Before World War II, Lemberg had been part of Poland. After Germany attacked Poland in 1939, the Soviet Union annexed the city in accordance with its partition pact with Germany. After the war, all Polish territories annexed by the USSR were incorporated into the Soviet republics of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine.

Lemberg, or Lvov as it was called in Russian, had become part of Ukraine. It was the last Soviet city close to the border from where the trains (“echalons”) carrying Polish refugees left for Poland. To facilitate the great escape, a committee of Chabad activists formed there, arranging for alteration and forgery of many hundreds of Polish passports, and raising funds for the huge bribes required. These activities could have cost the lives of everyone involved, and a fierce debate ensued over whether the Torah permits taking such a grave risk.

Rabbi Perlow and his son decided to travel with their family to Lemberg to join those planning to escape, as did my fellow students. With the yeshiva now disbanding, and since I had been away from home for several years, I decided to return to Moscow. When I arrived home a few days later, I discovered that Father had left to visit us in Tashkent — he was unaware that I had left for Kutais. He met Sholom there, and returned home with him.

Sholom and I were too afraid to pray in shul. But we really wanted to immerse ourselves in a mikva in honor of Shabbos. We decided it was worth paying a whole ruble each to use the fine swimming pool at the fancy Hotel National. The pool was full of elite military officers, and the two poor boys taking a swim must have raised some eyebrows. But no one bothered us, thank G‑d.

Father had heard of the escape plan, and decided that Sholom and I should risk the attempt. Before long, we packed our suitcases again for the twenty-four hour train ride to Lemberg. There we took a cab, giving the driver the address we had been given.

The door was opened by none other than Rabbi Zalman Shimon Dvorkin. He was shocked to see us:

“What are you doing here? Just yesterday, Reb Yisroel [Neveler] was arrested trying to cross the border. Too many people are already here illegally, and how long can it be before the police start to find them all? Any day now, arrests will start. You should have stayed in Moscow till the situation clears up!”

“We had no idea,” we pleaded. “No one told us we shouldn’t come. You can’t send us back now!”

But Rabbi Dvorkin ignored our protests and insisted we leave town immediately. The sudden turn of events left us at a loss what to do next. Fortunately, we also had the phone number of one of the escape project’s organizers and we phoned him.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he told us. “After coming all this way, there’s no reason to go back now.” He gave us an address where we could find lodging. Like the many other tenants crowded into the apartment, we had to pay an exorbitant rent for our tiny room.

The apartment’s former occupant, we discovered, had been a Polish Jew enamored with Communism, who had decided to join the Soviet “paradise.” He had slipped over the border into the Soviet Union, and was then rewarded — typically — by being arrested and shipped off to Siberia!

Jews, especially Chabad Chassidim, were flocking to Lemberg from all over the Soviet Union. By the time we arrived, a number of Chassidim had successfully crossed into Poland, including Rabbi Nissan Nemanov. It seemed likely that, before long, the Soviets would realize they had been duped and would crack down with a vengeance.

Reb Yisrael Neveler was soon released but warned that the NKVD was well aware of the whole operation! In a panic, the organizers decided to suspend it for the time being.

An underground group called B’richa — Hebrew for “escape” — organized by Zionists, ran a vast underground operation throughout Europe to smuggle Jews out of Soviet-occupied lands to safety. Its goal was to help concentration camp survivors reach Western Europe, from where they could be transported illegally to the Holy Land — the British government then held the mandate over Palestine and forbade entry to most Jews. With tremendous courage, the B’richa succeeded in smuggling many thousands of Jews over European borders until they reached the DP (displaced persons) camps under United Nations auspices in Austria, Germany and France.

In Lemberg, the B’richa was headed by a man named Varshavsky, who had contacts with the Zionist leaders in the Holy Land. Together with his colleagues, he had entered Russia illegally for the sole purpose of helping Jews escape — an incredible act of self-sacrifice. Eventually the Soviets caught the ringleader and executed him by firing squad.

Chabad Chassidim, however, who had learned by experience not to rely on anyone else, organized their own operation, cooperating with the B’richa only as much as necessary. Leading the Chabad operation was the famed Reb Mendel Futerfas and Reb Yona Kagan, and among those heavily involved were Reb Moshe Chaim Dubravsky and Leibel Motchkin. My brother-in-law, Nochum Zalman Gurevitch, was a member of the committee, and important meetings were held in his apartment. Mendel Garelik and his sister Tzipa were among those forging the passports needed for crossing the border — a closely guarded secret.

Not everyone involved was a Lubavitcher. The Katzman brothers, for example, although paid handsomely for their efforts, performed an invaluable service, saving many families,

Lemberg was a much smaller city than Moscow and Leningrad, and several hundred new faces were immediately noticeable. Most Lubavitcher Chassidim streaming into the city were bearded, making them especially conspicuous. But it was impossible to stop them from coming. After all the persecution and suffering of over a quarter of a century, everyone was desperate to leave. Selling or even abandoning their apartments, furniture and jobs, they gathered a few essential belongings and set out for Lemberg.

More Chassidim were arriving daily, and the situation was becoming desperate, with a severe shortage of food and accommodation. Officially, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, it was illegal to stay in the city for more than twenty-four hours or to receive food coupons without being registered as a resident. To obtain registration papers, one needed a work permit. Worst of all would be if anyone were stopped by a policeman without appropriate documentation. Since the situation was so dangerous, everyone clamored to be on the first “echalon” that would become available.

To reach a definitive decision on the many life-and-death issues involved, a Rabbinical court was convened of twenty-three Chassidim (similar to the “minor” Sanhedrin at the time of the Holy Temple, which determined cases of life and death). Not all were ordained Rabbonim, but all were Torah scholars and respected Chassidim. The Rabbonim included Rabbi Nochum Shmaryahu Sossonkin, Rabbi Shneur Gorelik, Rabbi Shmuel Notik, and Rabbi Avraham Glazman. Among the respected Chassidim were Reb Mendel Futerfas, Reb Abba Levin, Reb Moshe Chaim Dubravsky, Reb Shlomo Chaim Kesselman and Reb Yona Kagan.

The special court ruled that all were obligated to give up any money and jewelry they had to a communal fund that funded expenses for food, accommodation, tickets, passports and bribes. These were loans to be repaid in the future, after crossing the border to freedom. Everyone complied without hesitation, and these funds helped many families to survive.

Originally, my parents had decided against joining the possible escape. It was rumored that men might have to shave their beards to avoid attracting attention on the “echalon,” and Father refused to entertain such a possibility, even if it meant staying behind. “If there’s no choice, then let the young men shave,” he told me. “But the older Chassidim should never do it.” Father was over sixty then, old by contemporary standards.

Also influencing my parents’ decision to stay was my sister Sima’s refusal to leave the country, for various reasons. After a while, however, Father changed his mind and decided to come to Lemberg on his own, without Mother, to explore the situation.

Yomtov In Lemberg

Meanwhile, the holiday of Rosh Hashana arrived. We dared not risk going to shul, but made a minyan in a neighbor’s apartment. But where would we get a Sefer Torah? There was one at the headquarters of the operation, at the other end of town, but how could we get it? It was decided that one of us would walk across town to the headquarters and, after their minyan finished using it, would carry it to our place. As the youngest of our group, with little growth on my face, I was selected for this dangerous task!

On Rosh Hashana morning, I set out for the headquarters, accompanied by a lookout. If I would be apprehended, he would run back to our minyan to tell everyone to disperse, so that if I was forced to reveal the minyan’s location, no one would be caught.

After picking up the Sefer Torah and covering it well, I cradled it in my arms to conceal it and started the 90-minute walk back, humming as I went to make it seem natural. We walked separately — crossing through most of the city, including the smelly marketplace crowded with peasants who were selling food and clothing. I was convinced that I was being followed and that every corner concealed a policeman lurking to pounce on me. But we returned safely, thank G‑d, and our minyan was able to hear the holiday’s Torah reading.

On the day before Yom Kippur, even non-Chassidim normally immerse themselves in a mikva. But there was no talk of taking such a risk. The city’s only mikva was at the shul, which was too dangerous even to approach. One fool did use the mikva while no one noticed, and got a harsh tongue-lashing when the other Chassidim found out. Miraculously, no harm came of it.

Sukos was approaching, and Chassidim started wondering where to build a suka that would remain inconspicuous. According to the Halacha, our dangerous situation certainly absolved us from any obligation to eat in a suka. Nevertheless, throughout the years of the Soviet regime, Chassidim had become accustomed to observing all mitzvos meticulously even under the most perilous conditions.

One day I noticed two Chassidic students carrying bundles of long grass in the street. It attracted no attention, for many of the city’s residents had a horse or cow that needed to be fed. But, before Sukos, I realized it must be s’chach for roofing a suka.

“Where’s the suka?” I asked in a whisper.

When they told me its location, I was amazed. They had built a suka on a roof next door to the NKVD headquarters! It was tiny, very narrow and barely higher than the minimum Halachic requirement of ten handbreadths (about 33”). Although we had to eat our meals there half-crouching, we were overjoyed at being able to fulfill this important mitzva. Ten families living nearby took turns to use it, eating their meals in shifts to give everyone a chance.

The climax of Yom Tov was on Shmini Atzeres, when the older Chassidim decided to hold a farbrengen — in the suka, of course. Despite its small size, nine Chassidim managed to squeeze inside. I crawled in last, and part of my body remained outside. We took care not to make any noise, and certainly not to sing.

As the Chassidim began their farbrengen, a heavy rain started to fall. Father was there, together with Rabbi Shmuel Notik, Rabbi Shneur Gorelik, Reb Zalman Butman, and others. Soon the rain forced us indoors, but the farbrengen continued in the kitchen.

It was a farbrengen I will never forget. Most of the time, Reb Shmuel Notik was speaking, demanding tearfully that G‑d grant our wish to be reunited with the Rebbe.

Father disagreed. “We must do whatever the Divine Providence demands of us,” he argued. “If the Rebbe wants us to stay behind and continue working to strengthen Yiddishkeit here, then that must be our only goal!”

But Reb Shmuel would not concede. Soon both were in tears, and everyone wept with them, for no one knew how our escape plan would turn out. Tragically, both Father and Reb Shmuel were fated to stay behind and lose their lives in Soviet prison camps.

During Sukos, the Rivkin family, numbering forty souls, decided they could wait no longer. Disregarding the danger, they boarded an “echalon” to Poland, using false passports already in their possession, and made it safely over the border.

On Simchas Torah the Chassidim in Lemberg learned of this successful escape. So the border was still open! Their joy knew no bounds, and everyone danced ecstatically, for another family had made it to freedom. Father even turned cartwheels in the street!

But Father was soon brought back to his senses. Right after Yom Tov, Sima sent a message that strangers had asked about him at the Marina Roshtcha Shul. Father realized that the NKVD was looking for him, and if they traced him to Lemberg, it could jeopardize the whole escape operation. Rather than endanger other Jews, Father bid us farewell and returned to Moscow.

During our months of waiting in Lemberg, Reb Yona Kagan even opened a yeshiva for the unmarried young men to study! Rabbi Shmuel Notik was appointed to teach us, and he gave lectures in our room.

After a while, the Yeshiva had to move elsewhere because I fell sick and was diagnosed with typhus, a dangerously contagious disease. My quick-witted brother-in-law, Reb Nochum Zalmen Gurevitz, immediately bribed the doctor not to report this to the authorities, as he was legally required to do. To prevent the disease from spreading, the police used to force whoever caught it to go to hospital, and Nochum Zalmen realized that would make it impossible for me to join any escape transport (indeed, a friend of mine who caught typhus was discharged from hospital only after the transports left, missing his chance to escape).

It was my brother Sholom who devotedly nursed me back to health, for which I shall remain forever grateful. My sickness left me very weak, and he cooked expensive foods for my diet and patiently tended to all my needs, Later, Mother came from Moscow to help, and then Father, too. For almost a month I lay sick.

One day, as I lay in bed, we were suddenly notified that we were to join the next “echalon” crossing the border. Although I was still so sick, the others at my apartment dressed me and took me to an apartment near the train station. It was my first time out of bed since catching typhus.

In the middle of the night, the organizers came to distribute forged Polish passports with false new names. Nochum Zalman and his family were also waiting to board this “echalon.” As a fugitive hunted by the NKVD for his illegal business dealings in Moscow, he had disguised himself so well that I hardly recognized him!

Unfortunately, there were not enough passports for all of us. Nochum Zalman and his family were among those fortunate to escape with this transport, but neither Sholom nor I received a passport, and we had to return to our apartment. I went straight back to bed.

Ten days later, we again received word that we were to join the next train. Berel Dubravsky, one of those arranging transportation to the station, flagged down a passing truck and offered the driver a nice sum to take us there. This was a common practice then in the USSR (as it still is), for drivers received low wages and were always willing to transport paying passengers.

The driver agreed and Berel jumped inside, directing him to other locations where families and groups were waiting. “Absolutely no noise,” Berel instructed them all. After everyone was aboard, Berel told the driver to proceed to the station. From afar, we could see our train standing on tracks usually reserved for freight trains. This was an added precaution to avoid suspicion.

As we approached the station, a soldier stopped our truck. He tapped on the window, requesting our identification documents and asking questions. Berel had warned everyone not to talk, but passengers at the back of the truck were talking. The officer stopped to listen.

“Aren’t these supposed to be Polish citizens? Why are they talking in Russian? It makes no sense! What are your names?”

We all froze in terror. We had not yet received the forged Polish passports that would provide us with our new identities.

“Our papers are at the train station,” Berel spoke up. “The head of our group has them.”

But the officer refused to be sidetracked. “Your names!” he demanded. “I want to hear your names!”

The driver began turning his truck in the direction of the police station. We sat motionless, scarcely believing our bad luck. After all these months of waiting and planning, we had been about to leave this accursed land and now, at the last moment, our chance of freedom seemed about to evaporate.

Berel started to bargain. We sat quietly, praying in our hearts. The officer mentioned an exorbitant sum. Berel bargained him down to half that sum and immediately handed over the cash. We were now free to proceed. But our driver was drunk and started driving towards the police station.

“To the train!” we screamed desperately. “The policeman said take us to the train!”

The driver sped by the police station, then drove back to the train. As we boarded, I could feel my heart pounding furiously. This was the moment we had so long awaited!

The train was about to leave. But another problem arose. The family of Reb Dovid Leib Morozov was hysterical because their sixteen-year-old son Shneur Zalman was lost. Apparently, the truck bringing his group to the station had been stopped and taken to the police station. Later, they were permitted to leave. Meanwhile, however, Zalman, afraid that he would be kept in jail and lose the opportunity to leave the country, managed to escape. The police officer in charge became furious at his escape and ordered his men to pursue and catch him. But Zalman ran down side streets and managed to evade them. His family, however, did not know what had happened to him. The train was about to leave, and his father decided to stay behind to find him. He was just about to get off the train when Zalman suddenly showed up, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief... (The family later lived in Montreal, Canada; may Shneur Zalman ben Tzeita have a full and speedy recovery).

Just before the train pulled out, an officer boarded to harass us one more time: “How can you leave this paradise?” he ranted. “Our motherland is the best on earth. The Party is creating a new world.”

We sat stone-faced through his tirade, not daring to meet his stare. Receiving no response, he got tired and left. Soon the train started pulling slowly out of the station. We watched silently as Lemberg swept by, hardly believing our good fortune.

For almost twenty-four hours we traveled. Ours was by far the largest illegal group to leave the USSR via Lemberg, and two train-cars had been designated for our group. There were a few Polish families in our car, which was not too full. But the second car was so packed that no one could sit down. Mothers with babies were forced to hold them through the whole trip. Tragically, one mother fell asleep while holding her baby, and the infant suffocated.

As the train approached the border, the organizers drilled us with our new identities — names, birthdates and siblings. Just before crossing into Poland, while still on the Russian side of the border, we were all ordered to get off the train. We had to stand in the cold winter air, frozen to the bone, for almost two hours until we were allowed back.

A guard came aboard to question us. Standing in the middle of our car, he read our names from a list, asking us to identify ourselves. When a seven-year-old girl answered correctly as stated on his list, he looked up in surprise. “Very good!” he remarked sarcastically. “She has learned it well!”

We were shocked. Could he be aware that all our Polish passports were forged and that this transport of “repatriated Polish refugees” was a sham? But he finished reading the list without further comment, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

Now he asked if anyone had money with them. To cover any expenses I might encounter on our journey, Father had borrowed two gold coins from Reb Mordechai Dubin and these were sewn into my jacket. I took it off and buried it deep among my packages. The officer walked through the car, questioning everyone and checking through their packages.

(Reb Mordechai Dubin was an outstanding, scrupulously observant Chassid who was a celebrated statesman and member of the Latvian parliament. He played the major role in securing the release of the Rebbe RaYYaTz from jail in 1927 and arranging his subsequent departure from the USSR. When the Soviets occupied Latvia in 1940, they arrested him and sent him to jail. This saved his life, for when the Nazis entered Latvia in 1941, they murdered the Jews. Later in the war, he was released and settled in Moscow, where he renewed his activities to help Jews. Hundreds benefited from his courageous efforts. Later he was arrested again and exiled; he passed away in Tula during the mid-1950’s, and his remains were eventually reinterred in the Chabad cemetery in Malachovka near Moscow.)

Soon my turn came. “Any money?” asked the officer.

“No,” I lied. “Here are my packages. Check them if you want.” He believed me and moved on, questioning every passenger.

“I have some Russian coins,” someone spoke up. He was taken off the train by the officer and brought into the police office.

During those anxious moments, we felt that our very lives hung in the balance. This was our only possibility to reach freedom, to leave the Soviet hell once and for all. If that unfortunate man would buckle under questioning and give any hint about our illegal exodus, we could all lose our lives.

After what seemed an eternity, he returned safely, thank G‑d. Slowly our train pulled out of the station, picking up speed. Soon, to our indescribable relief, we crossed into Poland. Bottles of vodka instantly appeared as everyone toasted each other “L’chaim” — “to life! — thanking G‑d for our miraculous escape.

Unfortunately, the passengers of the other train-car could not share our joy. While thanking G‑d for their escape from the Soviet Union, their joy was tempered by the tragedy of the infant’s death. The unfortunate father had to get off at the first stop, Premishlan, to arrange for the child’s burial.

After many more hours, our train arrived at the outskirts of our destination, Cracow, Poland, on Shabbos afternoon. Assuming we were now safe, and not wishing to desecrate the Shabbos needlessly, we resolved to spend the rest of the holy day outside the city.

But B’richa members arrived and urged us to continue our journey. This was a life-threatening situation, they told us, for a wave of virulent anti-Semitism was sweeping through Poland, and many Jews had been murdered, including scores in a recent pogrom in Kielce. If the bloodthirsty Poles would hear of our arrival in such an exposed area, they would soon come to attack us.

Our Rabbonim and respected Chassidim huddled together to consult on this, and decided that women, children, and invalids should continue on the train into the city while the men would stay behind until after Shabbos. We sat in the fields, nervously watching out for any attackers. But Shabbos passed without incident, thank G‑d, and soon we continued on our journey.

When we reached the city, we found representatives of B’richa and Vaad Hatzala awaiting us. They provided us with accommodation, food, clothing, and other necessities. They also warned us about the constant presence of NKVD agents, even here in Poland. Soviet troops occupied the land, and the streets were full of their police, who felt as much at home there as in the USSR.

Nevertheless, we were ecstatic. After a life of suffering, we were finally free!