Unusual Ahavas Yisrael

After my father left prison, he couldn’t continue with the photo business. One day, he met with his friend R. Asher Sossonkin (Batomer), who asked him, “Avremel, what are you working at now?” My father told him that he didn’t want to deal in pictures anymore and that he didn’t know what to do. R. Asher suggested that he sell bread.

At first my father refused, saying that he had no idea how to go about theAfter my father left prison, he couldn’t continue with the photo business business. But R. Asher insisted: “You have young children! Sell bread and make a living for your family!” Although R. Asher worked in the same field and had good reason to be concerned of competition, he revealed the “secrets of the trade” to my father and encouraged him to begin the venture. This story is a wonderful example of how we helped each other out in times of need, and R. Asher's tremendous love for his fellow Jew.

R. Asher proceeded to explain to my father how the business worked. First, you bribed the officials at the office so they would give you a permit to sell bread. Then you bribed the people at the government bakery to set aside a certain amount of bread for you daily, so they shouldn’t say that there wasn’t enough bread. After bribing everyone, you were able to receive the bread and sell it in the marketplace. R. Asher told my father the exact names of the people and locations he needed to know.

My father accepted his idea, and after bribing the right people, he hired a non-Jew with a donkey and an enclosed wagon and equipped it with shelves to carry the bread. Every morning he would go to the government bakery, load the shelves with loaves of bread, and sell the bread in the market. My father was able to support our family in this way for some time, and we were thus saved from starvation, for every night he would come home with some loaves of bread for us.

A Cat Enjoys the New Business

One day, a Polish Jew came to my father and told him that he was a professional baker, with a specialty in cream cakes. Since he was a stranger without a penny in his pocket, he suggested that my father become his partner and start a bakery, promising him that it would produce a substantial profit.

My father borrowed money from his friends, the Pole bought the ingredients, and promptly began baking delicious cakes. The baking was done in our house, and we children found ourselves the main beneficiaries of this new enterprise... But in addition to us children sneaking bits of cake, other problems arose. Since the house had no proper space to store the cakes, they were kept on the table instead. One time, after a beautiful batch of cakes decorated with red cream flowers was left to cool out on the table overnight, a cat got into the house and licked off nearly every flower!

A few weeks later, when the Pole saw that he had gained my father’s trust, he told my father that he needed to buy a large quantity of merchandise that required a large sum of money. My father borrowed the money and gave it to him, and the man disappeared with the cash. That was the end of both the money and the cake venture.

Avoiding the Black Market

In the Soviet Union of those days, it was extremely hard to support a family relying on a frugal legal salary, and many citizens supplemented their income with work in the black market. This was criminal activity, and my father, despite his difficult financial situation, kept a distance from the black market. He would say, “It’s enough that we are religious and Chabad Chassidim. We don’t need to add anything more to our criminal record.”

Many people who were wary about doing business on the black market made small profits on the “gray” market. There was a big difference between a citizen whose business was, say, dealing in foreign currency or gold and one who worked legally but occasionally crossed the legal line. One way that many citizens ventured over the legal line was by trading in "obligations," the tickets for the government's biannual lottery.

Citizens received these obligation notes as part of their salary, which enabled the government to reduce its expenses. No one was really interested in the tickets, as it was known that the government claimed 80% of them anyway and only gave 20% to the citizens, so the chances of winning were very slim. For this reason, all of the poor laborers were willing to sell their tickets for much less than their advertised worth.

No one was really interested in the tickets

Some people bought these notes from the poor workers in large quantities for half their original price. Some invested tens of thousands, and others invested millions. As in every business, there were also middlemen who purchased large quantities from various people and sold them to the big dealers at a higher price. Twice a year, when the lottery took place, these dealers would sit and check their papers to see how much they won. Those who bought large amounts of notes had a large chance of winning almost every time.

I recall reading an article in the Ogonyok weekly about a certain individual who would purchase obligation notes worth millions of rubles for a tiny fraction of their cost, and once every six months, when the lottery was drawn, the entire family would join together to examine the notes. Almost each time he would win thousands of rubles, if not tens of thousands. They were afraid to cash the money in one city, so they would spread out to different cities and claim a portion of the money in each location.

Of course, this business wasn’t legal, and whoever was caught could be sent to jail for many years. One time, a Polish Jew by the name of Max approached my father. He wasn’t religious, but he hung around our community in Samarkand during the war. He suggested that my father buy some obligation notes, and in order to convince him, he named other Lubavitchers who had bought from him as well. My father agreed to buy several notes.

That night my father was so worried that he couldn’t sleep. He was afraid that the Polish Jew would now include my father’s name in his list of buyers, just as he had named the other people who had bought from him. Who knows who would eventually hear that he was involved in these activities?

In the morning he returned to Max and told him that he was afraid to be involved in this activity and wanted to sell the notes back to him. He was willing to receive less money than what he had paid, just so that Max would know that he had rid himself of them.

My father tried his hand over the years at various fields of work that wouldn’t force him to desecrate the Shabbos. Although he was a talented individual with expertise in many areas, his luck didn’t always shine through and he was constantly making his way from one endeavor to the next.

During the post-war years, most houses did not have access to electricity, and kerosene lamps were used for light instead. Each lamp contained a wick with a handle attached to the side that enabled one to control the light’s intensity. The flame was covered with a thin glass lampshade, protecting it from the wind as well as dispersing the light evenly throughout the room.

These fragileThese fragile lampshades broke easily lampshades broke easily and were in constant demand. When a lampshade factory opened in Samarkand, my father seized the opportunity and opened a store to sell lampshades.

This endeavor didn’t last that long, for soon after, most houses were set up with electrical wiring and the need for these lampshades diminished. Instead, my father opened a store to sell the colored fabrics favored by the Uzbeks.

Once my father decided that being that there were few photographers in Samarkand, it would be worthwhile to revisit the profession he had held in Kharkov. He opened a photography shop, and indeed it brought in some income. However, this itself was insufficient, and he needed to be occupied simultaneously in a number of other projects.

Among other ventures, my father made coda, a delicacy made from sheep tail fat. Producing coda that was guaranteed to last and not spoil was a complicated procedure. My father would sell the finished product to familiesin our local community. He also produced sausages, as well as wine for Pesach, and for a time he manufactured candles for Shabbos and festivals.

A Craft that Became a Livelihood for Many

In Samarkand there lived a Jew by the name of Constantine Yakovlevitch Tchachnovitzer, or Kustia for short, who dealt in sign manufacturing. Ostensibly to ease his acclimation to the Soviet lifestyle, he unfortunately adopted a Russian identity after the Revolution and even married a non-Jewish woman, Heaven forfend. The only thing he was unsuccessful in transforming was his stereotypical Jewish appearance, testifying to all that he was, indeed, a Jew.

My father once heard that Kustia was looking for an assistant in his factory. Being that my father was of the opinion that a young manwho was not sitting and learning should work to fill up his time, he decided to send my brother Berel to Kustia’s factory. Berel had a talent for design and was thus suitable for the position. Furthermore, the job would enable him to keep Shabbos, as well as earn a higher salary: designing was considered a professional career, and Soviet law allowed professionals to earn a higher salary than that earned by regular workers. Ultimately, my father's intent was Berel would be able to open up his own business in this field.

Kustia assigned Berel with simple tasks, but Berel was perceptive and soon mastered the art of designing the signs. Berel observed Kustia preparing the stencils for the letters, but the actual painting of the signs was done out of sight, in a side room. The signs always came out beautifully painted, but Kustia made sure that no one saw his technique.

Once, officials from the central office visited the factory precisely at the time when Kustia was painting the signs. Kustia kept his cool and didn’t allow them to enter the room, calling out from behind the closed door, “I’m taking a shower!”

Berel was extremely curious to discover Kustia’s secret, and eventually succeeded in uncovering the mystery: The standard procedure used by sign manufacturers was to paint the letters in the stencils using a hairbrush. This would inevitably leave traces of paint around the border of each letter which would have to be removed manually when the paint was still wet. Kustia devised a simple solution: he used a sponge instead of a hairbrush to paint the letters, yielding a clean, professional look.

After working as an assistant in Kustia’s factory for two years, Berel mastered the profession in its entirety, allowing my father to open a sign factory of his own, as he had intended from the start. Berel, knowing the trade, designed the signs while my father ran the business.

Berel mastered the profession in its entirety

My father hired an agent to travel to nearby factories and obtain orders. At one point, when the agent attempted to squeeze out a higher percentage rate from my father for his services, my father decided to look for another agent.

My father decided on a Polish Jew by the name of Tukerman, who worked under the same government office that our business was registered. Tukerman would visit the neighboring villages with his horse and wagon selling tar, which the peasants would use to smear on the wheels of their carriages. As such, his clothes were always covered with grime and he himself reeked of tar, making it unbearable to stand next to him. He was a chatterbox, not quite on the clever side, and he spoke a broken Russian. Nevertheless, my father chose him for the job. Tukerman had a way of attaching himself unrelentingly to potential buyers until they agreed to purchase his wares, and my father believed that he would bring much success to our fledgling business.

When my father proposed the idea to him, he thought he was joking. “Me?! I should go around selling your signs?! The mere sight of me will cause people to cross the street!”

“Don’t worry,” my father replied. “All that is needed is for you to wear a new suit and tie, and you will look presentable.”

Tukerman still didn’t take my father seriously. But my father was true to his word: he purchased a new change of clothing and gave them to his new employee. After putting on the new clothing, Tukerman looked at himself in the mirror and started laughing aloud: “Look at me. I look like an intellectual!”

He set out on his way, and a few weeks later he returned. He entered the house in good spirits and sat himself down on the floor. Tukerman somehow preferred the floor to a chair, and claimed that it was more comfortable for him. I think the real reason was that he lacked a chair in his own home, and had grown used to it.

“So did you bring in any orders?” my father asked.

Tukerman laughed and stretched out his hand, as if to say: First things first. Give me what I’m owed!

My father gave him a nice sum of money, and Tukerman opened his satchel and pulled out the contracts he had signed with a number of large companies. Indeed, he had procured us enough work for months to come!

How, in fact, did he manage to convince these companies to purchase our products? “It was simple,” he said. “I told them that we employ disabled people—some of our workers are missing a hand or leg, and sometimes even a head as well!” Tukerman gave a laugh.

My father’s gamble proved quite successful, and the new agent obtained large orders for us each time he made his rounds. This enabled us to hire various members from the communityin our factory.

My father’s gamble proved quite successful

Among the employees was a woman by the name of Esther, who was nicknamed “Esther the artist.” Esther was a lonely woman, who was constantly blaming her parents for forcing her to divorce and remain single. My father took pity on her and hired her to work in our factory. She was a simple and sincere but could be a little out of touch.

Officials from the central office once paid our factory a visit, and they saw Esther sitting with her brush, her face stained with various colors. Being that she was officially registered as an artist, the officials asked her jokingly, “And where is Leonardo da Vinci?”

Esther didn’t realize that they were referring to the great Renaissance artist, and she assumed that they were asking about one of the workers in the factory. She replied on impulse, “Oh, Leonardo? He just stepped out. He’ll be back shortly...”

Seeing the success of my father’s sign factory, other members of the communitycopied the idea and opened similar factories, which in turn supplied many families with ample livelihood, without any of them having to possess a university degree.