Staying Jewish: The Heroic Story of HaRav Yitzchok Zilber's Life Under Atheist-Communist Rule(c) Copyright 2004 Yated Neeman.Bnei Brak Used with permission.
HaRav Yitzchok Zilber, the founding father of the Teshuvoh Movement for Russian- speaking Jews, is an inspiration to thousands. Shortly before the annual Chanukah conference for Toldos Yeshurun, the umbrella organization for numerous Russian-speaking kiruv organizations in Eretz Yisroel, HaRav Zilber's book of memoirs was published in Russian. Yated Ne'eman commissioned a special translation of several chapters.
In the introduction to the book, HaRav Zilber says he never intended to write his memoirs. Here is a translation of his remarks, made from the Hebrew translation of the original Russian.
I felt uncomfortable writing about myself, but in private conversations and lectures I have talked about people and events that in my opinion teach us lessons in mussar. People to whom I have spoken and lectured tried to persuade me that my stories leave a deep impression and it would be a shame for them not to be made known to the general public. Eventually I became convinced it really is important to write about them and to share them. . . .
In 5732 (1972) I made aliyah and that same year two other Russian immigrants and I were offered an opportunity to fly to the US to participate in a fundraising dinner for Chinuch Atzmai institutions in Israel. Our presence was required to show that religious schools were also needed for children of immigrants, whose numbers would be growing. I agreed.
When I arrived in America my cousin, R' Pinchos Teitz, said, "How would you like to speak with one of the world's smartest people?" He took me to see HaRav Yitzchok Hutner zt"l. I went in for a ten-minute conversation but I wound up staying for over half an hour. That meeting was a major turning-point in my life.
HaRav Hutner wanted to know how I managed to raise and educate my children to be Torah-observant Jews in the Soviet Union of those days. I started to tell him but I was reluctant to speak at length. I didn't feel comfortable sitting with one of the greatest talmidei chachomim and chatting away about myself. I thought I must be making superfluous remarks and apologized for talking too much. "Believe me," he said, "if I weren't embarrassed I would break out in tears. Talk. Tell your story, tell everything!"
From that point on I started to share my stories. If not for HaRav Hutner's remarks I wouldn't dare. Before that meeting I had remained silent. Even my own family did not know any details about my life in the camp. When I returned from the US and my wife heard my stories she was astonished. "How is it that you've started to talk about it?" she asked.
"Because HaRav Hutner told me to tell my stories and I see that he was right," I said.
What gets imprinted in our memories? What pops up in our consciousness when we revive memories? I do not know. I am not a young man. I was born in the city of Kazan. My parents were my first and only teachers and they taught me Torah. I was a little boy when I read that there is a covenant between us, the Jews and HaKodosh Boruch Hu. The verse in which Hashem reveals himself to Avrohom saying, "And I will sustain My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations as an eternal covenant . . . " (Bereishis 17:7), left a deep impression on me.
One of the following verses reads, "And I will give you and your descendants the land in which you are sojourning, all the land of Canaan as an eternal heritage . . . " (17:8). I asked what these verses meant and my parents explained to me that the only people who would not abandon their belief in the concept of the Oneness of G-d are the Jewish people. "Does that mean some day I will live in Eretz Yisroel?" I asked.
Back then, in the 1920s, this was unfathomable, but they replied, "Yes!"
I decided to take action. Although there may have been certain factors standing in my parents' way, I had no reason to delay. I asked in the streets where the Foreign Ministry was. I went there and asked for the director. I went over to him and said, "I would like to visit my grandfather in Lithuania, in the town of Raguva in the Ponovezh District. His family, Shapira, lives there."
"Why do you want to go to Lithuania, young man?"
"I have to travel to Palestine," I replied innocently. "I want to go to Lithuania and from there to Palestine."
"Oh really? Very interesting. What school do you attend, young man? What are your parents' names? For this kind of education they should be put in jail!"
I don't remember how I got away. Only years later did I realize what a dangerous situation I had placed my parents in. Only through a miracle were they spared from prison. I admit my guilt. I was young and naive, just eight years old. I never told my parents z"l about the incident.
I do not know anybody who owes his father as great a debt for the knowledge he has acquired as I owe my father z"l. He taught me the Alef-beis, Tanach, Shulchan Oruch, Mishnoh and Gemora. I can't understand how my father managed to do it, but I did not study in school for a single hour. Considering the Soviet arrangements and the Mandatory Schooling Law this was simply a miracle.
To keep me from falling behind children my age, for a while Father hired teachers who taught me math, physics and Russian based on the school curriculum, but most of the time he himself taught me those subjects. (I do not know how or when my father acquired knowledge of them. It's not something you ask a talmid chochom. He was a man who knew how to study and he did it for me so I wouldn't have to go to school.) My father always took me to the beis knesses. By the age of six I already knew all of the tefillos and I would recite them by heart.
The Yevsektziya at Work
"Yevsektziya" was the general name for Jewish organizations that belonged to the Communist Party. After the revolution the Communists set up patriotic cells designed to disseminate Communist ideology within the various ethnic groups, i.e. to persuade the members of a given ethnic group, using their own language and sensitive to their way of thinking, to build socialism. Members of the Yevsektziya (the Jewish Department) closed botei knesses and mikvo'os, forbade shechitah and imprisoned melamdim.
On Shabbos Chol Hamoed Pesach, Yevsektziya members in Kazan deliberately organized an evening event where participants were given complimentary rolls and cigarettes. Nechemioh Maccabi of Minsk, whom I met when I arrived in Kazan, told me what took place in Minsk during those years. (He shared his account with me during a later period than the time described here. Nechemioh wanted to cross the border illegally, but my wife and I, especially my wife, prevented him from carrying out this suicidal act.)
There were many Jews in the city and the Yevsektziya went to work full force.
On the night of the Seder, while Nechemioh and his father were getting ready to sit down at the table, these Communist Jews launched their "anti-Pesach" operation. They went after the young people. Entering Jewish homes they would say, "Come with us!" It was dangerous to refuse.
When the Yevsektziya members came into Nechemioh's home he and his friend hid in the wardrobe. "Where is your son?" the uninvited guests demanded. The father shrugged his shoulders. They began to search every inch, but besiyata deShmaya did not think to look in the wardrobe.
The Yevsektziya did their work faithfully. They held "Jewish" trials conducted in Yiddish. In Minsk they tried a shochet, accusing him of a truly horrible deed. He was really a holy man who did not even accept payment for his work.
Not long ago I received a pamphlet published in Minsk during those years. It describes the trial of a mohel who was humiliated terribly. And all this was said and done by Jews. It's chilling to read.
The Yevsektziya club was located in our living room and would gather there regularly on Shabbos and holidays. Once I came home on a Shabbos night and tried to go to my room. A ten- year-old club member accosted me, handed me a match and ordered me to light it, threatening to beat me if I refused. Somehow I managed to slip away, but all this took place right in my own home!
A letter from this period written by my grandfather, HaRav Moshe Mishel Shmuel Shapira, was miraculously preserved. (The same grandfather mentioned above to whom I had so unsuccessfully tried to flee.) Dated 1928, it read, "My Dear Grandson, Yitzchok Yosef: Grandma and I are very worried that you are living in such a cold climate [a reference to the religious restrictions]. All of our prayers to Hashem are that you remain a believing Jew who knows Torah." The letter was drenched with tears. Shortly thereafter Grandfather passed away.
In 1939 all of the nationalist departments that belonged to the Communist Party were done away with, including the Yevsektziya. After less than a decade Stalin began to get rid of those who had served him faithfully. After Stalin purged the young members of the Yevsektziya of Kazan, whom I knew, only two remained, and they became so quiet and courteous!
A Roof Over Our Heads
At the end of the 1920s we were evicted from our apartment. Because my father was a rabbi, he was denied the right to vote and also residential rights. The rabbi's children were not accepted at places of work and institutions of higher learning.
I remember as a student reading a sad story in the newspaper about a young man who finished university and suddenly it was discovered he had been stripped of his rights. When the authorities asked why he had not disclosed his social status, he told them he wanted to study. "That's not an excuse," they said. Then they tried him and sent him to prison.
My father was sent to forced labor outside the city. Every day he would walk several hours to and from the fields where he worked. As a rabbi he was not entitled to any other kind of work.
But on Shabbos he would always stay home despite the shouts and threats. We anticipated trouble, but because of my father's state of health he was eventually released from this job and later, thanks to efforts by his sister in Moscow, his status was reinstated, making it possible for me to get accepted to university.
When we were thrown out of our apartment we rented rooms from a private individual. He had a small house with a yard. He himself was one of the better Russian Christians. We had a hard time, but we were glad to have a roof over our heads.
I remember once our money ran so low that we couldn't even afford bread. My mother wanted to borrow three rubles, but Father thought and said, "In Bircas Hamozone we always ask, `Lo liyedei matnas bosor vodom velo liyedei halvo'osom . . . ' Look around the house. Maybe you'll find something."
Mother found half a cup of flour, gathered bits of wood and baked a few pitas that held us for three days.
Our apartment was large according to standards back then -- two-and-a-half rooms. Every day Mother would lift her hands up toward the heavens and say, "I give thanks before you, Hashem, that we have a roof over our heads."
But our happiness was short-lived. We moved in during 1929 and in 1939, one week after my bar mitzvah, we were again thrown out onto the street.
My Coming of Age
Autumn arrived and we had no shelter. Mother found a place to stay with a Russian widow, I was taken in by Jewish acquaintances and father slept at somebody's house as well. I didn't always know where my parents were staying. All of our property, including our books, remained in the yard of our previous home right where it had been tossed when we were evicted. Rain came pouring down outside.
My father had numerous valuable books and rare manuscripts so I went to the Russian woman living in the house next door and said, "Maybe you would be willing to let us leave our books with you for a month or two?"
She agreed. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Succos went by. After Succos we found an apartment and I went back to the woman to take the books. "Oy," she said. "It was cold and I used them to heat the stove." She had burned all of the books.
The Jewish community was in a dreadful state. Nobody knew who was an informer. Sometimes people nobody would have suspected, proved to be informers. Once a minyan was assembled and the sefer Torah was taken out, but nobody wanted to lein. Two of the men there knew how to lein but were afraid of informers.
It pained me to see a sefer Torah open with nobody to read from it. I was 13 by then and I stepped up to the bimah. Thus, for the first time in my life I read from the sefer Torah before the tzibbur.
Off to Work at the Age of 14
I started working at the age of 14. According to the law the work day for underage laborers was six hours instead of eight. I found a place that would take me without having to work on Shabbos, but I agreed to work from eight in the morning until eight at night, 60 hours a week instead of 36.
Every day, I tried to get to the beis knesses by 6:30 in the morning to daven and learn gemora. Afterwards I would go to work. My job was to fix record players and bicycles. I learned the work thoroughly and became a highly competent professional.
I recall a remarkable incident that took place at the time. I stayed home from work for three consecutive days, the two days of Rosh Hashanah followed by Shabbos. On Sunday I was getting ready to leave the house. My mother would usually prod me along saying, "Aren't you running late?" but suddenly she said, "Son, I don't want you to go to work today."
"My heart tells me you had better stay home today."
I tried to persuade her, saying I had already missed three days and they were constantly threatening to fire me, but she remained adamant. I stayed home.
That day a fire broke out at the workshop. The building, the machinery, the equipment -- everything went up in smoke. And I was very obedient, for I was afraid of the boss and afraid of losing the job. Had he sent me into the fire I would have obeyed his order. If not for my mother, who knows whether I'd be alive today.
I worked there from 1931 to 1934. In 1934, following an assassination attempt engineered by Stalin himself as part of a plan to do away with unwanted figures in the government, it became impossible not to work on Shabbos. Everybody became more alert, wanted to know who my parents were, tried to convince me that I had to work on Shabbos and claimed everything I had been taught at home was untrue. There's vibrant life all around, they argued, while I was stuck in antiquated ways. For weeks they tried to persuade me, but every Shabbos I stayed home. When I went in to work on Monday after the fourth Shabbos I was fired. I was 17.
At the time, in all of the big cities, an ID inspection campaign was underway. The authorities took everybody's ID, including my parents'. The ID papers were taken and "lost." Whether they really did get lost or whether they vanished for a specific reason I do not know. Obviously our lives did not get any easier as a result. Many people were sent away from Kazan following these inspections.
The period following the near-assassination was frightful. Fear prevailed everywhere, not just in our home. Throughout the city there were constant whisperings about how people had thrown themselves in front of moving trains out of despair and fear of what the future held in store.
I don't think any other period in history was as difficult as what the Jews of the Soviet Union of those days lived through. During the time of the Maccabi'im the Greeks issued decrees -- prohibitions against bris miloh, Shabbos and chagim, kashrus, Torah study, etc. -- but after three years the Jews revolted and won. In Russia, however, the decrees and persecution lasted for over 70 years! In other lands where Jews were hounded at least one could flee, but from Soviet Russia it was impossible to escape. You cannot imagine what a terrible period it was.
Bris Miloh in Secret
Among the prohibitions imposed by the Soviet government was a ban against bris miloh. In my other books I have written about how Jews would bypass the prohibition. Some of these stories I will present here as well.
Today few people have heard of the name Rav Mordechai Aharon Asnin. He is a genuine hero who performed bris milos for some 20,000 Jewish children. There were many mohalim in Minsk, but when the authorities began to ban bris miloh they all became frightened.
HaRav Asnin was the only one to remain a mohel and sometimes he had to perform a dozen circumcisions in a single day. He never accepted payment, just a bit of lekach and a candle. He would use the candle to learn at night and the honey cake he would bring to his grandchildren. He was blessed with eight children and numerous grandchildren.
Prosecutor Chodos, a member of the Yevsektziya in Minsk, sent HaRav Asnin to prison. He was taken away on Erev Pesach. Supporters managed to send word of his arrest abroad. Protest by world Jewry saved HaRav Asnin and he was released a short time later.
As soon as he got out of prison, he resumed his work. Based on experience, he knew enough not to defer a bris if possible or it might come to the attention of the authorities. Therefore when people would come to him asking whether he could perform a bris he would invariably say, "Where's the baby? Bring him right away."
When he fell sick for the last time a woman came to him with her newborn baby and he gave his usual reply: "Bring the baby right away." His relatives tried to object, saying he was sick and lacked the strength to stand, but HaRav Asnin held up a hand to dismiss their objections. "As long as I live I must do milos. When I die I'll stop." That was his last bris. The next day Rav Mordechai passed away.
Despite the strict ban many Jews still tried to fulfill mitzvas miloh, inventing various artifices to keep the authorities in the dark. In the 1930s in Byelorussia a son was born to a Jew who worked in the Politburo for Internal Affairs, a cruel institution that persecuted anyone whose views deviated from the party line. His wife wanted to have a bris performed.
The husband found a solution. "Wait till I go to work. If somebody finds out we'll say I knew nothing about it."
He went away for two weeks. Upon returning home he stepped into the house with two of his fellow workers and what did he behold? The bris had just been performed and the mohel was still in the house.
He lashed out at the mohel. "Enemy of the people! What have you done to my son!" The mohel fled the scene, but he knew what the father did not know: the two men accompanying him had also had their sons circumcised.
Seder Hadoros' Invincible Grave
I feel obligated to make public the following story, which I heard from Chodos, the prosecutor who had HaRav Asnin and many other innocent people imprisoned.
Eventually he, too, found himself behind bars. He came out of prison a totally different man. He came back to Kazan where he continued working as a prosecutor, but he was much less industrious. I taught his son math in his home. Once, unable to control myself, I said, "Why don't you have a mezuzoh on the door?"
"I can't," Chodos stammered. "I'm a Communist."
"Halochoh does not require that the mezuzoh stand out," I explained. "You can make a groove in the wall, place the mezuzoh inside and cover up the groove."
Chodos stood up on his feet, brought out his tools and made a groove. I gave him a mezuzoh and he fixed it in the wall properly, with a brochoh. And once, when there was no other choice, we even assembled a minyan in his home and prayed.
When Chodos' father-in-law passed away he was buried in the Jewish cemetery. When he saw desecrated graves (hooligans and drunks would go on rampages in the cemetery) Chodos remarked, "This is scandalous! Back in Minsk we didn't have such things. They tried to wreck the grave of a guter Yid, but they couldn't get away with it."
He couldn't remember the name. "Maybe it was the grave of Seder Hadoros?" I inquired.
"Yes, I think so," he replied.
I remember while I was still a boy, Jews arriving in Kazan from Minsk told my father bitterly that in Minsk the old Jewish graveyard was being desecrated. Bones were being removed from the graves and a stadium was being built for the Politburo of Internal Affairs. Chodos was right. It wasn't hoodlums who were destroying the cemetery but the government, with full authorization. "What about the grave of Seder Hadoros?" I recall my father asking.
"They were unable to do anything to that grave."
"What does that mean, `they were unable?' " wondered my father.
"Everybody who draws near it dies."
I remember thinking that people tend to exaggerate, but later Chodos told the same story.
In 1953, Sholom Iskovitz, a top physician from Minsk who hid his broad knowledge of Torah, arrived in Kazan. I asked whether the grave of Seder Hadoros still existed. He said yes. I couldn't make sense of it. They had razed the entire cemetery and only the grave of Seder Hadoros remained? I still refused to believe it. Many years went by.
In 1962 I went with my son, Ben Tzion, to visit my old friend R' Yaakov Barshensky in Samarkand. He was originally from Minsk and I decided, with Ben Tzion as a witness, that I would verify the details about the grave, and finally I would know the truth of the matter. I knew R' Yaakov had never let a lie pass his lips. I told him if he knew something about the grave of Seder Hadoros to please tell me, but only facts he was certain about. R' Yaakov said he remembered the story well:
"In our courtyard lived a Jew who worked in the cemetery. He was married to a non-Jewish woman, which gives some indication of how much Judaism he had retained. But after this incident he began to put on tefillin every day."
Here an explanation is in order. In the 1930s, Jews in many areas were so enthusiastic over the "equal rights" they had received that they simply divorced their Jewish wives and married non-Jews. But in a Jewish city like Minsk, mixed marriages were still very rare, so the person R' Yaakov was telling the story about must have been among the first to intermarry.
"There was a covering above the grave of Seder Hadoros," continued R' Yaakov. "When the authorities set about removing the cemetery two workers climbed onto the rooftop and fell. One of them died and the other broke his leg. The foreman was furious. `They don't know how to work! I'll do it myself!' He struck the support rod with all his strength. It bounced back and hit him in the head. Afterwards all the residents of the city were afraid to go near the grave.
"What would become of the site? Next to the grave a new stadium was being built and an ancient Jewish gravestone would be sorely out of place. They decided to redo the covering and inscribe on it, `The Famous Historian So-and- So.' People still recall how they searched the entire city for somebody willing to take on the task, but everyone was afraid."
End of Part I