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Thursday
Nov292012

ESCAPE INTO THE COLD DARK NIGHT

It is ten years since the passing of the Chassid, R’ Zalman Levin a”h of Kfar Chabad. He walked among us but he belonged to the generation of giants, Chassidim who lived lives of mesirus nefesh. In a series of meetings with him, he recounted the story of his childhood in a Chassidishe home in the Soviet Union where children learned Torah and where kosher meat was secretly slaughtered. * Part 2 of 3.

When I was around 10 years old, we got the publication HaAch which had been published many years earlier, but in my childhood years it began to be published again, and we would get it in Nevel. This was hush-hush since it would be very dangerous if they caught us with publications like these. They would ask: Where was it printed? If it was printed in the Soviet Union, that was illegal, and it would seem to be done for financial gain which was forbidden. If it was printed abroad, this was in itself a serious crime in the eyes of the government, a form of “foreign trade.”

Needless to say, all those involved, those who published it as well as those who shipped it and those who read it, were all in danger. It actually came from the Chabad Chassidim in Lithuania and Poland who were there at that time. They saw to it that it was sent to us via businessmen who traveled to Nevel on business, or through residents of Nevel who went on business to other towns.

I can tell you that sometimes, these people were communists who worked in government offices. They seemed to be ardent communists but their Jewish neshama was in full force and every so often they were willing to lend a hand for some Jewish matter, even for things that were blatantly Jewish like this publication HaAch.

Of course, it was absolutely forbidden for them to know that we had things like HaAch in our house. This is why, when a copy arrived, my father made sure it wouldn’t end up in the children’s hands. That would be even more dangerous, since children could not be as careful as the adults about not getting caught and not revealing anything suspicious to anyone.

This is why my father only allowed a child to have it for half an hour and after that, to stealthily return it to him. This is how it passed from one child to the next, with the utmost care.

When we got a copy of HaAch we were thrilled, because through all the surprises and Chassidishe stories and weekly parsha it instilled a lot of Yiddishkait and gave us the feeling that we were not cut off from the world. It told us that someone cared about us and thought about us and was conveying messages to us. It made our Judaism alive.

When I was a boy, I remember there were times I thought it was over, that Judaism was finished and that soon, there would no longer be any Judaism. You have to understand it was so hard and dangerous to preserve the little that was left, and this is the reason why, when HaAch arrived, the entire house and the hearts of the children were filled with joy.

•     •     •

I referred to the communists earlier, those who were willing to help when it came to Jewish matters. It sounds unbelievable, but there were some communists who were former students of my father and had not withstood the test of life in the Soviet Union. However, instead of bothering my father as someone who fought against communism, they helped him. These communists saved my father and his friends from death or jail by coming to our house, or sending other people, in order to warn us.

Among the many stories of communists who helped my family, there is one very interesting story that I remember well. It was in the middle of the night when loud knocks were heard at our house-shed. Considering how late it was and the heavy pounding, it didn’t take much to guess who was at the door and our hearts fluttered in fright. We had no doubt that it was the GPU, and we knew that for a long time they had been searching for my father in order to put him behind bars.

What could we do? Opening the door was out of the question. My father quickly took his tallis and t’fillin and some food (of course, there wasn’t much more than dry bread and fruit in the house) and he woke me up in order that we could go and hide together (for a reason I will tell you soon).

How do you go outside without being caught? You need to pause a moment and picture how our house looked. The house was divided into two, with one part belonging to my grandfather, R’ Dovid Abba’le. This part was an old wreck, like a shed (where they did the sh’chita). The other part was our house and was also where the talmidim learned.

My father ran to my grandfather’s old house and from there, we went out the window (which had been prepared long ago for just such an eventuality). My father gave me his hand and we jumped out to the street. For some reason, instead of my father running to the shul or to some other hideout, he ran from one danger and walked right into another one, in the house of R’ Shmuel Scratchier.

It was apparently a mistake on my father’s part, since he should have considered that they were searching for other Chassidim that night, and not just him. However, his intentions were good, since he did not think only of himself but wanted to save the rav also. Yet the danger was so great, for if they broke into the rav’s house, the GPU would catch them both.

You could enter R’ Sirotchiner’s house by the main entrance or by a side entrance in the alleyway. Although one usually entered the rav’s house via the main entrance, my father knew the alleyways, as well as the one that led to the rav’s house. He preferred using the side entrance which was less conspicuous and was closer to him.

(Crying): It was late at night and a snowy, freezing night. We ran with all our might. As we approached the rav’s house, we noticed a communist fellow who was a former talmid of my father. When we noticed him, he had already seen us. At that fateful moment, he turned to the police officer, whose job it was to arrest people like us, and instead of telling him, “Here is the bird you were looking for,” he said, “He’s the watchman of the market and you don’t need to pay him any attention.”

How did we know what he said? We found out afterward, after he boasted to his mother about saving my father. He came home in the morning and told his mother, “I saved dem rebbe’n (the teacher) today.”

He motioned to us to hide somewhere and not to enter the rabbi’s house. My father understood his hints and we hid somewhere.

Later, we found out that they entered the rabbi’s house and arrested him. He never returned home.

I want to say a few words about this dear rabbi. He looked like an angel of G-d. He was related to the Alter Rebbe. He was appointed rav of the Chassidim in Nevel after R’ Folya (Refael Kahn) Riger. R’ Shmuel was a tzaddik, and when they imprisoned him over a long period of time they tortured him in interrogations so he would confess to things that he did and incriminate other Chassidim.

His righteous wife Devorah Leah would go to the jail every day and would try to convince them to leave him alone. She told them he was the silent type who hardly spoke. But they laughed in her face and said that just being a rabbi was a problem, since a rabbi meant someone who spoke about and strengthened religion in the city and that was definitely an activity that undermined the communist regime. She wasn’t frightened of them and said he was merely a Posek Halacha and told old people what was kosher and that was all.

(According to the law, they allowed kashrus for a while, until Yezhov and his cohorts came along and passed wicked laws regarding religion).

(R’ Zalman cried bitterly): His wife fought for the life of this tzaddik. She asked those evil ones – what do you want from him? He didn’t do anything bad to you or anyone, and everyone loves him. Why is he in jail? What do you want from his life? Please release him. But they, in their wickedness replied, “The very fact that he walks around in the street and everyone sees his face, is already Jewish propaganda.”

Indeed, his face glowed so brightly that even non-Jews on the street would stop to look at his shining, holy countenance. R’ Shmuel died after being tortured in jail in distant Toropets, about 220 kilometers from Nevel. What a tremendous loss that was.

After the communist former student hinted to my father that we escape, we fled to some gentile warehouse and paid them a hefty fee in order to sleep there for one night. In the morning, we had to run somewhere else.

We returned home days later, when it was clear that the danger had passed.

That was not the only time my father escaped. Another time, he fled to Leningrad to the home of R’ Yaakov Yosef Raskin where he stayed until the danger passed. Many Chassidim who were considered “treif” by the government hid in his house. For R’ Raskin it was a mortal danger.

I myself had to stay with him several times in order to avoid being seen, since I didn’t go to public school. My father did not allow me or my brothers to attend public school, since they taught nonsense there and it posed a great spiritual danger. The food there wasn’t kosher and they would immediately notice if I was eating their food or not. It was also possible to make a mistake and eat something non-kosher. Communist ideology prevailed in their schools and they brainwashed the students against Judaism. For a young child, it was very hard to stand strong in the face of this onslaught, and they succeeded in turning many Jewish children into communists.

I cannot blame parents who sent their children to public school. They just could not withstand the pressure due to the tremendous fear. Not sending a child to school meant you were starting up with the authorities and were automatically against the regime. You could expect long prison terms.

However, for my father the choice was either death or school. In other words, he did not consider sending us to school with all the inherent spiritual dangers just to be saved from physical death. To him, physical death was preferable to spiritual death. So he did all he could to save me from the government’s prying eyes.

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