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Thursday
Sep122019

Elul of Terror for Moscow Chassidim

Elul 5695/1935. The KGB bursts into the homes of seven Chassidim in the dark of night and arrests them.  Beis Moshiach retraces the course of events of eighty-four years ago as well as the fate of the seven heroes.

Dozens of KGB agents invaded the homes of seven Chabad Chassidim in Malachovka near Moscow and arrested them under the pretense of various accusations, most of them because of religious and Chassidic behavior.

This was not the first time in which the police acted so evilly, but it was the first time in which this terrible news got out of Russia and reached the ears of journalists in the west.

In the month of Elul, Haboker had a headline, “The Arrests of Ten Tzaddikim in Soviet Russia.” Under the headline appeared this news item:

“From a reliable source we have learned the shocking news that in Malachovka near Moscow, ten tzaddikim from among the few surviving Chassidim were placed under arrest. These Jews, 30-45 years of age, could not live in Moscow because housing is too expensive, and because they preferred a life of seclusion.  They sufficed with little, eating coarse bread and drinking water. They would travel each day to Moscow and work as watchmen in order not to desecrate Shabbos [ … ] In Malachovka they live among gentiles and are called ‘the bearded ones.’ According to the report, their crime is having taught Chumash to children. Although they were not paid, this is a crime. Teaching religion to those under 18 is illegal.”

Although the paper told of “ten tzaddikim” arrested in Moscow, today we know they were seven Chassidim: R’ Yaakov Moskolik (Zuravicher); R’ Abba Levin, R’ Yitzchok Goldin, R’ Chaim Elozor Garelik, the bachur Mendel Garelik (son of R’ Chaim Elozor), the bachur Shlomo Matusof, the bachur Meir Avtzon.

They joined another Chassid who had been arrested a few months earlier in Moscow, R’ Zalman Butman.

The news even reached the news desk of the Morgen Journal, a Yiddish paper published in America back then, and that paper also published an article about the arrests based on letters that had been smuggled out somehow.  They even included details about the terrible persecution directed against the Chassidim. The following is a free translation synopsis:

From a number of private letters that arrived from Europe and reached the Morgen Journal, we have been made aware that in Soviet Russia, as part of a campaign of persecution against rabbis, at least eight rabbis were arrested in recent weeks in Moscow, Kopust, Samarkand and other cities. The terror of the arrests has reached such an extent that religious Jews have begun to shave off their beards in order to hide from the dread of the KGB… Additionally, many rabbis and even laypeople have run away in order to save themselves and are now “on the run.”

Among the Chassidic rabbis under arrest: Rabbi Yaakov Moskolik, Rabbi Yitzchok Goldin, Rabbi Elozor Garelik, his son the bachur Mendel, the bachur Meir Avtzon, Rabbi Abba Levin and Rabbi Zalman Butman. The latter was arrested a few months ago… Among the escapees who were miraculously saved from arrest and were mentioned in the letters: Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, Rabbi Nissan Nemenov, Rabbi Avrohom Drizin, Rabbi Bentzion Shemtov, and many others.

Historical sources from that period indicate that the main motive of the authorities was not the arrest of these Chassidim, but to tighten the noose around R’ Avrohom Drizin (Maiyor), who then served as the director of the underground Tomchei Tmimim yeshiva network throughout all of Russia.  The authorities did everything in their power to get their vile hands on him, but did not meet with success.

In the list mentioned above, there appear the names of seven Chassidim arrested in Moscow but for some reason, the name of Shlomo Matusof is missing. Also, it says there were arrests in Kopust and Samarkand. When I conducted an interview twenty years ago with Rabbi Yaakov Notik a’h, he said that in 1935 his father, Rabbi Shmuel Notik, the rav of Kopust, was arrested.

THE REBBE WISHES: REFUAH SHLEIMA

Following these arrests, some Chassidim managed to convey letters to the Rebbe Rayatz in which they informed him of the sudden tragedy within the small Chabad community. They asked for a bracha for those arrested as well as for the Chassidim who lived in constant fear of arrest. R’ Zalman Alpert (Kornitzer), who was arrested and miraculously released a few months earlier, received a coded response to his letter (the terms “sickness” and “health” are code words for “arrested” and released”):

Until Hashem will show mercy and with the help of Hashem all of the stricken will recover, they need to exercise caution.  And Hashem should send a complete recovery to the ailing and watch over all of the healthy, and provide their livelihood with relief and tranquility, and they and their family members should be healthy and whole in gashmius and ruchnius. (Igros Kodesh Admor HaRayatz vol 11 p. 268)

DO YOU HAVE A CONNECTION WITH RABBI SCHNEERSON

Who were these Chassidim who were arrested? Did they all endure the identical round of suffering? What did actually happen to each of them?

These questions will be answered as we read detailed memoirs left by each of the Chassidim, memories of the arrest and interrogations, the various exiles, and their release.

The youngest prisoner was Shlomo Matusof who tried to evade arrest but was unsuccessful. Here are his memories in first person:

“On 12 Elul 5695/1935, as I was learning in shul, they told me that in Malachovka they had caught some people and that I needed to escape. I immediately traveled to my lodgings to take some personal belongings and go to the place where some of my friends had gone. I also quickly wrote a postcard with some words in code about what was happening, in order to send it to a friend in a different city, with the thought of putting it into the first mailbox I encountered.

“I left the courtyard via the wide gate to the bustling street with numerous passersby. Someone immediately came up to me from behind and banged on my shoulder and said, ‘Comrade, come.’ I instantly knew what was happening even though he wore civilian clothes. We walked, because it was close to the main headquarters of the secret police known as Lubyanka. There, in the cellars, they murdered all the Who’s Who, even some of their own biggest men.

“They put me in a waiting room and told me to sit on the bench. The man who arrested me went over to a window to get a permit to bring me inside and he occasionally turned to look at me. I took advantage of a moment when I saw he was busy at the window and removed the postcard from my pocket. I quickly ripped it up and threw it behind my feet under the bench.  For a long time afterward, I was afraid they had found it and this would be added to my sins and crimes but, boruch Hashem, apparently they did not notice it.

“The man ordered me to go with him and we went upstairs to some office where several interrogators sat. They began questioning me, directly and indirectly about this and that until they got to their main points. Did I have any connection with Rabbi Schneerson who was in Poland? I said I had heard there was a family of tzaddikim by that name who had lived here, but they had left the country a while ago and I didn’t know where they were. And what connection could I have with people outside the country?

“They asked me who I knew and I said I lived in Yegoryevsk (a town near Moscow) and I knew some people including some Jews. Over time I have been coming to Moscow to look for work and I work at whatever I can find and I had documents about this. I also go to daven in shul here and recognize and see many people but don’t know their names.

“They did not ask me about the leaders of the Chassidim and did not mention their names. They just took a small note from the side and began reading names of bachurim who were friends of mine: Moshe Robinson, Meir Zarchi, Avrohom Yehoshua Kuratin, Yosef Goldberg, Yisrael Levin (Lipovitzer); and asked about each one individually. I told them I didn’t recognize these names. The interrogators got angry and yelled, how could you lie with such gall when they are your friends who learn in the underground yeshiva with you, and you openly preach against the regime of the Communist Revolution, etc.

“But I insisted and told them, if you don’t believe me, I can’t force you. And there were more questions of this sort and other topics; I’ve already forgotten the details. I was very afraid lest they present me with ‘sins’ from the past and current ‘transgressions.’ Namely my arrest in Batum for crossing the border and for submitting a request for permission to leave the country for Eretz Yisrael. And I would be unable to deny that, but boruch Hashem, they did not mention this at all. It was obvious they did not know about it. The interrogation continued for several hours with a few breaks until the interrogators too, were tired. One of them took me around from office to office, apparently to show the higher-ups what a find they had found.”

Then they gave R’ Matusof prison garb and took his tzitzis and tefillin. He was put in a solitary cell where he stayed for a week. During this week he was interrogated several times, mainly about topics he had already been questioned about. The interrogators mentioned the tmimim who learned with him, but they did not mention any names of the others who had been arrested. He had no idea whether other Chassidim had been arrested and who they were. He subsisted on bread and water.

THE COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARIES GATHER INTELLECTUAL-LEVEL YOUTH

The others who were arrested also underwent interrogation and torture. They were all accused of serious crimes. These are summaries of the charges against the Chassidim and tmimim who taught and learned with mesirus nefesh in yeshivos and chadarim in Moscow and Malachovka (from the interrogation file):

“The accused arranged learning, for little boys and young boys, called cheder and yeshiva in Malachovka near Moscow. The learning took place in apartments of counter-revolutionaries. They gathered youth who were on the intellectual level to serve as teachers and trained them to serve as teachers. They taught Talmud and various religious practices.

“The accused spoke with their students disparagingly about the Soviets and explained that the Soviets are against all religions, especially Judaism, and therefore every Jew must flee out of the country, particularly to Palestine. They also taught that Jews should leave their official jobs so as not to be dependent on communists. They convinced their students to stay away from school all week and especially Saturday when all work is forbidden …”

In the written indictment that goes for six pages, the words “anti-Soviet” appear dozens of times in order to bolster the final charge – Article 58, i.e. betrayal of the motherland. The conclusion of the indictment: three years of exile in Kazakhstan.

DIFFICULT EXILE

At a certain point, all the Chassidim and tmimim were transferred from Lubyanka to the Buterka jail (also in Moscow) preceding their exile to distant Kazakhstan.

After Tishrei 5696, the seven Chassidim were placed on a train of prisoners. Before that, their tefillin were returned, as well as other items. They also received food packages from their families.

The train set out and then began the nightmare trip, a journey with short stopovers in which the prisoners were placed in jail to wait for the next train. The trip took over a month until they reached Tashkent. A few days later, they were all transferred to Alma Ata and from there to Chimkent a small city in Kazakhstan where R’ Chaim Elozor Garelik and his son R’ Mendel remained.

R’ Yitzchok Goldin and R’ Meir Avtzon were sent to Turkestan and R’ Yaakov Moskolik, R’ Abba Levin and R’ Shlomo Matusof were sent to a small village by the name of Halkina, 35 kilometers from Chimkent.

FROM HALKINA TO FREEDOM

Halkina, a forsaken village with one street, was where the last three were exiled. They were forbidden to leave the village and every ten days they had to sign in at the NKVD office to verify their presence. The living conditions were unbearable. It was only after R’ Abba Levin’s wife joined them that things became much easier, for she traveled to the nearest city and brought them food as well as letters that were sent secretly to the Rebbe Rayatz or relatives and others.

R’ Shlomo Matusof lived in one room with R’ Yaakov Moskolik (Zuravicher). The latter, who was one of the distinguished Chassidim and served as a symbol of mesirus nefesh, made a tremendous impression on his roommate as R’ Shlomo later recounted:

“We set times for learning Torah and we learned at every opportunity. We were sent the sefarim that we needed and we also obtained some in nearby Chimkent [apparently, through R’ Abba Levin’s wife].  From the things we underwent in this exile, I must point out the tremendous impression made by R’ Yaakov z’l. His outstanding characteristics were his goodhearted demeanor and simcha. His good heart literally burst forth from him. If he wasn’t in an environment of Jews, to impact on them, he made an impact on non-Jews. I saw him console and encourage goyim in their tragedies. They came to him to be blessed and he would always encourage them. We lived in one room the entire time and he spoke to me a lot and told Chassidishe stories. It was all with his well known glowing countenance.  May his memory be a blessing.”

If the shared company of these two served as some consolation as part of the process of adapting to their situation of exile, it did not last very long.

One day, the two were arrested and put behind bars. The police accused them of continuing to work against the Soviet government even as they were serving their term of punishment in exile. After a month in jail, they were sentenced to ten years of exile and forced labor.

A few days later, the two were separated and that was the last time that any of the Chassidim saw R’ Yaakov, for after that, he disappeared. Over the years, various assumptions were made about his fate. Some said he was executed. Some said he died in a labor camp. R’ Shlomo, who knew him well from that latter period, thought that due to the state of his health, he died within a short time in a camp for the infirm or some hospital.

R’ Shlomo was exiled to one labor camp and then another until the authorities finally acceded to the pleading of his father and agreed to send him to an open exile.  A few years later, he was sent from exile directly to the army. This meant great danger for it was World War II. Fortunately, the army refused to draft him due to his “glorious” past in the camps. Instead, he was sent to work for the army in the coal mines of Turkmenistan.

After four days, as Shabbos began to approach, he realized that once again he would have to fight to keep Shabbos as he had done in previous camps. He decided to take a most dangerous step and go AWOL. He bribed an official at the nearby train station and boarded a train for another town where he stayed for three weeks. There he managed to obtain the identity papers of a Jew who died, by the name of David Birnbaum. He paid for this document with a large quantity of flour and burned his Russian passport.

From Turkmenistan he traveled to Tashkent in Uzbekistan for he heard that many Chassidim had gone there due to the war. There, he met Rabbi Nissan Nemenov whom he knew from Malachovka. R’ Nemenov was serving as menahel and rosh yeshiva of Tomchei Tmimim in Tashkent and he appointed R’ Shlomo as his assistant in running the yeshiva.

VOLUNTARY EXILE

“Hell on earth” describes the exile in Chimkent, where R’ Chaim Elozor and his son Mendel Garelik were exiled. Although they were not sentenced to hard labor, they had to find work to support themselves. The living conditions were extremely difficult, for in Chimkent of those days there was no electricity or water. The people lived in clay huts and naturally, nobody concerned themselves with the Jews who were exiled there for the crime of betraying the motherland.

Therefore, the younger daughter, Mariasha Garelik decided to travel to Chimkent to help her father and brother. This was a tremendous sacrifice on her part. She went on a regular train while her father rode in the train for prisoners. When she got there, she learned that the prisoners, including her dear ones, had not yet arrived. She lived temporarily in the home of a Kazakh woman, to whom she said she had run away from home.

Every day she went to the train station to wait for the prisoners’ train. She was very concerned by the delay and cried as she prayed that her father and brother arrive quickly and in peace. A few weeks passed before she was able to see her father and brother alight from the train.

Half a year later, Mrs. Chaya Doba and their grandson R’ Mordechai Kozliner, who came to learn Torah with his grandfather, arrived. It wasn’t at all simple to send the boy to an area where dangerous epidemics occasionally broke out. His mother, Tzippa, who knew about and appreciated the power of Chassidim, with her young son, approached a group of Chassidim who sat and farbrenged. She said that she was about to send her son to Chimkent and asked that they bless him that he not get sick.

The Chassidim blessed him and since a Chassidishe farbrengen can accomplish what even the angel Michoel cannot accomplish, young Mordechai did not even need his temperature taken in the five years he spent in Chimkent.

THE SURPRISING BLESSING FROM THE REBBE

Three years of exile passed and the Garelik family waited impatiently to return home. Then, at the end of the period of exile they learned that the documents that stated that the exile was for only three years, had been lost. As a result, father and son would have to remain in exile until the documents were located.

Their exile continued and nobody knew when it would end. Salvation came thanks to a bracha from the Rebbe Rayatz via the daughter, Mrs. Mussia Katzenelenbogen.

The saga began at the end of 5690 when R’ Mendel Garelik was called up to serve in the army. By instruction of the Rebbe Rayatz, Mussia was able to obtain his release through a doctor who lived in the town of Stary-Rusya. For the next while, her father sent her some bachurim who needed exemptions from the army, for her to help them through this same doctor.

While her father was in exile, the Rebbe Rayatz sent R’ Nachum Zalman Gorevitz to her for help in gaining an exemption. Despite all the difficulties involved, she was able to arrange the exemption. Following this success, the Rebbe Rayatz sent her a postcard with a bracha for her devotion and he included brachos that Hashem help in whatever she needed.

Years later, she told me how she interpreted this:

“There were two things that needed a bracha and salvation: one, finding the lost documents and two, having children. We were married for six years and went to the best doctors who conducted tests and said my husband and I are healthy and there was no reason for us not to have children. We continued going to doctors but did not write to the Rebbe since we did not see that there was any medical problem.

“When I got such a clear answer about the release and about children, I felt absolute trust that what the Rebbe said would be fulfilled. Indeed, the brachos were fulfilled quickly. In 5699 I gave birth to my daughter Faige (Volovik) and at the very same time the decision was made to release my father. My parents and my brother Mendel arrived from exile and when I left the hospital we met. The joy was so great that my father said the shehechiyanu blessing.”

***

Over the years, detailed descriptions were published about the exile of other Chassidim who were arrested at that time including R’ Simcha Gorodetzky, R’ Zalman Butman and R’ Meir Avtzon, but due to space limitations I will just mention that the three of them returned from exile and later left Russia. R’ Shmuel Notik also returned from exile, but after World War II, during the escape via Lvov, he was arrested, exiled again, and died in exile.

These arrests did not break the spirit of the Chassidim and did not break the Chabad mesirus nefesh. Today, all of them have grandchildren and great-grandchildren, numerous descendants, who continue in the ways of Torah and Chassidus, including rabbanim and shluchim of the Rebbe who work to prepare the world to welcome Moshiach.

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