Bentcha was not just a teacher; he was a mechanech, an educator, interested in far more than the transmission of information. As a Chassid of the Rebbe Rashab and a student of Tomchei Temimim—the central Chabad yeshiva close to the heart of the movement—he tried with all his might to share his vibrant Chassidic zeal to his students. He taught us that for the fulfillment of the Torah and its directives, one must be prepared to sacrifice every ounce of one’s being.
Desperate to be exempted from the Russian army draft and the enormous challenges to religious life that came along with it, many young men of the day made various physical deformities on their bodies to render themselves unfit to serve. Our teacher Reb Benzion Maroz –fondly known as Bentcha Maroz– had sliced the tendons in the middle of his right fingers and then tied the fingers down for some time until they remained permanently crooked. When he went to the draft board and the doctors saw the fingers of his right hand, they immediately exempted him: with those fingers, he wouldn’t be able to shoot a rifle. R. Bentcha’s own story instilled in us the notion that it was far better to be maimed for life than to be in a situation where you could not observe Torah.
There was another striking story Reb Bentcha would tell to illustrate this spirit of utter devotion to a cause—mesirus nefesh in the Chassidic parlance. “An army was once marching out to conquer a city,” he would begin. “To reach the city, they would have to cross a river, but as they reached the river bank, they could not see any bridges or ferries, and they had no time to make one.
Still, the commander of the army sent out the order: Forward march!
Unquestioning, the soldiers pressed onwards into the river. One after another, the soldiers at the front of the formation were covered by the waters, drowned, may G‑d spare us, until eventually their bodies began to form a pile, a human bridge. The rest of the soldiers continued forward, marching over their comrades’ corpses, crossed the river, and captured the city.
“The question is,” he would say fervently, “Who conquered the city? Was it the soldiers who crossed the river, fought in battle, and seized control of the city? No! The true conquerers of the city are the soldiers who went into the river, and drowned, in order to pave the way for their comrades to remain alive, fight, and take the city.
“Those heroes represent the Chassidim who became holy martyrs for a higher cause, shot dead in the N.K.V.D. cellars, or sent into Siberian exile, never to even receive a proper Jewish burial. These Chassidim are the true heroes.”
Reb Bentche taught two classes: Us children still before our Bar Mitzvah, and another group of older boys. We learned in an apartment that sat in an enclosed courtyard occupied only by the Mishulovin family. R. Bentcha had rented the place specifically for our classes, as it was a relatively secure place to have an underground cheder. There weren’t any other neighbors to notice what was taking place in the apartment, and furthermore, the windows of the apartment faced the courtyard entrance, granting Reb Bentcha a perfect view of anyone entering.
Bentcha was especially fond of the elder two Mishulovin boys, Dovid and Eliyahu, who were often nearby, even though they were too old for our class. He had nicknames for them and greatly enjoyed conversing with them. After he had completed the lesson, we would review the material we had just learned, and he would chat with them. It was clear that he delighted in these conversations. He spoke to them at length about various topics in Chassidus and stories of the Rebbes. We children knew that when he was talking to them it would take a long while until he was finished, so, addition to reviewing the material he had taught us, we had some extra time to play around and get up to mischief.
As an educator, his approach was always to avoid hitting his students in response to misbehavior. Instead, he preferred to help us realize the seriousness of the wrongdoing, and he had an incredible knack for describing the severity of our crimes. If the misconduct was more severe, he would put the child in a corner. On rare occasions, when a child did something seriously wrong, he would punish him in his own unique way: he would take the child’s hand and slap it against the table.
Bentcha had us review our studies, and understand them well. One time, when he heard how I reviewed a Talmudic passage, he stopped me and said, “You don’t understand its meaning!”
We reviewed it again but he insisted: “You don’t understand it.” When he saw that I didn’t understand what he meant, he said: “Gemara – the Talmud – has to be learned with a certain tune. From the way you’re chanting the passage, I can tell that you don’t properly understand it.”
He once explained the importance of learning Talmud with the proper melody as follows: “Reuven was once insulted because Shimon had called him a thief, and he demanded that Shimon publicly announce that Reuven was in fact not a thief. Shimon did as he had asked – almost. He went up onto the podium in the centre of the synagogueand declared rhetorically: ‘Reuven, whom I had called a thief, is not a thief?!’”
He once said to me: “I want you to go home and explain the Gemara that you learned to your mother. If she tells you that she understands it, then I will know that you understand it too!”
Above all, his spirit of sacrifice for Judaism was an intrinsic part of his personality. He had a sharp, quick, tongue, and from his off-hand remarks, it was possible to discern the essence of who he was. He once heard that a Jewish boy tried to commit suicide because he wasn’t accepted into university. To Reb Bentcha, this young man was the victim of a terrible misplacement of priorities. Upon hearing of this, he fumed, “Ah, if my life was so cheap to me I would found yeshivas and illegal Jewish schools! The only reason I don’t do so is because I fear for my life. Life is precious to me!”
Tragically, R. Bentcha suffered a great deal in his time, and it was clear to us that he had a particularly troubled family life. The time he would spent in school with us, and with the Mishulovin brothers, was near therapeutic, a respite from his problems at home.
I recall the years between 1946 and 1949 as the best of my cheder years. When we meet today and talk about those old bittersweet days, it is clear to us that the fact that we remained religious Jews is largely to his credit.