Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson was arrested by the Soviet authorities in 1939 for his fearless stance against the Party's efforts to eradicate Jewish learning and practice in the Soviet Union, and particularly for producing and distributing kosher-for-Passover matzah.

After more than a year of torture and interrogations in Stalin's prisons, he was sentenced to exile to a remote, primitive village in Kazakhstan, where his wife, Rebbetzin Chana, joined him. Together in suffering and sorrow, they bravely celebrated Jewish holidays with the little they had, and even managed to share with others.

In this entry from her diary, Rebbetzin Chana details how they celebrated Simchat Torah with deep emotion and joy all alone in the village, as well as how they celebrated the following year in relative “ease” in Almaty.

Even though Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was torn from his beloved congregation and forced to celebrate alone, his oppressors were no match for his heartfelt prayers and tenacious joy. Indeed, today, Jewish life in the former Soviet Union has blossomed beyond what anyone could have imagined.

The very stones were dancing

Sukkot [5703 (1942)]: For a sukkah, we paid to build an ante-room to our room—ostensibly for the purpose of preventing cold winter air from blowing straight through our door. When our landlady demanded that we finish the room with a roof, we told her that presently we couldn’t afford it but would do so before the onset of the winter cold.

Simchat Torah: We didn’t yet have a Torah in our possession. Our guest who ate his Yom Tov meals with us had found work as a night-watchman and had to spend his nights in the fields guarding the produce, so now he could come only during the day. Thus, only I was present with my husband in our room at night.

The time of hakafot1 arrived. It is most difficult for an ordinary person like me to describe my husband’s emotional experience, as was evident on his face. He started reciting the customary verses2 preceding the actual hakafotAta horeta ladaat ki Hashem Hu haElokim, ein od mil’vado3—using the same tune he used back at home [in Dnepropetrovsk], when he celebrated hakafot in shul together with many hundreds of Jews. The following night, he used to celebrate hakafot in our home with several dozen of those close to him. Whether at shul or at our home, it was not just [his] dancing—it seemed like the very paving stones danced along to his joy.

Here, too, he enveloped himself with such joy. He recited every verse, and after every circuit he sang and danced, alone, to the melody known in our hometown as “the Rav’s melody.”4 He circled around in the narrow space in our room between his bed and the table, reciting the verses of the hakafot:

“…Pure and upright One, please save us… Benevolent One and bestower of goodness, answer us on the day we call.”

He wanted this to be pure joy, and his deep emotion was manifest in the words he recited:

“He who knows thoughts, please save us… He who is garbed in righteousness, answer us on the day we call.”

This was a most difficult experience for me to endure. Sitting on a wooden stool in the corner, I observed the immensity and intensity of my husband’s love of the Torah as he danced away all the seven hakafot.

Following hakafot on Simchat Torah morning, he recited Sissu v’simchu b’simchat Torah [“Rejoice and exult in the joy of the Torah…”] with similar enthusiasm.

Among the precious belongings Rebbetzim Chana brought to her husband was her Tehillim (Book of Psalms), from which he would pray for hours.
Among the precious belongings Rebbetzim Chana brought to her husband was her Tehillim (Book of Psalms), from which he would pray for hours.

The Rav’s final month of Tishrei

This year [5704 (1943)], however, there were quite a number of evacuated Jews in our village, forming a small community.

In Russia, during the month of Tishrei, even non-observant Jews become religiously oriented. Accordingly, people started to visit my husband, recognizing him as a central figure for religious affairs. Each had personal questions and requests. They included Jews from Bessarabia, Poland and many other places. Most were women, because the Soviet occupational army in Bessarabia had deported entire Jewish families and, on their journey into exile, had separated women from their husbands, so now they were asking for help in locating their husbands. Everyone’s heart was utterly broken by their experiences.

An exception was some evacuees from Moscow and similar cities, who were gratified that they had been spared from the danger of the war zone and had even managed to bring some of their possessions—which they immediately traded on the market. But they, too, found the cramped conditions, the primitive state of the homes, and the poor climate very difficult to tolerate.

Many of the younger evacuees found employment in various concerns. But they were regarded with envy and lived in constant state of anxiety.

From all these Jews, a large group assembled for High Holiday prayers. None were qualified to serve as a chazzan, Torah reader, or shofar blower. They were simple Jews, and not Torah observant. We had received a Sefer Torah, and I had brought a shofar from home. Since there was no one else, my husband performed all these functions himself. He performed it all with such deep emotion—“My entire being declares”5—for he hadn’t had the benefit of such [communal] prayer for five years—the entire congregation in a refined state of spirituality, accompanied by copious weeping; it was absolutely awesome.

The walk from the apartment where the prayers took place to our own room was quite a distance. We had to cross two “valleys,” walking downhill and then uphill. On the evening following Yom Kippur, after the Kiddush Levana6prayer, when my husband walked into our room, I could barely recognize him—his face had so changed. But he was very happy at having successfully completed all the High Holiday services.

For the first two days of Sukkot, services could not be held at that apartment. For the final days, however, the rental arrangements were renewed. It is impossible to describe that Simchat Torah’s great joy—real dancing! Participating in the dancing and singing were Jews who back at home, had never done this. Many declared that spending Yom Tov together with my husband in shul enabled them to forget all their troubles, as they felt only his inspirational effect upon them.

Several participants even held special “Kiddush” celebrations at their quarters, inviting others to partake of food and drink. This didn’t happen in any of the surrounding towns; only in our village, because of my husband’s presence there. People declared that they would never forget him.

Witnessing my husband’s rejoicing, one could think he had never experienced any misfortune. But his face already betrayed his poor health. On the other hand, his spirit remained quite resolute.