An Unforgettable Yom Kippur

Time passed in this way, until the month of Tishrei arrived. My husband’s turn to receive packages occurred on the day before Rosh Hashanah and on the day before Yom Kippur. This was comforting as I would be able to send him various foods—meat and fish—which would remind him somewhat of Yom Tov at home.

In anticipation of Yom Kippur, I secretly requested from a Jewish doctor that worked there that he pay a visit my husband. Indeed, late at night after Yom Kippur and havdalah he visited my husband’s cell, handed him a cigarette—quite a treat under the circumstances—and spent some time with him observing how he ate as he broke his fast.

One day, on an afternoon in the month of Cheshvan, a young man entered our home. He ascended the steps, walked into our apartment, and went straight to the dining room. He asked no one for directions; it was as if he knew the house well. The young man seated himself on a chair and introduced himself by asserting that if I breathe a word to anyone about his visit, we will both be in danger!

Rachel, the girl who stayed in our home for many years, was present in the room when the man entered.

—She was so devoted to us that she had pleaded with the NKVD agents that they arrest her and spare the Rav, insisting that she will gladly, with all her heart, be imprisoned in his place for the entire term of his sentence.—

When the young man noticed her, he said that “her presence did not concern him, and proceeded to state that he wished to convey regards from “Levik Zalmanovitch.”1 It is impossible to express in writing the feelings that I experienced at that moment...

He continued: “Your husband gave me an exact description of your home so that I would not need to ask anyone for directions, and would go unnoticed. Levik Zalmanovitch was thirty-two days in solitary confinement and on the thirty-third day I was confined to that cell with him.”

He was a Christian, and an engineer, who was released after sixth months of incarceration. Before his release, he promised my husband that as soon as he would return home and change out of his prison uniform, he would bring regards from him. This he did, and immediately came to our home.

He related that he had spent the month of Tishrei together with my husband. “As long as live, I will never forget his Yom Kippur. He wept and cried out aloud the entire day, reciting chapters of Psalms by heart until late at night. He didn’t say a single word to me the entire day, and I didn’t have the courage to initiate a conversation.”

Later, when we were already in exile, my husband told me that not having a siddur or machzor on that Yom Kippur, he recited what he remembered by heart—which was enough to keep him occupied for the entire day.

“Of what crime has my husband been accused?” I asked. “He built a “meeka” (i.e., a mikveh) in the courtyard of the synagogue—this is what he is being accused of.2 The shammes (beadle) had divulged some information about him.”

Indeed, at that time there were discussions about building a mikveh. The shammes of the shul had disclosed that the Rav had raised a large sum of money to build it. He also testified that there was a collection in our home, on Simchas Torah, for Tukhachevsky’s and Bukharin’s widows,3 and that the main solicitor had been my husband, of blessed memory.

In order to confirm this testimony, they brought together the witnesses and my husband for a joint, face-to-face interrogation. The moment the shammes and a shochet4—who was also in prison—saw my husband they repudiated their earlier testimony, declaring that they had only signed because they had been placed under duress.

Then the engineer said to me, since sending notes is forbidden, find a way to inform your husband whether Rosh Chodesh5 of the month of Kislev will be celebrated this year for one day, or two.6 “This question is weighing heavy on him. It is connected to the Maccabees.” He meant to say that it was related to the festival of Chanukah.7

“Schneersohn’s group”

This took place in the beginning of Kislev. Time passed and all the while I sought ways to prevent my husband from being brought to trial. I approached the director of the division of the NKVD where he was being held, and although he was Jewish, he cruelly rebuffed me every time.

From the prosecutor I learned that the prosecution has classified the matter as a group of religious counter-revolutionaries, headed by Schneersohn.8 This was terrifying news.

In my search for ways to save my husband, I travelled to Moscow with a petition in hand to the chief prosecutor. After several days I located the waiting area to his office, and spent several hours a day waiting there. Eventually, he received me quite graciously, and assured me that my husband’s file would be re-examined. As I sat before him, he looked through all the documents in which I made out the title “Schneersohn’s Group.”

I sensed that his civility was insincere. Yet when he told me to return home and that he would send me a response—I wanted to believe that the outcome would be positive.

I returned home with a hopeful heart.

A trial by “Special Council”

Shortly afterward, reports began to circulate that the case will be transferred to Moscow, and that it would be tried by a “Special Council.”9 This meant a “trial” tightly supervised by a team of four representatives of the highest civil and military administrations. They would also decide from the outset, even before the trial, the category of criminal to which the accused belonged.

This was despite all the petitions that I had presented to the authorities, and after all the telephone calls that I had made to the prosecutor and the interrogator. After all this, they sent me a message informing me that they had already compiled all the evidence against my husband, and that it has been dispatched to Moscow, to the Department for Special Matters. They even added venomously, “See how prominent your husband is—that we are transferring his case exclusively to Moscow, the capital city.”

From all this it was clear that they were planning to sentence my husband to be exiled, and this was a very unpleasant notion to come to terms with. Considering that his passport confirmed that he was more than seventy years old10, and he had papers diagnosing a heart condition. I pressed hard to win approval for a special escort to accompany him on the journey. After all my efforts, I was informed that they expected him to make the journey in good health.

When I asked for permission to include more than four kilograms of food in the package for my husband, they responded that he had become so healthy that I wouldn’t recognize him, and that he eats all the prison food...

However, once they had set the day that my husband was to be exiled, the interrogator told me to bake something for him for the journey, because he had not put any of their food into his mouth during his entire stay in prison...