When the Rebbe was brought to his first interrogation, as mentioned above, he was not only ill, but also battered by the constant verbal abuse, and weak and exhausted from his ongoing two-day fast.

Two of his interrogators were Russian gentiles, one of whom, Dechtereyev, headed the team. The third was a twenty-three-year-old Jew – the same Lulav who, together with his friend Nachmanson, had arrested the Rebbe. He was the grandson of a well-known Lubavitcher chassid.

The Rebbe was taken to a large room whose paneled walls were covered with microphones for the benefit of the men of the GPU who were stationed in the adjoining rooms, listening in and taking notes. The three interrogators, but especially Lulav, gave the Rebbe a surly welcome and greeted him with crude and degrading jests.

“Enough clowning!” exclaimed the Rebbe. “Just give me my bundle. You have no right to taunt me!”

Lulav exploded: “Shut your mouth! See this arm of mine? From the day it was fourteen years old, it has engaged in the holy task of dispatching enemies of enlightenment, like you, to ‘the World of Truth.’ We’ll exterminate you all, down to the last man! You want your tallis and tefillin?! We’ve tossed them into the garbage!”

The Rebbe struck the table and shouted: “Wretch!”

At this point the interrogators grew serious, and their chief began to enumerate all the offenses with which the Rebbe was being charged:

“You are hereby accused of supporting reactionary elements in the USSR. You are hereby accused of being a counter-revolutionary. The religious Jews of the USSR consider you to be their ultimate authority and are influenced by you. You also have influence over part of the intelligentsia of Soviet Russia, but especially over the American bourgeoisie. You are the leader of the enemies of enlightenment. We know that you have exploited your influence by setting up a vast network of chadarim and yeshivos and other religious institutions. You maintain an extensive correspondence with addressees abroad, and receive thousands of letters from every corner of the world. You conduct a secret correspondence via an overseas embassy concerning the internal affairs of the USSR. Finally, you receive substantial amounts of money from abroad to finance the furtherance of religion in the USSR and to finance belligerence against the Soviet government.”

Having read out his list, he placed a stack of documents on the table and declared: “And here is a collection that discloses your real face! These letters are filled with weird and suspicious mystical allusions. Tell me: What are your counter-revolutionary contacts with Professor Barteshenko?”

Without batting an eyelid, the Rebbe answered: “I will not deny that the Jews consider me an authority, but that’s not my fault. I do not coerce, nor do I impose domination on any man. And I have never exploited my authority to promote activities that oppose the interests of the USSR. It is not true that I am the leader of the Jews, and it is most certainly not true that I rule them. Power and coercion are alien to the chassidic path. Among chassidim, leadership implies spiritual stature that aspires to attain moral and spiritual excellence, and to inspire others to follow the same path – not by force of coercion and domination, but by their own free will to learn from the rabbi who guides them.

“My task is to see to it that whoever desires to maintain his Jewish identity is enabled to fulfill that desire. If someone chooses to be a gentile, I do not become involved at all. And since all of the above is done only by the exercise of each individual’s unfettered free will, where lies the transgression?”

At this point the Rebbe delivered an explanation of the meaning of Chassidus, which Lulav translated for his colleagues at their request.

And thus, once more, history repeated itself.

A hundred and thirty years earlier,1 the Rebbe’s great-great-greatgrandfather, the Alter Rebbe, was obliged to explain the meaning of Chassidus to the ministers of Czar Paul I. Eighty-four years earlier,2 his greatgrandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, was obliged to explain the meaning of Chassidus to the ministers of Czar Nicholas I. And now, in 1927, their descendant, the Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak, was obliged to explain the meaning of Chassidus to the men of the GPU.

Resuming his response to the accusations that had just been leveled against him, the Rebbe now stated: “I have never imposed taxes on anyone. I have simply explained that a Jew is obligated to study Torah, hence the need to make that possible by establishing chadarim and yeshivos. And that is not forbidden by any Soviet law. In fact Krilinko, the Chief Prosecutor of the USSR, declared: ‘No official law has ever been promulgated in the USSR against religious educational institutions.’ So whose voice am I obligated to obey – the voice of Krilinko, or the voice of Lulav?

“No action or word of mine conflicts with the laws of the USSR. If what I say about a Jew’s obligation to study Torah falls on attentive ears, and people in America send help to their relatives in Russia, adding a dollar so that the children of those relatives can also be given the opportunity to study Torah, that brings about no harm to the USSR. Quite the contrary: amounts of foreign currency thereby find their way into this country, and Russia is interested in that.”

At this point the Rebbe related to his “vague and mystical” correspondence with Professor Barteshenko: “Two years ago, on the festival of Sukkos, 5686 (1925), the professor called on me, as an expert in Torah and Kabbalah, and asked me to reveal to him ‘the mystical principle underlying the Magen David.’ I told him that such a thing existed only as something fixated in his imagination, and that the teachings of Chassidus have nothing to say about such secrets, nor about the hidden power that supposedly resided in the Magen David. He went home emptyhanded, but he persisted in sending me letter after letter, all with the same request – that I reveal to him ‘the mystical principle underlying the Magen David.’

“And that entirely explains your query about my correspondence with Professor Barteshenko.”

Turning now to face Lulav, the Rebbe addressed him intensely: “So you want to concoct a new Beilis libel?!3 Keep in mind that Czar Nicholas II conscripted professors and scholars to substantiate an anti-Semitic blood libel, but he failed. Your conspiracy will fail likewise. Lulav, I know full well what you and your colleagues do when you want to have a poor melamed imprisoned – you throw some contraband merchandise or whiskey into his house, then have him arrested and exiled to some remote prison. And now you’re trying to implicate me, likewise, in transgressions that simply don’t exist. You want to besmirch my name by using every kind of falsehood. But it won’t work, because it’s all a lie!

“Everything I do and say is always public knowledge. Three years ago, in 5684 (1924), I wrote a letter urging American Jewry to support Jewish settlement in the USSR. You’ve arrested me as if I were an enemy of the USSR, but I do not hate this country. Though my path in life is very different from yours, I support your positive actions, as is proved by that letter of mine regarding the establishment of Jewish farming settlements. Don’t invent false libels! I don’t operate under cover of darkness. My activities are revealed for all to see; I hide none of them. And nothing I do breaks the law of the USSR.”

Dechtereyev now spoke up: “Yes, we know your positive attitude towards the agricultural settlements. We also know of your letter to America, and we respect that.”

Disregarding that response, Lulav resumed his gross and offensive questions. He also ignored the Rebbe’s repeated request for his tefillin. Instead – and in this he was now supported by his non-Jewish colleagues – he suddenly demanded: “Take off your tallis katan at once! Take it off! Take it off! Toss those strings behind your back!”

The Rebbe answered them: “If you force me to take off my tallis katan, I’ll stop answering your questions. And if you intend to take it off me with the help of fists and revolvers – let’s see you try!”

And they dropped their demand.

At that very moment they were joined by their fellow magistrate and interrogator, Nachmanson. Catching sight of the Rebbe, he broke out into a comradely guffaw which he shared with Lulav: “Did you know, Lulav? My father and mother were childless. Only after my father traveled to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe and received his blessing did the L‑rd see to it that my mother would conceive, and they had a son. That son is the very same Nachmanson who is standing right here before you!”

The interrogators considered this to be such a hilarious joke that the walls shook from their raucous laughter.

The crossexamination finally ended late at night, when Lulav stammered out his news to the Rebbe: “In another twenty-four hours you will be shot dead!”

This was no vain intimidation: the situation was in fact grim. The next day, Friday, a certain well-known Communist who tried to save the Rebbe told one of the Rebbe’s daughters: “Pray hard that your father should stay alive….”