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Defying Her Tormentors: A Survivor’s Legacy

B. Olidort –
Five generations: seated at right, the grand matriarch, Maryasha, top right. Top row, right to left: her daughter, granddaughter, great granddaughter and great-great-grandson.

Brooklyn, NY — The passing of 106-year old Maryasha Garelik was reported in news outlets internationally. Survivor of Czarist, Soviet and Nazi persecution, Maryasha was an exemplar of the Chasidic spirit, and leaves four generations of descendants, numbering around 1000, many of whom are serving in leadership positions in Jewish communities worldwide. In Brazil, Australia, China, England, Canada, and in numerous cities in the United States, her grandchildren carry the torch of Chasidic devotion she kept aflame. The following is from a photo essay under the title, Keeper of the Flame, published 12 years ago, in the Wellsprings journal.

Defiance marks her face with hundreds of little wrinkles, each etched into her skin by trials and tribulations of a saga that begins at the turn of the century. The shrunken, hunched figure of Rebbetzin Maryasha, which seems to Crown height residents almost a permanent fixture of the community, appears deceptively fragile. Beneath a frail exterior, Maryasha is a feisty woman, undiminished by brutal years of hunger and persecution.

Maryasha was five when her father was killed in pogrom. As a young mother of six, she watched her husband being led away from her kitchen table one sunny morning in 1937. His unknown fate would haunt her prayers and dreams as she fled communist authorities, raised her children, married them off, welcomed new generations into the world, and grew old. In 1987, the KGB files were opened and Maryasha finally had confirmation of her husband’s execution 50 years earlier.

We have come to visit and photograph Maryasha outside her home, on Eastern Parkway. She is in no hurry, and keeps us waiting while she reads from the siddur. Henya, her granddaughter, pleads with her to continue praying after the pictures. Reluctantly, she pauses long enough to allow Henya to wrap a shawl around her. But she insists on taking her siddur and her magnifying glass with her.

Maryasha tells us about one of her children who died at eight months. She recalls immersing herself in an icy river before becoming pregnant with him. Those inspirational stories about women going to profoundly painful lengths to preserve the mitzvah of mivkah, are not apocryphal after all. “The goyim used to wash their clothing there,” she explains, “and when the river froze, they’d break some ice so that they could get to the water under it.” Maryasha used that opening in the frozen river as a mikvah. Nine months later, she gave birth to a son. It was after waiting on a bread line with the baby that he developed scarlet fever and died.

Maryasha speaks only in Yiddish. So speaking in English, I ask Henya how old her grandmother is. The centenarian’s riposte cuts the speculation: “My years belong to G-d alone.”

We talk a bit more and then Maryasha begins to sing an old Jewish melody, something about her father’s golden Kiddush cup. She eyes the photographer carefully. “Er is a Yid?” [Is he a Jew?] she asks Henya.

Henya responds affirmatively. “Vu is zein yarmulke?” [where is his yarmulke?] she demands. Someone goes into the house to find a yarmulke for Saul Lieberman, the photographer, who just rode the subway in from the East Village. Obligingly, he props it on his head. Maryasha then tells him a story—translated by Henya—about a young man who nearly strayed from the path when, suddenly, his fringes—his tzitzit, flew into his eye to remind him that he is a Jew. He too, should be wearing tzitzit, she advises.

The mitzvahs, she says with absolute conviction, “have the power to save a Jew.”

In both the bitter and the sweet, Maryasha discerns G-d’s providence. Her relationship with Him seems exquisitely personal and concrete. In the cruelest of times, she held on to G-d, and that, she says, is the reason for her personal triumph against Stalin: generations of descendants, all proudly identifying Chasidim.

Maryasha Garelik recalls a life of trials. Pictured here in 1995. Photo: Saul Lieberman for Wellsprings.


Maryasha as a young mother. Photo: Wellsprings


Maryasha reading Psalms from her siddur. Photo: Saul Lieberman for Wellsprings.


Five generations: Maryasha with a great-great grandchild. Photo by Saul Lieberman for Wellsprings.


  • 2. Miri wrote:

    I remember Reb. Mariyasha fondly, she always had a sweet and gentle and ever- ready smile for everyone. She will always be a role model for me and has a special place in my heart.

  • 4. concerned wrote:

    Many people will be seeing all these articles on Bubby Maryasha z’l. That means she is in Gan Eden while she’s still having peula on Jews here.
    Yashar Koach Bubby Maryasha, we all need your kochos to help inspire us.
    We sometimes get pulled down with all the parnossa, and all the goshmius, but you will be there to inspire us, to remind us of Torah and Mitzvos and the Rebbe.

  • 5. Touched wrote:

    I remember learning somewhere that living to see your great-great-grandchildren is an automatic ticket to Gan Eden. Somehow I don’t think she needed the additional “protektzia” of that. The Aibishter must have had a very comfy spot waiting for her. :)

  • 7. miriam wrote:

    lucky are all her descendants, and lucky are all of us here in crown heights to have the merit to see and talk to a Tzadaikis in our generation. they just don’t make them like this anymore. may she merit to bring the Rebbe MH”M now.

  • 8. fp wrote:

    she was such a beautiful person and she taught us how to live our lives as jews just by her everyday life and i think she has many more grandchildren we are all part of her and its my honor to have known her she and all her family have left a mark that can not be gone she lives on in all of us a truly great soul

  • 9. amazed wrote:

    1000 is a million! so is 900 a massive amount! and 550 is a ton of descendent’s my great great grandmother has probably less than 1/8 of that!!!


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