The End Of The Escape Operation

Back in Lemberg, the organizers of the Chabad escape operation invested enormous effort in planning another getaway for the remaining Chassidim. Another train managed to depart safely, but it left the city so unexpectedly that almost half of those waiting to join were left behind. Some had already locked the outside doors of their apartment buildings for the night and could not be called out, while others did not get enough time to reach the station.

Another train was organized to leave for Poland, but this time through Romania. Many Chassidim were on board. But when they reached the border, calamity struck. Police boarded the train and arrested all illegal passengers, subjecting them to a thorough search and intense interrogation. They caught those responsible for forging Polish passports, discovering the names of everyone associated with the escape operation.

The NKVD swept down in full fury, arresting all whose names were on the lists. A friend of mine, Moshe Katzenelenbogen (who now lives in London, England), barely sixteen years old, was among those arrested. His mother, Soroh (a remarkable woman known to everyone as “Di Moomeh Sorka” — “Aunt Soroh” — for she was an aunt of the various Raskin families), had been one of those most active in the operation. She had already been arrested and interrogated, but refused to divulge other names. In an attempt to threaten her, the police brought her son into her cell. Shocked to see that even her teenage son had been arrested, she later suffered a massive heart attack and passed away before his eyes.

Mother’s Close Encounter

The NKVD agent who came to arrest Reb Yona in Lemberg (as related in a previous chapter) was unaware that his bird had flown. He decided to wait for him in the apartment where Reb Yona had stayed.

Meanwhile, Mother had just arrived in Lemberg from Moscow. She was on a dangerous mission of bringing gold coins to Reb Yona for the purpose of funding Tomchei T’mimim. It was, of course, illegal to possess such coins in the Soviet Union, and anyone found with them was liable to the severest punishment.

From the train station, Mother headed to the apartment where Reb Yona had been staying — without realizing she was going straight into the lion’s mouth!

She rang the bell. The lady of the home came out. Any word she might say would bring the NKVD agent to the door and place Mother in danger of arrest. Instead she stayed silent, but gave Mother a push so firm that it inadvertently sent her flying down the stairs.

Mother took the hint. Realizing the danger, she immediately ran out into the street. She found a car waiting there with a driver inside, and offered to pay him to take her to the train station — blissfully unaware that this was the very car which had brought the NKVD agent and now awaited his return with his prey!

The driver apparently had been waiting for a while, and nothing seemed to be happening. The station was probably not far off, and here was a chance to make a quick extra fare during his boringly long wait. Without considering whether the NKVD agent might be interested in arresting Mother, too, he took her to the station, where she managed to catch a train and escape!

Meanwhile, the NKVD agent must have heard the bell and realized someone had come. He went downstairs to take a look and was furious to discover that his driver had disappeared!

Father’s Golden Heart

Now that the intense efforts needed to win the war were over, the Soviet authorities resumed their persecution of Yiddishkeit. A new wave of arrests followed, including Reb Mendel Futerfas, Reb Shmuel Notik, Reb Yona Kagan and many others. Many of them passed away from their inhuman treatment in jail and labor camps.

Reb Chaim Zalmen Kozliner, a Chassid known by his initials under the codename “ChaZaK,” had been one of those most active in running the underground Tomchei T’mimim yeshivos. He was arrested first, and then his wife, leaving their two children, Mottel (Mordechai) — just 18 years old — and his younger sister on their own. In desperation, they traveled to Moscow to seek help.

Mottel walked into the Marina Roshtcha Shul. Father noticed him and hissed at him: “What are you doing here? Do you want to get arrested? Get out immediately!”

Shocked by this unexpectedly harsh welcome, Mottel and his sister fled. To whom could they now turn? Walking aimlessly through the streets of Moscow, they were at a loss where to go.

As they walked, brokenhearted, they were startled by a cough right behind them. Looking around, they noticed a figure hiding in the shadows. It was Father.

“Your lives were in danger,” he whispered. “NKVD agents monitor the shul constantly, and anyone walking in comes under surveillance. Here, take this.”

He thrust a small package into their hands and disappeared down an alleyway. Mottel and his sister opened it. To their amazement, it contained a large sum of money. Father’s package enabled them to survive until they could settle down.

Such Chassidic nobility of character was intrinsic to Father’s personality. He was always deeply concerned for other Jews’ well-being, even in the face of personal danger.

When Reb Mordechai Kozliner emigrated to the Holy Land, he established a branch Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim in Nachalas Har Chabad, the Chabad suburb of Kiryat Malachi, Israel, founded by the Rebbe in 1969 for Soviet refugees. After arriving in the free world, he told me of his above encounter with Father.

“Father Has Been Taken To Hospital...”

In September, 1947, Sholom and I received a shocking letter. “Don’t write anymore,” our sister Sima wrote. “Father is very sick, and has been taken to hospital.” We understood. Father had been arrested by the NKVD...

Years later, we pieced together information about Father’s fate from those with him at the time. One day, Father was walking with someone when they noticed they were being followed. “I don’t care what they do to me now,” Father told his companion resolutely. “I’ve already sent my sons out of this accursed land. I have nothing more to fear from the police.”

Soon after, on August 13, 1947, Father was arrested. Also imprisoned at the same time were other Chassidim: Reb Berel Rikman (1898-1988), Reb Mordechai Gurarye, Reb Moshe Chayim Dubravsky, Reb Chayim Leizer Gurevitch, Reb Yona Kagan and many others. The NKVD accused them of being the members of an insidious group labeled “Chassidov,” led by the Rebbe RaYYaTz from New York. It conspired, they claimed, to gather Jews and work on them in an “anti-Soviet, chauvinist, capitalist spirit,” trying to smuggle them out of the country’s borders to Poland, England, America and Palestine. They were further accused of organizing illegal shuls and schools called yeshivos in the cities of Moscow, Tashkent and Samarkand, and of giving an “anti-Soviet, religious chauvinist” education to Jewish and adults in illegal schools called “cheider,” where the education was anti-Soviet and in some cases based on “capitalist ideology.”

In prison, Father was interrogated mercilessly to extract information about others involved in the Chassidic “counter-revolutionary underground,” and to get him to “confess” to serious crimes. From the official records of his interrogations (obtained from the KGB in recent years, and translated in the Appendix), it is clear that Father tried to mention as accomplices in his religious activities only Chassidim who had either left the USSR or had passed away.

The official indictment against all of them (except for Reb Yona who, accused of many other crimes, was indicted separately) was issued on February 6, 1948. Soon after, each had his sentence read to him separately: ten years exile in Siberian labor camp.

Mother was no longer a young woman, but she several times traveled the great distance, enduring the arduous journey to bring Father kosher food, especially as he needed special delicate foods for his poor health.

Reb Chayim Zalmen Kozliner, who later emigrated to the Holy Land, was imprisoned in the same labor camp as Father in Patma. He too heard Father resolutely telling his interrogators that he did not fear them, especially now that his sons had escaped abroad.

The prison rules required everyone to shave. Father was ordered to shave off his beard, but adamantly refused. Many tried to change his mind, for the prison rules were not to be trifled with, but Father would not be swayed.

As a Chassid, he felt strongly that a Jew must have a full beard, no matter what. Even during a typhus outbreak in World War I, when strict orders had been given for everyone to shave for hygienic reasons — the fatal disease is carried mainly by lice — Father would not hear of it. By keeping his beard, he could easily have caught it, but it did not concern him at all. Even when he lay deathly sick in hospital in Bashkiria, he clutched his beard with both hands even while sleeping to thwart any attempts by hospital staff to shave his beard.

But in prison the officers would not tolerate Father’s refusal to shave. One day they grabbed hold of him and held him down while they shaved his beard. Father was heartbroken. It was too much for his frail body to bear. Before long, in the arms of his friend, Reb Chayim Zalmen, he passed away from grief. The date was 7 Ellul, 5709 (1949).

Somehow, Reb Chaim Zalmen managed to relay the sad news to Mother. She was devastated. Three months later, a coded letter was received by one of the Chassidim who had recently settled in the Holy Land, mentioning that “Nochum Zalmen’s father-in-law” had passed away. At the time, I was studying at Yeshiva Tomchei Tmimim in Brunoy, near Paris, and it was there that I received the news and observed the week of mourning, “sitting shiva.”

Mother’s Later Years

Mother was now a widow in her late sixties. She was too old to work and her government pension was all of nine rubles a month. We knew she would be unable to survive on this, but it took many months until we discovered her address so that we could send her regular food packages, including matzos for Pesach.

In 1953, the Soviet dictator Stalin, who had been responsible for the death of so many millions of Soviet citizens, died unlamented. Conditions started to relax, if only a little. Gradually, many who had been condemned to years in prison camps were released, including many Chassidim. To her surprise, Mother received a letter from the KGB (as the NKVD was now called) stating that Father had been “rehabilitated.”

Late in the 1950’s, the Soviet government started granting exit visas to a few citizens who applied to be reunited with their family members in other lands. These visas were still most difficult to obtain, and the application itself often brought undesirable consequences, such as immediate dismissal from employment and harassment by the KGB. At Mother’s advanced age, however, she did not have much to lose.

In 1964, she applied for an exit visa. My sister Basya, Nochum Zalmen’s wife, lived with her family in Melbourne, Australia, and sent her the necessary request forms to be reunited with her daughter. But her request was refused. Mother went from government office to office, begging and demanding to be allowed to leave.

“But your husband was a criminal,” the officials told her. “What crime did he commit that he was jailed, and for which he had to die in prison?”

“You killed him!” mother screamed back. “First you murder him, then you send me a letter saying he’s rehabilitated! And now you’re asking why he was jailed and died?”

Finally, in 1965, Mother received permission to emigrate. She went to live with Basya in Australia. Several years later, she came to stay with us in Crown Heights, New York, for about a year. She passed away on 30 Adar I, 5730 (1970).

The Marina Roshtcha Shul Till Now

After the arrest of so many Chassidim, including Father, the Marina Roshtcha Shul almost came to a standstill. Even Jews still Torah observant at home were afraid to go to shul, for that made anyone immediately suspect.

As conditions relaxed a little after Stalin’s death, some Chassidim released from jail settled in Moscow. They included my old friend Moshe Katzenelenbogen, Yisroel Pinsky (now in the Holy Land) and many others. As they started to rebuild their lives, materially and spiritually, their new life revolved around the Marina Roshtcha Shul. Originally, it had not been an exclusively Chabad shul, but by the middle of the 1960’s it became so, as the old generation of observant Jews passed away, leaving no one to replace them, and virtually the only observant Jews left were Lubavitchers.

During those years, the Lubavitchers even managed to influence several non-religious Jews to become Baalei Teshuva — which would have been unthinkable during the Stalin era. They even formed Torah classes for these mostly young Jews who were seeking to rediscover their Jewish roots and heritage.

Officially, the authorities no longer arrested Jews for observing religion. Nevertheless, they could not accept teaching religion to Jews who were not observant. They harassed the activists and tried to stop their activities, issuing decrees to prohibit public teaching of religion and religious gatherings — farbrengens — in shul. On several occasions, they threatened to close the shul.

At the time of the Six Day War, the danger enveloping Israel and the ensuing miraculous victory aroused the Jewish spark in thousands of Soviet Jews. In increasing numbers, they started applying to emigrate to Israel, and many began to study Hebrew and their Jewish heritage. That prompted the KGB to harass them even more. But the situation did begin to ease somewhat, and Jewish tourists from the free world were often able to smuggle in Torah books, religious articles and material help (such as medications), and to give active encouragement — all with our Rebbe’s strong encouragement.

This situation continued throughout the leadership of Leonid Brezhnev, and until the time of Michael Gorbachev. The shul itself, an old wooden structure, was badly in need of repair. Although the congregants had for long wanted to get it rebuilt, it was difficult to raise funds and obtain the required official permits.

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1992, a powerful bomb set by antisemites demolished the entire Marina Roshtcha building In 1998, miraculously with no harm to anyone. The Mayor of Moscow granted permission to erect a small temporary shul on a lot next to the site of the old building and a two-story building was erected for use as a shul — for which it is still used during the week. Several philanthropists now donated funds for a far more ambitious structure, and a leading Israeli architect volunteered to design it. An imposing seven-story center was erected, which is now used for many educational and social activities for youth and adults, including Russia’s first kosher restaurant since the 1920’s.

It was my great privilege to be invited to the opening of the new center on 18 Elul, 2000. Present were many prominent Rabbis from Israel and other lands, and important dignitaries including the Prime Minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin. Although previously head of a department of the KGB’s successor organization, Mr. Putin spoke of his high regard for religious Jews and praised the activities of the Chabad movement — headed in Russia by Rabbi Berel Lazar, who is now also Chief Rabbi of the Russian Federation.

What a change from the time when we prayed at the shul! Attending the celebration was a certain Chassid who had lost his father in the Soviet labor camps. Someone had asked: Since religion is now openly observed in Russia with the government’s blessing and active assistance, what was gained by our parents having to give up their lives for Yiddishkeit? He answered that, as the Rebbe has often noted, our generation in comparison to previous ones is like a dwarf on the shoulders of a giant. Therefore it is our generation that is fortunate to reap the fruits of our parents’ devoted sacrifices.


Recently, Reb Betzalel Shiff, executive director of Shamir (the organization of ex-Soviet scientists in Israel founded and headed by Professor Yirmyahu Branover), told me of an interesting encounter.

In recent years, he has managed to obtain copies of the NKVD files of the interrogation, trial and sentence of many Chabad Chassidim, including Father’s. On successfully concluding his efforts, Reb Betzalel received a notice that the head of the KGB’s successor organization in Moscow wished to meet him.

As a native of the Soviet Union, brought up with constant fear of the secret police, Reb Betzalel immediately felt nervous. But reason soon prevailed: Times have changed, he realized, and undesirable consequences were most unlikely.

Politely, the important officer asked him to be seated.

“Mr. Shiff,” he asked, “why are you so interested in all these people? They can’t all be your relatives...”

Under present law, a relative is entitled to receive copies of a criminal file. But Shiff had asked for so many such files that they could not all be related to him.

“They were friends of mine,” Reb Betzalel replied a little lamely.

“You should be aware,” declared the officer, “that most people jailed by the Stalinist regime were innocent and committed no crimes. But these people, for whom you have requested copies of their files, really did do much [against the government].”

He did not necessarily mean to justify their punishment. But he wanted to emphasize that, even by post-Soviet standards, their imprisonment had not been totally groundless...

Indeed, our courageous parents’ tenacity did have far-reaching accomplishments — they succeeded in preserving the flame of Yiddishkeit throughout the Soviet Union during over seventy years of Communism.

May their memory be blessed.