The third day of Tammuz (which was June 12th in 1994, and which is June 27th in 2017) is a significant day in the Jewish calendar, which holds meaning for many people in both the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds. It is the date of the passing of the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.

It is also my grandmother Adel Chigrinsky’s yahrzeit. And it just so happens that my family from that side has been connected with the Rebbe’s family in a special and meaningful way. (Some people might be aware of this connection because of a story told in the memoirs of the Rebbe’s beloved mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson. Her unique memoir is regarded as very precious, and it is widely read.)

Every year at this time we remember the Rebbe, and feel only more connected with the passing of the years. Every year, I remember my grandmother and my family. And, as time passes, I feel that the connection between my family and the Rebbe’s family is stronger and even more meaningful.

The Family Connection

My great-grandmother Dinah Paley was the sister of Sergey (Shmarja) Paley, a prominent figure in Ekaterinoslav in the beginning of the 2oth century. It was to his father, Feitel Paley, that the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Sholom DovBer Schneerson,known as the Rebbe Rashab, wrote in the early 20th century, asking for his help in securing a rabbinic position for his relative Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, the father of the future 7th Rebbe of Lubavitch.

Feitel Paley, who grew up in a chassidic tradition and respected the leaders of the movement greatly, asked his son Sergey (Shmarja) to use his influence in the Jewish community of Ekaterinoslav to make this happen. Sergey, who looked almost identical to his sister Dinah, my great-grandmother, took his father’s request seriously.

Although he had at one point been sceptical of the young chassidic rabbi, he had met with Rabbi Levi Yitzchak and had been enormously impressed by him. According to Rebbetzin Chana’s memoir, their first meeting, which was supposed to be just an introductory encounter, lasted seven hours, and went well into the night.

The two men started to meet regularly and often, and became good friends and close confidants. Sergey Paley, a well-known engineer and entrepreneur who had studied in S. Petersburg, had a difficult time convincing the large and divided Jewish community of Ekaterinoslav to appoint Rabbi Levi Yitzchak to the position of rabbi of the city’s chassidic community in 1907. But ultimately he succeeded, and Rabbi Schneerson’s appointment can be credited largely to the efforts of that influential personality, the brother of my maternal great-grandmother.

There are more interesting connections. Sergey’s daughter Esther was the wife of Menachem Ussishkin, a prominent leader of the Zionist movement, fervent opposer of the Uganda plan, and future head of the Jewish National Fund. The couple lived in Sergey’s house in Ekaterinoslav for 15 years before they moved to Odessa. Menachem Ussishkin and his family then moved from there to Palestine in 1919.

Esther’s aunt Dinah, my great-grandmother, was married to Meir Chigrinsky, who was the nephew of the treasurer of the Ekaterinoslav Choral Synagogue, Aron Chigrinsky, a very well-known man in Ekaterinoslav.

Dinah’s Lace and Meir’s Matzahs

I remember Dinah Paley-Chigrinsky vividly, as if I saw her just yesterday. I think I remember her so clearly because of her exceptional outlook and behavior. She was drastically different from anyone I knew or saw around. She looked and behaved like nobility—always impeccably dressed, living in an impeccably neat house—even if after the Revolution and the following ordeals, her impeccable dress was always the same one, and her impeccable house was just one room in a communal apartment left to them by the Bolsheviks. Still, a fine lace was decorating both the room and the room’s hostess, and its beauty did stand out.

I still remember that modest yellowed lace as if it were in front of me. I was so impressed by its beauty, the only lace I saw in my childhood, that I it made me a lace aficionado for life. It is the legacy of my great-grandmother Dinah Paley-Chigrinsky.

Dinah’s main occupation in life was reading. Her brother Avram Paley—who was lucky enough to live a long, though quite dramatic and uneasy, life—had been a notable Soviet writer, one of the fathers of the genre of Soviet science fiction.

Dinah’s dignity was outstanding. And it helped her to fight the conditions of famine to which she and the rest of the family were exposed before and during the Second World War. After my great-grandfather Meir Chigrinsky passed away in 1959, my grandmother Adel Chigrinsky-Elovitch took care of Dinah, visiting her at least twice a week, bringing her homemade food.

My grandmother was an amazing cook, and a woman of unlimited kindness. She always took me with her to visit my great-grandmother, who would remove her pince-nez and smile gently at us. She would never show that she was hungry or interested in food in any way. She would have a courteous conversation with my grandma, and talk to me too, and would eat only after we left. But before that, she would serve us tea with some cookies.

She held to that regular mini-reception ceremonially to the smallest detail, despite the fact that we were frequent visitors. This was a family of stoical people, stern in their beliefs, modest in their ambitions, and noble in their behavior, no matter what the conditions.

Meir Chigrinsky, my great-grandfather, was known to the entire city of Ekaterinoslav for his extraordinary honesty and fairness. In spite of being Menshevik, not Bolshevik, and not a member of the Communist Party, he was appointed to the extremely sensitive position of the head of the food supplies and distribution department in the city. In a time of food scarcity, it was a position of extreme importance and vulnerability.

There was something deep-rooted about the integrity of the Chigrinsky family. Meir’s brother, Falk Chigrinsky,was a famous pediatrician and specialist on tuberculosis, and the head of the children’s department of the leading tuberculosis institute and hospital in Leningrad.

Falk stayed with his young patients inside the hospital during all 900 days of the Leningrad Blockade. He lived in the hospital during this time, and heroically treated and fed the tuberculosis-stricken children. Falk Chigrinsky died on the evening of May 9th, 1945, during the victory fireworks celebrating the end of World War II for the Soviet people. He died of a heart attack. His mission was completed.

Back to Ukraine in the 1930s. My great-grandfather had been so diligent in his work that he almost died of hunger, three times. I was told by my grandparents and parents that not once did he use his position to bring a gram of sugar or a piece of bread into his family’s house. Almost dying of hunger himself, Meir Chigrinsky, the nephew of the treasurer of the Jewish community of Ekaterinoslav, was instrumental in saving the members of the huge Jewish community there from devastating famine.

He did it together with Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, who had been appointed chief rabbi of Ekaterinoslav in 1921. When they saw the catastrophic results of the famine around them, they came up with a plan to save the Jewish people from imminent and sure death, and to ensure that they could fulfill the commandments to eat matzah on Passover without compromise.

The chief rabbi had appealed to the Dnepropetrovsk city authorities to allocate substantial amounts of flour to the community on the grounds that matzahs, according to strict religious rules, must be baked by the members of the community, and on their premises exclusively. Being on the receiving end of the inquiry, Meir Chigrinsky supported the chief rabbi’s appeal.

Bolsheviks did not know much about the religious rules, nor did they care.

Taking great risk, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak traveled to Moscow to appeal for his people, and the Jewish community was allocated enough flour to keep tens of thousands of its members and their families from starving. It was a very big mitzvah, an incredible act on the part of the Rebbe’s father and my great-grandfather.

The Tragic Ending

Chief Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson led his community for 32 years, and was beloved and respected by many thousands of people, both in Ekaterinoslav and beyond. Unlike others who were broken by the cruel Soviet regime, he never gave in to the pressure, and kept his faith, uncompromised.

This was extremely annoying for the communists. They arrested the 66-year-old chief rabbi in 1939, and sent him from prison to prison, from one city to another for exhausting interrogations. They tortured and insulted him with the aim of breaking him morally, without any result.

Then Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was exiled to Kazakhstan. In the early 1940s it was a nowhere land, a harsh wilderness with an extreme climate. His letters to his children from that exile are absolutely heartbreaking.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson.
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson.

In a incredible spiraling of destinies, my husband’s family was also exiled to Kazakhstan, after his father, who had become a political prisoner in the Gulag, was reluctantly released from his labor camp in “Death Valley” in the Kolyma region. My husband, Michael, who was three at the time, along with his mother, grandmother, aunt, and most of the family were all sent to Kazakhstan. Michael grew up in the same place and under the same conditions as the Rebbe’s parents.

There was another heartbreaking aspect to the Rebbe’s family’s exile. When his father was arrested and exiled in 1940, and his mother followed him, the Rebbe’s younger brother, DovBer, who was known to have weak health, was left in Dnepropetrovsk alone.

Prior to that, the Rebbe’s parents had become increasingly worried about DovBer, and tried to leave Soviet Ukraine in order to save him. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Rebbe’s father had been invited to take on various prominent positions in Palestine and other countries, but he repeatedly declined the honor. He could not leave the community. However, from the early 1930s onward, the situation for Jews in Europe become tragically clear to the great Kabbalist, and he tried to get out of the USSR with his family. The only written appeal of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak to the Soviet authorities, a request for permission to leave the Soviet paradise due to his son’s serious illness, was rejected.

When the Nazis entered Dnepropetrovsk, DovBer was sick and on his own. He helped the Jewish people who were running from the Nazi-occupied territories, organizing shelter and food for them.1 But nobody was there to save him.

At some point during the Nazi occupation, DovBer returned to the clinic in Dnepropetrovsk where the medical personnel knew him, as he had spent some time there for treatment. DovBer was murdered in June 1942, along with the other patients of Igren Hospital, who were given a lethal injection and left to die. He was 36 at the time.

So many people came to the Rebbe with their hearts bleeding in the aftermath of the Holocaust, and he worked tirelessly to heal those wounds. But the Rebbe was also a man of extraordinary modesty, and did not discuss his own wound—the terrible death of his brother DovBer at the hands of the Nazi beasts and those who were so eager to help them. That pain must have remained with him for the rest of his life.