During World War II, the physical conditions in Samarkand were exceedingly harsh. Literally thousands of refugees swarmed the streets, starving and bereft of the most basic necessities. The lack of food was so severe that people simply languished of malnourishment and dropped dead in the streets. It was quite common to awake in the morning and discover dead, skeletal bodies of Jews lying discarded 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 this purpose, and ensure that they received proper Jewish burials.

Physical conditions in Samarkand were exceedingly harsh

R. Aharon Yosef was an incredibly courageous individual, not to mention a sincere and devout Chassid. It is forbidden 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. At other times, dead bodies were brought to the cemetery in the evening, and graves hadn’t yet been prepared. Being that it is also forbidden to leave a dead body alone overnight, R Aharon Yosef did not think twice and laid down to rest beside the body, guarding it throughout the night.

During the cold winter nights, he would sometimes remove the sheet covering the dead body and use it to cover himself. He once commented 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 about another. When a Jew lacks care and concern for his fellow, he may as well be a corpse!”

Due to the government's occupation with the bloody World War and the dreary economic situation that resulted, they were unable to focus on maintaining vigilance over religious activity. Thousands of Jewish immigrants from Europe in general, and Poland in particular, spent the war years in Samarkand. Among them were many distinguished rabbinic and Chassidic leaders.

Many Lubavitchers, who for the most part already lived in Russia, fled the Nazi invasion to find refuge in Central Asia, far from the thunderous battlefronts fast closing in on the heart of Russia. The refugees mainly inhabited the old sections of the cities of Samarkand and Tashkent, home to the local Bucharian communities.

The 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. Jura 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 Shabbos!" 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.

At that time nearly all the local shuls were crowded with worshippers. Schools and yeshivas were opened with relative ease. However, Samarkand's teeming religious life and aura of liberty vanished entirely with the conclusion of the war. The refugees from Europe were permitted to leave the Soviet Union and return to their homes, and many Lubavitchers leaped on to this golden opportunity for escape by feigning to be Polish refugees. Within a short time, Samarkand was emptied of the thousands of Jews from all overThe government cracked down on those who remained Europe who had once filled its streets. At the same time, the government cracked down on those who remained, tracking and then persecuting them for their religious observance.

The situation became even more grim when numerous Lubavitcher families were detected in an attempt to flee across the border. Some were arrested and imprisoned, others dispatched to labor camps in Siberia, where many died without even receiving a Jewish burial, may Hashem have mercy on their souls. The Chassidim who remained in the border city of Lvov fled and returned to their cities, broken and dispirited. Many of them tried to conceal their Jewish identity and connection to Chassidim, out of desperate fear of arrest.