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Left Behind in Russia
By Menachem Ziegelbaum

They 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.

In 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 home.

The 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.

Certain 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.

A 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.

This 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.

Much 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.

Those 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 hundreds.

About 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.

* * *

R’ Dovid Chein: 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.

By 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 border.

At 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.

As 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.

After 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 night.

There 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 utterly exhausted.

It 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.

The 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 was great.

Our 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.

Despite 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.

R’ Berel Gurewitz: 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.

R’ Dovid Chein: 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.

R’ Berel Gurewitz: 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.

At 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.

I 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 family.

R’ 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.

On 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.

R’ Dovid Chein: 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.

The 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.

R’ 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.

I 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.

R’ Dovid Chein: 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?

After 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 here!”

I 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.

R’ Berel Gurewitz: I felt as though I was being forever separated from my wife.

R’ Dovid Chein: 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.

All 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.

It 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.

Together 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.

We 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.

This 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.”

Oy, 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 cried.

R’ Berel Gurewitz: Afterwards they told me that she fasted for my salvation for forty days…

They 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.

Afterwards, 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.

Amidst 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 questions.

I 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.

I 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.

One 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.

Years 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.”

It 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.

My 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.

Throughout 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?

I continued to fear that I would never see my wife again. I knew that an iron barrier separated us, and only a miracle could reunite us.

As 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.

Shortly 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.”

He 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 up.

I 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.

One 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.

When 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.

When 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.

After 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.

After crossing the border, and stopping at the first train station, the Polish soldiers opened the doors of the train and said, “Now you are free.”

I 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 my wife.

R’ Berel Gurewitz: When I was caught, I was afraid I would be found guilty of two crimes, running away from the army and running away from the N.K.V.D. The background of the latter crime is as follows:

It was a few weeks before the war. One day, as I walked down a street in Moscow, a stranger came over to me and ordered me to get into his car. As he spoke, he pulled out papers identifying him as an agent of the local N.K.V.D.

After a short drive we arrived at a large building. I recognized it as the headquarters of the N.K.V.D. I was held there for a few days for interrogation. They wanted me to reveal where underground yeshivos were, and where a certain bachur and a certain child were. They focused mainly on discovering the whereabouts of Moshe and Shalom Levertov, the children of Rabbi Dov Ber Levertov (Kabilaker).

They figured I knew there whereabouts as Levertov and I were related. Since the boys were not at home, they assumed they had traveled to an underground yeshiva. I told them that I knew nothing. After questioning and interrogation, they told me that they had decided to release me on the condition that from then on I spy for them at the shul and at farbrengens. They didn’t even ask me my opinion in the matter!

I was very worried. Based on their interrogation, I realized that they had a lot of information about the Chabad community, down to the smallest details. I figured that if I fled Moscow, I would just intensify the danger for them. I decided not to flee Moscow, while at the same time I would not let anyone know about the new assignment given to me. I had decided I wouldn’t say anything anyway.

In the end, I realized that Anash did not know how much was known about them, and that I had to warn them. I told R’ Berel Levertov about this and he consulted with the leaders of Anash.

One day, the heads of Anash called me and ordered me to leave the city. Although this went against my position and understanding, I accepted their opinion and went to Zhlobin, my hometown, where I stayed with my aunt. It didn’t take long before I heard that a bachur had arrived in Zhlobin in the service of the N.K.V.D. who began asking where I was. I realized I was in great danger, and I fled to Bobruisk. A few weeks later World War II began, great confusion ensued, and I was saved, thank G-d.


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.


R’ Berel Gurewitz of France


Dovid Chein of Kfar Chabad




“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.”







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