Must Have Been A Great Tzaddik”
By Menachem Ziegelboim
story describing the cold cruelty of the communist empire and reflecting
on the terrifying odds from which the Rebbe Rayatz was redeemed.
was an old kasket-wearing Jew by the name of Yisek [Yitzchok]
Faguskin, who would go every morning to the Kollel Tiferes Z’keinim in
the Chabad shul in Bnei Brak. Although he was over eighty he
didn’t need a cane, his mind was sharp, and he came to the Kollel in
order to learn a little Torah and to enjoy the Jewish atmosphere, which
he missed out on all those years in Russia.
knew that years before Yisek had been a senior judge in Stalinist
Russia. He decided the fate of thousands of citizens who were guilty of
crimes against communist law. Among these thousands of individuals were
Jews too, and even a few Chassidim. No, he doesn’t remember their
names since many years have passed since then, but he does clearly
recall their faces and demeanors.
following story took place four years ago on the 15th of Sivan, the
anniversary of the day the Rebbe Rayatz was arrested and taken to the
N.K.V.D. building where he endured great suffering as he himself
describes in his diaries. On that day, the head of the Kollel, Rabbi
Zushe Gross, related the story of the Rebbe’s arrest and liberation.
He described the “crimes” of which the Rebbe was accused, and
concluded with his release and redemption.
Faguskin listened to the story and smiled. “Yes,” he said, “I was
a senior judge in the communist system.” With that opening line, Rabbi
Gross and the other members of the Kollel learned about Yisek’s past
for the first time. “I am very familiar with how they operated. It
didn’t take much to get called before a judge and punished severely.
But if you think that we judges decided people’s fate, you are
mistaken. I will relate one story, one of many that I remember, which
will demonstrate how ‘justice’ was meted out in Russia.”
was a senior judge at the time Stalin was killed in 1953. As you know,
Stalin murdered millions of his citizens in order establish his position
and to “purify” Russia of the “decadents.”
his death, Khrushchev rose to power and the decision was made to
reexamine the files of tens and hundreds of thousands of citizens who
had been judged under Stalin’s rule. Some of these people were freed.
reviewed many of these files and decided each matter. One day I came
across the file of someone who had been sentenced twenty-five years
before. The file had been signed by an investigator who had since been
promoted and had achieved the rank of general in the Ministry of
Justice, the Yustitzia in the Ministry for Internal Affairs.
was this person? His name was Vladek, and he was a simple farmer who
lived on the banks of Lake Baikel in Siberia, in a small and peaceful
village. One day at the end of the 20’s, he and some friends decided
to open a fishing business in order to earn an honest livelihood. They
invested a lot of money, bought two motorboats, and began fishing in the
fish they caught were of superior quality because the lake was free of
poisons and dangerous chemicals. Within a short span of time, they were
extremely successful and established an artel (a cooperative).
government wasn’t happy with their accomplishment, and one morning
three trucks packed with soldiers arrived in the village. The soldiers
dispersed among the passersby and attacked them, and then forced them on
to the trucks and covered them with tarpaulins.
was among those who were caught and forced on to the truck and taken to
the G.P.U. for investigation. He spent days in a dark, damp cell without
being informed why he had been arrested. When he was finally taken to
his first interrogation, he was told that he was guilty of spying.
did you spy for?” asked the interrogator gravely.
didn’t spy,” answered Vladek innocently.
was instantly beaten by two soldiers who stood at his side. He underwent
many interrogations, but each time Vladek assumed some mistake had been
made and so he never admitted anything since he had nothing to confess.
one of his interrogations, Vladek was warned that he had 24 hours to
think over his decision, and if he did not confess to spying he would be
beaten to death.
lay in his cell and didn’t know what to do. He was famished,
desperately so. He was also nearly out of his mind with fatigue. In the
end he broke and decided to admit to spying, but he didn’t know what
to say about which country he had been spying for. Since he was an
ignoramus, and barely knew how to read and write, he wasn’t clever
enough to invent the information they wanted.
figured that if he would tell them he spied for Germany, they would ask
him what information he gave them, how he obtained it, and they might
even ask him to say a few words in German, which he didn’t know. He
didn’t know what he would answer to that, and then he would be guilty
of both lying and spying!
wracked his brains and suddenly he reminded himself of a scene from his
childhood, when his grandfather took him to hear the priest’s lecture.
He remembered that the priest had mentioned “Babylon” and Vladik
rejoiced and decided to say he spied for Babylon.
his next interrogation, Vladek admitted that he had spied. The
interrogator’s face lit up. “For which country?” he asked.
Babylon,” answered Vladek in his most sincere tone of voice.
interrogator was thrilled and quickly wrote down the information and had
Vladek sign it. Vladek received a bowl full of black kasha for his
trouble, a delicacy he hadn’t tasted in weeks. A few days later he was
sentenced to 25 years imprisonment, and on the appointed day he and the
other prisoners left by train for the labor camp.
25 years had passed and Stalin died, and I was given his file. I looked
into the matter and was surprised to learn that this man had admitted to
spying for a country that existed thousands of years ago.
order to properly investigate the matter, I found out that the
interrogator who had extracted the confession had been promoted to the
rank of colonel in the Ministry of Justice in Moscow. I called the
department he worked in and asked to speak to him.
those days there were hardly any phones, and it took hours until the man
was located and we were connected. I reminded him of the case which had
taken place at the end of the 20’s and he remembered it.
could this man have spied for Babylon?” I asked him, without
concealing my surprise. “After all, Babylon was a nation of ancient
was a long moment of silence on the other end, and then he said, “Yes,
I remember it well, but what could I do after receiving a direct order
from Mayazhov to fill a certain quota of prisoners? In order to fill the
quota, we didn’t care who was guilty and why. We took whoever was
available and sent them to Siberia in the best cases, and in the worst
cases we sent them to the next world.”
he admitted to this, I ordered that Vladek be freed and even be given a
token compensation. Broken by his years in the labor camp, all Vladek
wanted was to return to his village on the banks of Lake Baikel, and to
see his friends, his beloved lake and boats. When he arrived back in the
village he discovered that nothing was left of the place, and he was the
sole survivor of all his friends.
is a story which I was personally involved in,” concluded Yisek,
“and when I hear the story of the great Rabbi who was imprisoned, I am
amazed. I am astounded about how he was freed when his ‘crimes’ were
so serious. He must have been a great tzaddik...”