What was it like in the [Soviet] labor camps?

They were days of light.

Are you speaking euphemistically?

No, I mean it simply. Those were the most inspiring days of my life.

How so?

Throughout my life, I always felt a battle between the material and the spiritual. In the labor camps, there was no battle. My life was all spiritual. All I had to do was learn Torah and daven (pray).

I don't understand. You didn't have to work?

Of course we had to work! In one camp, my job was to care for a herd of pigs. I had to begin at 4:00 am and did not finish until 6:00 pm. In the winter, it was so cold that once the straps of my tefillin froze. When I began to unwind them, they cracked.

It was hard and crushing work, but only physically. My soul was free. There was nothing holding me back. All my energy could be focused on prayer and study.

[I assumed Reb Mendel knew the prayers by heart, but what about Torah Study? Reb Mendel was not known as the kind of sage who had committed volumes of Talmud to memory; so I asked:]

Did you have books with you?

Books?! The Russians would allow me Jewish texts to study from?

Then how could you study?

How did I study? I would picture the cheder I attended when I was a child. I would sit in the third row. I remembered the table at which I would sit, the books that were placed on it. To my right sat my friend Berl, and to my left my friend Zalman. Yossel sat in front of me. I remembered their faces, the games we would play, the secrets we would tell each other. And I remembered the melamed (teacher): tall, with stern eyes, but with a warm and loving smile. I would picture him and the classroom in my mind. The scene was so vivid that I could actually hear the melamed speaking: "Shnayim ochazin betallit... If two people are holding on to a garment, and one of them says it is entirely mine and the other says it is entirely mine..." I would listen, and concentrate to record his words in my mind. Soon he had taught me a page of Talmud.

I then shut off the picture of the cheder and began to review the page that I had just learned. After a time, it was committed to memory. Then I returned to the cheder to learn another page of Talmud. In this way, I learned many chapters of Talmud and a good portion of Tanya.