Returning to the earlier part of Dubin’s career, in the 1920s, and the circumstances surrounding the central role he played in rescuing the Lubavitcher Rebbe from Soviet hands:

Elections for the Latvian Saeima took place again in the fall of 1925, and once again Mordechai Dubin headed the Agudas Yisroel election list. For the second spot in Riga, right after Dubin, they put a very competent law student from Riga University, the 22-year-old Shimon Yitzchak Wittenberg. For a second place in Daugavpils they again nominated the incumbent deputy, Reuven Wittenberg.

Dubin’s popularity was such that he once again won seats in both the Riga and Daugavpils electoral regions, following which a disagreement arose regarding who should become the second deputy. If Dubin accepted the Riga mandate, than the second deputy would be the incumbent, Reuven Wittenberg. But if he took the one from Daugavpils, then the Rigan, Shimon Yitzchak Wittenberg, would become the second deputy. The Jewish papers were in an uproar about this issue. Reuven Wittenberg wasn’t an especially popular figure, so many were demanding that the second Agudas Yisroel mandate go to the younger Shimon Wittenberg. A number of influential Daugavpils Jews offered to bring the issue before the Rogatchover. After carefully hearing out both sides, Rosen decided that the second mandate must be from Daugavpils. “After all,” he explained, “the Sanhedrin also had sages from the Galilee.” Dubin accepted this ruling without any questions, although he was undoubtedly closer to the younger Wittenberg.

The second Saeima had five Jewish deputies, two of whom represented Agudas Yisroel. Hapoel Hamizrachi was represented by Mordechai Nurock, the Zionist Socialists by Max Lazerson, and the Bund by Noah Meisel. The period of the second Saeima was the only one in the history of independent Latvia when the government was controlled by Social Democrats, headed by Skujenieks.1 Although he was considered to be a man of the left, that didn’t stop him from being an anti-Semite. He showed his true face a few years later when he spoke out openly in favor of restricting Jewish trade. The Latvian Saeima was made up of 100 deputies, and the government’s majority in the second Saeima was just a tiny 51 mandate majority. With its two mandates, Agudas Yisroel did not enter the coalition.

The sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn (left), and Mordechai Dubin.
The sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn (left), and Mordechai Dubin.

At that time the left wing government chose to sign a trade agreement with Soviet Russia. Latvian public opinion was split over the matter, and there was debate within the right wing parties that were a part of the coalition. Two deputies in the coalition announced they would vote against ratification of the deal for fear it would strengthen the position of Latvian Communists and thus cause greater harm than good.

It wasn’t only Latvia that was interested in signing the trade deal—the Soviet Union wanted it very much too. At that time the Soviet Union’s external and trade relations in Europe suffered a number of great blows, therefore good relations with a country even as small as Latvia meant a lot to the Soviets. Jews were for the most part in favor of the deal’s ratification because the flow of goods from the USSR would offer them new business opportunities. Dubin announced that he and Wittenberg would vote for ratification of the agreement and fill the void left by the two missing coalition-member votes.

But then something happened that suddenly gave negotiations with the Soviets meaning of a whole other, entirely different caliber. Oh, how I recall that morning on the Rigan seaside! On the front pages of the newspapers, in large bold print, they carried the news from Moscow: “According to Reports by the Jewish Telegraph Agency, the Lubavitcher Rebbe R. Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn Has Been Arrested in Leningrad.”2 The entire Jewish world was shaken that summer of 1927, as thousands of Jewish hearts clenched in fear over the fate of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. The news was followed by countless appeals to the Soviet authorities—including from the White House—but in the beginning there was little visible progress.

Mordechai Dubin was so strong a believer that he could not see the circumstances around the ratification of the trade agreement as anything but heaven-sent; the timing was perfect. It became clear that the main burden of rescuing the Rebbe now lay upon his shoulders. He himself later confessed to me how scared he was to travel to Russia. True that he, as a deputy of the Saeima, held a diplomatic passport and immunity, but who knew how the Russians would view these privileges? Had not enough foreigners vanished without a trace in Soviet Russia?

Fear or no fear, the Rebbe needed to be rescued. Dubin headed to Moscow and only there did he learn how important for the Russians were trade relations with tiny Latvia. The People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs knew well and good—through their ambassador in Latvia, [Ivan] Lorents3—that the fate of the trade agreement lay in large part in the hands of their guest from Riga. Therefore Dubin was welcomed not as a parliamentarian from a small country, but as the representative of a great power. All doors were opened to him and the commissariat’s officials were ready to fulfill his every wish.4

Breaking through the dense barriers of Soviet bureaucracy wasn’t easy, and Dubin had to return to Moscow a number of times that summer.5 To the Jewish people’s greatest grief and everlasting shame, the fiercest opponents of the Rebbe’s release were the Yevseki. It had become their life’s goal to destroy this Jew who, in the shadow of the wings of death, had raised the banner of Torah and cried out: “Whoever is for G‑d, come with me!” Having finally gotten their hands on him, they could not even think about releasing the Rebbe alive, and the Jewish GPUniks did everything in their power to avoid freeing the Rebbe. Their hatred to their own people went beyond political calculations, beyond even a much-needed Soviet trade agreement.

In the end, as we know, Dubin was victorious and the Yevseki suffered a full collapse. The trade agreement ended up being more important to the commissariat of foreign affairs than Communist principles, and the Rebbe was released. The Soviet government had been more concerned with its trade interests than with its Jewish “minions,”6 and in the fall of 1927, on the day after Simchat Torah, Dubin escorted the Lubavitcher Rebbe to Riga. It was mostly Dubin too who achieved in Moscow that the Rebbe should be released together with his family and together with his writings, books and archives.7

During the Saeima ratification of the agreement Dubin and Wittenberg voted “Yes” as they had promised they would. Only after that did they thank G‑d in their hearts for the saving of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, sending their thanks for the timely trade agreement.

Rabbi Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover gaon. Photo: Yahadus BeLatvia Rabbonim.
Rabbi Yosef Rosen, the Rogatchover gaon. Photo: Yahadus BeLatvia Rabbonim.

The Leader of Agudas Yisroel

Even just a passing knowledge of the political chronicles of Latvian Jewry is enough to demonstrate the great versatility of Mordechai Dubin—Dubin the head of the Jewish community, Dubin the Saeima deputy, Dubin the defender, and Dubin the simple Jew, filled, as he was, with a great love for his people.

In the beginning of 1928 the so-called “progressive/left” government of Skujenieks fell. The left-wing newspaper Frimorgn blamed Dubin for this. At that moment, just before the new parliamentary and municipal elections, harassment of Dubin and the Agudas Yisroel party in general became stronger than ever before. Prior to this Agudas Yisroel had contested elections for the city council together as one block with other Jewish parties. But that year, due to the deteriorating atmosphere in the Jewish community, it was forced to contest the elections on its own list, headed by Dubin. During these elections Dubin received only half the votes he had gotten three years earlier, and Agudas Yisroel won two seats on the council, taken by Dubin and Shimon Yitzchak Wittenberg.

They were not much more successful in that fall’s parliamentary elections. Dubin made it into the Saeima with great difficulty and the party lost its second mandate: The candidate from Daugavpils, Reuven Wittenberg, was not elected. At the same time even after Agudah’s defeat Dubin’s personal political power did not wane and attempts by other Jewish deputies to force Dubin off the budgetary committee and take his place failed. Membership on this important and prestigious committee gave Dubin authority throughout the government.

It didn’t take long for the Jewish masses in Latvia to realize that the slanders against Dubin were groundless. It was then, in the beginning of 1929, that Dubin offered to me the position as his personal secretary. I see it and remember it all so clearly, as if it all happened today. I was at the time all of 18-years-old and very excited by this offer, but nevertheless answered that I still needed to talk it over with my parents. Dubin smiled and told me: “Your parents will agree, so with G‑d’s will come to the Ministry of Interior tomorrow morning.” That was our first joint visit on the behalf of Jewish affairs. The next day he showed me my work space near him, in his reception area, and thus began my responsibilities as secretary.

Mizrachi Deputy Mordechai Nurock (left) with Latvian President Alberts Kviesis.
Mizrachi Deputy Mordechai Nurock (left) with Latvian President Alberts Kviesis.

Obviously the world economic crisis of 1929-1933 did not spare little Latvia, and its Jewish community suffered very badly. Small, mid-size and even large enterprises closed down during this time. The timber industry—a source of livelihood for thousands of Jewish families—experienced a deep crisis. Foreign demand for Latvian timber ceased, and this crisis in the forestry and woodworking industry in turn dragged down other branches of the economy. Foaming at the mouth, Dubin’s opponents claimed that they and only they cared for the Jewish working class, yet they ended up being completely useless and unable to help, instead feeding these jobless, disadvantaged people nothing but sweet speeches. In light of the situation, Dubin, advocate and intercessor that he was (and perhaps breaking “party discipline”), began helping all Jews no matter their political persuasion.8 He assisted many in getting requalification for other areas of work, and those who needed immediate assistance were helped through a public committee he established.

There wasn’t a person who did not know what lengths Dubin went to help every Jew no matter their situation. Mordechai Dubin worked from early morning until deep into the night, and all of Latvian Jewry, especially those living in Riga, saw what kind of a person he was, and in the next elections he won a triumphal political victory. In March of 1931 four people on Dubin’s list were elected to Riga’s city council; aside for him and Shimon Yitzchak Wittenberg there were two more representatives of Agudas Yisroel, Rabbi Mordechai Hodakov9 (who later became secretary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory), and Meir Ritov.

JTA brief announcing the Rebbe's arrest.
JTA brief announcing the Rebbe's arrest.

Riding its wave of success, Agudas Yisroel launched a weekly paper called Unzer Shtime (Our Voice). While the socialist Frimorgn suppressed Dubin’s speeches in the Saeima, our paper expounded on them in detail, paying special attention to his work on the budgetary committee. In those years I was the newspaper’s Saeima correspondent, and in 1932 I enrolled in the economics program at the University of Latvia, all the while remaining Dubin’s private secretary. There was a lot of pressure on me during that time.

The first important order of business for the Agudas Yisroel faction on the city council was the inclusion of the Torah VeDerech Eretz and Tushia schools in the government education system (the former aligned closer with Agudah, while the latter with HaPoel HaMizrachi). Torah VeDerech Eretz was founded by Rabbi Yoel Baranchik in 1921 and had separate classes for boys and girls. Its students came for the most part from low-income families and most of the tuition funds for the school came from a communal board headed by Mordechai Dubin. The Social Democrats who controlled the city council—with the support of the Zionist-Socialists and the Bund—had for a decade refused to include Torah VeDerech Eretz in the municipal school network, using the excuse that the school was religious. Once again the Zionist-Socialists and the Bund opposed it on the same grounds, but now Dubin and his colleagues in the Agudah faction were able to be victorious over them.

In the parliamentary elections in the fall of 1931, Agudah once again won two mandates, sending Dubin and Shimon Yitzchak Wittenberg to the Saeima.

Here I’d like to take a moment to recall my teacher and the director of my gymnasium, Shimon Yitzchak Wittenberg, and tell you of his many activities and of his tragic death. He was a brilliant law student who graduated at the top of his class, and he practiced law in the beginning of the ‘30s. He was a dazzling orator, had a magnificent command of the Latvian language, and spoke dramatically at Saeima committee hearings and general sessions. After the dissolution of the Saeima, from 1934-1940, Wittenberg was the chief editor of what became at the time the only daily Jewish paper, Haynt. The paper actually came out twice daily, in a morning edition and an evening one. The editor of the morning edition became the writer of these words, and the evening one was Yehoshua Poupko, who died in a Nazi concentration camp during the war. Readers of our paper received a wide overview of political news from around the world and especially of the Jewish community in Palestine.

Wittenberg was caught in the ghetto right at the beginning of the war, and after the death of his wife was sent to one of the concentration camps. I was told by Aharon Pollak, a Rigan who was in the camps with Wittenberg, that in the spring of 1945 they were forced to march by foot through Czech territory. Jews weren’t the only prisoners in their group, which also included Russians, Englishmen and Frenchmen. Wittenberg had a free command of many languages, and the guards frequently called him over to translate for them. During this time he passed a German reading the paper and noticed, reproduced in the paper, where the frontlines were up to. Returning to his fellow prisoners, he whispered to them:

“Very soon we’ll be able to say Lechaim, but it seems like I won’t live to see it—I have no more strength to walk.”

A few days later Shimon Yitzchak Wittenberg was felled by a Nazi bullet: Those who could not keep up with the column were all killed.

Blessed is the memory of the righteous!

Mordechai Dubin serves as sandek at a brit milah ceremony.
Mordechai Dubin serves as sandek at a brit milah ceremony.

The Ulmanis Regime

On May 15, 1934, the political structure of the Latvian Republic changed dramatically. The leader of the Latvian Farmers’ Union, Karlis Ulmanis, led a coup that disbanded the Saeima and created a personal dictatorship. A wave of nationalism flooded over the Latvian people, especially the young people, who demanded the strengthening of the economic position of Latvians over national minorities (read: Jews and Germans). There were also those who announced publically that Dubin’s influence would now finally come to an end.

I was present during the first telephone conversation between Dubin and Ulmanis, which took place a week after the coup. It was a very tense moment. The leader of Latvian Jewry—who would knock at any door when necessary to help Jews—now courageously told Ulmanis that as the head of the community he wanted to know what the new political stance towards the Jews would be. “If I’m superfluous in Latvia I can leave,” Dubin spoke into the receiver.

Ulmanis reassured him and invited him to the chancellery so they could have a personal meeting. In light of the dissolution of the Saeima, Dubin was now formally a private citizen; his position as head of the Jewish community of Riga didn’t afford him any official rights or privileges. But practically, after his audience with Ulmanis, Dubin became the sole representative of Latvian Jewry. The doors of all government institutions were now open to him even wider than before, and in August of 1934 he managed to get the government to appoint Riga city councilor Mordechai Hodakov as an advisor in the Ministry of Education on Jewish matters.

Rabbi Yoel Baranchik, founder of Torah VeDerech Eretz. He was killed by the Nazis. Photo: Yahadus BeLatvia Rabbonim.
Rabbi Yoel Baranchik, founder of Torah VeDerech Eretz. He was killed by the Nazis. Photo: Yahadus BeLatvia Rabbonim.

Another person in his position could have used the moment to settle scores with former political opponents, but Dubin wasn’t that kind of person. On the contrary, his opponents received generous assistance from him at the very first request. Haynt, which Agudas Yisroel began to publish once again at the end of June 1934, didn’t retaliate against its former detractors either. If Dubin had previously received a salary from the state, now he gave himself over completely to the communal work. This was widely known and appreciated in all quarters.

Around 1936 the Jews of Poland turned to him for help. Authorities in that country, seeking to drive Jews out of Poland via economic pressure, had decided to ban shechitah (the slaughter of livestock in accordance with Jewish laws). The ban was justified by “humane” motives, with proponents alleging shechita inflicted unnecessary suffering on animals. And so in Warsaw they called a congress of all Jewish parties, from the Bund to Agudas Yisroel, and Dubin was invited to attend in the position of representing Jews from abroad: His personage suited everyone without exception.

When the black clouds of Hitlerism began to condensate over Germany and Austria, the first order of the agenda was to once again tend to the refugees from those places, as it had been during World War I and the Bolshevik Revolution. Mordechai Dubin again became the rescuing angel for thousands of Jews seeking shelter and deliverance in Riga. He did not consider saving himself nor his family before the flood of blood already had overwhelmed everything around it. Mordechai Dubin remained in Riga with his people until he was arrested by the Russians in February of 1941.

Latvia, like a host of other small countries, had an agreement whereby travel between the two countries was visa-free, and a number of German Jews took advantage of this to make it to Riga. There were even cases of the Nazis releasing people from their labor camps on the condition they leave Germany, and the road to Latvia lay open to them. Later a number of these German Jews immigrated to America, but many also remained in Latvia. In the beginning it fell upon Latvia’s Jews to support them, but soon enough they got themselves back on their feet and settled in. The government turned a blind eye to the fact that these people had become permanent residents.

The situation changed drastically in the summer of 1938, when a wave of pogroms swept through Germany and Nazi-annexed Austria, culminating in Kristallnacht. Every day after that, tens of Jewish refugee families arrived in Riga with absolutely no means, and the first person they sought out was Mordechai Dubin. They could stay in Latvia for a month without a residency visa, but the question became what they could do after that. The government also began enforcing a ban on newcomers searching for employment. Dubin immediately guaranteed to the government that these Jews would not become a burden for Latvia, and on the basis of this they were given permission to remain. Dubin organized an emergency committee to care for them, which rented a number of houses on one street in Riga and turned them into a communal dormitory for immigrants. These homeless people didn’t only receive a roof over their heads but also the opportunity to train for a new profession which would help them get a visa to America.

Again, Dubin saw no rest, day or night. Day after day he sought out the funds necessary to keep the projects afloat, while his evenings were taken up by meetings. All refugees without exception were able to remain in Latvia thanks to Dubin’s personal guarantee. When the time came for their permission to be extended, a new guarantee was required from Dubin. Thus Dubin spent a few days each week at the immigrant housing settling various issues, among them signing his personal guarantees. Sometimes it came on him to solve even interpersonal conflicts between refugees from Prussia and Bavaria.

The editors of Haynt wish Shimon Wittenberg and his wife a mazel tov upon the bar mitzvah of their son, Menachem Mendel. Front page of the Haynt, June 24, 1938.
The editors of Haynt wish Shimon Wittenberg and his wife a mazel tov upon the bar mitzvah of their son, Menachem Mendel. Front page of the Haynt, June 24, 1938.

I remember that among the refugees from Austria was even a Vice King. Prior to the First World War, while the Austro-Hungarian Empire still existed, the Stadholder (Governor) of Bukovina was a Jew.10 He arrived in Riga from Vienna dirty and disheveled, without a grosha in his pocket, yet with a certificate of a stadtholder signed by the last Austro-Hungarian emperor!

Thanks to Dubin, communal immigrant housing existed until the very end of the independent Latvian state.

Notwithstanding the fact that saving Jews from Hitler’s Germany and Austria was of paramount concern throughout the 1930s, Dubin never forgot another community that was in dire need of help—the Jews of the Soviet Union. After his first visits to Russia in 1927, when he saved the Rebbe, Dubin continued to travel there many times with such goals as getting permission to send matzah to Jews from abroad or to arrange emigration for Soviet rabbis. While the Saeima still existed, until May 1934, Dubin traveled to the USSR on a diplomatic passport which gave him immunity. In 1937, during the very height of Stalin’s slaughter, Dubin again traveled to Russia, this time on a regular passport.

I remember that trip well. Dubin called the Soviet envoy in Riga and asked him whether he could get a visa to the USSR which would last for a few weeks. The envoy did not have the right to grant a visa without direct permission from Moscow, and asked Dubin to come back for the visa the next day. Dubin was convinced he would get one, so he went to Intourist and paid them ahead of time for a hotel room in Moscow.

The next day I took Dubin’s passport to the Soviet legation to get the visa. The worker was about to stamp it “Service,” meaning, to label the trip as one for official business, but I stopped him, showed him the Intourist receipt, and told him that as he was no longer a government employee, Dubin did not want to travel for free.

“Your boss is a stubborn man,” the first secretary of the embassy told me. “He doesn’t eat our food, he doesn’t stay in the hotel. We know that he stays at the Latvian embassy in Moscow. So why’s he also paying for a hotel room?”

The Kol Bnei Yehudah prayerbook, printed in Latvia between 1934-1940. The first page contains a prayer for dictator Karlis Ulmanis. Courtesy: Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad.
The Kol Bnei Yehudah prayerbook, printed in Latvia between 1934-1940. The first page contains a prayer for dictator Karlis Ulmanis. Courtesy: Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad.

That was Mordechai Dubin’s last trip to the Soviet Union as a free man. The next time he traveled to the USSR it was as a prisoner…

The year 1937 was one of the worst of Stalin’s reign. The USSR’s borders were practically sealed. But Dubin wanted to see personally whether anything more could be done for the Jews of the country. He did not imagine that everybody he would end up meeting, to the last man, was an agent of the NKVD, and that all of his former contacts with whom he had previously dealt, would be too afraid to even exchange a word with him. This time his assistance in getting the Latvian-Soviet trade agreement ratified was of no help to him, nor was it when the Red Army marched in and occupied Latvia.

Photo of Dubin accomoanying a Jan. 18, 1939 article in the Haynt titled "Riga's Community Chairman M. Dubin Turns 50." Courtesy: Rabbi Mordechai Glazman.
Photo of Dubin accomoanying a Jan. 18, 1939 article in the Haynt titled "Riga's Community Chairman M. Dubin Turns 50." Courtesy: Rabbi Mordechai Glazman.