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Thursday
Jul062017

TZADDIK IN PRISON

The arrestTwenty minutes after midnight, the secret agents banged on the door of the Rebbe Rayatz. That is how the saga of the arrest began.

The ChassidimWe went about, lost and wretched, they the family members and we, who were the closest, did not know for certain: where was he? What was happening to him? We wandered like lost sheep, with no shepherd, with no leader.”

DiplomacyAdmorim and Rabbanim, the heads of Aguch, Jewish organizations, heads of state, senior figures, writers and spiritual leaders, all got involved in a global effort to have the Rebbe released.

GeulaThe GPU official said emotionally, “I am pleased to be the first to tell you about your release.” On 14 Tammuz, the Rebbe left Kostrama as a free citizen.

 “Exhausted and without strength, I washed my hands to eat the evening meal with my family a few minutes after midnight. Not even ten minutes later, the bell rang noisily, the door opened and in came two men on the run and in a great commotion to the dining room. They said: We are agents of the GPU. Which one is Schneersohn?”

(From the diary of the Rebbe Rayatz)

It was a Thursday night, 15 Sivan 5687/1927. The Lubavitcher Rebbe lived in Leningrad in an apartment in a large building that used to belong to someone close to the Tsar, Plechonov, which was on the corner of Pantelevskaya and Machavaya streets. The Rebbe had just finished his yechidus hours, receiving Chassidim who came to him in the hundreds with their various requests.

The Rebbe had set hours for this, and when yechidus was finished for the evening, he and his son-in-law, Rabbi Shmaryahu Gurary, and two daughters (the third, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, was not at home) sat down at the table to eat. The Rebbe was tired and he wasn’t in the best of health as he suffered from a serious illness.

Suddenly, the doorbell rang.

“These are agents of the Cheka,” said the Rebbe in a confident tone, as though knowing ahead of time who these “guests” were who came in the middle of the night. Those seated around the table were very frightened; the Rebbe reassured them. “Whatever their identity, whatever the purpose of their visit, I rely on G-d. What He wants is what will occur.”

The door crashed open and in walked two men in civilian clothes, accompanied by some armed soldiers behind them. The Rebbe had been correct. They were Cheka agents, or GPU, as the Soviet police were known.

“We were sent from the GPU,” announced the first one, apparently the leader of the group of uninvited guests. He was tall and wore glasses and had a tough expression on his face, but he was also intelligent. “Does Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, known as the Rebbe of Lubavitch, live here?”

“If you didn’t have the name and address, you surely would not have come here. So why ask?” was the Rebbe’s cool and calculated reply.

“Do you not want to answer?” asked a second, younger, shorter, swarthy one.

“I don’t know if I must answer you, for I don’t know what crime I committed that the GPU would send me its representatives at this inappropriate time,” said the Rebbe.

Apparently, the Rebbe’s calm threw the two Chekists off-balance.

“Name,” said the first one angrily, and referring to the Cheka, he added, “they will already get you to talk.”

“I already told you that I have nothing to hide and nothing to fear,” said the Rebbe calmly, “but if you think that you have set a trap for me, and some false accusation, then I rely on G-d that He will protect me as He always does.”

The first agent, a Jew by the name of Nachmanson, the son of a Lubavitcher Chassid, ordered the soldiers to stand near all exits of the apartment and to guard the windows. The second agent’s name was Lulov, also the son of a Lubavitcher Chassid. In the meantime, he was looking over the Rebbe’s apartment.

“We hereby inform you that you are already under arrest,” said Nachmanson.

Wailing could be heard from the Rebbe’s daughters. The Rebbe’s mother, the old Lubavitcher Rebbetzin, who slept in another room, woke up, entered the Rebbe’s room and when she was told what happened, she fell on her son. The Rebbe calmed her and the others. He himself was serious, but his face displayed no signs of fear or despair.

The Rebbe spent about two and a half weeks in the formidable Spalerka prison; just the name of the prison was enough to frighten Soviet citizens. Throughout this time, the interrogators, jailers and armed soldiers who accompanied him, did all they could to shake his self-confidence, to frighten and threaten him. Thinking he was just another citizen, they did not refrain from utilizing any means. They provided terrifying descriptions about the deaths of people in the prison without trial. They tormented him physically and psychologically, threatened his life and mocked his religious way of life.

Throughout his incarceration, from the first moment, the Rebbe insisted on his right to keep Torah and mitzvos, even within the prison, to put on t’fillin and keep Shabbos. When these demands were not met, he announced a hunger strike.

Whenever food was given to inmates, the Rebbe refused to accept it. He said, “I am continuing my hunger strike until they return my t’fillin.” Two days passed, a Wednesday and Thursday, two days without the Rebbe even taking a drop of water.

Thursday night, the Rebbe was called for the first interrogation that took many hours and he returned broken and without t’fillin. The Rebbe continued his hunger strike until Friday afternoon when he was given his t’fillin and s’farim. A Jewish GPU man brought them to him and the Rebbe said to him, “I will not eat the prison food. I will only eat what they bring me from home, even if it is just bread. I will take hot water to drink from the prison on condition that I know it was boiled in a special water urn.”

The Chekist fumed, “Are you thinking you will give a hechsher on the prison kitchen?”

“I am not a rav,” said the Rebbe, “and I don’t give hechsherim,” and the Rebbe immediately put on his t’fillin.

Not much time passed and the guard brought three challos for the Rebbe, lechem mishna for Shabbos, that was brought for him from home. It was an exception to the rule, for bread, as everything sent a prisoner from home, was always cut into small pieces to ensure nothing was smuggled. The Rebbe received whole challos and it showed that he was being given special treatment. After that, the guard’s attitude toward the Rebbe changed for the better.

The series of interrogations that the Rebbe endured, facing off with a team of interrogators, was a model of physical and psychological torment, along with scorn for that which is most sacred, and threats and intimidation towards the Rebbe and his holy ancestors.

The Rebbe was called to his first interrogation on Thursday at ten o’clock at night while during his hunger strike. Sick and suffering from the prolonged absence of food, he was brought to the interrogation room and faced three men, two Russians and one Jew. Every word that was said was documented and copied to nearby rooms where other GPU men sat.

The interrogators and especially Lulov, received the Rebbe with coarse and angry faces, with Lulov outdoing the others. They mocked and derided him. “Enough of the mockery!” the Rebbe called out in bitterness, but with proud forcefulness. “You have no permission to ridicule me.”

After hours of questioning, the interrogators informed him that his sentence had already been decided without any formal court hearing – In 24 hours you will be shot to death!

These were no simple words of intimidation; the situation was in fact extremely dire. A well-known communist who made efforts to help free the Rebbe, told the Rebbe’s daughter on Friday: Pray that your father remains alive…

 

THE CHASSIDIM

“We went about, lost and wretched, they the family members and we, who were the closest, did not know for certain: where was he? What was happening to him? We wandered like lost sheep, with no shepherd, with no leader, with no commander and no decider. Fear…”

(From the diary of R’ Eliyahu Chaim Altheus)

 

The first to find out about the arrest of the Rebbe, aside from the family members who were present in the house at the time, was the future son-in-law of the Rebbe, the Rebbe MH”M, whose kalla managed to inform him through the window that there were “guests” in the house. The Rebbe rushed to the home of R’ Eliyahu Chaim Altheus, one of the closest people to the Rebbe’s household, and proceeded from there to the home of the Rebbe’s secretary, R’ Chaim Lieberman, who hurried to destroy any incriminating materials.

In the ensuing hours, word of the Rebbe’s arrest spread throughout Leningrad. From all parts of the city, crowds of people, Chassidim and even irreligious people, began to stream to the Rebbe’s home. The crowd stood to say T’hillim, to beg and plead for mercy for the Rebbe. As per the request of the Rebbe at the time of his arrest, they hurried to inform Anash in the towns and cities of Haditch, Niezhin, Lubavitch, Liadi and Rostov, in order that they should arouse great mercies at the holy burial sites, the resting places of the Chabad Rebbeim in these places.

The first meeting in the house of the Rebbe took place already at seven that morning. Present at the meeting were the leaders of the Jewish community in Leningrad, famous lawyers and public activists, to discuss the pressing question of the hour: How to save the Rebbe?

Meanwhile, news of the Rebbe’s arrest spread across the country. All Russian Jewry, religious and otherwise, received the news with deep dread and tremendous apprehension. The Jewish intelligentsia saw the arrest as an act of revenge against religious Jews, on the part of the Yevsektzia and the GPU.

Rabbis issued a decree of a public fast. In every place, the Jews fasted Monday and Thursday of the first week of imprisonment. Synagogues, study halls and prayer meetings were filled, as people said T’hillim each day with tears and pleading. It was like one long Yom Kippur for Russian Jewry. In every single synagogue, Jews prayed to Hashem for the life of the Rebbe.

Word of the arrest spread to the greater Chassidic community, which was scattered throughout the Soviet Union. Within a day or two, everyone knew about the arrest.

The Chassid, Rabbi Meir Avtzon, who was learning in the yeshiva in Nevel at the time, remembers how they felt: “From the time the Rebbe was arrested, we felt that he was in great danger. However, notwithstanding that fact, not only did we not diminish at all from our learning; on the contrary, in addition to learning all day in an orderly fashion, we also recited T’hillim, and nearly all day, these learned and those said T’hillim. When they finished all the T’hillim, others began to say T’hillim instead of them, and the first ones went back to learning Chassidus and Nigleh as usual. Aside from the regular learning sessions and copious T’hillim, nearly all the bachurim fasted on Mondays and Thursdays and some fasted every day until Hashem had mercy …”

The Chassid Rabbi Yehuda Chitrik was in Charkov at the time. He heard the bitter news two days later. “On Wednesday afternoon, I met the son of the rav of Perloki. His eyes were swollen and he was crying. I asked him what happened and when he told me, I shuddered. I asked him why he had come to our city and he said he was trying to arrange written protests about the arrest from the workers of the city.”

He and R’ Yehuda tried to get telegrams protesting the Rebbe’s arrest from the workers’ organizations.

As for the spirits of Anash and the T’mimim in Russia at the time, in a letter from the Chassid, Rabbi Yehoshua Korf, which he wrote at the time, it says, “My dear brothers! We have been persecuted to our necks and there is no respite. May Hashem in His great mercy have mercy on the remnant of His people. There are no words and no strength to write and relate… tormented and impoverished… and my words that emanate from a pained and mourning heart that has been downtrodden to the lowest point of the soul, are worthy of being heard. May Hashem have mercy.”

In another letter, that he sent to the Chassid R’ Boruch Yosef Kozliner he wrote heartrendingly, “It is a time of distress for Yaakov … There are no words to speak. The eyes of all Israel in our country are covered with tears of blood, declaring fasts in every location. A great danger looms for the Jewish people and the Torah. Do not be silent, our brothers… sanctify a fast and call a gathering, and call out to Hashem strongly that He have mercy on His nation and the sheep of His flock.”

DIPLOMACY

Admorim and Rabbanim, the heads of Agudas Chassidei Chabad (Aguch), Jewish organizations, heads of state, senior figures, writers and spiritual leaders, all got involved in a global effort to have the Rebbe released.

 

The first meeting to obtain the release of the Rebbe took place a few hours after his arrest, in his home, at seven in the morning. It was attended by Jewish leaders in the city, famous lawyers and askanim. The question was how to rescue the Rebbe.

The meeting lasted several hours and it was decided to move the meeting elsewhere. The Rebbe’s home was not suitable for discussions such as these, for security reasons. At ten o’clock they moved to a different house to continue the discussion and representatives of all Jewish groups in the city were in attendance, excluding the communists, of course. The meeting lasted a long time. The situation was very grave and they could not arrive at a final decision.

The political situation in the Soviet Union at the time was very tense. England had broken off diplomatic ties with Russia. The Soviet newspapers wrote angrily about this. The media wrote that Russia was facing war with England as though the entire capitalistic world was about to attack the proletarian country and destroy it.

The entire country was in a state of readiness for an attack. The Soviet authorities were in a state of extraordinary nervousness. The Cheka killed people left and right, old and young, real and imagined enemies. Many died deep in the GPU cellars. As dangerous as the Rebbe’s situation was, it was even more dangerous to make the wrong move to save him.

After discussing it, those attending the meeting decided not to turn abroad to save the Rebbe. On the one hand, it was obvious that involvement on the part of Jewish groups on the outside was very important. They had the power to get various government figures in Europe interested and have them exert pressure on the Soviets to release the Rebbe. On the other hand, it was feared that making a move such as this could anger the Cheka and it would be taken as a counter-revolutionary attempt to embarrass Soviet Russia. The Cheka were liable to take the Rebbe down to the cellar and execute him.

So, they decided to concentrate their efforts on rousing influential forces from within the country. They decided to turn to important leaders and ministers in the Soviet Union.

Thursday morning, askanim in Leningrad called askanim in Moscow and briefly updated them and told them that a special emissary would be going to them from Leningrad. Rashag immediately left for Moscow.

Askanim in Moscow took great care, being afraid to hold their meeting in a shul or a private home. They did not want to arouse the attention of the GPU.

The meeting took place in a room in a certain Moscow bank with the assumption that many people went in and out of a bank, and the fear of catching the eye of the GPU would be lessened.

They discussed three ways of saving the Rebbe: 1) using personal connections at the GPU in Leningrad, 2) speaking with the highest level Soviet institutions whose orders even the GPU would have to obey, 3) turning to world Jewry and worldwide public opinion.

Each approach had its pluses and minuses, and the meeting ended without a final decision. A committee was appointed and it was decided to meet again with representatives of all Jews in Moscow. The attendees of this meeting left with a very bad feeling. Every minute was precious and they did not know what to do.

Shabbos morning, a religious Jew arrived in Moscow from Leningrad with information that the Rebbe’s situation was horrendous. The GPU in Leningrad decided to execute the Rebbe by shooting. On Shabbos, toward evening, the committee met and decided to speak with the heads of the Soviet government. They knew that if the GPU in Leningrad had already decided on execution, they had nothing to lose by trying.

That night, telegrams were sent to Kalinin, the president of Russia, to Rykov, the prime minister, and to the administration of the GPU in Moscow. They informed Jewish centers throughout Russia, in Charkov, Minsk, etc. and asked them to collect the signatures of hundreds of thousands of Jews throughout Russia, and of Jewish institutions and companies in Russia, on a special request of the Soviet government, in which they would guarantee the Rebbe’s loyalty to the regime, along with the request for the Rebbe’s release.

The committee also tried to meet with the director of the GPU of all of Russia, Menzhinsky, to explain to him that the Rebbe’s arrest was based on an error. The committee also turned to Mrs. Fishkova, the first wife of the famous Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, who served as the director of the Russian Red Cross, an organization that worked on behalf of political prisoners. Mrs. Fishkova was respected and influential in Soviet government circles.

Despite the news blackout and secrecy towards Jews abroad, news of the Rebbe’s arrest became known globally from private sources. Many telegrams and letters inquiring about the Rebbe were received by those connected with the Rebbe, from England, Germany, France, the United States, Eretz Yisroel and Scandinavian countries. However, they went unanswered. Jews worldwide began taking action to save the Rebbe, doing so of their own accord.

German Jews were particularly involved. Rabbi Dr. Hildesheimer, a leader of Orthodox Judaism who lived in Berlin, and Dr. Leo Beck, a famous reform rabbi, turned to Dr. Oscar Kohn, who served in the German parliament, the Bundestag. Dr. Kohn belonged to the socialist party and to the Poalei Tziyon.

Dr. Kohn immediately got to work. He met with the German Foreign Minister and together with Rabbi Hildesheimer and Dr. Beck met with Mr. Weissman, the deputy chancellor. Mr. Weissman promised to do all he could to rescue the Rebbe and used his connections with the Soviet ambassador in Berlin, Mr. Kristins.

Thousands of telegrams were sent from cities and towns in Russia to Kalinin and Rykov, demanding the release of the Rebbe. There were also important communists, Jewish and not-Jewish, who joined in the efforts to have the Rebbe freed.

Mrs. Fishkova made great efforts in this regard. She spoke with Rykov and Menzhinsky and demanded that the Rebbe be freed. It is to her credit that she took on most of the work.

All these efforts were finally rewarded with partial success in that the sentence of execution was commuted and the Rebbe was sentenced to ten years of expulsion to the Slovokai islands.

The rescue committee knew that expulsion posed great danger to the Rebbe’s life. Fishkova once again appealed to Menzhinsky to commute the expulsion. If that were not possible, then at least to postpone carrying out the sentence to a later time.

Her efforts were successful and on Wednesday, 29 Sivan, two weeks after his arrest, the Rebbe was called for another interrogation, the third since his arrest. Lulov conducted the interrogation, at the end of which the Rebbe was told to approach the desk where he was shown an official document upon which was written:

Execution by shooting – a line was drawn through the words and the additional word “no” was written.

Ten years exile in Slovokai – a line was drawn through that with the additional word “no” written.

Underneath was a third line which said: Three years exile in Kostrama.

 

THE GEULA

The GPU official in Kostrama said to the Rebbe emotionally, “I am pleased to be the first to tell you about your release.” On 14 Tammuz, at ten in the morning, the Rebbe left Kostrama as a free citizen on his way home to Leningrad.

(“Di yisurim fun Lubavitch’n Rebbe’n in Soviet Russland”)

 

On Sunday, Gimmel Tammuz, after 19 days in prison, the Rebbe was exiled to Kostroma, a distant city in the interior of Russia for a period of three years. The Rebbe was called to the prison office in the afternoon where he was told that he had permission to go home and stay there until evening. At eight in the evening, a train was leaving for Kostroma and the Rebbe had to be at the train station before eight; if he was late, he would spend the night in Spalerka prison again.

The Rebbe’s home quickly filled with a large crowd that filled all the rooms. It was seven o’clock already and the Rebbe had to prepare to leave. The family parted from the Rebbe in the house. Joining him on the journey to Kostroma were his daughter, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka a”h, the Chassid Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Altheus, and his son-in-law, Rashag. Prior to their going, the Chassid, R’ Michoel Dworkin was sent there to prepare suitable accommodations for the Rebbe.

In the meantime, the committee continued to work on releasing the Rebbe from this exile too. They turned to Mrs. Fishkova once again and she sent one of her assistants to Leningrad to try to influence Messing, the head of the Leningrad branch of the GPU not to interfere with the Rebbe’s release. But he did not want to listen. “There is no chance of reducing the sentence,” he responded curtly.

The messenger returned with this negative response to Moscow. Despite this, the Moscow committee decided to keep trying until they obtained the Rebbe’s release. Mrs. Fishkova tried again, this time with leaders of the Soviet government. As a result, after ten days of expulsion to Kostroma, the Rebbe obtained a full release.

The Rebbe appeared for his obligatory, weekly appearance at the GPU office and the officer there welcomed him in a friendly manner and said, “You are exempt from all future appearances here. You are completely free.” He added, “I am pleased to be the first to tell you about your release.”

The Chassid, R’ Refael (Folye) Kahn, a”h, provided additional details in his memoirs about that thrilling moment:

When the Rebbe came to Kostroma to present himself to the GPU the first time, they told him that he had to make an appearance every week to show that he had not escaped. A week later, he went to the GPU office together with R’ Eliyahu Chaim Altheus. They went over to the counter and wanted to register his presence, but the clerk said they were closed because it was their day off and he should come back the next day.

“They told me to come every week, and now they will come up with some allegation against me,” said the Rebbe. “At least write down that I came.”

But the clerk on duty stood by his position, “I am not writing it down and I do not accept anything. Come back tomorrow.” The Rebbe continued to protest.

Then a senior officer passed by on his motorcycle. He noticed the two strangers standing at the counter of the GPU building, talking heatedly.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

The Rebbe told him what was going on.

“What is your name?”
“Schneersohn.”

The man thought a bit and then said, “I think we got release papers for you.”

The Chassid R’ Eliyahu Chaim intervened. “Are you joking?”

The officer gave him a piercing look. “We don’t joke around.”

“On this day, 12 Tammuz, I was in Moscow,” said R’ Folye Kahn. “At four in the afternoon I went to my father and I saw that at the table my father was sitting with R’ Mendel Leif Abramson z”l and R’ Yaakov Moskolik, and they had a bottle of vodka.

“‘The Rebbe is in exile; what are you happy about?’ I asked.

“They told me that the Rebbe called from Kostroma to his family in Leningrad and told them what the GPU officer told him. His daughter, Rebbetzin Chana, called her husband, Rashag, and he told R’ Yaakov Moskolik. When I heard about it, I also took some and said L’chaim.

“The next day, 13 Tammuz, I went to shul to daven and saw the mailman in his special uniform, the one who delivered telegrams, entering my father’s courtyard. I waited to see which entrance he would use; when I saw that he entered my father’s house, I followed him. It was a telegram from Kostroma which said: Completely healed. Going home. Regards.”

“We carried out the Rebbe’s request and spread the news among the Chassidim.”

That evening, the Lubavitcher shul was full. All rejoiced the entire night with the joy of the first Chag HaGeula. The next day, 14 Tammuz, at ten o’clock in the morning, after ten days of exile, the Rebbe left Kostroma as a free citizen and Jews everywhere experienced light and joy.

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