Before Passover 2011, 650 yeshivah boys, average age 20, traveled all over the world as volunteer emissaries of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, to make public Sedarim in places where there are no Chabad Houses, or to help in Chabad Houses with very large public Sedarim. The young men were sent everywhere, from Zambia to Peru, to Germany, to India, to Australia, to Puerto Rico. Each one is carefully interviewed beforehand, and there is an education day where prominent rabbis come to Brooklyn and train the boys. Rabbi Schneur Nejar worked out all the arrangements, including advance classes addressing the details of koshering kitchens, supervising cooks and leading public Sedarim. The project is underwritten by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, headed by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky. The price tag? Philanthropists around the world donated $1.3 million to cover costs.

Destination: Ukraine

L-R: Shneur Zalman Margolin, Yuleh Darashov, Nison Deitsch.
L-R: Shneur Zalman Margolin, Yuleh Darashov, Nison Deitsch.

A few days before Passover 2011, I was part of a group of 30 yeshivah students who arrived at JFK Airport en route to Ukraine. All 30 of us had way too much luggage, because of all the kosher food we had to bring. FinnAir wanted $150 per piece of overweight baggage. We called for a manager and told him the extra luggage was necessary because of our religion. He soon let us through without any extra charge.

On the plane, too, we required bending of the rules. We needed to pray minchah and maariv, the afternoon and evening prayers. Fortunately, the stewardesses were respectful and accommodating, and allowed us to temporarily take over the kitchen.

After an eight-hour flight we arrived in Helsinki, capital of Finland. From there to Kiev we traveled on a very small aircraft with a tiny luggage hold. Luckily, the aircraft also had a tiny number of passengers. So the stewardess strapped our bags into first-class seats; then she stood up front and pointed out the emergency exits to them. Rules are rules.

Arriving in Kiev, there were two vans waiting to transport us to Zhitomir, a two-hour ride.

Zhitomir has a large Chabad House, and we enjoyed all the amenities. The chief rabbi of Zhitomir region and western Ukraine, Rabbi Shlomo Wilhelm, spoke to us (only in Yiddish—he speaks no English) and gave us lots of detailed instructions.

Margolin putting on tefillin with a Gaisin Jew a few hours before Pesach.
Margolin putting on tefillin with a Gaisin Jew a few hours before Pesach.

For example, he told us, “Nightfall is very late in a lot of the cities you’re going to. You can start the holiday early, but you cannot drink the four cups of wine early. But if you call the Seder for late at night, no one will come. So,” he said, “you boys have to figure out a way to get the people in early, and then entertain them—put on tefillin, light candles, sing, dance, learn, tell stories, anything—so they don’t leave before nightfall.”

He gave us a lot of important instructions, and he gave us Ukrainian money—1,500 grivna—with which to get around and buy supplies as needed.

A fleet of taxis began to arrive. Each one was marked with the name of the city—two boys per city. Rabbi Nochum Tamarin, who takes care of all the small cities in western Ukraine, had loaded every taxi with matzah, wine, chicken, kosher-for-Passover pots, and whatever else we would need that we wouldn’t be able to find in local markets.

Shapiro Brothers

The horse and cart is still a common means of transportation in Gaisin.
The horse and cart is still a common means of transportation in Gaisin.

The taxis departed, and within the next ten hours all reached their destinations.

Two boys were sent to Slavuta; they were familiar with Slavuta because it is well known as the place where the Tanya was first printed in 1796 by the printing press founded by Reb Moshe Shapiro, son of Reb Pinchas Koritzer. It was later owned by his two sons, Pinchas and Shmuel Abba (“the Shapiro brothers”).

Some 170 years ago a non-Jewish worker died while working for the brothers, and the government accused them of killing him.

The brothers were punished for the “murder” of the worker: they had to run the gantlet. As they ran between two rows of a total of 250 soldiers, they were whipped and struck repeatedly from both sides. Halfway through, one brother realized his kippah had fallen off. He turned back to pick it up, causing himself additional blows.

Besides running the gantlet, they were sentenced to 20 years of exile in Siberia. Such brutal punishment for a non-crime is unthinkable nowadays, but back then it was par for the course.

The boys went to see the Shapiro brothers’ printing press, which is a sewing factory now.

In Slavuta they were shown an entire Jewish cemetery that had been paved over during the 1970s to make room for a house that some wealthy woman decided she wanted to build there. You can still read some of the gravestones that are now part of the cement. (The house was never built.) The gravestone of Reb Moshe Shapiro, son of Reb Pinchas Koritzer, is the only one that was restored.

In all the little Ukrainian towns that we were sent to, horses and buggies are still used as transportation. (There are some cars too, of course.) People work their fields with horse-drawn plows and raise chickens in their backyards. As one boy who went to Slavuta told us, “In my ignorance, I asked someone why he raises chickens in his backyard. He looked at me like I was a dumb foreigner. ‘Vat do you mean, vy! To have eggs! I eat, or I sell!’”

Jews don’t run the gantlet anymore, but the police are definitely not our friends. The Ukrainian police often abused their authority and harassed us just for “fun,” threatened us with arrest, and took bribes from us (American money only), only because they saw we were Jews. Getting out of those situations was challenging for us.

Gaisin: Very Few Jews Left

Local women cook for the Seder.
Local women cook for the Seder.

My friend Shneur Zalman Margolin and I were assigned to Gaisin, population 25,000, of which only 80 are Jews. You could say that more than a quarter of the Jewish population attended our Seder. On the way there, we were very sleepy, having been on the road for over 20 hours. We fell asleep. I woke up only once, because there were headlights shining right into my eyes. A car driving on the other side of the road had crossed the median and was speeding towards us. At the last second our driver veered off into the outer lane and missed him. The other car continued driving the wrong way.

Part of the reason it takes so long to get anywhere in Ukraine is that the streets were paved—once—over half a century ago. Not since then have they been repaved, or even repaired. Sometimes you can’t even take a direct route because of all the bumps, potholes and craters.

We arrived in Gaisin at 7:30 AM on the Friday before Passover. The driver dropped us off at our hotel, which we were told was the fanciest hotel in the city. (It would be a no-star by American standards. The beds were rock-hard; the showers dripped instead of spraying; the fridges had no settings whatsoever.)

Meeting Yuleh

The Seder table is set.
The Seder table is set.

It was on Friday that we met Mr. Yehuda (“Yuleh”) Darashov, 81, the unofficial Jewish community leader of Gaisin. His knowledge of Judaism was a bit sketchy, but by Gaisin standards he was a true scholar. Although he did not have a long white beard, he spoke a very familiar Russian-style Yiddish that reminded us of some of the Russian chassidim we know in Crown Heights.

Yuleh was the one who would take us on Sunday to the market to buy what we needed; he knew all 80 Jews in Gaisin, and had informed them of the upcoming Seder. Rabbi Tamarin had already wired him the money needed, and Yuleh had hired people to cook, clean and help serve in the small community room that he rents for every Jewish get-together. We only had to make sure everything was done correctly—we didn’t have to cook ourselves for the public Seder, but we checked and dried all the lettuce. Charoset we brought from New York.

The eggs we bought at the marketplace still had feathers on them from the chickens. You just can’t get that kind of reality check in the pristine, sanitized United States supermarkets.

Letter to a Son

The mikvah we used: Freezing cold river in Gaisin.
The mikvah we used: Freezing cold river in Gaisin.

Before I left New York I happened to read a letter from Reb Levik, the Rebbe’s father, which he wrote to the Rebbe before Passover. He instructed his son that when you eat the matzah, you should not only make sure that the matzah is absolutely kosher, but make sure that you too are “kosher.” With that in mind, Margolin and I were determined to use a mikvah (ritual bath) before the Holiday. Of course there was no mikvah in Gaisin, or anywhere nearby, but there was a river. It was 50 degrees Fahrenheit out, and the water was even colder, but we were aware that in these very cities, under vicious communist persecution, our grandfathers had chopped ice in order to get to the mikvah. This knowledge kept us warm inside, even as our bodies were shivering. We burnt our chametz near the river, too.

We koshered the ovens as we had been taught in New York. There was no running water in the community room, so we prepared barrels of water beforehand for Urchatz and Rachtzah, the two parts of the Seder where we wash our hands. Despite this and many other unexpected obstacles, the Sedarim were certainly successful, and when we told the people (through our volunteer interpreter, who spoke only Hebrew and Russian) that each of them was capable of doing that last mitzvah necessary to tip the G‑dly scales and bring Moshiach (as the Rambam writes), one was able to see the pure souls of the Gaisin Jews shining brightly even in this spiritual wasteland.

The Gaisin of Old

Margolin stands near Yuleh Darashov at the two mass graves where 4,500 Jews were murdered by the Nazis 70 years ago.
Margolin stands near Yuleh Darashov at the two mass graves where 4,500 Jews were murdered by the Nazis 70 years ago.

But Gaisin wasn’t always a spiritual wasteland. Yuleh Darashov, born in 1930, told us (in Yiddish, the only language we share) that when he was a child, Gaisin was home to not 80 but 12,000 Jews. There were two synagogues and many rabbis, teachers and ritual slaughterers. Until 1941, Yuleh lived a secure and sheltered life. All this ended when he was eleven years old and the Nazis marched into Gaisin. Yuleh’s father was drafted into the Russian army, where he was sent to the front lines and killed.

Everyone knew that the Nazis were very dangerous, particularly to Jews. If you could run away from them, you did. Yuleh’s mother took him and his brother and fled with them to Uzbekistan to escape the Nazis. This was the abrupt ending of Yuleh’s Jewish education, and indeed of his blissful and innocent childhood.

In Uzbekistan, at age 11, Yuleh began working full time selling small items in the marketplace to support the family. They were among the lucky ones, because Yuleh’s father had a brother who was an officer in the Russian army. This uncle used to send them money so that they would not starve. But he was eventually also killed in the army, and Yuleh’s older brother became sick and died too. It was just him and his mother, and it was a struggle to stay alive.

When the Nazis took control of Gaisin, chaos erupted. People, especially Jews, were running for their lives. But not fast or far enough. The Nazis forced 4,500 Jews into the center of town, where they dug two enormous mass graves. The Jews were shot and thrown into these graves. Some non-Jewish partisans were also shot and thrown into one of the mass graves.

In 1943, it seemed safe to return to Gaisin. This is when Yuleh and his mother found out about the mass murder that had taken place in the center of their hometown.

They could barely find anyone they had known. Most of the Jews had either fled or been murdered. The synagogues, teachers and rabbis were no more. Yuleh and his mother had lost over 200 close relatives.

When Yuleh told us this story, we asked him to take us to the spot so that we could recite some Psalms there.

On the path leading to the graves, there was a 20-foot-high statue of a mother holding a baby, and some flowers, and the words, “Here lie victims of World War II.” Not a word about the fact that they were killed just for being Jewish.

Further down the path, we saw two large clearings with no trees or buildings on them. Yuleh told us in a very quiet and anguished voice that these are the two mass graves where the Jews of Gaisin are buried—and that he remembers many of these people from his childhood. As we stood there, we could see in his eyes that he remembered very well his friends and his teacher . . . his uncles and aunts and cousins . . . the shoemaker, the water-carrier, the blacksmith, the rabbi, all killed by the Nazis in broad daylight in the center of Gaisin 70 years ago.

No Monument

One of Gaisin’s mass graves, with no monument.
One of Gaisin’s mass graves, with no monument.

We were surprised and upset to see a large cross over one of the two mass graves. Yuleh explained to us that since some non-Jewish partisans had been shot there too, a priest had erected a cross over one of the graves, and he, Yuleh, had no power to prevent it or remove it. Over the other grave there is nothing at all, just a mound of dirt and grass.

We asked Yuleh why there was not even a gravestone for the four and a half thousand Jews. He told us in his Russian Yiddish, “If we had a real synagogue, and a community, maybe we could do something. But we don’t even have money for a synagogue. There is no money for a monument.” There was so much pain on his face when he said this to us.

As a young man, after burying his mother in Gaisin, Yuleh married a Jewish woman, and was married to her for over 50 years. She, too, is now buried in Gaisin. They had two children; one married a Jew, and the other is, unfortunately, intermarried. Yuleh is a great-grandfather many times over. He proudly informed us that he has some relatives who live in Israel.

We said Psalms at the graves, and felt overwhelmed by the tragedy of this place, where there is not even a monument to show for so much Jewish blood being spilled. A Chabad rabbi once told us, regarding the Holocaust, “Remember, boys, you are their hands and feet . . . their lives were cut down, and now you must fill the world with goodness, and mitzvot, on their behalf.”

We walked away from the unmarked graves and threw ourselves into that very work with renewed vigor.