The foundations of the Chabad community in Samarkand were finally laid in 1941, when refugees began to flee from the Nazi front to cities in the Russian East, including Samarkand. Among the refugees were tens of thousands of Jews from Poland and other countries, as well as hundreds of illustrious and renowned Chassidic families. Despite the severe starvation and prevailing epidemics in which hundreds of Jews, including Chabad Chassidim, perished, the Chassidim nonetheless founded schools, a Tomchei Temimim yeshiva, and synagogues—few, perhaps, in quantity, but great in quality.

For the most part, it was these Ashkenazi refugees from central Russia who formed the community. Although many of the local Bucharian Jews sent by R. Simcha Gorodetzky to Tomchei Temimim had returned as full-fledged Chassidim who would regularly learn Tanya, Likutei Torah themselves, still, for the most part, they lived on their own and were not actively involved in the Ashkenazi Chabad community. This separation was primarily due to differences in mentality and language, but it was exacerbated by the fearful wariness that had become second nature among Russian Jews in the terrible years under Stalin’s regime.

Additionally, a few Ashkenazi families lived in Samarkand who, though not from a Lubavitch background, slowly became affiliated with the Lubavitchers until they became an inseparable part of the community. When they left Russia for Israel at the end of the 1960s and beginning of the 70s, they continued to live as Chabad Chassidim in Chabad neighborhoods. They established Lubavitch families and their children serve as rabbis and Chabad representatives in communities around the world.

Although the Chabad community in nearby Tashkent was larger, and of a similar composition, it was Samarkand that acquired a special name in Chabad folklore. I had the impression that since the Jewish residents of Tashkent were spread out over several areas of the city, they didn’t share the same intimacy we felt in Samarkand: We all lived in the Old City in a small area, less than a square mile, and even after we moved to the New City, the distance between us was not too great. But beyond the geography of the community, it was the extraordinary collection of Chabad Chassidim that had gathered there, as well as its schools and Tomchei Tmimim yeshiva active during the war, that set Samarkand apart.

Young Chassidim learned in these yeshivas with great diligence. Scholars emerged who were suffused with the warm spirit of Chassidus and an ardent fear of Heaven. The students of the yeshiva, emulating the older Chassidim, would spend lengthy periods of time in prayer, and in contemplating Chassidus beforehand.

A unique prayer servicewas held regularly in the residence of Reb Yisrael Noach Belinitzky (known as “the Great Yisrael Noach”), called the “Shpitz Chabad Minyan.” I lack the ability to aptly describe this minyan. Even during the weekdays, its congregants would spend hours in prayer daily, and all the more so on Shabbos, when the prayers continued until the late afternoon hours. The local yeshiva-aged boys would visit the minyan on Shabbos with the specific purpose of listening to the sweet, heartfelt prayers of its attendees.

Chassidic gatherings—farbrengens—in Samarkand at that time were full of tremendous warmth and fervor. The appointed Chassidic mentor leading the farbrengen demanded and effected improvement of his listeners’ character. They could be deeply and harshly introspective, and would pour out their hearts, crying for not being what they understood to be genuine Chassidim. I heard that one time, some Chassidim farbrenged until late at night, discussing how they defined themselves. “Who are we?” they asked. “Are we Chassidim as the Rebbe wants? How can we lie to ourselves, claiming that we have really reached such a standard? Are we Misnagdim, then—opponents of the Chassidic cause? G‑d forbid! So then who are we?” By the end of the farbrengen they came to the conclusion that “we are people who want to be Chassidim.”

During World War II, the famous Chassidic artist Reb Hendel Lieberman, brother of the well-known R. Mendel Futerfas, arrived in Samarkand. He had studied art in Moscow and spent some time on its dazzling art circuit. Tragically, he had lost his family in the war. He once stayed up late through the night in intimate discussion with R. Yisrael Noach "the Great," their faces lit by a faint light that flickered from a kerosene lamp.

When their farbrengen concluded towards morning, he said in wonderment, “Ah! I have been in Moscow, at soirées held for the cream of Russian society in beautiful halls lit up with magnificent electric lights. Still, it wasn’t as clear and illuminating there as it was in the dimly-lit farbrengen with R. Yisrael Noach.” These were the kind of farbrengens that took place then in Samarkand.

As much as I will write about the Chassidic gatherings that took place in those years in Samarkand, I won’t be able to describe the depth, sincerity and the emotions felt at every moment of those farbrengens.

In 1946, many of the Chabad Chassidim who had sheltered in Samarkand throughout the war managed to flee the Soviet Union, traveling via Lvov in Western Ukraine, and then on to the free countries. It was in this five year period—from 1941 until 1946—that when Samarkand acquired its Lubavitcher reputation. Although the atmosphere changed abruptly with this flight, the few Lubavitcher families that remained in Samarkand for the next twenty-five years preserved the unique chassidic environment and managed, to a great extent, to be deserving of the title “shpitz Chabad.”