"People Will Wish That Their Children Will Be Like Yours"
By Shneur Zalman Berger

This is what the Rebbe MH"M told R’ Eliyahu Bisk thirty years ago * The inspiring first person account of a Jew who held on to his Yiddishkeit in Soviet Russia * Part 1 of 2

5697 (1937): The mighty Stalin ruled the Soviet empire mercilessly. All schoolchildren had to belong to the Pioneers, the communist youth movement. They wore red ties and their shirts bore the symbol of the movement. All belonged to the Pioneers, that is, except one – Eliyahu Bisk.

When Eliyahu was nine years old, his friend caught him learning his daily session with his father. The student, who was Jewish, felt it was morally imperative to report this to their teacher.

At the beginning of the next class she had all the students line up, and screaming towards little Bisk, she emphasized that it was forbidden to study religion. Then she approached Eliyahu and ripped off his red tie, saying, "You don’t deserve to be a member of the Pioneers."

"The shame and fear was tremendous," says Eliyahu Bisk today, "but in my heart I rejoiced that I no longer belonged to the Pioneers and to Communism, not even in a symbolic way."


I was born in 5688 (1928) in Yanov, in the Venezia area of the Ukraine. Until the age of five I knew no language other than Yiddish. My father was a talmid chacham. For over ten years he studied in the famous yeshiva in Kishinev until he was drafted into the Czar’s army. He was given ordination for rabbanus by the roshei yeshiva and was considered the rav of our community.

When I was a little boy, my parents moved to the suburbs of Moscow due to the great hunger prevailing in the Ukraine of the ‘30’s. It was a neighborhood of shacks on the edge of the city, which had previously been inhabited by gypsies and now was populated by Jews. The Communist education planted such a strong hatred for religion in everyone’s heart that even our Jewish neighbors conspired against us. They called me and my brother names and referred to us as "rabbanim’lech," but we remained silent in the face of this anti-Semitism that came from our fellow Jews.

On Shabbos, my brother and I accompanied our father on a two-hour walk to shul. We left at six in the morning and arrived at shul only after eight o’clock. At a later point, my father rented an apartment near where we lived and we had a small minyan there, composed mainly of elderly Jews.

The Communists primarily targeted the youth, so my father added ten years to his real age in his passport. For this reason, my father didn’t fear closing his fabric store on Shabbos, and never removed his beard! My father was a Machnovke Chassid. At that time, the Machnovke Rebbe, zt’l, lived in Moscow, and many Jews went to him for advice or a bracha. When I became bar mitzva, the Machnovke Rebbe placed the t’fillin on me and I received his bracha. After the Second World War he was arrested and exiled, and I remember that when he returned from exile, we visited him in his home. He stayed in Moscow a long time until he received permission to emigrate to Eretz Yisroel.


In contrast to most Russian Jews, my father never hid the fact that he was religious, and proudly observed mitzvos. For Sukkos, we removed part of the roof of the house to make a sukka. We didn’t have the four minim, so we walked three hours each way to the central shul.

We baked matzos for Pesach together with other Jewish families. Once we baked at my wife’s uncle’s house, R’ Yitzchok Volfovitz, and once with R’ Aharon Chazan.

Unfortunately I had to attend the government school, but I tried not to go on Shabbos. Each week I dreamed up another excuse to explain my absence. When I was little I would say that I had been sick. When I grew a bit older, I explained that my mother was sick and needed my help. Every such excuse needed a proper doctor’s note, which we got from a Jewish woman doctor, a real angel.

When the government began insisting that students attend school, and was especially determined that the Jewish students attend on Shabbos, I walked, of course, and offered various excuses why I couldn’t write.

At home, I studied Chumash and Mishnayos with my father every day. People generally did not keep these s’farim at home. But my father, who did not hide the fact that he was observant, was not afraid to have these s’farim.


In the summer of 5701 (1941), World War II reached us. When the German army advanced in the direction of Moscow, we had a difficult decision to make. My parents were worried about us, but the obstacle to fleeing was that my father worked in the civil defense of Moscow and could not leave the city.

After much deliberation, my parents decided that my brother and I would go along with my mother to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. This city served as a haven for refugees fleeing the scene of battle. The decision for my father to remain alone in a dangerous area was difficult, but we had no other choice.

In normal times, the trip by train from Moscow to Tashkent took three days, but we traveled three or four days and we still hadn’t arrived. We were told that due to the war, there was traffic of military trains that had the right of way. It took us ten days to finally reach Tashkent!

We began looking for Jews who could help us settle down in the strange city. After a long while, a local gentile approached us and asked us what we were doing there. When we told him we had no place to sleep, he suggested we stay with him until we’d find Jews to help us.

Two days later we found Jewish families who helped us tremendously. I’d like to mention the family of R’ Mordechai Sirota, a’h, R’ Nachum Labkovsky, a’h, and others, who made sure we didn’t starve to death at a time when many people did just that.

We lived in Tashkent for two years. My mother dealt in various necessary haberdashery items that were hard to obtain, such as needles and thread, material, etc. She bought from one place and sold to another. Every so often we received letters from my father, and sometimes money, which helped prevent us from starving. Even when there was money, it was necessary to expend great effort to obtain bread, as the lines in front of the stores that sold bread were very, very long.

My brother and I davened with a minyan in an apartment in the yard of Mordechai Sirota’s house. During the war there was barely any problem with mitzva observance, so we could daven and learn without being disturbed.

After this two-year separation from my father, my mother decided to return. The war had turned in favor of Russia, so we weren’t afraid to go back. The trains traveled faster than they had at the beginning of the war, and our family reunited.


The Pioneers is the Communist youth organization for the first grade students, while an older child joins the Comsomol. When they wanted me to join, I refused. I came up with an original excuse, which strangely enough was accepted. "My hobby is watching soccer. If there’s an important game during school hours, I go watch the game. When the teachers ask me where I was, I lie and say I was sick, because it isn’t pleasant telling the truth. Since, in my opinion, one has to lie sometimes, I don’t think I deserve to belong to a movement which believes its members ought to speak only the truth."

Upon graduating school, I debated over whether to enlist or continue my studies. Both choices had their challenges. In the army it was difficult to keep kosher and keep Shabbos, as opposed to the university, where that was easy to do. On the other hand, the atmosphere at the university could lead me astray.

I thought about this for days until I decided to stay at the university. I kept quiet in class and did not stand out as a Jew so they wouldn’t pay attention to me. Naturally I did my best not to show up on Shabbos, or at least not to write on Shabbos, but unfortunately I wasn’t always successful.

Upon graduating university, I got a job in a firm that manufactured electrical transformers, in the main laboratory doing experimental research in electronics. I was appointed manager over a group of workers who did research, which included three engineers, four technicians and two workers.

During the week, I tried to work overtime, even nights, in order not to have to work on Shabbos. I always said I wanted two days off – Saturday and Sunday (Sunday is a day off anyway).

Once in a long while I had to show up for work on Shabbos, but then too, I tried not to desecrate the Shabbos, although this was exceedingly difficult. I would sit in the office and the engineers and members of the group would bring me the results of the research they had finished so that I could approve the work. I pushed it all off and did nothing on Shabbos.


We always had the feeling that even though the KGB did not interrogate us, they knew everything about us. For this reason we hid activities we did not want them to know about. We finally discovered, by Divine providence, that the KGB was definitely watching us.

It was a Shabbos like any other. Before the davening, a Jew who was not one of the regulars approached my father and asked him to step outside because he wanted to tell him something. In a trembling voice, the Jew whispered to my father, "I was sent here in order to report whatever I see and hear. I beg you not to talk about things that shouldn’t be heard." He asked that this remain their secret.

It turned out that the minyan, which was comprised of seniors, did not interest the secret police. They wanted to know who organized the minyan. My father, who organized the minyan, was not afraid; he did not hide the fact that he was religious.


My father-in-law was the Chassid R’ Yisroel Konson, a’h, from Moscow. Since he was a former prisoner, he was forbidden to live in Moscow, but he continued living there under his wife’s name, Labkovsky, while officially he had moved to live in Riga, Latvia.

R’ Yisroel was arrested for hiding R’ Mordechai Dubin in his home. Just before Pesach, R’ Mordechai asked to hide in my father-in-law’s house for Yom Tov. Having no other choice, my father-in-law agreed, and when the KGB found out, he was sent to Siberia for three years.

My shadchan was my wife’s uncle, R’ Yitzchok Volfovitz. Our wedding took place in Riga and I remember that a photographer had been invited, but my father-in-law was adamantly opposed to taking pictures because they could fall into the wrong hands.

My father was the mesader kiddushin. We had few guests, and they were all members of Anash, including Rabbi Yisroel Pewzner, Rabbi Mordechai Prus and his sons, R’ Zushe and R’ Berel, Rabbi Mordechai Aharon Friedman, a’h, and Rabbi Nosson Nota Berkahn, who is currently a shaliach and chief rabbi of Latvia.

Despite the relatively small crowd, it was a lively wedding. It was at my wedding that I learned what a kuleh (summersault) is. R’ Nosske Berkahn told me it was customary to honor the chassan with a kuleh. My reaction let him know I had no idea what this was all about, so he suggested that he make a kuleh and that I follow, which is what we did.

After the wedding we lived in my parents’ home at first and then with my in-laws, who were Lubavitcher Chassidim. That is how I became involved with Chabad.

My father-in-law convinced me to join the farbrengens, which took place each time in a different location to thwart spies. The farbrengens were generally Melaveh Malkas. My father-in-law said that it was worth having the children participate even if they had to travel two hours each way, and even if they fell asleep, the main thing being that they see a Chassidishe farbrengen.

The farbrengens took place in the homes of Rabbi Naftali Kravitzky, a’h, Rabbi Yehuda Kulasher (Butrashvili), a’h, Rabbi Shneur Pinsky, and sometimes at the home of my wife’s uncle, R’ Yitzchok Volfovitz. Only Anash attended these farbrengens, those who knew each other well. They couldn’t risk inviting outsiders.

At these Melaveh Malka farbrengens we always made a l’chaim that we get out of that cruel Galus. The elder Chassidim were the main speakers. Rabbi Yehuda Kulasher began the farbrengens by reading a sicha of the Rebbe MH"M. He got them from "tourists" who visited from time to time. These were none other than the Rebbe’s emissaries who arrived in Soviet Russia in the guise of tourists. I never met them, but my father-in-law once met a tourist when he went to immerse in the mikva at the central shul. He asked my father-in-law why he didn’t leave the Soviet Union and my father-in-law answered that they did not allow him to leave. The tourist disappeared, but my father-in-law met him years later in 770.

(Click here to continue.)


"The shame and fear was tremendous," says Eliyahu Bisk today, "but in my heart I rejoiced that I no longer belonged to the Pioneers and to Communism, not even in a symbolic way."

R’ Eliyahu Bisk receiving a dollar for tzedaka from the Rebbe on 9 Nissan, 5751



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