During one of my father’s trips to the surrounding villages for his photograph business, he met a Polish Jewish family in a forsaken Uzbek communal farm, or kholkhoz. My father asked them who they were and what they were doing there, alone among non-Jews. The family explained that after the Germans had divided Poland with Russia, they found themselves in Russian territory. Fearing the Nazi onslaught nonetheless, their mother had pressed them to escape further into the Russian interior, which is how they ended up in this far-flung kholkhoz.They found themselves in Russian territory My father told them about the thriving Jewish community in Samarkand, and invited them to visit. Indeed, not long after, the Ehrlich family relocated to Samarkand; the mother, two sisters, and a son, who would in time become the well-known and much loved Yiddish singer and songwriter R. Yom Tov Ehrlich.

My father immediately recognized Yom Tov’s musical talents and his unique gift for composition. He offered him his violin and suggested that he go to weddings to sing his songs, which would also earn him some money. R. Yom Tov took up my father’s advice, and out of appreciation, would often come by our house to visit my father.

Like some others who had come from Poland, the way of life in Uzbekistan appeared very strange to R. Yom Tov. The rough Uzbek mentality was very different from his own, more European, lifestyle. The Uzbeks used donkeys for transportation, and the floors of their houses were constructed from clay, or at best from bricks, covered with cotton blankets or mats.

The Uzbeks had an extremely primitive way of warming themselves in the winter. First, they would dig a pit in the center of the room, some two meters in diameter and a half-meter deep. They would then dig another cavity in the center of the pit, a half meter in both diameter and depth, into which they would insert burning coals. The inner cavity was then covered by a wooden grid, upon which a table was placed, and then covered by a large tablecloth that hung to the floor.

After all this had been prepared, the family members would sit on the floor surrounding the table, sticking their feet underneath to keep warm. The meals would be eaten in this position, and at night they would sleep near the table as well, with their feet positioned in a similar fashion.

R. Yom Tov, always one to express his experiences through song, wrote lyrics full of his characteristic sharp wit, with lighthearted depictions of the Uzbeks and their peculiar-seeming way of life. Before long, he had become the preferred badchan, the entertainer, at the many weddings that took place in Samarkand during those years.

Once, R. Yisrael Noach Blinitzky said to R. Yom Tov, “Yom Tov, is that all you found in Samarkand? What about the Chassidic Jewish community?!”

R. Ehrlich accepted his words, and for the next wedding he composed a special song about Jewish Samarkand. He sang of his amazement at the remarkable Jewish communities that had formed, their shuls and yeshivas, and their unique weddings.

R. Ehrlich left Russia in 1946. While most Lubavitcher Chassidim were basically trapped by that point, as Polish citizen, he had little problem leaving the country once the war was over. After traveling about, he reached America and settled in Williamsburg.

In the '60s, when the Iron Curtain opened a crack and Jews began leaving Russia, he inquired among Lubavitcher Chassidim whether my father had been able to leave as well. Indeed, my father arrived in 1969. R. Ehrlich located him and they had a warm, heartfelt reunion, during which he presented my father with a set of his records.

I went to the Rebbe for the first time

Three years later, on the 19th of Kislev, 5732, I went to the Rebbe for the first time. Although I had been a young child when R. Ehrlich had left Samarkand, I had heard the songs he had composed in Samarkand from my father and other individuals, and I knew them well. I traveled to Williamsburg and met R. Ehrlich, who still remembered me, although as a little boy. He was overjoyed to see me and we had a long, warm conversation. At one point, he lamented to me that he didn't live in the Crown Heights community, where the Rebbe would have surely had him use his talents for the noble cause of reaching out to other Jews.