During World War II, the physical conditions in Samarkand were exceedingly harsh. Aside from the Chabad Chassidim, literally thousands of refugees had arrived from all over Europe, and Poland in particular—among them many distinguished Rabbinic and Chassidic leaders—and now swarmed the streets, starving and bereft of the most basic necessities. The lack of food was so severe that people would simply languish of malnourishment and drop dead in the streets. It was not unusual to awake in the morning and discover the skeletal bodies of Jews strewn on the road or in the local hospital (Respublikanskaya Bolnitsa). The valiant R. Aharon Yosef Bilinitzky would identify the Jewish dead, pile them onto a wheelbarrow he had prepared for the purpose, and ensure that they received proper Jewish burials.

The physical conditions in Samarkand were exceedingly hars

R. Aharon Yosef was an incredibly courageous individual, not to mention a sincere and devout Chassid. It is considered inauspicious to leave a grave vacant overnight, so on many occasions, R. Aharon Yosef would spend the night in a freshly dug grave as they awaited the arrival of a dead body. There is a similar prohibition against leaving a dead body alone overnight. So, at other times, when corpses were brought to the cemetery in the evening before enough graves had been prepared, R Aharon Yosef did not think twice before spending the night beside the body, so as to guard it until the morning.

During the cold winter nights, he would sometimes be forced to remove the sheet covering the dead body and use it to cover himself. He once noted at a farbrengen that he learned an invaluable lesson from his morbid experiences: “I have come to recognize the difference between the living and the dead: The dead don’t have the capacity to care for another. When a Jew lacks care and concern for his fellow, he may as well be a corpse!”

For the most part, the refugees inhabited the old sections of the cities of Samarkand and Tashkent, where the local Bucharian communities lived. The Bucharian Jews were religious and traditionally observant Jews, while the few Ashkenazic Jews who lived in the new part of the city were largely unobservant. When we arrived in Samarkand, we too joined the Bucharian community in the Old City.

Our meeting with the Jews of Samarkand reminds me of a talk of the Rebbe, in which he spoke of the Torah as a force for unity. Jewish people scattered over the globe do not have a shared language or culture, or a common look. But there is only one thing that unites us all: the holy Torah.

When our group of refugees first arrived in Samarkand, we kept a certain distance from the local Jews, who in their dress and appearance resembled Uzbeks. Their language was Tajik, and their culture was completely different from what we were accustomed. However, when we went to their shul and saw their Torah scrolls, observed their prayers and listened to their Torah study, all barriers fell away. We felt that although we might be spread out among the nations, we are essentially a single people.

These Jews of Bucharian descent, particularly those who had been students of R. Simcha Gorodetzky, did all they could and more to care for the Jewish refugees. I was told that one Shabbos, a Bucharian Jew by the name of R. Dzura Niyazov, whom Reb Simcha had sent many years earlier to learn in Tomchei Temimim, made his way from house to house and yelled: “How is it that we can sit and eat the Shabbat meal while other Jews have no bread?! I demand that every individual take some challah-bread and bring it to them: saving a life overrides the prohibition of carrying Shabbat!" He explained the responsibility of the community to feed and nurture their brethren spared from the Nazi massacre, and the tremendous merit involved in doing so, thus inspiring many of the locals to take part in helping the refugees.

There is only one thing that unites us all

We arrived in Samarkand in time to spend the High Holidays there. Being that my father was known to have a gift for music and a soulful singing voice, the fledgling Chabad community asked him to lead the prayers for the upcoming Holidays. I have a sweet childhood memory from when I was about three years of age of my father preparing the prayers. Rather than just practice the melodies and tunes, he studied the prayers themselves intently. As he delved into the meaning of the piyutim, the liturgical poems, he was overcome by their power, and began to cry. I was taking an afternoon nap, and when I awoke, I heard my father crying and I began to wail too. He calmed me down and explained to me in a way that the small child that I was was able to understand, that he was only crying from emotion as he read the prayers of the High Holidays.

Hunger and the Search for Food

All the refugees who had come to Samarkand set themselves to looking for some work so as to earn a few morsels of food for their families. Bread had been rationed, and was distributed solely in exchange for government issued coupons. With a bit of luck, it was possible to bribe the officials and receive additional coupons.

Bread had been rationed

My mother tried to save her own portion of bread for us, and when we awoke at night due to our severe hunger pangs, she would give us a small piece of bread to quiet our hunger so we could fall back asleep.

I remember how my mother would rise at four o’clock in the morning—and sometimes even earlier—take the coupons and hurry to stand in line for bread. On some days, she still returned empty-handed. Generally, soldiers who had returned from the front wounded or decorated, and women with babies, were given preferential treatment at the breadline. If enough of them came on a given day, there would be nothing left for "regular" people like my mother. Then there were the ruffians who pushed everybody aside. Those not considered privileged would often return home empty-handed, and there were those who did not return at all. They had been beaten to death in the pushing.

We children roamed the streets, searching for seeds to eat. One time, my brother Berel returned from his classes smiling happily with a few dozen seeds he had gathered in the marketplace on his way home.

One morning, we woke up early, our stomachs growling hungrily. My mother had already gone to stand on line for bread, and we children remained home alone. Berel and Sarah looked for pieces of dry bread in the kitchen and after not finding any we went to forage for seeds outside.

Suddenly, I heard the voice of a woman behind me calling, “Look, yingele, there’s another seed for you.”

I recognized my mother’s voice, and I turned around and ran towards her while asking plaintively, “Mother, did you get a little bread?”

She answered with tears flowing down her cheeks, “No, Hilinke, there was no bread left for me.”

It is impossible to describe the pain of a mother unable to provide her children with even the most basic provisions. Every reader of these lines must be constantly grateful to G‑d that he or she was never placed in such a situation!

At first, this was precisely the economic state of much of the Chabad community during their stay in Samarkand and Tashkent.

As the war continued, my father kept looking for a source of income until he became a photo salesman of sorts. He would travel to villages and towns around Samarkand where the Uzbeks lived, and offered to take any small pictures they had of themselves or relatives and enlarge them in a photo lab in Samarkand.My father kept looking for a source of income It was a novel service, and a number of community members made a livelihood of it.

On one of my father’s trips he entered the home of an Uzbek lawyer who served as a prosecutor and asked whether he was interested in having any pictures enlarged. Unfortunately for him, the lawyer decided to make trouble for my father. He asked to see the permits for his business, and all his receipts. When my father could not provide them to his satisfaction, he called the police and told them that my father was working illegally. He also claimed that my father was collecting photos of citizens for purposes of espionage, making my father a tasty catch in the war years.

The police arrested my father and placed him in jail, where he spent four months, including the High Holidays, Sukkos, and Simchas Torah. Afterwards he told us how on Simchas Torah, he had explained to the non-Jews in the cell, “Today is a holiday of rejoicing for the Jews. I would like to ask you to stand in a circle as I sing and dance merrily.” That was how he celebrated Simchas Torah.

While he was in prison, the jailors forcefully cut his beard. He tried to protest, and they slapped him on the face so hard that he lost two teeth. I remember being afraid of him when he returned home; I didn’t recognize him with only a part of his beard intact.