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Reb Zushe the Shamash

Another memorable personality was Reb Zushe the Shamash, who served as the attendant at our Shul. He lived in an outer suburb of Moscow, and used to sleep over at the Shul on Shabbos — and often on other occasions — because his home was out of walking distance.

Reb Zusha Paz, a “Polish” Chassid, was very refined and G‑d-fearing. To avoid any possibility of wearing Shaatnez (mixture of wool and linen forbidden by the Torah for Jews to wear), he wore a handwoven Tallis for prayer. He was careful to eat only food prepared according to the highest standards of Kashrus. His wife baked their bread, and they had their own cow to supply them with milk. He often brought fresh milk for Chassidim who had to drink milk for health reasons but were careful to drink only Cholov Yisrael (milk that a Jew has observed the milking). For Shabbos he often brought cookies baked by his wife for the Chassidim to eat at farbrengens.

What made Reb Zusha so remarkable, however, was his mesiras nefesh — his readiness to make the ultimate self-sacrifice — to help other Jews, especially those in danger.

There were always Jews, especially Chassidim, on the run from the NKVD. They had nowhere to spend the night, for their homes were under surveillance and other Jews were afraid to invite them. They often had no choice but to stay in the shul.

Our shul’s gentile superintendent, Semyon, was responsible to the NKVD. Every night, he forced everyone to leave before he locked up. After Semyon left, Reb Zusha used to reopen the shul to re-admit these illegals. They had to leave early next morning before Semyon arrived to open up. After morning prayers, Semyon locked up again. Soon after, Reb Zusha reopened the door every day and let the illegals back in!

This took incredible courage. Brazenly flouting the NKVD’s orders in order to provide refuge to wanted “counter-revolutionaries” was a crime for which Reb Zusha, if caught, would likely have paid with his life.

Later, as the Germans approached Moscow in 1941, Reb Zusha left Moscow for Samarkand, Central Asia. When the situation there became more stable, he started his own cheder (Torah school) for young children, which we will later have occasion to describe.

Every Iota of Yiddishkeit

Father was a tower of strength to us, educating us by his courageous example. Permeated with faith, he encouraged us to follow his path and stand firm in the face of all difficulties.

In the great city of Moscow, Father was the only mohel (circumcisor). In every shul, anyone coming to inquire about a mohel was directed to Father. Only in one of Moscow’s outer suburbs was there another mohel named Bronstein.

The Soviet regime considered circumcision a barbaric practice, dangerous for the child. If discovered, the mohel was liable to immediate arrest and serious punishment. Nevertheless, Father felt a deep responsibility to bring every possible Jewish boy into the Covenant of Avraham. Ignoring the mortal danger, he performed thousands of circumcisions.

Allowing their son to be circumcised was risky for the parents, too. The Communist Party was the sole avenue to economic advancement, and whoever was able became a member. But circumcision of a son could mean immediate expulsion from the party, guaranteeing unemployment and potential starvation. So parents resorted to all sorts of ruses to arrange a bris. The mother might call the mohel while her husband was out of town, so he could claim to be unaware of what she did in his absence, allowing him to keep his job. Only the mohel had no excuse...

Occasionally, the infant’s parents paid Father for his services. But often, when he saw a family’s poverty, he accepted nothing and himself raised money to help the mother buy food and clothing for herself and her child.

Besides being a mohel, Father was also a shochet. Usually he slaughtered chickens only for our family. But he made an exception for certain Chassidim who insisted on eating meat only from his shechita, knowing they could rely on his scrupulous care in performing this highly skilled religious task.

In addition to his care in observing all Torah laws, Father was also careful to observe all Chassidic customs and traditional stringencies, regardless of the difficulty.

Notable was his insistence on eating only “shmura matza” on Pesach. This is matza baked of grain guarded from contact with moisture since it was harvested, and is preferable for use at the Seder. Most matza was baked from flour guarded only from when it was milled. But many Chassidim try to eat only shmura matza through all eight days of Pesach.

This was extremely difficult to arrange. First, a peasant or collective farm manager had to cooperate by allowing grain to be harvested under the required special Halachic conditions. The grain had to be kept dry in a place clean of leaven — very difficult to do while living in close quarters with non-Jews and non-observant Jews. Then it had to be milled in a hand-mill specially cleaned for Pesach use. An oven had to be found that could be properly cleaned and kosherized, and where the baking process could proceed undisturbed by outsiders.

Yet, despite all these odds, the Chassidim managed year by year to bake shmura matza. The women rolled the dough while the men took care of the many other tasks. If any part of the process had been discovered by the police, consequences would have been severe.

Despite his constant struggle to make a living, Father spent many hours teaching us Torah, usually daily. If ever he was unable to teach us, it was Mother who urged us to continue studying on our own — for which I owe her an eternal debt of gratitude.

Mother’s faith and fortitude helped sustain us during those difficult times. Among my most unforgettable early memories is how, in the winter twilight late on Shabbos afternoons, we youngsters would crawl into bed and listen to Mother reading aloud, half chanting, her Tz’ena Ur’ena — a renowned work written in Yiddish for women to read about the weekly Torah portion.

Even in the darkest times, when people barely had money to support themselves, Mother and another woman used to spend every Thursday traveling around Moscow by tram to raise money from other Jewish families for Jews in need.

Our Schooling

Father had incredible courage to keep us out of school. According to Soviet law, every child was required to attend public school. Parents who disobeyed faced severe penalties, including arrest, imprisonment, and placement of their children in government orphanages. Faced by such a threat, many fine observant Jews felt they had no choice but to let their children attend school.

The government schools gave compulsory lessons on Marxist ideology. Teachers indoctrinated their young students with atheism, teaching them that Comrade Stalin was their father, and the Communist Party their mother...

Schoolchildren until the age of about 17 who dedicated themselves to the ideals of the Communist party became “Pioneers.” They wore special red ties and on Communist holidays marched in parades like soldiers. Older teens became “Komsomol” — young Communists - who "volunteered" to work on the fields of collective farms during their school vacations.

The schools taught even youngsters to inform on their own parents. It was a child’s duty towards the “Revolution” to report to his teacher if he saw his parents perform any religious ritual. This caused terrible tragedies in many religious homes, when children obeyed what they were taught at school, unintentionally becoming partners in harming their own parents. Often their parents were arrested, charged with trying to poison the minds of minors, or worse, of being “counter-revolutionaries.”

By the time children entered their teens, many were filled with such Communist zeal that they despised and hounded their observant parents. One Chassid we knew was threatened by his own son that he would kill him if he were able!

Children from observant families who attended these schools faced tremendous trials, especially in keeping Shabbos. The fearful mother of one of my friends insisted he attend school on Shabbos. At first he left his briefcase on the outside steps of his building and ran off to join his father at Shul. But then he started going to school on Shabbos and eventually became completely irreligious.

Most of my other friends managed to escape attending school on Shabbos until the age of twelve, giving their teachers different excuses every week. Their parents bribed doctors to write sick notes, feigned family accidents, and invented all sorts of ingenious excuses. But this became more difficult, especially when teachers realized that the parents were religious. After a while, to prevent suspicion, parents felt they had no choice but to send their child to school at least one Shabbos every few weeks. Once the children reached the age of twelve, it became so much more difficult that all my friends without exception eventually attended school every Shabbos.

Father, however, would have none of this. His decision was final: No son of his would attend a government school. He would not allow them to be exposed to atheism, nor permit any laxity in observing Shabbos. Some Chassidim sent their children to relatives in other cities to avoid the compulsory schooling. But Father, in his desire to supervise our education personally, kept us at home.

Besides teaching us himself, Father hired private tutors who taught us Torah at home several hours a day. Even our gentile neighbors knew we had private schooling. When their children played their games outside, they often announced to us that “the rebbe (Torah teacher) is coming.”

The tutor, of course, had to be strictly Torah observant — already a rarity in those days. One of them, Reb Yuda, an elderly widower from Smargon, had previously taught our older sisters. Part of his payment, perhaps even more important to him than the monetary part, was the hot supper Mother gave him every evening. He also taught our friends, the children of Reb Moshe DovBer Gansburg, before they left for the Holy Land in 1936.

Our childhood was spent confined within our own private “cheder” (Torah school). Actually, I became envious hearing how my friends at public school enjoyed the Communist holidays when they received oranges and other fruits otherwise unobtainable!

Our days were filled with dread that we might get caught as truants from school. Our hearts froze in terror at every knock at our door, especially in the early summer when officials used to visit every home to register children for school.

Once we had a real scare. We were in the middle of our Torah lesson, and Father happened then to be slaughtering a chicken. Suddenly, registration officials knocked at our door. We quickly hid our books and Sholom managed to escape, while Mother hurriedly put me to bed. Father had no choice but to complete his ritual slaughter of the chicken.

Fortunately, the officials were two simple women, who just wanted to do their job and had no intention of causing trouble. They duly registered me, and I was terrified that we would be punished if I did not attend school in the autumn. Another time, too, people came to register me. But, thank G‑d, there were no consequences either time and no one came to drag me off to school.

The only entertainment Sholom and I had was a weekly trip to the movie theater (“kino” — cinema). In that pre-TV era, these were all over the city. They showed only Soviet propaganda movies — an easy way to brainwash young viewers. Knowing how confined we felt at home, Father permitted us this break, if only halfheartedly, realizing how much it meant for us.

When Sholom turned eleven, Reb Yona Kagan had a long talk with him to explain the spiritual dangers of viewing such films. Sholom agreed to stop. Without anyone to accompany me, I also stopped going and never went to watch a movie again.

All Soviet media were government controlled and censored. Never did they report accidents or murders, for these happen, of course, only in capitalist societies. In the Soviet paradise, everything was only good...

Once, though, we were surprised to read an astonishing item in the newspapers — about an American chess champion visiting the USSR for a tournament, who refused to play on Shabbos and ate only kosher! Government officials even visited our shul to find out where to obtain reliably kosher food for him.

The American champion was the well-known Samuel Reshevsky. We felt very proud that such a celebrity was a Torah observant Jew. But we were envious not to be able to observe the Torah with the same freedom.

Years later, after arriving in New York, I met Reshevsky. Although not a Chassid, he used to pray regularly at the central Lubavitcher Shul in 770 Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and often asked the Rebbe’s guidance on important issues in his career and personal life. He gave me a first-hand report of that historic visit to the USSR.

In The Shadow Of Danger

During the late 1930’s, religious persecution escalated sharply. NKVD spies were everywhere, in all guises, ready to send a “counter-revolutionary” to exile or death for the least misdemeanor. Countless people, especially observant Jews, both Chassidim and non-Chassidim, just disappeared.

One Shabbos, for example, on arriving in shul, we noticed the absence of Reb Mendel Leib Abramson. A highly respected and learned Chabad Chassid who used to teach Torah classes at the shul, he had been a wealthy and charitable businessman before the Revolution but had lost his business and moved to Moscow. After his arrest by the NKVD, we never heard of him again.

Another special Chabad Chassid arrested by the NKVD in 1935, and who never returned, was Rabbi Yaakov Maskalik — known as Reb Yankel Zhurovitcher, by the name of the town where he had served as Rabbi. A graduate of Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch, he became a legend even among Chabad Chassidim, renowned for his boundless love for every Jew and his fearless devotion to Chassidus and Yiddishkeit. The Rebbe RaYYaTz once remarked: “If I would have a few such Yankels, I would be able to turn over the world.”

During that terrible era, shuls and Torah schools were closed, mikvas were filled in, Rabbis, Torah teachers and observant Jews were dragged off in the dead of night — to imprisonment, exile or execution. We lived in constant terror, uncertain what the future might bring. The fear was so great that we were terrified to show any sign of religious observance except at shul.

Yet nothing deterred Father from continuing his activities for Yiddishkeit, especially among Jews who could be trusted not to be informers. He seemed utterly oblivious to any consequences. We were terrified that he might be arrested and suffer the same terrible fate as so many others, for we had ample indication that the NKVD was aware of everything he did.

Once, for example, a certain Lubavitcher was summoned to appear at NKVD headquarters. “Tonight,” he was told, “a meeting is to be held at Berel Kabilaker’s home. You are to attend and report back to us tomorrow, repeating everything discussed there.”

That night he came to us very agitated. “Tomorrow I have to report about this meeting,” he revealed. “Please discuss only innocent subjects!” The Chassidim cooperated, avoiding any talk of incriminating activities. Yet they were disturbed by the news: Who knew if they would be so lucky next time?

The next day, the Chassid dutifully reported back to the NKVD office that no one had discussed anything important at the meeting.

The officers stared at him coldly. “Fool,” they blasted him, “do you think you can cheat us? We are fully aware that you warned them to speak only on innocent subjects!”

The Chassid was speechless. Somehow he managed to extricate himself and returned home safely. Later he repeated to Father what they had told him. We were stunned; were we so “dangerous” that they had to plant two (or more) spies among us?

Most parents avoided talking about the arrests, for schools taught students to spy on their parents and report any speech disloyal to the regime. But in our home we heard all about them. Some guests who slept at our home had returned, broken in body and spirit, from interrogations and torture at NKVD headquarters in the infamous Lubyanka jail for so-called “political prisoners.” They gave bloodcurdling accounts of the inhuman suffering they had experienced or witnessed, the frightful tortures, merciless beatings and coldblooded executions.

Often their gruesome experiences had reduced our visitors to a mere shadow. But those who survived to tell the tale were the more fortunate ones. Many were never heard of again. Some were executed soon after their arrest. Others were banished into exile, often to prison camps in Siberia where, even under normal conditions, it was difficult to survive the long winters’ subzero temperatures, and especially for many years in harsh labor camps.

We trembled as our guests recounted their unspeakable experiences. These savage realities became daily occurrences as more of those we knew were suddenly arrested and condemned to long jail sentences or worse. No one was safe.

Since the early 1920’s, Torah observant Jews, especially Lubavitcher Chassidim, had suffered terribly at the hands of the NKVD. These persecutions intensified during the 1930’s, especially during the period of the Great Purge of 1936-1939, when many millions of Soviet citizens were arrested and executed.

One winter night in 1938, the NKVD swooped down to arrest ten prominent Chassidim in Leningrad, dragging them off before the eyes of their families. Among them was the towering personality of Rabbi Elchonon Dov Morozov, and also his son Shmuel, who had recently married. Many decades later, it was discovered that these innocents had been brutally murdered soon after their arrest. Until then, their wives remained Agunos — Halachically forbidden to remarry because their husbands’ fate was unknown.

That summer of 1938, about twenty Chassidim were arrested in Moscow. That same year, Rabbi Shmaryahu Yehuda Leib Medalia, a Chabad Chassid who had been appointed as Rabbi of Moscow in 1933, (previously he had been the Rabbi of Vitebsk, White Russia), was arrested together with his Rebbetzin, his three sons and his son-in-law. Later he and his son Rabbi Moshe, Rabbi of Rostov, were executed by firing squads for “anti-Soviet activities.”

For the families of all these unfortunate victims, the pain was especially acute. Usually unaware of her husband’s whereabouts, the victim’s wife had to run from government office to office, begging for information. If she had young children, she had to take them with, unless she could find some kind neighbor to take care of them. The regime seemed to take a vicious delight in the suffering they caused the victim’s family.

With the family breadwinner in jail, his wife somehow had to feed her young family. That is when Father appeared. He raised funds to support families of these unfortunates living in and around Moscow, enabling them to survive in a respectable manner.

Throughout this frightening period, the Chassidim continued to guard the flame of Yiddishkeit like stalwart soldiers. In many cities, just one or two Chassidim were solely responsible for preserving Yiddishkeit. In Kharkov, for example, after World War II, a few elderly Lubavitcher Chassidim held two regular clandestine minyanim, sometimes inviting a Shochet to come and provide kosher meat for Jews still observant. Shepetovka, a small Ukrainian town, had a Lubavitcher Shochet, as did Saratov. Many of these devoted heroes refused to emigrate later even when they had the chance, preferring to stay in order to keep Yiddishkeit aflame, like lighthouses illuminating the dark.

Sholom Leaves For Yeshiva

In 1940, my brother Sholom turned thirteen. A few outstanding Chassidim came to participate in his bar-mitzva celebration, including Reb Yona Kagan and the renowned mashpia, Rabbi Nissan Nemanow. In our apartment, we had a lively farbrengen, and Sholom repeated aloud a maamar — a Chassidic discourse of one of the Rebbes — as is customary.

At the farbrengen, Reb Yona and Reb Nissan decided to enroll Sholom in the underground Yeshiva Tomchei T’mimim. He would travel to the yeshiva in Kursk accompanied by Moshe Morozov, a senior student in his early twenties who was already a faculty member and played a central role in the yeshiva administration. Moshe used to come to Moscow to receive funds for the yeshivos from Reb Yona. The NKVD, it was rumored, was on high alert to catch him.

At the last moment, for some reason, Moshe changed their travel itinerary, taking Sholom to Gruzia (Soviet Georgia) instead of to Kursk. It was just in time. The NKVD had discovered the yeshiva in Kursk, arresting its two oldest students, Yehoshua Katzenelenbogen (now known as Raskin and living in London, England) and Henoch Rapaport (who passed away in the Holy Land). Both were jailed for several years. On their original route, Moshe would have been arrested and Sholom probably sent to a government orphanage.

The yeshiva students of Kursk who had escaped arrest were now directed to relocate to the yeshiva’s branch in Kutais, Gruzia.

The Jews of Gruzia are Oriental, following the customs and prayer-rite of the Sefardim. Compared to elsewhere in the USSR, Yiddishkeit was practiced there almost unhindered. Jews prayed in their shuls freely, kept Shabbos and kashrus, circumcised their children, and even had Torah schools.

They were not completely safe from persecution. Several of their great Rabbis — “Chachamim” — and community leaders were imprisoned. Nevertheless, in general, they were far better off than other Soviet Jews at that time (some say it was because Stalin, a native of Gruzia, did not want his compatriots treated harshly).

When Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim moved there, the local Jews welcomed them with open arms. They despised informers, and that is probably why the yeshiva was able to operate there for several years. Reb Yona Kagan raised funds for its support, and now and then a student traveled to Moscow to receive the money from him.

Sending a young boy like Sholom far away from home was a great sacrifice for my parents, especially for mother. But Torah education was of supreme importance and nothing else mattered.

Sholom’s trip was a secret carefully guarded even from me. My parents told me he had gone to visit an aunt of ours who lived far away. In any case, I lost my only companion and playmate.

How envious I felt as mother packed big pots of butter and cocoa to send him! These delicacies rarely graced our table, except when I was sick, when mother bought such foods, together with assorted fruit preserves, to give me an appetite to eat.

Years later, Sholom told me that whenever any student received a package from home, he always shared it equally with all the other yeshiva students, for some of them had no parents, or else their parents could not afford to send them food. That’s how the students of Tomchei T’mimim related to each other, like true brothers.

After Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June, 1941, our correspondence with Sholom soon ceased. Father and mother were very concerned, for Sholom, just fourteen years old, was now stranded far off with no way to send him food and other necessities. The news from the front was worrying: The Germans had advanced past Crimea, and were only a few hundred miles from Gruzia. Soon heavy fighting could be coming close to Kutais. It took a long time till the bloody battle at Stalingrad stopped the Germans, but at the time we had no way of knowing the outcome.

After months of anxious waiting for news, we heard that Sholom had left Gruzia, thank G‑d, with a group of Chassidim fleeing to Samarkand in Central Asia. There he became one of the first students of a new underground Yeshiva.

Chabad Students From Poland

Within weeks after the German attack on Poland in September, 1939. they occupied most of the country. In accordance with their secret Ribbentrop-Molotov pact with Germany that summer, Soviet troops entered Poland and annexed a wide swath of territory.

Many students of the famous yeshivos of Poland, including dozens of students of the central Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim at Otvotzk, near Warsaw, managed to escape to Vilna, in Lithuania, which was still independent. From the courageous Japanese consul Sugihara, they were fortunate to receive visas that enabled them to traverse the Soviet Union by train till they reached China and Japan. They aimed to reach the United States, where the Rebbe RaYYaTz had already escaped in 1940 and was organizing efforts to rescue them. But only a few reached the United States and Canada before Japan entered the war at the end of 1941. Most had to stay in Japanese-occupied Shanghai, China, till after the war.

While passing through Moscow, these Lubavitcher students came to the Choir shul. There they readily recognized local Chabad Chassidim, and tried to contact them. Contact with foreign nationals, however, was immediately suspect in the USSR, and the Moscow Chassidim dared not have anything to do with them.

The students understood our apprehensions. But they had a surprise for us — booklets of the Rebbe’s Maamarim and Sichos published in Latvia and Poland. These were new to us, for the Soviet government had never permitted such “counter-revolutionary contraband” to enter the land.

Realizing how much these booklets would mean to us, they found a way to get them into our hands. They came to use the shul’s mikva before Shabbos and left the booklets behind in the ante-room.

To us, this gift of the Rebbe’s Maamarim and Sichos was like dew in a parched desert. Father would not part with them at any cost, even when we were later evacuated deep into Russia. Most of the booklets that we received I managed to memorize by heart.

At home, Father had other works of Chabad Chassidus, published before the Revolution, such as Torah Or and Likkutei Torah. He also had manuscript copies of many Maamorim of the Rebbe MaHaRaSh and the Rebbe RaShaB, besides other Torah volumes such as an entire set of the Talmud, the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, the Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch, and others.

Father’s Miracle

On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Soon the Soviet Union was fighting for its very survival. The vaunted Red Army suffered one defeat after another as the German forces advanced rapidly, taking city after city. Vast numbers of Soviet soldiers were lost on the battlefield or taken captive.

Yet even during such a national emergency, the NKVD found time to persecute the state’s worst “enemies” — Chabad Chassidim!

About a month after the start of the war, Father received the dreaded summons to appear at NKVD headquarters for questioning. We had expected it all along, but it threw us into panic.

Father reported as ordered to the infamous Lubyanka building. The interrogator studied him carefully.

“We know everything about you,” he told him. “You are the only circumcisor of children in Moscow.” He started rummaging through Father’s pockets. Triumphantly, he fished out of his top pocket a note with an address written on it. “Aha! Here’s the address for a circumcision you have to perform!”

Father had carefully emptied his pockets of any incriminating material before reporting to the NKVD. But somehow he had missed that scrap of paper. Indeed it was the address for a circumcision he was due to perform.

“We also know that Mr. Lipschitz, the president of your shul, is only a front.” the officer continued. “You are the real power who runs everything there.”

“On July 7, you held a secret celebration at the shul with Yona Kagan.” He watched gleefully as Father recoiled in shock. No one, but no one, had been present in the shul that Shabbos afternoon when the two had held a little private farbrengen. How had the NKVD found out about it?

But there was worse to come: “We know that you sent your son Sholom away to learn in a yeshiva, right?” This devastated Father, who had always prided himself on hiding our private schooling from the authorities. His only consolation was that the officer did not seem to know where Sholom’s yeshiva was located.

The NKVD man went on to describe all of Father’s activities. He seemed to know more about him than Father himself! After enumerating all his “misdeeds,” the officer informed him:

“You are at liberty to continue your way of life — on one condition. From now on you must inform us of everything you can about Yona Kagan.” He described what sort of information he needed, and gave a date and the train-station where they would meet. “Make sure you get me the information I need.”

Father immediately resolved never to say anything that could harm Reb Yona, regardless of the consequences.

On the date appointed by the officer, he reported on time for his rendezvous at the train station. Miraculously, the officer did not show up. After waiting ten minutes, Father decided he had a more urgent concern — an appointment to circumcise a baby. Off he went to the address he had been given to perform the bris...

The merit of that bris must have protected him. The NKVD never bothered Father again until after the War.

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