Habad chassidim in Netishin
Habad chassidim in NetishinCourtesy

For the first time since before World War II, the small Jewish community in the Ukranian town of Netishin held prayer services this past Shabbat – and celebrated the Bar-Mitzvah of the grandson of the community's last rabbi, 70 years after it had been scheduled to take place.

The religious revival in the town is due to a construction project in the town, in which a common grave of Jewish victims of the Holocaust was discovered. Tractor breaking ground for the project opened up the grave, which included the remains of numerous individuals, and Jewish holy books and scriptural scrolls that were apparently buried together with the victims.

According to elder members of the community, the Jews of Netishin were exterminated on Rosh Hashana in 1942, as the Nazi monsters invaded the town.

Upon the discovery, members of the town's small Jewish community turned to Habad for assistance, and the Rabbi of the nearby town of Chmelnitzki, Rabbi Alexander Feingold, intervened with city officials for help. The mayor of Netishin immediately halted construction, and provided land and assistance to rebury the remains of the Jewish victims at an alternative site. The city also paid for the construction of a memorial stone on the new gravesite.

The incident awakened long-dormant feelings among many of the Jews in Netishin, who had long ago assimilated and had almost no connection to the Jewish community. One of the members of the community, Azriel, confided in Rabbi Feingold that he had been scheduled to become a Bar-Mitzvah as the Nazis invaded the town – and instead, at the age of 12, witnessed the murder of his family, loved ones, and neighbors, leaving him the only surviving Jew of Netishin.

Azriel remained in the town, and eventually changed his name to Vasily, and became estranged from the Jewish people. But after the discovery of the mass grave – which contained the remains of his grandfather, who was the Rabbi of Netishin in the pre-war years – something stirred in the man, and he decided he wanted to go ahead with his Bar-Mitzvah – 70 years later. Rabbi Feingold said that he felt privileged to be a part of such an amazing story.