The rabbi from Poltava

My recovery continued, and I was able to walk around in our room and do some housework. The couple who had been our guests returned home.

The weather became even colder, as if in spite. With people not having enough to eat, or even literally starving, the typhus (may G‑d save us) kept spreading.

One of the deportees to our village was a Jew from Poltava [Ukraine]. Back home, he had taught Ein Yaakov1 in one of the synagogues, and was therefore called a rabbi, (although by then there was no official Rav in Poltava. His circumstances had brought him down so low that he was reduced to begging for money from both Jews and gentiles.

Once, as we all queued up in the bread line, he noticed my husband and came over to discuss Torah with him. We were standing right by the windows of the local NKVD office. The man began raising his voice as he tried to display his Torah scholarship, and all the gentiles gathered around to see what was happening. This wasn’t something we needed. I went over to him and said, “Please don’t shout so loudly; there is ‘an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and your deeds are recorded in a book.’2 Why are you doing this?”

His immediate response was that the NKVD had no dominion over him; his deportation had come at the hand of G‑d. However, he asked me to explain the following: While standing in line, he had been told in Russian that he was part of the 36th group of ten.3 “How many tens is that?” Although he was not even fluent in Russian numbers, he was still considered [by the authorities] to constitute a politically dangerous element!

The man’s wife and young son came to join him in the village. They were somehow helped to settle in. Mr. Kolikov found work for their son with a shoemaker in Kzyl-Orda, so that he could earn some money to help his parents. But life in Chi’ili was not to this “rebbetzin’s” liking. She was right, unfortunately.

Meanwhile, her husband fell ill, and she immediately took him to the hospital. Somehow she put together a few rubles and returned home.

Supreme courage for Jewish burial

The hospital was five kilometers from our home. Once, while visiting the patient, my husband observed that his condition was very serious. He made the acquaintance of the doctors, one of whom was also a deportee, and asked them to give the patient special attention.

A few days later, the doctor reported that the patient had passed away. This created a problem of how to give him a Jewish burial, for there was no Jewish cemetery there.

My husband was very troubled by this, and went to work making the necessary arrangements. First he went to the doctor and secured the hospital’s agreement to hold the body for three days and not to perform any autopsy—as was routine for those who died of typhus.

Then, with full knowledge that every step he took was being watched, my husband went to the telegraph office and sent a telegram to the Kzyl-Orda Jewish community requesting that they send a representative, and specifying why. He signed his first name only, without his family name.

Next day, the Rav of Kzyl-Orda, a Bukharan Jew, arrived. As I’ve already noted,4 he used to shine shoes for a living. But towards evening, he would go to the synagogue to serve as the Hakham5 of the city. He was no simple Jew when it came to Torah knowledge.

Accompanying the Hakham was the gabbai [director] of the burial society, a Kazakh Jew, dressed in traditional Kazakh clothing including a large red scarf. He had a very coarse face, was heavily built, and although quite ignorant of Torah—I don’t think he even knew any Hebrew—was deeply religious.

They had brought with them all necessary items—boards, and even unused linen for shrouds. Such items were not available to ordinary citizens, but the gabbai had told his son, an army officer, to supply him with as much linen as was needed and with the boards.

When they arrived, they came to our home, and sat down on the floor, as was their custom, to eat the food they had brought. Then they requested instructions about what to do.

First they went to the hospital to see whether the doctor had kept his word and not allowed the body to be buried with non-Jews. The doctor replied, “I made a promise to Schneerson, and as difficult as it may be, I will not do otherwise.”

The three of them—my husband and the two from Kzyl-Orda—went out into the fields to find a place suitable for digging a grave. They decided on a small plot not far from the hospital. This could not be done too openly, primarily because the one in charge of this burial—my husband—was a prominent “criminal.” He therefore gave the Bukharan Rav and the gabbai full instructions, then reentered the hospital to ask the deceased for “forgiveness,”6 and went straight home to avoid notice.

At 4:00 o’clock in the afternoon, the two who had taken care of the burial returned to our home. They were highly gratified and thanked my husband profusely for giving them the opportunity to perform such a great mitzvah.

The Rav spoke with some familiarity with Torah texts. The gabbai, on the other hand, knew not a word of Yiddish, and certainly no Hebrew. In his great desire, however, to show my husband how deeply inspired he was, he strongly squeezed his hand and said, “L’chayim, Rabbi!” This was the only Hebrew word he knew, and he said it with such deep feeling inimitable only to a Kazakh Jew.

“Holy Fortitude.”

People living under normal conditions cannot possibly understand the great achievement and difficulty of what my husband had accomplished. It seems to me that this can be termed gevurah shebikedushah—“holy fortitude.”

Every Jew, generally older people, would mention, with a smile, but mixed with a bitter dread, “We don’t like the idea of being buried alongside Kazakhs!” In this case, it was a lonely Jew, left alone and deserted by his family.

The neighbor who never moved in

With the great influx of evacuees, it became much harder for them to find places to stay. The authorities issued a strict quota specifying how much space each person was allowed to occupy.

According to this rule, five persons were allowed to dwell in our room. But we were just two. The director of the local housing department was a non-Jewish deportee, an engineer, who had great esteem for my husband. An educated man who had authored several mathematical works, he sometimes discussed this subject with my husband. This relationship was beneficial for us, because he turned a blind eye to our room’s “extra” space, and didn’t send anyone to live with us. This was a great favor.

But our landlady had a daughter who came to stay with her, accompanied by her own two children. She immediately started filing applications to the above-mentioned director of the community housing department.

She pointed out that our large room was occupied by a Jewish exile, just two people, while she, a true member of the proletariat7 with two children, who was also a member of the Communist party, had nowhere to stay. She therefore demanded that they immediately be allowed to move into Schneerson’s room, especially as it was adjacent to her mother’s residence.

It became difficult for the director to refuse, because, as a deportee himself, he had to be very careful about fulfilling his duties properly. Left with little choice, and in a decision intended to benefit us, he issued a permit to move in with us to another woman who had applied for a room. She was a teacher, a well-mannered person, who also had a child.

The director gave her an official “order,” in writing, which she brought to our landlady, as was required. The new tenant even told the landlady, “Schneerson doesn’t want a Christian neighbor; I’ll show him!” Then she came in to us. It became very unpleasant, but what could we do?

It was close to Yom Kippur. With tears in his eyes my husband said to me, “How will I pray?” Besides anything else, there would be a problem with kashrut since the room and the stove would have to be shared. And the baby would often be crying.

We contemplated ways to coexist with her peacefully. It was still two weeks before Yom Kippur, but my husband prepared plans for what to do.

The teacher had left with us the official order confirming her occupancy of the room together with us. Yet a week passed, and then another, and she never returned. Whenever the landlady’s daughter came to us with her demands, we showed her the official order stating that the room was occupied.

After Yom Kippur, the teacher happened to meet my husband and asked him, in Yiddish, “Rabbi, how did your fast go? I also fasted.”

When my husband asked her why she hadn’t showed up, she told her story: She was from Poland, where, in order to save her life [under Nazi occupation], she obtained a passport stating she was a Christian. Since then, she lived as a Pole, and used that passport when evacuating to Chi’ili.

“As soon as I came into your room and saw you,” she said, “I decided not to disturb your tranquility. Live there in good health. Hold my official order that I left with you, and if ever anyone comes to you about the room, just say I’m living there with you.”

This was an example of the small joys that came into our life from time to time. Always they were a result of the high esteem in which people held my husband, even on seeing him for the first time.

Subsequently, the teacher used to visit us for advice on how to locate her missing husband.

Some time later, she came to report that she had done everything my husband had counseled her, with the result that she was now in touch with her husband by mail. He was working in a distant autonomous Soviet republic.

Using her passport that stated she was a Christian, she obtained employment in our village as a teacher. Only we were aware of the fact that she was Jewish.