It is 1937. A brutal, murderous communist regime reigns in the White Russian city of Nevel. It is one of the windiest autumns that anyone can remember. On a narrow, curving street, on the third floor of a gray, three-story building, at the end of a long corridor that isA brutal, murderous regime reigns dimly lit by one electric bulb, there is a metal office door, its top half a frosted glass window. A sign engraved in bold letters on the frosted glass reads “PASSPORTS.”

Inside the passport office, the head secretary, a woman of about 40—slightly stooped from a daily routine of bending over papers and a typewriter, and yet not without a certain dignity and grace—sits at her desk busily typing reports, lists of names and addresses, inter-office memos and letters. She is intent on her work and pays no attention to anything around her. Or so it seems.

Another employee is very much aware of everything going on around her. Sarah, 19, is a file clerk. She is also an Orthodox Jewess, though she tries not to make that obvious. Having been born and raised under Communism, she is always alert to danger. She never forgets that the Communists aim to repress, restrict, harass, imprison, interrogate, torture and execute religious Jews (in that order).

The Stone Man

And so, once in a while the girl glances at the curious-looking man sitting at a desk in the far corner of this long, rectangular office. Sarah’s hand moves to still her pounding heart, but she quickly puts it down. She tries to look away, but as though hypnotized, she turns again and stares in disbelief at the man with a beard and peyot (sidelocks) who is sitting at the corner desk.

Sarah’s eyes grow bigger and bigger, as though she is seeing a ghost. Her brow breaks into furrows, and she is perspiring profusely despite the autumn chill in the room. What is he doing here?

She frets but doesn’t dare to inquire.

She recognizes this man. Once, when he came to their house, her father warned her not to open the door to him. “He is a mosser—an informer. A denouncer of good people.”

Sarah’s hands shake. The paper she should be filing slips from her fingers. She bends to lift it. Then she inches toward the man at the corner desk to see what he is doing.

He is middle-aged, with a long, sparse gray beard with reddish spots, and peyot tucked behind his ears. His hands are gray, his face is gray, and his eyes are so dull there is no light shining from within. In a park he could be mistaken for a stone statue, forgotten a split moment after one has seen it. However, not so in this passport office. The unusualness of a statue, a non-man, sitting at a desk, silently screams danger.

The human statue doesn’t notice the lowly file clerk watching him out of the corner of her eye. Nor is he aware of the storm outside that is smashing tree branches against the large office window. He is intent on the names printed in the thick ream of pages that sits in front of him. He reads the names, and from time to time uses a large black fountain pen to mark a name with an X. The pen leaks, and the stone statue’s right index finger is stained with black ink. The odd man places the papers in a drawer and walks out for a few moments’ break.

During this brief interlude, the older woman opens the drawer, looks at the papers, and makes quick marks on her own tiny piece of paper.

A Talk in the Street

Six o’clock. The work day is finally finished. The two women walk down the winding street, grateful to leave the passport office behind. One is tormented by the information in her head. Both women clutch drab black sweaters close to themselves. But their sweaters are no match for the wind, and the loose flaps, like the wings of some giant bird, whisk about them.

As they turn the corner, the older womanThe young woman turns pale whispers to the younger one, “I couldn’t talk to you in the office. The walls have ears. But I must tell you something. A lot of your chassidic people are about to be arrested. And the one you call ‘Uncle Yisroel’ is certainly among them because he continues to give religious lessons to little boys. I am afraid that someone has denounced him.”

The older woman gives her young friend the names of those marked for imminent arrest. The young woman turns pale. “That man sitting at the corner desk, the one who looks like a statue—he is the informer?”

“Yes,” the older woman says with certainty. “The men whom he marked with an X today are going to be picked up tonight or tomorrow at the latest. Not that I’m supposed to know this … not that you are …”

Sarah catches her breath and concentrates on hiding the depth of her anxiety from her seemingly stoic friend. The two reach Trubniy Pereulok, where they turn down different streets to go to their respective homes.

As soon as the older woman is out of sight, the girl breaks into a run. Not toward her own home but toward the houses of the people whose names, she now knows, have been marked for imminent arrest.

Giving the Alarm

The young file clerk knocks on doors and gives the warning in very few words. Many of the marked men pick up bags containing their tallit and tefillin, a bundle of clean clothing, and a loaf of bread if there is one in the house, and quickly disappear into the vast unknown territory of Mother Russia.

Sarah knocks on the door of the headmaster of the clandestine yeshivah and tells him that the informer has put an X next to his name. He listens to her quietly, and a moment later he leaves with only his tallit and tefillin in hand. The man’s distraught wife hisses at the young girl, “Sarah! You come here with stories! And now my husband has left. Go away. Stop making up stories, you silly, cruel child!”

In several other homes Sarah bears the brunt of similar reactions. But she keeps running from one house to another, desperate to save the lives of those whose names the informer had marked with an X.

One Who Doesn’t Listen

At last Sarah arrives at the large house on Klimowa Street where Reb Yisroel, who is a teacher of small children, a mohel, and a shochet, lives with his immediate family and his wife’s many relatives.

Reb Yisroel allows Sarah to slip into the house. The girl has been running. She catches her breath, then quietly warns Reb Yisroel, a Chabad chassid, of the impending arrests.

“You mean Faivel has informed on me and“Uncle Yisroel, please believe me. I saw him” others? But we were students in the same yeshivah!” Reb Yisroel cries in a voice filled with disbelief.

For a quick moment it looks as if young Sarah might forget herself and grab the respected, older teacher by his lapels in an effort to shake him up enough to save his life.

“Uncle Yisroel, please believe me. I saw him,” she cries.

He is not really her uncle, but she calls him “Uncle” because their families are close.

Now her breath comes broken and shallow. “Listen to me. He marked your name with an X.”

But Reb Yisroel cannot believe it. “The man you think has informed on my secret cheder is a classmate from yeshivah days. It’s not possible that he would inform on me. You are a kind girl. You are trying to save lives. But it’s not necessary. Some people are motivated by fear and greed, but Faivel is not going to denounce fellow yeshivah students. It’s a mistake.”

Sarah begs Reb Yisroel to take her seriously. But the old chassid clearly cannot believe that a former yeshivah student could denounce anyone, especially another yeshivah student.

The girl is adamant. “Believe! Escape before it’s too late.”

Reb Yisroel tries to calm the girl. “Thank you for the warning. Now go home and help your mother to prepare for Shabbat.”

“You’ll do something?”

“Yes, my child. We can say Tehillim (Psalms) for him to help him withstand the challenge. And tell your parents gut shabbos from me.”

Reb Yisroel disappears into the back of the large two-story house on Klimowa Street. The old, drab beige building stands perfectly still on this windy autumn night, the Friday before Rosh Hashanah, in the year 1937.

One Saved Many

Courageous young Sarah saved many lives that night. But on that Shabbat, Reb Yisroel was arrested and taken from his home, along with many other religious Jews. Many perished. Reb Yisroel was released after 13 months of incarceration.

After his release from prison, my grandfather, Reb Yisroel, concentrated not only on teaching children Torah, but also on being a father to those orphans whose fathers had been arrested and did not return.