The Frierdiker Rebbe’s “Soviet” Photo

By Dovid Margolin Chabad.org

It was the day after Sukkos, 5688/1927, and the Leningrad train platform was packed. Eye-witnesses reported 1,000 Russian Jews of all backgrounds appearing at the station, despite the obvious dangers, to bid their Rebbe farewell. The masses watched as Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn—the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe and beyond question the leader of Soviet Jewry—boarded a Latvia-bound train together with his family. For the preceding decade, the Rebbe had suffered for his efforts to strengthen Judaism within the Soviet Union, and now he was being expelled.

The men and women gathered there knew that this might be their last chance to see the Rebbe with their own eyes. Indeed, the vast majority of Russian Jews, both on the platform and elsewhere throughout the country, would never again have the opportunity.

For everyone, but especially Lubavitcher Chassidim, this was unprecedented. Since the times of the Alter Rebbe, anyone who had wished to see the Rebbe had to only travel to his court. It might have been difficult, but it was within the realm of the possible. This had continued for six generations of Rebbes, through war and displacement, as the movement moved from one town to the next: Liozhna, Liadi, Lubavitch, Rostov and now Leningrad. Traveling to the Rebbe for the Yomim Nora’im—or to request a blessing and guidance in one’s spiritual, material, personal or communal affairs—was a central aspect of Chassidic life. But now an Iron Curtain separated the new Soviet Union and the rest of the world, making visiting the Rebbe at his new base in Riga, Latvia—at the time an independent country—impossible.

For those stuck in Russia, maintaining their connection with the Rebbe, a source of spiritual strength and indescribably more, was of the greatest importance. How were they to do so when they could not see him any longer?

That’s where the lone photograph comes in. I had long heard that prior to his exile from the Soviet Union—home to millions of Jews and the vast majority of his Chassidim—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak had left behind a photograph of himself. Portraits of a Rebbe had until that time been unheard of, and even the famous renderings of the Chabad Rebbes—there is one of Rabbi Schneur Zalman and another of his grandson, the third Rebbe, The Tzemach Tzedek – had been created by non-Jews. That the Rebbe had left behind his own picture, knowing how great the physical distance and the spiritual longing would be, was something altogether new.

Of course, due to the dangers, the very existence of the photo would have been kept a secret. Throughout the rest of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s life, he maintained surreptitious contact with Jews in the Soviet Union. Letters exchanged were in code and employed pseudonyms. In the 1930s, when the Rebbe sent envoys relaying messages and funds into the country, they were almost invariably modern-looking Jewish businesspeople and not identifiable as Chassidim. Any materials with a direct connection to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak—letters, instructions—were exceptionally dangerous. His likeness, in a land where purged public figures were routinely airbrushed out of even widely circulated photographs, was damning.

The Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, in 1927, around the time he left the Soviet Union for the last time. A version of this photo would remain behind, and appear abroad as well.
The Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, in 1927, around the time he left the Soviet Union for the last time. A version of this photo would remain behind, and appear abroad as well.

Fascinated by the photo and the story behind it, I set out in an attempt to confirm it and identify exactly which picture it was. Most of the people of the age to remember the photograph from the Soviet Union have unfortunately passed away. Due to the secrecy that had initially surrounded it, their children have few detailed recollections about it either. Nevertheless, I was eventually led to Avraham Kozliner, a resident of the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., and the grandson of Rabbi Chaim Zalman Kozliner, who had served as one of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s secretaries prior to the Rebbe’s leaving the Soviet Union.

The story, it seems, goes like this: Following the Rebbe’s release from Soviet imprisonment in the summer of 1927, a game of international geopolitics commenced. Having been pressured to release the Rebbe, the Russians did not want him causing more problems within the country. The decision was made to exile him without his family, who would be held as collateral. The Rebbe refused such conditions, making it clear that he would leave only with family, as well as his enormous library. At the end of a tense summer, the Russians finally agreed to expel the Rebbe together with his family and even with his library; in the beginning of October the necessary exit visas were issued. The Rebbe would also need a Soviet passport, and in preparation, a photograph was taken. It is presumed that this passport photo was the one that remained behind.

“The Rebbe gave my grandfather a glass plate negative and told him it was for Tomchei Temimim,” referring to the students of the now-underground yeshivah system the Rebbe had built, says Avraham Kozliner. It was a conscious decision on the Rebbe’s part. “The Rebbe left him the negative; it wasn’t smuggled in later.”

Soviet censorship committee's permission for "Citizen Schneersohn" to take his library with him to Latvia, signed in Leningrad on. October 3, 1927.
Soviet censorship committee’s permission for “Citizen Schneersohn” to take his library with him to Latvia, signed in Leningrad on. October 3, 1927.

The elder Kozliner, who with his family remained in the Soviet Union until the early 1970s, kept the negative hidden, sometimes even in the ground, and over the years the image deteriorated. But not before a limited number of copies were made and spread out among Chassidim.

Of course, the photo was not the only, nor even the primary avenue by which to remain connected with the Rebbe. Like his predecessors and his successor, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak made clear to his followers that the strongest bond between them would be maintained through their dedicated study of chassidus, both the classical texts and the Rebbe’s own teachings. Still, for anyone remaining there, this particular photo was the only way aside from memory to once again view the Rebbe’s holy face, his stern and determined gaze staring back, demanding service and action on behalf of the Jewish people, no matter the price. Not many had the photo; some had it and pulled it out on rare occasions; others were even less daring than that. But, like the everlasting familial relationship it represented, it was there.

Yet I still wanted to find even one person who remembered seeing it.

***

Rabbi Azriel Chaikin, together with his wife, Sara, has served as an emissary of the Rebbe to Agadir, Morocco; Copenhagen, Denmark; Brussels, Belgium; and Kiev, Ukraine. Today, they live in Brooklyn. Over the course of a number of interviews with Rabbi Chaikin, he mentioned to me that while growing up in the Soviet Union—he was born in Soviet Georgia in 1931—he remembers his father secretly showing him a photo of The Frierdiker Rebbe. The time, the atmosphere, even the Rebbe’s eyes, all of it remained clear in his memory. I had found my photograph.

Or had I?

Back in 5688/1927, during that last festive month of Tishrei—encompassing Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkos—Chaikin’s father, Rabbi Meir Chaim Chaikin, then a 20-year-old student at the Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim in the town of Nevel, had traveled to Leningrad to spend the Yomim Tovim with the Rebbe. It was a bittersweet time for him and the throngs of Jews squeezing into the Rebbe’s home and shul at Mokhovaya 22 in Leningrad. Although the holidays were happy, the realization that the Rebbe was leaving was devastating.

It must have been there, I thought, that the elder Chaikin had obtained the Rebbe’s photograph. Rabbi Azriel Chaikin wasn’t sure. I’d have to bring him the photo I suspected for him to confirm.

If this wasn’t the photo, could there be a second one? Meanwhile, he told me his father’s story.

July 20, 1927 headline in the Warsaw Hebrew daily Hazefirah announcing that the Rebbe has been freed.
July 20, 1927 headline in the Warsaw Hebrew daily Hazefirah announcing that the Rebbe has been freed.

To the Frontlines

Over the month that Rabbi Meir Chaim Chaikin spent in Leningrad, the unmarried young man managed to have a private audience with the Rebbe, during which the Rebbe instructed him to seek out a town where he could enter the rabbinate. A year later, Chaikin became the rabbi and shochet of the town of Surazh, northeast of Vitebsk, (today, Suraž, Belarus), where he proved a popular figure.

The 5680s/1920s were the height of power for the Jewish sections of the Communist Party—the Yevsektzia—and its members spent the decade intimidating rabbis and Jewish communal figures, targeting them with unique ferocity. While anti-Semitism had officially been banned in the Soviet Union, on paper a great change in comparison to the vicious policies of Czarist Russia, Communist anti-religious actions more than made up for it. In the name of socialism, they forced the disbanded kehillahs to hand over synagogues and other Jewish communal property, persecuted any form of Jewish education (including officially legal ones), attacked religious functionaries and instigated arrests by the secret police, then called the OGPU. The Yevsektzia often had free reign, especially in historically Jewish towns, and it could inspire mobs to lynch those it saw as enemies. While blanket executions were not nearly as widespread as they would become during Stalin’s Great Terror, it was during this decade that organized Jewish religious life was systematically destroyed and its remnants forced underground.

After some time in Surazh, the young rabbi’s success caught the attention of the local Yevsektzia, and a friend warned him that his arrest was imminent. Chaikin fled immediately, crossing a frozen lake to reach the nearest town’s train station.8 From there, he set off for the distant mountains of Soviet Georgia, where he would spend the next decade.

An October 28, 1927, update in the Jewish Chronicle (UK) reporting that "Rabbi Schneersohn, the famous Rabbi of Lubavitch" who had been recently released by. Soviet authorities is now "settling in Riga with his. family. The Rabbi has brought with him to his new home his library of 10,000 books, including manuscripts by the Baal Shem Tov, Maharash and other great Rabbis..."
An October 28, 1927, update in the Jewish Chronicle (UK) reporting that “Rabbi Schneersohn, the famous Rabbi of Lubavitch” who had been recently released by. Soviet authorities is now “settling in Riga with his. family. The Rabbi has brought with him to his new home his library of 10,000 books, including manuscripts by the Baal Shem Tov, Maharash and other great Rabbis…”

Jewish Life in the Georgian Mountains

Chaikin arrived in Georgia in 1930, and in July of that year married Sarah Chana Kahanov in the city of Kutaisi. Kahanov’s father, Rabbi Eliyahu Shmuel, was also a Lubavitcher Chassid who had initially been sent to Georgia in 5678/1918 by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s father and predecessor, Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch (1860-1920), serving as a teacher and shochet in the city of Akhaltsikhe for a decade before once again returning to Georgia around the time of his daughter’s wedding.

Jewish life in Soviet Georgia was, if not trouble-free, easier than elsewhere. Judaism, while controlled, was not persecuted in the same way. Strictly traditional, Georgian Jews were for the most part unbothered by the government with regards to their religious observance, with the central authorities viewing them as provincial and thus unimportant.

“Of course, they closed the chadorim and the schools—the Jewish children went to the government schools; all this was the same in Georgia as in Russia,” recalls Rabbi Azriel Chaikin, the oldest child, who was born while his father was rabbi of the village of Bandza. “But the synagogues were open; they were full. People came to daven [pray]. There were shochetim in the villages; people ate kosher. So there was a certain degree of Jewish life, and as a child, I didn’t feel Yiddishkeit was a problem.”

Indeed, Georgia as late as the 1940s, while home to only 2 or 3 percent of the Jewish population of the Soviet Union, had more than 19 percent of the country’s total number of registered synagogues.

Being that it was a new phenomenon, the portrait that originated in the Soviet Union was widely reproduced. This version seems to have originated in the land of Israel around that same era. (Courtesy: Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad)
Being that it was a new phenomenon, the portrait that originated in the Soviet Union was widely reproduced. This version seems to have originated in the land of Israel around that same era. (Courtesy: Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad)

Himself an Ashkenazi, Yiddish-speaking Russian Jew, Chaikin became a rabbi for the local Georgian Jews, learning their language and taking up a position in a string of towns. By the time Azriel was growing up and forming memories, the family was living in the mountainous town of Sachkhere.

Rabbi Chaikin and his father-in-law were not anomalies. Georgian Jewry’s connection to Lubavitch stretched back to at least the turn of the century, and among Rabbi Sholom DovBer’s emissaries to Georgia had been Rabbi Shmuel Levitin (who served as rabbi in Kutaisi and Batum) and Rabbi Avraham Levi Slavin (who was sent as a rabbi to Kulashi, and later took over Levitin’s responsibilities in Kutaisi when the former was forced by authorities to flee to Batum). Chaikin was not even the first Lubavitcher Chassid to serve in Sachkhere, having been preceded there by Rabbis Yaakov Yisroel Zuber and MordechaiPerlow. These Chabad emissaries did not only strengthen Jewish life in Georgia, but taught and inspired a generation of Georgian Chachamim, who then led communities of their own. For example, Chacham Emmanuel Davidashvili, the chief rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Tbilisi, had been a close student of Kahanov’s during his time in Akhaltsikhe. A number of Georgian Chachamim even traveled to study at Lubavitcher yeshivot—Chacham Yaakov Davarashvili of Kutaisi learned in Tomchei Temimim in Rostov after World War I.

Sachkhere’s central event was the daily arrival of the narrow-gauge train, young and old coming out to exult in the excitement of steam and whistle. Aside from the odd government vehicle, traffic consisted of horses and oxen. The older Jewish neighborhood was located in the lower part of town, and the rabbi of its great stone synagogue was a Georgian: Chacham Shmuel. As Sachkhere’s community grew, the Jews moved into newer neighborhoods further up the mountain and built for themselves a large wooden synagogue, which is where Chaikin became rabbi.

The stone synagogue in Sachkhere, Georgia, circa 1929. (Credit: Mark Plisetsky/Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography [Kunstkamera])
The stone synagogue in Sachkhere, Georgia, circa 1929. (Credit: Mark Plisetsky/Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography [Kunstkamera])

Like other young Lubavitcher rabbis taking up positions for as long as they could hold them, Chaikin and his responsibilities were not limited to mere ceremonials, but to all aspects of Jewish life. He oversaw the repair of mikvahs—the Jewish ritual bath being a foundational communal institution—facilitated proper Jewish divorces, and in addition to himself shechting, trained local Jews in kosher ritual slaughtering. Due to the pressing need, while in Georgia, Chaikin also became a mohel. Among the parents who approached him to circumcise their sons were Russian Jews from the central parts of the country. Under the guise of a maternity vacation, young mothers would take their newborn sons and travel to Georgia—a popular destination known for its health resorts and beach areas, and one that wouldn’t raise eyebrows back home. There they would have their child circumcised; this became one of Chaikin’s occupations.

“My father was ravshochet—all these important things. He would go to shul, and I would go with him, and I didn’t know anything about persecution,” says Chaikin, describing those calm years in Sachkhere. “As a child, I didn’t have the understanding to notice that in shul there weren’t many children like me. And that they all went to school, but not me. I didn’t distinguish yet.”

That would all change around 1937, when the Chaikin family moved to Tbilisi.

A Jewish home in Sachkhere, Georgia, circa 1929. (Credit: Mark Plisetsky/Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography [Kunstkamera]
A Jewish home in Sachkhere, Georgia, circa 1929. (Credit: Mark Plisetsky/Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography [Kunstkamera]

Glimpses of a Lost World

In Sachkhere, Azriel’s education has been overseen mostly by his mother, who taught him to read and write in both Hebrew and Russian, and had him memorize the multiplication table. It was a small town, so no one cared to pay attention that this 6-year-old boy did not go to school. This was no longer possible when they moved to Tbilisi, where Rabbi Chaikin was appointed rabbi of one of the two prayer halls in the sprawling, red-brick Great Synagogue complex. In the big city of Tbilisi, neighbors would notice and begin asking questions, yet the Chaikins would under no circumstances send their young son to a Communist school. “The danger was not that they would put someone in prison, but that they’ll take me away” to be placed in a Soviet orphanage, says Chaikin. “For me and for my parents, this would be much worse.”

And so each morning the little boy—whose two younger sisters could remain with their mother for the time being—would leave home and head to the synagogue, returning in the evening. The synagogue was the center of Jewish life, and its main courtyard was often filled with people. To the right of the courtyard was the community’s matzah bakery and a few apartments where the Chachamim lived with their families. To the left was a separate, smaller courtyard that held the mikvah, over which was a stuffy little attic where Azriel’s maternal grandfather, by then a community shochet, lived. During the short and mild Georgian winter, he mostly spent the day inside his grandfather’s room, but when it was warmer, in between Talmud lessons with his father and grandfather, Azriel could hang around his small courtyard (“that was my kingdom; my father did not want me to be too visible”) observing the bustle in the central courtyard.

First, there was the occasional funeral, and from his nearby perch he could watch as a table was set up for the deceased’s body with benches for the mourners, and listen to the florid speeches delivered. Then there was Passover, before which Tbilisi’s Jews would line up to get their matzah. They would arrive in the courtyard bearing sacks of their own flour, where it was then weighed and taken by the synagogue before a ticket was issued granting the individual the commensurate amount of matzah. A similar method was deployed to obtain kosher meat, whereby the Georgian Jews would purchase a ticket from a manager at the synagogue and then take their chicken to the shochet, Kahanov, who would slaughter it at a designated spot in Azriel’s little courtyard. On Sukkot, this smaller courtyard was transformed into a large sukkah, where the community would gather and feast on grapes and watermelon.

Interior of the Great Georgian Synagogue in Tbilisi, Georgia, late 1970s.
Interior of the Great Georgian Synagogue in Tbilisi, Georgia, late 1970s.

Being the refuge that it was, Georgia drew all sorts of Jews to its relative safety, many of whom upon arrival in Tbilisi headed straight to the Great Georgian Synagogue. (This is not to say that Georgian Jews did not face any persecution: Over the years, a number of Chachamim were arrested and sent to Siberia, including Chacham Emmanuel Davidashvili, the aforementioned chief rabbi of the Great Synagogue, who was arrested in Stalin’s last years and resumed his post after his release.)

Although their numbers increased after the beginning of World War II—and came to include Polish Jewish refugees, Jewish Red Army soldiers and devastated survivors—there was also a cast of regulars Chaikin remembers well.

As the number of shuls throughout the country rapidly diminished, many Jewish clergymen who had prior to the revolution been part and parcel of life in the shtetl found themselves unemployed. One such figure from the past was Reb Yoel the Maggid, an itinerant preacher whose last name Chaikin never learned. Like many others in his field, Reb Yoel had once traveled from place to place throughout White Russia addressing the Jews of the town in their shul, encouraging them to do teshuvah and return to the ways of G‑d. Those days were gone, but Reb Yoel remained, and so from time to time he’d come to Tbilisi, even though he spoke only Yiddish and the Georgians did not. He would spend some time speaking with Azriel’s father and grandfather, and then, most likely out of a mixture of habit and necessity, seek out his limited audience.

Regulars outside of the Great Georgian Synagogue in Tbilisi, circa 1960s.
Regulars outside of the Great Georgian Synagogue in Tbilisi, circa 1960s.

“He knew there was a little boy who speaks Yiddish in the Georgian shul,” recalls Chaikin. “He would beg me to sit down on a bench and then pretend that it’s a shul filled with yidden. He would make a drasha, and make me listen, and it was a drasha in the old-fashioned style. He would start singing, and then begin talking like a maggid.” In a high falsetto voice, Reb Yoel would proceed to talk from G‑d’s point of view, acting out a conversation between G‑d and Moses. “Moshe, Moshe! Du host a taos! You are mistaken!” Reb Yoel would bellow from the rostrum, “It will turn out good!” This performance would have once drawn a synagogue full of people in the shtetls of old—the world the Communists had destroyed.

“I took all this in, and I was impressed,” he says. “At the time, I could not measure the trauma of this person. He was left with nothing except the little pleasure of saying his drasha for a little boy and the empty chairs.”

Chaikin recognized that the Georgian Chachamim preached to a full house while the Yiddish-speaking Russian Jew had no one. He also began noticing the whispered tones the adults around him used when they spoke, and the ever-present fear around anyone who wore any kind of uniform, most obviously police. It was around that time that he witnessed the confiscation of Tbilisi’s domed Ashkenazi shul, where he had occasionally gone to listen to the powerful speeches and singing voice of its rabbi, Chaim Kupchan. The authorities had told the rabbi that he didn’t need his big shul building anymore and forced the congregation to move into the much smaller so-called Persian synagogue. As an 8-year-old boy, Chaikin and some boys his age had watched as the shul’s siddurim and seforim were crated out, followed by its scrolls, and then at last by the massive Aron Kodesh. When the movers tried to get the ark through the doors of the Persian synagogue, it proved too tall. They pushed until the crown adorning the Tablets atop the ark was forced to bend down, as if bowing to the forces around it. It was an apt symbol for what was taking place and became a nightmare Chaikin could not shake through much of his adult life.

“That’s when I started understanding what was going on,” he says. “The fear started to get into my character.”

The Great Georgian Synagogue as it looks today.
The Great Georgian Synagogue as it looks today.

Fear and mission in Tbilisi

The dread the young boy began to recognize expressed itself in numerous forms of day-to-day life, from the economic to the religious. Rabbi Chaikin was often called on by his Georgian congregants to slaughter beef and lamb at their homes. Since all private commerce was illegal in the Soviet Union and this was considered to be black market, the rabbi stood to be accused of abetting serious economic crimes each time he left home carrying his ritual slaughtering knife. The Chaikin home was also a central stopping point for Russian Jews, many Lubavitcher Chassidim included, passing through Tbilisi; strangers arriving at their home at all hours called the attention of the apartment building superintendent, who inevitably passed this information along to the local branch of the secret police, by then reconstituted as the NKVD.

In their effort to curb both alleged economic crimes and religious activities, the NKVD began conducting midnight searches of the Chaikin’s tiny apartment. There they found the rabbi’s brit milah knife, among other objects, questioning why he needed it. Then, as abruptly as they began, the search would end. “After the searches, we’d be nervous for a while, but then nothing happened,” says Chaikin. “It was part of their intimidation. The NKVD was intimidating my father that he should cooperate with them.”

To the NKVD’s entreaties for assistance in uncovering illegal business, hoarded gold or speculation among Georgian Jews, the elder Chaikin would respond by saying: “You know they are Georgians, and I am a Russian Jew. They don’t trust Russians; I don’t know their secrets.” But the NKVD persisted in both their searches, and then in summoning him to their offices, which they liked to do in front of the entire community on Shabbat. “People already think you’re working for us,” they told the rabbi, a common NKVD “good cop” method. “So why don’t you just work for us?”

Jews on the steps of the synagogue in Kutaisi, 1929. (Credit: Mark Plisetsky/Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography [Kunstkamera]).
Jews on the steps of the synagogue in Kutaisi, 1929. (Credit: Mark Plisetsky/Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography [Kunstkamera]).

Azriel was sometimes sent to accompany his father, not so as to follow him inside, but to make sure that if his father did not return they would at least know through which doors he had disappeared.

These sporadic interrogations lasted years. Once, Azriel accidentally overheard his father giving an account of his interrogation to his grandfather. “He told him how the sledovatel—the investigator—had showed him his whole case file, and told him, ‘You see this? We have all this against you. If I’d want to I could … .’ But my father was strong. He answered, ‘I have done nothing wrong. Everything you have there, either you are bluffing or it is all false.’ ”

And while the Georgian shuls were open and functioning, with local Jews celebrating Purim and Simchas Torah openly in the street, there was a whole dimension to Jewish life that Azriel had not yet discovered. He knew he was a Russian Jew, and that his friends and most of those around him were Georgians. But at the age of 8 or 9, he was suddenly introduced to another, secret Jewish world.

“In Tbilisi, I was introduced to Lubavitch,” he says.

Another version of the portrait of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, this one originating with the Marozov family in Leningrad. The reverse bears a stamp from a photo studio located around the corner from the Rebbe's home and synagogue at Mochovaya 22, and the photo was smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1946. (Courtesy: Rabbi Sholom Ber Chaikin)

Another version of the portrait of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, this one originating with the Marozov family in Leningrad. The reverse bears a stamp from a photo studio located around the corner from the Rebbe’s home and synagogue at Mochovaya 22, and the photo was smuggled out of the Soviet Union in 1946. (Courtesy: Rabbi Sholom Ber Chaikin)

The Last Photo

Seforim had been a part of Azriel’s life from a young age, among them Torah Ohr and Likkutei Torah, the printed ma’amorim of the Alter Rebbe. But in addition to these, Azriel noticed something else: bound books filled with a flourishing handwritten Hebrew script, called bichlach in Chassidic vernacular. These were maamorim, his father explained to him, Chassidic discourses hand-copied by scribes at a time when type-setting and printing books of Chassidus was for a variety of reasons not done. From time to time, Azriel would see his father, grandfather, and maybe one or two other Lubavitcher Chassidim gather in his grandfather’s little attic room and together review a discourse from these old volumes. Around this time, Azriel also found a book in his house called Beis Rebbe, a biography of the first three leaders of Chabad.

That’s when, sometime before the anniversary of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s liberation from prison on 12-13 Tammuz, Rabbi Chaikin sat his son down and began to explain. Pulling down the family photo album, he pointed to one picture in particular, mixed in with those of grandfathers and grandmothers, but different. “He told me ‘This is the Rebbe,’ and said that the Rebbe is somewhere, not in Russia,” says Chaikin. “He explained to me the connection between the Alter Rebbe of Beis Rebbe and this Rebbe. And he told me a little what are Chassidim and what is a Rebbe, that the government didn’t like what he was doing, and they put him in prison and on 12 Tammuz he was freed, and that he had to go out. And that it was dangerous to admit, to tell anyone that you belong to the Schneersohnsky.”

The front cover of the Riga Frimorgn a few days after rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's arrival in Latvia. Although darkened, it's clear that the photo on the bottom right is the Rebbe's portrait from the USSR. (Courtesy: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)
The front cover of the Riga Frimorgn a few days after rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s arrival in Latvia. Although darkened, it’s clear that the photo on the bottom right is the Rebbe’s portrait from the USSR. (Courtesy: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research)

With this brief introduction—and the image of the Rebbe in his mind—the boy was allowed to partake in the upcoming 12 Tammuz farbrengen, held in his grandfather’s attic. It was only four or five people, who spoke of the miracle of the Rebbe’s release and over vodka wished each other l’chaim that they should one day zehn zich mitten Rebben, “see the Rebbe once again.”

Aside from this and similar limited occasions, Chaikin says that the Rebbe was referred to only as Zeide, grandfather. Letters were addressed to the Zeide; glimpses of news were heard about the Zeide.

The 12-13 of Tammuz would long remain a secret holiday in the Soviet Union. A few years later, by which time Azriel was already studying at the underground Lubavitcher yeshivahin Kutaisi, these days were marked with special security measures. Whereas the 19th of Kislev (the holiday of liberation of Rabbi Schneur Zalman from Czarist imprisonment in 1798) was celebrated even by the Georgian Jews—Chaikin recalls an elaborate Georgian spread being laid out at the home of the aforementioned Chacham Yaakov—the 12-13 of Tammuz was an internal holiday only. A Chassidic mentor would quietly lead a farbrengenonly for the students, while a shift of guards with prearranged warning signs stood watch all night. The 19th of Kislev was surely an important day, but to Soviet authorities, in Georgia at least, it was just a story, like Purim—something that happened many years ago. Fealty to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, on the other hand, often referred to as the TzaddikSchneersohn in NKVD files, expressed in this case by celebrating his date of liberation, was perceived as an actual threat.

The stamp on the reverse of the photo states the name of an artistic photo studio at the address Volodarskogo 23. (Courtesy: Rabbi Sholom Ber Chaikin)
The stamp on the reverse of the photo states the name of an artistic photo studio at the address Volodarskogo 23. (Courtesy: Rabbi Sholom Ber Chaikin)

The authorities ultimately did catch up with Rabbi Meir Chaim Chaikin. NKVD pressure finally forced him to formally leave his position as rabbi, although he de facto continued his work. Eventually, he took his family to the small town of Akhaltsikhe, 130 miles west of Tbilisi, where they hid for a time.

As World War II approached Georgia, he made the decision to head east, to Samarkand, Soviet Uzbekistan, where he had heard rumors of a Chabad community of refugees being formed. He set out for Uzbekistan ahead of his family to investigate, but was arrested on the way in Baku, and accused of smuggling Georgian tea. Sentenced to nine years in prison, he served three before being freed during the post-war amnesty period. Azriel’s bar mitzvah took place while his father was in prison. In 1946, the entire family—Rabbi Chaikin, his wife, son and two daughters—managed to make it to Lvov, Soviet Ukraine, and using forged Polish papers, escape to the West.

The portrait of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak that Rabbi Azriel Chaikin recalls in their home in Tbilisi, Georgia. This photo appears to have originated in Riga, Latvia, and so its path into the Soviet Union would have been surreptitious. (Courtesy: Rabbi Azriel Chaikin)
The portrait of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak that Rabbi Azriel Chaikin recalls in their home in Tbilisi, Georgia. This photo appears to have originated in Riga, Latvia, and so its path into the Soviet Union would have been surreptitious. (Courtesy: Rabbi Azriel Chaikin)

Confronting the Portrait

Within a few days of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s arrival in Latvia back in 5687/1927—amid blaring headlines of the ongoing Paris trial of Sholom Schwartzbard, and a small item on the expulsion of Leon Trotsky and Grigory Zinoviev from the Central Committee of the Communist Party—the Rebbe’s portrait appeared on the front page of the Riga Frimorgn. It was a close-up of the same photo he left behind in the Soviet Union with Kozliner.

In his memoirs of the era, Rabbi Yisrael Yehudah Levine writes that as a young yeshivahstudent living in Kiev in the summer of 5688/1928, he would go from time to time to the Lubavitcher synagogue on Shchekavytska Street. The rabbi there was Rabbi Binyamin Gorodetsky, who Levin recalls showing a photograph of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak to his congregants, telling them it was a mitzvah to contemplate. Others recall this same lone photograph as well.

It seemed obvious to me that since this was the only published photo of the Rebbe up until that time, it would have been the same one Chaikin first glimpsed as an 8- or 9-year-old boy.

The address at Volodarskogo 23, today Liteyniy Prospect, St. Petersburg.
The address at Volodarskogo 23, today Liteyniy Prospect, St. Petersburg.

Nearly 80 years have passed since Rabbi Azriel Chaikin was shown a photo of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak by his father. I printed a copy of the one I believed he meant and brought to him to confirm. Looking at the portrait, for a moment he startled. “The Rebbe’s eyes … ,” his voice trailed off. To him, the picture was more than just that.

Then he shook his head. He seems to recall the Rebbe appearing different in the photo of his childhood, his beard more blonde. Maybe there was another photo, then again, so many years had passed, he couldn’t say for sure one way or the other. While the photo he saw might have been another one, Chaikin recognized the gaze as the same.

***

About a week after showing Rabbi Chaikin the Kozliner photo, I got a call from him. He told me he had asked his younger brother, Rabbi Sholom Ber Chaikin of Cleveland, whether he might still have their father’s portrait of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. He did, and promptly sent two photos of the Rebbe to his elder brother, including the one that had come out of the Soviet Union with their father, Rabbi Meir Chaim, and the family in 1946.

Later that day at his home in Brooklyn, Rabbi Azriel Chaikin laid out both photographs on his dining-room table. One of them was the same as the Kozliner negative, an original sepia photograph from Leningrad. The reverse bears the stamp of an artistic photography studio in Leningrad, apparently named “Richar,” with a four-digit phone number and the address Volodarskogo 23.

Liteyniy Prospect in today’s St. Petersburg was known as Volodarskogo between 5678/1918 and 5704/1944, and the building at No. 23, where the studio was located, is around the corner from Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s former home and synagogue at Mokhovaya 22. This photo, then, must have been reproduced around the time of the Rebbe’s departure in 5688/1927.

The portrait Rabbi Meir Chaim Chaikin had in Tbilisi of the Rebbe appears on Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak's Latvian passport, issued in 1934.

The portrait Rabbi Meir Chaim Chaikin had in Tbilisi of the Rebbe appears on Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s Latvian passport, issued in 5694/1934.

This portrait came from Rabbi Sholom Ber Chaikin’s wife’s grandmother, Tzeite (nee Itkin) Marosow. As a girl she had lived in the town of Nevel, and thus would not have been in the city in October of 1927, when the Rebbe was preparing to leave. But in the winter of 5688/1928, she married Dovid Leib Marosow, the son of the Rebbe’s then-imprisoned chief secretary, Rabbi Elchonon Dov (Chonya) Morosov,22 in Leningrad, and it’s possible that her husband obtained the photo by dint of his family’s relationship with the Rebbe. Rabbi Sholom Ber Chaikin recalls hearing that 12 copies of the photo were made in Leningrad. For his part, Avraham Kozliner says he heard that his grandmother—Chaim Zalman’s wife, Tzipa—used to give printed copies of their negative to young married women who were expecting as a form of spiritual protection, and it could be that Tzeite got it in this way.

What is certain is that the Marosows held onto their photo through all of the dark, bitter years ahead. This would include the 1938 arrest of Dovid Leib’s father and nine other Chassidim in Leningrad, all of whom were shot in short order; the family’s escape from the city under Nazi blockade and evacuation to a tiny Siberian village; and then the Marosows’ long trek to Samarkand, where they joined the vestiges of the Chabad community. When the Marosows left the USSR via illegal Polish repatriation in 5706/1946, they left most of their belongings behind, including Dovid Leib’s collection of some 40 rare manuscripts of Chabad teachings, which he buried in the ground. Yet the photo came with him, eventually making it to Montreal.

All this was about the first photograph—the one Rabbi Azriel Chaikin had been almost certain was not the one of his childhood. He was right. He pointed to a second portrait sitting on his table—a far-lesser known portrait of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. It is a simple close-up, his eyes looking into the distance.

“This is the picture we had in Gruzia [Georgia],” he says. “But I don’t know where and when my father got it.” Rabbi Meir Chaim Chaikin had likewise kept the photo close throughout his life. Whereas in Soviet Russia, he had been forced to hide it, in later years, when he took on rabbinical positions in Europe and then as rosh yeshivah of Tomchei Temimim in Montreal, he displayed it at home.

Further searching revealed that this same photo had been used for Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s Latvian citizenship application in 5693/1932-33, and thus in all likelihood originated in Riga, Latvia. How then did it get to the Soviet Union, and how had the elder Chaikin obtained it? All of that remains unclear, a mystery likely never to be solved.

But Rabbi Azriel Chaikin had been correct on all counts. The photo he had seen was different, and yet Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s gaze was the same. It is the look of the Rebbe who fought an uphill battle against the most powerful force of evil on earth, and ultimately came out the victor—the one that made as deep an impression on Chaikin as a little boy in Stalin’s USSR as it does today: defiant, determined and demanding to the last.

With special thanks to Rabbi Shalom DovBer Levine, chief librarian of the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad.

Discussion
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  1. In the late 5740’s I obtained a photograph similar to these. This was in France, and the one who sold me the photo was an American bal Tshuva by the name of Duchan [whose French wife had just passed away then]. Around 5750, Reb Notke Barkahn submitted a copy of that picture to the Rebbe. [Reb Nota had then moved to Riga on Shlichus]. The Rebbe acknowledged the gift, but commented that it is evidently a picture of an artist’s portrait, which would explain the fact that the beard looks wider on one side more than the other.
    I’m sure that Rabbi Glazman of Riga will be able to fill in more details to this story.

  2. Thank you Dayan Raskin for your very interesting comment.
    I would suggest to anash.org to contact Rabbi Glazman, and post his comment as a separate post, together with Dayan Raskin’s comment.

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