Serious illnesses

With winter, all the above conditions led to the spread of typhus and influenza epidemics (may the Merciful One spare us). My husband fell ill and lay in bed for fifteen days. After enduring many complications, he barely survived.

About a month later, I too fell sick with a high fever of 40°C [104°F]. Under the circumstances, asking a doctor to pay a home visit would result in immediate confinement in the hospital, which was five kilometers away from our residence. Accordingly, my illness needed to be carefully concealed.1

Among the deportees, however, was a gentile doctor, who would change his clothes to hide his identity and pay us a visit at 1:00-2:00 a.m. He would write out prescriptions for medications I needed, but wouldn’t sign them. The pharmacy so esteemed my husband, of blessed memory, that they filled the unsigned prescriptions, although doing so was against the law and therefore highly perilous for the pharmacist.

I lay sick for several days, and the doctor was of the opinion that my sickness was typhus, which is very infectious.

In a village not far from us lived a Jewish couple who were evacuees. The husband had served as a shochet. He received an order drafting him into the army, and they came by train to request that my husband use his influence with doctors at the hospital [to help get him an exemption]. They visited us—despite our landlady’s protests that it was, in fact, illegal then to admit train-travelers to one’s home.

When they entered our room, the wife saw me lying in bed in poor condition. My husband was standing next to our “oven,” cooking me porridge, while carefully deliberating2 whether to pour the milk first or the grits.

Seeing this, she declared without hesitation that she would not leave us until I would be able to get up from my sickbed in full health. When I told her that it might be a contagious disease and it could be dangerous for her to stay, she mentioned the “harsh word”3 and said she was not afraid of it.

She quickly changed out her traveling clothes and prepared some food for her husband. Then she got to work taking care of me. First she changed my clothes, for I had been lying in bed for several days, all the while perspiring heavily due to my very high temperature. She then changed my bedding, laying fresh linen on my pillow and bed. The old bedding had irritated me painfully, as if it cut me with knives. You can’t imagine how pleasant this change was for me.

Then she cooked me porridge of farina, which she knew how to cook without any need to deliberate…4 Now I had what to eat.

My fever continued, and the doctor, despite his great fear, continued his clandestine visits at 1:00-2:00 past midnight. After the doctor left, my husband would take his book of Tehillim,5 which I still have,6 and say, “Now I’ll practice some ‘medicine’…”

We now had four people living in our room. The shochet slept on the floor near the door, for there was no other place, and he was also somewhat concerned about catching typhus. The wife made herself some sort of bed not far from mine. Due to my husband’s presence in the room, which had no partitions, she hardly ever got out of her clothes. The couple had to be careful not even to cough or move about noisily, so that the landlady shouldn’t realize they were staying over in our room.

In this difficult atmosphere and within the gratifying “comforts” of our dwelling, together with the fact that I was lying sick in bed, without anyone knowing what my illness actually was, my husband settled down next to the table and recited Psalms. The tears poured from his eyes in “rivers.” As I lay in bed, I could sense in his voice how heartbroken he was—his broken heart could have moved boulders. I believed then with perfect faith, as I believe now, that his recital of Psalms helped me recover from my sickness.

As the days passed, my fever started to decline, and with it the fear of typhus. Due to our constricted conditions, none of the doctor’s orders could be fulfilled.

Bread for Shabbat at the last moment

Friday came, the eve of Shabbat, and there was absolutely no bread, not even a morsel, for the four of us. Our guests had finished their lepyoshkes (flatbread) that they brought. The shochet’s wife cooked the fish that was purchased at the market. Her husband carried in two pails of water, which was no small accomplishment—the rope for drawing the water from the well had torn, and the gentile neighbors refused to lend him another.

Everything was taken care of, even cleaning up the room and washing the floor. But there was no bread, or any indication of where bread might be found.

We all sat there, somehow not too concerned about the situation. People react strangely in such situations. My husband sat next to the window; I can’t say he was too happy. Tomorrow would be Shabbat, and there was nothing we could do about our situation! Soon we would have to recite the blessings for lighting the Shabbat candles.

Suddenly we saw a girl dressed in non-Jewish clothing walking towards our home. Her face was wrapped in a large shawl to conceal her identity. She knocked at the door and walked straight over to my husband, asking, “Are you Rav Schneerson?” From under her shawl she brought out a large loaf of bread, wrapped in a towel. “My aunt has sent you this bread,” she said. “We heard your wife isn’t well.”

Her uncle was the manager of the local government bakery, so she could sometimes reduce every person’s ration by several grams [to give us this bread], but if this were caught, it could incur the most severe punishment.

How that bread tasted! It was ordinary black bread, so I’m not referring to its quality, but at least it took our minds away from being hungry, particularly on Shabbat.

My husband immediately cut off two pieces of bread, which he covered with a cloth, so that there would be the required two loaves of bread for Shabbat.7

When the girl left, she had to be escorted out covertly so that our landlady shouldn’t notice. The landlady had already been muttering that “too many people are coming to visit the reverend,” and we didn’t need her to get upset and inform on us, for that could have caused his five year sentence in isolation to be doubled.

On the previous night, Thursday, my husband had recited Psalms, as I have written. It was no ordinary recital of Psalms, and no ordinary weeping. They were tears not of despair, but rather an outpouring of his very soul, with an exalted and intense faith in G‑d and deep attachment to Him.

That Shabbat, I was already able to sit up on my bed, and we also had food to eat. My husband and our guest prayed [on Shabbat morning] each in his tallit, and we also spent time in conversation.

There’s a folk saying, “When is a poor man happy? When he loses something, and then finds it!” I began to recover from my illness.

Saving a life from almost certain death

After Shabbat, my husband located a townsman of his, a shoemaker from Dobrianke.8 Those who are familiar are aware that this shoemaker was no ordinary Jew. He related to the “prodigy” of Dobrianke—as he called my husband—with great reverence and deference. It was no small matter for him to encounter the renowned “Leivik.”

This shoemaker’s daughter was a doctor at the local hospital. At my husband’s request, she immediately arranged for our guest, the shochet, to be admitted to the hospital’s department for stomach ailments. But he needed to have X-rays taken, for which he required a document specifying the ailment with which she had “diagnosed” him.

A way was found to take care of this, too. In Kzyl-Orda, the regional hospital had a radiology department, where the doctor in charge was the daughter9 of our friend, Mr. Kolikov.10 Everything had to be arranged in a hurry, because the date when he was to be sent to the battlefront had already arrived.

That Sunday afternoon, the shochet who was due to be drafted left for Kzyl-Orda. He now had documents certifying tht he was critically ill and in need of undergoing a special operation, but that, since he was very weak, he would have to wait several months for the operation to be performed. In Kzyl-Orda, Dr. Kolikov took care to get him X-ray images confirming his condition, “black on white.” In fact, it was a copy of the X-ray of a patient who actually suffered from that sickness, with the shochet’s name replacing the original patient’s.

Arranging all this took two weeks, during which time the shochet stayed with Mr. Kolikov. He returned to Chi’ili, where he reported to the local draft board, showing all his documentation. An immediate decision was issued to release him from the draft for six months due to his stomach ailment and allowing him to return home.

This caused great celebration in our home, that even under our difficult living conditions we had succeeded in saving someone from true danger—literally from death to life!11

It was possible to accomplish all this also as a result of the fact that whenever my husband made a request for something, no matter how difficult, no one could ever refuse him at all.