20th Yahrzeit of R’ Meir Avtzon

Today, Erev Rosh Chodesh Kislev, marks the 20th Yahrzeit of HaRav HaChossid Reb Meir Avtzon a”h. Read all about this special chossid of mesiras nefesh in Russia and later in the United States.

By Rabbi Sholom Ber Avtzon – written in the first person for R’ Meir a”h

My Youth

I was born on the 8th of Teves, 5669 (1909), in the city of Mirgorod, in the province of Poltava, Ukraine. I was the second-to-youngest of eight children,[1] and my father Gershon[2] was a tailor. My mother was named Esther, and she merited to live into her nineties.[3]

As a child, I, like his brothers, went to the local cheder. However, when the turmoil of World War I reached that area, learning in cheder became sporadic. When the fighting in our area subsided, the studies resumed, but then the Communists took control, and all chadorim were closed throughout Russia. However, the melamed, Reb Levi Yitzchok Vichman, was not intimidated by their threats and continued to teach any student that wanted to learn. Most of his students were over bar mitzvah, but he made a second class for boys aged ten through twelve.

I began learning under him from the age of ten and a half. I learned from him for three years, until I was thirteen-and-a-half. During that time, he taught me most of Nevi’im, the three Bavos,[4] and more. Reb Levi then advised me to learn in a yeshiva in Kiev. I studied there for a year and then returned home.[5] Back in my hometown, for the next three years I learned throughout the day in the beis hamidrash on my own. This was besides for a few hours a day, when I learned with Reb Bentzion Rivkin. This arrangement continued for a short time, until Reb Bentzion moved to Eretz Yisroel.

After Pesach of 5686 (1926), Reb Meir Gurkov came to the city to raise funds for Tomchei Tmimim. Seeing a seventeen-year-old teenager sitting and learning in the beis hamidrash throughout the day, especially in those turbulent years, astounded him.

Speaking to the melamed Reb Levi, they both decided that it would be best if I became a student in a yeshiva, and that I should join the branch of Tomchei Tmimim in Charkov. Reb Meir explained to my parents that the winds of society[6] had not penetrated this yeshiva, and their youngest son would remain religious. Additionally, hopefully this would help me evade the draft. Although in principle they agreed, monetary considerations didn’t allow it. Sensing that this was the problem, Reb Levi also took care of the monetary issues (of transportation and so on), and they agreed.

Becoming a Tomim

On Lag B’omer of that year (5686/1926), I was accepted as a talmid in Tomchei Tmimim of Charkov. Reb Yechezkel (Chatche) Feigin was the mashpia as well as the one in charge, and he was assisted by Reb Nissan Nemenov in Chassidus and by Reb Zalman Kurnitzer in Nigleh.

The schedule of learning in the yeshiva was as follows: At seven in the morning was seder Chassidus for an hour and a half. At nine was Shacharis and breakfast, until eleven. From eleven to six was seder Nigleh, with a break for Minchah and lunch. From six to seven was a daily shiur in Tanya. This was followed by Maariv[7] and supper. Then there was another seder Chassidus for an hour and a half. Afterwards, you learned whatever you wanted to.

Since there weren’t many seforim available, most of the maamorim were copied by hand by the students themselves. After Reb Chatche would teach the maamar for the first time, each bochur would write his own copy. Therefore, each maamar took between a week and a week and a half to learn. By the time we had finished learning it, everyone knew the maamar or at least its concepts by heart.

Three months later, the yeshiva went to Leningrad to spend Tishrei with the [Frierdiker] Rebbe. That was the first time I saw the [Frierdiker] Rebbe. I was in awe of his davening, especially on the first night of Rosh Hashanah, when it lasted for close to five hours.[8] The [Frierdiker] Rebbe davened Shema with the Alter Rebbe’s niggun (of Tzi’ena Uri’ena).[9]

During that Tishrei, I was one of the few talmidim who were zocheh to have a yechidus with the Rebbe.[10]

After Simchas Torah, the yeshiva moved to Nevel. There, Reb Yehudah Eber became the main maggid shiur for Nigleh. His shiurim were brilliant. In Nevel, I also learned from the notable chassidim who lived there, especially Reb Zalman Moshe Yitzchaki, Reb Meir Simcha Chein, and others who would farbreng with us often. These farbrengens had a powerful and everlasting impact on me.

I also met Reb Yonah Poltaver, who was appointed by the Rebbe to be in charge of the yeshiva, and Reb Yonah’s brother-in-law, Reb Yehudah Leib Karasik, the Rov and mashpia of the city. Years later, I married Reb Leibel’s oldest daughter.

The Frierdiker Rebbe’s Arrest and Release

That year (5687/1927), the clouds forming over Russia grew darker. The government-controlled press began writing articles stating that it was time for the government to act harshly against those who opposed the policies of the state.

In addition to being responsible for running the yeshiva, Reb Yechezkel Feigin was one of the Rebbe’s secretaries, necessitating him to often be with the Rebbe in Leningrad and not in the yeshiva in Nevel. After Shavuos that year he returned to Nevel, but he was extremely somber. The news he brought back was ominous.

He related that during Yom Tov the Rebbe had said four maamorim, and each one concluded with the words, “All your enemies should be cut down.”

The Rebbe also told him that when the Alter Rebbe was arrested, it was only because he agreed to it. In truth, the heavenly accusation against Chassidus began in the times of the Maggid [over twenty-six years earlier].[11] However, at that time Reb Zushe said, “Zushe doesn’t agree [that the Maggid should be arrested],” so the heavenly court nullified the decree against the Maggid.

Additionally, the Rebbe said, “Although there isn’t what to be happy about [as chassidim were being arrested, many to disappear forever], we must be happy, as we just received the Torah.”

Reb Yechezkel related, “After Yom Tov, one of the times when I was in the Rebbe’s room, I said, ‘May the Rebbe’s words be fulfilled!’

“The Rebbe asked rhetorically, ‘Perhaps I should curse them?’ I nodded in the affirmative. However, the Rebbe replied, ‘I am afraid to do so, as there are many Jews among them. [I don’t want to hurt them].’”

These reports scared the bochurim. Indeed, our fears were not unfounded, as a week after Shavuos, on Tuesday night, the eve of the 15thof Sivan, the Rebbe was arrested. When we heard that he had been taken to the Spalerka prison, we were petrified. Those were extremely difficult times for all the students, and almost all of them fasted each Monday and Thursday until, Boruch Hashem, the Rebbe was released.[12] Every student intensified his learning and increased in saying Tehillim, even though we saw the spies of the Yevsektzia watching us and writing down our every movement.

On Gimmel Tammuz, when the Rebbe’s death sentence was commuted to three years of exile in Kostrama, we farbrenged with tremendous joy. Reb Chatche then revealed that after Pesach, he was planning to learn the hemshech of samech vov (5666/1906) with us, as he usually did. However, when he mentioned his plans to the Rebbe, the Rebbe said that this year we should learn the maamorim of Eter (5670/1910) instead.

Reb Chatche then said, “The maamar we just concluded speaks about the Alter Rebbe’s release from imprisonment. This shows us that what we learn and how we conduct ourselves is important and has a direct effect on the Rebbe. Just as we learned that the Alter Rebbe was freed from his imprisonment, so, too, may the Rebbe be completely freed!” WHICH MAAMAR IS IT

Eleven days later, when the Rebbe was freed, our joy was tremendous.[13] Yet, people understood that they needed to be careful, so as not to infuriate his enemies. For this reason, the Rebbe didn’t return to his previous apartment. Instead, he moved temporarily to an apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. Additionally, even though he later returned to his apartment in Leningrad, most chassidim did not go to daven with him that Rosh Hashanah.[14]

For that Tishrei (5688/1927), everyone desired to be with the Rebbe in Leningrad. At the same time, they were hesitant to go, as it might place the Rebbe in danger, as was expressed by the mashpiim. However, on Erev Shabbos Shuvah, the students and chassidim heard that the Rebbe had received permission from the government to leave Russia right after Sukkos. Additionally, we all saw that the leading chassidim who had stated not to go to the Rebbe, had left Nevel and gone to the Rebbe in Leningrad.

As a result, it was decided that anyone who wished (and who didn’t wish) to be with the Rebbe could go.

The train station of Nevel was not a major station, and therefore, they usually only had fifty tickets available daily to Leningrad. It was, therefore, suggested that some people go to the stations in neighboring towns. Nevertheless, on Motzoei Shabbos, over three hundred chassidim and tmimim were waiting in the station.

After he finished selling his fifty tickets, the clerk told everyone that there were no more tickets available. Some chassidim began offering him extra money for a ticket, but to no avail. Despite this, everyone remained in the station, hoping for a miracle.

When the train pulled into the station and the conductor saw the tremendous crowd, he realized that something special must be happening. So instead of announcing the station name (“Nevel”), he announced, “It is possible.” Evidently, he didn’t want anyone to miss out on this special event, whatever it was.

We all became jubilant as we understood the hint, and everyone rushed aboard. Once the train pulled out of the station, the conductor went around to collect the tickets. From those who didn’t have one, he accepted whatever amount of money they offered him.

Each day we were able to be in the Rebbe’s presence was treasured. The inspiration of the tefillos of Yom Kippur and the first days of Sukkos were unforgettable. Although the Rebbe didn’t farbreng during the first days of Sukkos, the elder chassidim did, speaking from their hearts.

Before Simchas Torah, the Rebbe told Reb Chatche that he could only allow a few talmidim to participate in the Simchas Torah farbrengen. However, knowing that in all probability this would be their final chance to hear the Rebbe farbreng, he didn’t have the heart to tell anyone he couldn’t enter. But to tell everyone to enter would contradict the Rebbe’s guidelines, so he opened the door slightly and everyone entered on their own.[15]

The farbrengen[16] ended at around midnight. After the farbrengen, the Rebbe told Reb Chatche that he would like to dance with the talmidim. However, at that moment, someone informed the Rebbe that he had a visitor. 

We didn’t know who that person was, but the Rebbe immediately went to his room to speak with him. At around two-thirty in the morning, Reb Chatche told us, “You see that it will be a long conversation. Go get some rest.”

At five in the morning, the Rebbe came out of his room and asked, “Are the tmimim still here?” When we heard about this in the morning, we were devastated. The Rebbe had wanted to dance with us, and we weren’t there!

On Isru Chag, we all went to the station to see the Rebbe for the last time in Russia. I and a few other chassidim looked at one of the many policemen standing there. He probably thought we were laughing at him, because all of a sudden, we were taken into a side room for questioning. However, shortly before the train was about to leave, we were informed, “You can now go and escort your Rebbe.”

Becoming the Mashgiach in Kremenchuk

After Shabbos Bereishis, we returned to Nevel in small groups, hoping not to attract the attention of the authorities. However, shortly after getting off the train, I was taken in by the N.K.V.D. for a few hours for questioning. Six weeks later, they closed the shul in which we were learning, and two weeks later, many of the students were arrested for a day. They asked all of us the same question: “Who is Nissan Nemenov, and what is your connection to him?”

We all answered that we didn’t know him. However, it was clear that they knew about the yeshiva and that it could not remain in Nevel. Most of the students decided to join the branch of the yeshiva in Vitebsk, where Reb Yehudah Eber gave a shiur in Nigleh.[17]

However, some of the students lived in Nevel, while others couldn’t go to Vitebsk for other reasons. Since I was one of the older tmimim, it was decided that I would remain and be the mashgiach of the remaining students. This responsibility included finding a place to eat for those who didn’t have family there. A month later, all the boys — besides those who lived in Nevel — went to Vitebsk, and I went there as well.[18]

I remained in Vitebsk for a few months, until the hanhalah sent me back to Nevel. But after being there for just two weeks, I noticed that I was being followed by the authorities, as they were aware of my activities with the yeshiva. At that point, I again returned to Vitebsk for a few months, until the hanhalah appointed me to become the mashgiach of Nigleh in Kremenchuk, although I was only eighteen.

Since my parents lived in that region, on the way to Kremenchuk I visited them for two weeks, as I hadn’t seen them for almost two years. As a tomim, I knew I had the responsibility to inspire others, so I gave a shiur in Tanya in the shul between Minchah and Maariv.

While most of the community members enjoyed it and thanked me, there was one person who not only didn’t participate but would intentionally learn very loud in order to disturb the shiur. At one point, I went over to him and asked him why he was doing so.

He replied by saying something derogatory about chassidim in general. He said, “I heard in the name of a certain Godol that the Tanya is partially based on a statement of Iyov, and the Gemora states that Iyov was wrong for saying it.[19] If the Tanya’s foundation is wrong, the whole sefer is wrong!”

“If you look at that Gemora,” I replied, “you will see that Iyov was wrong for questioning Hashem’s judgement against him. That means that what Iyov said was actually true, just that he should have accepted Hashem’s judgement without questioning it.”

Seeing that a young chossid was able to answer a question in Nigleh without needing to open the relevant sefer, he changed completely. Not only did he stop disturbing but he actually became a friend and assisted me.

I then took leave of my parents. None of us realized that this would be the last time we would see each other.

In Kremenchuk, I was the mashgiach in Nigleh.[20] The hanhalah also gave me additional responsibilities, such as raising money, etc. One of the reasons I was chosen was that I was then an older bochur, and in case I would need to disappear suddenly from the authorities, I would not be leaving a wife and children to fend on their own.

My official responsibility was to be with the talmidim when they learned Nigleh.[21] However, since many of them were away from their families, my responsibilities toward them became all-encompassing. If one of them became ill, I would take him to the doctor, and when necessary, I would take care of them during the night.

Additionally, I was an excellent swimmer, so in the summer, I took the students swimming in the river. One time, a student named Yosef. M. got a cramp while swimming. Luckily, I noticed his dilemma, swiftly swam over, and brought him out of the water.[22]

Since organized learning was forbidden, we learned in a shul that had a women’s section upstairs on the balcony. As an extra precaution, I would sit in a corner far from them, and while they were learning Gemora, I would learn Chassidus. This way, in case the police would come in and catch us, I could show them that we were learning different subjects and had nothing to do with each other.

As an additional precaution, boys would take turns looking out of the two opposite windows to see if anyone was coming to the shul. When they would notice a stranger coming, I would hurriedly climb down a ladder (which would then be pulled back up) and walk out before the stranger entered the shul. This way, the boys would give the impression that they were studying on their own without supervision, which was allowed.

This went on for a year and a half. However, one day, the police suddenly arrived. While I was able to climb down, I couldn’t leave the shul, as they were standing outside the door. So I sat down and busied myself “fixing” the tzitzis on my tallis koton. When they entered, they caught me by myself without a sefer, but not all of them were fooled. One of them remarked, “This man changes his residence a few times a year. Evidently, he is doing something illegal.” However, Boruch Hashem they let me go.

Hearing this threat, I realized it was time for me to move on and find a new home. But leaving Kremenchuk was not easy,[23] as I had become close to and fond of many of the ziknei hachassidim, such as Reb Yitzchok Yoel Raphalovitch, Reb Menachem Mendel Yanovsky, and Reb Shimon Levin, among others. There were also some tmimim there who had merited to learn in Lubavitch, and it was a pleasure to discuss a thought in Chassidus with them.

SAVED IN THE MERIT OF MY GRANDMOTHER

Three of the older boys left with me on the three-day train ride to Vitebsk. Since it was a long journey, people noticed what the other passengers were doing. One gentile realized that while I did not say a word to the other boys, they were following my example by putting on tefillin and davening. While I was only a few years older than them (as I was only twenty years old), my full beard made it appear as if I was much older.

He became enraged and started scolding me. “It is bad enough that you go against our government,” he said. “But that is how you were raised and what you are accustomed to for many years, so you can’t change your habits. But why are you teaching these young boys to follow your old-fashioned ways? Let them grow up as the government wishes and become model citizens!”

Raising his voice, he threatened to hand me over to those who knew how to take care of people of my sort. From the tone of his voice, I realized it was a serious threat and that I was in deep trouble. But his accent was somewhat familiar, so I asked him where he was from. I was also hoping to change the topic.

When he mentioned the name of his hometown, I remembered that that town was close to my hometown of Mirgorod. “Have you heard of the famous nurse, Bubbe Dinske?” I asked him.[24]

Hearing the name, his eyes lit up, and he spoke in glowing terms of her selfless devotion to all her patients. Stopping suddenly, he asked me, “How do you know of her?”

Hearing that she was my father’s mother, his demeanor changed completely. “I was planning to inform on your illegal activities to the authorities,” he said. “You know that the conductor and other train staff are agents of the G.P.U. However, because of your grandmother’s devotion to my family’s health, I will leave you alone. You have nothing to be afraid of.”

The Yeshiva in Vitebsk

Upon arriving in Vitebsk, our small group settled in one of the local shuls, as usual. As the months went by and more bochurim came, we began using additional shuls.  Many of us decided to use a shul in the outskirts of the city.

During the winter this was a wise decision, as we didn’t attract too much attention. We were able to cross a frozen river to get to the mikvah. However, in the spring and summer, we had to walk over the bridge, which was opposite the G.P.U. building. All they needed to do was to look out the window and they would see us. We foolishly thought that by wearing scarves, they wouldn’t realize that we had beards, so we all walked with our faces covered.

On the 8th of Tishrei,I was taken in for questioning. One of the first questions was, “Why do so many of you wear scarves over your faces even during the hot summer days?”

“Personally,” I replied, “I have been suffering from a severe toothache for several weeks, and that is why I wear one. As for the other boys, I never discussed this with them, so I can’t tell you why they do so.”

Laughing at me, they said, “Do you think we are so foolish as to believe that all the boys had toothaches for the entire summer?!” However, I played ignorant and repeated my answer as before: “I can only tell you about myself. I can’t talk for anyone else.”

They then informed me: “We will let you go on condition that you agree to come to us periodically to answer our questions properly.”

“You want me to become a moser (informer)?” I replied. “That I will never do!”

“We have ways of forcing you to come here,” they responded. “If you don’t agree to come on your own, we might even send our dogs after you!”

“Which dogs?” I retorted. “The four-footed ones or the two-footed ones?”

My reply infuriated them. “What are you talking about?” they asked.

Simply nodding my head, I answered, “I know of the many two-legged dogs that work for you. But I am not afraid of any dog, not the four-legged ones nor the human, two-legged ones.”   

Seeing that I was refusing to work for them, I was arrested and placed in jail. Luckily, I always walked around with my tefillin, so I was able to daven with tefillin the following day, erev Yom Kippur. That night and the next day, I said the Yom Kippur tefillos to the best of my memory. The guards all mocked me: “How are your prayers going to help you?” However, Boruch Hashem, I was released while saying the al cheit of Shacharis the following morning.

After this ordeal, I realized that they knew where I was staying, so I moved to another place in the city. For half a year I worked as a shoemaker, and then for another six months, I worked as a night watchman.[25]

Moscow and Reb Avrohom Drizin (Ma’yor)

In 5691 (1931), when I was around twenty-two, hearing that Moscow had become a haven for Anash, I moved there. I was fortunate to meet the noted chossid Reb Avrohom Drizin (Mayor), who invited me into his house. I will never forget the kindness he did for me. He had his own family to take care of, and he, too, needed to keep a low profile from the authorities for his own “illegal” activities on behalf of the chadorim. Yet, he gave me, a fugitive, a place to eat and sleep. If not for his kindness, I don’t know how I would have survived.

In 5693 (1933) (at that time I was twenty-four), the government decreed that all passports (citizenship papers) needed be renewed. Although no one, including myself, though I would be granted new papers, I applied. To everyone’s surprise, I was granted new papers. So while I was now legally allowed to live there, I still needed to hide my whereabouts.

One of Reb Avrohom’s neighbors began making trouble for him, so he moved to Malachovka (a suburb of Moscow). As a result, I no longer had a place to sleep. However, shortly after he moved out, a butcher by the name Reb Chaim who was a tremendous yirei Shomayim moved into Reb Avrohom’s old house. He kindly allowed me and another few tmimim to sleep in one of the rooms.[26] Sometime later, Reb Chaim received permission to move to Eretz Yisroel, and once again I had no way to support myself nor a place to live.

Reb Moshe Katzman[27] then taught me the art of bookbinding, which was in great demand. This profession provided me with a livelihood in Moscow, as well as later on, when I was sent into exile. I rented an apartment in Malachovka and was self-sufficient for about a year, until I was arrested by the G.P.U. on the 13th of Elul, 5695 (Sept. 14th, 1935),[28] a few months before I became twenty-six.

My Arrest

That morning, I went to my job as a bookbinder in a factory as usual. However, to my horror, standing in front of the door to the room I worked, were two agents of the G.P.U. Luckily, I had the foresight to plan for this eventuality, and I always carried my tefillin with me. However, they didn’t take me to prison immediately. Instead, they made me wait, as they were waiting for other workers to arrive so they could arrest them as well.[29]

We arrived at the prison in the evening, but once again we were made to wait until past midnight for the interrogation to begin. I then noticed that many of the workers in the prison were regulars in the shuls who officially came to daven. In truth, however, they came to see who was really davening and to find out additional information about us. So they had a file about my life, as well as my “activities” against the state.

When I was brought in for interrogation, they wanted to open my tefillin to see if anything was hidden inside the batim. I held on to my tefillin and shouted, “You can do to me whatever you wish, but under no circumstance will I allow you to open my tefillin. You won’t be able to close them, and I won’t be able to put on tefillin again!”

Obviously, they weren’t planning to listen, and they tried to take them away from me. I continued holding on to them, causing a commotion. B’hashgachah protis, at that moment the supervisor of political arrests, a Jewish man named Yakobovitch, entered the room. Seeing the commotion, he told the interrogator, “Leave this person alone! He is not one of those people who use their tefillin boxes to hide money or gems inside.” This was just one of the many open and concealed miracles that happened to me. 

After asking me for my name and age, the interrogator asked me, “Why is it that at your age of twenty-five you are still not married?”

“I didn’t know you were a matchmaker,” I replied. “Nor do I care for your advice on whom I should marry.”

Then came the real interrogation. They demanded that I confess to being an important figure in the religious movement against the government. “I don’t know what you are talking about,” I replied. “I am a religious Jew who minds his own business. I am not involved in any communal matters.”

Hearing my reply, the interrogator said mockingly, “I forgot to mention that you are also a humble person who shuns any credit. But we know the truth, and the fact is that you are an important figure among them.”

“Thank you for your compliment,” I replied. “If I would have known that you hold me in such high esteem, I wouldn’t have waited to hear about my greatness until you arrested me; I would have come on my own. However, I can’t answer your question, as I have no idea what you are talking about.”

Losing his patience, he hollered, “You are a counter-revolutionary!”

“Am I a Trotskyist or a Busarinist, or do I belong to some other party?” I asked him.

Full of anger and with murderous eyes, he said threateningly, “You are against all of the parties. If you continue refusing to answer my questions, I will send you to an uninhabitable place!”

“There is no place where the Creator is not present,” I replied, “so you can’t scare me.”

“Listen to me, Meir son of Gershon. He who will laugh last can laugh now!”

“I am confident that I will laugh at you in the future, and therefore I am laughing at you now.”

At that moment the supervisor passed by again. Turning to him, the interrogator said, “I can’t figure him out. He makes believe he is a fool and laughs at everything I say!” However, the supervisor didn’t reply. Seeing that the supervisor was ignoring him, he gave up and sent me to my prison room.

As the days passed and I wasn’t called, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, you never know what they have against you. On the other hand, perhaps they had nothing against me, and Boruch Hashem I hadn’t “confessed” to anything under their pressure.

The law stated that after fourteen days, a prisoner must be informed of the charges against him. So after sitting in my cell for two weeks, I was informed that although there were no criminal charges against me, I was being held and sentenced by Administrative Judgement.[30] The implication was that I would not be sentenced to prison, rather I would be exiled. 

One who was exiled was allowed to choose his own employment as well as his own lodging. The only thing he was required to do was to present himself on a weekly basis to the regional office of the G.P.U.

During that time, I davened by heart. However, with the selichos and the extra tefillos of the Yomim Nora’im, I was only able to daven the parts I knew by heart.

On Yom Kippur, I fasted. In my cell were some Jews who were former high Communist officials and had fallen out of grace, and they also fasted. After midday, they wanted to eat. However, they were embarrassed that a fragile man was able to fast the entire day while they couldn’t.

Talking among themselves but loud enough for me to hear, they said, “If he continues to fast, the guard will accuse him of influencing others [i.e., them] to fast, and the punishment they will give him will be much more severe.” Obviously, they were making believe they were concerned about me.

Together with us in the cell was a murderer who would frequently boast about his deeds. He would say, “They can only kill me once, so I have nothing to be afraid of.” Realizing that they were trying to intimidate me to break my fast, he said to them, “I am a witness that this religious Jew didn’t mention a word about today’s holiday or whether you should fast. You all fasted of your own accord. If you wish to eat now, no one is telling you not to. So leave the young rabbi alone! If not, your end will be bitter. With these teeth of mine, I will rip your necks open and sever your food pipes!”

Seeing that he meant what he said, they stopped speaking about my fasting and davening.

To be reflective and thoughtful that Yom Kippur wasn’t difficult. However, to be joyful that Simchas Torah wasn’t that easy.

After Yom Tov, I received additional cellmates: Reb Shlomo Matusof(who later became my brother-in-law[31]), Reb Abba Levin, Reb Yaakov Muskalik hy”d, and Reb Yitzchok Goldin.

Exiled to Kazakhstan

Two months later, in Kislev (November 3rd, 1935), my sentence was determined. I, as well as the other chassidim, would be exiled. I was called into a room and informed that all exiles needed to have their beards shaven or at least cut short with scissors.

“If you try to touch my beard, I will hit you!” I threatened.

“But this is the procedure with all exiles,” he replied.

“Am I a criminal who stole something?”

“No.”

“So I was arrested only because I keep the laws of the Torah. Therefore, under no circumstance will I allow you to cut my beard. Either you will need to cut off my head, or I will beat you to death!” Boruch Hashem, he responded angrily, “Leave!” without touching my beard.

The day we left the prison on our way to exile, our belongings, including our tefillin, were returned to us. We were put on a train, which became our prison for the next few days. When the train arrived in Syzran, we were dispersed to our designated place of exile: Ural, Siberia, Turkistan, Uzbekistan, or elsewhere. 

Our group was sent to Alma Alta, the capital of Kazakhstan. From there we were sent to the city of Chimkent. When we arrived there, we were simply dropped off and had no idea where to go. The locals didn’t speak Russian, and they just pointed in the direction of the marketplace.

Noticing some Jews there, we approached them. Realizing that we were Ashkenazim (while they were Sephardim), they directed us to the newly appointed Ashkenazi Rov. How joyful we were when we saw that it was none other than a fellow chossid, Reb DovBer Yaffe of Vitebsk.

After an emotional reunion and a short rest, we went to present ourselves to the local police commander. He decided that I and Reb Yitzchok Goldin would go to the city of Turkistan,[32] while the other chassidim would go to Lenger, a city located hundreds of kilometers away. Although we tried to keep in touch with them by writing letters, ultimately we lost contact of each other.

The apartment we rented was located directly behind the house of the prison administrator, and adjacent to that was the headquarters of the local G. P. U., so every sound we made or song we sang was heard by them. 

Being in exile meant that I needed to fend for myself, and Boruch Hashem, my skill as an experienced bookbinder was in high demand. In addition to making a relatively comfortable living, I enjoyed the benefit of being offered a ride both ways to my place of work (as the business district was located four kilometers from where we lodged), as well as other favors.

One day the regular driver couldn’t take me, so I walked home. A few hours later, another walker was killed on that very road. From then on, whenever a ride home wasn’t available, I would stay alone in the building, bind some additional books, and sleep there.

Once, while waiting for a ride, one of the cars that would normally pick me up slowed down and then drove off. I later heard that the local assistant administrator of the G.P.U. was in the car and he had instructed the driver not to pick me up. “Who does he think he is,” he said, “that he can demand or expect a ride from everyone? He acts as if he is in charge over here. Doesn’t he realize that he is a prisoner?!”

When the driver explained why he hadn’t picked me up and informed me of this statement, I made believe I was hurt. However, I knew the assistant administrator had done it for my own good. He didn’t want anyone to suspect that he often helped us, and therefore he had pretended that he disliked me. Many times he warned us to be careful of the new Chassidim who had come to town, as they were agents, hoping to get us to say something against the government.

Around six months after we arrived there, another chossid was exiled to our city. It was Reb Leizer Nannes. Then, during the next year and a half, hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens across the country, Jews and non-Jews alike were resettled. While this brought us some happiness, as there were many more Jews in town, our situation became precarious. The charge against us was that we were counter-revolutionaries, and now we were under suspicion of encouraging others to be the same.

As expected, one day a newcomer came to our apartment and spoke against the system and the terrible things it did to his family. He sounded convincing, but we were warned of his real intentions, so we replied that we were not interested in hearing this. When he persisted, we threatened to inform on him if he continued.

He left and evidently told his handler that he couldn’t get us to say anything negative because he had a cut beard. Sure enough, a few days later an older, bearded Jew came by and, after some small talk, said, “Doesn’t the government realize that religious Jews are not involved in politics and that you were falsely arrested?”

“The government has its laws,” we replied. “Someone probably lied to them about us and therefore we were exiled. When the truth will be seen, we are confident that justice will prevail and the authorities will free us.”

When he, too, gave over his report about us, all suspicions against us were dropped, and they were no longer concerned about the many Jews who visited us.

The following year, because of his weak health, Reb Yitzchok was allowed to move to a warmer climate in exile. However, his concern for us remained. Since he was a shochet, whenever he found a Jew who would be traveling from his distant place to ours, he would ask him to bring along a slaughtered chicken or two for us.

One of the most memorable occurrences of my exile happened that Sukkos with Reb Leizer.[33] 

Two months later, Reb Leizer was ordered to move to a different city, and I remained alone for almost a full year.

On Erev Yom Kippur of the following year, I found a lake to immerse in. Although it was freezing, I toiveled in it three times. The following day, I began to feel pain. I dismissed it, thinking that when I would eat after the fast it would go away. However, the pain persisted. In the middle of Chol Hamoed Sukkos, my temperature rose above 40° Celsius (105° Fahrenheit). Nevertheless, I was determined to continue celebrating the Yomim Tovim.

However, on Simchas Torah I had no strength whatsoever, and I lay down to rest. Suddenly, I felt myself drenched in sweat, and every limb of my body felt heavy. I called out for someone to come and help me, but no one arrived.  Either they didn’t hear my cry or they intentionally ignored me. So with every ounce of strength I still had, I stood up and walked to the nearby hospital.

When I came, they politely informed me that they were full and could not accept me. I went over to the head nurse and informed her that I believed I had my crisis and was desperate for medical help to recover. She believed me somewhat and began checking me, and almost immediately she instructed that I be admitted.

They brought me some jello but I refused to eat it. When they asked me why, I explained that I only ate kosher food. “When you are in your own home, you can do as you wish,” they said. “But here, you must do as you are instructed. Your situation is precarious!”

“I may be a simple person,” I replied, “but my rabbi is great.” Obviously, these words were a no-no, as they immediately informed the N.K.V.D. of what I had said.

As mentioned, I was supposed to present myself to the police station on a weekly basis. When I didn’t show up, they called the hospital. The nurse who took the call couldn’t believe they were looking for me. “Why are you so interested in him?” she inquired. “He is closer to the next world than he is to this one.” Hearing their conversation didn’t quite cheer me up.

It took a few weeks until I was able to walk. At that time I became an outpatient, and I was instructed to come back every few days. Coming home, I saw that my neighbors had helped themselves to my large storage of coals. All they had left for me was the coal dust. Desperate for some warmth in the house, I blew on them to create a larger fire. While the house did become warmer, I became ill, as I inhaled a lot of the dust.

Finally, I was healthy again, and a short time later, my three-year sentence was over. However, they didn’t give me permission to leave. Evidently, the words I had said in the hospital hadn’t made them happy.

Left with no choice, I wrote to the minister in charge, demanding my release. A few weeks later, I was officially informed that I was free to move wherever I wanted, besides Moscow.

Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. He can be contacted at [email protected]


[1] I had five brothers and three sisters.

Compiler’s note: Based on the information we received from his niece in Russia, the following is the order of their births: Raya (Risha), 5658/1898; Herschel (Grigory), 5660/1900; Aaron (Arkady), 5661/1901, a soldier who was killed in World War I; Roza, 5663/1903; Bentzion (Boris), 5665/1905; Shimon (Semyon), 5667/1907; my father, 5669 /1909; and Devorah, 5673/1913.

[2] His parents were Bentzion and Dinah.

[3] Her father’s name was Meir Sorotzkin, and he was a Cantonist soldier.

Compiler’s note: We have yet to find out her mother’s name.

[4] Bava Kama, Bava Metzia, and Bava Basra.

[5] In Kiev, there was a Jew who provided me with cholov Yisroel on a daily basis. Otherwise, however, the conditions were not good. I slept on a bench with my jacket serving as a pillow and my coat serving as a blanket.

[6] Such as the ideologies of Communism and Zionism.

[7] This was in the winter. In the summer, Maariv was after seder Chassidus at night.

[8] Compiler’s note: Perhaps that experience is what inspired my father to become an oved himself. On a regular Shabbos, my father would begin his preparations for davening at seven in the morning, and we would sit down to the meal at around two in the afternoon. Quite often, after our neighbors concluded their Shabbos meal, they would take their children for a walk to our house and linger near the window, telling them to listen how a Jew davens.

[9] Compiler’s note: See above, section on the Frierdiker Rebbe, where additional things my father heard and noticed that Rosh Hashanah are related.

[10] Compiler’s note: That was the only yechidus my father had with the Frierdiker Rebbe. He never told me what he asked and what the Rebbe told him.

[11] The Maggid was nistalek on Yud-Tes Kislev, 5533, and the Alter Rebbe was arrested in 5559, almost twenty-six years later. The Maggid assumed the nesius on Shavuos of 5521, so he was Rebbe for eleven-and-a-half years. When exactly this accusation occurred is not known. 

We know of one more heavenly accusation when the Maggid said his life was in danger, and he was saved when the Alter Rebbe said the famous parable of the precious diamond in the centerpiece of the king’s crown. See The Tanya: Its Story and History, pp ——.

[12] Compiler’s note: As noted in the section on the Frierdiker Rebbe, my father and another bochur began fasting on Mondays and Thursdays beginning from Rosh Hashanah.

[13] Compiler’s note: My father’s happiness and joy over the Frierdiker Rebbe’s liberation was not limited to that year; it could be seen on his face every Yud-Beis Tammuz. One Yud-Beis Tammuz a year or two before my father was niftar, as he was walking down Eastern Parkway, he remarked, “Something is wrong. I don’t feel the spirit of Yud-Beis Tammuz in the air!”

[14] Reb Meir Simcha Chein was one of the exceptions.

[15] See above, section on the Alter Rebbe, “The Shidduch That Could Not Be Broken.”

[16] See above, section on the Frierdiker Rebbe, “The Connection of a Rebbe and His Chassidim.

[17] Compiler’s note: Evidently Reb Yehudah Eber had left Nevel earlier. 

[18] From then on Reb Eliezer Gurevitch taught the boys remaining in Nevel.

[19] Bava Basra 16a.

[20] Reb Yisroel Noach Belinitzky was in charge of the yeshiva, and the maggid shiur was Reb Menachem Mendel Gribov.

[21] Compiler’s note: When we were sitting shivah after our father’s petirah, many people who were under his supervision told us that although he was in charge of Nigleh, everyone knew that his koch (excitement and enjoyment) was in Chassidus,and especially in avodas hatefillah. What impressed them the most was that on Shabbos, he would wake up early, learn Chassidus for a few hours, and then daven until mid-afternoon.

[22] Author’s note: On another occasion, when I was swimming in the Dnieper River, a non-Jew attacked me and tried to drown me. Escaping from his clutches, I dove down quite deep and waited in the water for as long as I was able. I then surfaced and grabbed him in a headlock.

After a few moments of struggling, he realized that he couldn’t escape his fate and it was all over. When I saw that he was no longer fighting, I told him, “I will let you free, as a Jew doesn’t kill just for the thrill of it. Just tell your gang to leave Jews alone, as next time you won’t be so lucky.”

[23] The only thing that didn’t bother me was the fact that I would no longer need to pay an exorbitant price for pas Yisroel. In Kremenchuk there was only one Jewish baker, whereas in Vitebsk there were a few (and competition brings down the price).

[24] Dinske was a nickname for Dinah.                                           

[25] When I now think of the cramped quarters where I served as a watchman and how I shared them with the mice, I don’t know how I did it.

[26] Out of gratitude, I tutored his son as well as other children of Anash. Additionally, I often helped him transport meat from the slaughterhouse to his store. I would carry sixty pounds at a time on my shoulders.

[27] While in general the members of Anash helped each other, often even if it placed them in danger, this could not be taken for granted. When I was staying with Reb Avrohom, I heard about an individual who purportedly helped Anash find sources of livelihood. After meeting with him numerous times, he told me to obtain a textile machine which he would pay for.

I traveled to Leningrad, and after negotiating on a good machine, I returned to Moscow, showing him the agreement. But from promising to producing can be further than two sides of an ocean, and nothing came of it.

This recognition makes my appreciation of those who went out of their way to help me and others much deeper. 

[28] At that time, they also arrested the following chassidim: Leizer Gorelik, Mendel Gorelik, Abba Levin, Yaakov Moskanlik, Yitzchok Goldin, and Shlomo Matusof. They also wanted to arrest Avrohom Drizen, but he managed to evade them.

[29] Compiler’s note: I don’t know if the others were all the chassidim mentioned in the previous note, or others.

[30] In addition to charging people for breaking the law, the government sometimes ordered a person to resettle because they believed it would be beneficial for the country. This process was called Administrative Judgement.

[31] He married my future wife’s sister.

[32] Compiler’s note: Not to be confused with the region of Turkistan mentioned above.

[33] See above, “Celebrating Sukkos Outside The K.G. B. Office.”

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