Behind in Russia
waited decades for this day, and it finally arrived! Hundreds of
families of Chassidim who longed to leave Soviet Russia, to force
a small opening in the iron curtain and to get to a free country
where they could observe Torah and mitzvos properly. That
long-awaited opportunity arrived unexpectedly, in a miraculous
manner. It is fifty-three years now since that incredible time.
the days following World War II, an agreement was signed between
Russia and Poland, allowing all Polish citizens who had fled to
Russia in hope of a more secure life, to leave Russia and return
Russian government provided these Polish citizens with
transportation by means of trains, known as eshelons, in
which hundreds made their journey westward. Knowing that these
refugees did not have proper identification, the Russian
government allowed anyone with even the slightest evidence that he
was a Polish citizen to cross the border into Poland.
Chassidishe askanim heard from various sources about the
possibility of smuggling across the border and leaving the Soviet
misery behind. After doing some research, the community of Anash
in Russia, like many other Soviet citizens, jumped on the
bandwagon and took advantage of the opportunity.
special committee of Chassidim was formed. It was a secret group
that included R’ Mendel Futerfas, R’ Yona Cohen (may Hashem
avenge his blood), R’ Leibel Mochkin, R’ Moshe Chaim Dubrawsky,
“Mumme (Aunt) Sara” and others. This committee was responsible
for the complex underground infrastructure of the smuggling
operation, conducted by obtaining false Polish documents, bribing
officials and soldiers, and so on.
group had to be absolutely secret. If one of them were caught, it
would have put the rest of the Chassidim in great danger. The
Russian government knew about the blossoming counterfeit industry,
but at first it turned a blind eye. According to official data,
hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens had entered the country
at the beginning of the war, a large number of which had been
exiled by the Soviet government to the wastelands of Siberia,
never to return. Therefore, the Russian government wanted to make
up for the number of Poles who were supposed to return home and
ignored those smuggling over the border.
has already been told about the eshelons of Chassidim who
left Lemberg (Lvov), the city closest to the Russian-Polish
border, in the middle of the night. Over 500 Chassidic families
left Russia in three main eshelons. The families were
comprised of thousands of people at all ages and stages of life.
Chassidim who recorded these events, describing the danger and
fear, the difficult living conditions, and the escape itself, did
a tremendous public service for later generations. The following
article is a heartrending account, one of many, of two men out of
three months ago, two elter Chassidim, R’ Dovid Chein of
Kfar Chabad and R’ Berel Gurewitz of France, met up. They had
known each other for over fifty years. The two Chassidim had seen
tremendous suffering under the brutal Communist regime until they
arrived in free countries. One went to the newly established Kfar
Chabad, then called Safraya, and the other went to France to do hafatzas
ha’Yahadus through his involvement in the Beis Rivka
Seminary. Together with these Chassidim, we went back in time to
that terrible night when this story is set, the night of the 9th
of Kislev, 5707 (1947), a night they both remember well.
After hearing about the possibility of fleeing as Polish citizens,
the Chassidic community did not know whether it was permissible to
endanger itself in this way. The danger was enormous, and it was a
fateful question upon which many lives depended.
the time the issues were clarified, it was almost too late. Most
Poles had already left Russia, and the Russian government began
closing the iron curtain again. Nevertheless, Anash quickly
began to mobilize. Many sold their belongings, left their
hometowns, and traveled to Lemberg, the border city, where it was
possible to obtain false papers and then attempt to cross the
a family meeting, we decided to go through with it. We left for
Lemberg – my parents, my older sister and her husband, my wife
and myself, and my younger sister. The trip to Lemberg took four
days, throughout which we prayed and cried that we would get
through safely. My wife, my younger sister, and I arrived in
Lemberg, separated from my parents.
you would expect from a border town, surveillance in Lemberg was
tight. Anyone caught without a permit to live there was severely
punished. And, of course, it was dangerous to walk in the streets
with a beard, because it drew unwanted attention. In addition,
many of Anash were wanted by the N.K.V.D., thus the locals
were reticent to let us into their homes.
a day or two, I found out about a Jew who worked as a watchman at
the town bathhouse. I pleaded with him for permission to sleep at
the bathhouse at night. He agreed on condition that we leave in
the morning upon his arrival, and not return until he closed it at
were no better alternatives, so I had to accept his terms,
especially since my wife was in her fifth month of pregnancy. For
one month we had to walk around the city all day until nightfall,
which itself was dangerous because of the N.K.V.D. and the local
police. When we returned to the bathhouse at night, we were
took a month to find a room in a small apartment we could rent on
condition that we do not leave it, so that people wouldn’t
realize that the room was rented to strangers. Until now, we had
to be out all day. Now we were stuck inside! Every so often I took
a chance and went out to buy some food to sustain us.
first Chassidim had begun to leave Russia on the first eshelons.
My father, Rabbi Yehuda Chein, a’h, my mother, and my
sister and brother-in-law left Russia hoping we would join them
shortly. We waited for the next opportunity. The tension and fear
financial situation was terrible. We waited in Lemberg for four
months, sustained by the little bit of money the committee of
Chassidim gave us for food. After Elul, our first month in the
city, the remaining months were in winter. The freezing weather
made it very trying for us.
the danger, my younger sister (who later married R’ Chuna Rivkin)
circulated among the activists. She passed on information and
documents, placing her at great risk. At last, we were on the eshelon
that left on the 9th of Kislev, 5707.
I was married on the 15 of Av, 5706 in Samarkand. A month later,
in Elul, we heard about the possibility of escaping Russia with
Polish citizenship papers. So my wife, my mother, and I left
Tashkent for Moscow, where we spent Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur
5707. After Yom Tov, we traveled to Lemberg, where we met my
brother, Nachum Zalman, and my brother-in-law, Hillel Azimov. All
of us hid in the same apartment.
We were on our way. Dozens of Lubavitcher families, men, women,
and children were squeezed into a compartment meant for
transporting animals. Throughout the trip we were petrified in
fear of being caught. We left as Polish citizens, but not one of
us knew a word of Polish. We prayed for Heaven’s mercy.
Before we left, the organizers went over a list of Anash,
and gave each of us a new name along with a new “family” — a
wife, children, or parents. This required a lot of nerve, for
nobody knew these people he was accompanying, “his children”
or “his wife.” For this reason, the members of the committee
met with the emigration official in advance and explained to him,
with the help of gifts, how to deal with such a situation.
the train station, each of Anash received his personal
number, his new name, and the names of the people accompanying
him. Everything had to be committed to memory, in case of
questioning at the border.
arrived at the train station, and R’ Moshe L. came over to me
(who now lives in Boro Park) and gave me a Polish passport for me
and the members of my family. In this manner, families were broken
apart and put together, so to speak. My wife was listed as my
mother’s daughter, but I was a son in a completely different
Moshe gave me a new Polish name, and from then on I was called
Hertz Zeigarten. I still have that name and I use it on official
documents [see picture of document]. Since I hadn’t yet received
the exit permit for the new family, R’ Moshe asked me to board
the train where he would take care of the paper. He hoped to get
it from someone who had already passed the border. He promised to
give me the paper en route.
Motzaei Shabbos, my wife and I, my mother and many other Anash
boarded the train. We were a large group of Lubavitchers. The fear
was enormous because of the expected and unexpected checkpoints,
and because of informers. That could ruin things at the very last
moment. For example, if the employees of the train station wanted
to inform on us, they could have done so easily. Although they
received money to keep their mouths shut, there was no guarantee.
At 11:00 p.m. we boarded the train in the busy station in Lemberg.
We scattered throughout the large crowd so as not to stand out. We
knew that in the middle of the trip, right on the border, we would
have to undergo an inspection by the Russian border guards.
That’s where the greatest danger lay.
train would reach the border in two hours. Then all the passengers
had to disembark, and the soldier standing there would read the
names of the passengers from a list. You had to give him your exit
permit and then you were allowed to re-board the train, if G-d had
mercy on you.
Berel Gurewitz: When we arrived at the border, we all left the
train. I was extremely frightened when I noticed that the soldier
began reading out the names, for I still hadn’t received the
paper I needed. My fears were realized when everybody boarded the
train except for me. The soldier read my name and asked me for the
paper. I said that one of my friends on the train had the paper,
and I suggested that we go on the train together to look for it.
That was my last hope.
didn’t think he would agree, but for some reason he did. We went
from compartment to compartment, and in each one I called out,
“R’ Moshe!” The more compartments we passed through, the
louder my heart pounded. Apparently, he had not managed to obtain
the paper I needed. The soldier removed me from the train and took
me with him. At the last moment, the Chassid R’ Betzalel Althaus
managed to stuff 3,000 rubles into my pocket to help sustain me in
my dreadful predicament.
They acknowledged everybody’s name and we all boarded the train
again, except for Berel Gurewitz, that is, who remained below. We
learned that his name did not appear on the list, and he had to
accompany the soldier. This was in the middle of the night. It was
extremely cold, and our hearts pounded with fear. What would
happen to Berel? Now what?
a brief moment, the train slowly began to move. I stood in the
doorway of the compartment, gazing at my friend Berel, who had
been caught. Berel looked at me, seeing me from a distance, and he
shouted and cried, “Dovid, do something! They are leaving me
stood there and my heart broke, but what could I do? One more word
could have had us all locked up. His young wife, who had just
married him a few months before, remained with us. Nobody knew if
we would ever see him again. Perhaps she would remain an aguna
the rest of her life.
I felt as though I was being forever separated from my wife.
As soon as we arrived in Poland, the Chassid, R’ Bentzion
Shemtov, came over to me and said, “Dovid, give me your Polish
papers, and I will send them back to Russia to enable another Jew
to get out.” Naturally, I gave him the only paper I had, and
remained with no documents at all. In those days, a person without
I.D. and citizenship was in grave danger.
the families who had traveled in the eshelon continued on
to Czechoslovakia, except for four families that remained in
Karkov in Poland. The four families were those of R’ Hillel
Azimov, R’ Meir Avtzon, R’ Zalman Serebryanski, and my own.
was wintertime, and the cold was terrible. After a few days, my
oldest son was born, and R’ Meir Avtzon had his first girl.
Things become doubly hard after that.
with us was Berel Gurewitz’s young wife. What happened to him
was a tragedy for us all. My family and the Avtzon family remained
there because of the births, but R’ Hillel and R’ Zalman
remained there hoping to make contact in Russia in order to find
out what had happened to Berel.
sent a telegram to the Rebbe Rayatz in the United States. Should
his wife return to Russia to locate her husband and help him if he
had to remain there for years, or should she remain in Poland
hoping for his release? If she would stay in Poland, it was likely
she would remain an aguna, not knowing where her husband
was a life and death issue and a terrible dilemma. The Rebbe’s
answer came quickly: “Remain in Poland. Do not go back and do
not continue onward.”
I remember how brokenhearted she was. It was hard to look at her
in her great sorrow. She paced the room and said Tehillim and
Afterwards they told me that she fasted for my salvation for forty
put me in a small, dark room with Polish thieves. I thought that
even if I had to remain there for years I wouldn’t have any
complaints against Hashem, because I deserved it. But I could not
understand why she was guilty. What did she do wrong? I could not
find an answer to that question, and it broke my heart.
they told me that she wanted to return to Russia. R’ Leibel
Mochkin, who was with us in the eshelon, got off in Krakow
and returned to the police station at the border to discover what
happened to me and to free me. He made some connections, trying to
find out where Gurewitz was. But the entire time I claimed to be
Zeigarten, the new Polish name I was given, and they said that
they had nobody by the name of Gurewitz. Having no other recourse,
he left empty-handed.
the pain and worry, I remembered what I had learned in Derech
Mitzvosecha about the mitzva of tefilla. Our davening
three times a day is a Rabbinic law, but during an eis
tzara (a time of misfortune) it is a Biblical law to pray and
plead for Hashem’s help. I stood near the wall and davened
to our Father in Heaven that He help me properly answer the
knew there would be difficult interrogations after they had
searched for me throughout Russia for two “crimes” of the
past: running away from the army, and even worse, running away
from the N.K.V.D.
was called to my first interrogation. The interrogator said that I
had to give a correct answer to each question. They claimed that
they would get the truth out of me, for they had ways of getting
the truth out of people. I knew they could be counted on to carry
out their promises, yet I still stuck to my version, saying I was
a Polish citizen who wanted to return home. As far as why I was on
the general list but did not have the exit permit, I decided to
say that I had lost it and didn’t know where it was.
of the first questions asked was: “Do you know where Berel
Gurewitz is now?” My heart skipped a beat, but I had to quickly
get a hold of myself. I said that I had no idea who he was. I knew
they were after me.
later, R’ Mendel Futerfas told me that when he was caught
shortly thereafter, at one of the interrogations he was told,
“We know Gurewitz is in our hands, but he is using a different
name and we don’t know what it is.”
was a great miracle. I was interrogated for months, and I strongly
maintained that I was Zeigarten, a Polish citizen who tried to
leave Russia, and whose only crime was a missing exit permit.
trial was held in Pshemishel, where the judge accepted my story
and sentenced me to two years in jail for the crime of trying to
leave Russia without the proper papers. It was an open miracle.
the time I sat in jail, I worried about how I would be safely
freed. I was afraid, for even if I had the strength to endure the
two years, there was another problem. I knew that when a prisoner
is freed, he is asked all sorts of personal information,
information that would be compared against his personal file.
During my interrogation, I had made up outright lies, but I
hadn’t committed them to memory. I was afraid I would be caught
in a lie, which would open a new investigation. Who knew how it
would all end?
continued to fear that I would never see my wife again. I knew
that an iron barrier separated us, and only a miracle could
it turned out, though, things worked out all right. After a year
and a half in jail, the Polish government signed an agreement with
the Russian government to the effect that Polish inmates would be
sent back to Poland. Since I was considered a Pole – after all,
my name was Hirsh Zeigarten – I was put on the list.
before I heard about this agreement, I had a dream. This was in
the early months of 5708. In my dream I saw myself standing in a
room with two other people. One man was tall, and I recognized him
as the Rebbe Rashab. The second was his son, the Rebbe Rayatz.
Suddenly, one of them got ready to leave the room. I shouted,
“Rebbe, you’re leaving me?!” The Rebbe looked at me and
said, “No, I am coming right back.”
came back right away, and when he entered the room, the room was
flooded with light. I called out, “Rebbe, help me!” And I woke
couldn’t stop thinking about the meaning of this dream, but it
was clear to me that this was a sign of imminent salvation.
Indeed, shortly thereafter, the authorities at the camp began
making lists of Polish prisoners, and I was among them.
day between Purim and Pesach 5708, there was an announcement that
Polish prisoners, myself including, had to pack their belongings
and go to the camp entrance, ready to leave. It still wasn’t
clear to me that this was the beginning of my release. On the
contrary, I thought they were transferring us to a worse camp.
I arrived at the entrance, a long line of prisoners was already
waiting, watched by armed guards. Standing there at the gate was
an officer with a list. His other hand held the prisoners’
personal files. When the officer read the name of a prisoner, the
prisoner had to step forward and give detailed information
regarding his name, his father’s name, his mother’s name, his
age, how long he had been imprisoned, and so on.
my turn came, I couldn’t remember all the details because of all
the lies I had said, so I began telling new lies, hoping Hashem
would have mercy on me. I figured this was the beginning of the
end. At this point, I was more frightened than ever. I stood there
and trembled in fear. Then a woman officer who was standing nearby
hissed at me angrily, saying, “What do you think you will gain
by that?” And she motioned to me to leave.
wandering briefly from one prison to another, the Russians put us
on the train heading for the Polish border. This was the second
time I was on a train on its way to the border, though this time I
had my official papers.
crossing the border, and stopping at the first train station, the
Polish soldiers opened the doors of the train and said, “Now you
found out that my wife and family were in Paris, and at the first
opportunity I sent them a telegram, saying that I, Berel Gurewitz,
had left Russia. Thank G-d, within a few days, I was reunited with