Where To Go?

After the war ended in 1945, Soviet troops occupied most of Eastern Europe, where the lands now became Communist satellites of the USSR. In another goodwill gesture to its new satellite, Poland, the Soviet Union permitted all Polish refugees to return to their homeland. Most were Jews.

Here was a chance for Soviet citizens, too, to escape. If they could obtain Polish passports, they could escape from the Soviet “paradise” on the “echalons,” as they were called, the trains conveying Polish citizens back to Poland. During the war, several Chabad Chassidim had obtained Polish passports — buying them from relatives of Polish refugees who had passed away, for example — in order to avoid the Soviet draft. Some now seized the opportunity and used their passports to leave the USSR.

Most Chassidim, however, were uncertain what to do. Their encoded telegram to the Rebbe RaYYaTz in New York, received a reply, also encoded, that seemed unclear. Some interpreted it to mean he agreed, while most felt it was not a clear approval (after leaving the USSR, we discovered that this was not, in fact, true).

In general, it was very difficult to communicate with the free world. The NKVD monitored all correspondence and people were afraid to accept even food packages from relatives — sent through the American “Joint” (Distribution Committee) — for fear that the NKVD would charge them with spying for a foreign land.

After most Polish refugees left, the NKVD started renewing its harassment of Yiddishkeit. Once Reb Nissan noticed he was being observed from a neighbor’s house. He hastily slipped out and escaped to Moscow, hiding at the home of Reb Zalmen Sudakevitch (now in Kfar Chabad) in a suburb of the city.

Rabbi Yisroel Noach Belinitsky and Rabbi Zalman Shimon Dvorkin now replaced Reb Nissan as heads of the yeshiva. But, with the NKVD at their heels, they soon realized that the yeshiva could not continue in Samarkand. They decided to try moving it gradually to Kutais, Gruzia (Georgia), where the local regime gave far more latitude to religious observance.

Their choice fell on me to help arrange this, since my family did not live in Samarkand, so I would not endanger them if I were caught. Accompanying me was an older student, Chatzkel Brod, who had spent several years studying at Tomchei T’mimim in Kutais from 1938 till the end of the war.

A friend gave me the birth certificate of his deceased younger brother, which made me two years “younger.” Remembering my new “name” was a challenge; I had to practice it constantly, rolling it off my tongue until it was familiar.

As a “young” boy traveling alone, I had to have a good excuse. I would claim to be seriously ill and that my doctor had ordered an immediate change of climate for my convalescence. Gruzia is much warmer and its mountain air more invigorating than Samarkand, so my story was that my parents had sent me ahead and would soon follow.

Chatzkel’s situation was far more complicated. His heavy beard and older appearance invited police questioning, and his identity documents were also questionable. Above all, he had no document of discharge from the army. We would have to rely on miracles.

We needed plenty of money with us to rent quarters for the new yeshiva, living expenses for us and for the students coming to join us later, besides any necessary bribes. It was dangerous to carry lots of cash, especially huge sums that even well-paid workers could never accumulate. If caught, we could have been charged with serious economic crimes. My false documentation was in order, making me less likely to be questioned, so I was entrusted with the $10,000, which I tied in a bundle at my waist.

Our Trip

We traveled by train to Krasnovodsk, where we had to stay for Shabbos. A former student of our yeshiva owned a small house there with an attic, and he was delighted to host us. Since the city had no minyan, we decided, after some deliberation, to stay home all day, both to avoid encountering police and to keep watch over our money and all-important identity documents. The uncomfortably hot day was spent up on the roof, on guard for unwanted guests.

After Shabbos we continued by ship across the Caspian Sea, the world’s largest inland body of water. Throughout our journey, Chatzkel was in mortal fear of being stopped and questioned. Imagine our terror when we discovered that many of our fellow passengers on the ship were military officers! We spent the four-hour trip locked inside our private cabin, breathing a sigh of relief only after disembarking safely in Baku, Azerbaijan.

From there we took a train to Tbilisi, capital of Gruzia.

Chatzkel was familiar with the city, and led the way to the local shul of the Gruzian Jews, where we set down our suitcases. Chatzkel went out to buy something, but I waited at the shul, afraid of getting lost in this strange new city, especially as I had no idea how to proceed to Kutais on my own if necessary.

It took a long time for Chatzkel to return. I began to panic; maybe he had been caught by the police. If so, they must be looking for me too by now! Just then, worshipers started filling the shul for Mincha prayers. The curious crowd wanted to know what I was doing in their shul with all that luggage — mine and Chatzkel’s! I explained that I was traveling to stay with an aunt of mine, and they seemed to believe me.

Finally, after two hours, Chatzkel reappeared, his face ashen white. As I had suspected, a policeman had tried to arrest him. Although Chatzkel’s command of the native language made a good impression, it took a while to convince the officer to accept a generous bribe and let him go.

Once we took the train to Kutais, our final destination, we started to unwind a little. But our feeling of ease was premature. As we got off the train, I noticed from the corner of my eye a police officer watching us closely. Quickly I looked around for an escape route. But there was none. The station was on an open space with no streets or buildings close by.

Sure enough, the officer trailed us and motioned to me to follow him. My heart must have skipped a beat. “Continue walking,” hissed Chatzkel. “Just pretend you didn’t see him.”

But it was no use. The officer caught up and told me to follow him with my packages to the train station’s small police office.

“Sit down,” he ordered. “Where is your identity card?”

After I handed them over, the interrogation began. He asked for the names of my parents, siblings, occupation, the purpose of my trip, and much more. Of course, I was well prepared for all his questions, but he refused to believe that I was coming here to get a change of climate. Above all, I was terrified that he would search me. If he found the money, I was doomed.

After a long interrogation, he went out to make some phone calls. What if I were sent to jail? There was no way I would be able to stick to my story through torture and imprisonment.

Suddenly, the door opened and a soda vendor who sold his wares outside the police office appeared in the doorway.

“Get out of here, fast!” he told me. “Grab your belongings and leave.” I had no idea what had happened but was happy to do as he said. Chatzkel awaited me at the door and we ran off.

As we ran, he cleared up the mystery for me. Outside the station, Chatzkel had been wracking his mind how to get us out of this dangerous situation. Noticing that the soda vendor was Jewish, he handed him sixty rubles and begged for his help. The vendor gave half to the officer to secure my release. As usual, money worked wonders.


Like Samarkand, Kutais had an old quarter and a new city. Most of the Jews lived in the old quarter, which was primitive and dilapidated. Through the smelly alleyways ran open sewage (calling to mind the episode in Megillas Esther where Haman’s daughter threw sewage down into the street without realizing it was over her father’s head...).

We stayed with Rebbetzin Slavin and her son. Her husband, Rabbi Avrohom Levi Slavin, a graduate of Lubavitch, had been sent by the Rebbe RaShaB to Kutais in 1917. He had been highly respected by the Jews of Gruzia for his courageous and widespread communal activities on their behalf. Arrested in 1941, he passed away in Siberia a year or two later. His sacrifice was rewarded by G‑d, for all his children remained Torah observant. His widow lived with her son, a very capable young man.

Chatzkel warned me to stay home and not show my face in shul. The local Jews knew him already and would not ask many questions. But their questions to me as a newcomer could get us both into trouble. As much as I wanted to pray in shul, I knew he was right and stayed home.

Two weeks later, two more students arrived from Samarkand. The older one was quite a scholar and acted as our Rosh Yeshiva. We set up class in an abandoned shul and Kutais had a yeshiva once more.

Soon came 12 Tammuz, anniversary of the 1927 release of the Rebbe RaYYaTz from Soviet imprisonment. In honor of this important date, we arranged to hold a farbrengen at the home of Rabbi Mordechai Perlow, a senior Lubavitcher Rabbi sent by the Rebbe RaYYaTz in 1923. Also present was a Gruzian Rabbi, Chacham Yaakov, who had been in Kostrama when the Rebbe RaYYaTz was exiled there, and he told us what he remembered.

But our little yeshiva did not last long. Within three weeks, Rabbi Perlow’s son came from Tashkent with exciting news: The Soviet Union had reached a further understanding with Poland, permitting any remaining Polish citizens to return home. The handful of Lubavitcher Chassidim who had already used false passports to escape with the Polish repatriates, had encountered no problems. This seemed to be our last chance to escape the accursed Soviet soil forever, and many Chassidim decided to seize the opportunity.