Living under Soviet rule, Aharon Chazan, 24, was constantly under the watchful eyes of the communists. A staunchly religious Jew, he refused to buckle under communist pressure and abandon his religious practices and beliefs.

In 1936, Stalin ordered all citizens to complete a census form. Everyone needed to record their name, family relationships, nationality, and whether they believed in G‑d. Aharon encouraged his friends and acquaintances to declare their belief in G‑d, explaining that to falsely answer this question on the census form would constitute a grave rejection of G‑d and the Jewish religion. He knew that “counter-revolutionary” activities like this carried a major risk of incarceration or worse, so he decided to beseech G‑d’s mercy by traveling to the resting places of righteous sages buried in Russia, to ask them to intercede On High on his behalf.

He was granted a month’s leave from the factory where he worked, and he traveled to Mezeritch and Berditchev.

In Berditchev, Aharon found the three synagogues mostly filled with elderly people; many of the youth had already abandoned regular synagogue attendance and religious practice.

“Chazan, why are you here?” asked an officer whom he encountered. “Are you not supposed to be eating now?” One morning, a young man, Sholom Friedman, approached Aharon in one of the Berditchev synagogues and invited him to his home. Aharon told him that he had to catch a train and wouldn’t have time. The man wouldn’t relent, and continued to beg Aharon to come to his home. Finally, Aharon agreed.

Sholom’s parents, Rochel and Zushe, were fighters for the Jewish faith. After their synagogue had been shuttered, the family brought the synagogue to their home. Under Rochel’s loving warmth and hospitality, their home was open to all guests passing through town, many on the run from the Soviets.

The Friedmans placed great emphasis on educating their children to fear G‑d, and not to be intimidated by the communist regime. The Friedman children were not educated in Soviet schools; rather, they were educated at home and in clandestine Jewish schools. The Friedman parents loved their children tremendously, and the children, in turn, deeply honored their parents.

Marriage and War

Leah Friedman
Leah Friedman
Aharon learned that Sholom had been keenly interested in him all along, having heard about Aharon’s activities from a mutual friend. Sholom soon told Aharon that he thought his sister, Leah, would be a fitting match for him. The Friedman and Chazan parents corresponded, and it was agreed that Aharon would meet Leah.

Aharon was immediately impressed by Leah’s demeanor, her noble bearing, and her pledge to firmly support his commitment to Jewish tradition, no matter the consequences. They decided to marry, and the wedding date was set for June 14, 1937.

Though at the time most Jewish weddings were held in secrecy, the elderly Friedmans would not let that happen. Celebrating a Jewish wedding was a rare joy during those dark days. Hundreds came to the wedding, many of them Soviet secret police, who, as always, were spying on the happenings in the Friedman home.

A week later Zushe passed away, but his family upheld his legacy by continuing to run a synagogue from their home, open to any Jew in need.

A short while after Aharon and Leah’s first daughter, Devorah, was born, Aharon was drafted into the army. Conscription into the Soviet army was a frightening prospect for anyone, as many soldiers were killed on the front lines. Aharon tearfully bade farewell to his family, hoping, G‑d willing, he would see them again.

The officer snarled loudly, “Sick?! You are not sick!” Aharon was strictly observant of the kosher laws. After the first morning of rigorous training, while his fellow soldiers went to eat lunch, Aharon roamed the hallways. He would not eat a lunch composed of non-kosher ingredients.

“Chazan, why are you here?” asked an officer whom he encountered. “Are you not supposed to be eating now?”

Chazan told the officer that he had already eaten. The officer did not believe him, and ordered him to join him for the meal.

They were served two plates of simmering non-kosher meat. With visible delight, the officer dug into his plate of delicious food.

“Why are you not eating? The meat is very tasty,” the officer exclaimed.

Aharon sat quietly, silently praying to G‑d to save him from this severe predicament.

Aharon Chazan
Aharon Chazan
“Eat, eat!” the officer angrily barked. “Are you trying to shortchange the army? If you do not eat, you will receive the severe punishment you deserve. Take the spoon and eat now!”

Aharon told the angry officer that he could not eat, as his stomach was hurting him. The officer snarled loudly, “Sick?! You are not sick!”

Aharon remained silent.

Seething in anger, the officer sent him to the army hospital, along with a note to the doctor demanding a diagnosis. “If you are healthy,” the officer warned, “you will be court-martialed!”

Aharon was terrified. He’d surely be found healthy and ordered before a court. If convicted of treason and evasion, he could easily be executed. What would be with his wife and young daughter?

The hospital only received patients in the afternoon, so Aharon spent several hours trying to induce symptoms of illness. He drank a lot of water, hoping to become bloated. He did a lot of running, hoping to speed up his heart rate.

The doctor quizzically read the officer’s note, and questioned Aharon about his supposed condition. Aharon explained that he suffered from stomach issues and an abnormal heart rate. An examination ensued, and Aharon feared the worst when the doctor quickly scribbled a return note, sealed it in an envelope and told him to deliver it to the officer.

Aharon returned to his unit, downcast, and handed the note to the officer, who eagerly rubbed his hands, excited at the opportunity to indict a Jew. Only moments later, however, the officer stormed angrily from the room, leaving the note on the table.

The note stated: “Mr. Chazan is unhealthy and unfit for army service.”

Aharon was duly discharged.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, many of Aharon and Leah’s grandchildren have returned to the former Soviet Union, where they serve as Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries.