The Valley Of Tears
to “Left Behind in Russia” (issue 264)
By Menachem Ziegelboim
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.
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.
the Last One
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
the N.K.V.D. Uniform
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
this period, the escape committee didn’t sit idly. They
organized counterfeit Polish documents and distributed them to 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.
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.
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.
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
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
the Last Minute
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.
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.
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.
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…
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
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.”
for the Rebbe
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.’
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.”
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
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.
Yona twice had asked me to remember him, as though he knew…”
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.
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!”
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.
Prayer from Far and Near
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
next day, the postman brought a telegram saying that Anash had
successfully crossed the border and had arrived in Pshemishel in
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
on the accounts described in the books, Zichronosai, Reb
Mendel, Yahadus HaDemama, as well as personal interviews.)