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Moscow I

Moscow I

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Struggle To Make a Living

On arriving in Moscow, Father had to find work quickly if the family was not to starve. But a normal job, such as at a factory, meant desecrating the holy Shabbos. The new regime had banned all private trade. Even worse, it enacted a six-day week, with everyone working for five days and resting on the sixth, so that Shabbos could now fall on any day of the work week. Since all employment was sponsored by the government, anyone avoiding work on that day was asking for trouble.

Father, who would not think of desecrating the Shabbos, looked for work that would allow him to set his own hours. His novel solution was to learn photography, setting up a photo booth on the city streets where he offered his services to passersby.

Later, Father invested in knitting machines, two large ones for sweaters and three smaller ones for berets and stockings. Many Lubavitchers adopted this occupation, for it could be done at home, away from prying eyes. Above all, it enabled them to keep Shabbos.

Operating such machines at home was not considered a private business. Father had to register his affiliation with the government-owned factory that supplied the yarn and to which he later brought his completed merchandise, getting paid for his work. In practice, however, smaller factories operated almost as private businesses. Some were even run by Chassidim who thereby helped other Jews to avoid working on Shabbos.

These knitting machines became our family’s source of livelihood. When my older brother Sholom turned bar-mitzva and left home to study at yeshiva, I was enlisted in his place, at the age of eleven, to join my sister Sima at work on the machines.

Mother used to rise before dawn every morning to inspect every completed piece of clothing for holes, which she then darned in the knit. After he prayed, Father took them all once a week to the factory, which was very far from our home. Traveling by tramcar and changing from one to another on the way, he carried one heavy sack over his shoulder, with another hanging in front of him. His return trip home was just as arduous, carrying on his back two heavy sacks of yarn on spools for knitting the next batch.

Although Father worked so hard, I never heard him complain. The Jewish managers at the sweater factory had the greatest respect for him. He even convinced them once to contribute generously for the underground Chabad Yeshivos! At one point, they offered to take him in as a partner. But Father refused: “I’ll sleep better without it,” he told them. “Better to live poorly, but at peace, than to have ten thousand rubles and live in fear. I have enough other worries to be afraid of, without this extra concern.” Indeed, years later in the 1950’s, under Nikita Khrushchev’s regime, the factory’s Jewish managers were unfortunately executed for embezzling millions of rubles.

It is difficult to blame those who committed economic crimes during those difficult years. Aiming to impoverish all citizens and exert absolute control, the regime had confiscated most private property. It was impossible to survive on the low wages the government paid most workers, and they had little choice but to turn to illegal economic activity.

To earn extra income, factory owners used some of their government-supplied yarn, together with more bought on the black market, to knit sweaters for private customers. Workers at stores or factories felt justified in stealing merchandise, often bribing the manager or guard to look the other way. Bribery, of course, had always been integral to the Russian way of life since the Czarist era; it was still indispensable as a tool of survival at all levels of Soviet society.

Mother was busy most of the day running from one store to the next, for products available at one store were not available at others and stores were often far from each other. Each store had an endless line of customers stretching out of the doorway, all anxiously hoping that some food would be left by the time they reached the counter.

At an outdoor public market called the “Rinok,” only private produce could officially be sold. Peasants from the countryside — each of whom had received a tiny strip of farmland to cultivate, with a single cow and a few chickens — came there to sell milk, eggs, chickens, fruit and vegetables. But all sorts of other goods, usually obtained illegally, were also sold — at greatly inflated prices, of course.

Our Home

At first, our family lived in a spacious apartment in a large, dilapidated building. Father had the good fortune to be appointed supervisor of the building (“Upravdom”), an unpaid but responsible position, with whom all residents had to register. By law, anyone unemployed was forbidden to rent an apartment, and visitors were not allowed to stay overnight. But Father’s position enabled him to provide temporary shelter for many Jews, especially Chassidim, until they could find other accom­modation.

Our building was close to the famous Marina Roshtcha Shul, where Father prayed daily and was one of the Shul’s leading members, serving as gabbay (overseer) of its Chabad Minyan. But in 1935 we were given notice that our building was to be demolished. We moved to a new home about 45 minutes walk from the Shul.

Before the Revolution, our new building had belonged to a wealthy member of the Russian nobility. His own quarters had been on the second floor, while his servants occupied the rest of the building. As with other large homes, the Communist regime divided the building into multiple apartments — for a total of forty-two families, most with just one room each. The owner’s original quarters now housed five families, including ours.

Our single-room apartment was 28 meters square. We divided it into separate sleeping quarters — for my parents, my sister, and us boys — besides a small living room where guests could stay, and a place for the knitting machines. In the basement was a communal kitchen where each family had its own table. The non-Jewish neighbors freely used each other’s tables but knew that our table and kerosene stove were not to be touched or used — to avoid becoming non-kosher. We were on excellent terms with them, and they respected Father highly.

Residents on our floor were considered fortunate to have the luxury of an indoor toilet in the hallway. We shared it with five other families and often there was a line to use it. Our floor’s only sink was in the toilet, and we had no choice but to use it for washing our hands before eating bread (Jewish law permits this only if there is no other choice).

Illegal Guests

By Soviet law, the building’s front door had to be locked at night. There were no bells, so late-night visitors had to knock hard to gain entry. Knocking at an apartment house at night usually meant asking for trouble, for the building supervisor might ask uncomfortable questions, demand a visitor’s identity card, and report his suspicions to the police.

But we were very lucky, thank G‑d. Although we lived on the second floor and often did not hear the knocking, our downstairs neighbors had such high regard for Father that they admitted our visitors even late at night, realizing that anyone knocking so late must be for us. Our visitors all knew they could knock without the neighbors making any trouble.

For the crime of harboring unregistered guests, Father could have been arrested. But he made sure to bribe the building supervisor regularly to turn a blind eye.

Our home was one of the few safe havens for Chassidim in Moscow. They had to take extra care not to arouse suspicion, for their beards and clothing made them so conspicuous. Some lived in Moscow’s outer suburbs and had missed the last train home. Others had no valid identity cards or were on the run from the NKVD. Such guests often stayed with us a long time, especially those returning from imprisonment or exile for religious activities. These could not register for an apartment, because the government did not permit them to reside in a large city. They came to us, knowing they were always welcome in our home.

Almost every night we had guests. Somehow we found space for everyone. Chairs were turned into beds, some of us stretched out on the floor and soon everyone could fall sleep.

Over the years, we hosted many well-known Chassidim. Before Rabbi Yitzchok Hurvitz — known as “Itche der Masmid” — left the Soviet Union, he often stayed at our home (as I heard from Mother; I was too young to remember). So did Rabbi Shmuel Notik, Reb Yitzchok Goldin, Reb Zalman Teibel, Rabbi Nissan Nemanov and many others. Rabbi Elchonon Dov Morozov, who had been the personal secretary of the Rebbe RaYYaTz, sometimes stayed with us before his 1938 arrest. He was outstandingly neat, using his own cup, which he would wash, dry, and set aside for later use.

Even without those who stayed with us, our home often bustled with people. Anyone who had to apply to the government for whatever reason knew that Father was literate in Russian — although he had never attended school — and could write up what was needed.

The Marina Roshtcha Shul

Under the Czars, Jews had been forbidden to live in Moscow without a visa. In 1891, when 30,000 out of the city’s previous Jewish population of 35,000 were expelled, most of its shuls — mainly small private minyanim — were closed.

That year, the great “Choir” shul on Archipova Square had just been completed at enormous cost but not yet opened. The Czar’s brother ordered its great dome demolished, and it was not allowed to open for many years. When it was opened, however, in 1906, it immediately became the city’s central shul, which it has remained to this day. In the main shul, prayers follow the Ashkenazic rite, while an adjoining hall has always had a minyan where prayers follow the Chabad rite. Later, after the Soviet regime closed the city’s ladies mikvas (ritual immersion pools), a new one was built at the Choir shul — at the urging of the Chabad Chassidim — and has remained open to this day. Males were allowed to use it on the afternoons before, and on the mornings of, Shabbos and Yom Tov.

Another shul, Poliakov’s, was named for the wealthy industrialist who founded it (in recent years, during the 1990’s, it has been returned to Jews for use as a shul). There were also the Arbat Shul and several smaller ones.

After the 1917 Revolution, Moscow’s Jewish population increased from about 8000 before the Revolution to over 100,000, with a flow of Jews from the original Pale of Jewish Settlement — White Russia and Ukraine — most of whom were sympathetic to Yiddishkeit. Regardless of their needs, the Soviets brutally sequestered almost all of Moscow’s shuls during the 1930’s. Their sacred Sefer Torah scrolls were confiscated and given to shoemakers for use as leather, and their other Torah books distributed to grocery stores for wrapping food or to paper processing plants.

Amazingly, during this era of sequestration of shuls all over the Soviet Union, Jews in the Marina Roshtcha neighborhood of Moscow managed to build their own shul (Father was among the builders, I am told). Even more amazingly, this wood-frame building, completed during the 1920’s, was not closed by the regime and survived throughout the Soviet era. (In 1998, unfortunately, it was fire-bombed and destroyed by antisemites. By 2000, it was replaced by an imposing new seven-floor edifice, including a shul, elementary and high schools and a community center.)

Father served as gabbay of the Chabad minyan (prayer group) at the Marina Roshtcha shul and active in all the shul’s affairs. At the end of World War II, for example, he felt it important for the shul to have its own official Rabbi, suggesting Rabbi Nosson Nota Olevsky, an elderly Torah scholar — not a Chabad Chassid — who had been in exile in Siberia. His suggestion was accepted and Rabbi Olevsky remained in this position for many years until his passing.

On Shabbos, our shul had four separate prayer services. The earliest was conducted upstairs in the Ashkenazic rite and attended by non-Chassidim. When they finished, the “Polish” (non-Chabad) Chassidim started prayers. Later was the service in the main shul.

In an adjoining room was the Chabad service, starting around 10:30 a.m. Before Shabbos morning prayers, Father used to give a class in Chassidus, teaching the Alter Rebbe’s profound works on the weekly Torah portions — Torah Or and Likkutei Torah. As gabbay of the minyan, he used to organize the farbrengens (Chassidic gatherings), bringing the refreshments. He bought large bottles of spirit very cheaply from a neighbor who worked at a distillery.

As is customary among Chabad Chassidim, Father used to spend more time on his prayers on Shabbos, praying slowly and fervently in the classic Chabad style, completing them some time after the public service was over.

On Rosh Hashana, Father prayed in the main Marina Roshtcha Shul. There he was privileged to blow the shofar (ram’s horn), and was seated at a special place of honor along the eastern wall.

Communal Involvement

Father was highly intelligent and wise in the ways of the world. He was also kind and generous by nature, mild-mannered and always bursting with liveliness. These qualities endeared him to everyone, earning their great respect, and many Jews and non-Jews alike came to ask his sage advice.

But if ever Father was confronted by demands contrary to the Torah, his mild manner disappeared and he seemed to become a different person. Never can I recall Father yielding to pressure to agree to anything contrary to the Torah. He always remained firm and fearless, persevering in whatever had to be accomplished.

Besides running most activities at our shul, Father was deeply involved in all Jewish communal activities in Moscow and his opinion carried in the city’s Jewish community, as illustrated by the following:

In 1938, Rabbi Shmarya Yehuda Leib Medalia, the official Chief Rabbi of Moscow and Rav of the Choir Shul, was arrested and later executed. For several years, no new Rabbi was appointed.

After the German invasion, however, in 1941, the Soviet Union had little choice but to cozy up to the other nations fighting against Germany, who were now sending the USSR much needed supplies. Soon representatives of the Allies, some of them Jewish, started to visit Moscow, and the government realized that the absence of a Rabbi in the capital city left a bad impression. They gave orders to their agents in the Jewish community to appoint a Rabbi in a hurry.

About 1943, Rabbi Shmuel Leib Levin was appointed to the position. Known among Chabad Chassidim as Shmuel Leib Paritcher, for his birthplace of Paritch, White Russia, where he was born in 1890, he had studied at Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch and later served as mashgiach (dean of studies) in various branches of the yeshiva. Besides his great Torah erudition, he was renowned as an outstanding “oved,” who prayed devoutly for many hours daily. (He is not to be confused with Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin — 1894-1972 — a non-Chassidic Rabbi appointed to the position in 1957.)

Not long after Rabbi Shmuel Leib’s appointment, however, the board of the official Moscow Jewish community decided to replace him. Perhaps they felt he did not possess the required qualities of leadership, or were afraid that, as a Chassid, he would be too “extreme.” Instead they decided to nominate a non-Chassid named Rabbi Shlomo Shleifer (1889-1957), who had ably served as the community’s official secretary during the 1920’s.

But Father was adamantly opposed. Firstly, Jewish law does not normally permit evicting a Rabbi from his position. Besides, Rabbi Shmuel Leib Levin, as a learned Chassid, would surely never agree to any compromise, whereas Father knew Rabbi Shleifer only as a Torah-learned layman, employed for many years as a bookkeeper, who seemed unlikely to have the extensive Torah expertise required by a Rabbi. He also had no idea of Rabbi Shleifer’s inner convictions — for all he knew he might be an NKVD agent...

At a board meeting called in 1944 to discuss the issue, Father argued that it was unethical to replace Rabbi Levin. Most of the board disagreed. But Father’s towering personality and the respect he enjoyed in the Jewish community bore such weight that his opinion could not be ignored. The board therefore decided on a compromise — to employ both Rabbis together (an arrangement that did not last long, anyway).

Later, Father admitted to us that his suspicions had been unfounded. Rabbi Shleifer was indeed a giant in Torah knowledge, experienced in the entire spectrum of Halachic ruling, and deeply faithful to the Torah. In that frightening era, aware as Rabbi Shleifer was of the fate of so many other Rabbonim, it was an act of tremendous courage and true self-sacrifice for Yiddishkeit even just to accept such a position. Rabbi Shleifer served the Jewish community with outstanding devotion until his passing in 1957.

The president of the Choir shul and of the official Moscow Jewish community was a Mr. Shmuel Tchobrutski. An uncouth and ignorant former tailor from Odessa, he had managed to elbow his way into the communal leadership, grabbing all the shul’s finances into his own hands. He appropriated to himself all foreign currency donations by Jewish visitors from other lands, besides other valuable gifts to the shul such as rare books and religious articles. Everyone was mortally afraid of him, for he was known to report to the authorities on everything happening at the shul.

Yet Tchobrutsky’s position made him the key to getting much accomplished. For the benefit of our shul, Father needed his help and made sure to keep on the best of terms with him. Sometimes this enabled Father to get favors from him. In 1941, for example, after Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union, it was almost impossible under the wartime conditions to obtain an esrog (the citron fruit, used on the Sukos holiday, which grows in warm climates like southern Italy). As president, Mr. Tchobrutski had somehow obtained a few, and Father used his good relationship to buy one for our shul — for the exorbitant sum of one thousand rubles!

The Shul’s Role In Our Education

After we moved to our new apartment, our walk to the Marina Roshtcha Shul took much longer. Nevertheless, regardless of the weather, Father always insisted on taking us there every Shabbos and holiday. He considered our regular attendance at the Shul integral to our upbringing, confident that its holy atmosphere would keep us faithful to G‑d and His Torah.

On one bitterly cold Shabbos, when most congregants dared not venture out and the shul was half empty, Father took us anyway. We arrived frozen to the bone, and those who did show up berated Father for endangering his young sons’ health. But we didn’t mind; going to shul was what nourished us spiritually.

We grew up in the shul and felt at home there. The congregants treated us kindly, especially the “Polish” minyan, which sometimes honored us with the special aliya (call to the Torah) of maftir — even before our bar-mitzva. This is permitted by the Halacha but is unusual. By that time — the mid-1930’s — children had become a rarity at shul. Shabbos was a school day and all children had to attend. Sometimes we tried to hold our own service with other boys, but there were seldom ten boys there over the age of bar-mitzva.

There were few other Torah observant children with whom to associate. One family with whom we were close was that of Reb Moshe Dovber Gansburg. He lived near the Choir Shul, but used to walk every Shabbos — over an hour each way — to Marina Roshtcha to pray together with his fellow Chassidim. His children, Leibel, Hirsch and Yitzchok, used to accompany him and were our friends. But in 1936 we lost them, when they received exit visas to leave the USSR, and emigrated to the Holy Land. Not far from us lived the Abelsky family, whose sons included Zalman (who later lived in Kiryat Gat, Israel, and is now Chief Rabbi of Moldava, a former Soviet republic) and his late brother Berel.

Occasionally, Chassidim from out of town spent a Shabbos or Yom Tov in Moscow, praying at our shul to be with other Chassidim. Sometimes they brought their children, in order for them to enjoy the company of other Chassidic children. It was a real treat for us, enabling us to renew old friendships and make new ones.

After Shabbos morning prayers, there were often Chassidic farbrengens. It was dangerous to hold one at shul, for informers were ever present, spying on every move. So most were held at private homes, usually at ours.

We drew intense encouragement from these informal gatherings where Chassidim discussed inspiring words of Torah and Chassidus, spoke about the Rebbe. They exhorted each other to greater care in Torah study and observance, and devotion to the Rebbe’s concerns.

Although the Rebbe RaYYATz was physically distant, we knew that all his Chassidim were always on his mind. Father and others kept contact with him by mail, often in coded messages sent to other addresses from where they were forwarded to him. In 1927, a letter signed by about ten Chabad Chassidim of Moscow, including Father, was sent to congratulate the Jewish community of Riga, Latvia, for having the privilege to host the Rebbe after he left the Soviet Union.

At farbrengens, Chassidim often sang a song of yearning for the Rebbe: “Der Eibishter zol gebben gezunt un leben, vellen mir zich zehn mit unzer Rebben” (May G‑d give us health and life that we may meet with our Rebbe!).

Reb Yona Poltaver

An extraordinary personality who left an indelible impression on us was Reb Yona Kagan (russified from Kahan, for he was a Kohen). Among Chabad Chassidim he was known as Yona Poltaver after the Ukrainian city of Poltava where he was born in 1898. Studying at Yeshiva Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch and later at its offshoots in other cities, he developed into an exemplary Chassid whose being was permeated with mesiras nefesh — utter self-sacrifice.

By the end of summer, 1936, those who had directed the clandestine network of underground Yeshivos Tomchei T’mimim — notably Rabbi Nissan Nemanov (1904-1984, who later headed the Lubavitcher Yeshiva at Brunoy, near Paris, France) — had either been imprisoned, fled before the NKVD, or left the USSR. Reb Yona now accepted the dangerous responsibility of directing the yeshiva network and raising its funds — with the Rebbe’s blessing.

By then, the yeshivos were constantly on the run. Despite all careful precautions taken by the faculty and students, it was rarely more than a few months or even weeks before the NKVD discovered them and closed them down, often arresting teachers and students. It was Reb Yona’s responsibility to find new locations for the yeshivos to reopen, usually by asking local Chassidim to provide a clandestine haven at a shul where the yeshiva’s presence was concealed even from the congregants.

For these yeshivos, Reb Yona raised funds only from Chabad Chassidim, lest information leak out to the authorities. Father served as a member of his advisory committee, helping to raise funds in Moscow.

Reb Yona prayed regularly at the Marina Roshtcha Shul. Every Shabbos morning, when the Chabad minyan reached the point where the Torah is read, the service did not continue until he arrived so that he would be able to hear the Torah reading.

As a true Chassid, Reb Yona rose early, studying Chassidus and preparing for his Shabbos prayers — the spiritual climax of his week. Following Chassidic custom, he insisted on purifying himself spiritually before prayer, especially on Shabbos, by immersing himself in a mikva. The only mikva was at the Choir Shul, so every Shabbos he took a two-hour walk there from his home, in all kinds of weather, then an hour and a half back to our shul.

It was not only the length of his walk that reflected his intense devotion. It also demanded amazing courage. As a Torah observant Jew, Reb Yona did not carry anything outside on Shabbos, and walking so far without an identity card, especially through the center of Moscow, was hazardous. Anyone stopped by a policeman — a frequent occurrence — who could not produce his identity card, was immediately pulled in to the police station for questioning. For a Jew with a beard and Chassidic clothing, that meant dire peril.

Nevertheless, oblivious to all dangers, Reb Yona persisted in this custom every Shabbos and Yom Tov. Out of respect for his exalted level of self-sacrifice for living as a Chassid regardless of the dangers, our minyan awaited his arrival before starting the Torah reading.

Reb Yona’s devout Shabbos prayers, in the classic Chabad style, took many hours until mid-afternoon. After his prayers, he never went home on Shabbos, but either stayed at shul or came to us for a farbrengen.

Sometimes he or other Chassidim would ask Sholom or me whether we had “mashke” (alcohol) at home. If our reply was positive, they headed straight to our apartment — separately, so as not to attract attention — with Reb Yona in the lead.

No one bothered asking permission, for they knew they were always welcome. They knew where to find Mother’s homebaked challa loaves (there were no Jewish bakeries, and we had no oven, so she used to bake them in a metal pan on the stove). The visitors found boiled eggs or other simple foods, enjoying a meager but satisfying meal, which served as the basis for an inspiring farbrengen.

When Reb Yona led the farbrengen, his words were always to the point, inspiring everyone present. Everyone appreciated his deep sincerity as one who practiced far more than he preached. His personal standards of Torah observance were impeccable, even higher than those of most other Chassidim. One minor example: Whenever he ate at our home, we made sure to bring him water to wash his hands before eating bread, for he would not do the ritual washing in our bathroom (which presents problems according to the Halacha).

One Simchas Torah remains engraved in my memory. Following Chabad custom, as stated in the Alter Rebbe’s Siddur, we used to first dance and liven up the hakofos of our shul’s other minyanim, then go to our apartment for kiddush and a farbrengen. Later we returned for late-night hakofos in the Chabad minyan.

At our farbrengen that year, Reb Yona had drunk plenty of l’chayims and was in high spirits as we walked back to shul for hakofos. Suddenly, in the middle of the street, he started singing and dancing joyously. He even picked on a passer-by — although he had no idea who he was, or even whether he was Jewish — and started dancing with him! Then he started doing somersaults. As a young boy, I was so excited by such a display of youthful exuberance by an older Chassid that I began to do the same. But the crowd that gathered to watch claimed that “the old man is performing much better than the boy!” On reaching the shul, Reb Yona continued his joyous dancing through the night.

Amazingly, this took place at the very height of the Stalinist terror! Torah observant Jews were being arrested and summarily executed for no other reason than their religious observance. Yet Reb Yona had no qualms about dancing in the street in honor of Simchas Torah, even during such a dangerous time...

In fact, the NKVD did not catch up with Reb Yona until 1948. Well aware that the secret police were searching for him, he managed to remain in hiding for a long time.

In 1946, when many hundreds of Lubavitchers stayed for months in Lemberg (Lvov), hoping to get a chance to leave the USSR illegally — as will be told in a later chapter — Reb Yona, with his proven organizational ability, was one of the main organizers of the escape operation. Even in Lemberg he established a temporary yeshiva for the youth to study Torah until they would be able to cross the border.

Reb Mendel Futerfas, the operation’s other main organizer, once told him that, with the NKVD was hot on Reb Yona’s trail, he had decided to reserve him a place on the next train so that he could escape their clutches as soon as possible. Reb Yona agreed. But when he was about to leave, he suddenly announced he had changed his mind and was staying behind: “The Rebbe appointed me in charge of Tomchei T’mimim,” he explained. “My first responsibility must be to concern myself with every Tomim [student or graduate of the yeshiva] still left in the land. Only after the last one escapes can I leave!”

Reb Yona would not be swayed by any argument. He was overjoyed to hear that those Chassidim who left had reached Poland safely. But he would not think of leaving himself until he fulfilled the sacred mission entrusted to him of preserving Tomchei T’mimim, its students and graduates.

Many hundreds of Lubavitchers managed to escape to Poland before the NKVD clamped down. The remaining Chassidim, expecting to be arrested, started to escape to other Soviet cities.

One day, the family with whom Reb Yona stayed in Lemberg learned that the local NKVD chief had ordered a search there. Reb Yona was out, but as soon as he came in, he was warned to flee. But this great Chassid insisted on first saying his prayers. Others would have rushed their prayers, with a pounding heart, for every extra moment in the apartment was dangerous. But not Reb Yona. As usual, he prayed devoutly, saying each word with deep fervor, which took quite a while. Only then did he eat a fast breakfast and leave. The NKVD agent arrived, fortunately, only after he left. This incident has a sequel that will be left for a later chapter.

Reb Yona was now on the NKVD’s “most wanted” list as one of the greatest “criminals.” He escaped to Leningrad. At the apartment where he stayed, a prayer service was organized for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year. A certain Jew known to be a government informer asked to join the prayers, but those present were naturally unwilling to admit him. Reb Yona, with his heart of gold, felt that even that Jew should be permitted to pray with other Jews on this solemn day, so they let him in. That was his undoing. The man promptly revealed Reb Yona’s location to the NKVD, who soon arrested him.

Even in jail, Reb Yona was so scrupulous in his religious observance that he insisted on eating only home-baked bread. His wife sent bread she had baked to his jails, but it probably never reached him. Although he was not at all old, he passed away from malnutrition in his Leningrad jail on 22 Shvat, 1949.

Reb Yona and his wife were childless. Yet many Chassidim consider him their father in a spiritual sense. His untiring efforts gave hundreds of students a faithful Torah education in the underground Yeshivos, enabling them to survive as Jews through one of the harshest eras in our long history of persecution. His spiritual descendants are the thousands of families and pupils these students have since raised — a very large proportion of today’s worldwide Chabad community, including many in the forefront of the Rebbe’s work to spread Yiddishkeit around the globe.

By Rabbi Moishe Levertov. Edited and adapted by Rabbi Daniel Goldberg. To purchase this book click here.
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