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. In the first part, HaRav Zilber gave some background about why he began telling his stories, based on a meeting with HaRav Yitzchok Hutner, zt"l. He also told about the infamous Yevsektziya, the Jewish Department, of the Communist authorities that led most of the most effective assaults on the Jews and the Jewish religion. The Zilber family had a difficult time because Rav Zilber's father was a rov, and they had to move several times. At one stage they did not even have an apartment and the members of the family were forced to live separately with whomever they could find. He also mentioned the heroic mohel HaRav Mordechai Asnin, zt"l, and a story about the grave of the Seder Hadoros in Minsk that could not be destroyed.
Every day neighbors and acquaintances would warn my father, "Rebbe, who does your son think he is? His conduct is endangering you. He might be able to avoid working on Shabbos for a week or even a month. But you cannot live under war conditions your whole life. What will he amount to? While he's still 16 or 17 it's not too late for him to study to become an engineer or a doctor. But he's not studying anywhere. What will become of him? Even a simple laborer has to work on Shabbos."
My parents kept quiet. The world around us grew darker day by day. At first they shut the mikvaos. Later shechitah was banned so people had to forego meat or to eat treif. Some held out and some didn't. Children who had already grown up brought treif meat home without hesitation. In 1930 they closed the beis knesses.
I remember returning from the tefilloh with my father and an elderly shochet named R' Yisroel (if I'm not mistaken this was before the beis knesses was closed, in '28 or '29 when I was still a boy). The adults were conducting a conversation I had already heard several times:
"This Yom Kippur there was still a minyan, but what will be in another 20 years?"
R' Yisroel was doubtful. "I don't think a minyan will come together."
To the adults, even the believers, it seemed the end had arrived. But as a child I was certain everything would work out. I resolved to fix the conversation in my memory and see what would happen. Fifteen years went by and there was still a minyan. 20 years -- still a minyan. In fact even more people came. And look what's happening now. Judaism is thriving!
The neighbors were right to a certain extent. Every place of employment required one to work on Shabbos. I tried to work as a photographer, as a watchmaker, but everywhere Shabbos was a workday. I even tried to work as a guard, but that didn't work out either. On Shabbos the guard had to keep the furnace burning and answer the phone. Thus I roamed about, unemployed. Eventually my mother o"h offered a suggestion. "Try to get accepted to some kind of study framework. On Shabbos you can just listen and not write."
It was March. I found a preparatory program for those interested in getting accepted to institutions of higher education. It was for a chemistry and military science institute, a serious college. It was hard to get accepted. Classes were scheduled to begin in September and were designed for students who had completed nine years of study in school.
The third time I approached the secretary she could no longer restrain herself. "Young man, listen! People here begin studying at the beginning of the year and can barely keep up with the pace. This is a ten-month program. The exams are in another three months. What would be the point of accepting you?"
The fact that I was trying to enroll in March instead of September was only part of the problem. I also lacked a certificate proving I had completed nine years of schooling. The truth was I hadn't even completed one year. Furthermore the course was designed for people who had jobs and I had just been fired. My chances were next to nothing.
Later I found out that that was the last year in which acceptance was based on the results of the entrance exams alone rather than requiring candidates to present a matriculation certificate. Had I waited until the beginning of the following year I could not possibly have been accepted.
Everything that happens to a person is for the best. Soon after I was rejected, my parents received guests and I was asked to make tea. When I placed the kettle on the primus stove I got burned. For three years I had worked fixing primus stoves in a workshop and nothing had ever happened. All of a sudden I got burned. Since it was impossible to work with a hand in such a condition I decided it was Hashem's will that I make another attempt to get accepted to the preparatory program.
Again I went to the administration office. This time the director himself received me. He was a Tatar named Kadirov. He listened to what I had to say. Then he calmly gave me the same reply I had heard from the secretary: enrollment is over and the course is well underway. Seeing there was nothing else to be done I said I was leaving.
Beside the director sat the Komsomol cell clerk, Meidenchik, who was a Jew. I remembered his face because he was preparing to get married and would come to my father. "Don't go; wait a bit," Meidenchik whispered.
"Wait? What for?" I asked.
"Hashem will help," he answered quietly.
"How?" I demanded.
"He answered me with a verse from the Torah: "Hayad Hashem tiktzor?"
After such an exchange, certainly I could not leave. I sat down and waited, not knowing what I was waiting for. After five minutes had gone by I asked, "Now can I go?"
"Wait a little more," he said.
About five minutes later a young man in uniform arrived. I clearly remember his name was Nikolai Bronikov. He had just been discharged and he, too, wanted to get accepted to the program. The director could not refuse him. He summoned the math teacher, who examined both of us and said, "I have no objections."
Misha Meidenchik and I became friends. I remember that in 1939 on Rosh Hashanah upon my request (I was very involved in Jewish life in the city) he went to several factories where believing Jews worked and blew the shofar for them.
Don't be surprised that a believer would join the Komsomol. He was not the only one in those days who was trying to "disguise" himself. He was well aware of the situation and chose to pursue this line of conduct. Not out of cowardice.
Misha was a very courageous man. During the war he fought on the Leningrad front with such valor that several years ago he received a certificate of recognition signed by Yeltsin at a Victory Day ceremony for war veterans. I remember the certificate because it ends with the words, "May G-d be with you."
I started going to the preparatory course every day, but my name still did not appear on the official enrollment list. First of all I did not have a certificate demonstrating I had completed nine years of schooling. Second, I had been fired and had I told my former employer what I needed a work certificate for, it would have only ruined everything.
It's interesting to see how Hashem worked it all out. I went to the department that produces documentation. They had not yet been notified of my dismissal and I received a certificate of some sort. A short time later, I again found work where they agreed to let me not come in on Shabbos. Thus I met the requirement of being a working man. Documentation of my schooling also worked out. Either I managed to obtain the required certificate or else they forgot about it.
Thus I began my studies. I would pray at sunrise and then go to work from 8:00 to 5:00. The first class began at 5:30 on the other side of the city. I didn't have time to wash up. I would run there with all my grime and still arrive late. The studies continued until about 11:30. I would come home around midnight. When was there time for me to prepare for class? I also had a lot of material to make up.
The time for the entrance exams arrived. I wanted to get into the Institute of Chemistry and Technology. It was a period of shortages, and textbooks were among the items unavailable. I had to pass a test on the history of the Communist Party, a heavily-weighted course and essential for anyone who wanted to get accepted to the Institute. I had never seen the book, The History of the Party by Wallin and Ingolov. There was just one copy for the entire group. Somehow the other participants managed to pass it around and summarize it, but I had not had time for that. I remember saying to HaKodosh Boruch Hu, "You know I want to do Your Will, and work so I can keep Shabbos Kodesh. I'll do my part and You do Yours."
For some reason on exam day I arrived a half-hour late. I was sharply rebuked but they agreed to let me take the test. "Sit down and wait here!" they commanded. Suddenly I saw one of my fellow students had brought the book and I asked to glance at it for a few moments.
I opened it and began to read. " . . . The party's seventh convention . . . Lenin's speech about the peace agreement with Germany . . . Bukharin's speech about war until a complete victory was achieved . . . " I read a page and a quarter before being called in for the exam. I took a card with just two questions written on it. One was about the seventh convention and the other was about Lenin and Bukharin's speeches. I received a good grade and left. Many other times in my life such things have happened to me when taking tests.
Competition was stiff, but somehow I got accepted. The year was 1935. Among the students at the Institute was a Jew named Maxim Epstein, a sworn Communist. I knew his father well and for a moment I thought Maxim would not get to me. But I was wrong.
One Yom Kippur we prayed in hiding somewhere and Maxim's father was among the congregants. It all began that evening when Maxim arrived to meet his father and saw me there, the youngest participant in Kazan. From then on he began to pester me unbearably. Every day he would make a point of bumping into me and then he would proceed to torment me at length.
"Do you realize you are causing an affront to the Soviet government before the whole world? A young man your age who believes in G-d and even goes to pray?! You should be taken to the door of the Institute and booted out with a kick strong enough to make you forget your way there.
"Maybe your parents are coercing you?" he said, suggesting I move into a residential facility and he then tried to persuade me to leave my parents. "Do you think you're smarter than Lenin and Stalin?"
People nearby heard his shouts and gathered around us. What could I say back to him? I felt I couldn't stand it any longer. But Hashem helped me. Maxim moved to Kiev after being expelled from the party for a compromising attitude toward Trotskyism!
A few years went by. I was nearing completion of my university studies and I became known as "one of the acclaimed Professor Chevotriov's promising students." Maxim came to Kazan for a visit and I ran into him in the street on a Shabbos. We stood and talked. Maxim took out a cigarette. "It's not a good idea to smoke now," I said. "Today's Shabbos."
"Ay," he said, making a gesture with his hand to dismiss my objection. "I'm already a lost cause." But he didn't light the cigarette. He had changed a lot.
"You are going to be a great man," he said, meaning he believed I was destined to gain renown for my scientific work. Later, in 1953, his brother Vlodiya was with me in the prison camp.
Keeping Shabbos at the University
How was it that I managed to graduate university even though I had been accepted for studies at the Institute of Chemistry and Technology? After a year of studying at the Institute it had already become apparent to me that a chemical engineer could not avoid chilul Shabbos. All of the lab classes were held on Shabbos and in this kind of work every activity involved chilul Shabbos -- turning on equipment, conducting experiments, recording results.
I found a solution. Since each topic was given to a pair, I would leave all of the hands-on work to my lab partner and meanwhile I would pester the lab supervisor with all sorts of theoretical questions. I was so caught up in the role of the pedantic researcher that the teacher once asked me, "Why don't I ever see your lab partner? Is everything so clear to him?"
He thought my questions stemmed from overachievement. Of course I studied thoroughly during the week to make up the lab material, but more and more I realized the profession was not right for me and eventually I abandoned it.
I didn't want to lose a year of study so I tried to get accepted to the second- year program in the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at the University of Kazan. I had to pass six special tests on subjects I hadn't studied previously, as well as a test on Russian. One of them was a physics exam given by a scientist named Yvgeny Konstantinovich Zevoisky. I didn't have time to go through all of the material and if I didn't pass the exam I would not get accepted to the university, but I was graced with success. I was asked questions only on the material I knew. Beyond that I knew nothing else.
There are 52 Shabbosos in the year. Several times I had to come up with new excuses for why I couldn't work that day. And they had to be the kind of explanations that would not draw attention. During my student days at the university I would constantly plead just to get through the coming Shabbos. "Ribono Shel Olom!" I would pray. "Please do not recall my sins and let me keep this Shabbos."
Why would I plan only one Shabbos at a time? Because nobody knew what the next week would bring. I might leave this world, chas vesholom, or the Moshiach might arrive.
I had a whole bagful of tricks to avoid chilul Shabbos. For example, I would put cream on my fingers and bandage my hand. When I was called up to the board I would hold up my hand. Obviously I couldn't do this every Shabbos, but once a month I could get away with it.
I also had another trick up my sleeve. I would make friends with all of the weaker students and help them in math. During the lectures I would sit next to one of them. On Shabbos when the teacher would give us problems to solve I would say I forgot my notebook. When asked where my solutions were I would say, "We're working on them together." The teacher was pleased to see me helping weaker students.
If there was an exam on Shabbos I would feign a terrible toothache and ask to go to the clinic. Even if the doctor wrote that I could participate in class at least I had gained an hour's time.
Zvoisky, a well-known researcher in the field of paramagnetic resonance, taught us physics. On Shabbos he would deliver a lecture to a class of at least two hundred students. I sat next to the light switch. It was winter and dark fell early. "Zilber, please turn on the light," Zvoisky asked.
I pretended not to hear. Five minutes later he repeated his request and again I pretended not to hear. After the third time somebody else got up and turned on the lights.
I had good command of the material and I never hesitated to go up to the board. But once the mechanics lecturer, Nikolai Gorevitz Chatayiv, called me up to the board on Shabbos. I said I wasn't prepared. "That's OK, I'll help you," he said encouragingly. I still refused. Four times during the course of the lecture he tried to get me to step up to the board and each time I declined. Obviously it was a very unpleasant situation. I didn't want to offend the teacher, but he got offended.
I also had to make an effort to avoid receiving recognition for excellence in my studies. They wanted to award me a special stipend for excellence, named after Lenin, but I was afraid if my picture appeared on the honor board it would attract too much attention, making it harder for me to keep Shabbos. Therefore I intentionally tried to get a slightly lower grade.
I remember one incident was truly scary. All of the students at the university were members of the Komsomol. To decline joining this movement was dangerous. Whenever people badgered me about it, I would reply, "You want me to join the Komsomol unprepared? I haven't yet learned Lenin's writings or all of Marx's writings."
Thus I was able to push it off until my fifth year. Now the final exams were approaching and I was still not a member of the Komsomol. This was inconceivable. Golovnov, the party secretary of the faculty, was in my class and he approached me himself. "I'm still preparing," I responded.
The incident took place on a Friday night. Suddenly everyone was being ushered into the dean's room. The matter of organizing the government exams had to be discussed. It started with the usual procedure of selecting a chairman and a secretary. Golovnov nominated me as secretary. My heart sank. "Maybe he suspects something," I thought. "Just a moment ago he spoke with me about joining the Komsomol and suddenly he was proposing I serve as secretary? Maybe he was trying to force me to write on Shabbos?"
I tried to decline, but I couldn't get out of it. If it was discovered I did not write on Shabbos I would be thrown out of the university.
The meeting began. I sat down. People spoke one after another, making proposals regarding the exam schedule. This class on this day of the week at such-and-such a time, etc. I listened intently. Genya Izotov, a student who was constantly butting into every matter, lost his patience. "Why aren't you writing?"
"Wait," I said. "I'll take it down soon."
Five minutes later he asked again. "Nu, when are you going to start writing? We'll forget everything." He began writing down the schedule himself. I felt like a heavy stone had been lifted off my chest. On motzei Shabbos I went over to his house to copy down the protocol. Everything worked out for the best, but imagine how I felt during the meeting.
Once, after the tefilloh, I sat in the underground beis knesses learning gemora. Suddenly a policeman stepped in. The authorities had learned of the beis knesses' existence and sent a policeman to have it shut. I stopped learning right away, but he had heard me read a few words out loud. "Who's that reading over there? Keep it up!"
It was 1937 and I was a third-year student. I won't tell you how I got away. Eventually the policeman was given a bribe and the beis knesses remained open.
Sneaking out of Shul
One of the Zilbers' neighbors, Dr. Yaakov Chatchkes, recounts, "On Shabbos and holidays people gathered for a minyan in our home. My father wanted my brother and me to take part in the minyan and he knew we wouldn't go if it were held somewhere else. Once, on Rosh Hashanah, R' Yitzchok prayed in our home. Ours was a corner apartment and across the way were the dormitories of the Institute of Chemistry and Technology. Somehow he managed to get into the house, but he couldn't go out the gate.
"Students returning to the dorms could have seen him and he was supposed to be on sick leave. When the tefilloh ended, without hesitation he jumped over a two-meter [six-and- a-half-foot] high fence to reach another street, and there in the yard he encountered a huge dog. We were scared stiff. The dog was about to tear him to pieces. I still don't understand just what happened, but the dog paused for a moment, giving him time to get down one fence and onto the next fence. At this point the dog attacked, trying to catch him by the leg, but R' Yitzchok managed to get to the other side unharmed. Had the dog been caught off guard? That seems unlikely, for it was a fierce German shepherd. To this day I can't make sense of it."
End of Part II