“Queries from the Haftorah

By Shavuot, my husband’s health already was extremely poor. Nevertheless, he walked to shul, where he gave a lengthy sermon to the congregation, which I was told was very outspoken.1 The congregants relished his words, forgetting for a while in which country they were living and under what laws religious Jews were expected to live. They were carried away into a different world.

Yet they were all frightened of possible consequences. As unpleasant as this is to say—although it is one hundred percent true—almost wherever Jews gathered, especially in a place of worship, there was always someone among the worshipers who reported to the NKVD what he had seen or heard.

Sure enough, the same was true here. Soon thereafter, almost every day saw one or another of the shul’s active leaders being “visited” by NKVD agents. They employed various lines of questioning—one person was investigated concerning his business activities, while another was questioned about his residency documentation.

We, too, received such visits. The agents asked us “queries from the haftorah2—as the saying goes. It was apparent that the investigators were seeking something specific, although they didn’t reveal what it was. You can’t imagine the fright all this caused, and to what degree it strained our nerves.

By then my husband lay in bed most of the time, and he answered their questions from bed. At one such visit they took away our “passports.”3 Since it was not advisable for my husband to present himself at government offices, I went to reclaim them at the passport department, taking with me materials to offer as bribes, if necessary. The female official there read the names on the passports and rendered them “kosher.”

But we had to endure the dread of waiting for the officials’ final decision and the anxiety that perhaps our case would be reviewed by some other official who hadn’t yet received a bribe, in which case the decision could be utterly different.

This was the atmosphere in which we lived. Unfortunately, it was difficult to find anyone “who had not sinned”4 [by serving as a government informant]. Consequently, such NKVD “visits” always caused panic.

I’m reminded of an incident that happened after my husband’s arrest in 1939, when I was seeking his whereabouts. On one occasion I was visiting the office of one of the NKVD’s high-ranking officials. His office was adjacent to the kitchen and dining room where senior NKVD officials took their meals and received special food rations to take home. While waiting, I was surprised to see a certain person walking out of the kitchen, carrying his special food ration—available only to those working for the NKVD. Yet this person had celebrated Simchat Torah with us at our home, and had rejoiced together with everyone else present! As he passed by, he noticed me and looked away. I was moved [by his reaction].

Regardless of everything, my husband paid no attention to the intimidation, and spoke even more forcefully. After all the suffering he had endured, and after being utterly separated from other Jews, deprived of any opportunity to speak about Jewish religious subjects with others, he warmly embraced the opportunity to remedy what he had missed for so long. Indeed, he had a profound positive effect on his listeners, which gave him great pleasure.

Reconciling disputes

The non-Chasidic visitors declared that this was the first time they had encountered a Chasidic rav who was such an outstanding Talmudic scholar. They often visited him and listened attentively to everything5 he spoke, with unusually deep respect and deference.

While in our home, the Chasidic and non-Chasidic visitors forgot their disputes. At the shul, too, my husband settled all disagreements. As a result, during the short period of our residence there, the Jews formed a community involved in communal Torah study and, as much as possible under the circumstances of the time, in other communal activities.

Our home became a center for the Jewish people living there. On Shabbat and Yom Tov, they visited to discuss Torah subjects and just to spend time in our company.

My husband led all these discussion despite his illness, which was deteriorating rapidly. On Shavuot, he had to be accompanied home from shul by an acquaintance, who wouldn’t let him walk alone. He was able to walk only with great effort, both physical and emotional. On his return home, he was so weak and unsettled that he was unable to remove his coat on his own.

A few weeks later, on a Shabbat, several dozen men visited to listen to his Chasidic discourse. My husband, however, found it difficult to bear even the weight of his clothes, and sat with his visitors wearing only his sirtuk (frock coat). He felt very uncomfortable about this and apologized to his visitors, saying, “One gets what one deserves!” In my humble opinion, I can’t fathom what obligation he wasn’t fulfilling….

Regardless of this, he spoke on that occasion for several hours. Without seeing his face and the way he was dressed, one could have thought the speaker was in perfect health.

A specialist brought from Leningrad

My husband was under the care of a certain physician, who often visited him. Two other doctors also visited him on occasion. Soon, however, we considered bringing in a prominent medical authority, a certain professor6 who worked in the largest military hospital in Leningrad. But getting through to him was nearly impossible.

Nevertheless, someone was located who knew the professor and presented him with a valuable gift, not of money but of items of interest to him. Additionally, the professor was a religious gentile and a firm believer in G‑d, and when he learned the patient’s identity, he promised to travel to us—although he really had neither the time nor official permission to make the trip.

A delegation made a special trip to Leningrad to accompany the professor on his long trip to us. It included one of his students who had attended his lectures at medical school and recently had become one of our visitors. Also accompanying the professor were those7 who, a few days earlier, had given him the above-mentioned gifts. Together, they traveled back to Alma-Ata.

After hearing my husband describe his symptoms the professor diagnosed the illness, and touched the area of his disease. Observing the professor’s grave demeanor, my husband realized that his condition must be critical. He burst into tears, lamenting bitterly, “What did “they” [the NKVD] have against me? What have they made of me…?”8 and told the professor his life story.

The professor noted that, in his entire medical career, he had never encountered such a patient.

The professor didn’t share his precise diagnosis with us, but those close to us knew far more than we did. We would have liked to delude ourselves that it wasn’t true.