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The fascinating story of a refusenik, Boris Levitas, who managed to break through the Iron Curtain by carrying out an instruction from the Rebbe. * Part 2 of 2

R’ Zev Wagner | Peter Kriksonov | R’ Boris Levitas with Natan Sharansky, from the film, “A Calculated Risk”THE NOOSE TIGHTENS

One day, Peter came to my hideout and said that the refuseniks were having an important meeting and I had to attend. We arranged to meet at the train station. When I arrived there, I did not see Peter and instead found his parents. They told me that in the morning, policemen came and looked for me in their apartment so they could arrest me. In the meantime, they put Peter under house arrest and forbade him from leaving the house.

I decided to leave Kiev immediately. I entered the train station and boarded the first train that left in the direction of Moscow.

This was not the first time that I went to Moscow. A few months earlier, while running from one hiding place to another, I went back to the OVIR office in Kiev to try and get a visa but the officials there said I would absolutely not be allowed to leave Russia since during my time in university I had taken a military course. (That’s the way it was done then, in university you went through a preliminary military course and when you were drafted, you were immediately assigned to the task you trained for in university.) To them, the brief course was enough for them to be able to say that I knew military secrets and my leaving for western countries could endanger the security of the Soviet Union. When I heard this direct answer I knew that I had no chance of obtaining a visa through OVIR in Kiev.

The Soviet Union was comprised of fifteen republics and each republic had its own local authority, while the government offices in Moscow had overall authority. So I decided to go to Moscow and try my luck at the federal OVIR offices that could circumvent the decision made by the local OVIR in Kiev.


On my first visit to Moscow, I slept by the refusenik Vladimir Persin and while I was there, I met a young man a little older than me by the name of Zev Wagner. He came from a religious family and over the years he became close to Chabad in Moscow. At the time, I was progressing in my observance of mitzvos and even wore a yarmulke. R’ Zev asked me about the cap on my head and asked whether I was in the year of mourning for a family member.

When I told him that I was religious, he was surprised. In the reality of that time, it was very hard to be religiously observant and a young religious person was an anomaly. When he told me that he was also religious, we hit it off and over the years became friends.

Now, with the police after me and my decision to escape to Moscow, I went to the home of Zev Wagner. Although our acquaintance was all of one encounter at that time, he invited me in and let me live in his home for a few months.

At that time, R’ Zev got together some of the refuseniks whose parents had already left Russia and called them, “aliya orphans,” for the purpose of making a media splash. In Moscow there were six young men in this group and I was the seventh. We would meet occasionally and R’ Zev used these meetings to learn Chumash and Shulchan Aruch together. There, for the first time, I progressed in my knowledge of halachos. When we had a question and did not know the answer, R’ Zev would ask R’ Shneur Pinsky, an older man who had learned in Lubavitch. That is how I met him and his son Yisroel Pinsky.


One day, I heard that they were giving out siddurim in the central shul on Archipova Street, which a tourist had brought from Canada. Since I had already started praying but did not have my own siddur, I went to the shul. When I arrived there, I met the gabbai of the shul (who was appointed by the KGB) who claimed he had given them all out. He suggested that I buy one from him at full price. I had no choice and paid him what he wanted.

I left the shul all excited, holding my siddur, and encountered the aliya activist, Natan Sharansky. He knew me, and since he knew my situation, he suggested that I take part in the production of a film about the lives of refuseniks. “You have nothing to lose,” he said. “In any case, you are in jail [in the Soviet Union] and won’t get a visa. At least help others through this film.”

I agreed and he brought me over to a car that was parked on a side street. In the car were the production men who interviewed me. Then they managed to smuggle the recordings out of the country and make a film that they called “A Calculated Risk.” It generated a media storm in the western world.


After a while, my friend Peter Kriksonov finally got his visa. On his way to Eretz Yisroel he passed through Moscow and we met. He maintained that the constant running from the KGB would not help me, for I would certainly not get a visa that way. He thought I should return to Kiev and face off with the KGB there. “They might throw you into jail, or maybe they’ll draft you, but maybe they will finally give you a visa.”

I listened to his advice and returned to the Gilman family in Kiev. A short while later I was told to appear at the OVIR office. I thought perhaps I would finally receive a visa and went there joyfully. Upon arriving there, I was taken aback to see the KGB guy who had tried to draft me. Near the window sat another man whose face I could not see well since the sun was behind him.

The KGB man tried to intimidate me and said: How long do you think you can keep running from me?

I decided not to be overly impressed by him and replied: I am surprised at you. You, as a KGB officer, ought to know that Soviet law does not forbid a citizen from requesting to leave Russia. In fact, whoever prevents me from leaving Russia is the one who is violating Soviet law. That’s illegal and how can a communist officer like yourself go against Soviet law? You are the one who should be answering me; why are you on the side of those who break the law?

At this point, the man sitting near the window turned to the officer and said he was speaking nonsense and told him to leave the room. From the tone of his voice I realized that he had a very high position in the KGB that allowed him to speak so disdainfully to a KGB official. Later on I found out that he was the head of the Jewish department of the KGB in Kiev.

The man introduced himself as Ernst Nikolayevich Boruchov and said, “Boris, come, sit down.” After I sat down he said with a smile, “I heard you’ve become a film actor.”

I realized that the storm created by the film in the west had angered the KGB and they wanted to warn me against participating in similar schemes again. I said, “I wasn’t born an actor; you made me into one. If you continue, I will become a writer too…”

The fellow was very focused on his goal. He did not react directly to what I said and merely said, “Listen Boris, we know precisely where you are 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You cannot run away from us. I won’t arrest you now but ask one thing, don’t make us problems. Let’s agree on that – if you don’t make us problems, we won’t make you problems either.”

He gave me his direct phone number and said, “If someone tries to make you problems, call me directly and it will be dealt with immediately.”

I left with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I knew that for now, they weren’t interested in hurting me. That’s all they needed, to have one of the actors in the film being hurt by them and having western countries making a big deal about it. They clearly preferred to keep things quiet. On the other hand, I knew that my chances of getting a visa in the near future were dissipating.


Throughout that time I was in touch with my parents. Once a week, they arranged for a phone call at the call center and would send a message to my grandmother about the upcoming conversation. My grandmother would send me a message and at the appointed time I would show up at the call center and receive the call.

In one of those weekly conversations, my parents told me that my friend, Zev Wagner, who left Russia a few months earlier, had come to their house and he wanted to talk to me. I was happy to hear my friend’s voice on the phone but I was very surprised when he told me he had met the Lubavitcher Rebbe and in their meeting, he had asked the Rebbe for a bracha for me.

After the Rebbe heard my story, he said to Zev, “Tell him to commit to another mitzva and he will soon leave Russia.”

I had heard about the Lubavitcher Rebbe while I was in Moscow and believed that if the Rebbe gave a blessing that I would get out, I would get out, but to merit this blessing, I had to commit to another mitzva.

I thought, Shabbos is one of the most important mitzvos in a Jew’s life. Until then, I had kept Shabbos in a general way, but not with all the details. For example, I allowed myself to travel on the trolley on Shabbos thinking that since the driver was not Jewish, I did not carry money, and I sewed my ticket to my coat so I wouldn’t be carrying, I was not violating Shabbos. In light of the Rebbe’s instruction, I decided to keep Shabbos in all its details and to stop all my leniencies.


After that conversation with Zev, and my decision to start keeping Shabbos conscientiously, things began moving quickly.

Some aliya activists decided to arrange a symposium in Moscow about Jewish culture in the Soviet Union and they asked whoever could speak or write to contribute. Although I am not a writer, for some reason I decided to write an article about the centrality of Shabbos and the shul in Jewish culture.

In a long and reasoned article I wrote that really you could not talk about Jewish culture in the Soviet Union, because Jewish culture was not to be found in song, drama or sports. There might be a Jewish poet but there was no connection between his poetry and Jewish culture. The foundation of Jewish culture is mitzvos and they find spiritual expression through the Torah and tangible physical expression through the Jewish synagogues where a significant portion of the mitzvos are performed. The synagogue is where a Jew is born, where he gets married, and from where he is led to his final rest when the time comes. So in the present situation, when there were hardly any active synagogues in the Soviet Union, it was not possible to talk about Jewish culture.

If you want to revive Jewish culture in the Soviet Union, I wrote, you need to reopen the synagogues, and around the shuls they open, Jewish communities and Jewish culture can be created anew. However, under the current circumstances in which the authorities do not allow the opening of synagogues, my suggestion is to start “Shabbos clubs.” First, this will express the fact that the Jewish day of rest is Saturday and not on Friday or Sunday. In addition, when people get together we will talk about Jewish topics that are important to all participants. We will also sing Jewish songs, eat Jewish foods, and over time, a Jewish community will form. In summary, I wrote, come and let us start a Shabbos club within every community of Refuseniks and meet in a different house every Shabbos.

I showed the article to my friend Alexander Mizruchin, a psychiatrist. He liked it very much and I suggested that the first gathering meet at his house. He loved the idea and invited many young people, including those who were not refuseniks. He bought a lot of refreshments and had me talk about religious matters. So that Shabbos, not only did I keep Shabbos properly, but there was a tremendous awakening about observing Shabbos.

On Motzaei Shabbos I said to Mizruchin: Let us sign the article together and go to Moscow to give it to those organizing the symposium. He agreed and we went together to Moscow where we gave the material to Vladimir Persin, the organizer of the symposium.


Only a few hours passed after we brought the article to Moscow and the KGB broke into Persin’s apartment and confiscated all the material for the symposium. After not being able to break the front door, they broke into the apartment above it and used ropes to go through the window of his apartment. They broke the window and that is how they got in. The result was that all the material ended up in KGB hands including the article we had submitted just a few hours earlier.

Apparently, the KGB decided to fight the symposium in an original, hush hush way. After they had the details about those who were going to speak or publicize articles at the symposium, they gave them visas to get them out of Russia, so that the symposium, with all the accompanying media publicity about religious oppression in Russia, would be canceled.

So the very day we arrived in Kiev, Alexander Mizruchin was called to an immediate meeting at the OVIR offices where he received his visa. The next day, I was called down to OVIR and I also finally got my visa. Since the date the visa expired was after the symposium and the KGB was afraid lest I remain for the symposium, they let me know that if I remained in Moscow during the symposium, permission for me to leave would be immediately canceled.

Later on I found out about another two refuseniks who submitted documentary material for the symposium such as an article or photographs of synagogues throughout the Soviet Union, and they also received visas.

As for me, I saw how the mitzva of Shabbos, which I committed to observing properly because of what the Rebbe said, was the natural way Hashem brought about my personal miracle of salvation.


While I was in Moscow, when I learned with Zev Wagner’s group, I met R’ Gershon Ber Jacobson who came to Moscow on a journalistic mission. He told me that when I managed to get out of Russia and arrived in New York, he would arrange a meeting for me with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

After I left Russia, the Jewish organizations in the US who did a lot to get me out, arranged a tour for me to Jewish communities. During the tour, I met with the member of Congress, Elliott Levitas, who did so much on my behalf.

When I arrived in New York, it was the winter of 5738 and I called R’ Jacobson and asked him to arrange the yechidus he had promised me. I was very disappointed when R’ Jacobson told me that due to the heart attack the Rebbe had on Simchas Torah, I would not be able to meet with the Rebbe.

I went to Eretz Yisroel without meeting the Rebbe but divine providence arranged that I encounter Chabad through its s’farim. This is what happened. Shortly after I arrived in Eretz Yisroel, I went to Yerushalayim where I visited a large bookstore. I took great pleasure in the fact that I could stand in a store full of Jewish books. The owner asked me whether I wanted to buy anything. Since I had only a little bit of money on me, I looked for the smallest book in the store and bought it. It turns out, I bought a Tanya. I began to learn the little book and discovered a big G-d …


Along with learning Tanya, I maintained my friendship with R’ Wagner who got me learning the Rebbe’s sichos and maamarim. I related very much to the teachings of Chassidus and slowly began to take on the practices of Chabad until I became a Chabad Chassid. When I went to the Rebbe in Tishrei 5743/1982, I did not go as a Prisoner of Zion but as a Lubavitcher Chassid. During Tishrei I received lekach, kos shel bracha, and also received a dollar at the yechidus for guests. This visit was the “final blow” to my becoming a Chabad Chassid.

Before I married I asked the Rebbe for a bracha for the shidduch and received a bracha within the hour. In general, whenever I submitted a question to the Rebbe, I received an answer within hours. After we married, we moved to the immigrant hostel in Kfar Chabad where I joined other new immigrants who had a shiur in Chassidus with R’ Mendel Futerfas and R’ Moshe Vishedsky. That is how I merited to absorb the rich Chassidic way of life from those two veteran Chassidim.


I began working in the aircraft industry in my area of expertise, engineering strength calculations for airplane bodies. In 5749 I got a job offer in Canada. When I consulted with R’ Mendel he was not in favor but he suggested that I write to the Rebbe. I did so and received the Rebbe’s bracha for the move. But to my surprise, the Rebbe included an instruction for me, that I be careful about observing Shabbos and holidays.

I asked R’ Mendel what the Rebbe was referring to when I was very particular about observing Shabbos and Yom Tov. R’ Mendel said that perhaps in my new place of work I would be tested in this area, so the Rebbe’s answer was meant to empower me ahead of time so I would withstand any test.

Indeed, when I arrived at the company, I learned that it was open on Shabbos and holidays and I had to stand firm about my right to take off on those days. After an entire Pesach passed in which I did not appear at work, the manager, who was an Egyptian, called me and said in amazement that he never saw a religious person who forwent so many days of work just in order to observe the commandments of his religion.


Even before I left Eretz Yisroel for Canada, I saw the power of the Rebbe. After I arranged a date when I would leave the country, I called the army to inform them of my trip. The clerk I spoke to wrote on my file that they needed me in Eretz Yisroel and she asked that I not be granted permission to leave.

A few days later, I was told I had to do reserve duty for a few days that were scheduled after my flight. I called to explain that I could not appear at that time and would be happy to show up earlier. But then I found out that the army was not willing to forgo my knowledge and they did not want me to leave the country.

I went to R’ Shlomo Maidanchek, the well-known Chabad askan and told him I received the Rebbe’s bracha to go and asked for his help. At first he laughed and said, write a letter with your request and I will give it to the right person and it will be taken care of. I gave him the letter and thought all was arranged but two days before I was supposed to leave for Canada, R’ Shlomo called someone in the army and was taken aback to hear that the army decided not to allow me to leave. The person he spoke to said that on my file it said in big letters: Prevent this officer from leaving the country.

Obviously, a Chassid like R’ Shlomo would not give up, and since I received the Rebbe’s bracha for the trip, he decided to go all out to enable me to travel. He went with me to the General Staff headquarters and spoke with whoever he spoke to and in the end, I got permission to leave.


When I lived in Canada, I often traveled to the Rebbe. Nearly every Motzaei Shabbos we would drive to Crown Heights. We davened Shacharis with the Rebbe and after dollars were given out for tz’daka, we drove back to Montreal.

On these visits we received many brachos from the Rebbe and saw miracles and wonders in daily life. For example, after I was fired from my first job, I went to the Rebbe for dollars and received a bracha from the Rebbe to find a new job. That day, as soon as I returned home, I received a phone call with a new job offer.

After working for several years in Canada, I had to establish Canadian citizenship and the best way to do it was to have the interview at the Canadian embassy in Eretz Yisroel. At first I was nervous about this because I didn’t want problems with my visa again. In the end, we decided to make a stop at the Rebbe and ask for his bracha. If the Rebbe gave a bracha, we would be relaxed; and if he didn’t, we wouldn’t take the flight.

After I showed the secretaries the ticket I had for a flight leaving in a few hours, I was allowed to stand first in line. The Rebbe gave us his bracha for the trip after which I was confident all would work out well.

Upon arriving in Eretz Yisroel, I contacted the army unit and was told that in order to receive a visa I had to go to the General Staff office. I went to the office and one of the clerks there immediately approved my request without noticing the instructions written on my file.

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