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Thursday
Sep122019

The Lion Who Tore Open the Iron Curtain

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Mochkin who passed away this past Shabbos Chazon, the ninth of Av, was born ninety-five years ago on the fourteenth of Shvat 5684, to his father, the Chassidic mashpia, R’ Peretz, and his mother, Mrs. Henya Charshe, who were then living in the Ukrainian village of Semenivka.

When he was one year old, the Rebbe Rayatz sent his father to Simferopol, the central city on the Crimean Peninsula. Six years later, the family moved to Leningrad, where R’ Leibel spent his childhood and adolescent years. Later, he was “exiled” to a place of Torah, the branch of Yeshivas “Tomchei Tmimim” in Kutaisi, Georgia.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, he escaped from Leningrad to Tashkent. On his way there, he passed through Alma Ata, where he met Rabbi Levi Yitzchok Schneerson. In Tashkent, he began his involvement in general community affairs, while he learned Chassidus with the chassidim R’ Nissan Nemenov and R’ Dovid Bravman.

A BRAVE RECOGNITION

At the farbrengen of Yud-Tes Kislev 5718, the Rebbe said about him: “Aroisgenumen Yidden fun Russland ken men im mistame ruffen HaRav Leibel Mochkin” [= regarding getting Jews out of Russia, it’s probably possible to call him Rabbi Leibel Mochkin].”

How did R’ Leibel get involved in this life-saving project?

Here are the fascinating, and often chilling details:

After Pesach 5706, R’ Leibel Mochkin came from Tashkent to Lemberg to check out a daring plan being discussed around that time: an effort to help smuggle Chabad chassidim out of the Soviet Union.

On his way back, he stopped in Moscow, where he met secretly with the chassid, R’ Dovid Bravman and with R’ Mordechai Dubin. The two of them handed to R’ Leibel two lists. The first list included the names of chassidim being sought by the K.G.B., making it absolutely necessary for them to flee the U.S.S.R. at the earliest possible moment; the second list was a detailed record of all Chabad chassidim presently residing in Moscow – men, women, and children.

From there, R’ Leibel continued to Lemberg to begin weaving together his plans regarding the establishment of connections with key figures in the city in order to make it easier for him to get the ball rolling.

“While I was still in Tashkent,” R’ Leibel recalled, “I started getting organized for the purpose of advancing this project. I brought large sums of money with me, which I had earned from my painting business and from my brother R’ Shmuel a”h. I brought with me to Lemberg impressive gifts, objects of considerable monetary value in those days. When I arrived in the city, I distributed the gifts to Mr. Sarbarny, the local Jewish community leader, and other people, mainly members of the local police and clerks with the K.G.B. who worked in cooperation with them. Sarbarny gave the gifts I brought him to these people, and he informed them that they came from me. Sarbarny greatly appreciated this step, and it built a friendship between us and I managed to win him over. We began working together as he made contact and arranged meetings between these people and myself.

“At every visit I made to Sarbarny’s office, I found there representatives from the Polish consulate, the Soviet emigration ministry, and the local police. Slowly but surely, I managed to establish connections with them as well. I got close to them to the point that with the passage of time, I earned their trust, especially after they realized that it was a worthwhile ‘venture’, once I also started occasionally to bring them valuable gifts.”

Thus, the big smuggling campaign run by R’ Leibel for nearly a year got underway, as the connections Sarbarny made for them produced results that literally saved lives. Through his efforts, he managed to arrange Polish travel documents for hundreds of Chabad families and bring them over the Soviet border.

Towards the end of the summer of 5706, R’ Leibel began to expand these activities by personally operating special railroad cars (“eshalons”) for dozens, perhaps hundreds of chassidim who had arrived in the meantime at the border city of Lemberg. This became necessary since the original “eshalons”, organized by the Polish consulate and sent to Poland from the depths of the Russian frontier, had been stopped for some time. Everything was made possible due to the connections R’ Leibel established with the appropriate people in Lemberg.

JUMPING INTO THE CAULDRON OF FIRE

It’s interesting to note that many Jews came every day to Sarbarny’s office with serious problems in their emigration to Poland, in the hope that the community leader could use his position of authority to help them.

Strikingly different from all these was R’ Leibel Mochkin, who was then a young bachur in his twenties (!). He came to Lemberg without any relatives, and he became friends with Sarbarny, to the point that his people gave him direct access to the Jewish community leader, contrary to the general population. R’ Leibel literally became a permanent fixture in Mr. Sarbarny’s office, coming and going without any restrictions. Naturally, he used these visits for one purpose and one purpose only – to speak with him about the particularly difficult situation facing Chassidic families in Lemberg in need of immediate assistance.

This created a bizarre set of circumstances, wherein even the most respected elders in the Chassidic community came to young R’ Leibel and pleaded with him to do everything in his power to save them from the clutches of the evil Soviet empire by helping them emigrate to a free country.

Where did R’ Leibel get the strength and fortitude to do what he did? It was known all too well to R’ Leibel that Sarbarny, while he officially filled the position of head of the Lemberg Jewish community, also loyally served the interests of the Communist regime. Even if there was room for hope that R’ Leibel could possibly speak to his heart and convince him to work on behalf of the chassidim, along with Sarbarny in his office, there was a regular presence of numerous agents of the dreaded N.K.V.D. As such, every time he entered Sarbarny’s office – it was the equivalent of jumping into a cauldron of fire!

Despite all these harsh facts, R’ Leibel managed to win over Sarbarny’s heart and the hearts of his assistants, and they came to help him in any way they could.

DIFFICULTIES AT THE BORDER

“Behind The Iron Curtain” is a term applying to the Soviet Union over a period of several decades, and the name fit. All of the Soviet Union’s borders were sealed as tight as a drum, and no one even dared to think about trying to cross the border (save for those who had official permission from the “ivory towers” in the Kremlin). Here, we have large groups of hundreds of Soviet citizens trying to break through the “Iron Curtain” with forged documents!

This mission was as difficult as the parting of the Red Sea. R’ Leibel’s was particularly hard to bear, and it was divided into four parts:

1. Acquiring Polish passports, enabling the bearer to pass for a Polish refugee. This document included a picture of the head of the family and a list of names of the other family members.

2. Matching the information appearing in the passport with the actual information of the Anash family using the travel document. The relevant information included the number of family members (and if necessary, to “transfer” children from one family to another, according to what the passport stated), and the ages of all the men and women, as close as possible to the data in the passport. Naturally, each family member would have to remember his “name”, to avoid any problems with border officials discovering that the person suddenly didn’t know what he was called. 

3. After the passport had been prepared by R’ Leibel and his people, they would have to give the passport over to receive stamps of approval in two locations – the Polish consulate and the Soviet emigration office. Each of these places checked all travel documents and the information contained therein thoroughly. Only after the information’s accuracy had been verified did they stamp the passport with a permit to cross the border.

4. Even after the passports had been approved, since they were fictitious, he had to make certain not to arouse the suspicion of the supervisors and investigators at the various stages of the voyage. This began with the wait at the Lemberg railroad station, swarming with secret police, followed by boarding the train and the actual journey, until they finally passed the border.

Every time R’ Leibel sent another group of Anash families, he had to accompany them on their journey to the railroad station. Upon reaching this destination, he did everything he could to find out which officials were in charge of the train. R’ Leibel made contact with them and gave them a large bribe to be sure they wouldn’t pay close attention to the documents of these families, seated in certain cars, when they crossed the border.

You have to remember that we’re talking about a large group of “Polish citizens”, none of whom knew how to speak a word of Polish, something that would obviously arouse the suspicion of the officials at the Russian-Polish border, checking the travel documents of the Chabad chassidim.

There’s a story about a Jew, who was not a Chabad chassid. He acquired a proper Polish passport, and when he reached the border checkpoint, to his misfortune, the Polish policeman on duty was a Jew.

“Ir zeint a rusisher ahder a poilisher?” [= Are you Russian or Polish?] the policeman asked.

The Jew replied in a Litvishe accent; “Ich bin a peilisher” [I’m Polish]. However, with a Polish inflection, the vowel ‘cholam’ is pronounced ‘oi’, whereas with a Litvishe inflection, the vowel ‘cholam’ is pronounced ‘ei’, similar to a ‘tzeirei.’ Thus, when the Jew said ‘peilisher’, and not ‘poilisher’, his Russian identity become known.

The Polish policeman responded to him on the spot: “Oib ir zeint a ‘peilisher’, zeint ir nisht kain ‘poilisher’” [= If you’re a ‘Peilisher’ (as with the Litvishe pronunciation), then you’re not a ‘Poilisher’ (as with a Polish accent)…], and he sent him back to Russia…

In addition, the passports R’ Leibel had acquired weren’t always prepared with the utmost precision. Sometimes, the personal information was slightly inaccurate – ages, the amount of people R’ Leibel “joined” to other families in order to match the number appearing in the passport, etc. If ch”v this deceit was uncovered, the passport bearers might be sent back to Lemberg, where they would be subject to the most severe punishment for committing one of the worst crimes imaginable in the Soviet Union – trying to escape over the border.

Hundreds of chassidim coming to Lemberg from all over the Soviet Union to escape didn’t really know all the details regarding how their getaway had been arranged. There was one man who knew everything that was required for the smuggling mission to be carried out – R’ Leibel Mochkin.

“Above all,” R’ Leibel said, “I had to make certain to obtain large sums of money to buy Polish passports for all the Chabad families that had come to Lemberg. Similarly, I had to bribe the officials at the Polish consulate to approve all these passports and not ask any unnecessary questions. Afterwards, I even had to calm the men (if you can call them that) working in the N.K.V.D., asking them to shut their steely and inquisitive eyes for a short while, paying no attention to the passports I had arranged for these families.”

At this crucial point in time, R’ Leibel, with open Hashgacha Pratis, found an important conection; a man code-named “Adam.”

— To be continued —

PREFACE BY THE CHASSID R’ YEHOSHUA DUBRAWSKY A”H

Throughout the annals of Jewish history, there have been experiences and phenomena serving as footnotes to the great miracle of the Exodus from Egypt. It can be said with certainty that more than sixty years ago, we were privileged to experience something resembling the Exodus from Egypt – the Exodus from Russia by most Chabad chassidim, a series of events accompanied by and loaded with Heavenly miracles and wonders! However, the garments of nature concealed them; the physical eye could not openly distinguish how in all the unbelievable trials that took place during the Exodus from Russia, there were amazing miracles from Heaven.

One of those hidden miracles came in the form of a marvelous shliach of Divine Providence, a young man in his twenties, named Leibel Mochkin. I describe him as “hidden”, not because his work on behalf of Russian Jewry were really hidden from the eyes of the chassidim who managed to leave Russia, rather because the stories of miracles and wonders were kept quiet at the time or forgotten. And even this is quite amazing, because in the world at-large, such a set of heroic actions would arouse a great sensation and get worldwide publicity.

Until recently, this affair was considered an “obscure” one, as only a few lists publicized here and there managed to provide testimony on a small number of the tremendous miracles that took place at “the Exodus from Russia.” Now, sixty-five years since the great miracles, the man who symbolized this affair more than anyone else – none other than the chassid R’ Yehuda Leib Mochkin, known then among the chassidim as “Leibke” or “Leibke Peretz’s” – decided for the first time to publicize the story in fuller detail, and this according to an explicit instruction he received from the Rebbe.

And here’s something for our dear readers to know: If you ask the question, “What exactly was Leibel’s job in the ‘Exodus from Russia’ affair?”, the proper answer would be: “What wasn’t Leibel’s job?” If this smuggling campaign had been conducted in the accepted fashion and the usual ways, there is no doubt that “Leibel” would have carried the prestigious position of “president,” “chairman,” and the like. It is as clear as day that credit for the success of the whole campaign naturally goes solely to his vigorous activities, his far-reaching efforts, and the extensive connections of this special individual. This young bachur, filled with Ahavas Yisroel and working with self-sacrifice in every sense of the word, placed his soul literally in His hand, entering the lion’s mouth and, with G-d’s help, getting out safely.

I always thought that we had to pass these experiences, the miracles and wonders that happened to Chabad chassidim during “the Exodus from Russia”, on to the next generation for the knowledge of the final generation. In particular, I was thrilled when I read the letter of the chassid R’ Peretz Mochkin, of blessed memory, to the Rebbe Rayatz from Yud-Tes Kislev 5707, describing the activities of his son, R’ Leibel. When I saw this letter, it inspired me to decide to continue my work describing in great detail the miracles and wonders we personally experienced during those times, until thank G-d, we left the valley of tears and came to the lands of freedom.

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