It was imperative that I leave our country because the period from my arrest until my fortunate departure was a time of stressful pressure, intense suffering, and awesome terror. G-d be praised that we remained alive. “Give thanks to G‑d, for He is good!”
From this month (Cheshvan) in the year 5682 (November 1921) until the month of Sivan in the year 5687 (1927), there was hardly a week in which I did not toil under the yoke of the Torah, waging a war, both overt and undercover, against the religious persecution conducted by the notorious Yevsektsia.*
For me, the first of those years was a year of focused preparation. There was hardly a town throughout all of Russia with which I did not correspond – concerning the provision of chadarim, or a mikveh, or a rav, or a shochet. I took no rest until I had attained my goal, which was to fortify Torah students, regardless of their partisan affiliation or their age. It made no difference to me whether the subject at hand was the establishment of a cheder, or a yeshivah, or a regular study session for adults or old folk in Gemara, or in Ein Yaakov, or in Mishnayos, or whether it was a chevrah Tehillim where unscholarly Jews could meet regularly to recite Tehillim together.
In the course of that year, I organized for myself an active office with a few of the young married Temimim, the alumni of the Yeshiva (Tomchei Temimim Yeshiva established by his father, the Rebbe Rashab zt’l).Some of them wrote letters, while others undertook the task of traveling out to the townships, moving from town to town and arousing congregations by addressing them from the bimah, as well as by writing.
Even the most gifted writer would find it impossible to depict the conditions of life in those days, both in the public and in the individual sphere. Yet, despite all of that, I managed, with the help of G‑d, to assemble all the required information and early in the year 5683 (late 1922) I visited Moscow. My aim was to begin reorganizing whatever related to the buttressing of Torah study and religious observance, in the light of the data I had accumulated in the course of the preceding year.
On my arrival there I encountered confusion. I had spent six weeks in Moscow and about a week in Petersburg (now Leningrad) during the previous summer, and at that time had hoped that once I had enough information, I would be able to get down to work. Hence the visit which I am now describing. But when I arrived, I discovered that in the meantime, the ardor of the people who had then supported my proposal to work for the resurgence of Torah study and Yiddishkeit had cooled down. Some of them argued, “Can anything be done?” And a thousand times people advised me that “at such a time, a wise man holds his peace.”
My personal situation was such that in Moscow I had to borrow money against a promissory note in order to cover my expenses and found that I was looked upon like some kind of unentitled collector. I will not deny that today, or any day, whenever I recall my state of mind at that time, I cannot restrain my tears. I was staying in the home of R. Nechemiah Ginsburg […]. For a few days I pondered the current state of affairs, until I decided that I had to firmly disregard all obstacles, to put my life aside, and to labor for the sake of the Torah, regardless of whatever might be said about me.
My revered father (Rabbi Sholom DovBer) used to quote a teaching of his father (Rabbi Shmuel): “People usually say, ‘If you can’t clamber under an obstacle, climb over it.’ But I say: ‘From the outset, as your initial option, leap over it!’ From the outset one must make a firm stand, be fazed by nothing, and do what has to be done. And once you make a start, G‑d helps you along.”
That teaching became my guiding principle. I utterly discounted all the responses of those who poured cold water on my proposals, assuring me that nothing could be done. I demanded of the late R. Rabinovitch that he should summon certain individuals to an urgent meeting – from towns such as Minsk, Vitebsk, Kharkov, Kiev, Yekaterinoslav (today Dnipro, Ukraine), and Petersburg, and prepared for him an agenda that detailed the questions to be dealt with. His reply was emphatic: he would call no meeting because he knew that they all believed that nothing could be done, except to wait. A week passed, yet despite three conversations, he insisted that he would not call any meeting.
Finally, after informing him that I would go ahead singlehandedly, I wrote to all those towns and informed them of the time that had been set. Remarkably, within about ten days every single one of them replied that they intended to come. When they all assembled, I proposed my practical plan of action. They all agreed, and work began.
I visited Moscow again in Adar of the following year and convened an annual meeting where I gave an account of the year’s activities – lofty activities with minimal means. That was when the opposition began…: “The Lubavitcher [Rebbe] is taking over the Torah into Chassidic hands!” And when I managed to arrange for what was then considered substantial support from the Joint*, some people found it necessary to subvert it by badmouthing my activities…
Rather than restrict myself to Torah activities alone, I also requested the help of the Joint to enable people to support themselves by individual work in handicrafts. Also, by mail, I set up an office in New York which was to liaison with the Joint.
At the end of the above meeting, after praising the year’s work that had exceeded what could otherwise not have been accomplished in three years, they elected me overtly (for hidden things are known to G‑d alone) as executive director, authorized to conduct all the activities at my discretion.
I then set out for home in Rostov planning to arrive in time for the following Shabbos, (the eve of my father’s) yahrzeit (which is on the 20th of Cheshvan). On the way, however, I met R. Elchanan, fondly known as Chonye Morozov Hy’d (private secretary to the Rebbe Rayatz), who informed me that by order of my mother and my wife I should retrace my steps because as soon as I arrived home, I would be arrested. The GPU* were there, waiting. (That’s a kind of organization that you are not familiar with, and for that you should thank G‑d.) Mr. Goldenberg had heard from one of their senior officers that as soon as Schneerson arrived, they would arrest him and dispatch him to a remote exile because it had been reported to them that this Schneerson engaged in buttressing religious practice via hundreds of emissaries and representatives throughout the whole country and that he received large sums of money from abroad for this purpose. That was why they had to arrest him following orders from their headquarters. So instead of going home to Rostov, I returned to Moscow, intending to remain there until the storm passed and until I had further clear facts.
During my time in Moscow – more precisely: in a nearby village, for understandable reasons – I prepared an alibi that would explain my journey there and arranged that several synagogues in Moscow should send me a signed request that I should join them as their rabbi.
At 5:00 PM, on the eleventh of Nissan, I arrived at Rostov, and an hour later my home was surrounded. After a long interrogation and a thorough search that lasted till 4:00 AM they wanted to imprison me, but Mr. Goldenberg persuaded them not to arrest me. It is difficult to describe at length everything I endured at that time, but after more than six weeks of exerted lobbying, I secured their undertaking that if I left Rostov of my own accord, they would leave me alone. Accordingly, a week before Shavuos, 5684 (1924), I arrived in Petersburg with my daughter Sheine, while my family waited in Rostov until I would find a home for us, and a loan to cover the expenses of moving my belongings and relocating my family in a new exile.
The work continued to follow its course, regardless of my personal situation. It goes without saying that the clandestine work was conducted with caution, so that the authorities would not be able to find me guilty of any offense against the law. Throughout this time, the Yevsektsia* concocted all kinds of strange libels and I was under the constant surveillance of the GPU, who counted and monitored every step of mine.
Thank G‑d, I found a dwelling and brought my family there. My overt and undercover secretaries had come with me, and the work proceeded properly until winter in the year 5685 (1925). In the month of Shvat, I convened a meeting in Moscow of the above-mentioned council of rabbis and outlined the activities that had been undertaken in the course of the previous year and in the first half of that year. By that time, I had cultivated quite considerable connections with the Joint, and during that period our account received monthly support of about 1,500 shekels.
The invitees, pleased with what they had heard, decided to elect me as chairman of the council of Russian rabbis, and authorized me to continue working according to whatever ways and means I would find appropriate to our goals. The meeting thus proved to be a success.
In the course of that visit to Moscow, I visited Dr. Rosen, the representative of the Joint, and shared with him my thoughts on arranging for the employment of individuals in handicrafts. He was so enthused by this project that he said he would support it with an allocation of 10,000 (dollars)! He stipulated that I should organize a workshop for handicrafts in Petersburg, and once it was recognized by the authorities, he would transmit the funds.
On my arrival in Leningrad, I contacted a lawyer by the name of Mr. Finkel and authorized one of my secretaries to draft a mission statement, and within three weeks I reported to Dr. Rosen that the projected factory had been approved.
I was shocked by his reply. Numerous statements and letters had been addressed to him […], arguing that my work was all partisan, intended only for Chassidim, and in particular for Chabad Chassidim. Accordingly, he now hastened to inform me that his promise to support the handicrafts project was now null and void, and he would not continue his support for Torah study. Moreover, in this political spirit, he informed my representative that he would find a visit on my part burdensome, because within a few days he was due to leave the country. Anyway, he said, it would be pointless to meet because his view on this subject was final.
At the same time, I was informed by the New York office of the Joint that many letters were reaching them […], stating that their writers were dissatisfied with my mode of conduct, which supposedly contradicted the resolutions agreed upon at the meeting. (At every stage I used to forward them copies of the resolutions, the reports, and the accounts relating to the activities.) It is easy to imagine the effect that this local and overseas news had upon me. Over and above all of this, there was a constant fear of the GPU. The newspapers were reporting that every undercover melamed was an emissary of the Lubavitcher reactionary who already as a youth had fought against the Bund and so on and on, and was now living in the heart of Leningrad, engaging in counter-revolutionary activities. Why, they protested, did the GPU not deal appropriately with this traitor?
Despite this, I decided to travel to Moscow to meet Dr. Rosen. I called to inform him that I had arrived in town and desired to meet him. He, of course, did not decline. I visited him at four, because three hours later he was due to leave for abroad. I cannot go into details about our warm conversation. Suffice it to say that he requested my forgiveness and said that he would not change the extent of the earlier support for Torah study. However, with regard to the handicraft project, it had been slandered so much that he was simply unable to honor his promise. I spoke no further on that subject. Instead, I raised the subject of solid support for the provision of matzos and other Pesach supplies for the needy. He undertook to inform me of his efforts when he came again before Pesach. I had requested not less than 50-60,000 silver rubles, which was equivalent to about 25-30,000 (dollars).
On his return about two weeks before Pesach, he asked me to come to Moscow for one day. He told me that he had secured support for Pesach needs and asked me to help him forward the funds to various communities. This I was happy to do. However, at the same time he informed me that since the […] were unhappy with my activities, he now requested that the sum of 3,000 (dollars) be divided: half he would give to me, to be distributed at my discretion, while the other half he would give the […]. I gave my consent, and the new arrangement was to start in the month of Iyar. I immediately assured the […] that since they had asked to receive funds directly, this would in fact be the case, and suggested that they appoint one of their people (from each community) to receive its funds in an organized manner.
At the end of the month of Sivan, I was summoned to Moscow to meet a visitor (from the Joint) who had arrived there – Mr. Bernard Kahn from Berlin. After a conversation that lasted some hours he gave me, in addition to the monthly disbursement, 2000 (dollars) to be distributed at my discretion, and 500 (dollars) to enable the dispatch of people to check the state of the Jews and of religious observance in the farming settlements (known as the “colonies”) that the Joint was establishing in Crimea. He allocated the latter sum because I had told the administrators of the Joint that if they did not give financial support for the needs of religious observance in the colonies, they could rest assured that I and the other rabbis of Russia would publicly protest the establishment of farming settlements in this country.
It was at that time that they informed me that in the month of Elul they would be holding a major conference in Philadelphia; if I wanted to submit a written proposal, they would be happy to receive it, and it would be read out in my name. From this I understood that they were acting more out of fear than out of love, and that since the New York office was becoming more influential, they had decided to make me this offer.
After consideration, I decided to compose a detailed statement comprising three demands: (a) support for Torah study; (b) an assurance that the farming settlements would be conducted in a spirit of religious observance; (c) support for those to be employed individually in handicrafts. I conveyed my statement, written in the Holy Tongue and translated into German, French and English, via Dr. Rosen, and sent a copy to R. Lockshin, director of the New York office of the Joint. Thank G‑d, it made an impact, and even the Russian newspapers carried a report in general terms to the effect that “Schneerson, the reactionary, seeks the welfare of the new Russian state: at the Joint conference in Philadelphia his statement was read out encouraging the concept of establishing farming settlements for the Jews in Russia.”
Early in the year 5686 (1925), in the month of MarCheshvan, I called a meeting in Leningrad that was attended by about 18 of the most prominent rabbis. The reason for this initiative was that the Jewish community leaders of Leningrad – most of them were utterly non-observant and their chairman was an ardent (secular) Zionist – had thought up a plan to call a comprehensive conference of all the communities throughout the breadth of Russia. It was in order to clarify and solve this problem, that I called the above-mentioned meeting.
The initiators of this nationwide community conference were freethinkers, and although I had a feeling that it was born of an unholy concept and spirit, I hesitated about relying on my own opinion and therefore called the meeting of rabbis.
After five days of deliberations, the rabbinic invitees concluded that it would be very difficult to oppose the calling of the nationwide community conference. What was called for instead was widespread publicity to ensure that the delegates to be elected to represent the various communities would be G‑d-fearing Jews.
I was the last speaker on this subject because I did not want to express my opinion until I had heard the views of all the invitees. Finally, I spoke briefly and explicitly as follows:
“It is clear to me that the conference proposed by the Leningrad community is impure, and in fact outright defiling. I will not elaborate but will only say clear words that the opposing side will be able to hear. The goal of those who proposed this nationwide conference is to cause a rift within the Jewish people. I have no doubt that the idea was spawned by the Yevsektsia and they will no doubt bring to the conference evil individuals from their midst. As for me, without entering into any debate on the subject and without giving any further reasons, I hereby state openly and publicly that I utterly oppose the calling of a nationwide conference of any kind. By everything that is sacred to me, I declare categorically that something evil lies hidden in the Leningrad conference and may G‑d protect us from its initiators and their collaborators.”
The rabbinic invitees were alarmed, even terror-stricken, by my words. Some of them were fearful of the freethinkers, many of whom had contacts in high places. But my speech was now a fact. As my uncle, R. Moshe Leib Ginsburg, used to say when he was a banker, especially when he examined written accounts: “Whatever is written by pen cannot be erased even by an ax.” How much more so when the above statement was made publicly.
The invitees made their respective ways homeward. News of the opposition to the conference began to spread, while on the other hand, the community leaders of Leningrad dispatched several public speakers to advance and popularize the idea of a nationwide conference. This compelled me to publish a manifesto, a copy of which is enclosed herewith.
It was at this time, Shvat 5686 (1926) that I appointed a person to correspond with the Chassidim throughout Russia, urging them to establish regular study sessions for the study of Chassidus, two or three times a week. I also made machine copies of manuscripts of various maamarim and sent them out wherever possible.
This letter continues to describe in great detail the Previous Rebbe’s efforts with utter self- sacrifice to bolster Judaism in Russia under the most difficult circumstances due to communism, for which he was eventually arrested and miraculously released. Yet, the flames of Judaism which the Previous Rebbe began, continued to burn throughout the 70 years of the communist regime until the fall of communism.
For a full version of this important document, please see Volume 6 Likkutei Dibburim – English translation by Uri Kaploun
This meeting described in the letter above is alluded to in a coded message in Igros Kodesh, letter #191, p. 392, in which the Rebbe Rayatz writes in anguish of how he was being hounded from all sides. (This was 1924, the year Stalin, may his name be erased, rose to power. He died on Purim 1953.)
For valuable historical background to the stressful events described in this letter, see: the Publisher’s Foreword to Defiance and Devotion (Kehot, N.Y., 5756/1996); and the Introduction to In the Shadow of the Kremlin (Mesorah, N.Y., 5746/1985).
On Yud-Beis-Yud-Gimmel Tammuz, 5687 (1927), four months before the date of writing, the Rebbe Rayatz had been released from imprisonment and capital sentence in Petersburg. On the day after Sukkos, three weeks before the date of writing, he had taken leave of his Chassidim and left Russia for Riga, Latvia.
* Yevsektsia – i.e., the informers who belonged to the “Jewish Section” of the Communist Party. Eventually they were themselves accused by the communists and arrested.
*GPU – communist secret police, forerunner of the notorious KGB.
*Joint – Popular name for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.