The Rav and the writer

Today1 I read in the newspaper that the writer, Peretz Markish,2 has been exiled to some unknown location in the Soviet Union. This news reminded me of an episode in the life of my husband, of blessed memory:

In 1937, Markish’s father3 passed away in our hometown, Dnepropetrovsk. He was Torah learned and would regularly visit our home. Before his passing, he left instructions that his burial be conducted in accordance with Rabbi Schneerson’s directives.

When the writer was told of his father’s passing, he came to Dnepropetrovsk with his sister, who worked as a secretary. Markish had by then been awarded the Order of Lenin,4 and no one was admitted to his home without special permission. At that time he was considered a prominent personality in the Soviet Union.

Since his father was religious, Markish did not interfere in the burial proceedings, and didn’t want it to be known that he was present in Dnepropetrovsk. Instead, he sent his sister, who was also a Communist party member, together with another sister in whose home their father had lived, with a message to my husband.

He wanted my husband to know that, although he couldn’t meet with him personally, the Rav should be aware that regardless of Markish’s personal ideology and prominent position, he held Rabbi Schneerson in the highest esteem and related to him with the greatest personal respect. This was based on his own experience and on his father’s frequent letters to him, which made a deep impression on him.

Markish communicated everything regarding his father through his sister, the secretary. But he asked that it be kept as quiet as possible.

All details of the burial, which was also in a favorable plot, were performed in the finest possible manner relative to the conditions of that time. The family donated large sums for the city’s clandestine Torah schools for children and the like, which were conducted at great personal peril to those involved.

The writer and the secretary left town the night after the funeral, and no one else in town was aware of their visit.

Packing and bidding farewell5

During Chol Hamoed of Passover, after much heart-ache and aggravation for us, a decision was finally made to issue us the travel permits. After Passover, we started to pack our possessions and settle our affairs. Sheva was especially helpful with this. We had to move even our unessential items with us, because wherever we would live, we wouldn’t be able to buy anything new.

In the end, our belongings weighed more than the allowance to which we were entitled on the train. When the time came, this caused quite a commotion. But through the efforts of an acquaintance—with the help of a bottle of vodka—everything was allowed onto the train.

Late in the evening, in the dark, we set out for the train station on foot. My husband was so unsettled that he tripped while walking.

Two young evacuees helped us with the packing. When my husband learned that one of them was a Kohen, he rose and asked them to don their hats and bless him with the Priestly Blessing.6 As volunteers, who were not being paid for their services, they blessed him with special devotion, reciting each verse of the blessing with all their heart.

Quite a number of people had found out about our departure and came to the station to see us off. Some, with tears in their eyes, begged my husband to bless them. The well-wishers remained in the dark, unlit station, from 8:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m., when the train left.

While the other passengers had all fallen off to sleep, the area around us was still abuzz with people clamoring to hear something meaningful from my husband, or asking him for advice or for a blessing. They were reluctant to part from him, and they devoured his every word.

The manager of the government bakery sent us a large loaf of bread weighing several kilos—for we were three people who would be traveling for several days. There is no greater enemy than hunger, and knowing that we were assured of bread to eat had a calming effect on us.

Our journey

We took our seats on the train, trying, as much as possible, to conceal my husband so that he be as invisible as possible and that as few questions as possible be asked about his travel pass.

When it became light, Sheva arranged with the train conductor to let my husband recite his prayers in his cubicle.

Later, young Polish Jews started climbing down from their berths, as did two Jewish university students from Vilna who were employed at menial labor in a town on our travel route. Soon they all surrounded my husband, and animated discussions ensued on subjects of Torah scholarship, mathematics and a variety of issues. They had all left their hometowns several years earlier and noted that since then, they had never encountered such a personality.

Their interest had been piqued by the mass farewell the night before. They didn’t leave my husband’s side for a moment until they had to get off at their stations, and they bid him farewell with profound respect.

We continued on our journey. My husband was dressed in ordinary clothing so that he not be noticeable at any of the stations. A Jew from Yekatrinoslav who saw him, and barely recognized him, begged him to return to the city. But that was now out the question.

On Thursday,7 we arrived in Alma-Ata. Seeing a city with tramcars and the like made a deep impression after we had lived for several years in such a primitive place.

Preparations had been made for meeting us at the station. But as usual, the train arrived much later than scheduled. Besides, it was best that our arrival in the city to remain as quiet as possible.

We were brought to the home of the younger
Solodovnikov,8 a home that, under the conditions of that time, was quite comfortable. For several hours after we arrived there, many visitors came to see us. Everyone involved in securing the release truly rejoiced—particularly the Rabinovitch brothers who had invested vast funds and imperiled themselves to accomplish everything.

At last my husband felt comfortable, in an environment of Jews in whose company he could spend his time on his level. Nevertheless, he felt broken, both physically and emotionally.

Chassidic discourse after five years’ interruption

That Shabbat, a Kiddush and a meal were held. For the first time in five years, my husband had the opportunity to deliver a Chasidic discourse, which he had been unable to do all that time. I wasn’t present there, but I saw that everyone was very excited about it. There was some fear, however, about the publicity, and some started to drop bribes in the right places to prevent undesirable consequences.

On Shabbat morning, he walked to shul, where he spoke publicly from the pulpit. This was unheard of at the time, because the authorities tended to unearth “counter-revolutionary” themes in every sermon. Indeed, that had been one of the crimes for which he had been deported. But he paid absolutely no attention to that.

The community felt drawn to his personality with deep respect and great devotion.

Youth enjoy the company of the Rav

In the temporary home where we were staying, we had to be very careful to avoid constant harmful scrutiny, such as from the landlord, and to ensure that the numbers of our visitors not be conspicuous. The efforts of our close friends enabled us to manage this.

Still, by day and quite late into the night, our home was full of older Jews. Those that had children brought their sons along. But strict steps were taken to prevent my husband from exerting influence on young people, particularly children, and to keep them from spending time in his company.

Nevertheless, the youth did enjoy his company, listening to his every word with great interest. In addition to several boys who had received a Torah education, there were also three boys from Leningrad who had been evacuated to Alma-Ata, where they attended the Soviet school. Although they had received a one hundred percent anti-religious education, they became deeply attached to my husband. As a result, they demanded that their mother keep kosher, and they refused to eat any food prepared at home. This was no simple matter, because the government food ration included non-kosher meat, and the like.

These three students became Shabbat-observant, and didn’t write at school on that day. This affected their studies, particularly their exams. On Shabbat morning, they went to school to be registered as having attended, and then regularly left for the beit hamidrash [shul] to be with the Rav, staying there all day.