The train ride to Tashkent, capital of Uzbekistan, where I had to change trains to get to Samarkand, took about a week — including Shabbos. On such a long journey, observant Jews would normally get off the train before Shabbos, spending the holy day at the station, then await another train. But for a fourteen-year-old traveling alone, this would be too dangerous.

Because of a train’s height above the ground, some Halachic opinions consider it as a separate “domain” on Shabbos, allowing continued travel as long as one does not get off on Shabbos. Although that opinion is not usually followed, my circumstances seemed extenuating enough for me to rely on it. Through the whole Shabbos, therefore, I did not step out of my train car.

Father asked a friend’s daughter, an older girl making the same trip, to keep an eye on me and help me if necessary. She apparently did not relish the task of babysitting, and was more interested in enjoying her trip.

Our train reached Tashkent just before Rosh Hashana, 1943, and I stayed there till after the holiday.

Uzbekistan had a native community of Bukharan Jews — Oriental Jews with customs similar to the Sefardim. Most of them believed in G‑d and were Torah observant to the extent of their knowledge, eating only kosher food, for example, and praying in their shuls. But until then they had had few Torah schools and they had no Torah schools, and were generally unlearned.

During the war, thousands of Jewish refugees from Poland and Lithuania, besides many Chabad Chassidim, settled in Central Asia, especially in the Uzbeki cities of Tashkent and Samarkand.

My first pleasant task was to visit our close family friend, Reb Yona Kagan, who had arrived long before. Father had let him know I was coming and he greeted me warmly.

“What did you do about Shabbos?” was his first question.

“I did what the Gemara says about Hillel,” I replied. “‘Desecrate one Shabbos for him so that he may keep many more.’“ My reply seemed to satisfy him.

Next, I went out to see the city. A new world unfolded before my eyes. I was amazed to see obviously observant Jews walking in the streets without fear of arrest or antisemitic attacks. Back in Moscow, just days before, I often went home through side streets to avoid getting beaten up by antisemitic gangs.

Unlike Moscow, where Jews were afraid to come to shul, here the shuls were full of Chassidim praying and studying Torah. There were even boys of my age so advanced in Torah learning and service of G‑d that they already possessed true Chassidic virtues.

Rosh Hashana, in particular, was an unforgettable experience. The shul where I prayed had many great Chassidic personalities, who spent most of the two holy days deep in prayer, pouring out their hearts to G‑d. This left a profound impression on me.

One of them was Rabbi Shlomo Chaim Kesselman (1893-1971). I had already been privileged to meet him, and knew his children, for our family had often spent a few weeks in the summer at a country cottage near their home. Reb Shlomo Chaim was a great oved, with a deep knowledge of Chassidus and the ability to make profound Chassidic texts easily understandable. The farbrengens he led were an unforgettable experience. The Rebbe RaYYaTz had appointed him mashpia, a role at which he distinguished himself for almost fifty years — first in Polotzk, Russia, later in other locations and eventually for over twenty years at Yeshiva Tomchei T’mimim in Tel Aviv, Lud and Kfar Chabad, Israel, till his passing.

Another great personality was Reb Yisroel Levin, known after his birthplace as Yisroel Neveler. He was close friend of Father’s, dating back to their years of study together in Lubavitch. Reb Yisroel was a highly respected Chassid, a great Torah scholar and teacher, especially erudite in knowledge of Chassidus. He too was a great oved, who prayed for hours on end. He had great self-sacrifice for Chassidus and Yiddishkeit, for which he had been imprisoned for three years. Many thronged to hear his inspiring farbrengens. (He passed away in Paris in 1949.)

Reb Peretz Motchkin was a Chassid of stature, who later served as mashpia of the Lubavitcher community of Montreal, Canada, for many years until his passing in 1982. Reb Yona was another of these special personalities, and there were other great Chassidim who prayed at various shuls in Tashkent.

That Rosh Hashana was truly uplifting for me. Till then, my life had been full of incessant anxiety and loneliness. Now I had come to a community full of Jewish light and warmth and a true Chassidic atmosphere.

The Wedding

The day after Rosh Hashana — the Fast of Gedalya — I bought a ticket to Samarkand. It could only be bought illegally, for well over its actual value. My train ride that night was uneventful. No one awaited me at the station, for there had been no way to let my brother Sholom know of my arrival.

For the six-kilometer ride from the train station to the city, I hired a donkey-driven wagon. Soon we were alone on a road that led through empty desert. Imagine my shock when the gentile driver suddenly stopped and demanded full payment of the fare. I meekly complied and he took me further, but dropped me off at some distance from the yeshiva’s address I had given him. At least he had done me no harm, thank G‑d. I was forced to drag all my baggage quite a way to the yeshiva.

On the way, I was overwhelmed by a sight I had never before witnessed — a Jewish marriage ceremony! A groom and a bride were being led under the chupa canopy, surrounded by a large crowd of Chassidic Jews singing aloud a deeply moving melody. After the chupa, the festive meal and spirited dancing and singing continued for many hours into the night, the joyous voices reaching the far ends of Samarkand’s Jewish quarter.

This fearless Jewish celebration was unlike anything I had ever seen, and it filled me with deep emotion. After all my years of dread, it was so heartwarming to see such a fearless and large Chassidic celebration. The Chassidic families of Reb Getzel Rubashkin and Reb Uziel Chazanov (son-in-law of the well-known Chassid, Reb Meir Simcha Chein of Nevel) were uniting in marriage.

During my stay in Samarkand, many weddings took place. But we yeshiva students rarely attended, because Reb Nissan Nemanov, the yeshiva’s dean and mashpia, felt it more important for us to spend the time on our studies.


During my stay in the yeshiva, I had very little contact with my family. To correspond with each other a letter by mail was unthinkable, for, besides being dangerous for my parents, it could have placed the entire yeshiva in jeopardy. Only rarely could we find someone traveling to Moscow who could convey a message or letter to our parents.

I was assigned temporary lodgings at Kitapsky Tupik. It was a dead-end street, typical in Samarkand’s old quarter, where all homes open to a courtyard, not to the main street. The sanitary conditions of the quarter were appalling. The floors of the homes were bare earth, from which all the yeshiva students got body lice. With no one to keep house for us and no showers or laundry facilities, the students all suffered but no one complained.

The apartment where I stayed served a dual purpose. It was a dormitory for out-of-town students and orphans, but also a study room for the yeshiva’s older students through the day until late at night. Most of these older students were from families staying in Samarkand, but a few were from Tashkent. When I arrived, they were engrossed in study and prayer, and I was overwhelmed by their obvious fervor.

Soon I settled into a daily routine. My study day ended at about 8:00 p.m., when the local students went home, while out-of-town students returned to our dormitory. The table the older students had used for study became my bed at night! I would place a straw mattress on the table and cover it with a sheet. My roommates were older students, and often I waited up for them to finish studying before I could get to sleep.

There were advantages in being the only young student staying in a room with senior students. Usually students of my age were not allowed to be present at farbrengens held for older students; we had our own farbrengens led by our teachers. But because I slept in the room where Reb Nissan used to lead farbrengens for his senior students, I had the privilege of being able to listen in.

One Thursday night I awoke late to find my “bed” in the middle of a farbrengen! As the coals crackled in the furnace, spreading warmth through the room, the students, their faces aglow with a warmth of their own, sat around Reb Nissan, drinking in his inspiring words. In between, they sang beautiful Chabad melodies.

Shaking off my slumber, I asked one student what was the occasion. He told me it was to celebrate the start of a new lesson, given every Thursday evening by Reb Nissan, of Kuntres Etz Hachayim. In this profound Chassidic text, the Rebbe RaShaB explains the vital importance of studying Chassidus — the foremost expression of P’nimiyus HaTorah (Jewish mysticism). It also details the unique nature of Yeshiva Tomchei T’mimim and what the Rebbe RaShaB expects from its students.

Reb Nissan Nemanov

Rabbi Nissan Nemanov (1904-1984) was the yeshiva’s dean. He was a great oved, a devoted servant of G‑d who toiled constantly to refine himself. His every deed and word were measured and permeated with the spirit of Chassidus. His daily prayers lasted many hours, preceded by hours of studying and meditating on Chassidus.

After studying briefly in several branches of Tomchei T’mimim, he served on the faculty of the underground yeshivos. In 1930 he was arrested and exiled for three years. (After leaving the Soviet Union, he became the dean of Yeshiva Tomchei T’mimim in Brunoy, near Paris, France, till his passing.)

After Reb Nissan’s return from exile, aware that the NKVD still monitored him closely for any “counter-revolutionary” activities, he did not dare get involved in running the yeshivos again. He lived in a Moscow suburb, supporting his family, as did many other Chassidim, by machine-knitting clothing.

At the start of the war, as the Germans approached Moscow, most of the population was evacuated into the interior. Most Chassidim fled to Central Asia. But Reb Nissan remained unaffected by all the turmoil.

That winter was particularly cold even for Moscow. It was the abnormally low temperatures that apparently stopped the German advance, eventually helping to turn the tide against them. On one bitterly frigid day — even by Russian standards — Reb Avrohom Maiyorer, who lived not far from Reb Nissan, came to pay him a visit. On entering his home, he stopped short in shock. The home was as cold as outside!

Huddled in a corner sat Reb Nissan’s children, hungry and moaning. There was not a scrap of food in the house. He himself, utterly oblivious to the intense cold and hunger, stood facing the wall, wrapped in his tallis and tefilin, deep in devout prayer.

Reb Avrohom ran out to buy wood for the furnace, and soon its warmth spread through the home. He bought a sack of potatoes and roasted them, leaving the family with enough food to last for several days. Through all this time, Reb Nissan stood totally engrossed in his prayers, unaware that Reb Avrohom had entered and left several times, bringing such good cheer to his home!

“That incident,” Reb Avrohom later observed to me, “perfectly illustrates Reb Nissan’s exalted spiritual level.” His concentration on his devotions to G‑d were so deep that he could banish all other thoughts, ignoring even cold and hunger.

A few years later, soon after the Lubavitcher Yeshiva was established in Brunoy, near Paris, France, Reb Shlomo Chaim Kesselman, a great Chassid and mashpiya in his own right, once spoke to me about the uniqueness of Reb Nissan, who had just arrived there from Germany: “If Reb Nissan Nissan had lived at the time of the Alter Rebbe, his constant self-refinement would have been highly regarded even then!”

Another incident I recall from my years of study in Brunoy was when I accompanied Reb Nissan one Friday on a trip to Paris to use the mikva before Shabbos (there was no mikva yet in Brunoy). He noticed me looking out of the window of our Metro traincar at each station to see if it was ours. “Why do you have to look out?” he rebuked me for unnecessarily looking beyond my immediate four cubits. “Why not just count the stations to know which is ours?”

Reb Nissan’s overwhelming spiritual stature left a profound impression on our entire yeshiva. His lofty level, however, made him somewhat inaccessible for younger students like me. He taught the senior students Chassidus and spent time with them, but younger students were not allowed to attend the farbrengens he led for the senior students or for married Chassidim. Nevertheless, he was the spiritual head of the whole yeshiva and it was an ominous sign if any student, even a younger one, was called to speak to him!

When I first arrived, I received such a call. Reb Nissan had heard about the rare Torah books I had brought and how I had searched for them at the shul. He was shocked, afraid it could lead to the NKVD discovering our yeshiva.

“How could you do such a thing?” he berated me. “Your father is known as such a smart man — how could he be so irresponsible to tell the gabbay you need books for the yeshiva?” I made no reply, though I was convinced that the NKVD must know of the yeshiva’s existence anyway, but chose to ignore it for their own reasons. The books were confiscated from me.

Chassidic Personalities

The presence of many other special personalities created an atmosphere of Chassidic warmth and devout worship of G‑d.

The yeshiva included students of all ages and levels, from basic Hebrew reading for young children to advanced Talmud, Halacha and Chassidic philosophy for senior students. Parents who had more money had the option of enrolling their children in small classes taught by a special teacher who gave them individual attention.

There was even a class for latecomers, students below the level of their age-group because they had had little opportunity to study. Some came from towns where there had been no one to teach them and they had been unable to leave home to study at a clandestine cheder (Torah school) elsewhere. Now they finally had a chance to study Torah at their own level.

This special class was taught by Reb Abba Pliskin (1905-1999), a unique Chabad Chassid ideally suited for these students. Mild mannered and unassuming, but wise and learned, he was especially sensitive to these students’ needs. They, in turn, held him in the highest esteem. Later, after escaping the USSR in 1946, Reb Abba — at the express request of the Rebbe RaYYaTz — was included in the original nucleus of Lubavitcher families that moved to Melbourne, Australia, laying the foundation of today’s flourishing Chabad community on that continent. Later he moved to Crown Heights, New York, where he was privileged to serve as the shamash of the Rebbe’s shul for many years during the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Gemara (Talmud) is the main study subject at every yeshiva. The younger Gemara classes were taught by Rabbi Yehoshua — Shiya — Korf (born 1905, may he be well), who now lives in Crown Heights, and Rabbi Moshe Rubinson (1914-1950).

Reb Moshe Rubinson, known by the name of his birthplace as Moshe Korolevitcher, was adored by his students. Besides his scholarship, he was the epitome of kindness and concern, utterly devoted to his students’ welfare as if he were their own father. They responded with love, often volunteering to help him with chores at his home, for his poor health prevented him from being of much help to his wife in coping with their young family.

In 1938, Reb Moshe had taught a small group of students at a clandestine Tomchei T’mimim Yeshiva in Berditchev, Ukraine, together with Reb Berel Gurevitch. On 24 Teves, when they led a farbrengen for the students, the NKVD broke in and hauled them off to jail.

Deciding to spare his young students from a continued stay in jail, Reb Moshe accepted full responsibility for the yeshiva. “I recruited students, “ he told his interrogators, “ran the Yeshiva and raised funds to support it.” His brave declaration also spared the true organizers of the underground Tomchei T’mimim Yeshiva system from blame. His young teenaged students were released and sent to a state-run orphanage, from where they later escaped with the help of Reb Michoel Tietelbaum, who actually kidnapped them risking his own life.

In jail, Reb Moshe suffered from brutal beatings in many interrogations. His stay there seriously damaged his health and he never completely recovered. Nevertheless, on arriving in Samarkand, despite his poor health and the serious danger especially for one already jailed, this true Chassid went right back to teaching Torah. After leaving the USSR, he continued teaching till he passed away at a young age in Paris after World War II.

Great Scholars

On arriving in Samarkand, I was tested orally in my knowledge of Gemara by one of the heads of the yeshiva, Rabbi Zalman Shimon Dvorkin (1900-1985). He was a quiet man but a great scholar, expert in all four sections of the Shulchan Aruch — the code of Jewish law. Later, after several years in Pittsburgh, he became the beloved Rabbi of the central Lubavitcher community in Crown Heights, New York, from 1960 until his passing in 1985.

Apparently I did well on the test, and Rabbi Dvorkin enrolled me in a class of students of my age who used to study in a more advanced Gemara class, comprising mostly very bright students aged 15-16 years old, taught by Rabbi Avrohom Elya Plotkin (1889-1949).

A brilliant Torah scholar, Reb Avrohom Elya was considered a prodigy even among his fellow scholars at Lubavitch. The Rebbe RaShaB even selected him to serve for a while as the Rabbi of his household for ruling on practical Halachic questions. Later he served as Rabbi of various towns in Russia.

Although I had already studied much Gemara and knew it well, never before had I tasted such in-depth Talmud study. It was exhilarating to hear Rabbi Avrohom Elya’s brilliant lectures explaining the Talmud’s breadth and depth in all its detail, based on many authoritative commentaries and Halachic codes. We students all revered him and I became very attached to him, gaining vastly from his learned lectures and inspiring farbrengens.

Under the harsh conditions of the time, it seems incredible now how an entire yeshiva operated so freely with scores of students. The teachers had all fled from cities where intensifying persecution had conditioned them to constant fear. Some had already suffered in Soviet jails, while others had fled after NKVD agents came searching for them, and they naturally feared NKVD punishment for running our yeshiva.

Indeed, even in Samarkand’s more relaxed conditions, we students were still very careful. We always carried our books under our jackets, for example, and took other precautions.

Understandably, Rabbi Plotkin was afraid to give his lecture at the shul where we studied all day. Instead, he gave it at his home. Then we returned to the shul to review his lecture and continue studying on our own. Even at his home, we took turns during the lecture to stand guard outside for the approach of anyone suspicious. The students inside were on constant alert: A pre-arranged signal from our guard sent us all racing to hide in the basement until it was safe to emerge.

Once, while hiding in the basement, we were terrified to discover a thick snake lurking there. Was it better to risk staying with a deadly viper, or should we emerge from our hiding place and risk arrest? Thankfully, a student who lived in Samarkand calmed our fears: “I’m familiar with this species of snake,” he reassured us, “and it’s totally harmless!”

After a while, Rabbi Plotkin became apprehensive even to give lectures at his home. The influx of new students, he felt, could arouse police suspicion. The parents of one of the students bravely volunteered to allow Rabbi Plotkin to give his lectures at their home, although, as before, with one of us always guarding outside the door.

Yeshiva Life

Farbrengens for the younger students were held only on special occasions. They were led by our Talmud lecturer, Rabbi Avrohom Elya, or by Reb Shneur Zalman Levitin (1966-1977), our mashgiach — dean of students. Besides answering questions we had on our studies, Reb Zalman was responsible for ensuring that we punctually observed our study schedule. Although he was strict, Reb Zalman showed that he loved us dearly, and we really appreciated it.

For supper, each out of town student had “teg” — literally “days” — hosted by a different Jewish family every night of the week. Sometimes, after walking very far to reach that night’s host, supper was not yet ready. But if it meant hurrying my meal or even missing it, we felt we had to leave on time to get back by the start of the next study period, so that Reb Zalman would not give us a hard time.

For breakfast and lunch, we received money to buy our own food: raisins, nuts and fruit, butter or smoked sheep fat. We were given bread, but it was usually black bread and never fully baked. By the time I arrived in Samarkand, thank G‑d, there was always enough bread for everyone.

Reb Aron Yosef Belinitsky (1905-2002), another unique Chassidic personality (son of Rabbi Yisroel Noach, 1884-1983, one of the outstanding early students of Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim in Lubavitch), was in charge of ensuring that the Yeshiva had all necessary supplies.

When refugees arrived in Samarkand in 1941, the war and the cold winter disrupted supply lines, causing a severe famine. Many, including thousands of Jews, died of disease and starvation. Reb Aron Yosef worked in the Chevra Kaddisha — Jewish burial society — the members of which volunteer to ensure that Jews who pass away receive a traditional Jewish burial. So many were then dying that often a body was brought to the cemetery late at night and laid inside an open grave that could not be filled in till the morning. Since the Torah prohibits leaving a body unwatched overnight, Reb Aron Yosef used to lie all night in the open grave, holding on to the corpse to scare off jackals scavenging for food!

Reb Aharon Yosef (who later served for many years on the faculty of Yeshiva Tomchei T’mimim at Brunoy, near Paris, and passed away in Crown Heights) used to buy bread from Reb Osher Sossonkin, who managed a government-owned food store. During the war, the government distributed bread by a system of ration vouchers issued as payment to workers. It was illegal to trade in such vouchers, but Reb Osher managed to get many which he used to obtain bread for our students.

Reb Osher himself was a courageous young Chassid, a son of Rabbi Nochum Shmarya Sossonkin (1888-1975, a great scholar who had studied in Lubavitch and became known as Shmerel Batumer after he was sent by the Rebbe RaYYaTz to Batum, Daghestan, in the Caucasus to teach the local Jews. After leaving the USSR in 1946, he became Rabbi and mashpia of the Chabad community in Jerusalem until his passing). Later Reb Osher was arrested and spent eight years in prison camps, yet managed to avoid ever desecrating the Shabbos! In 1964, he was finally permitted to leave the Soviet Union, and was privileged later to serve as shamash in the Rebbe’s Shul at 770 Eastern Parkway, Crown Heights, during the 1970’s and 1980’s until his passing.

Our water came from wells, and had to be boiled and strained from insects before drinking. On Shabbos, when straining is prohibited, we used to follow the advice of the Shulchan Aruch and strain it with our teeth as we drank!

Friday was bathing day. The underground bathhouse in Samarkand’s old Jewish quarter was steamy, decrepit and unsanitary. Everyone had to draw his own water in dirty old buckets from separate cisterns of cold and heated water. Sometimes we went to the more modern bathhouse of Samarkand’s newer quarter, some distance away.

The yeshiva’s treasurer was Shlomo Matusof (born 1917), a senior student familiar with bookkeeping. Reb Nissan entrusted him with all the yeshiva’s funds, which involved large sums of money. Shlomo had already been imprisoned for studying Torah in an underground branch of the yeshiva. He is respected for his learning to this day. During the early 1950’s, the Rebbe sent him to Morocco, where he served with great dedication for over forty years, heading a yeshiva and directing a girls school in Casablanca. He now lives in Crown Heights, New York.

Chassidic Melodies

The most inspiring moments of our week were late on Shabbos afternoon. After the Mincha prayer, as dusk fell, all the students gathered in the study hall for a special hour devoted to singing profound Chabad melodies. Often students were so inspired that they sang with their eyes closed in ecstasy. After we sang a number of melodies for a long while, a student used to repeat a maamar of Chassidus he had memorized by heart (we took turns doing this — all of us were encouraged to memorize many maamarim).

Most of the students were from Chabad families. But many had lived in places of few Chassidim and had had little opportunity to learn most of the many hundreds of deeply moving Chabad melodies.

In Samarkand, we were fortunate to have among us two brothers, Berel and Leibel “Feitel’s” (after the name of their father, Reb Shraga Feitel, 1885-1942, a brother of Reb Yisroel Neveler) Levin. Both had beautiful voices and had learned a rich repertoire of Chabad melodies from their uncle, Reb Gershon Ber Levin, the Shochet of Nevel, a gifted singer and Chazan who was killed by the Nazis with the other Chassidim of Nevel. He had also taught them the traditional tunes used by Chazanim for leading prayer services throughout the year. It was a spiritual delight to listen to the two brothers’ sweet voices ringing through the study hall in the late Shabbos twilight, as they led our singing and taught us many melodies new to us.

Unfortunately, both brothers (and a third brother, Binyomin) passed away in middle age. Many of my contemporaries did not reach their full life-span, perhaps due to the poor health conditions during their childhood.

During my last few months in Samarkand, I was privileged to stay at the home of Rabbi Dvorkin’s father-in-law, Rabbi Mendel Dubravsky (1875-1958), a brilliant and erudite scholar and Chassid of stature, of the generation before Tomchei T’mimim. In his youth he had studied together with the Rebbe’s great father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, under the renowned scholar Rabbi Yoel Chaikin, Rav of Podabranka. Reb Mendel was selected as lecturer on Talmud and its commentaries at Yeshiva Tomchei T’mimim in Lubavitch, and later served as Rabbi of various Russian towns. He passed away in Pittsburgh.

Reb Mendel was then a widower of seventy, living alone. His children felt he needed a yeshiva student to help him keep house. But he was far more active than they realized. Every night when I arrived, his home was immaculately clean, the stove full of coal and burning brightly, and the kettle boiling. He even used to insist on serving me a cup of hot tea! My only regret is not having recorded for posterity the many original Chassidic stories and sayings he told me.

Actually, I was busy then with another project — transcribing Chassidus. We had only a few mimeographed copies of the teachings of the Rebbe RaYYaTz and the previous Rebbeim, so students spent many hours copying maamarim and sichos by hand. Besides writing for themselves, some students wrote for others, too, selling the copies for a fee. When we later escaped from the USSR, these copies were left behind, for all manuscripts were suspect and could have caused grave trouble on our travels, especially at the border.

During my second year in Samarkand, my class advanced to a higher level. We did not yet join the senior students “in Zal” (i.e. those who studied Talmud on their own, because they had advanced beyond the level of needing regular lessons), although we ate our meals together with them. Instead we now became an intermediate class, studying at another shul. We no longer had daily lectures, but studied on our own, each student with his study partner, under a rosh yeshiva who lectured only occasionally but was available through the day to answer our questions. This was an enriching experience, as we learned to master on our own the Gemara’s difficult language and complicated train of thought.

Our Rosh Yeshiva was Rabbi Shmuel Notik (1890-1949), a great scholar in Talmud, Halacha and Chassidus. Known by the name of his town as Shmuel Krislaver, he studied in Lubavitch and later served as Rabbi of the town of Kopust. In 1935, he was arrested and exiled, but on his return around 1939 served as head of Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim in Kutais, Gruzia, until he moved to Samarkand near the end of the war. In 1947 he was arrested again and passed away in prison on 5 Shvat, 1949.

Our teacher for Chassidus was Reb Avrohom Shraga Feivish Zarchin, a fervent Chassid, who had studied in Lubavitch. Most of his family had been killed by the Germans, and he himself had been badly wounded. He spent his time in prayer and study of Chassidus. After many Chassidim escaped from the USSR after World War II, Reb Avrohom returned to his hometown of New Borisov in White Russia to serve as a shochet. Despite the danger, he taught others the craft of shechita (kosher slaughter), ensuring that the Jews of the Soviet Union would continue to have expert kosher slaughterers. He passed away there in 1981.

Life In Samarkand

Besides the native Bukharan Jewish population, most Jews in Samarkand during the war were refugees. Many had fled from Poland and Lithuania after the German invasion in 1939. At first the Soviets interned them in labor camps in Siberia. After the German invasion, the USSR joined the Allies, which included the Polish “government-in-exile” in London. As a gesture of goodwill, the Soviets released their Polish internees. But the unfortunate refugees had no possessions and suffered pitifully as they tried to reconstruct their lives.

During the famine early in war, many of the refugees to Central Asia died of hunger or illness, especially typhus caused by the unsanitary conditions. Before my arrival, however, conditions had started to improve.

Some Jews managed to buy weaving machines to eke out a meager living. These weaving machines were often so primitive that they were similar to those mentioned in the Talmud. The suits and dresses made on them actually looked more like sacks, but nothing better was available.

Several Jews established factories, providing many fellow-Jews with employment. Thread for the machines had to be bought in Tashkent, then smuggled into Samarkand by truck. Large sums of money were needed for this and for other illicit businesses, and the money itself had to be obtained illegally — some specialized in smuggling many thousands of rubles into the city.

All this was conducted in the utmost secrecy for NKVD agents were everywhere, stopping people to check their documents in order to catch draft dodgers. By law, everyone had to carry his identity card at all times. To avoid the draft, some Lubavitchers had obtained forged or altered Polish passports. But those holding a Soviet identity card had to have a “white slip” to prove they were too old or sick to serve in the army.

Often the police became suspicious and dragged some hapless man off to the recruiting station, from where only a hefty bribe could get him released. Bribery also helped anyone caught doing business to avoid arrest or imprisonment.

Samarkand’s old quarter was full of winding, narrow alleyways. Cars could barely squeeze through and usually avoided them for the wider roads outside. To transport merchandise in the quarter, the Uzbeks used donkey-drawn wagons.

Most of its houses were built of clay held together by a frame of wooden sticks. Often holes gaped through the walls, which had to be dampened regularly with water to smooth over the cracks and keep the clay together. In homes with a basement, the floor could cave in without warning. One Shabbos, after the Torah was read in our yeshiva minyan, someone was given the honor of raising up the Sefer Torah scroll for all to see. Suddenly the floor collapsed beneath him and he fell into the basement, still holding half the Sefer Torah in his hands!

Although it was 1944, Samarkand’s old city still had no electricity. For lighting and cooking, kerosene lamps and stoves were used, which were very dangerous. Indeed such a lamp once caused a terrible accident.

We had gone to hear a lecture by our rosh yeshiva, Rabbi Plotkin, at a student’s home. It was somewhat dark, and our host went to light the lamp. The primitive matches used in Samarkand were tipped with a flammable paste that sometimes dripped downward after catching fire.

When our host struck the match, it dripped down onto the lamp’s fuel container, full of kerosene mixed with gasoline. The lamp erupted into flame, shooting tongues of fire across the room. All hell broke loose as we desperately tried to put out the blaze. Helplessly, we ran downstairs and out into the yard.

One student, sitting next to the lamp, had become engulfed by the flames and was burning all over. Hearing our cries, a woman living next door ran in, grabbed a blanket and threw it over him, screaming to him to roll over on the floor. That saved his life.

It took a while to extinguish the flames. But that unfortunate student still lay unconscious. Serious burns covered his body, his arms and legs were so swollen that he could not move them, and his face was burned beyond recognition. The doctor who carefully tended him had only the most primitive resources at his disposal, and no hospitals were there to treat him. Listlessly the poor boy lay at home, recovering only after many months, although never completely.

Rabbi Plotkin had lost half his beard, and another student too was badly burned on his hand and neck, leaving scars, physical and emotional, for the rest of his life.

Jewish Life In Samarkand

Most of the Jewish quarter was occupied by Bukharan Jews. The other neighborhoods were populated by rough Uzbeki gentiles. We young boys were afraid of them, for their teenaged bullies hated us and often picked fights. Even the Bukharan Jewish boys were unfriendly and always ready for a fight. Often we walked in groups to avoid attacks.

Once two Uzbeki boys beat me up and threw me to the ground. When they suddenly stopped and ran off, I breathed a sigh of relief — until I put my hand in my pocket and realized they had robbed me of the 90 rubles I had been given to buy that day’s meals!

Once, some Uzbeks living in a village just outside the city entered our neighborhood, grabbed a three-year-old Jewish child, Boruch Kievman (who now lives in Crown Heights), and ran back with him to their village. His uncle, Yosef Raitzes (also now in Crown Heights), then a teenaged yeshiva student, chased after them and retrieved the child, bringing him back home. Later he told us he had no idea how he mustered the courage to challenge all those ruffians on his own. The possibility of losing a Jewish child must have impelled him to act without thought of the consequences.

Unfortunately, most of the Bukharan Jews were hostile to us. Only a few families, mostly those who had had a prior relationship with Chabad — through Reb Simcha Gorodetsky, sent there by the Rebbe RaYYaTz during the 1920’s — helped the refugees, especially during the famine. They were led by Chacham Refael Chudaitov and Chacham Chizkiya, who had studied in Lubavitcher Yeshivos and was a Chabad Chassid.

Especially deserving of recognition for his extraordinary kindness was Chacham Jury Niazov. He helped many refugees and opened his home to complete strangers, including an entire Chabad family. When the head of the family caught typhus, a dangerously contagious disease, Chacham Jury risked his life by refusing to send them away. Unfortunately, he caught the disease himself and passed away with his guest.

Reb Simcha Gorodetzky, sent by the Rebbe RaYYaTz to strengthen Jewish life in Central Asia, had fulfilled his mission with great self-sacrifice, despite the danger. But the NKVD eventually arrested him and he was sent to Siberia for several years.

He had built on the pioneering work of representatives sent by the Rebbe RaShaB during the early years of the century. They included Rabbi Shlomo Yehuda Leib Eliezrov (c.1863-1952, a grandson of Rebbetzin Menucha Rochel, daughter of the Mitteler Rebbe of Chabad) who had served as Rabbi of Hebron in the Holy Land. On his travels to various lands between 1892 and 1920 to raise funds for the Jews of the Holy Land, he visited Central Asia several times, spending periods of several years in Samarkand as Rabbi of the Bukharan community, which held him in high regard. He taught Torah to youth and adults, and established communal institutions, such as shechita, on a high level. After World War I, he returned to the Holy Land, becoming a prominent Rabbi and leader of the Chabad community in Jerusalem.

Another representative of the Rebbe RaShaB in Central Asia, for a year or two before World War I, had been Rabbi Avrohom Chayim Noeh (passed away 1954) of Hebron and Jerusalem, later well known for his invaluable and pioneering Halachic works, “K’tzos Hashulchan,” “Shiurei Torah” and others.

In Samarkand, for the first time in my life, I tasted meat (other than chicken). Although there was no butcher store, kosher meat was produced on a large scale. The main Lubavitcher shochet was Reb Uziel Chazanov (in whose courtyard I had been so impressed to witness his daughter’s wedding), who supplied meat for all the Chassidim in the city. After the slaughter, he koshered the meat by salting it, and then it was distributed to the many Jews who kept kosher. If a policeman caught any part of this process, a bribe soon closed his mouth — as it did for all other illegal activities. One mean-spirited Bukharan Jewish policeman named Mishka used to extort huge bribes, but the others did not expect as much.

Samarkand had no truly wealthy Jews. Anyone, especially Chabad Chassidim, who had money to spare — such as from private businesses — generously supported the shuls, cheder schools for children, and yeshivos for teenaged students.

The Bukharan Jews had many shuls in Samarkand, but the newcomers established their own. There were shuls designated for Lubavitchers, Polish Chassidim, and non-Chassidim from Lithuania, who also had a small yeshiva for older students. Its Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzchok Kopelman, a disciple of the renowned scholar Rabbi Shimon Shkop, later headed a yeshiva in New York.

One Chabad shul, rented from Bukharan Jews, was in a large, airy building on the “Chudzum,” a main road. At all hours of the day, many minyanim prayed there, comprised mostly of workers and businessmen. This shul also had a cheder, run by Reb Zushe, the former shamash of the Marina Roshtcha Shul. His refined character was apparent in his refusal to accept payment for teaching the children, whom he obviously loved, and they adored him in return. Sometimes Jews came just to watch him teach. An older bachelor named Shmerel “der bahelfer” (teacher’s assistant) used to help him. Although not the smartest, Shmerel was very devoted to his holy work.

It was truly amazing how, quarter of a century after the Revolution, this truly Jewish and Chassidic environment was able to flourish in Samarkand, with yeshivos, cheder schools, shuls full of minyanim, farbrengens, weddings and bar-mitzva celebrations.

In the midst of the intense sorrow wrought by the war, the Jews who found refuge there were happy just to be alive and well. For us especially, we were overjoyed to experience the renewal of Chassidic life and Torah study, and even Samarkand’s primitive conditions did not therefore bother us much.