It is 1937. A brutal, murderous communist
regime reigns in the White Russian city of Nevel. It is one of the windiest
autumns that anyone can remember. On a narrow, curving street, on the third
floor of a gray, three-story building, at the end of a long corridor that isA brutal, murderous regime reigns
dimly lit by one electric bulb, there is a metal office door, its top half a
frosted glass window. A sign engraved in bold letters on the frosted glass
Inside the passport office, the head
secretary, a woman of about 40—slightly stooped from a daily routine of bending
over papers and a typewriter, and yet not without a certain dignity and
grace—sits at her desk busily typing reports, lists of names and addresses,
inter-office memos and letters. She is intent on her work and pays no attention
to anything around her. Or so it seems.
Another employee is very much aware of
everything going on around her. Sarah, 19, is a file clerk. She is also an
Orthodox Jewess, though she tries not to make that obvious. Having been born and
raised under Communism, she is always alert to danger. She never forgets that
the Communists aim to repress, restrict, harass, imprison, interrogate, torture
and execute religious Jews (in that order).
The Stone Man
And so, once in a while the girl glances
at the curious-looking man sitting at a desk in the far corner of this long,
rectangular office. Sarah’s hand moves to still her pounding heart, but she
quickly puts it down. She tries to look away, but as though hypnotized, she
turns again and stares in disbelief at the man with a beard and peyot (sidelocks) who is sitting at the corner desk.
Sarah’s eyes grow bigger and bigger, as though she
is seeing a ghost. Her brow breaks into furrows, and she is perspiring
profusely despite the autumn chill in the room. What is he doing here?
She frets but doesn’t dare to inquire.
She recognizes this man. Once, when he
came to their house, her father warned her not to open the door to him. “He is
a mosser—an informer. A denouncer of
Sarah’s hands shake. The paper she should
be filing slips from her fingers. She bends to lift it. Then she inches toward
the man at the corner desk to see what he is doing.
He is middle-aged, with a long, sparse
gray beard with reddish spots, and peyot
tucked behind his ears. His hands are gray, his face is gray, and his eyes are
so dull there is no light shining from within. In a park he could be mistaken
for a stone statue, forgotten a split moment after one has seen it. However, not so
in this passport office. The unusualness of a statue, a non-man, sitting at a
desk, silently screams danger.
The human statue doesn’t notice the lowly
file clerk watching him out of the corner of her eye. Nor is he aware of the
storm outside that is smashing tree branches against the large office window.
He is intent on the names printed in the thick ream of pages that sits in front
of him. He reads the names, and from time to time uses a large black fountain
pen to mark a name with an X. The pen leaks, and the stone statue’s right index
finger is stained with black ink. The odd man places the papers in a drawer and
walks out for a few moments’ break.
During this brief interlude, the older
woman opens the drawer, looks at the papers, and makes quick marks on her own
tiny piece of paper.
A Talk in the Street
Six o’clock. The work day is finally
finished. The two women walk down the winding street, grateful to leave the
passport office behind. One is tormented by the information in her head. Both
women clutch drab black sweaters close to themselves. But their sweaters are no match
for the wind, and the loose flaps, like the wings of some giant bird,
whisk about them.
As they turn the corner, the older womanThe young woman turns pale
whispers to the younger one, “I couldn’t talk to you in the office. The walls
have ears. But I must tell you something. A lot of your chassidic people are
about to be arrested. And the one you call ‘Uncle Yisroel’ is certainly among
them because he continues to give religious lessons to little boys. I am afraid
that someone has denounced him.”
The older woman gives her young friend
the names of those marked for imminent arrest. The young woman turns pale.
“That man sitting at the corner desk, the one who looks like a statue—he is the
“Yes,” the older woman says with
certainty. “The men whom he marked with an X today are going to be picked up
tonight or tomorrow at the latest. Not that I’m supposed to know this … not
that you are …”
Sarah catches her breath and concentrates
on hiding the depth of her anxiety from her seemingly stoic friend. The two
reach Trubniy Pereulok, where they turn down different streets to go to their
As soon as the older woman is out of sight,
the girl breaks into a run. Not toward her own home but toward the houses of
the people whose names, she now knows, have been marked for imminent arrest.
Giving the Alarm
The young file clerk knocks on doors and
gives the warning in very few words. Many of the marked men pick up bags
containing their tallit and tefillin, a bundle of clean clothing,
and a loaf of bread if there is one in the house, and quickly disappear into
the vast unknown territory of Mother Russia.
Sarah knocks on the door of the
headmaster of the clandestine yeshivah
and tells him that the informer has put an X next to his name. He listens to
her quietly, and a moment later he leaves with only his tallit and tefillin in
hand. The man’s distraught wife hisses at the young girl, “Sarah! You come here
with stories! And now my husband has left. Go away. Stop making up stories, you
silly, cruel child!”
In several other homes Sarah bears the
brunt of similar reactions. But she keeps running from one house to another,
desperate to save the lives of those whose names the informer had marked with an X.
One Who Doesn’t Listen
At last Sarah arrives at the large house
on Klimowa Street where Reb Yisroel, who is a teacher of small children, a mohel, and a shochet, lives with his immediate family and his wife’s many
Reb Yisroel allows Sarah to slip into the
house. The girl has been running. She catches her breath, then quietly warns
Reb Yisroel, a Chabad chassid, of the impending arrests.
“You mean Faivel has informed on me and“Uncle Yisroel, please believe me. I saw
others? But we were students in the same yeshivah!”
Reb Yisroel cries in a voice filled with disbelief.
For a quick moment it looks as if young
Sarah might forget herself and grab the respected, older teacher by his lapels
in an effort to shake him up enough to save his life.
“Uncle Yisroel, please believe me. I saw
him,” she cries.
He is not really her uncle, but she calls
him “Uncle” because their families are close.
Now her breath comes broken and shallow.
“Listen to me. He marked your name with an X.”
But Reb Yisroel cannot believe it. “The
man you think has informed on my secret cheder
is a classmate from yeshivah days.
It’s not possible that he would inform on me. You are a kind girl. You are
trying to save lives. But it’s not necessary. Some people are motivated by fear
and greed, but Faivel is not going to denounce fellow yeshivah students. It’s a mistake.”
Sarah begs Reb Yisroel to take her
seriously. But the old chassid clearly cannot believe that a former yeshivah student could denounce anyone, especially especially another yeshivah student.
The girl is adamant. “Believe! Escape
before it’s too late.”
Reb Yisroel tries to calm the girl.
“Thank you for the warning. Now go home and help your mother to prepare for
“You’ll do something?”
“Yes, my child. We can say Tehillim (Psalms) for him to help him withstand the challenge. And tell your parents gut shabbos from me.”
Reb Yisroel disappears into the back of
the large two-story house on Klimowa Street. The old, drab beige building
stands perfectly still on this windy autumn night, the Friday before Rosh
Hashanah, in the year 1937.
One Saved Many
Courageous young Sarah saved many lives
that night. But on that Shabbat, Reb Yisroel was arrested and taken from his
home, along with many other religious Jews. Many perished. Reb Yisroel was released after
13 months of incarceration.
After his release from prison, my
grandfather, Reb Yisroel, concentrated not only on teaching children Torah, but
also on being a father to those orphans whose fathers had been arrested and did