Starting Anew

On returning to Moscow, we discovered that we were now homeless. Our apartment had been occupied by a Russian woman who refused to move out.

“My husband is an officer in the Soviet army,” she yelled at us, “fighting at the front for our homeland! What makes you think I’ll move out for you?” Nothing could budge her, and we soon realized it was pointless to argue.

Moscow had a severe housing shortage and we had nowhere to go. We had no choice but to move in temporarily with Chava’s husband Leib, who had an apartment of his own. We had taken all their belongings with us to Ivanovka and had now brought them back to Moscow, never using them even after we learned of her fate. Her husband really appreciated all our sacrifice for his sake. On the other hand, he was not Torah observant, which led to conflicts, particularly about observing Shabbos. We would have to find a place of our own.

After his release from the army, Leib had resumed his job as manager of a large lumber factory. Now he found Father a job there as a watchman. The factory owned a small hut nearby, situated in the middle of a large housing complex, and Leib arranged for us to move in there.

Father was delighted with his new job, for it required little effort. His poor health ruled out any hard work anyway. While watching the factory, he had ample time to study Torah, and he used to ask me to bring him various Torah books from home to study. On many evenings I joined him so that he could teach me.

The job paid Father with ration coupons exchangeable for food in the stores. This was very beneficial for him, allowing him to start keeping a strict diet, which finally liberated him from the stomach-aches from which he had suffered for so long.

Best of all was our new home’s closeness to our dear Marina Roshtcha shul. Because of the evacuation and draft, the shul was now holding prayer services only on Shabbos but not on weekdays. When we returned, we started daily prayer services again.

Since before the war, a man called Shmuel Katz had been staying permanently at the shul. He was known after his hometown as Shmuel Priluker. He was not a Chassid but was very devout.

The NKVD regularly summoned him in for questioning about the goings-on at our shul. But he was probably too G‑d-fearing to pass on any incriminating information. When Reb Avrohom Maiyorer (Drizin) came to hide at our shul, he never reported it, nor did he ever cause the Chassidim any problems. He never informed on my evading of school and my studies at the shul, nor later when I left for yeshiva. When the NKVD officers found out I had left, they were furious: “Why didn’t you tell us all this time that Berel Kabilaker’s son was here?” they raged at him. Later, when I heard about it, I wondered how indeed they had not known of my presence. It was common knowledge that the shamash (attendant) at our shul then was a paid NKVD informer, and certainly not the only one.

Besides Shmuel, a Gerer Chassid from Poland named Alter also lived at the shul. Both were at about the same level of Torah knowledge as my own, and we established a joint session to study Gemara (Talmud) every evening after Maariv prayers, enjoying it immensely. Another study partner of mine for a while was Sholom Ber Drizin. For a short time, Reb Moshe Charitonov used to teach us Chassidus.

Reb Moshe Charitonov was an elderly Chassid. He and his brothers, Reb Aharon and Reb Sholom, from the city of Nikolayev, were well-known composers of classic, soul-stirring Chassidic melodies (one of Reb Aharon’s most famous ones was “The Beinuni,” of which the Rebbe RaYYaTz was particularly fond).

Reb Moshe was the official baal korei — public reader of the Sefer Torah scroll — at our shul. Living far from our shul, he was finding the burden of walking so far every Shabbos and Yom Tov too much for him. When I expressed an interest in reading the Torah in his stead, he gladly agreed and, at the age of 14, I assumed this important responsibility.

Illegal Business

Father’s salary as watchman was so meager that it not cover even basic necessities. We had no choice but to seek illegal sources of income. Even then, our family barely had enough to buy food. We ate only black bread with a little margarine and saccharine, reserving white bread for Father’s diet. Butter, sugar and other commodities were beyond our means. Wartime shortages meant that stores had even less products than before. The lines of customers stretched for many blocks, waiting often two hours or more just to get inside a store. Only on the black market was produce available but at exorbitant prices.

Sima and I got involved in various illegal “business” ventures:

Although all stores and suppliers belonged to the Soviet government, some store managers illegally bought merchandise — by bribery and similar means — from government suppliers with whom they were not authorized to deal. They then resold these goods, which were otherwise difficult to obtain, at a significant profit.

In the outer suburbs of Moscow lived a generous Jew named Vitkin, who was always ready to do favors for others. Before the Revolution, he had been outstandingly wealthy. Later he had become manager of a government-owned dry goods store. Mr. Vitkin used his excellent contacts with government suppliers to obtain a variety of illegal goods, which he kept concealed at the back of his store.

Late at night, long after store hours, people who knew Mr. Vitkin used to knock at his store's back door to buy these illegal goods. He sold them at a fair price, enabling the buyers to resell the goods on the black market at a nice profit.

We used to buy goods from Vitkin, passing them on to an elderly man we knew, who resold them on the black market. Most dangerous was our ride home. Whenever a policeman boarded our tramcar or train, we froze in terror. I was short for my age, so I tried to bend over like a hunchback as I walked with sacks of clothing hanging behind me and in front, whistling to appear more natural. But my outward cheerfulness belied my inner fear. If police would search me, it would be all over; I had nor anywhere to hide, no cash for bribes, no excuses that made sense. If pressed to reveal the source of my merchandise or to whom I sold it, I would likely have broken down, spelling doom for my contacts.

We dealt in any goods available. Sometimes I was offered Czarist gold coins from before the Revolution, or even American dollars, for which people were ready to pay big money. Trade in currency was a crime so severe that it carried the death penalty.

After my brother-in-law, Reb Nochum Zalman, was discharged from the army, he started his own illegal business. Sometimes I got merchandise from him, keeping it at his home till I could dispose of it.

Another source of merchandise came from my older unmarried sister Sheindel, who worked at an office in a subterranean warehouse of army uniforms near the river in Moscow, right opposite the Kremlin. There, too, we could buy trimmed-off pieces of cloth. The managers opened the safes for us, cutting as much material as we could carry, which we resold on the black market. These wares were the most dangerous of all, for trading in goods designated for the military carried the severest penalties.

In retrospect, I can hardly believe my own daring in those days. Although so young and short for my age, I dealt in illicit merchandise subject to heavy penalties, even greasing palms when necessary. I also arranged to obtain false documentation for myself. Pressing circumstances, it seems, force us to adapt ourselves accordingly...


A friend of mine did similar business, but on a larger scale. Once he was caught by the police and, under pressure, broke down and told them the source of his wares.

He used to buy them from Rabbi Avrohom Dreizin (1901-1998) — father of my friend Sholom Ber. Known as Avrohom Maiyorer, after his hometown, he was a respected Chabad Chassid, with a large family (later he settled in Israel, then in Crown Heights, where he passed away). After most Lubavitchers had fled for Central Asia, he continued living in his Moscow suburb, not convinced that Jews had more to fear from the Germans than from the hated Soviets.

As soon as the police heard Reb Avrohom’s name, their agents set out for his home to arrest him. He was out, so they waited there for his return. Hours later, Reb Avrohom walked in, dressed as usual in his old raincoat — which he wore as the only long garment available that was like traditional long Chassidic garb.

As he opened his door, he noticed the uninvited guests. Thinking fast, he stretched out his hand to beg: “Please spare some money for a poor man...”

The officers scolded him away, and Reb Avrohom fled for his life. By the time they realized their error, it was too late. They gave chase but their bird had flown!

Reb Avrohom had already caught the train back to Moscow. He went straight to the Marina Roshtcha Shul, where he hid in its attic. Only a few men who studied there at night knew he was there. As soon as an opportunity presented itself, he fled to Tashkent in Central Asia.

Reb Avrohom, an exceptionally wise man, was an exemplary Chassid, expert in Talmud, Halacha, Chassidus, and many Torah subjects rarely studied even by scholars. He was also a great oved, who spent many hours on prayer. Throughout his life, he used to rise daily at about 4:00 a.m. to study Chassidus for several hours, then meditate on it for hours, before praying slowly and devoutly for several hours more. While he stayed at our shul, I gained much from his Chassidic wisdom and vast knowledge.

Meanwhile, I turned fourteen. By then, the acute famine in Central Asia during the war’s early years was over, and it was decided that I should join my brother Sholom at the yeshiva in Samarkand. A visa was required for travel there. To obtain it, I found a contact at the police station — a female officer whom I had to bribe abundantly for this purpose.

Several serious incidents occurred just then that prompted me to hurry my departure. Once I left my sister Basya’s home with a load of stockings that I hoped to sell. Brashly, I exited the tramcar from the wrong side. A policeman standing right there caught me and hauled me off to the police station, where I was thrown into a cell with thieves and cutthroats. Trembling in fear, as I waited to be arraigned, I wondered what I would say if asked why I was out of school and the source of my illegal merchandise?

Just then the door swung open and a familiar face appeared — the female officer who was processing my travel permit!

“What are you doing here?” she asked in surprise. When I told her an officer had pulled me in for no reason, she released me.

Soon after, Nochum Zalman’s illegal business was discovered and the police came hunting for him. Leaving their children with my parents, he and Basya fled to Tashkent. The NKVD took revenge for their escape by placing their youngest child, a three-year-old girl, under “house detention” in her parents’ home, in her aunt’s custody.

An NKVD agent came to our home to seek information. We had been tipped off about this likelihood and Mother had sent Basya’s other children off to a neighbor. The agent sat across the table from Father. “Where are your grandchildren?” he demanded to know.

“I don’t know.”

“Liar!” the agent screamed. “We know you have information about them. Tell me immediately, where are they staying?”

Father insisted he had no idea what he was talking about. “They’ve left, but I don’t know where.”

Relentlessly, the agent continued his questioning, but Father revealed nothing. Suddenly, the agent tried a different tactic: “You’re scared! I see your face is deathly pale.”

Father picked up a mirror and stared at his reflection. “Nonsense!” he said firmly. “My complexion is absolutely normal.” Actually, Father was indeed afraid that one of his grandchildren might suddenly return to our home, which would seal his fate. But eventually the agent realized he could prove nothing and left.

After these shocks, I hurriedly obtained my visa and started preparing for my trip to Samarkand.

Book Hunt

Hearing that Torah books were in short supply in Samarkand, I decided to take some with me from Moscow.

During the 1930’s, in particular, the NKVD had forcibly closed many shuls all over the land. Before the war, I remember Father once coming home, his face gaunt with despair, to tell us that two of Moscow’s remaining large shuls — Arbat and Poliakov — had been sequestered by the government and their Sifrei Torah given to gentile shoemakers for use as leather.

Sometimes, conscientious Jews were able to act quickly and spirit away as many Torah books as possible to some other shul. But often the police seized holy books and spitefully gave them away for use as scrap paper. For years afterwards, we used to find groceries wrapped in pages torn out of holy Torah books (in the Soviet Union, where bags were unavailable, even sugar was sold by weight and wrapped in newspaper or whatever else was at hand).

Over the years, Marina Roshtcha ladies gallery had become piled high with such books saved from other shuls. Others had been left by Jews afraid that their families might not treat the books respectfully after their passing. When Jews fled Moscow during the war, too, many left there books they could not take with them.

Hoping to find Torah books that might be useful in Samarkand, I got permission of the shul’s gabbay — an elderly man who was a worthy Jew — to take whatever books I could find. After spending many hours combing through the piles in the ladies’ gallery, I selected some rare volumes and packed them with my other belongings, ready to leave.