The war for Jewish education was both offensive and defensive: Parents struggled to keep their children from attending the communist schools, or at the very least to keep them home on Shabbos and holidays, if they were forced to attend at all. At the same time, they tried to provide their children with an authentic Jewish education at home. These were the two battlefronts my parents fought on as I was growing up.

I was born in Kharkov, and lived there until I was about three years of age, when the Nazis invaded the city. Like the other families of the community, we fled far from the front, until we reached Samarkand, in Central Asia. I recall that at that time I was very hungry and my non-Jewish neighbor wanted to feed me. My righteous mother, however, didn’t let me eat the non-kosher food, despite my cries.

Going to school meant regularly desecrating Shabbos and the festivals

Shortly after we arrived in Samarkand, my older brother and sister became old enough for school. That was when my parents began their prolonged battle over the education of their children. It is hard to describe the suffering my parents endured. In addition to the heresy in the schools mentioned earlier, going to school also meant regularly desecrating Shabbos and the festivals, co-education, and associating with non-religious children - experiences totally outside of a religious upbringing. My father did all that he could to prevent us from going to public school.

The courage of the young wives and mothers of school-age children avoiding school was indeed noteworthy. They were left alone with their children while their husbands went to work, and every knock on the door brought with it a rush of fear and anxiety. Unfortunately, the tremendous stress had a detrimental effect on the health of many of these heroic women.

The author visiting the first public school he had attended as a child.
The author visiting the first public school he had attended as a child.

It is important to note that in all the years that we were afraid of the KGB we had special codes for communicating, and for how to knock on a door or ring a bell. Each of us was very careful not to make a mistake, G‑d forbid, so as not to cause sudden fear or panic to the families in our neighborhood. Our code still stays in my memory: two knocks on the door or ringing the bell, silence, three knocks, pause, and then two more knocks.

Using this code helped us to ensure that the whereabouts of any children not in school wouldn’t be revealed to the authorities. The code was also employed when Jewish studies were held underground. Before anyone started to knock, he or she would concentrate and go through the steps in his or her mind so as to not make any mistakes, G‑d forbid.

The first stage in the battle was to shelter the children from the neighbors so they wouldn’t be aware that there were school-aged children in the house. The government had set up a centralized educational system, with the aim of spreading their ideology to every child in Russia. To achieve this end, every local principal wasWe couldn't be seen outside during school hours required to register all the school-aged children in his district with the school. The principal would send out his teachers during the day to trek from house to house, courtyard to courtyard, and innocently inquire of the neighbors whether there were any school-aged children around. When the neighbors knew of children who were the right age for school, they wouldn’t hesitate to say so.

Registration generally took place in the summer, before the following school year began. When registration was over, my parents, as well as us children, would breathe a sigh of relief: beforehand, we couldn’t be seen on the street or even in the courtyard of our house during school hours. If the teachers received information about school-aged children that were not registered in school, they would hurriedly report them to the principal. According to law, the principal was obligated to go to the parents’ home and find out why their children did not attend school. Refusing to register one's children for religious purposes was considered a serious crime, and one that often reached the offices of the K.G.B.

I cannot judge those parents who did not stand up to the cruel communist government and sent their children to government schools. Some parents claimed that keeping their child home for twenty-four hours a day would have had an adverse effect on their physical and emotional health.

There were parents who did not suffice with sending their children to elementary school, but advocated advancing their education by sending them to university as well. They claimed that as long as they were in Russia without any hope of receiving permission to emigrate on the horizon, acquiring a profession by attending university was a necessity. Some excused sending their children to university on the grounds that students were exempt from the army for the duration of their studies; at least they were saved from greater spiritual devastation. Everyone had their reasons.

However, those who persevered to educate their children along the proper path, despite the hardships and danger involved, are worthy of the greatest praise and respect. These parents were forced to hide their children at home, not even allowing them to step foot outside and in view of the neighbors. If the secret was disclosed and government officials arrived to determine why the children were not attending school, the parents would send their children to friends and relatives in other cities. It was indeed a painful sacrifice and a tremendous undertaking; however, many Chabad Chassidim did just that.

Many G‑d fearing individuals found it difficult to fight to such a degree, especially considering the risk that their children could be forcibly removed from under their care and sent for “re-education” in government homes. A child educated in this way would be completely alienated from his parents and from anything Jewish. He did not stand the slightest chance of retaining his Judaism.

So in the event that the authorities received word that children of school age were still at home, the parents often had no choice but to send a child to school. Some families sent theirIt was a painful sacrifice and tremendous undertaking daughters to public school, and they were thus able to continue hiding their sons. Of course, they did not abandon their daughters to their spiritual fate, but spent hours at home on their Jewish education to minimize the damage caused to their souls in school.

It’s important to note that in the early years after the Revolution, the Communists invested great effort to uproot belief in G‑d from the hearts of the children. Public school teachers dedicated many lessons to this subject, and they brought up their heretical dogma at every opportunity.

My father tried to hide us, and was successful for some years. But it soon became impossible to hide all of the children from the neighbors, so he decided to send my sister to school to minimize the pressure on the boys. Thus, my father managed to hide my older brother until he was past school age, and the danger had dissipated.