Fighting Against The Soviets, Doing Time In Spalerka
By Shneur Zalman Berger

Shimon Asch, a refusenik who fought to preserve his Jewish spark, tells Beis Moshiach about the years in which he made his way towards Judaism while an entire team of Soviet officials fought him. In the course of his struggles, he was "privileged" to sit in the same jail the Rebbe Rayatz had been incarcerated in. Here is the story of his personal Chag Ha’Geula.

Not too many people know that the Chassid Shimon Asch - with the sweet smile, who comes to shul every day in Kfar Chabad, davens and listens to shiurim along with everyone else - is a Chassid whose merits included a stubborn war against the KGB. His stories are reminiscent of the stories of the Rebbe Rayatz, and probably, as a loyal Chassid, he internalized those principles of emuna and iron strength which the Rebbeim bequeathed to every single Chassid.

The week of Chag HaGeula - 12-13 Tammuz, is an appropriate time to relate the remarkable story of the courageous Chassid who fought against forces mightier than he - and won!


Shimon Asch was born in Leningrad. His father, Zinovi (Zalman Yosef) was an ardent communist who devoted many years to the Red Army and achieved the rank of colonel. The family constantly moved from place to place within the vastness of Russia, as the army ordered them to do. When his father was sent to the Far East, his parents left Simion (as he was known at the time) with his grandparents.

Shimon doesn’t remember much about those days. His grandparents, who knew what Judaism had been like in the good old days, spoke Yiddish amongst themselves but refused to have their grandson learn the language. Every so often, his grandfather would open an old book and look at it. Aside from that, Simion knew nothing about his Judaism.

He actually discovered his identity in school when his classmates called him Zhid and other derogatory names. He understood that he was a Jew and therefore different than the rest, but when he asked his parents about it they didn’t respond.

Shimon married Nina, a Jewish girl ("I felt I had to marry someone of my nationality, despite the fact that I didn’t know exactly why") and began working as an engineer in a factory that manufactured welding machines. His wife worked as an architect.

One day a colleague offered them the Book of Exodus and told them they would find it interesting. "It was dangerous to have the book in the house," recalls Nina-Nechama Asch, as she relates the story in her home in Kfar Chabad. "But the book was so fascinating we couldn’t leave it. We sat up all night finishing it. The next day we got up with the strong feeling that we had to drop everything and run to Eretz Yisroel."

From that point on, the spark of Eretz Yisroel and Judaism began to shine in their hearts, and the flame never went out. A short time afterwards, they received post cards from relatives in Eretz Yisroel. The scenery enthralled them, but it wasn’t just scenery - it was Eretz Yisroel! They began to feel a strong soul connection to the land of their fathers, and knew that that was the place where they wanted to be. They began joining underground groups organized by young Jews.


In 5739 (1979), the Russian government allowed many Jews to leave the country. The Asch family submitted a request to leave, but it was too late. The Iron Curtain, which had opened briefly, was pulled tightly closed again, and whoever asked permission to leave was refused. They were dismissed from work and were thenceforth known as refuseniks.

The refuseniks would join together in groups to study Judaism together and try to break through the iron wall. To join one of these groups was considered a sort of declaration of war against the authorities. Shimon relates: "Since I was unemployed, I helped Jews emigrate to Eretz Yisroel through various means. This involved a great deal of effort and tremendous danger. I earned my living this way for a while, but after the Iron Curtain was completely closed, the number of emigrants dwindled, so I hardly had any work. I began to get involved in organizing groups and lectures on Jewish topics, which took place in various homes."

It wasn’t easy initiating and organizing underground classes. These classes were under constant surveillance. One of the ways they had of protecting themselves against this was to announce the place and time of the next meeting at the last minute, and even then it was said in code. Somehow though, the KGB always found out about it and showed up to try to prevent the event from happening.

What means did the KGB have at their disposal?

"They would stand in ambush in nearby streets and begin conducting inspections of papers in order to frighten those who might come. Sometimes they barred entry into the building, and on occasion they would even enter the place where the group met to arrest the participants. These KGB operations generally ended with the KGB officials writing down information about those who had been present and then releasing them shortly thereafter, though not before warning them never to dare join any of these groups again. All these methods were designed to frighten us."

Despite all the danger, Shimon and his friends were not intimidated, and they continued having classes. It was an ongoing war between the Jewish youth and the KGB to see who would break first, and the KGB played dirty.

For example?

"There was supposed to be a class at the home of one of the guys who lived in a little village twenty kilometers from Leningrad. About fifty of us arrived at the train station, in small groups, of course, so as not to stand out. To our great surprise, we discovered that just a short time before we arrived all trains had ceased running in the direction we were going.

"It didn’t take long for us to find out that this was the doing of the KGB to prevent us from attending the class! We didn’t expect a ploy of this kind, for after all, it effected thousands of innocent travelers, who couldn’t get home just because a handful of Jews wanted to study their religion!"

From where did you derive the strength to fight the KGB?

"We refuseniks had nothing to fear, since we were already on the KGB blacklist. Those who were not yet refusniks had what to fear, for they risked being thrown out of university, fired from their jobs, or worse..."

Weren’t you afraid of informers?

"We knew there were informers among us, so we took as many precautions as possible. (Laughing) They tried enlisting me as an informer too, but didn’t succeed.

"One day they called me from KGB headquarters and asked to meet with me. It was a secret meeting, and took place in an unmarked car that was parked on a side street. The person I met with tried to entice me with a high salary and other perks that were quite attractive. Aware of the fact that he knew everything about me, I tried to get him to tell me why my exit request had been refused, but he volunteered no information about that.

"He called me a few days later, certain that I would accept the offer, but my response was unequivocal: "nothing doing." He was angry at me, as though I had misled him. They never came back to me again."


The atmosphere among the refuseniks was very special. They were very close-knit and knew that only unity would sustain them in their war against the authorities, a war which any ordinary citizen would be afraid to wage. Shimon personally exhibited unusual bravery, as can be seen from the story he tells:

"It was 5741, and together with my wife, I arrived at a building where a lecture on Judaism was supposed to take place. I noticed a number of people around the building who looked like secret police, yet I continued on my way. I tried to enter the building but discovered that it was locked. Since I didn’t know the number of the apartment, I asked a KGB officer who was standing guard at the door which apartment the lecture would take place in.

"He looked at me in shock, while I continued talking. ‘You know why I came here, so tell me which apartment I need to get to!’

"Just then a neighbor appeared with a key. I took the opportunity to walk in with her, and went up in the elevator. Upon leaving the elevator, I saw policemen standing in the stairwell, waiting for us. When they saw that I wanted to enter the apartment they blocked my way.

"I wasn’t afraid. I just rang the bell. The host who thought it was the police again, began to yell at them to leave. When he noticed through the peephole that it was me who was standing there, he quickly opened the door. One of the policemen tried to block my entrance again, but I pushed him aside and we went in.

"A week later we participated in a class on the laws of Shabbos in the apartment of Rabbi Tzvi Wasserman (who organized many Torah classes, including Tanya). His apartment was full of young people who thirsted to hear the word of G-d. About eighty people crowded into the apartment and the door remained ajar because of the crowding.

"Suddenly, a bunch of policemen burst into the apartment, some of them in uniform and others in plainclothes. In a rough manner, they led all of us out and instructed us to follow them to the police station.

"On the way to the station, I felt that my blood pressure was high. I felt that this time things wouldn’t end out right this time. I told the policemen I couldn’t go on because I didn’t feel well, but they ignored me. I just lay down on the sidewalk, making it clear to them that I was ill.

"Having no other choice, the policemen picked me up and carried me. We got to the station where they wrote down the information about all the participants at the class, and after warning us to cease our anti-government activities, they released everybody except for me.

"My wife began to cry that I was sick and they had to call a doctor to see me. They had no choice but to call a doctor who examined me and said I had to be hospitalized. That’s how I was saved.

"I realized that after these two incidents, they would look for an opportune time to take revenge. Actually, they didn’t even wait for an excuse. A few days later, as I was innocently walking down the street, I sensed someone coming after me. The man presented himself as a policeman and asked for my papers. Then he took me to a nearby police station, and from there we went directly to the courthouse. There was no arrest, no investigation, and no written accusation. Just a court case.

"At the beginning of the court case the accusation was read aloud: ‘Participation in a Jewish group, disturbing the neighbors, and crowding eighty people into one room.’ I asked the judge, ‘Was I the eightieth person to enter the room? Why are you throwing these ridiculous accusations at me?’

"I knew that this was a kangaroo court, which was held for the purpose of taking revenge on me for embarrassing the KGB and the police. The case was over after only a few minutes, and my sentence was fifteen days in Spalerka.

"Shortly thereafter I was brought to the second floor of the infamous jail known as Spalerka, which I later learned was where the Rebbe Rayatz had been incarcerated. The conditions there were difficult. In a cell designed for one prisoner, there were six prisoners, incarcerated for drunkenness and violence. When the prisoners heard why I was there, they began to show me respect, since to them, I was a Jewish hero who was fighting the hated government.

"Most of the day I was not in my cell. In order to use us as a labor force, we were taken each day to work in a closed factory. Despite the denigrating attitude of the other workers there, the factory was a gateway to my rescue - firstly, because it got me out into the fresh air, and secondly, because one day I managed to call home and ask my family to smuggle some money to me so that I could buy normal food.

"On the fifteenth day of my sentence, the day I was supposed to be released, I was caught in the "terrible" act of buying food. The policeman who caught me began yelling at me. When I answered him in kind, he got insulted, and I was sentenced to solitary confinement.

"My cell was a small, cement room where all you could do was sit on the floor, which was full of foul water. I had nothing to do but pray that I get out of there quickly. I knew I was supposed to be released that day, but there was no telling whether or not they would defer my release. It was an extremely difficult period-to think that I had almost gotten to the end of the sentence, only to be faced with this sudden uncertainty. As it turned out though, miracles were abundant in that prison, starting from the time of the Rebbe Rayatz. Shortly afterwards I got word that I would be released."

Didn’t the imprisonment and persecution give you second thoughts about the way of life you had chosen?

"On the contrary. As a result of my Jewish pride, I continued attending classes and was very actively involved."

How did you express your Jewish pride?

"In two ways: after my release I began growing a beard as testimony to the fact that I am Jewish. And another thing - I began wearing a kippa in an obvious way.

"At that time I was still in the process of getting involved in Judaism and mitzva observance. So I had a kippa but I didn’t always wear it. I kept it in my pocket for the times when I would learn or enter a shul. I remember how one day I went to a class and even before I got there I noticed people encircling the house. I decided not to let them prevent me from learning Torah, and to their surprise, I took my kippa out of my pocket and wore it proudly."


The law in the Soviet Union was that every citizen had to work and contribute to the public welfare. Until the time of his imprisonment though, Shimon did not work, because he had been fired from his job. After his release from prison, he found a job at the municipal bathhouse. Many of the refuseniks were listed as though they worked at the bathhouse, but in fact, only some of them actually worked there.

"It wasn’t easy observing Shabbos there, but baruch Hashem, I managed," says Shimon. "Even when working at a kiosk in Leningrad, I did whatever I could to keep Shabbos. I made an agreement with the owner that I would work on Sunday, the official day of rest, instead of Shabbos. Thanks to Hashem’s kindness, he agreed."

Slowly, Shimon got more involved in Yiddishkeit. While still a student, he began going to shul, along with other students. "We went for more than just the davening; we went for the atmosphere of togetherness." Shimon’s next step was saying brachos and the Birkas HaMazon.

Observing kosher didn’t either happen overnight. At first they were careful about separating meat and milk. At a later point they learned the meat had to be salted. They didn’t know however, that the slaughtering had to be done according to Torah law. When they learned that the meat had to be shechted under stringent conditions, they refrained from eating meat for a number of years. At a certain point the Asch family began observing chalav Yisroel. In order to do this, Shimon would travel to a nearby village where he would milk a cow.

Slowly, the Asch family came to observe a full Jewish life. As we said, the kippa was removed from Shimon’s pocket and worn proudly on his head. He was even particular about lighting the Chanuka menora at the window, "so that Jews would see it and know there was nothing to fear from the Soviet darkness."

What did your family think about your becoming religious?

"At first they found it very hard. As I said, my parents and in-laws were loyal communists and they didn’t want to hear that we were religious. When we wanted to emigrate to Eretz Yisroel and suggested they join us, they insisted on remaining in the Soviet Union. In the end though, they too began observing mitzvos. At first they only observed kashrus, in order that we should be able to eat with them, but today my father, the high officer of the Red Army, is a full-fledged Chassid."

The Asch family’s home began to be a magnet for many Jews, where Jewish events took place despite the danger and fear.

"The event that is most engraved in my mind, of all the events that took place in my house, is the Purim Spiel. In order to thwart any untoward KGB activity, the location of the event was announced at the very last minute. Even before the appointed time, dozens of Jewish young people had already come to the house. They had barely sat down when dozens of policemen and KGB officers surrounded the house and barred entry."

Shimon wasn’t home at the time. He was just coming back from work when he saw the policemen from a distance. As he usually did, he brazenly walked right up to the policeman at the door and asked to be allowed in. The policeman, who didn’t recognize him, did not allow him in and Shimon had to work hard to convince him to let him to enter. Only after proving that he was the occupant of that apartment did the policeman let him in, not without wondering though, why he was willingly entering the lion’s den. The Purim Spiel was performed amidst great joy, while the secret police looked on.

The road from Torah observance to Chabad was a short one. The connection began through Rabbi Yitzchok Kogan who helped Shimon and his family get more involved in Yiddishkeit. Shimon got his Chassidic perspective from Tanya classes given in Tzvi Wasserman’s house, "but I got a Chassidishe hergesh from R’ Yitzchok Kogan," says Shimon with a twinkle in his eyes. "We would farbreng often at his house, and he would sit and tell us about Chabad and the Rebbe. The things he said impressed me and captivated me.

"An important event which gave me a strong push towards Chassidus was an open miracle of the Rebbe. At that time, a baby with a serious heart problem was born to one of the families. Somehow they managed to get a letter out to the Rebbe requesting a bracha, and the answer they received was that they should perform a bris mila. After tremendous efforts on the parents’ part, they managed to get the baby out of the hospital and have him circumcised. A few days later the doctors were amazed to discover that the heart problem had disappeared. News of the miracle quickly made its rounds among those of us who had gotten more involved in Yiddishkeit, and it intensified our interest in the Rebbe and Chabad."


Despite all the Jewish activities Shimon was involved in, he made prodigious efforts to leave the Soviet Union. Many of his friends had submitted requests to leave and were allowed to go. Even his parents got permission to leave, but Shimon was turned down. Every week he accompanied somebody else to the airport while he himself remained sadly behind. When he ran out of patience he decided to take a drastic and very dangerous step.

[Throughout this interview Shimon spoke quickly and without undue emotion, but when he began the story about his leaving the vale of tears, he began to get emotional.] "By doing this I went for broke - it was life or death!

"It was winter 5747, eight years after my first request to leave had been turned down. I felt I had to do something that would break the stalemate. I saw there was no progress even though I had sent telegrams to government offices and to relevant senior officials.

"One day I heard about a demonstration of refuseniks taking place at the end of town. I went to see what it looked like and I saw that the organizers of the demonstration had only gotten permission for the event to be at the end of town so that people wouldn’t know about it. I saw a strange sight - a snow covered field with a handful of demonstrators on one side and dozens of tense policemen and KGB men on the other side. That’s when I resolved to do something extreme to shake up the government.

"That Friday I sent a telegram to the mayor of Leningrad, informing him that starting on Monday my family and I would be demonstrating in front of the Ovir (emigration) office, from 11 till 12. This demonstration, I wrote, would take place every day until we received permission to leave.

"I didn’t ask for permission to demonstrate; I simply informed them that I would be doing so. I purposely sent the telegram on Friday, because the government offices are closed on Saturday and Sunday, and they wouldn’t have time to prevent the demonstration from happening.

"Shortly after the telegram was sent, I heard nervous knocking at my door. It was the building’s concierge (who was also a government representative) with an order: ‘The mayor is asking to meet with you today regarding the telegram you sent him." I knew that salvation would not come from the mayor, because he was not the one responsible for approving exit visas. Therefore, I went to his office a few minutes after the workday ended. I apologized for my lateness to the junior official on duty, and asked him to convey to the mayor the fact that I had been there.

"On Sunday government representatives began coming to my house, one after the other. First came a police officer who told me to go to the police station. I looked at him innocently and asked him what for? Without answering me, he picked himself up and left the house. An hour later a representative from the government office came and asked that I go to the local Ovir office so that they could discuss my request.

"Despite my fear, I tried to appear nonchalant. I answered politely, that the local Ovir office had no jurisdiction over exit visas and so I had no need to go there. Throughout the day various delegations arrived, all with the same message: Please don’t demonstrate tomorrow. They’ll take care of your request but don’t demonstrate.

"Towards midnight the concierge appeared again, this time to invite me to a meeting at the Ovir headquarters. I agreed to go, but he insisted that I do so before the time that I had set for my demonstration. I said I would show up at ten, an hour before the demonstration.

"Monday morning at ten o’clock, my wife and I and our eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son went to the Ovir offices. It’s hard to describe the feeling of having dozens of pairs of eyes staring at you. Before arriving at the offices, I whispered to my wife that she should go with the children to the nearby business district, while I would proceed to Ovir myself, so that if I didn’t appear by eleven o’clock, she would be able to open the signs we had prepared at home and begin demonstrating outside the offices. On the sign that my eight-year-old would be holding, it said, "I’ve been waiting eight years to go to Israel;" on the sign my four-year-old would be holding it said, "I was supposed to be born in Israel."

"I went into the Ovir building and was directed towards the office of the woman in charge of visas. She was known for her cruel attitude towards those requesting visas. I was overcome with emotion knowing that she would declare my fate. I sat facing her, and seeing her wicked face I knew there was no point in debating with her. I simply said, ‘I want to leave the Soviet Union and emigrate to Israel.’

"She was silent for a moment or two and then screeched, ‘But why are you rushing to demonstrate?’ I answered that we had been waiting for eight years and had run out of patience. She continued to try to talk me out of demonstrating, but when she saw I had made up my mind, she kept quiet. A tense silence prevailed, and I prayed to Hashem in my heart that I should get out in peace. I knew that at any moment they could take me through some back door out to the unknown, and put an end to my gamble.

"Every passing moment seemed like an eternity. The clock said two minutes to eleven, two minutes before my wife would begin demonstrating. Then the woman said, ‘As far as your request is concerned, there was a meeting yesterday in which a favorable decision was made.’

"I realized that she had actually made the decision on the spot - generally, it takes months and years until an appeal to emigrate is approved - and, in an attempt to save face, attributed it to ‘a meeting yesterday.’ I left immediately and happily informed my wife that the demonstration was cancelled because there was no longer any need for it.

"When we returned home my young son asked disappointedly, ‘Nu Abba, when can I open my sign already?’

"A month later we arrived in Eretz Yisroel and settled in Yerushalayim."

* * *

Ever since the Asch family arrived in Eretz Yisroel, they have dedicated their time to the spiritual needs of new Russian immigrants. At first it was under the auspices of Shamir, then they worked on the staff for the Chernobyl children, and today they are active in Yad L’Achim.


As we approach the y’mei ha’Geula of 12-13 Tammuz, Shimon Asch and his wife sit in their home in Kfar Chabad and tell their life story. Recalling how the Rebbe Rayatz sat in Spalerka and waged a battle against the communists, knowing that when a Jew stands proud he is victorious, the Asch family also celebrates its personal chag ha’geula.

* * *

enduring the kgb
I was interrogated by the KGB a number of times regarding my anti-government activities, such as learning Torah and observing mitzvos. In one of the difficult interrogations I decided that the option of keeping quiet the entire time had played itself out, and so figured I would talk about everything except for what they wanted to know.

The interrogation took a great deal of time and amounted to nothing. The interrogator was disgusted and yelled, "Get out and think about your unfortunate situation." This was one of the ways they broke people. They knew that when we sat a long time in gloomy, cold corridors and every so often prisoners were handled roughly, we would break and begin to talk.

I went out and sat down on the floor. In order not to think too much about my situation, I forced myself to sleep. Time passed and I suddenly felt the hand of the interrogator pushing me roughly. When I opened my eyes I saw he looked stunned by the sight of me, a person under interrogation who had fallen asleep as though he was home in bed!

When I sat facing him once again, I saw that he didn’t know what else he could do with me. He began writing up a report of the interrogation and as the KGB were wont to do, he tried to insert things I hadn’t said. I told him I would dictate to him what to write, otherwise I wouldn’t sign it.

The chief interrogator came in and when he saw the report he realized what had happened and began to shout. "How dare you do this in the interrogation offices of the KGB? Can the person being interrogated tell the interrogator what to write?"

After that my fear of the KGB dissipated, but I tried to avoid them.

At the time I was becoming religious, I ate a Shabbos meal with a friend of mine who had become religious through Rabbi Yitzchok Kogan. At the end of the meal, I told him that I was going to the yearly fair, which took place on Shabbos and Sunday. He tried to convince me not to go on Shabbos, but I explained that if I went only on Sunday, all the best merchandise would be gone. My friend said that if the Jewish people kept Shabbos the Geula would come, so it was better to keep Shabbos than to purchase some item at the fair. He convinced me, and I didn’t go on Shabbos.

Years passed and I was a guest of the same friend again, this time in Eretz Yisroel. He had stopped being a Chassid, though he remained observant. After we said l’chaim together, I reminded him of what he had explained to me about the fair, and I concluded, "Now you have to learn Chassidus, and through learning Chassidus the Geula will come!"


 Shimon Asch
"My cell was a small, cement room where all you could do was sit on the floor, which was full of foul water. I had nothing to do but pray that I get out of there quickly."

Shimon sitting at the entrance to the bathhouse in Leningrad



On the sign that my eight-year-old would be holding, it said, "I’ve been waiting eight years to go to Israel;" on the sign my four-year-old would be holding it said, "I was supposed to be born in Israel."


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