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The Miracle of Stalin's Death

The Miracle of Stalin's Death

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In the meanwhile, we were clueless as to the events transpiring in Chabad World Headquarters, 770 Eastern Parkway. We did not imagine how the Rebbe experienced and lived with our daily self-sacrifice for Torah and mitzvos, but after we were freed from Russia and heard about it, we came to realize that, in the words of the megillah,Mordechai knew everything that had happened.”

In hindsight, one can see clearly that in the stormy winter days of 1952-1953, the Rebbe was aware of the terrible danger hovering over a large portion of our people. At the farbrengen of Shabbos parshas Vayeira, 20 Cheshvan 5713 (1952), the Rebbe began to sing a new niggun that had never been sung at farbrengens before. In the midst of the singing portion of the farbrengen, between talks, the Rebbe suddenly asked, “Does someone here know how to sing ‘Ani Maamin’?”

One of the people present began to sing the famous melody that Jews sang with pride as they were marched to their deaths in the Holocaust, and the rest of the participants joined in. As soon as the niggun began, the Rebbe’s expression changed to become very serious. He motioned with his hand that they should sing it forcefully and he too joined in.

In all probability, no one present at the farbrengen understood the meaning of the sudden instruction to sing Ani Maamin. No one had any way of knowing what was transpiring behind the scenes in Russia.

I was told that at farbrengens that took place during that time, the Rebbe spoke a lot about the darkness and obscurity of exile that intensified over the years and about the special quality that the Jewish people possess of overcoming the darkness. Despite the fact that the Jews are under the control of the nations of the world, they have the ability to weaken the kelipa by not being affected by the concealment of G‑dliness and standing steadfast in their faith.

Nobody understood why, all of a sudden, in the middle of a winter day, January 8, 1953, a few days before the Doctors’ Plot erupted, the Rebbe published a chassidic discourse of his predecessor from the year 1925 titled “G‑d does not demand the impossible from His creations” even though that date was not noted as a special one in the calendar. This maamar is about the self-sacrifice of the Jewish people in a time when it is challenging to keep Torah and mitzvos, and if this is our lot in exile, then surely we have the ability to prevail.

Two days later, at the farbrengen of Shabbos Parshat Shemos, January 19, the Rebbe referred explicitly to Stalin in Russia and expressed amazement over those special Jews who hid in order to put on tefillin, kept Shabbos despite the danger in losing their jobs, traveled great distances to immerse in a mikvah, and learned Torah in dingy cellars, notwithstanding the life of hardship; it was difficult to obtain shoes to wear and even bread to eat.

The pinnacle of these occurrences took place at the Purim farbrengen, which took place that year on a Tuesday. A large crowd had gathered as Purim ended to farbreng with the Rebbe. Dozens of men present were Jews from Russia who had left the country just several years prior. Some of them had sat in jail for long periods of time, beaten and crushed with the force of Stalin’s iron arm. They could not help reflecting upon their brothers locked in captivity and suspended in terrible danger behind the Iron Curtain.

The farbrengen went on for many hours, during which time the Rebbe delivered eleven talks. At the start of the farbrengen the Rebbe began with a deep maamar of Chassidut that was based on the verse in Esther, “and he reared Hadassah.” Then the Rebbe said talks on relevant matters with niggunim interspersed, as usual.

The hours flew by. Towards morning, the Rebbe related the following story:

“During the Russian Revolution, after the fall of the czar, the Rebbe Rashab told the Chassidim to take part in the elections. There was a Chassid who went to vote but was so completely removed from matters of this world, that he knew nothing about what was occurring in the country. He went to vote solely because the Rebbe had said to do so. Naturally, he did this after immersing in a mikvah and fastening his gartel, as one should while fulfilling the Rebbe’s instruction.

“After he voted, he saw people standing and proclaiming, ‘Hoora,’ and he stood there too and proclaimed, ‘Hoo-ra (he is evil), hoo-ra, hoo-ra.’”

As he related this, the Rebbe imitated what the Chassid did. With a big smile on his face he put his hands together in the shape of a triangle and proclaimed “hoo-ra” three times.

When the Rebbe finished recounting the story, he turned to his right and repeated the story and once again put his hands together and said “hoo-ra” three times. Then he turned to his left and repeated it again, doing as the Chassid did.

The crowd of Chassidim at the farbrengen were completely taken aback and astonished by the script playing before their eyes, but they understood that they were witnessing something far beyond what the eye can see. Then the Rebbe’s face grew serious once again and he began the second maamar of that farbrengen, which was based on the verse in Esther, “therefore they called these days ‘Purim’ for the lot.”

After the farbrengen, the Chassidim discussed amongst themselves the wondrous events of the evening: the second maamar (this was the first time the Rebbe said two maamorim at a single farbrengen), the story related beforehand, and the calling out of “Hoo-ra.” No one could explain these unique occurrences, but it was clear that something heavenly had just transpired.

Three days later, on 17 Adar, 1953, the Soviet radio broadcaster began reciting the news in a saddened voice and announced that the mighty Stalin had fallen seriously ill and had lost consciousness.

During the subsequent few days we all sat fixed to the radio, listening inquisitively to every piece of news. We hoped against hope to finally hear the news for which we had been waiting for the past thirty years: that the evil dictator Stalin was dead.

Another three days went by and that was when the official announcement was proclaimed that Stalin had died. The top government radio broadcaster, Yuri Levitin (himself a Jew), dramatically announced that a special news release would be broadcast shortly in all the radio stations throughout the Soviet Union. We understood that this was the long awaited news, and we sat listening with bated breaths. The broadcaster then continued solemnly: “On the 9th of March, at 10:50 p.m. Moscow Time, the heart of the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Council, the Generalissimo Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, stopped beating.”

We immediately all rushed to the newsstands to purchase the latest paper. Indeed, on the front page was a photo of Stalin lying dead in a coffin. How precious this picture was to us! And how we wished we would have merited to see this image sooner!

Three days later a colossal public funeral was held. Many citizens fainted during the ceremony, unable to bear the pain of the loss of the “Father of the Nations.” Some were so severely distressed that they actually died!

What caused Stalin’s sudden death? Like everything in those days, this was murky, cloaked in shadowy enigma, and it remains a mystery until today. Some said he had suffered a stroke and he had held on for three days and then died. Some said he died in the midst of a psychotic episode, which occurred with some frequency in his later years, and some claimed that he had wanted to shoot the members of his government but they had preempted him and eliminated him.

The London Chronicle reported from someone very close to Stalin, who immediately defected to England upon Stalin’s death, that the leader had called Varushilev, the “Premier of the Soviet Union,” that night to give him a note upon which was written the decree that every Jew in the Soviet Union would be exiled to Birobijan, Russia, where they were to be murdered. Indeed, Stalin’s goal was to complete what Hitler had initiated.

As the newspaper reported, Varushilev took the note from Stalin and read it. He was infuriated by Stalin’s new craze that would further harm Russia’s foreign policy, and in the spur of the moment, he ripped up the note and threw it back in his face. Stalin, shocked and angered by the impudence of a degree that he had never experienced before, had a heart attack on the spot and died.

Others said that Stalin had been poisoned by the head of the KGB, Lavrentiy Beria, because senior government officials feared that an expulsion of the Jews would lead to a third world war, during which they thought the U.S. would surely win, thereby completely undermining Russia.

Stalin’s death was not met with the joy with which Haman’s death was received. At first, people were stunned. They were so shocked by the unexpectedness of it all that the citizens were simply unsure of how to respond. The entire population of the Soviet Union had been raised from their youngest years to sing and praise the “Father of the Nations,” Stalin. They had heard radio programs or read newspaper articles every day that lauded Stalin and his personal concern for every citizen throughout the empire, and it was hard for them to imagine how Russia, and indeed the entire world, could go on without him.

Things had reached the extent that despite the massive incitement campaign against the Jews perpetrated by Stalin, there were Jews who cried upon hearing of his demise. A woman who worked with my father tearfully complained: “Oy R. Avraham, we had someone who cared about us so much and now G‑d took him away too.…”

But after the initial shock, the Jews of Russia breathed a sigh of relief. There couldn’t be a better ending to the Doctors’ Plot.

It was during Chol Ha’Moed Pesach when we first heard that the doctors had been released. In those days not everyone owned a radio, but in the house in which we lived, the landlady owned a radio, and when I left the house one day I was startled to hear the radio reporting that false witnesses had incriminated the doctors. One lady who had reportedly conceived the plot had been sentenced to death, and others would be or imprisoned and exiled.

I was the first of our group to hear the good news. I ran to my uncle, R’ Boruch Duchman and to our friends the Mishulovins (where R’ Berke Chein was then hiding) and conveyed the wonderful news.

My uncle R’ Boruch always endeavored to lift the spirits of others, and he stated repeatedly that whatever occurred was for the benefit of the Jewish nation. He stood strong throughout the Doctors’ Plot, saying that this, too, would turn out for the best. When I told him about the doctors’ release, he said that the day would come when Stalin would be denounced and his body would be thrown out of Lenin’s mausoleum.

(Back then, this sounded like a wild dream but only a few years later, when Khrushchev revealed the real face of Stalin, a malicious man responsible for countless atrocities, his remains were discarded. Forty years later, with the collapse of communism, all remaining statues of Stalin were removed from public areas. I then said to myself: My uncle’s “prophecy” has been fulfilled!)

Following Stalin’s death, the situation in Russia changed significantly. Almost all political prisoners were freed, including many Chassidim who had been exiled to labor camps in Siberia. This included those chassidimwho had been arrested in 1946 – 47 upon attempting to escape Russia.

Thus ended a terrible era in the lives of Russian Jewry.

The Rebbe never explained the otherworldly events that took place at the Purim farbrengen of 1953. A sort of “acknowledgment” was given only close to forty years later when that special maamar was edited by the Rebbe and reprinted. The Rebbe also edited the introduction to the booklet, thereby approving the following:

“To mark the approaching days of Purim, we are publishing the maamarAl kein kor’u l’yamim ha’eila Purim,’ the second maamar delivered by the Rebbe at the Purim farbrengen of 5713. The recitation of this maamar was apparently connected with the events taking place at that time, climaxing with the death of the leader of Russia, an enemy of the Jews. This can be demonstrated by the story related by the Rebbe as a preface to and in connection with the mammar regarding the instruction given by the Rebbe Rashab during the period of the Revolution after the fall of the czar.”

The wondrous timing of Stalin’s death, on Purim, the day of the downfall of Haman, the vicious enemy of the Jewish nation, served to underscore the fact that just as in those days, so too in our times, G‑d stands guard over his children and performed a great miracle for the Jews of the Soviet Empire.

Excerpted from the book Samarkand, by Hillel Zaltzman. Hillel is the director of Chamah, an organization which works to share the beauty of Judaism with immigrants from the former USSR. The author can be contacted here.
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