Imagine the scene: You’re standing on the platform, watching a train pulling out of the station with a loved one aboard, wondering if you’ll ever see him or her again. Back in the day, when long-distance travel was far more arduous and costly, the glorious and cavernous halls of train stations served as the backdrop for all the Many chassidim were arrested and never seen againcomings and goings of life. Such was the setting of two powerful moments between chassidim and the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn—trackside moments of farewell and reunion, of crushing loss and eternal connection.

The year was 1927. It was an especially difficult year for Chabad chassidim in Russia, as the Yevsektsiya (the “Jewish Section” of the Communist Party) and the Soviet secret police intensified their persecution of Jewish religious observance. Many chassidim were arrested and were never seen again. Others would spend decades in Siberian labor camps.

It was this year that the Rebbe was imprisoned in the notorious Shpalerka prison in Leningrad, sentenced to death for his tireless work promoting religious education and observance. After a harrowing ordeal in prison, his sentence was miraculously commuted to exile in the town of Kostroma, 350 kilometers northeast of Moscow. On the day he was to leave for Kostroma, the 3rd day of Tammuz (July 3), 1927,1 chassidim gathered for an impromptu farewell on the platform of the Leningrad train station. Uniformed police and secret agents were everywhere, and there was little doubt that informers were interspersed among the crowd. Now more than ever it took a huge amount of courage for chassidim to be seen in public, openly expressing their loyalty and enduring commitment to the Rebbe. Yet they came, unable to hide away, unwilling to forgo the opportunity to see their Rebbe, to celebrate his release from the threat of death, and to follow him with their eyes as he departed by train for Kostroma.

Standing on the train, the Rebbe turned to the assembled crowd and, quoting the biblical prayer of King Solomon and the defiant words of his own father, delivered a bold and rousing speech. This speech might be considered a Gettysburg Address for the Russian chassidim, and it continues to live on in the collective memory of Chabad chassidim to this day:

“May G‑d be with us as He was with our ancestors; may He not forsake us nor abandon us . . .”2 Only our bodies went into exile, but not our souls . . . We must proclaim openly before all that with regard to any matter of our religion—Torah, mitzvahs and Jewish custom—it is not subject to the opinion of others, nor can any oppressive force be used against it. We must state with the greatest and strongest Jewish stubbornness, with the thousands of years of Jewish mesirat nefesh (“soul dedication”) and sacrifice: “Touch not My anointed ones! Do no evil to My prophets!”3

. . . This is our request to the Holy One, “May He not forsake us nor abandon us”: G‑d should give us true strength to be unintimidated by physical pain, and on the contrary to accept it with joy, so that every punishment we receive for supporting a cheder (Jewish school), for learning Torah, for performance of mitzvahs, shall increase our fortitude in the holy work of strengthening Judaism.

We must remember that imprisonment and hard labor are only temporary things, whereas Torah, mitzvahs and the Jewish people are eternal . . .4

A second, and more final, trackside gathering took place less than four months later, on the 24th of Tishrei (October 20th), 1927. The Rebbe’s exile to Kostroma had been brought to an end after less than ten days, but now he was leaving the Soviet Union for good. Throngs of chassidim crowded the station to see the rebbe off and to bid farewell. For the many chassidim who were trapped behind the thick folds of the Iron Curtain, it was an especially poignant time, their last opportunity to catch a glimpse of the Rebbe.

Sholom Marosow was the youngest son of the Rebbe’s trusted secretary, Reb Chonye. By this time, Sholom’s father and older brother had both been arrested, never to be seen again. Young Sholom held on to the Rebbe and did not want to let go, For many, it was their last opportunity to catch a glimpse of the rebbe until the Rebbe assured him, “We will yet see each other again.” (Indeed, in the winter of 1950, shortly before Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s passing, R. Sholom Marosow arrived in New York and went to see the rebbe. The Rebbe told him, “Nu, we see each other again!” He was one of the last people received in a private meeting with the Rebbe.) When the scholar Rabbi Avraham Ela Plotkin went into the Rebbe’s train car for a final farewell, the Rebbe fell into his arms and they embraced each other, weeping.

While on the train car leaving Russia, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak composed a letter to the chassidim of Russia. Among the heartfelt lines are these loving words:

As water reflects a face, my heart is awake and feels the pure sweetness and power of the inner and essential bond of the entire community of chassidim to the Tree of Life . . .

Each and every one of you, you and your wives, your sons and daughters, your grandchildren—your physical wellbeing, education, conduct and spiritual direction deeply affect me to the inner core of my heart.

My faith shall strengthen me and be my comfort, that physical distance shall never, ever separate us, G‑d forbid . . . Each of you chassidim, along with your families, should set your minds and hearts to strengthen the thread that binds us, which is service of G‑d . . .

May G‑d delight my heart and yours, in seeing children and grandchildren engaging with Torah and mitzvahs, with abundant means physically and spiritually. May G‑d raise the glory of Torah and the service of G‑d, and the glory of our Jewish brethren, that they may they live with all good, from soul to body.

It would be very pleasurable to me to hear at every occasion of the wellbeing of all of you and your families, and what is happening with each of them specifically and in detail. As I said, all their concerns, both physical and spiritual, reach the deep core of my heart, which is completely dedicated to your spiritual and physical good. Be strong and courageous, you and your families, to walk in the trodden path of light. . . . May it be good for you and your families forever. May G‑d help us to see each other in full happiness . . .

The train started up and began to pull out of the station. Chassidim looked on longingly and then began to disperse. Many had already left, when a chassid ran up holding a young child. He was rushing towards the platform, pointing and telling his little boy, “Look, look!” Others told him there was nothing left to see; the Rebbe’s train had already left. This breathless chassid was undeterred. “I want my son to at least see the smoke of the Rebbe’s train!”5

Some chassidim live with the Rebbe’s embrace. Others hold onto the Rebbe and never want to let go. And there are generations of selflessly dedicated chassidim who live inspired by the smoke of the Rebbe’s train.

One such story is especially memorable. Shmuel (Sam) Broida was the owner of a kosher meatpacking company in Chicago, and a philanthropist who gave generously to the Chabad fund for World War II refugees. In 1946 he traveled to Paris to distribute the funds, where he met an eight-year-old boy from Russia. The boy was wearing worn-out clothing; he was obviously lacking basic needs. Shmuel There was nothing left to see; the Rebbe’s train had already leftBroida asked him what he’d want from America. He figured the kid would ask for good food or nice clothing, maybe a game or toy. The boy didn’t hesitate. “I’d like to go see the Rebbe,” he requested. Mr. Broida was taken aback. He knew that the boy could not possibly have met the Rebbe, yet it was clear that his connection to the Rebbe was more important than any physical need or comfort.6

This was a fulfillment of the Rebbe’s prayerful hope in that letter penned on the train as he prepared to leave Russia, “May physical distance never separate us!”