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Thursday
Sep242015

THE SIFREI TORAH THAT WERE SAVED AT THE LAST MINUTE

Presented for Simchas Torah

There was a very special man by the name of RRefael Chudaitov.  He was a Bucharian Jew who had a great love for Sifrei Torah.  He would rescue Sifrei Torah from destruction, and he often endangered his life for this.

R’ Refael considered it a double mitzva to rescue Sifrei Torah and get them to safety and enable other Jews to use them.  He did this despite the Iron Curtain which separated Russia from the rest of the world.

“As a sofer who lived in Samarkand,” said R’ Yitzchok Mishulovin, now of Crown Heights, “I also fixed Sifrei Torah.  R’ Chudaitov often gave me Sifrei Torah to fix.

“He would bring me old Sifrei Torah that he got in all kinds of places, even from Siberia, and he would pay me to check and fix them.  Then he would send them to Eretz Yisroel.”

The following stories tell of this “simple tzaddik” and his soul connection with Sifrei Torah.

PART I

As told by R’ Gershon Klivansky a”h:

At the end of nine years which I spent in a city in Siberia, the local Jewish community decided to express its gratitude for the spiritual help I gave them and gifted me with a rare Torah scroll.  I was very moved by this magnificent gift.  But I had a problem – how would I get this forbidden item across the Russian border?

One night, as I got ready to go to sleep, there was knocking at the door.  In Soviet Russia, when you heard knocking at the door late at night, your heat started beating rapidly.

There was no peephole and I called out, “Who is it?”

“Please open,” said the voice of an old man who spoke Russian.  I was taken aback.

I opened the door and there was a man with a white beard who introduced himself as Refael from Bucharia.

“Would you please let me sleep here?” he asked.

That posed a serious dilemma.  On the one hand, his appearance demonstrated that he was “kosher.”  On the other hand, he could be a spy and imposter with a beard glued on.  The principle, “respect and suspect” was very much accepted in Russia.  That was the only way to live. In the meantime, he stood there and asked me again, “Please, allow me to sleep here near the door.”

My logic screamed out: How can you just let someone in? Why does he want to sleep near the door? Maybe he’s a thief who plans on robbing you and then fleeing in the middle of the night.

“Why are you thinking so much?” asked the mysterious man.

“I really have no reason to think a lot about it,” I said, “since it is not accepted to have a guest sleep near the door, especially someone as distinguished as you.”

But the man continued to plead to be allowed to sleep near the door and I finally agreed.  For the next many hours I couldn’t sleep a wink in my nervousness.

In the middle of the night I heard a rustling sound.  I was petrified.  Should I wake up my wife and children who would help me fight the thief? Maybe I should knock on the wall between my apartment and the neighboring apartment and wake up the neighbors? But they would surely mock me and go back to sleep.  I decided to quietly get out of bed and see what was going on.

A weak light suddenly pierced the darkness.  The guest had lit a candle, sat on the floor near the door and began conducting Tikkun Chatzos!

I couldn’t believe my eyes.  Fifty years after the Communist Revolution, there were still Jews who went against the mighty current of heresy that swept the country and even conducted Tikkun Chatzos!

I went back to bed without revealing that I knew the guest’s secret.  In the morning I asked him, “How did you sleep, R’ Refael?”

“Boruch Hashem,” he replied.  “I slept well.  But do me a favor.  Call me just plain Refael.  Don’t make me problems.”

I didn’t understand what he meant until he provided me with a convincing explanation.

“I am a simple Jew and I try, as much as possible, not to generate any big complaints against me in heaven after 120 years.  It sometimes happens that I am successful, with Hashem’s help, in doing something good.  But if I am called R’ Refael, what will I answer in the next world when they ask me, “Refael, in the lower world they called you ‘rabbi.’  Did you deserve that title?”

I told him that I was about to leave Russia and he made me an offer.  “The trip abroad entails many expenses.  If you would like, I can give you a loan, whatever you need, on condition that you repay it when I arrive in Eretz Yisroel.”

I expressed my gratitude and said that I did not need money but I could use his help in smuggling out a Torah.

“That is no problem,” he said.  “Give me a sum of money (for bribes in the right places) and the Torah will reach Yerushalayim before you do.  This is not the first time I am doing this.”

Although I wanted to give him more than the sum he asked for, he refused and said he did not act as the middleman but just did it as a chesed.

The Torah did indeed reach Eretz Yisroel a short while later, thanks to him, and was given to a yeshiva in Yerushalayim.

PART II

For many years, R’ Refael dreamed of going to Eretz Yisroel and he made spiritual preparations toward this end.  His preparations included sending Sifrei Torah and other holy ritual items out of Russia.  He was successful in this holy and dangerous work because of his connections with many Jews all over Russia. One of those Sifrei Torah is housed in the Aron Kodesh in the beis midrash of the Machnovka Rebbe zt”vkl of B’nei Brak.

R’ Refael had the rare ability to make numerous personal connections, even with people he didn’t know.  He was highly energetic and never stopped his public work.  He was always on the move, in the south or north, in Moscow or Tbilisi, in Kutaisi or Tashkent, in Andijan or Fergana.  In all these places, Jews looked forward to the coming of R’ Refael the Angel.  His frequent travels to distant places always concluded with his acquiring new friends.

When he traveled, he usually managed to make it back home before Shabbos, for he was particular about not setting out on a trip close to Shabbos.  But there were times that he was on long trips and he had no choice but to spend Shabbos in an unfamiliar place.  Then he would knock on a door of a Jew where he was usually welcomed with open arms.  It was impossible to withstand his personal charm.  That is how he acquired friends and the friendships were long-lasting.

R’ Refael not only traveled on the roads but also accumulated numerous hours in the air.  He went to all parts of Russia including the Ural Mountains, and even distant places in Siberia like Vladivostok, which is on the Russian-Japanese border.

One year, he flew to Novosibirsk on business.  He sold dried fruit, wine and liquors.  As soon as he arrived, he found out where the local shul was and he rented a place to stay near the shul so he could easily attend there.

In the middle of the night a fire broke out in one of the wooden houses near the shul.  When R’ Refael saw the flames approaching the shul and threatening to destroy it, he ran there quickly, jumped in through a window, and tried to save what he could from the Aron Kodesh.  He found two small Sifrei Torah and with great danger to himself, he managed to get them out of the shul before the structure went up in flames.

When the sun rose, he opened the two Sifrei Torah and to his amazement he discovered that they were new and written with special ink, different than any ink he was familiar with.  When he spoke with the gabbai of the shul, he learned that they were written in Siberia and were not completed, for some reason.

He kept this to himself for years until the day he planned on leaving Russia.  Then he had the idea of taking these two small Sifrei Torah with him to Eretz Yisroel.  He went to Novosibirsk, met with the head of the community and told him: A number of years ago there was a fire here at the shul and I had the z’chus of rescuing your two small Sifrei Torah.  Now I am about to immigrate to Eretz Yisroel and I want to buy these scrolls from you for a token amount.

R’ Refael continued: The Jewish community here is very small and these scrolls are not needed.  If you send them to Eretz Yisroel they will be read over there in your merit.

The gabbai agreed and sold them to him cheaply.

R’ Refael brought the scrolls to Samarkand where he gave them to R’ Yitzchok Mishulovin to check and finish the writing.  When the work was successfully completed, R’ Refael invited dozens of Jews to a festive farbrengen to celebrate the completion of the two Sifrei Torah. 

“The simcha was great,” said his son Moshiach.  “We all took off our shoes and danced quietly in the big room so as not to draw attention from potential snitches.  I cannot begin to describe his great joy with this big mitzva.”

R’ Refael brought the two scrolls to Eretz Yisroel.  He gave one as a gift to the Bucharian community in Nachalat Har Chabad, and gave the other to his son Moshiach who gave it to his nephew, R’ Michoel Tairimov.

PART III

Another Torah scroll that R’ Refael rescued and brought to Samarkand was an ancient and unique one written on deer hide.  Tradition had it that it had belonged to the Mezritcher Maggid.  Here too, R’ Yitzchok Mishulovin worked hard on fixing the old scroll.  Then R’ Refael sent it to the Rebbe as a gift.  It was sent with Mrs. Brucha Niazov, the wife of R’ Chananya a”h, who fled Russia in 1930 and later lived in Crown Heights.  At the end of the 60’s, she visited family in Samarkand and R’ Refael took the opportunity and asked her to take the precious scroll out of Russia as extra luggage which she would take on the plane, as a gift to the Rebbe.

At first she refused because she was afraid to take something precious out of Russia lest she be caught and accused of a crime.  The fear of punishment in Russia, especially for one who had lived in that country, was embedded deep in their hearts.  Nevertheless, this was important to R’ Refael who continued to importune her and said: Those who are emissaries to do a mitzva are not harmed.  But she was still afraid.

A few days later, Mrs. Niazov went to Fergana near Samarkand.  During the trip she was involved in a serious car accident and miraculously survived.  In gratitude to Hashem she decided to accede to his request and take the Torah scroll to America.

The Rebbe called this Torah, the Bucharian Torah, and was very happy with it.

R’ Refael asked that it say the origin of the Torah on the mantel but the Rebbe said not to publicize that it had come from Soviet Russia since the sender still lived in Russia.  It was only after R’ Refael left Russia and went to see the Rebbe that it could be publicized.  That Shabbos, the Rebbe asked that they read from the Bucharian Torah.  After that, now and then, they would read from it in the Rebbe’s minyan on Shabbos.

PART IV 

During World War II, R’ Yehuda Leib Levin fled Moscow and ended up in Bucharia in a little village by the name of Margalan.  When R’ Refael went to Margalan on one of his journeys, he found R’ Levin and his family who were starving and had no Jewish ritual items.  R’ Refael immediately brought them kosher food and sifrei kodesh.  He helped them a great deal and they became close friends.

R’ Levin eventually returned to Moscow and was appointed the official Chief Rabbi of Moscow.  R’ Levin now saw an opportunity to repay R’ Refael and helped him in many ways.  For example, before Sukkos, R’ Refael would send his son Moshiach to R’ Levin to get esrogim from him. These esrogim were sent from abroad for Russian Jewry.  R’ Levin would meet with R’ Moshiach in a quiet place in fear of “the walls have ears,” and secretly give him the esrogim.  R’ Moshiach would quickly bring them to Samarkand for the community there.

One time, when R’ Moshiach went to R’ Levin on his father’s behalf, R’ Levin told him that as Chief Rabbi of Moscow he had received a letter from someone who lived in a tiny town in Siberia.  The man wrote that in their town there were some righteous converts and he was the head of the community.  In recent years he remained the sole remnant of the Jewish community.  He felt his end was near and he was afraid that the gentiles would take the Sifrei Torah and desecrate them.  He requested that they send someone to take the Sifrei Torah and bring them to a Jewish community.

When R’ Moshiach returned to Samarkand, he told his father about it, who suggested they send R’ Berke Schiff.  R’ Berke tells the story of how he rescued the Sifrei Torah:

One day, R’ Moshiach Chudaitov came over to me in Samarkand and told me he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had seen the Chief Rabbi, R’ Levin, on behalf of his father.  R’ Levin told him about an old Jew by the name of Yosef Mayassin who lived in a small village in Siberia.  The man wrote that he had three Sifrei Torah and he wanted to send them with someone to a Jewish community, for after he died there would be no one to watch over them. 

R’ Moshiach said his father very much wanted me to take care of this.  I told R’ Moshiach that if I had the opportunity in the near future to travel to Moscow, I would think of traveling from there to Siberia.  I consulted with my mashpia, R’ Moshe Nisselevitch, and he encouraged me to do it.

I was in the middle of getting ready for a trip to Kursk at the time.  My brother-in-law, R’ Shmuel Rabinowitz, lived there and his wife had twin boys. My mother-in-law asked me to go there to help arrange the brissin.  I knew that if I did not go, it would be hard for them to get a mohel.

When I arrived in Moscow, I asked Anash whether there was a mohel in Kursk, a night’s journey by train from Moscow.  When I was told no, I hired a mohel in Moscow and went with him, traveling all night, to Kursk.

That was a Thursday.  When we arrived, I met the new mother and she asked that the brissin take place secretly so that nobody but us would know about it.  Only we three adults were present, the mother, the mohel and me, because my brother-in-law, father of the babies, preferred to stay away so that if he was questioned he could say that the mother did it on her own.  So I had sandakaus twice.

After the brissin, I remained in their house to help them and I decided to stay until after Shabbos.  I asked whether there were any Chabad Chassidim in Kursk and they told me there was one man by the name of Zalman matza zetzer (the one who puts matzos into the oven), the son of the famous Chassid, R’ Dovid Horodoker. I wrote down his address and went to his house on Friday afternoon. 

I knocked at his door and it was soon opened by a young girl.

“Who are you looking for?”

“R’ Zalman,” I said.

She asked me to wait a few minutes outside and then came back and invited me in.  She directed me to the kitchen where she raised part of the wooden floorboard and told me to go downstairs.  Down below I saw R’ Zalman who was standing and preparing candles for Shabbos.

I introduced myself and said I was a Chabad Chassid.  He was stunned by this and said he did not believe me.  I picked up my shirt and showed him my tzitzis.  He burst into tears and said, “Who would have believed that nowadays in Russia there would be young Jews who wear tzitzis?”

I told him that in Samarkand there were many religious Jews, including dozens of young Chassidim who lived Jewish lives.  I suggested that he try to go to Samarkand soon and join the Chassidic community.

On Motzaei Shabbos I went back to Moscow and went to the home of my brother, R’ Aryeh Leib.  When I told him I was going to Siberia he was taken aback and said, “Are you crazy? You’re going to Siberia in the middle of the winter?”

I told him that I had promised R’ Refael Chudaitov that I would go to Siberia and I had to keep my word.  My brother continued arguing with me and I finally said that I would look for a sign.  If, when I go now to the ticket office I find a night flight to Kranoyarsk, I will go.  Otherwise, I won’t go. 

When I got to the ticket office, I asked whether there was a night flight.  I was told yes, in three hours.  I went back to my brother’s house and said I was going to Siberia.  I left all my things in his house, and only took empty suitcases so I could put the three Sifrei Torah in them. I arrived in Krasnoyarsk on a small plane for ten people and from there I took a small bus.  There was snow wherever you looked and only the main highway was cleared.

I arrived in a small village by morning and asked where Yosef Mayassin lived.  One of the people gave me a long look and then said, “I know where he lives but he just died.”  I felt that divine providence was directing me.

I arrived at the house toward evening after a long day of traveling.  In the dark corridor sat some women wearing black.  When they saw me they burst into tears and wails, “Oy, what a pity he did not get to see you.  You have no idea how he waited for you…”

I went to the living room where, in the center, stood a table covered with a tallis and in a corner was an Aron Kodesh consisting of a wooden box covered by a handmade paroches.  I opened the Aron Kodesh and saw three Sifrei Torah.

I stayed there all night.  In the morning, relatives of the deceased came and said that this place was previously populated completely by Jews who were descendants of Cantonists who were all religious.  The old R’ Mayassin was their rabbi and he was the last remnant of these Jews.  They also said that he had been waiting eagerly for my arrival until his final moments, since R’ Moshiach had sent him a telegram saying I was going to arrive and take the Sifrei Torah.

I took the Sifrei Torah and put them in the suitcases.  The locals gave me a lot of honor and took a sled, harnessed to three huge dogs, and put me in it with the Sifrei Torah and all the remaining Jewish items, and I made my way back to Moscow and from there to Samarkand.  After many twists and turns I was finally able to bring the Sifrei Torah to the trusty hands of R’ Refael Chudaitov.

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