# 346 (s5764-40) 4 Tammuz 5764
Schreiber the Jew
The doctor had never made real contact with the observant
Jews of Byalestok; in his social circle they were regarded with disdain.
By Professor Abraham Beyarsky
In May 1934, a young doctor completed his
studies in Warsaw and returned to Byalestok. With the help of his
father, a well-to-do farmer who some years earlier had moved his family
to the city, he set up a small office in view of the town clock.
As the months sped by, his reputation grew and with it the size of
the crowd in his waiting room. Handsome and amiable, he was at ease
in the social circles of Byalestok, quickly becoming the toast of
the secular Jewish community. Wealthy industrialists vied for the
opportunity to introduce their daughters to him and the intellectual
elite were constantly after him to address their groups and attend
their social gatherings. More often than not he declined their invitations,
unimpressed by the glitter of their parties and by the all-too-familiar
topics of their conversations. He devoted his time to his practice;
his leisure hours he spent strolling through the streets and parks
of the city.
Between patients, he often glanced across the room at the graduation
photograph of his elementary school class, dated 1922. Time was passing
quickly. He was a doctor, respected, almost famous in Byalestok, but
he was not happy with his accomplishments - something was missing.
The life around him lacked purpose and consistency. Even his work
depressed him at times. The death of a young patient, as he looked
helplessly on, touched him deeply. What was the meaning of his life,
he asked in his heart. Why did it have to happen?
One day late in October the Assistant Mayor of Byalestok, a tall
educated Pole, called on the doctor.
A year earlier, the city administration had hired a new District
Attorney, Andrei Maritus, who immediately set in motion a number of
projects. The unabashed purpose of one of them was to close down all
the mikvehs in Byalestok. On the second day of Rosh Hashanah,
after hundreds of Jews had immersed themselves in the mikveh
of the Main Synagogue, Andrei Maritus, accompanied by the City Health
Inspector and three policemen, collected two samples from the water
that had become dark and turbid. A day later all the mikvehs
in the city were ordered closed, pending a hearing to be held two
weeks hence. Late that same afternoon, the Assistant Mayor paid Dr.
Schreiber a visit.
"It's simply a matter of health," said the Assistant Mayor,
a tall, square-shouldered Pole with a rim of reddish hair around his
bald scalp, smiling genially. "The community must be protected
from an outbreak of typhoid fever. Why, only last month six cases
were discovered in Olsztyn, another four in Siedlce." Dr. Schreiber
stared expressionlessly across the table. The Pole met his gaze and
grinned affectedly. "This is a sample taken from the mikveh",
he said, placing the vial on the table. "We want you to examine
it and report to us in three days."
"I see," Dr. Schreiber said. Now the purpose of the visit
was clear to him: he, a respected member of the Jewish community,
was to provide the conclusive evidence.
Sensing a hint of indecision in the Doctor's eyes, the Assistant
Mayor said: "It is a simple matter of health, Dr. Schreiber -
the water is clearly polluted. We want your confirmation. Needless
to say, you will be handsomely rewarded for your time."
Dr. Schreiber sat for a long time at his desk. From the street below
came the sounds of children playing. He went to the window and looked
down. Squeezed between shadows the roseate sunlight of evening blanched
the faces of the children. For the first time since he had taken occupancy
in this office, he wondered if they were Jewish. At length, he turned
around and picked up the sample. He placed a drop on a slide, then
slipped it under the eyepiece of the microscope. One glance showed
him that it was full of bacteria - he did not bother to analyze it
He apologized to the patients waiting outside his office and hurried
down the stairs into the street. He walked through the main square
with the pedestrian traffic, then strolled pensively through the gardens
to the commercial center of Byalestok. From there he headed toward
the Main Synagogue. The enormous, domed structure dominated the surroundings
for many blocks. Here and there, Jewish children played in the dusty
streets, dressed in rags, their earlocks drifting in the breeze.
The doctor had never made real contact with the observant Jews of
Byalestok; in his social circle they were regarded with disdain, as
one thinks of a distant relative who is squandering his life, but
at whom one can only shrug one's shoulders in helpless disapproval.
He never understood their ways - then again, he never tried. His university
days came to mind; there had been more than a trace of anti-Semitism
in the air but, somehow, absorbed as he was in his studies, he made
little of it, attributing it to the ignorance of a few misguided individuals
in the faculty.
Suddenly, a five or six year old boy came out of a lane carrying
a pail of water, and stood directly in front of Dr. Schreiber. A brown
cap with a narrow visor extending over his brow covered his head,
while a torn black coat concealed the little biy's body from neck
"Where is your skull cap?" he demanded with a nuance of
contempt, jutting his chin upward.
"I don't wear one," said the doctor, smiling.
"Every Jew must wear a skull cap!" asserted the boy, hot
"Not every Jew."
"Yes, every Jew!" he insisted stubbornly, pursed his lips,
and shook his head reproachfully like an adult. "You wear glasses,
don't you, but glasses are heavier than a skull cap," he said,
with a talmudic thrust of the thumb.
The following week two elderly Jews came to Dr. Schreiber's office.
One was the Chief Rabbi of Byalestok, the other Leib Orenstein, President
of the Main Synagogue. They had learned that the doctor was scheduled
to testify at the upcoming hearing.
"The mikveh is not a place to wash ourselves," said
the aged Rabbi through the slit in his long, white beard. The axe-like
handle of his cane leaned against his breast; he clasped it tremulously
and went on, his narrow eyes set deeply between the swollen lids:
"The mikveh is life; it is like the waters of the placenta
in which the fetus lives and develops - when the infant breaks through
the waters, it is alive. And so it is with a Jew when he comes out
of the mikveh in the morning; he is rejuvenated, eager to serve
The wan cheeks of the Rabbi merged into his beard and all one saw
was the dark, patient eyes and the serrated outline of his beard against
the backdrop of his black coat. Dr. Schreiber nodded respectfully.
"Even if you do not understand what a mikveh means",
said Leib Orenstein, a clean-shaven man of sixty, in a voice straining
to be calm, "you must respect that it is of the greatest importance
to thousands of Jews in Byalestok. When a woman goes to the mikveh,
she feels assured of a healthy child. This is not a detail in our
lives; it is everything!" Unable to contain his emotion, he went
on: "And do not deceive yourself into believing that this is
an isolated event and that is will end here. Should they, G-d forbid,
force the mikvehs to close it will encourage them to attempt
more; soon they will want to destroy our slaughter-houses - cruelty
to animals they will charge! Then our schools will be attacked, and
then Dr. Schreiber - I ask you - what will be left?"
Dr Schreiber gazed somberly at his visitors.
"The water is full of bacteria," he said frankly. "it
is a health hazard."
"No Jew has ever become sick from a mikveh," stated
Mr. Orenstein, his lips trembling at the Doctor's misconception.
"That may be so, but nevertheless the water does pose a danger
to the health of the community," he said, weighing his words
"Science and logic are not everything, Dr. Schreiber,"
said the Rabbi. "The history of the Jews is ample evidence of
The visitors stood up to leave. The doctor accompanied them to the
corridor. He expected them to plead with him, to evoke in him a sense
of guilt. But they said no more, and he respected them for it. He
extended his hand to them; the Rabbi held it lightly between both
his hands as if to transmit a final message through it.
Dr. Schreiber took to wandering through the streets alone, a deeply
troubled look on his face. In the religious district he imbibed the
hum of Torah talk seeping out of the windows and the smell of challah
baking for Shabbos. He was touched by the simplicity and devotion
of their activity, admiring with envy the consistency of it all. But
in the Jewish secular districts he reverted to his concern for truth,
his intellectual desire to defend it wherever it might be threatened.
The night before the hearing Dr. Schreiber made his way into the
dark deserted mikveh room of the main synagogue. He switched
on the small electric lamp. The stark nakedness of the dressing room
made him shudder; the piebald walls were cracked in many places; the
toilet, uncomfortably close to the benches, leaked a vivid brown fluid,
and in the high corners of the room, spiders spun their gossamer webs.
He stepped slowly over the wooden floor to the stairs leading down
to the pool. The dressing room lamp shed a pale light over the murky
water. He crouched for a better look, leaning to a side to allow the
light past him. Here and there, little clusters of lint intertwined
with hair floated on the dark, still surface of the water that had
not been changed for weeks. He scooped up a handful and let it spill
through his fingers. He smelled it, then wiped his hand thoroughly
on the sleeve of his coat. A frown suffused his face and he could
not remove it.
The highly publicized hearing attracted officials and journalists
from all over Poland. The hall was crowded. In the front row to the
left, sat three rabbis, the Chief Rabbi in the middle, his trembling
fingers dovetailed over the handle of his cane. The stage was set.
The District Attorney, a tall bespectacled Pole with a grape-sized
growth in the middle of his right cheek, veritably bursting with confidence,
strutted back and forth between his colleagues, adding the final touches.
The judge, a towering man distinguished by his flowing gray hair and
an involuntary smile, called the hearing to order.
Andrei Maritus wasted no time. First on the witness stand was a former
janitor of the Main Synagogue, a drunkard named Babules. Anyone who
was even vaguely acquainted with Babules knew that for a swig of whiskey
he would testify that grass was blue. Today, however, he was a different
man. Dressed in a new suit and tie, his pitch black hair slicked down,
he indeed had the appearance of a decent, law-abiding citizen. Only
his eyes betokened the real Babules; bloodshot, they strove in vain
to follow the District Attorney as he paced back and forth in front
of him a little too quickly. With a coherence that surprised many
of the onlookers, Babules described conditions at the mikveh
as he claimed to know them. Using adjectives and superlatives utterly
alien to him, his description of the squalid conditions brought the
hostile audience to shouts of outrage.
"How often I pleaded with the rabbis to permit me to change
the water daily!" he testified bitterly.
"And did they let you?" prompted the District Attorney,
radiant with anticipation of victory.
"Money! What else?"
"You should have offered to do it for free," suggested
Andrei Maritus magnanimously.
"I did! Out of the goodness of my heart, Babules offered! I
could not endure the odor, Sir! You see - I should have mentioned
this earlier - but the older men were not reluctant to sneeze into
"That's all for now, Mr. Babules", said the District Attorney,
smiling unrestrainedly as he fondled the growth on his cheek. He glanced
meaningfully at the judge, who lowered his eyes to the notepad on
Six witnesses followed. The testimony of each was increasingly more
devastating. However, it was clear that the prosecutor's case rested
on statements of questionable witnesses. There was no hard evidence,
no scientific facts. For that, he called on Dr. Schreiber, who was
seated in the back row of the hall.
"Now, Dr. Schreiber," began the District Attorney, slowly
and deliberately, "you were given a sample of water from the
mikveh and asked to analyze it. I presume you have had an opportunity
to do so."
"Yes, Sir," Dr. Schreiber answered politely, his stern
gaze wrinkling the corners of his eyes into a tiny staircase of furrows.
"What are you findings, Doctor?" asked Andrei Maritus,
pointing to the glass of blackened water which a court officer had
placed on the ledge of the witness stand.
"The water is dirty," said Dr. Schreiber without a trace
of hesitation, meeting the Attorney's eyes with a hard stare.
"How dirty, Doctor?" he continued with confidence, glancing
discreetly at the judge.
"Very dirty," answered the Doctor in the same resolute
tone. A wave of silence rippled through the room.
Feeling the firm ground of his case, Andrei Maritus glanced at the
crowd with a slight inclination of the head. He could barely collect
himself to pose the decisive question. Meanwhile the visitors had
become noisy with excitement. The District Attorney beckoned the crowd
to be silent. At length, he turned to Dr. Schreiber, straining to
control his every muscle.
"Would you say, then, that the water is hazardous to health?"
he asked in a tone that permitted only one answer.
"The health of whom, Sir?" the doctor asked with exaggerated
A sudden hum of voices coursed through the hall.
"Silence!" the Judge ordered.
"Humans, of course!" the District Attorney enunciated haltingly,
a shocked look of outrage on his face. Then he grinned nervously at
the judges and pinched his cheek.
Dr. Schreiber lifted the glass to his eyes as if to ponder the question.
"For humans?" he asked reflectively, pausing for one final
glance at the water. Before the stunned eyes of the crowd he brought
the glass to his lips and drank it down in one gulp. Showing no sign
of discomfort he placed it back on the ledge in front of him. "Are
there any more questions, Sir?" he asked courteously.
Originally published in Di Yiddishe Heim Journal
Reproduced from www.chabad.org
© 2001-2004 Chabad-Lubavitch Media Center
Yrachmiel Tilles is co-founder and associate director of
Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com
and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds of published stories
to his credit.
The unsavory condition of the mikveh in the story was clearly a function
of the oppressive conditions under which Judaism struggled to survive
in communist USSR. The mikvehs of today are clean and sanitary, with
the women's mikvehs at a level that can accurately be described as