The Bolshevik Revolution of October, 1917, brought radical change to the entire Russian Empire. A most significant change was the new regime’s official policy of atheism and war on religion.

This affected Yiddishkeit (traditional Judaism) far more than other faiths. The “Yevsektzia” — “Yevreiskaya Sektzia,” the Jewish section of the Communist Party — sought to erase every vestige of Judaism, goading the NKVD (Soviet secret police) to persecute observant Jews and religious institutions by every means possible — defamation, libel, economic pressure, confiscation of property, imprisonment, torture, exile, hard labor and cold-blooded murder.

The Yevsektzia waged its war so systematically that it almost accomplished its sinister goal. The overwhelming majority of Russian Jews had been devoutly religious before World War I, but within a generation, most had been weaned away from Yiddishkeit.

Most, but not all. A handful of Jews stood in their way. Despite overwhelming odds, this handful staunchly maintained Yiddishkeit throughout the Soviet Union. Almost all were Lubavitcher Chassidim, devoted followers of Rabbi Sholom DovBer Schneersohn (the “Rebbe RaShaB,” 1860-1920), and his son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak (the “Rebbe RaYYaTz,” 1880-1950). Most of these had studied in Lubavitch at the renowned Yeshiva Tomchei T’mimim that the two Rebbes had founded in 1897, a yeshiva that imbued its students with ideals that permeated them entirely.

The Rebbe RaShaB once proclaimed that the yeshiva’s students were the “soldiers going out to fight the war of the House of David” — the struggle to bring Moshiach whom we have long awaited throughout our exile. Only after the Rebbe RaShaB’s passing in 1920, however, did the real battle begin. Now his followers had to defend the very soul of Yiddishkeit against the onslaught of a mighty regime intent on uprooting it.

Lubavitcher Chassidim suffered terribly for their convictions. Because they refused to work on shabbos, they were often reduced to poverty. They lived in constant fear of a midnight knock at the door. Many or most of them were eventually arrested.

The fearsome Soviet jails were brutal. Relentless nightlong interrogations, savage torture and inhuman beatings broke them physically and mentally. Some died under the pressure, others before a hail of bullets from a firing squad. Many were condemned to forced labor in frozen gulags, often expiring from their subhuman treatment. Others were exiled to primitive regions, far from minimal civilized conditions, their health so destroyed that often they did not last out their sentence. They were true martyrs for Kiddush Hashem — “sanctifying G‑d’s Name” in life and death.

The survivors of those awesome years are dwindling in number. A few have published memoirs. But each person’s experiences were unique. And few of their memoirs have been published in English.

This volume is my humble contribution towards recording that frightful period for posterity. My memoirs revolve around the heroic life and activities of my father, Rabbi DovBer Levertov, of blessed memory — known among Lubavitcher Chassidim as Berel Kabilaker — and his family, as I recall the details from my childhood in the 1930’s until I left the Soviet Union in 1946.

These memoirs are incomplete. During the worst years of the terror, I was still young. Many details must have escaped my memory or else I never knew them. Nevertheless, the account provides a glimpse into the terrors of life under Stalin’s regime in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It also portrays some of the courageous Chassidim who courageously upheld Yiddishkeit and Chassidus in the face of such ferocious persecution.

Recently, copies of the NKVD files of Father’s 1947 arrest and interrogation have come into my possession. Excerpts of these are translated here as an appendix to the memoirs.

May these memoirs serve as a modest memorial to my father, and to my mother, who stood heroically at his side through all those bitter years.

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After his release from Soviet imprisonment in 1927, the Rebbe RaYYaTz is said to have declared: “For all the treasure in the world, I would not relive that suffering. Yet neither would I sell it for all the treasure in the world.”

Similarly, although my years in the USSR were full of terror and persecution, in a sense they were the most satisfying years of my life — not to be exchanged for anything in the world. Every moment had a sense of living for a higher ideal, an inspiring feeling difficult to evoke under our present conditions of plenty.

My hope is that these memoirs immortalize the memory of those devoted Chassidim whose ultimate sacrifice preserved Yiddishkeit for generations to come. May my readers be inspired to emulate them, above all by delving into Chassidus and living its teachings. For it was Chassidus that sustained Chassidim through the harshest years, motivating them to uphold Yiddishkeit at all costs, even to the point of utter self-sacrifice. If readers are inspired to greater dedication in that spirit, it will be my greatest reward.

Rabbi Moishe Levertov

11 Nissan, 5762
Crown Heights, Brooklyn, New York