villages, and so he was quite familiar with the ways of village folk. He would travel from one small village to another, ransoming the children. Some of them fled on their own after they were released. As for the others, he had to care for them and find them a place of refuge.

Reb Chayim Yehoshua pursued his work in clever fashion. Upon first arriving in a village, he would purchase some products of that village: wool, linen, and the like. This gave the impression that his visit was for business purposes. Only incidentally would he inquire about the young boys of the vicinity.

One day, a Jew who spoke Yiddish with a Vohlynian accent arrived at the village where he was staying. He too had come to purchase the local products of wool and linen, and he became friendly with Reb Chayim Yehoshua. Reb Chayim Yehoshua innocently took him at face value, and they remained together for a month. But the newcomer spied on Reb Chayim Yehoshua, eventually discovering everything he was doing in ransoming the cantonists.

Reb Chayim Yehoshua had eight boys for whom he had not yet found homes. Some of them were living with him in Kazan, while others had gone to the townsfolk to beg for food. His friend the wool-and-linen merchant assisted him in ransoming the cantonists and in making further arrangements for them. With his help he managed to place six of the children in Kazan. Reb Chayim Yehoshua decided to take the remaining two home with him when he left.

On the very day that Reb Chayim Yehoshua was planning to depart, three armed soldiers suddenly appeared, in the company of the merchant from Vohlynia. They arrested the chassid Reb Chayim Yehoshua and bound him in chains. As soon as the children caught sight of the soldiers, they ran for their lives, and alarmed the children who had been placed in the city. All of them disappeared, and were never heard from again. During the next six months, Reb Chayim Yehoshua was moved from one jail to another, bound in chains, until he was finally brought to Vitebsk.

There, Reb Chayim Yehoshua was imprisoned under very harsh conditions. At first the governor wanted him tried for treason by a military court, and he boasted that he would execute Reb Chayim Yehoshua by hanging. It took a great deal of persuasion to influence him to hold the trial in civil court.4

Reb Chayim Yehoshua remained in the Vitebsk prison for three months before the governor finally released him. The Tzemach Tzedek lent him a sum of money with which to purchase goods and start a business. He advised him to settle in the city of Gluchov [Czernigov County of “Little Russia” (Ukraine)], and gave him his blessing. Reb Chayim Yehoshua lived in Gluchov for twenty-five years, and he prospered financially. From time to time he would travel to Lubavitch to the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzedek, and after [the Tzemach Tzedek] passed away, to his son the Rebbe Maharash.

[Reb Chayim Yehoshua’s deathbed declaration quoted by Reb Dov Zev continues]:

After my release, I again visited the Rebbe, who designated the city of Gluchov as my new home. He blessed me with long life, and added the promise, “You will be with me in my domain.”5 Today or tomorrow, I will return my soul to my Maker. My final request of you is that after my casket is covered with earth, a minyan of men should make the following declaration:

Holy Rebbe, son-in-law of the [Mitteler] Rebbe, and grandson of the [Alter] Rebbe: your servant Chayim Yehoshua ben Esther has died; before his death, he appointed us his agents to do a mitzvah and inform you that your servant Chayim Yehoshua ben Esther has died, and to remind you of the promise you made to your servant Chayim Yehoshua ben Esther in reward for his labors in the mitzvah of pidyon sh’vuyim the promise that, “You will be with me in my domain.”

They all promised Reb Chayim Yehoshua that they would do as he asked. The next morning, after he davened Shacharis and put on Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin, he delivered up his soul with a clear mind, and while reciting Shema Yisrael. That same day, Reb Chayim Yehoshua was buried.

The chassid Reb Dov Zev continued relating the story: when the casket was covered with earth, ten of the men stood there and recited the message quoted above. When I later came to the Rebbe6 in Lubavitch and repeated to him Reb Chayim Yehoshua’s story and his final request, the Rebbe said:

So may it be done on High! Divine service in actual deed elevates one to the highest levels. Reb Chayim Yehoshua was a clever chassid, and he provided himself with a wonderful place for his eternal home. My father is a man of his word, and he will surely keep his promise.