The Synagogue

The Great Choral Synagogue in Moscow was a for-show place of worship, like others in the Soviet Union in the 1940s. Stalin had ordered his soldiers not to close this synagogue or the two Christian Orthodox churches in Moscow, so that when foreigners and their press would come to the USSR to see how religion was being persecuted, the Soviet police could prove this accusation false by showing the foreign visitors the St. Stanislaus Church, the St. Xavier Church and, lehavdil, the Great Choral Synagogue.

Rabbi Mordechai Dubin

In his younger years, Rabbi Dubin had been the minister of religion and education in the free and independent country of Latvia. In the year 1927 he was able to help the Lubavitcher Rebbe escape the Soviet Union.

When Latvia lost its independence and was annexed to the Soviet Empire, all the official members of the Latvian governing branches were imprisoned, among them Rabbi Dubin.

The rabbi was brought to Moscow and put under house arrest in the Great Choral Synagogue on Bolshoy Spasoglinischevskiy Pereulok. Perhaps Stalin had not yet decided what he wanted to do with the rabbi from Riga, the former Latvian minister of religion and education, so he locked him into the synagogue and forbade him to walk outside even for a moment.

Rabbi Mordechai Dubin (right) was instrumental in rescuing the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (left) from the USSR.
Rabbi Mordechai Dubin (right) was instrumental in rescuing the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (left) from the USSR.

Rabbi Dubin and Me

Since my mother had passed away, I—a little girl at the time—was the only female person in the synagogue on that Yom Kippur. The balcony (the women’s section) was empty. While my father and brothers took part in the services in the men’s section, I covered the hallways. I had no toys, nor were there any books for me to read even if I could read (which I couldn’t). So I sat on the windowsill, looked out at the rooftops of Moscow, and watched the birds and cats and squirrels.

Sometimes I went to sit in back of the men as they davened, and made up stories about them in my mind. My stories kept me friendly company.

I was sitting on the windowsill, in the midst of thinking out a story about a lost princess who is found by three benevolent small brown bears who adopt her. I was the princess in this story. After I was adopted by the bears, I cooked and cleaned and did everything in the line of housekeeping for my bears, and all I wanted in return was to be loved. As I came to this part of my story, suddenly the heavy brown carved oak door of the big sanctuary, which was the men’s section of the synagogue, began to move.

Slowly, it was rolling open into the hallway. I held my breath in pure wonderment. I had never seen this before!

As soon as the door was completely open, there, with his head and shoulders covered in a big white tallit with black stripes at its edges, a faint smile on his face, a beard almost all white, eyes looking straight at me with an expression that brought a warm feeling into my child-soul, holding an apple in his hand, stood the great Rabbi Mordechai Dubin.

“This is for you,” he said, extending the apple toward me. “Eat it now.”

He tendered the fruit as if he were bringing a gift to a princess. And I accepted his gift like a princess would accept a gift from an honorable plebeian, in dignified silence.

If I had been a child who was being brought up by a good Jewish mother, surely I would have thanked the holy rabbi.

But since my mother was no longer with me, and my father, my only parent, seemed to want only one thing from me, and that was that I should keep quiet, I had learned how to be silent. So I said nothing to the rabbi.

Later, my brother told me that the rabbi’s custom was to give out apples to children who had come to the synagogue and were too young to fast an entire Yom Kippur. As he was giving apples to the boys who were in synagogue on that Yom Kippur, someone informed him that there was a girl roaming around the building somewhere. He went to look for her, and found me standing at the window watching the birds and squirrels.

The Great Choral Synagogue of Moscow
The Great Choral Synagogue of Moscow

My Father and Rabbi Dubin

Rabbi Dubin, torn away from his family and home in the city of Riga, imprisoned in the synagogue in Moscow, made the Great Choral Synagogue his home, and the people who came there his family.

Every afternoon Rabbi Dubin taught Ein Yaakov, a compilation of Talmudic teachings.

Under Communism, Jews were afraid to be seen attending a lecture in the synagogue. He had few students, sometimes just one or two, and probably at least one of the two was a disguised police agent assigned to observe and guard the rabbi.

During one Ein Yaakov class, Papa slipped a note under the rabbi’s book. The note said, in Hebrew, “Request private conversation.”

And the next time my father came to the synagogue, the rabbi slipped a note into my father’s hand while shaking hands with him. It read, “East side door, 11:00 tonight.”

On that night, after my brothers and I had gone to sleep, suddenly Papa did something I had never seen him do before, and it woke me up. He sat down in a chair in the middle of our one-room home, dropped his head into his hands and began to sob. He tried to muffle his cries with his wrist, but did not succeed.

Why was Papa crying? Did he mourn our mother? Was he crying for all the innocent people who had perished under Stalin’s rule, for the pressures of his own daily life, and for his and his children’s uncertain future?

The crying went on only for a few moments. Then Papa wiped his face with his handkerchief, came over to my bed and told me to get dressed. Then he took my hand and we walked out of our building onto the boulevard.

Papa often took me for walks when he had to go someplace, especially at night, as having a child with you was protection against questions by some secret policeman: one could always say there was something wrong with the child, and she was being taken somewhere, or just for some fresh air to make her feel better.

We did not stay on the boulevard long, but quickly turned into a side street, then made our way through many dark pathways and alleys, and finally by a circuitous route arrived at the east side door of the Great Choral Synagogue.

Papa knocked on the door softly, and the door began to roll, at first slowly, and then, at the last point before opening completely, it swung wide, opened by an old man with a long white beard. The man was wearing a dark robe and a cap on his head. Warm, smiling eyes peered out from the face behind the white beard. I recognized this man. It was Rabbi Dubin, who had given me the apple.

Soon I was sitting in a front pew in a dark sanctuary, watching Papa and the rabbi speaking in hushed tones.

Dovber (Berel) Paltiel, father of the author
Dovber (Berel) Paltiel, father of the author

They did not turn on any light at all. Their only light came from the bright full moon that peered into the window.

Papa bent forward, lowered his head and put both palms of his hands on the sides of his head. “The walls are closing in on me at work,” he said. And he told the rabbi how he was being asked to write negative reports about people who worked with him at the bank, and how difficult it was to get free of the interrogations by the in-bank secret police.

(In a Soviet school under Communism, children were taught to report if they heard anything from an adult or another child which could be construed as counter-revolutionary. Religion was a counter-revolutionary concept under Communism. So naturally, a religious family felt pressured and scared if their children went to a Communist public school. Yet public education was mandatory. So my brothers and I went.)

“I have a young boy,” my father said, meaning my big brother, “who does not understand the dangers around us if we speak our mind.”

The elderly rabbi’s white hair trembled slightly, while he listened with all his heart and soul to my father’s uncertainties.

Papa and the rabbi stood still in the dark sanctuary, and seemed to have given themselves over to thought.

After a little while, the rabbi asked, “What are the possible solutions? How can we save the children and save you?”

My father answered, “You know about the agreement between Poland and the USSR? I understand that there are Polish Jews who are willing to help us escape from here.”

The old rabbi perked up.

The author as a child in Russia.
(Photo courtesy of the author)
The author as a child in Russia.
(Photo courtesy of the author)

“How can they do this?”

“Well, those are refugees from Poland,” Papa explained quietly. “They came to Russia during the war to escape the Nazis. And now, according to the agreement between Poland and Russia, they are given permission to leave Russia and go back to their homeland, Poland.

“In order to leave Russia, they acquire exit visas as well as passports of entry into their own land, Poland. And after they arrive in Poland, many of them are able to send their documents back here, and some of our people are able to get those documents fixed so that the border exit stamp is erased and the document is made usable again. So we Russians can use those same documents to leave this country and enter Poland on the pretext of being Poles going back home to Poland after the war. Of course, this operation is fraught with danger, and involves a lot of bribes.

“Many people are getting out of Russia this way. I know of some people who have left already,” Father said, “They’ve changed their names to Polish names. They used the identity papers of the Polish people who have sent their papers back. My in-laws left, and other chassidim as well.

“I want your advice and blessing, Reb Mordechai. What shall I do? Stay here and hope for the best, or risk our lives by taking steps to cross the border into Poland?” Papa whispered.

“Of course,” whispered back Rabbi Dubin, “it’s harder for you to escape than for the others, because you are known at the state bank where you work, and they would look for you. Is there another solution?”

“The other solution is to do nothing. Because you know, Rabbi, I have a nephew, my niece Nina’s husband, a high military officer, and he is able to protect me. He has been protecting me all along. He says he thinks he can continue to protect me, not to worry about those threats.”

Father sighed, and continued:

“He might be able to protect me, but not my children’s education. I want my children to grow up in a free country, where they can live as Jews openly.”

Rabbi Dubin looked at Father even more intensely now. His nice, friendly eyes sparkled.

“The first solution is very dangerous, and the second one is not reliable,” he said. “We can’t rely on a nephew who says not to worry. What if they do imprison you, and put the children into a state home for children; what are you going to do? Sue the nephew?”

He made a slight, nervous, guttural sound that might have become a bitter laugh, had he let it develop freely.

“I am asking your advice and blessing,” Father whispered again.

Now the rabbi spoke slowly and deliberately. “It is worth the risk to try. You have three children. G‑d willing, you will bring them up in a free country.”

And after a few quiet thoughtful moments, he summarized, “You have no choice. You’ve got to leave this prison now, while there is a chance.”

“Yes,” my father said, and he put his head into his hands again like he had earlier that evening.

Then the rabbi said, “Let’s look into the Holy Book.” They picked up a chumash, opened up a page and read together. It said, “G‑d said to Abraham, ‘Lech lecha me’artzecha . . .—leave the land in which you were born, and go to the land unknown to you, that I will show you.’” They smiled at each other, just a small smile.

Papa and Rabbi Dubin shook hands and then hugged each other. “Berachah v’hatzlachah,” the old rabbi whispered, “and good luck. I will pray for you and your children.”

Then Father said, “And you, Reb Mordechai, what about you?”

In answer to Father’s question, Rabbi Dubin raised his large hand to his beard and tugged at it like a man in sudden torment.

“I have made my peace,” he said. “This is G‑d’s will for me. Would I like to leave? Yes. If it was only me, perhaps I would take a chance to try to escape. But it’s not only me.”

Father looked confused.

“What do you mean?”

Rabbi Mordechai Dubin perished in Russia.
Rabbi Mordechai Dubin perished in Russia.

The rabbi released the white lock of hair he was pulling from his beard. His hand once again settled quietly by his side. “I only meant to say that G‑d has placed me here. This is where I am needed. The little bit of Ein Yaakov that I learn with people who come sometimes; the prayers; the dancing with the Torah on Simchas Torah—this is G‑d’s purpose for my life now.

“G‑d gave me a job of making the voice of Torah heard in this forsaken place. And so, with this work, I am at peace.”

Papa and I left the synagogue through the same door we had entered.

Again we walked and walked the back streets and alleys of Moscow, and finally came to our lit-up street, and then home, and went to sleep until morning.

In the morning Papa got us up to go to school, while he went to work, as usual.

For two more years Rabbi Dubin lived in the synagogue, never leaving once.

Then one day, the feared Communist police came to the Great Choral Synagogue on Spasoglinischevskiy Pereulok.

Last time, they came to bring him here. This time, they came to remove the Latvian minister of religion and education from his confinement in the synagogue, and transfer him to prison.

My heart cries for the great Torah scholar who once gave an apple to a lonely little girl in synagogue on Yom Kippur.

The author with her father and brothers in France, on their way to the U.S. (Photo courtesy of the author)
The author with her father and brothers in France, on their way to the U.S. (Photo courtesy of the author)

In 1946, Miriam Nevel, together with her father and two brothers, left Russia clandestinely and became free Jews. Rabbi Dubin died in Tula, Russia, in 1956. This memory is part of Miriam Nevel’s forthcoming collection, Crossings, and was reprinted with permission from the author and Hamodia, where it originally appeared.