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Crossing The Valley Of Tears
Epilogue to “Left Behind in Russia” (issue 264)
By Menachem Ziegelboim

There were three crucial eshelons (trains) leaving that cold Russian winter of 5707. The first one left on Chag HaGeula, Tes Kislev; the second one left ten days later on Chag HaGeula, Yud-Tes Kislev. Divine providence granted the redemption of these Chassidim on the very days of redemption of years gone by.

Much has been written about that period, which was fraught with mesirus nefesh, when Chassidim fled the clutches of the communists. The following anecdotes illustrate the great tension and fear accompanying the perilous operation. In common to these stories is the strength of the Chassidic spirit and the hashgacha pratis that accompanied them every step of the way.

Until the Last One

Reb Dovid Chein of Kfar Chabad: “One of the heads of the committee directing our escape was the Chassid and Tamim, Reb Yona Cohen (may Hashem avenge his blood). Reb Yona’s mesirus nefesh was unparalleled. He was an incredible Chassid.

“Before leaving Russia, the Rebbe Rayatz appointed Reb Yona Cohen as the one responsible for the entire network of Tomchei Tmimim yeshivos throughout Russia. This was an extremely dangerous task that required organizational skills, much knowledge, alacrity, secrecy, and above all, exceptional wits. Reb Yona took on this assignment along with Reb Mendel Futerfas. The two of them devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the yeshivos, both b’gashmiyus and b’ruchniyus.

“In 5706, when hundreds of Lubavitchers and Tmimim arrived in Lvov/Lemberg, Reb Mendel and Reb Yona were in charge of the whole operation. They had already proven their rare abilities. Reb Mendel, in his capacity, was one of the few individuals who really knew what was going on behind the scenes.

“One day, Reb Mendel turned to his friend, Reb Yona, and told him that he had included him on one of the eshelons that would be leaving shortly. This opportunity would save his life, for the N.K.V.D. knew of his “crimes against the state” and were feverishly searching for him. Reb Yona agreed and was about to leave, when he suddenly changed his mind and returned. Reb Yona explained that the Rebbe had appointed him in charge of Tomchei Tmimim, and that his first responsibility was to any Tamim still left in Russia. ‘Only when the last Tmimim leave Russia will I be able to board the train,’ he explained.

“All Reb Mendel’s pleading was in vain. The eshelon left and arrived safely on the other side, while Reb Yona remained behind. He heard about the eshelon’s safe arrival and rejoiced, while he remained a loyal soldier at his post.”

In the N.K.V.D. Uniform

Long, stressful days were endured by hundreds of Chassidic families who had arrived in Lvov/Lemberg in order to leave Russia. The situation was murky for weeks, because they didn’t know if they would actually be able to leave or if the government had caught on to their plan. In the meantime, the Chassidim waited, hiding in apartments throughout the city. In their great fear they hardly ever emerged.

During this period, the escape committee didn’t sit idly. They organized counterfeit Polish documents and distributed them to the Chassidic families.

The following episode involving the committee, one of thousands that occurred regularly to members of Anash, illustrates the fear the committee endured daily in the course of their dangerous mission.

* * *

Reb Dovid Kook had been arrested by the authorities, and in exchange for a bribe he managed to escape from jail in the middle of the night wearing an N.K.V.D. uniform. One of the few individuals who knew where their center of operations was located, Reb Dovid went directly to the secret apartment. He went there to get their help, since he had been in jail for a few days and did not know what was happening with the group.

At the very same time he arrived at the house, a secret meeting had gathered of all the members of the committee, headed by Reb Mendel Futerfas. Some of the members were Reb Leibel Mochkin, Reb Moshe Chayim Dubrawski, Reb Yona Cohen, and Mummeh Sara.

Reb Dovid knocked on the door without identifying himself. Those at the meeting were terrified by the sudden knocks in the middle of the night. Nobody went to the door. Reb Dovid waited a few minutes. He then knocked on the window, hoping somebody would respond.

Reb Dovid didn’t notice a narrow crack opening in a nearby room and a pair of eyes peering out to see who was knocking. When they realized it was someone in an N.K.V.D. uniform, the fear of death fell upon them. After a few minutes, Reb Dovid knocked on the window again and said, “Da iz Dovid” (It’s Dovid). The committee breathed a sigh of relief, and Reb Mendel opened the door and gave Reb Dovid a well-deserved slap for frightening them so much.

At the Last Minute

Reb Berel Prus of Kfar Chabad: “I was in the home of Reb Yona Cohen a few hours after hearing that the secret police were urgently looking for him and that they had caught some Chassidim.

“When the emissary reported that they were searching for Reb Yona, I thought Reb Yona would jump out the window and run for his life, but he didn’t hurry to leave the house. It was morning, and, as if he had heard nothing, he continued to prepare for Shacharis. I urged him to flee before it would be too late, but he simply said, ‘As long as I am here, the house is safe,’ and he peacefully continued to prepare for Shacharis.

“He davened slowly as though he were sitting in a quiet, peaceful Beis Midrash, pronouncing each word clearly with chayus and feeling. Only when he finished davening and folded his tallis and tefillin did he leave the house. A few minutes later, the soldiers arrived and searched thoroughly for him.

“While they looked in every nook and cranny of the house, there was knock at the door. I opened the door and saw Mrs. Levertov (the mother of Reb Moshe Levertov), who had been sent by the committee to hand over a large sum of money, which she hid in her clothes. She was in grave danger, and my heart skipped a beat when I saw her…

“The N.K.V.D. officer in the house asked me who she was. I said she was a beggar asking for money. In those days after the war, beggars were very common. In his anger at being disturbed in his work, the officer slammed the door in her face. Not hesitating for a moment, she made quick her escape. Despite her advanced age, she ran downstairs and bribed a driver parked below to quickly drive her away.

“When the fact that I had fooled him registered with the officer, it was too late. He had seen her wearing a coat with fur trim, not a garment usually worn by beggars. He rushed to the window. By the time he got it open he could see her get into the car and drive off. The officer pulled out his pistol and shot in their direction, but he was too late.”

Yearning for the Rebbe

Reb Yisroel Levin of Kfar Chabad: “We presented our desire to emigrate to the Ovir office in Samarkand in the middle of winter 5706. Naturally, our papers had our false Polish names on them.

“One night after midnight, some people knocked at our door. I figured some of them were N.K.V.D. agents dressed as civilians. We had no choice but to open the door to our uninvited guests, while our hearts beat rapidly.

“Upon entering our home, they began interrogating us. Were we the ones who had presented a request to emigrate? Why did we want to leave Russia? and other related questions. We answered them, but in our hearts we were sure that our dream of leaving Russia had come to an end. We assumed that after they finished questioning us they would take us to jail, from where the road to Siberia was short indeed.

“When they finished the questioning, they left. It was quite surprising. I have no idea why they came. When our friends heard the story, they warned us not to dare leave Russia on the eshelon with a counterfeit Polish passport. ‘They know everything about you,’ they said, ‘and you would be endangering your life for nothing.’ They suggested we drop our emigration request, but I said that even if there was only half a percent chance that we would be able to leave Russia and see the Rebbe, I was prepared to risk it. The Chassid Reb Michoel Teitelbaum was with me. He also planned to leave that way.

“On Shabbos Chanuka 5706, many Chassidim came to our house to farbreng. Among them were Rabbi Nachum Sassonkin, Rabbi Berke Chein, and other great Chassidim. The topic of emigration came up, of course, and everyone protested our endangering ourselves by attempting to leave.

“Reb Michoel cried as he responded to them, ‘Baruch Hashem, you have it good b’gashmiyus and sweet b’ruchniyus, so you are willing to stay here; Yisroel and I, however, have it hard b’gashmiyus and bitter b’ruchniyus. We will do our best, and may Hashem help us succeed.’

“Before we left, Reb Yona Cohen came to my house and said, ‘Nu, you’re going. May Hashem help you in every way. Remember me.’ A few simple words from the heart. Before he left, he embraced me and blessed me again, ‘Be successful and remember me.’ His words were like cool water for my weary soul.”

Reb Dovid Chein: “Despite Reb Mendel’s pleading, Reb Yona refused to board the train. He went back in order to continue directing the Tomchei Tmimim network of yeshivos with the few remaining Tmimim. He continued doing this work until one day the secret police caught up with him and arrested him. He never returned home.”

Reb Yisroel Levin: “After a while, when I merited to have a yechidus with the Rebbe for the first time, I mentioned Reb Yona in a note and wrote “ha’kadosh” (the martyred one) next to his name. The Rebbe instructed me to observe his yahrtzeit, to say Kaddish, and to learn Mishnayos on his yahrtzeit.

“Reb Yona twice had asked me to remember him, as though he knew…”

Reasonable explanation

After many preparations and endless anxiety, the eshelons were on their way to the Russian border and to Lemberg. Every passenger on the train received a new Polish identity; a first and last name, a “father,” “mother,” “wife” and new “children.” They all got the names and new details at the last minute, right before boarding the train, and they had to familiarize themselves with their new identities so they wouldn’t be caught in error.

Reb Yechezkel Brod: “The fear was tremendous. Sneaking across the border was one of the most reprehensible crimes in Russia, and you could pay for it with your life. I had barely learned my new identity. In retrospect, the whole thing was miraculous. There we were, a huge train of “Poles,” without a single genuine Pole aboard. Yet we were successful!”

Actually, there was one mishap. During inspection, a soldier read the Polish name belonging to Reb Yisroel Noach Blinitzky, a’h, but Reb Yisroel Noach was so nervous that he forgot his Polish name. He kept quiet. When the border guard angrily asked him why he didn’t answer, one of Anash quickly explained by making a circling motion with his finger near his head indicating that the man wasn’t normal. The soldier accepted that.

A Prayer from Far and Near

Right after inspection, the train continued on its way. Those were the most dramatic moments of all, when the slightest movement, an unintentional move of the head, or the cry of an infant, could ruin everything.

“You have no idea what good friendship and love the Rebbe has for you, those of you who managed to escape from the valley of tears,” the Rebbe MH”M said. This was at a small farbrengen in Paris in 5707, two months after their escape. “I will tell you a story that happened this year, and then you will understand what I mean.”

“As is known, the Rebbe [Rayatz] suffers from paralysis in his legs, and he is given injections for this paralysis. A nurse comes every day at a certain time in order to give him the injection. After she knocks on the door, she listens for the Rebbe’s ‘yes,’ and then enters.

“One day in Kislev of this year, the nurse came with her bag and knocked on the door, but nobody responded. She knocked again. Not hearing a reply, she turned the knob, opened the door and entered the room. She saw the Rebbe sitting at the table, but he did not turn to look at her, nor did he respond to what she said. Moving a little closer, she noticed that the Rebbe’s eyes were closed and his face was aflame. She had never seen an expression like that before.

“She rushed to the Rebbetzin’s room and described the frightening sight. The Rebbetzin went to the room and called to the Rebbe, but he did not react.

“The Rebbetzin immediately called two talmidim of the yeshiva and asked them to run and call me. I was on my way home at the time, and when I heard what was going on, I quickly returned and went up to the second floor to the Rebbe’s apartment. When I entered the room, I went right over to him, leaned over and heard him saying the tefilla of “Az Yashir” with great dveikus. I motioned to everyone that everything was all right, and that there was nothing to be worried about. I indicated that they should leave the room.

“After the Rebbe finished Shiras HaYam, he began saying it again. On closer inspection I noticed that his feet moved ever so slightly as he recited the verses. This scene repeated itself a number of times.

“When he finished saying the Shira, he remained sitting there and emitted a sigh of satisfaction. He opened his eyes and whispered, ‘Boruch Hashem, boruch Hashem, s’iz durchgegangen’ (Thank G-d, it got through).

“The next day, the postman brought a telegram saying that Anash had successfully crossed the border and had arrived in Pshemishel in Poland.”

The Rebbe finished his story and told the refugee Chassidim from Russia the following, “After hearing this, do you still need someone to serve as your liaison with the Rebbe? What he needs to know, he knows, and he does everything on behalf of us all.”

“While the Rebbe was davening for us at a distance,” Reb Yechezkel Brod relates, “we were on the train heading for the border. There was no going back.”

“And at precisely the same time, the Chassid Reb Yisroel Neveler had been standing on one of the seats, saying the Tfillas HaDerech aloud with great emotion, and we said it after him.

“Nowadays, I wish that at great moments, such as “Kol Nidrei,” and the like, I would be able to daven with the same feeling and dveikus that we had at that time. Tears streamed from our eyes.”

(Based on the accounts described in the books, Zichronosai, Reb Mendel, Yahadus HaDemama, as well as personal interviews.)



Reb Mendel Futerfas

Reb Yisroel Neveler




“You have no idea what good friendship and love the Rebbe has for you, those of you who managed to escape from the valley of tears,” the Rebbe MH”M said.




A pair of eyes peered out to see who was knocking. When they realized it was someone in an N.K.V.D. uniform, the fear of death fell upon them...




Even if there was only half a percent chance that we would be able to leave Russia and see the Rebbe, I was prepared to risk it.


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