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.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.
In the first part, HaRav Zilber gave some background about why he began telling his stories, based on a meeting with HaRav Yitzchok Hutner,
The second part discussed mostly Rav Zilber's school years. Stubborn for Torah and determined to keep everything, Rav Zilber also saw extraordinary hashgochoh several times when he managed to pass examinations that asked only about material that he knew. This part presents recollections from various times.
Ki Lo Sishochach Mipi Zar'o
The following was taken from a talk by HaRav Zilber at a recent Toldos Yeshurun gathering. It summarizes his perspective on his life and experiences.
We were living in the city of Kazan , and as a child I remember clearly going home with my father after ma'ariv on Yom Kippur. Generally the old shochet would walk with us. The adults talked about how emunoh was weakening from year to year. "If this trend continues will there be a minyan on Yom Kippur in another ten years?" one of them wondered.
The other one was even more apprehensive. "Will there even be somebody looking for a minyan?" he asked.
During the Second World War, I, too, began to think that in another 20 years it would be unlikely to find a Jew in Russia who could read a page of gemora.
By the 1920s the Soviet government had already closed all of the Jewish schools and people who taught Torah were arrested and sent to Siberia . Some were even shot for this sin of "anti-revolutionary propaganda." Everybody was forced to work on Shabbos and Jewish holidays. There were hardly any shochtim or mohalim left and the children were educated to be devout atheists. It appeared Judaism was coming to an end.
And what happened to Russia 's talmidei chachomim? Most of them were murdered in the camps by Stalin. Those who survived were killed by the Nazis and their cohorts. The same happened to reputable rabbonim, roshei yeshivos and their talmidim throughout Eastern Europe , which was then the center of Torah. In America there were no yeshivas. Successful Jews living there drifted far from their roots, saying yeshivas would open in America when cows learned to fly. In Eretz Yisroel there were hardly any yeshivas.
What would become of our Talmud? Where would talmidei chachomim capable of passing on the Torah to the coming generations spring up? In our age of atheism and the pursuit of wealth where could young people willing to sacrifice years to study "outdated" statutes be found? And how could money be raised to resurrect Jewish studies? Who would organize all of this?
Hundreds of Jews risked not just their freedom, but their very lives by secretly teaching Torah to children as well as adults under the harsh conditions of Soviet rule and even under the Nazi occupation. During the war many Jews fled from Poland and went to Samarqand, where two yeshivas operated in hiding, one a Lithuanian yeshiva and the other Chassidic. Many Jews gave half their salaries to support them.
Now, over the last decade, great interest in Judaism has awakened among young Jews in Russia . This phenomenon has no logical explanation. Not just the fathers of these boys and girls, but in most cases even their grandfathers were completely severed from Judaism, did not keep a single mitzvah, did not know the Jewish language and had never heard a thing about Jewish holidays. And it all got started from some dancing outside the beis knesses on Simchas Torah, ending with a full acceptance of the yoke of Torah and mitzvas.
What preserved Am Yisroel for over three thousand years despite the lack of a nation, expulsions and constant persecution? This questions has plagued antisemites of all kinds to this very day. According to every "scientific" thesis the history of our people should have vanished from the face of the earth. The answer is simple. The Torah given by the Ribono Shel Olom preserved the Jews. And how did the Jews themselves preserve the Torah? The answer is astounding.
The Zohar says, "Kudsha Berich Hu, Oraiso veYisroel chad hem" ("HaKadosh Boruch Hu, the Torah and Am Yisroel are one"). These are not mere words. Am Yisroel is eternal because the Torah is eternal. And if the People abandons the Torah, its existence will be jeopardized. "But if you turn your heart away and do not listen you will be led astray to bow down to foreign gods and worship them" (Devorim 30:17).
The Nazis were known to have burned sifrei kodesh and to force the Jews to do so themselves. On several occasions the Germans wrapped rabbonim in a sefer Torah and torched it. German researchers combed botei knesses and yeshivas in search of rare Jewish books and manuscripts. With the same enthusiasm, they searched for talmidei chachomim and killed them to prevent them from passing on their knowledge to others.
Yet Jewish study survived. The Torah is eternal and it cannot be destroyed, neither by Hitler nor Stalin. For HaKodosh Boruch Hu said to Avrohom, "And I will sustain My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations as an eternal covenant; I will be a G-d to you and to your offspring after you" (Bereishis 17:7).
In all times and circumstances, even under extreme conditions, there were people who learned Torah and tried to pass on their knowledge to others. It's known that yeshivas and chadorim operated in hiding in the ghettos in Vilna, Kovno, Warsaw and elsewhere. Torah learning also took place in the extermination camps and in Stalin's camps.
My father and I also learned under difficult conditions. Before and after work we would study in a room rented from a goy for tefillos. We often stayed up until 11:00 at night. My parents and I lived in a room measuring 12 square meters (120 square feet) without heating and without a kitchen. During the war years the cold was so harsh that water and potatoes froze solid. We sat with my father, wrapped in coats up to our heads -- and studied.
People would come to consult my father (secretly he also served as a rov) and neighborhood women would come to my mother to pour out their hearts and seek solace. On the other side of the wall lived non-Jewish drunks who disturbed us with their shouts and quarrels.
While I was in the camp from 1951 to 1953 I always looked for opportunities to hide in order to learn Torah and pray. Every morning and evening I would bring six buckets of boiling water and I would help the hut commander wash the floor, in order to gain permission to hide behind a partition in the hut. I miraculously managed to smuggle in a small Tanach and Mishnoh. I would try to finish my work as fast as possible so I would have time left to learn. In the camp I always ran, allowing me to do an hour's work in 45 minutes and then I would learn for 15 minutes. In the camp I learned maseches Kinim, which is the hardest part of the Mishnoh.
HaKodosh Boruch Hu knows our energy is limited and He does not ask us to do the impossible. But to those who try to keep His mitzvas under inhuman conditions He sends help from Above. Sometimes this is manifested in fabulous ways.
When HaGaon HaRav Avrohom Eliyohu Maizis zt"l, had served his sentence he wrote out a Jewish calendar to avoid skipping the chagim, to keep the fast days, etc. Once it was Erev Pesach, but R' Avrohom Eliyohu didn't know it, because he had erred by one day. Without suspecting he was committing a transgression, Rav Maizis washed, said a brochoh and was about to start eating a piece of bread when suddenly he was called to report to the camp commander immediately.
He wanted to take the bread first so he could talk, but he was shoved into the commander's office, who was fuming. On his desk lay a package from Eretz Yisroel containing matzoh and a calendar. "Who sent this to you? What secrets are you passing on to the capitalists?" demanded the bellowing commander.
But R' Avrohom Eliyohu didn't hear him. Looking at the calendar he realized he had made a mistake; the Seder was that night. Thus HaKodosh Boruch Hu saved him from transgressing.
In this difficult period of materialism as well, young people have not stopped thirsting for the light of Torah. It appeared there was nothing Jewish left in them. They were brought up in completely assimilated families and in many cases their parents were affluent. All of the pleasures of the modern, free world were available to them. A shining career awaited them, yet they come to the botei knesses and the yeshivas wearing a yarmulke, sit down and open the seforim.
What force drives them? Here one can see Hashem's command come to fruition: "Ki lo sishochach mipi zar'o" (Devorim 31:21).
Sick but Stubborn about Mitzvos
My son, Ben Tzion, contracted tuberculosis and his condition was so bad they sent him to a sanitarium for free. It was located about 90 km (55 miles) from Tashkent . I was unable to bring him food, so we asked rabbonim what items on the menu were permitted for him to eat. But what about Shabbos and what about tefillin? He was never out of other people's sight.
Ben Tzion had a hard time there. He was just 14 when he first arrived, but he withstood all the nisyonos. He went to the sanitarium two years in a row, spending 4-5 months of the summer and fall there.
He was the only Jew. When the children were divided into groups of Russians and Uzbekistanis, one Uzbekistani boy who knew him said, "Why don't you join our group?" Ben Tzion agreed, although he didn't know a single word of Uzbekistani. But he realized it would be easier for him to keep mitzvas in secret among the Uzbekistanis, although the Uzbekistani children also liked to inquire about the practice of putting children's blood in matzoh.
Ben Tzion decided not to take a siddur along. He knew the basic tefillos by heart and before he left he had to learn the tefillos from the machzor as well. Ben Tzion would hide his tefillin in a tree in the woods not far from the sanitarium. He would rise early in the morning while everybody was still asleep. But apparently the hiding place was discovered, because the tefillin disappeared. To get a new pair I had to go to Tashkent again. It wasn't easy, but I managed to get my hands on some and brought them to him. Again they were stolen.
On Shabbos Ben Tzion would make Kiddush under his breath on two pieces of bread and for Havdoloh he would use a cup of tea or coffee. He would recite Bircas Hamozone with his hand over his mouth so nobody would notice.
After a few months the studies began at the sanitarium school. On Shabbos he would say his hand hurt and he couldn't write. But of course a sore hand has to remain sore outside the classroom as well, so Ben Tzion had to eat with his left hand on Shabbos.
On Shabbos, when the students had to sweep the area around the houses, Ben Tzion would hide. But there was one thing he could not escape: taking a shower was mandatory every Shabbos. He could avoid the soap, but the clean clothes were handed out in a separate building and Ben Tzion did not want to carry them outside. To solve the problem he would try to be among the first boys to finish showering because they would receive clothes on the spot. All week long he would give up his place in line so the other boys would let him in at the front of the line into the showers.
When he came down with a severe cold he was very glad because it solved all of his Shabbos problems.
At the beginning of the War, my brothers-in-law, HaRav Aharon Rabinovitz zt"l, and his brother HaRav Sholom Rabinovitz ylct"a, fled from Poland to Russia to escape the Nazis.
In Russia they were greeted by being sent straight to jails and camps. Sholom arrived in Russia with several companies from the Polish army and Aharon managed to cross the border secretly, but a Jew turned him in. A new Komsomoletz (a member of the Young Communist Movement) saw a figure crossing the border and reported the sighting to the authorities. Some Jews tried to talk sense into him. "What are you doing? They'll arrest him!" But he was brimming with "ideology" and "principles" and could not be dissuaded.
Rav Aharon served his sentence under very difficult conditions in a remote location. By the time he was released Sholom had been arrested, but Rav Aharon was not free for long either. He went to live in the Seidman home with other homeless Jews and later became a member of the household when he married their daughter, my sister-in-law.
Three months after his wedding he, his (and my) father-in-law HaRav Binyomin Yitzchok, and all the people in the Seidman home were accused of having "a Polish connection" and again he was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. This was a short time before Stalin's death.
Jewish refugees from Poland lived a very difficult existence in the city of Koibishov and the mortality rate soared. Between his two prison terms Rav Aharon helped them as much as he could, visiting hospitals and helping with burial arrangements. Not only Polish refugees sought shelter in his home, but also refugees from Leningrad , Moscow and other places were taken in and fed there.
Rav Aharon was full of passion and not very prudent. Even before his release the first time, he went into the prison camp square and began to shout, "Out with Stalin! No more suppression of the people! Smash the People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs!" Why he did such a thing I cannot say.
As a rule halochoh forbids dangerous acts that are unnecessary. I was never bold enough to ask him why he did it. Maybe he didn't go out into the square with this in mind, but something happened and he couldn't contain himself. After all he had not grown up in the era of Soviet rule. On the other hand, ten years of living in a prison camp should be very instructive. I really don't know.
In Uzbekistan , after his release, he did the same thing. I even had to explain to people that this was not simple provocation, but entirely serious.
In Eretz Yisroel as well, when he went into the mikveh (people often express their wishes at this moment), he cursed the Communists in a loud voice. Here, however, it was perfectly understandable. The man is here among Jews and wants to pour out his soul. Surviving a camp is no passing matter--it's an unforgettable experience.
R' Yaakov Lerner tells the following story:
In 1956 Rav Yitzchok arrived in Samarqand, a city in Uzbekistan where I was living at the time, to visit his relative, Rav Aharon Rabinovitz. Rav Aharon had been sentenced to ten years imprisonment in Siberia for the sin of engaging in Jewish activity. During his investigation the interrogator said, "Young man, why don't you take off that garment of yours and stop sitting in front of me dressed like that!"
"Me? You want me to take off my tallis koton?" he demanded and gave the interrogator a smack that knocked him off his chair and sent his hat to the ground.
Can you imagine the kind of beating Rav Aharon received? The Jewish doctor who bandaged and treated Rav Aharon described the battered state he was in after the flogging he got. Many years later I read a book by another former prisoner that relates the incident in precise detail, omitting the names.
After his release Rav Aharon settled in Samarqand. There he served as the main organizer of the Simchas Torah celebrations because during that difficult period people were afraid of the government. He kept the whole congregation going until four in the morning with everybody gathered around him.
On one hand people were happy, but on the other hand he was the type of person who could freely shout out loud, "Out with Stalin's goons!"
"Who can afford to say such things?" people wondered, drawing away from him. They began to steer clear of him. The authorities constantly kept track of him. Rav Yitzchok was very close to him. He took care of him and helped him, trying to calm him somehow. Only after Rav Yitzchok's arrival did the situation begin to change. He began to convince people that Rav Aharon was a very special individual and patched things up.
One way or the other he shouted out what he thought should be said. Everybody would flee instantly to avoid hearing. If one heard and didn't report him to the authorities it was very serious. In short they gave him another ten years. And they could have executed him.
It was his mother-in-law, Rebbetzin Fruma Malkoh, who secured his release, with a lot of money. His decade-long sentence had been extended even longer but she bribed an official to have him declared too ill to complete the prison term.
Rav Aharon's wife waited for him for ten years! A few months after he was imprisoned their daughter was born and after giving birth his wife lived with her daughter in great want as she waited and waited.
Following Rav Aharon's release they eventually moved to Eretz Yisroel where other children were born to them, but here too they lived in poverty. Yet every Shabbos, Rav Aharon would gather the neighbors' children and learn Pirkei Ovos with them, and his wife would pass out candy to all of them afterwards. She was a very exceptional person. I have yet to meet another person like her. She had no idea what it meant to feel insulted. She never got angry at anybody. Her emunoh and spirit were as strong as iron.
Twelve Years Imprisonment
HaRav Zilber says:
Rav Aharon was in prison a total of 12 years altogether and throughout this time he never desecrated Shabbos or ate treif. You don't come across this kind of thing often. When I married his wife's sister I found out he had asked that a copy of maseches Taharos be sent to him in the camp. How I did this I won't say, but besiyata deShmaya he got what he had asked for. Mishnayos, Rav Aharon would learn by heart.
He was imprisoned in the city of Dolinsk , which is in the deep north. In preparation for Pesach he gathered oats that fell to the ground while feeding the horses. He managed to gather about half a cup and using stones he ground the oats to make flour. Afterwards he spoke with someone from the place where the ovens were fired and arranged to bake matzoh there. One kezayis matzoh for the first seder. It was enough to make a brochoh.
Rav Aharon guarded it carefully, carrying it around until Pesach arrived so it wouldn't get stolen. On another occasion he gathered oats to celebrate either Shavuos or Rosh Hashonoh, I can't remember which, and to fulfill the mitzvah of vesomachto bechagecho.
Periodically every prisoner had to sign a paper stating what law he had violated. It was a bizarre exercise. On this occasion everybody was brought outside to sign on the first day of a chag. The timing was deliberate. Rav Aharon went out carrying his cup of cereal. He stood with the cup in his hand. He was the only one not to sign. The officer went up to him and hit him for refusing to sign. The cup fell and all of the contents spilled out.
The next day everybody was assembled once again and still he wouldn't sign. "It's still a holiday," he told them.
"How could that be?" they demanded.
The next day the same exchange repeated itself. "What now?"
Shabbos. For three days he refused to sign and somehow stayed alive.
To this day Rav Aharon's son has a tallis kotton Rav Aharon made for himself in the camp by stitching together hundreds of scraps of cloth. I can still recall that tallis. It was a shocking sight. Rav Aharon spent the years of his youth behind the fence. Our whole family spent time imprisoned