Much has been written about the hardships that the Jews endured in the former Soviet Union and their desperate attempts to escape its prison walls. Many Lubavitch families have their personal memoirs about their exodus but most Chassidim left Russia in the years 1946 and 1947 through Poland. They escaped by forging Polish identification documents, taking advantage of the agreement signed after the war between Russia and Poland which allowed Polish citizens that had come as refugees to Russia to return to their country.

For a short time, the government looked the other way, enabling Chassidim to leave the country, but in the winter of 1946, a large group of Chassidim on its way to Poland was arrested and the government sought the organizers of the escape. Whoever was not arrested during those dark days felt relieved. However, Jewish life was becoming more difficult with every passing day, and there was no way of knowing what the morrow would bring. During the war, the government had been concentrating on the battlefront, allowing life behind the lines to carry on without intervention, but after the war they turned their focus inward and began to track the footsteps of religious Jews.

The situation intensified and climaxed in 1952 with The Doctors Plot, where thousands of Jews were arrested and tortured.

After Stalin died and Khrushchev took over the government, most of the Jews who had been imprisoned in 1937, 1946 and 1953 were released. There were no more political arrests; however, there was no significant change in the attitude towards the Jews. The government continued to closely follow every movement. Every house was required to have a book where every member of the household was accounted for, and it was forbidden for a newcomer to stay in the house for more than twenty-four hours unless he signed himself in the book. This allowed the government to scrutinize the every move of every Soviet citizen.

In 1956, my uncle R. Boruch Duchman received a letter from his brother, R. Yisrael Noach, who lived in Eretz Yisrael, offering to send him an invitation to come to Eretz Yisrael.

In those days, Russia’s doors were completely shut. The Iron Curtain wasn’t merely a play on words; it was the reality. Any official form that had to be filled out, such as a job request, included the question, Do you have any relatives abroad? This question would always be answered in the negative, so as not to instigate suspicions that one was associated with Western lands. As such, receiving an invitation from a relative in another country was a contradiction of sorts: Until now no such relative existed; how did he surface out of nowhere?!

On the other hand, receiving an invitation with the supposed objective of family unification was the only hope to receive permission to leave Russia. An invitation from abroad didn’t usually grant the recipient permission to leave, but there was a slim chance that your request would be approved.

My Aunt Rosa had always been terrified of the Russian authorities. When she saw a policeman she would cross the street, saying: “Why should I pass by him? Who knows what he is planning on doing?” It was therefore no wonder that, when she saw the letter from Eretz Yisrael, she was frightened even before she opened it. A letter from Eretz Yisrael insinuated a connection with the West and in those days it was common to accuse the recipient of a letter from abroad of espionage and other serious crimes.

My uncle opened the letter and read his brotheR.s offer. My aunt was uninterested. “Why is it so bad here? We are elderly people and nobody bothers us. Aside from that, other than your brother, all of my family is here. Why should we leave them all?”

My uncle disagreed. “It’s twenty years now since I’ve heard from my brother. I didn’t even know where he was located until receiving this letter. Furthermore, I didn’t write to him and request an invitation. If he offered to do this and managed to locate us, this is a sign that Divine Providence is directing us to submit a request to leave. Aside from that, all of your family does not have relatives in Eretz Yisrael and they have no hope of ever departing from here. If we are able to leave, we can send invitations to the entire family and with Hashem’s help we will all be reunited in Eretz Yisrael.”

Ultimately, the couple agreed to accept the invitation from R. Yisrael Noach. A few months later, my uncle received an official invitation from his brother inviting him to come to Eretz Yisrael. At that time, it was very rare to receive an invitation from Eretz Yisrael, and my uncle was one of the few fortunate ones who was able to start the emigration process.

The emigration process was not all that simple. It took a half a year until they completed preparing the many complicated documents necessary, and at the end of 1957 they submitted the documents to the emigration office, OVIR, a branch of the KGB.

When they returned home, they turned on the radio and were alarmed to hear the broadcaster announce that a joint attack had been initiated against Egypt by England, France, and Israel. That was the beginning of the Sinai War. Since the Soviet Union was an ally of Egypt, the Soviet media began an anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist propaganda campaign.

With the threat of Russia joining the war, my uncle, and especially my aunt, concluded that they had submitted their request at the worst opportune time. If they had waited one more day, or even a few more hours, and had heard about the outbreak of war, they certainly would not have made their request and this calamity would not have befallen them, but now it was too late.

Yet surprisingly, despite the tension due to the war, half a year later, my aunt and uncle were told that request had been accepted. Back then, this was such a rarity that if a Jew in one end of the country received permission to leave, the news circulated throughout the country. It followed that since we hadn’t heard about any other Jews receiving exit visas, it was reasonable to assume that at least in our area, they were the only fortunate ones who were able to leave the country that year. The process of obtaining passports took another year; that was the norm in those days. In 1957, they finally left for Eretz Yisrael.