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Mesiras Nefesh in Stalin's Gulag: How the KGB Came to Investigate Rebbi Akiva Eiger's Kushia

(c) Copyright 2004 Yated Neeman.Bnei Brak Used with permission.

An Interview with HaRav Yitzchok Zilber

Pieces of history from the Soviet valley of death are waiting to be documented for posterity. Lithuania and Russia once produced many generations of the finest bnei Torah and yeshivos. During trying times it even seemed as if the Torah itself was fighting for them, so that Torah would never be forgotten by their children.

Generations passed. Great world powers fell apart, feats of nature melted away, and the Torah continues to come forth from that generation, a generation that was moser nefesh for Torah. Thousands of baalei teshuva are emerging from former Czarist Russia; they are not hungry for bread nor thirsty for water, but to hear the word of Hashem.

HaRav Yitzchok Zilber, one of the leaders of this movement, spoke about his nisyonos and personal dealing with times of crisis, a stubborn war fought with mesiras nefesh. He lived with miracles everyday in Soviet prison camps and in the country that was one big prison.

The interview portrayed different concepts in learning Torah and keeping mitzvos. It was a living testimony to courageous strength, forging the spirit and soul, uncovering rare character strengths that are only revealed in times of tremendous hardship. Keeping Shabbos, growing in ruchniyus and learning Torah in almost impossible situations, lacking everything -- all this in the Soviet Russia of a generation ago.

This first-hand interview is an authentic testimony to our generation, a generation that has lost its sense of proportion and judgment, which is drowning in a sea of luxuries and comforts and "tortured" with nisyonos that upset its peace of mind, but pale in comparison to those faced by HaRav Zilber.

@SUB TITLE=Growing Up

HaRav Zilber related: My father, Reb Ben Tzion zt'l, was my teacher. He taught me alef bais, siddur, Tanach, Mishna and Gemora. He also taught me Russian and arithmetic so I should not be conspicuously ignorant compared to goyim my age. I never went to a regular school and stayed away from the Russian goyim as much as possible.

HaRav Zilber was born to a well-known rabbinical family. His father, HaRav Ben Tzion Zilber zt'l, was a great rov and his grandfather HaRav Yitzchok Tzioni zt'l authored a sefer of chiddushim and halachic responsa Olos Yitzchok. In general, HaRav Zilber said, there were tremendous geonim in Russia at the time, in a measure that can not be found anywhere in the world today.

The world has changed completely. To illustrate the point, he said that one time when he was a child, he visited a shul in Moscow where about thirty elderly, distinguished looking men were sitting and learning.

As an aside, the shuls then housed old, rare seforim and manuscripts of geonim. The war brought upheaval and people wandered from place to place. Many died without a name or house and the shul gathered in the remnants of ruchniyus and precious seforim.

As soon as I walked in, everyone looked at me suspiciously and stopped learning. The country was swarming with informers and spies. I immediately said to them in loshon hakodesh, "Don't be scared. I am a Jew like you. Continue learning." I gained their trust and joined their group.

One of the talmidei chachomim wrote a precious peirush on the entire Yerushalmi. Another knew by heart Shas Bavli with Rashi and Tosafos, Shulchon Oruch, Yad Chazokoh of the Rambam and Sedei Chemed. A third was HaRav Yehoshua Yehuda Meirovitz zt'l. And so on. I never met such a large group of such great geonim in one place.

While speaking with Rav Zilber I gleaned from his casual conversation that several times he had to say the entire Haggodoh shel Pesach by heart, selichos without a sefer, as well as tefillas Yomim Noraim, mishnayos Kinin, and complete masechtos of gemora. If I am not mistaken, in order to be able to learn in those days, they had to engrave everything on their hearts in any entirely different manner than that which we are familiar with today.

Boom! You're a Soldier!

They looked at life through different glasses, from an entirely different viewpoint. For example, one Shabbos while Reb Yitzchok was walking home from shul, a soldier stopped him and asked him for his papers. Because he did not carry on Shabbos, he was taken to the police station. There they told him that, because of the war situation, he was being drafted immediately! He was given a half-hour to return home and get some personal belongings.

Reb Yitzchok came home white and trembling. He told his father about his sudden conscription and that he could take some personal belongings. His father gave him a warm, fatherly look and said to him, "My dear son Yitzchok, did you finish shnayim Mikro ve'echod Targum yet? You don't have much time, finish your parsha quickly. Who knows what the day will bring. Who knows if you'll ever be zoche to see a Chumash again in your life."

As this point, it doesn't matter what the end of the story was. We told this story only so we can try to grasp the thought process of those days. From time to time, sparks of geonus burst into the interview. The rov's patriarchal face suddenly reminds us of another chapter in our nation's history, the years that Yaakov Ovinu was separated from his son Yosef at the parsha of eglo arufo. Reb Yitzchok has signs for different periods -- he knows that he went into prison , yes it happened in the middle of sugya aliyo in the beginning of Yevomos in the year . . .

The rov's shining face twinkles with youthful charm and the years melt away as he reminisces about interesting episodes from his period in Russia . Life was not good to him -- jail, bitter nisyonos in keeping Shabbos, harsh wounds for Yiddishkeit, backbreaking work in prison, years of pain; recently his heart weakened and he hovered between life and death until he was redeemed from his suffering. A smile always twinkles in his eyes, as if to say to the world -- they can never overpower me.

Learning with the KGB

With untiring strength, Rav Zilber related how he had to spend two entire hours explaining a Rebbi Akiva Eiger on Eruvin daf lamed hey, omud beis to KGB investigators. This is how it came about.

In 1945, Reb Yitzchok learned with a member of the Lithuanian parliament, the famous Reb Mordechai Dubin zt'l.

For three weeks we learned together in shul. Reb Mordechai learned three shiurim every day in shul. During the week, he hurried off to his business, but on Shabbos he devoted the entire day to Torah and tefilloh, from which he drew strength for the entire week.

Reb Yitzchok imitated Reb Mordechai's voice, how he used to daven in a heavy Lithuanian accent, a hypnotizing tefilloh. Anyone who heard him could not move. His Shabbos davening lasted from seven in the morning until four o'clock in the afternoon. The entire tefilloh was punctuated with heart-rending tears. Today we don't see such davening.

I asked him, Reb Yitzchok related, what I could do for him. He told me to call my sister on the telephone. I immediately ordered a telephone call in the post office, as he requested.

On Thursday, about a week before my wedding, I was crossing the street and a police man stopped me and said, "You did not cross the street properly. Come with me. You are arrested!"

I went with him. We came to a certain building that was one of the most infamous KGB prisons. We went into a room where a large sign hanging on the wall opposite me read, "Death to Spies."

They put me on a chair and a group of five tight-lipped, stern faced "interrogators" greeted me. While hitting me, they asked me, "What do you have to do with Dubin."

They showed me the telephone call I ordered and I told them the truth. Checking through my pockets, they found my small personal note pad and that's when the problems began.

"What are these signs and these numbers, you spy?"

I said innocently that they were money I give to charity and record in my note pad.

And what are these strange words?

Tosafos , Rashi, and Rebbi Akiva Eiger.

Secret spy codes!

I told them that it had to do with religious laws and customs in a difficult Talmudic section and they wouldn't understand it. "Explain everything to us," they roared. "You explain it and we'll understand it," they shouted. "What are the names and words you wrote here? Your life is at stake."

Left with no choice, I began to delve into maseches Eruvin daf nun ches: "Shomati shemikadrin behorim." I explained the shittah of Rashi, Tosafos's kushia and Rebbi Akiva Eiger's teretz on shittas Rashi as I saw in the seforim in shul and wrote down in short to remember it. (These were the notes that they had found.) I explained, or at least tried to explain, to bring it to their level of intelligence. I toiled and earned reward, and they toiled and boiled with anger.

For two complete hours, I tried to explain in vain, and they looked at me suspiciously with blank eyes. They did not say a word and could not understand what "spy" secret I was trying to hide from them.

Two hours before Shabbos, the policeman who detained me suddenly came into the room and chased me out. Until today, I do not know exactly what happened, who aided me and who didn't, and who succeeded in finally explaining to them the Rebbi Akiva Eiger.

The Communists' wickedness knew no bounds. A number of misguided Jews were drawn after them and cruelly trampled on everything holy. One time, they shortened the week to five days. The new week had no Shabbos or Sunday, in order to uproot any remembrance to religious rest days for the Jews as well as Christians. Afterwards, they made a six day week and only Friday was a rest day.

Once, Yom Kippur fell out on a rest day and all the Jews were very happy that they would not have to work on Yom Kippur. The reshoim, however, sent a letter and requested that the Jews be obligated to work on Yom Kippur and forget about the rest day. In those days, if you didn't work you did not have bread, which meant that death was on the doorstep. Being fired simply spelled death!

On Yom Kippur, the Jews gathered in shul, but none of them wanted to speak divrei Torah as the place swarmed with spies and informers. Finally, HaRav Kalmanus zt'l went up to the bimah and told the following story.

A Jew raised chicks in his yard. The chicks grew and recognized the Jew who gave them their food. One day, the rooster disappeared. They told the Jew, "Go to the shochet. Maybe someone stole your rooster to do kapporos."

The Jew hurried to the shochet where he saw a stranger holding his chicken. A quarrel erupted; each one claimed that it was his rooster.

The shochet told them that there's a very simple way to find out who the rooster belongs to. Take it near this Jew's yard, untie the rope and see where the rooster goes. They did as he said and the rooster immediately returned to its true owner.

The rov finished his speech and said, "Ono bekoach gedulas yemincho, tatir tzeruroh." Please Ribono shel Olam, untie the rope and we'll see where everyone will go.

He was referring to the fact that there were more people in shul on Yom Kippur afternoon for minchoh and ne'iloh than in the morning. They had been forced to go to work in the morning.

@Sub Title=Watching Every Detail

Stories punctuate the interview, stories of mesiras nefesh, scrupulous observance of the halocho in all situations, and keeping Torah study sessions without exception.

While everyone was busy guarding their basic necessities like food and clothing, there were others whose existence was focused on other areas. They vigilantly guarded each piece of matzo, Yomim Noraim davening and daily Torah learning with unusual stubbornness.

If one guards the Torah, the Torah will guard him. To illustrate this fact, Rav Yitzchok Zilber related the following story:

The famous gaon, Reb Eliyahu Meizes zt'l, a heilege Yid, was sitting in court before Jewish Communist judges who spoke Yiddish. "What do you think about the verdict?" they asked him mockingly.

"Kol man de'ovid Rachmono letav ovid. And you will receive your just rewards. I will dance on your graves," he answered fearlessly. They immediately added another few years of prison onto his sentence.

When he was in jail, he made himself a calendar. On erev Pesach according to his calculations (the night of bedikas chometz), he washed netilas yodayim to have a bite of bread. Suddenly, before he said hamotzi, a prison guard came in, grabbed away his bread and hauled him off to the prison warden.

The warden greeted him with shouts, pointed to a package and yelled, "What is this package? Why did you get a thick book and a package of matzo? Why doesn't anyone send me matzo?"

Meanwhile, Reb Eliyahu looked at the sefer and saw a calendar. To his surprise, he discovered that that night was already leil haseder; it was the first night of Pesach! Heaven watched over him on leil shimurim and saved him from eating chometz -- in between netilas yodayim and hamotzi.

Another hero was Reb Yitzchok Weiner who sat in prison for sixteen years. He was starving but did not lose his noble self dignity. He feared no man and did not bow to the Communist idol. An accountant in a large pharmacy, he never worked on Shabbos.

Once, at the end of the civil year, a delegation came to investigate amounts and percentages of sales and purchases before the prices went up. They needed the accountant. As usual, he did not work on Shabbos, and that year Pesach and Shabbos came one after the other.

The committee was very angry and complained to the manager. He claimed, "Yitzchok does not listen to me." The complaints reached the highest offices, but Reb Yitzchok stood firm and would not work on Shabbos. They could have easily put him in jail for another sixteen years, but he did not bat an eyelash. Finally, he convinced them that he would calculate everything they needed on motzei Shabbos and by Sunday, they would have all the percentages and calculations. They grudgingly agreed.

With Hashem's help, he did a few day's work in a few hours, to their complete satisfaction.

Valuing Every Minute

As if many years have not since passed, Rav Yitzchok remembers his own time in prison: I received permission from the prison warden to stay in his room in exchange for getting him three buckets of hot water a day and washing his floor.

Why was it important that I live in his room? I made a cheshbon that my job was to draw 3000 buckets of water a day. If I ran instead of walked, I could gain fifteen minutes of every hour -- a full two hours by the end of the day. So, every three- quarters of an hour, I ran to my room to rest, hid behind the thick curtain and learned mishnayos Kodshim and Tanach.

I had tefillin. My wife brought our small daughter to visit in the prison, and under the watchful eyes of the guard I took off the baby's shoe and fixed it for her. While doing so, I took the tefillin shel rosh and the shel yad, that were hidden in the shoes, and slipped them into my high boots.

Matzos were sent in pieces, in packages labeled "dry cookies for tea." My wife a'h brought them. I'll say a few words about the seder we celebrated in prison and how it came about.

Preparing for Pesach in Stalin's Prison

Robberies in prison were par for the course. Prisons naturally contain the dregs of society, murderers and sinners who lost their tzelem. For example, the first night I took off my shoes and put them next to me, and the next morning they were gone. For eight days I walked barefoot in the snow until they got other shoes for me.

I didn't know what to do. How could I hide matzos or potatoes for Pesach when everything disappears from its hiding place with professional haste.

It was a well-known fact on the streets of Russia , especially in that terrible time, that baking matzos risked immediate imprisonment. I was not scared, and promised all the Jewish prisoners that we would not eat chometz on Pesach! But the difficult question remained -- what would we eat? If even the bread was not enough, how would the matzos be enough?

Everyone was entitled to buy a few kilograms of flour. My wife saved up her rights and bought twenty-four kilograms of flour. While she was walking in the street with the package of matzos she had just baked for us and the other few Jews who were not afraid to risk the baking, a policeman suddenly stopped her and asked what she was carrying. She quickly made up that she was carrying a birthday cake and present for her daughter.

The policeman told her to come with him to the nearby police station. She said that she had small children waiting for her at home and did not have time. The policeman whistled to his friend to come help him check her. The commanding officer growled at him and told him to leave her alone. My wife always used to say that this was none other than Eliyahu Hanovi zochur latov.

My wife broke up the matzos into small pieces and brought about 300 grams each time she visited, until we gathered a large quantity of matzos. I asked the prisoners to collect potatoes and they managed to get a nice amount. For a small bribe, we received permission to cook the potatoes on the radiator in the warden's room.

The leader of the robbers in the camp was called Mishke Kosov. He was a violent man who could murder anyone in his way without batting an eyelash. He approached me as I was cleaning out a pot to cook the potatoes in and told me in Yiddish that he's also a Jew and will not eat chometz on Pesach. He gave me money to buy a chicken to shecht properly for my wife to cook.

The custom was that if a wild man, especially a member of the robbers, came to you and asked you for something, you immediately gave him a half or third of it. Otherwise, he would take all of it. Now, the head robber, who revealed his Jewishness, stood up in the middle of the camp and announced, "This is a table with drawers and a lock. From now on, from now and all eight days of Pesach, anyone who `asks' for anything from Rav Zilber will lose his head."

With the help of all those "tzadikim," we smuggled raisin wine and charoses from my house, and we had almost everything necessary for the seder table. Even the assistant head doctor in the camp did not eat chometz and agreed to push off his office hours in the clinic for our convenience. So, twelve Jews sat at a full seder table with plenty of wine, matzos and morror. I think we smuggled in a Haggodoh as well.

The Eighth Day of Pesach -- Yom Tov of Goluyos

The matzos lasted until the eighth day of Pesach. There was not even a crumb left. One of the prisoners, Isaac Meronovitz, whom we'll mention again, grumbled that in Eretz Yisroel they're already eating chometz and he can't fast an entire day after the backbreaking work. He suddenly remembered that we say Yizkor that day and asked for permission to eat bread after Yizkor.

I said Yizkor with all of them. In the middle, someone who had not eaten the matzos joined us and asked if he could say Yizkor, because his parents begged him not to mention their names on his lips after he was malshin on the shochet and mohel and sent them to jail, and also closed down shuls and mikvo'os in Russia . At this time of grace, I said Yizkor with him as well.

Afterwards, he got up and asked if it is permissible for us to eat butter and herring today, because he received a large package from Moscow and would give it to anyone who had not eaten chometz today. Someone by the name of Vladimir Epstein, formerly secretary of the city of Kazhan , also remembered that he was Jewish. He brought a tin of jam for dessert and offered it only to those who did not eat chometz. Be'ezras Hashem, we made a feast of cooked potatoes with butter and herring. We walked together, and I told the prisoners the story of yetzias Mitzrayim and midroshim.

The Warmth of Torah in the Cold Prison

The cold in the prison camp was unbearable. Everyone stayed away from the door because of the terrible cold there, but I preferred that place. A samovar of hot water stood behind the door and I said kiddush there every Friday night for whoever wanted to hear it -- and there were many.

On Friday night, I tried to say divrei Torah and stories from the parsha and medroshei Chazal, even for those who were far from Torah. I remember a Communist named Rubinchik who once interrupted my speech. He bitterly said, "The situation is not good; this can not go on anymore."

We all looked at him in astonishment. He took out a newspaper that showed a picture of Stalin with white hair. This Communist sobbed with real, salty tears, "Stalin has to be young and healthy. If he's turning white, our situation is absolutely terrible." We all had to hold ourselves back from smiling.

A month before I left prison, this Communist asked us to help him divorce his non- Jewish wife because he wanted to marry someone Jewish. Two months after I was released, I met this man on the street and he told me that he had already divorced his non-Jewish wife. I remember another assimilated Jew who came back to Judaism as a result of the shiurim we gave in prison.

. . . Even His Enemies Bring Him Peace

There was a goy named Padek Obrov, a terrible rosho, who took down the curtain that hid my activities and tried to interfere with my Torah observance in every way. It was as if he was sent from Heaven to add nisyonos on the already impossible conditions.

One day, to my astonishment, he came to me and asked if he could prepare hot water for all the prisoners for Shabbos instead of me and requested the key to the place the water was kept.

During that time, they gave all the prisoners shots; they claimed it was some kind of medical experiment. This goy refused to get a shot and they threatened to put him in the dungeon for a few days. After all the prisoners received their shots, he suddenly agreed to take his also. They asked why he changed his mind. He answered, "I remembered that if I'll be in the dungeon for a few days, there won't be anyone to fill water for Shabbos for Rav Zilber."

Someone asked him why he changed his tune and stopped bothering Rav Zilber at every opportunity. He said that he had a dream in which he was warned not to bother Rav Zilber anymore.

One Shabbos, a delegation came to the prison camp to investigate the level of cleanliness in the camp. The director of the laborers gathered all the prisoners and lectured on the camp's condition and the prisoners' actions. He publicly announced that Rav Zilber does not work on Shabbos!

Rav Zilber said, "I wasn't at the speech. I was busy learning. I hid behind a large, heavy door and learned in almost complete darkness." To illustrate the conditions under which he learned, Rav Zilber turned off the light, took a worn Tanach out of the closet and covered himself with a tallis over his head. To my astonishment, he managed to make out some words slowly, slowly in the complete darkness.

As we said, the director of the camp spoke against me, and I was standing and learning in the room behind the big door. Some time later, the prisoners told me what had happened. The investigation committee started to ask questions -- where is this Zilber? What does he do? And so on.

While they were speaking, two non-Jewish prisoners, wild murderers, came over to the camp director, grabbed him by the neck and informed him, "You're here only three years; we are here seven. Since Rav Zilber came, there is always water! Don't say another word against him."

He quickly changed the topic and Rav Zilber was no longer up for discussion.

The Purim Miracle of Russia

13 Adar 5713 (1953). Purim. I gathered a number of Jews in the camp to tell them about the Yom Tov and Megillas Esther. We didn't have a megilla. The gemora says that reading the megilla is hallel, so we said Hallel instead.

One prisoner named Isaac Meronovitz asked us, "Where is the One Who does miracles for you? Soon all the Jews will be `dust,' like Stalin promised."

I told him, "Stalin is only flesh and bones. No one can know what will be with him in a half an hour." He angrily left.

The next day, Isaac urgently searched for me and told me, "Twenty-five minutes after we spoke, Stalin had a hemorrhage and stroke. Remember that you said `a half an hour' -- that no one can know what will be with him."

I immediately sat down to say Tehillim and continued doing so for a few days, until that blood-stained sonei Yisroel died.

HaRav Zilber's Yeshiva Today

We interviewed a Russian baal teshuva, R' Zev, computer programmer by profession, from Kazhan. A student in Toldos Yeshurun -- Lev Lashovim, Zev used to sport a ponytail and earring. Now he carries the ol malchus Shomayim on his head.

While still in Russia , he formed connections with Rav Yitzchok Zilber's students. There he began to take interest in his roots and tasted a bit of Judaism's sweetness. Then he moved to Israel and had almost forgotten his spark of Yiddishkeit in the kibbutz ulpan when Toldos Yeshurun contacted him and forged an everlasting connection.

R' Zev explains that in chutz la'aretz Judaism is considered to be that which separates us from the goyim, even according to the secular Jews in Russia . Every inconsequential Jewish symbol becomes like a tenet of Judaism. There is a basic thirst that will never be quenched with superficial means. Anyone who acknowledges his lack and thirst eventually reaches the spring of mayim chaim.

HaRav Zilber's method in guiding students who are interested in Judaism is to have them learn, in Russian if possible, with chavrusos talmidei chachomim who then guide them the whole way. Usually the light of the Torah brings them back to its fold.

Many baalei teshuva are not young bochurim. They're like me, already in their thirties in the middle of their lives, with a family and house and sometimes children of their own. One needs mesiras nefesh to learn, to acquire basic knowledge and to make up for many lost years. The feeling of success is measured according to the investment; the results speak for themselves.

Sometimes, after an entire day of tiring work, the chavrusas come to complete another hour of learning, to fill their storehouses with Torah.

This feeling (and it's worthwhile to hear it from the student's personal experience), the feeling after learning for an hour and half, is one of cleanliness, purity, a head cleansed of all the profaneness and emptiness that flood the world. The feeling is that the learning "connects" to you, touches your roots; something is tied to your inner essence. Yes, the Tosafos in Kiddushin daf lamed-beis settles on the keys to your heart, calms you and makes you forget your worries.

Sometimes, at twilight, I sit and compare the periods in my life, says R' Zev, an unavoidable comparison for anyone who changed his life around. Memories of the ponytail and long hair, the trips to find myself in African forests and India . All the young travelers share the feeling of maybe you are missing out. Maybe right now you're missing something someplace else -- a basic lack of tranquility. And the soul is never satisfied.

After a few years next to a gemora, the feeling is -- I found it. I found water. There is a reason to get up in the morning and to go to sleep at night. There is a Leader of the world. This feeling accompanies and influences me the entire day, without exaggeration. "Hashem is your shadow at your right hand."

As one who guided him through the teshuva process, Reb Avrohom Cohen said that it's amazing to see how the Torah changes a person from one extreme to the other, along with his whole family. A large part of this teshuva process begins with house groups and learning with a chavruso. R' Zev is only one example; there are many like him. They all returned to Judaism through Toldos Yeshurun -- Lev Lashovim, founded by HaRav Zilber.

R' Zev has already brought along another friend named Yosef. He davens that Yosef will cut off his ponytail someday soon. Meanwhile, he has already begun to keep Shabbos; the process is on its way.

Reb Avrohom adds that many were chozer beteshuva through our organization and many more are in middle of doing so, through the chavruso program. However, because of a lack of funds, we are forced to turn away many potential baalei teshuva. We must emphasize that unfortunately this is the only program in the country where secular Jews learn gemora with avreichim after a day of work. Experience has proven that the light of Torah brings them back. The security situation has caused many to begin thinking, and they knock on our doors to try to find answers to their difficult questions.

If there is no flour, there is no Torah. As much as we do not want to be influenced by budgets, it is difficult for us to accept everyone who wants to learn about Judaism and it is difficult for us to compensate the excellent avreichim who dedicate hours to learn and guide baalei teshuva. Our method has proven itself successful in saving souls and bringing bnei Yisroel closer to their Father in heaven, under the guidance of gedolei hador shlita.

Lev Lashovim's center, where the chavrusas learn, is in Ezras Torah shul in Sanhedria Hamurchevet, Yerushalayim. The shul is close to HaRav Zilber's home and he gives shiurim and devotes his precious time to advising and aiding the baalei teshuva and avreichim. The secret of the organization's success is, in a large part, due to his help

                                                                 5 Adar 5761 - February 28, 2001

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