It was Thursday night, July 14, 1927.1 At that time, the Lubavitcher Rebbe2 was living in Leningrad, in one of the apartments in the spacious building that had once belonged to Plechanov, a crony of the czar, at the corner of Pantilomanskaya Street and Machavaye Street.3 The Rebbe had just finished hours of private audience – yechidus – at which he received chassidim who used to consult with him in their hundreds on their wide-ranging issues.

There were fixed times set aside for these sessions, and when they came to an end that night, he sat down at the table for the evening meal, together with his son-in-law, R. Shmaryahu Gourary,4 and two of his daughters. (The youngest daughter was not at home at the time.) The Rebbe was exhausted, and had recently not been well.

The doorbell rang.

“It’s the Cheka5 agents,” the Rebbe said with certainty, as if he already knew the identity of these midnight visitors. Then, calming his frightened family, he added: “Whoever they may be, and whatever their purpose, I place my trust in the One Above: whatever He wills, that is what will be.”

The door burst open noisily and two young men appeared, dressed in civilian clothes. Behind them stood armed policemen. And indeed, they were agents of Cheka, or GPU,. The Governmental Bureau for Affairs of State – a similar euphemism. as Soviet Russia’s clandestine police force was then called.

“We were dispatched here by the GPU,” announced the tall, bespectacled young man who appeared to be the leader of the group. His appearance was determined and intelligent.

He asked, “Is this the home of Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, who is known as the Rebbe of Lubavitch?”

The Rebbe’s answer was cool and measured: “If you didn’t know the name and the address, you would certainly not have come here. So why do you ask?”

The other visitor, who was short and swarthy, joined in: “So you don’t want to answer?”

“I don’t know if I am obligated to answer you,” said the Rebbe, “because I don’t know of any transgression of mine that should spur the GPU to dispatch its agents at such an inappropriate hour.”

His calm and deliberate manner apparently upset their equilibrium.

“Over there,” fumed the first, alluding to the GPU headquarters, “they’ll know how to get you to talk!”

The Rebbe’s answer remained cool and quiet: “I’ve already told you that I have nothing to hide and nothing to be afraid of. However, if your plan is to trap me by concocting a false libel, I place my reliance on the One Above: He will shield me as He has shielded me in the past.”

The first agent, Nachmanson, who was the son of a Lubavitcher chassid, ordered the policemen to take up positions near all the exits of the apartment and also to keep watch on the windows. Meanwhile his comrade, Lulav, who was also the son of a Lubavitcher chassid, examined the apartment closely.

Nachmanson now announced: “I hereby inform you that you are already under arrest!”

Hearing these words, the Rebbe’s daughters wept. His elderly mother,6 who had been asleep in another room, now woke up, and when she joined the family and found out what was happening, she too broke into tears. The Rebbe looked serious, but not afraid, and reassured those around him. His only request was that the secret police should not move noisily or speak too loudly, so as not to wake up his grandson (the son of his eldest daughter and R. Shmaryahu Gourary), who was asleep in another room.

“We will now search through the house,” announced Nachmanson.

“If it’s revolutionary documents that you’re looking for,” said the Rebbe, “you’re going to be disappointed. “There is nothing here in my possession that can indicate my supposed opposition to the present regime. Besides, I’m not at all involved in politics, I do nothing that is illegal, and I’ve done no wrong – unless you’ve thought up a libel to incriminate me.”

Regardless of that statement, Nachmanson and Lulav headed for the Rebbe’s renowned library, which included rare books and valuable manuscripts that had survived several generations. The Rebbe stopped them on their way: he wanted to be present as they searched and to demonstrate that there was no anti-Soviet material there.

He added: “No alien hands, and certainly not yours, are going to touch those holy books and manuscripts.”

These two members of the Yevsektsia7 nevertheless went ahead, but their lengthy search proved to be disappointing: they had caught no prey.

Nachmanson turned to the Rebbe: “Get ready to come with us!”

His daughters, in tears, begged the agent: “Our father isn’t well! Let go of him!”

R. Gourary, the Rebbe’s son-in-law, offered a suggestion: “If this is in fact an arrest, it no doubt results from either a malicious libel or some misunderstanding. So keep my father-in-law here under house arrest until you see for yourselves that the libel is unfounded.”

Not only did Nachmanson and Lulav ignore these pleas: they threatened that if they continued, all those present would be arrested. And the Rebbe, realizing that all entreaties simply bounced back from the stony hearts of these men, prepared to accompany them to the notorious horrors of GPU’s Spalerka Prison.

“Nevertheless,” he declared, “I insist that one request be fulfilled; otherwise I shall not move from here! You must allow me to take my tallis and tefillin with me!”

The two agents exchanged scornful looks as if to say, “Have you ever heard of anything so absurd?! He’s still got things like that in his head?!”

At the same time, faced by the Rebbe’s insistence, Nachmanson felt obligated to grant his request. A parcel was immediately put together, with the tallis and tefillin, some clothes, and a few other items.

As the Rebbe took leave of his loving family, his elderly mother sobbed, and his daughters wept with tears of dread. Rabbi Gourary stood still, frozen by foreboding and restrained anger. They all knew of the terror of Spalerka, which cast its grim shadow over Leningrad and over the entire country. Incarceration at Spalerka meant mortal danger. How many of its prisoners ever saw again the light of day? Every night its cells were replenished with dozens of ostensible counter-revolutionaries and other opponents of the regime, whether real or imagined. Hundreds of them were held there and hundreds of sentences were executed. Even the most innocent among them was likely never to leave that place alive.

So at this moment, how could the Rebbe’s family know what ghastly plans Cheka had brewed for him?

Throughout his three years in Leningrad, he – and all those who frequented his home – had been kept under constant scrutiny. Indeed, one of the leading figures of Cheka was given an apartment next door to the Rebbe’s apartment. It was no secret that he was placed there specifically in order to keep vigilant watch over the Rebbe, for the Rebbe was the mastermind behind all the activities for the dissemination of Yiddishkeit and Torah study throughout the length and breadth of Soviet Russia.

Yet despite the enormous power and the underworld tactics of the Yevsektsia, who acted as the representatives of the Communists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, they were unable to destroy the Rebbe’s yeshivah or his work in buttressing Yiddishkeit, even according to the laws of Soviet Russia. Hence their frustrated rage. No one would be shocked if they were to hear that the Yevsektsia had fabricated a fake charge of “counter-revolutionary activity” and had then executed a capital sentence in the dead of night. After all, that was what they had done with dozens of other leaders, both Jewish and non-Jewish.

So, since such exploits were well known by the Rebbe’s family, one can well understand their intense fear at this moment, as they farewelled him on his way to Spalerka, especially since the arrest had descended on them so suddenly. The Rebbe, for his part, urged them to regain their peace of mind by relying on the One Above.

He then turned to the Cheka agents and explained: “I am recuperating from illness and am too weak to reach Spalerka by foot. Besides, I’m not visiting there of my own freewill. You want me there, so order me a vehicle and take me there.”

So they did, and until the vehicle arrived he spent another short while with his family. Then, as they parted, outside the entrance to the apartment building, policemen surrounded him on all sides.

Nachmanson, observing that the Rebbe had not taken his personal possessions, commanded him: “Take your parcel!”

“Let one of your policemen take it!” answered the Rebbe. “Am I going with you because I choose to go?!”

“So let it stay back at home,” retorted Nachmanson.

The Rebbe reminded him, “But I’m relying on your promise that I would be able to keep my tallis and tefillin with me!”

For a moment Nachmanson lost his arrogant self-assurance.

Lulav volunteered to rescue it by addressing a scoffing proposal to the Rebbe: “Very well, I’ll take the parcel! Just as my father carried parcels for your father, so too will I now carry your parcel!”

And he picked up the parcel.

The Rebbe took it from his hands and said: “No, sir! If your father carried parcels for my father, that took place when my father went wherever he went, or wherever he wanted to go. But you want to carry my parcel when you force me to go where you want to go. And that’s never going to happen!”

With that, the Rebbe handed the parcel to one of the policemen, and walked towards the police van, accompanied by the Cheka agents – but also by his family, though securing Nachmanson’s permission for this privilege took some time.

Once inside the van, the Rebbe encountered another prisoner, a cultured gentleman whose melancholy face showed that he knew what fate awaited him at Spalerka.

The Rebbe’s family remained outside, and watched the departing vehicle in wordless dread.

Within a few minutes it drew up in front of a huge edifice whose gates and doors were locked. In the gloom of that hour of night, that formidable Satanic fortress would make any man despair.

Nachmanson leaped out of the van, ran towards the front gate, and knocked hard, repeatedly. Hearing no response, he cursed aloud. It was evidently no simple thing to be admitted to Spalerka….

At that moment the Rebbe possibly entertained a thought that offered a touch of whimsical consolation: “Perhaps this delay is an inside job, planned by the Yevsektsists inside, in order to embarrass these two Yevsektsists outside…?”

In the meantime the gate was opened, and after a long argument between Nachmanson and the gatekeeper, which indicated that the people in charge were not yet ready to receive their guest, the entry permit finally arrived. The Rebbe was now inside Spalerka, Leningrad’s inferno.