Under The Czars
Before 1917, the Russian empire had been an absolute autocracy. The masses, crushed under the heel of the Czarist government and nobility, had no power and few rights.
The position of the Jews was even worse. Almost all were confined to the so-called “Pale of Jewish Settlement” that included Ukraine, White Russia, and Lithuania (Poland was governed as a separate entity). Even within this Pale, they were excluded from certain areas. They were also barred from many professions and trades, condemning most to lives of dire poverty.
Starting in 1879, the blatantly antisemitic Russian government, aided and abetted by the police and clergy, fomented waves of pogroms every few years against the defenseless Jews — the steady scapegoats whom the ignorant masses could blame for all their woes. Thousands of Jews lost their lives in these pogroms, with inestimable losses of property and their livelihood by pillaging lynch-mobs.
In 1891, Czar Alexander III’s brother, Prince Sergei Alexandrovitch — both hated the Jews with a passion — was appointed governor-general of Moscow. Immediately he ordered almost ninety percent of the Jews living there expelled, an edict carried out with intense viciousness, besides other limitations of Jewish life in and around the city, including the closure of most of its shuls.
In 1913, the government even staged the notorious Beilis blood libel trial, openly supporting the clergy’s preposterous claims that Jews use Christian blood for their matzos on Pesach. In essence, all of Russian Jewry was on trial, for the clergy tried to discredit Judaism and its leaders in general. Although Beilis was eventually declared innocent, the trial came as a shock to all of civilized Europe and a further sign to Russia’s Jews of their precarious position in the land.
The country was ripe for revolution. Small wonder that young Jews were among those in the forefront. During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, some young Jews, especially those with secular education, became active in underground revolutionary movements. These were savagely crushed by the Czarist government, but all Jews were blamed for the excesses of the few. Among these popular movements was Socialism, the extreme branch of which became known, early in the 20th century, as Bolshevism.
The persecutions and the grinding poverty prompted masses of Jews to emigrate to the New World, Western Europe and other lands. They knew that religious standards in these new communities were minimal, but often they had no choice — they simply had no way of making a living.
War And Revolution
World War I started in 1914 on Tisha B’Av, 9 Av, anniversary of the destruction of both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. The armies of Germany and its ally Austria made serious inroads into the Russian empire, occupying large swaths of territory in the regions inhabited by millions of Jews — Poland, Lithuania, White Russia and Ukraine. Their armies, which included many Jewish soldiers, generally treated Jews well. The fact that Yiddish, the language of most East European Jews, was close to German, made it easier for them to communicate.
This gave the antisemitic Russian government an excuse to blame its army’s defeats on the Jews, accusing them of being a fifth column supporting the Germans. Russian forces expelled Jews from areas close to the front in Poland and Lithuania. Besides the many Jews who fled the hostilities — as much from the Russian Cossack soldiers who delighted in attacking and pillaging Jews as from the invading enemy troops, hundreds of thousands of Jews were forced into the interior as impoverished refugees.
Russia’s ignominious defeat and resulting economic breakdown brought increased poverty and hunger to its population. This was the last straw for the hated Czarist regime. In early 1917, supported by the Czar’s own guards, strikes and riots overthrew his autocratic rule, leaving him powerless and forcing his abdication. That summer, Alexander Kerensky, a Socialist revolutionary, became Prime Minister of provisional government which hoped to introduce democracy to the land. But military defeats continued, thousands of soldiers deserted, and the peasants took advantage of the new government’s weakness to seize land from the large landowners.
Russia was not yet ready for democracy. The power vacuum and general chaos created an opportunity for more extreme elements to seize power. In October, 1917, led by Leon Trotsky, under orders of the Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, accomplished an almost bloodless revolution in the capital of Petrograd (previously S. Petersburg, later Leningrad). Before long, the Czar and his family were executed, as were many members of the nobility. Posing as champions of the Russian working class so that the masses would rally to their side, the well-organized “Red Army” expanded Bolshevik control over more and more of the land.
The Czarist armies had been no match for the armies of Germany and Austria, and were now in utter disarray. To counter the Bolshevik threat, however, they tried to regroup. They were aided by military units from Britain, France, the United States and other Western lands mortally afraid that the Communist message of government by the working masses might spread around the world and foment class struggles in their own lands.
The anti-Bolshevik forces — known as the “White” armies — were not united among themselves. Led by infamous commanders such as Generals Denikin, Koltchak, Wrangel and Petlura, these Cossack forces had little in common with each other than their fear of the Bolsheviks and a desire to reintroduce a conservative regime.
This Russian Civil War, as it is known, deepened the vacuum in authority as cities and provinces changed hands back and forth between the Bolsheviks and their foes. Lawlessness became the order of the day. The White forces often deteriorated into little more than marauding bands of brigands who roamed the land, pillaging and murdering unhindered.
Ransacking Jewish homes and businesses, these bands ruthlessly massacred tens of thousands of Jews just for being Jewish. The Red Army, on the other hand, included some Jews and did not kill Jews as such. But it added to the chaos by confiscating wealth and valuables in the name of the oppressed masses.
There was no authority to stop the atrocities, and no one cared about the Jews anyway. In this turmoil, which continued until the end of 1921, as many as thirteen million people died and much of the land was devastated. Perhaps half a million Jews fled for their lives to other regions of the land.
At first the Bolsheviks were too busy fighting to harass religion systematically. Although wartime conditions and the ensuing chaos had plunged the traditional Jewish school system and communal institutions into disarray, Jews were still able to teach their children the Torah and serve G‑d in their shuls.
As the new regime took full control of the land in 1922, it halted the unbridled killing and plundering. But now persecution of Yiddishkeit and observant Jews began in earnest.
Bolshevik agents came to every town and village to take over the local government. Factories and businesses were nationalized, and private business and trade eventually banned. Soon the new authorities controlled most sources of employment, granting jobs only to those who followed the party line, which meant declaring repudiation of all religion.
Many of the original Bolsheviks were Jews. After the revolution, many other secularly oriented Jews jumped aboard, using the Communist party as their stepladder to personal and economic advancement. The bitterly anti-religious Yevsektzia went much further than the official party line, seeking to crush the Jewish religion that its members had personally rejected. One effective weapon was granting jobs only to Jews ready to work on Shabbos.
Before the Revolution, most of Russia’s Jews would never have desecrated the holy Shabbos. Now, however, many sincere Jews were unable to resist the pressure. Realizing that their families might otherwise starve, they felt they had no choice but to work. Early on Shabbos mornings, the shuls were full of Jews reciting their prayers — before rushing off, with a heavy heart, to their jobs.
Jewish religious schools for all ages were forcibly closed. Instead, the Yevsektzia established a network of secular Jewish schools teaching in Yiddish, the language of most Jews. These schools taught even young children to deny G‑d and mock Jewish tradition and practice.
All Soviet schools taught that only Communism could save the world. As Stalin gradually consolidated his rule as supreme dictator of the Soviet Union — by the late 1920’s — schools taught children that he was the “sun of the world, the savior of mankind”! But the Yevsektzia schools went much further to instill hatred of religion, especially Yiddishkeit, in their young students’ hearts.
Officially, parents were permitted to teach their children religion at home. But who could counteract the powerful propaganda absorbed at school? Schoolchildren were instructed to spy on their parents and report any “counter-revolutionary” — anti-government — talk or activities, which included anything to do with religion or traditional observance. Many were the tragedies in observant Jewish families whose children innocently reported their parents’ religious observance, resulting in the parents’ arrest and the children’s transfer to government-run orphanages.
The Rebbe and His Soldiers
The only serious opposition to this systematic obliteration of Yiddishkeit came from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who succeeded his father in 1920.
As life settled down during the early 1920’s, the Rebbe RaYYaTz initiated an underground struggle throughout that vast land to reestablish and maintain all traditional religious institutions. He focused especially on opening clandestine “cheder” schools for children, yeshivos for teenage youth, mikvas (ritual immersion pools) in the many places where they no longer functioned, and Torah study groups in the shuls. He also worked to create an economic support framework to provide Jews with livelihood, which would also enable observant Jews to avoid working on shabbos.
Eventually the government realized it was the Rebbe who was behind this highly organized, nationwide network that was reestablishing Yiddishkeit right under its nose.
On 15 Sivan 5687 (June 15, 1927), the Rebbe was arrested. He was condemned to death. A storm of worldwide protests, however, even from non-Jewish governments such as Germany, France and the United States, helped get his sentence commuted to ten years hard labor in the frozen north, then to three years of exile. After almost three weeks of terrible suffering in jail (as he later described in his memoirs), he was sent into exile to Kostroma, in the Urals. Soon, however, under international pessure, he was reprieved — on his birthday, 12 Tammuz (July 12) — and permitted to return home to Leningrad.
In that awesome era, especially in view of the serious charges of “counter-revolution” against him, the Rebbe’s release and reprieve were nothing short of miraculous. But his enemies remained ready to pounce on him at the slightest excuse. Realizing that they would never let him accomplish any more for his brethren from within the USSR, the Rebbe saw that he had no choice but to leave the country later that year.
Settling in nearby Riga, Latvia, he continued his work on behalf of the five million Soviet Jews, raising funds to help them and campaigning to alert world Jewry to their plight. In 1933 he left Riga to settle in Warsaw, Poland, then moved to its suburb of Otvotzk in 1936.
In order to succeed in his mighty campaign to strengthen Yiddishkeit, the Rebbe had organized an army of devoted “soldiers.” Essentially, these were any Jews ready to dedicate themselves to the dangerous work, which required immense self-sacrifice. Most of his soldiers were Lubavitcher Chassidim, above all graduates of the famed Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim in Lubavitch, established in 1897, of which the Rebbe himself had been the dean.
One of the Rebbe’s most devoted soldiers was my father, Rabbi DovBer Levertov. Everyone called him Berel Kabilaker — as was the custom then among Yiddish-speaking Jews to call people by the name of their birthplace or town of residence. Kabilak was the town where he served briefly as Rabbi and Shochet after his marriage.
A great Torah scholar and outstanding Chassid, Father tenaciously refused to compromise even one iota in his Torah observance, insisting on maintaining Yiddishkeit and Chassidus under the most difficult conditions. Eventually, like so many other Chassidim, he gave up his very life for the sake of his ideals.