I have yet to meet a person who has learned about Mordechai Dubin and not become fascinated by this figure. Dubin was a statesman, diplomat, and powerbroker in inter-war Latvia, whose influence and impact was felt widely within the Jewish world. At the height of his public career, he walked the corridors of power with a bearing seldom seen in a Jewish lay leader. He was the founder and leader of the traditionalist Agudath Israel political party in Latvia, but represented Jews far beyond his natural base and served as a uniquely inclusive chairman of the Riga Jewish Community.

 Mordechai Dubin being introduced in a synagogue, possibly during his 1929 visit to the United States. That year he accompanied the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn, of righteous memory, on the Rebbe's trip to America. At the time, Dubin met with President Herbert Hoover and other American dignitaries, before leaving back to Latvia where he felt his voice was needed in the Saeima.
Mordechai Dubin being introduced in a synagogue, possibly during his 1929 visit to the United States. That year he accompanied the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn, of righteous memory, on the Rebbe's trip to America. At the time, Dubin met with President Herbert Hoover and other American dignitaries, before leaving back to Latvia where he felt his voice was needed in the Saeima.

In life and death he was lauded by both his closest allies and most bitter political opponents for his proactive willingness to help anyone—especially his fellow Jews—at any time, and in any place, and for the great efficacy of his assistance. Dubin leveraged his substantial political clout to assist refugees and the needy, and was dubbed a “shtadlan [lit. intercessor]par excellence” by one of his prime political opponents.1 He was also popularly regarded as the “unofficial foreign secretary of the realm of Lubavitch,” and according to one account came into “personal contact with no fewer than 100,000 Jews whom he helped in one way or another.”2

He commanded—but never demanded—respect. When he visited the United States in 1929-30, he had a private meeting with President Herbert Hoover at the White House, something few Latvian politicians could ever hope for. And yet the story ended tragically; his wife and daughter-in-law perished in the Riga ghetto, his son in a Nazi camp, and he, years later, died destitute and alone in Soviet captivity.

Most biographical sketches written about Dubin focus on his lengthy public career, his religiosity—he is widely described to have been a truly G‑d-fearing man who was scrupulously observant, a standard he upheld through imprisonment and exile—and his personal generosity, but not much is known about his early life.

Mordechai Dubin was born in 1889 in the city of Riga, Latvia, to Schneur Zalman Ber and Rivkah Rochel Dubin. The family had seven children, four sons and three daughters, Mordechai being the second oldest son. Zalman Ber, a successful timber merchant, was among the first Russian Jews to settle in Latvia and helped found a number of synagogues, Jewish charities, cheders,and schools that contributed to the development of Jewish life in Latvia in general and the religious community in Riga in particular.3 He was also a Lubavitcher Chassid, who took his son Mordechai at a young age to see and be blessed by the fifth Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dovber of Lubavitch.4

Dubin had a traditional Jewish education, studying only Torah until the age of 16,5 and throughout his life believed wholeheartedly that true Jewish education must remain the way it had been transmitted over generations.6 He was nevertheless educated in worldly matters, and, for example, was the only Jewish communal activist to have mastered the Latvian language from the start of his public career.7

At a young age he married Feiga (Fania) Jacobson, the daughter of Rabbi Dovber Jacobson, a respected merchant from Jelgava (Mitau), and went into business.8 He was by all accounts active in public affairs throughout this time, but it became his full-time occupation during the refugee crisis caused by World War I, at which time many other pressing Jewish communal issues arose, including the procurement of matzah. Dubin was evidently a wealthy man, and, not wanting to privately benefit from his communal responsibilities, declined payment for his position as a Jewish communal leader. In fact, it was only when advisors insisted that his lack of compensation could potentially be misconstrued as evidence of illegal activity that he began to accept a nominal salary for his work.9

Possibly the most moving words ever written about Dubin were those set down on paper by his erstwhile political opponents, Latvian Jews who survived the conflagration that destroyed the world they had together inhabited, and could never shake the haunting memory of Dubin’s noble visage.

Schneur Zalman Ber Dubin came to Latvia from Russia and became a successful timber merchant. A staunch Lubavitcher chassid, he brought his young son Mordechai to see the fifth Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dovber, and helped establish many facets of religious Jewish life in Riga.
Schneur Zalman Ber Dubin came to Latvia from Russia and became a successful timber merchant. A staunch Lubavitcher chassid, he brought his young son Mordechai to see the fifth Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Dovber, and helped establish many facets of religious Jewish life in Riga.

In a Hebrew-language article in written in 1966 to mark the tenth anniversary of Dubin’s passing, the Latvian Jewish historian Mendel Bobe noted that “one thing above all argument is that he was a Jew with a warm and merciful heart, who during his heights as a member of the Latvian Saeima [Parliament], and in Russian exile… was always ready to help another.”

Bobe describes working at times very closely with Dubin, but also their marked political differences: Bobe had been a committed Zionist and Socialist, Dubin a politically conservative representative of an Orthodox Jewish party.

“Notwithstanding all of this,” he wrote, “what a warm feeling envelopes me as I approach writing these lines… I said warm feeling and possibly more than this. After the years that have passed, and after hearing about the last chapter of his life, I have a feeling of reverence for this man who under all circumstances—both wealthy and destitute; in a prison and in a labor camp; in hunger and in cold—forever stood guard of his principles, not stirring a hair’s breadth nor compromising even on the small point of a Yud10, always strong and consistent and until the last moment true to himself.”

The author, Avraham Godin, was arrested by Soviet occupying authorities in 1941 and released from the Gulags in 1956. He came to Israel a decade later, where he became secretary of Tzierei Agudas Chabad of Israel. Here he is pictured (center) in 1977 on the dais of the communal bar mitzvahs for IDF war orphans, watching as Prime Minister Menachem Begin applauds Shai Cohen. Photo: Moshe Milner/Israel Government Press Office.
The author, Avraham Godin, was arrested by Soviet occupying authorities in 1941 and released from the Gulags in 1956. He came to Israel a decade later, where he became secretary of Tzierei Agudas Chabad of Israel. Here he is pictured (center) in 1977 on the dais of the communal bar mitzvahs for IDF war orphans, watching as Prime Minister Menachem Begin applauds Shai Cohen. Photo: Moshe Milner/Israel Government Press Office.

To better acquaint the English reader with the life and times of Mordechai Dubin, Chabad.org presents the first English translation of Avraham Godin’s short memoirs of Dubin. Born in Riga, Godin (1912-2001) served as Dubin’s private secretary from 1928 until 1940, when Dubin, and then subsequently he himself, were arrested. Godin was released in 1956, and in 1969, immigrated to Israel, where for decades he served as secretary of Tzierei Agudas Chabad, the umbrella of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Israel. He was also a journalist who consistently recorded his memories of pre-war Jewish life in Latvia, contributing to many books on the subject. Godin wrote about Dubin in numerous publications (and languages), including Di Yiddishe Heim, The Algemeiner, and Bitaon Chabad; the present is based on the last of his writing on Dubin, a Russian-language booklet which was published in 2000 by Shamir Publishing House. This booklet has been translated with Shamir’s gracious permission, providing English-readers the first comprehensive account of Dubin’s life.

Dovid Margolin