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Chapter I: The Arrest

Chapter I: The Arrest

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Tuesday night, the 14th of Sivan, 5687 (June 14, 1927). It was already twelve o'clock at night, shortly after I had concluded receiving people for private audiences. It was my custom to receive people for these audiences three times a week -- Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. The meetings were scheduled for the hours of seven until ten at night, but usually extended for an hour or two more, particularly during the summer months, due to the many visitors. This particular night these sessions extended until half past eleven.

The prayers were scheduled for three fixed times during the course of the day. After the morning prayers we would recite a segment of the Psalms as divided according to the days of the month. I had established this recitation on the basis of a personal unrevealed reason and had requested all members of the Chabad movement throughout the world to adopt this practice in their respective synagogues. Thus, by following this recitation every day, they would finish the book of Psalms once monthly. After the daily recitation they were to recite Mourner's Kaddish. Praise G‑d that this practice was widely adopted, and fortunate is their lot both materially and spiritually. For those following this practice my request persists to the present day; in the morning there should be a regular study session in Mishnayot, between Minchah-the afternoon prayer-and Maariv-the evening prayer, a study session of Aggadah and at night, a class in Talmud. On this occasion many people had come. I began the audiences with the chassidim at the regular time and concluded at 11:30.

I then prayed the evening prayer with a quorum group that assembled in my home thrice daily for public prayer. I was weary and exhausted from my tasks and also deeply distressed because of my recent communication with Rabbi Dovid Tevel Katzenelenbogen [the Chief Rabbi of Leningrad], in which I opposed the General Assembly planned by Leningrad's communal leaders.

Various anti-religious Jews, scheming to undermine traditional Judaism, had scheduled this meeting and deceived the Chief Rabbi of Leningrad into siding with them by creating false issues of personal conflict.


Thus weary, I washed my hands in the traditional manner for the evening meal with the members of my household a few moments after twelve oclock. About twenty minutes had passed when the doorbell rang forcefully. The door was opened, and two men burst into the dining room shouting: "We are representatives of the G.P.U. Who is Schneersohn? And where is he?" As they spoke, a contingent of armed men entered after them and stood in a line awaiting their commands.

I answered calmly and clearly: "I do not know which Schneersohn you seek. If you enter into someone's home, surely you know in advance who dwells there, and this drama is pointless. Deliver your message and clearly state your wishes. The building superintendent, who knows the identity of all the people in this house, is here with you. What need is there for this clamor and disruption?"

"I am not shouting," said the spokesman, "This is my normal manner of speech. It seems that you are not familiar with the methods of G.P.U. representatives. Show us through your apartment so that we can place an appropriate legal guard, and as master of the household, come with us to observe the search."

"True," I replied. "I am not fully aware of your methods, and I have no desire to know them.

"Either you are completely in error, or someone has fabricated a libel against us. In any event, it makes no difference to me. As for the emissaries from your organization, I have not feared, I do not fear, and I will not fear them. The building attendant can direct you about my quarters, and you may search as you wish in ostensible accordance with the law that you invoke." I then calmly added: "I am certain that you will not disturb me from my evening meal."

My words, spoken evenly and without any betrayal of emotion, had a strong effect on the callous officials, and for a brief instant their wings drooped. They gazed at me with surprise, as silence prevailed in the house.

Among the intruders was a young Jewish G.P.U. official by the name of Nachmanson. He had received a Jewish education in his childhood in his hometown village of Nevel, and his father had actually journeyed to Lubavitch as a chassid. His commanding voice broke the silence as he instructed the armed men to take guard positions at the various doors of the house. Anyone desiring to enter the house was to be admitted, but they were to prohibit any movement from room to room or any oral communication. He stressed that his instructions were to be followed strictly.

He then turned to his companion, a short dark-haired Jewish man named Lulav, from the family of that name in Riga, and stated that they should begin their work. He concluded by addressing me and saying that, if I could eat, I was at liberty to do so. They would not disturb me, but he had instructed a guard to remain in the room with us.


They first went to search the room of my daughters Chaya Moussia and Shaina and asked them: "Which party do you belong to?"

They answered that they were "members of our father's party, apolitical Jewish women who hold dear Jewish traditions and despise the new trends."

"Why?" inquired Nachmanson, astonished.

"Why?" replied Shaina, "this we are not obligated to answer you. You asked regarding our beliefs and I replied. As to the question why, this we are not obligated to explain, for you are not here investigating my letters and documents for discussion's sake. What we were, we still are; and we declare this openly, regardless of whether you find it acceptable or offensive."

Nachmanson answered: "You must consider the authority and power of the G.P.U., which we represent. The G.P.U. can force even the silent tongue to speak and tell what is hidden within the heart. Our interrogators are remarkable craftsmen. To them all is revealed, willingly or otherwise. There can be nothing hidden. There everything melts; even stone speaks and divulges its secrets."

"The entire tragedy," answered my daughter, "is that you wish to accomplish everything by power and coercion. This is unethical and repugnant, attempting to intimidate intelligent and informed people with the power of the fist and the threats of the gun."

I will not deny that it was gratifying for me to hear these words spoken with logic and composure-albeit feigned-and in a firm voice. Nevertheless, I was very much concerned for her fate, lest Nachmanson, who prided himself on his power, would also think of arresting her.

The men remained in the house for an hour and a half, proceeding from room to room and searching thoroughly, but it was clear that this was not their actual intent. They then prepared an official form and handed it to me for my signature. I scrutinized the document, which stated that the search had conformed with all the pertinent regulations and that I had been informed of my prisoner status.

Upon reading the document, I replied that I was unable to sign a form in which it is stated that everything was executed legally. "To me the entire visit and search is suspect," I said, "Everyone knows who Rabbi Schneersohn is and what his activities are. Surely, one of two possibilities must have occurred: error or libel-on account of either I could not sign.

As to arresting me, I continued, it appears that the pleas of my family are of no avail; however, I would also like to respond on my own behalf as to why you want to imprison me.

"It is clear to me that the entire matter is either an error or a fabrication, either of which will be clarified within a day or two. Everyone is thoroughly aware of my identity and actions: I have not used secrecy. I live in one of the largest cities in this country, and my home is in its center. I have a synagogue and deliver chassidic discourses there on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. This means that I have not acted covertly.

"I believe that the arrest will result in highly negative publicity, and you should proceed with caution until the truth is clarified -- if you are actually seeking the truth. However, if you mean to conceal this error or libel with lies and falsehood, I am certain that you will regret it. Do as you will, but Schneersohn will not be arrested with a web of deceit."

Nachmanson roughly interrupted me: "The G.P.U. is responsible for its actions and is wholly unafraid of criticism. If the order has been given to arrest you, then I am confident that there is full authority to follow it. I am amazed at your words. Be fully aware that you are now a prisoner."

"I do not understand," I replied, "why you interrupted me and didnt allow me to finish my request."

Infuriated, Nachmanson exclaimed, "What! You wish to request something? That right is yours, just as it would not be denied any other prisoner. But why this insolence? Do you not understand your situation? We have not come here for conversation, nor to hear the requests of your family." He turned to my daughters and declared:" Leave this room. If you speak one more word, then you, too, will be arrested." He raised his revolver and said: "I will speak with this and silence your elegant words, your krasivorechivosti."

"We," answered my daughter, Chana, "speak in the language used by people who retain their humanity under all circumstances, not in the tongue of those who have just emerged from the slime, unable to speak forthrightly and capable only of waving a revolver and threatening imprisonment.

"Permit our father to stay with us-do not take the apple of our eye! I and my sisters will gladly go in our father's stead. Our father is weak; the doctor has instructed that he should not go out. Bring a doctor-let him be examined-let him remain under guard until the physician will determine that he can go out. After all, you too are a human being-you must also have feelings and emotions. You must surely have what the world calls ethics and decency." She burst into tears.

"Ach!" I exclaimed, "Only wishful thinking could imagine that pleas and tears could help."

"My daughter," I turned to my daughter Chana and to my wife and to my two other daughters, who stood white as snow, their eyes streaming with tears, and stated: "A barbarian and pleas for decency are two contradictory things."

"Why," I continued, directing my words toward Nachmanson, "do you not permit me to conclude? We can discuss all your methods of terror, and your lecture on ethics and how to speak, in prison. But here in my own home you must listen to my words. I am still within the walls of my own home, and I desire to speak in the presence of my family, in the presence of trustworthy witnesses whose testimony you cannot contradict."

Nachmanson replied: "Your words are infused with venom. You do not approve of the laws of the present regime-nu, we will yet discuss this. Now speak as you wish in the presence of irrefutable witnesses," and with a smile he winked to his accomplice Lulav and the other armed G.P.U. men in the room.

"I demand permission to put on tefillin and pray and also that kosher food be made available to me from my own home," I stated.

"You may take your tefillin, religious books, paper and pen, and I give you my sincere assurance that no one will disturb you from your prayers, from reading and from writing. This very day you will return home. You will just be asked a few questions by the director of the prison and then be permitted to return home," Nachmanson replied.


The lengthy exchange had ended, and as they awaited the vehicle to take me to the notorious Spalerno prison, my mother the Rebbetzin [Shterna Sarah], who had been in her own room and oblivious to all that had occurred, abruptly entered. Nachmanson, the leader of the search party, had himself given the order that she should not be awakened. She had awakened nevertheless; I don't know why.

Upon seeing the uninvited visitors, she cried out in a frightened voice: "What is this? Why have they come? Shall they extend their hands against innocent people, against my son who strives to help others? No!" she called out powerfully, "I will not let them take my darling. I will go in your place. Take me," she entreated of the leader, "take me. Do not disturb my son, my only son, who responds to others in their hour of distress. Will you even subject a person of such integrity to so severe an ordeal? Woe! Imprisonment! Woe unto us, my dear departed husband&! They are taking our son Yosef Yitzchak-your only son who sacrifices himself for others-your one and only son-he who heeds your instruction with actual self-sacrifice-bandits have come-slayers of innocent people. And for what purpose? Holy ancestors, they desire to extinguish your soul-flame. Come what may, I shall not permit them to take you."

Nachmanson turned to me and said: "Please quiet her. Take her to her room, and put her mind to rest. I am not responsible for her emotional outburst. We were quiet and did not desire to cause her any unrest. Please calm her."

At that moment, it glimmered within my mind that there is a spark of good even in the depth of evil. These words did not seem to emerge from a cruel, blood-stained person. Was it possible that this stone-like man also possessed a heart and was capable of morality? Did he too have a conscience awakening within him a feeling of mercy? Or perhaps he realized that the woman standing and weeping before him was none other than the famed Rebbetzin of Lubavitch. Perhaps he had for that moment repented and regretted that it had been his fate to be a G.P.U. agent.

I went with my mother to her room and there discussed some matters which I could not speak of in the presence of my "guests", though they did not disturb me at all. For they had gone outside for a walk, leaving in my home a group of armed guards, awaiting the arrival of the vehicle.


I found it difficult to determine the cause of this event or those responsible for it. I could speculate, but it seemed most likely that they were taking me hostage. I could not pinpoint the specific reason, but this was my impression.

I shared my speculation with the members of my household. "But for what?" asked my son-in-law Rabbi Shmaryahu Gourary.

I responded,"I do not know for what, but this is clearly the case."

My mother exclaimed, "An informant with false accusations," and my wife and daughter repeated the words, "A false accusation."

"No," I answered, "I do not believe that they will accuse me falsely, and I have done nothing that they could use as the basis for such an accusation. I am certain that are taking me as a hostage."

"What should we do?" my son-in-law inquired.

"What should be done?" I responded, "First let emissaries be sent to the graves of my father and my ancestors, the earlier leaders of Chabad, in Rostov, Lubavitch, Nyezin, and Haditz, [= resting places of the Rebbe's ancestors] to inform them of my plight. Also ask all of the chassidim to recite the Psalms during the first days."

My family repeated my words "the first days in astonishment," asking me what I anticipated. I answered that this we would eventually see with G‑d's help. I told them not to raise a clamor, as word would be known very quickly all over.

I instructed that the chassidim here and abroad should not be hindered from whatever avenue of effort they would pursue. The members of my family, however, were to seek out confidential contacts to intercede for me-but first and foremost, I stressed that the entire network of educational activities should be maintained. Henceforth, the task of fundraising would certainly be formidable because all of those involved in these activities, willingly or compelled by circumstances, would be deeply shocked and frightened by my arrest.

"Therefore, you should know my firm instructions, that despite my present debt, you should try to obtain more money through loans and to immediately forward the required aid to every educational group. And you all must assume the responsibility for properly administering this effort 'till G‑d shall return me to all of you.


According to what I had heard from one of my daughters, I was certain that my secretary, Mr. Chaim Lieberman, was already aware of the happenings in my apartment. I was certain that he had already destroyed all documents that might have incriminated him as my secretary. It would also be good if he would move out of his apartment until things quieted down. Why should he suffer as well? Moreover, he was the sole individual with the knowledge to continue the work, for he was totally knowledgeable as to what was to be done. I was certain that they would find nothing incriminating in his possession. For this I was grateful to G‑d.

Their faces white as plaster and their eyes filled with tears, my mother, wife, daughters and son-in-law stood shocked. At that moment, no words were to be found. They gazed at me with wonderment, hope and longing, mercy and supplication, not uttering a word.

Amazing, I thought: in just a few precious moments I would be taken to the Spalerno prison!


"Spalerno" is known to all. Everyone knows that it is dreadful, and its very name evokes fear and terror in everyone, no matter what religion, nationality or party. This prison on Spalerno street, or as it is referred to, "Spalerka," is well-known even to children, and it is common knowledge that being taken there is no laughing matter, and that ones stay there is never for merely a day or two. When one is sentenced to be taken to Spalerno, it is for one of two reasons: either judgment has already been rendered, or for questioning-and particularly for investigation.

The reader may wonder, what is the difference between "questioning" and "investigating?" It is difficult for me, however, to dwell on this. Briefly, questioning is oral: questions, answers. Investigation is quite another matter. It is the coercion to speak. As Nachmanson stated: "There, one talks; there, the mouth opens-you speak and speak!" Mere questioning is done in any facility, but Spalerno is different. So I awaited the military vehicle that would take me, in a few precious moments, to this Spalerno.


At such a critical moment, there is much to say, much to request, much to mandate and settle. Yet the mouth does not speak and the mind does not control the heart. The emotions overflow, restricting the capacities of thought and speech. Thank G‑d, I didn't lose control. I spoke out, briefly, yet laden with instructions on the successful continuation of our work. I said to my family:

"Surely they have spun an intricate web of accusations in which to ensnare me. They will try to force me to confess to actions of which I am wholly innocent and which are wholly irrelevant to my efforts for the strengthening of Torah and Judaism.

"But I will only tell them: 'I am involved in the promulgation of Torah and its mitzvot.' I will assume the entire responsibility and incriminate no one else; and G‑d forbid, if any one else will be arrested and informed that it was done by my word, then I forewarn you now that it is an absolute falsehood. No power in the world will make me yield.

"It is also clear to me that this arrest has been elaborately planned, for they would never have taken so major a step without adequate preparation. Nachmanson's face reveals his intent. They most certainly anticipate causing great harm to the whole Jewish people by imprisoning me. But I have profound faith that the G‑d of our sacred ancestors will liberate me from their hands, and I will return and continue my work. Please obey my words carefully and do not despair, and G‑d will aid us."

I then warned them to take all of the correspondence in the house and to distribute the documents in various secure places.


I had barely concluded when Lulav entered stating that the vehicle was waiting for me and that it was necessary to hurry.

I responded: "The conditions in this country at present make it a matter of certain that no one will be late. Even those who today concern themselves with the imprisonment of others may be certain that their turn, too, will come. There is no reason to hurry, nothing will be lost."

I put on my overcoat and received a departing blessing from my mother and my daughters Chana, Chaya Moussia, and Shaina. I also went to give my departing blessing to my grandson, who was sleeping in his crib. . .


I then blessed my domestic helpers, who upon hearing and seeing that I was to be taken to the awesome Spalerka, bowed their heads, gazing downward, unable to look at my face-for they were frightened and distressed at the entire spectacle. In the beginning they had no knowledge of what was taking place, because the guards separated us and they were confined to the kitchen. They were emotionally powerless to express any response to my departing blessing.

I kissed the mezuzah on the door and sat on one of the benches. The official Lulav and his subordinates, armed soldiers, surrounded me in the manner of prison guards and in accordance with prison regulations.

My belongings, tefillin-Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam, Shimusha Rabbah; a talit, a gartel (prayer sash); my religious books-Siddur (prayer book), Psalms, Tanya, and my other personal effects: change of clothing, a handkerchief, food, valerian, a small pillow, were all placed in one package-in a travel bag. The cover of the bag was inscribed in Roman letters "S.S."; my father, of righteous memory, had purchased it and used it during the course of his journeys from the year 5673 (1913)-a plaid blanket was also given to me.

I did not want to carry my belongings myself, so I gave them to one of the armed guards. Lulav leapt forward and took the bag from the soldier and said in Yiddish: "Give the bag to me, I will carry it. Chassidim remain chassidim; my grandfather carried the bags of your grandfather and I, too, will carry your belongings."

I removed the bag from Lulav's hand and replied: "Your grandfather was a chassid of my grandfather, so he was privileged to carry those bags to the place of my grandfather's choice, whereas you desire to carry my bag, G‑d forbid, to a destination of your choosing. No, this cannot be. In your way I will not go. Chassidim certainly do remain chassidim."

I reclaimed my possessions and restored them to the guard who held them originally. I kissed the mezuzah and departed with armed guards in front of me, to my right, to my left, and behind me.

As we descended the stairs, I could hear the voices of my family pleading to accompany me to the vehicle. I turned about and saw an armed guard physically barring their way. I called out to Lulav inquiring as to why they were obstructed and if he had authority for such action.

My confident tone and clear words had the desired effect on Lulav. He commanded the guard to move away, and he permitted my family to accompany me as a group. I was thus able to speak a few words with my son-in-law.

In the courtyard all was quiet, no one was there, aside from the members of my family, the contingent of guards and their officers, Nachmanson and Lulav.

Nachmanson stated with a smile: "You can kiss and take leave of each other here in accordance with all of the etiquette of the aristocracy because I will not let you go out into the street."

I turned to Nachmanson and said: "It is not befitting for a highly placed official -- so concerned with propriety, who asks for a signed document corroborating that his visit and search accords with the law -- to prevent members of a family from accompanying one dear to them."

"Go!" Nachmanson answered, enraged, "it appears that you are still unable to adapt to the present situation. You are a prisoner and obligated to obey the command of an authorized official."

"Who is the official, I inquired, and what is the command? You can clearly see that despite all of your efforts, you will not frighten me." I continued: "Please grant my family's request!"

Nachmanson turned aside, and all the members of my family and I went out to the street. The vehicle stood surrounded by armed soldiers. Within sat a prisoner, obviously a foreigner of prestige, approximately forty years old. He was dressed in travelers clothes, his face snow white; his eyes conveyed deep bewilderment, his face an expression of deep anxiety and fear. Facing him, on guard, sat an armed soldier.

As I emerged onto the street, my glance fell upon the large clock hanging in the window of the clock store across from my house. The face of the clock was as white as the faces of my household members, may they live, and the hands-indicating that it was twenty minutes after two-as black as ravens.

During this period of two hours and ten minutes, how much pain, suffering, fear, and anxiety had the members of my household endured! And for what reason? Because of false libels, because of malicious informants-because of my effort to strengthen Judaism, because of strengthening the Torah.

We stood together for a few moments, and then, with the help of one of the soldiers, I climbed onto the vehicle and sat in the place indicated for me. Facing me, as a guard, Lulav sat holding only a revolver, for Nachmanson sat with the driver, most certainly in conformity with prison regulations.

"Be well and strong," I called out to my family, "and may G‑d help us to be reunited soon in good health."

At that moment the vehicle moved and commenced its journey to the notorious Spalerno prison.


I looked out and saw on the corner our good friend Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Althaus, his face contorted with fear. I nodded silently to him as an indication of blessing and leave-taking, but I perceived that he stood uncomprehending. He appeared as though he would, in a moment, burst into intense weeping or anxiety. A moment passed, we turned left to Litaina Street and Pinchas, Rabbi Althaus' son, suddenly appeared. I was jolted by the sight of his white face, his black bulging eyes, and his figure, buckling over. He peered intently, trying to see who was in the vehicle, but he did not seem able to perceive clearly.

We then quickly turned to the street on the right, Spalerno Street. On number 24 stood the massive edifice, the notorious prison: Spalerka.

The prison doors were sealed. Nachmanson and Lulav instructed the guards to maintain strict security with the "distinguished guests" in the vehicle, myself and the other prisoner. They themselves hastened to the gate keeper, but to their astonishment they did not receive entry clearance. The outer guard did not reply to these newly arrived officials; the guard within opened the small inquiry-gate. I could not hear his question, but I did see that Lulav and Nachmanson were talking to each other in distress.

Lulav approached our guard while Nachmanson exerted every effort to gain access to the prison, but the guard closed the opening. Nachmanson, humiliated and agitated, stood, one hand on the door bolt and the other wiping away the sweat on his inflamed face with a handkerchief.

There are many kinds of human sweat: the cleansing sweat which removes human sin, the sweat caused by the performance of a mitzvah, the sweat of intense effort in the study of Torah, the sweat generated by work sincere and honest, the sweat of intense physical toil. In stark contrast to these is the sweat of anger and murder, the sweat of the hangman, the sweat of the bandit and the murderer.

Lulav called out to his comrade Nachmanson: "We are late. May gloom take A! He tells us thus, while he idly sleeps. Official B should be informed of this. He will take the situation into his hands: then A will either no longer sleep or he will slumber eternally."

Suddenly the sound of the opening door bolt was heard, but Lulav told us to wait and not go forward without orders.

The prisoner next to me was disintegrating mentally. The soldier assigned to him stared at him fixedly, a bayonet in his left hand and a rifle in his right. His eyes were riveted on the prisoner and not distracted even momentarily. The prisoner's face was snow white with fear and his body was quivering. His clothing was European tailored; he seemed to be a person of means and was even wearing silk gloves. He looked, however, terrified, as though he would succumb to sudden death.

Translation by Rabbi Dr. Alter B. Z. Metzger; from The Heroic Struggle, published by Kehot.
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