When reminiscing about the past, most people will only recall a few vague memories from early childhood. Not so those who grew up under the shadow of Soviet rule. Our parents’ uncompromising battle to provide an authentically Jewish education for us, and their struggle to prevent us from being exposed to the heretical communist ideology, embedded a profound impression on us as children that affects us to this day.
In order to illustrate the setting of my childhood years, I will begin by providing some historical background:
After the Communist Revolution in 1917, the new regime began a ruthless battle to eradicate religion. According to law, citizens were granted the freedom of religion, but in actuality, anyone who failed to follow the Communist program was in serious peril. In the 1930s, when the Communist rage was at its peak, numerous Jews were shot dead in the cellars of the NKVD – the Soviet Police force – and thousands of people were exiled to labor camps in the Arctic wilderness of Siberia. (NKVD was only one of a few dreaded Soviet acronyms, as the structure and names of the Communist police divisions were changed several times over the years. Chassidim would refer to the secret police as ‘di [drai] osiyos’ – ‘the (three) letters’ (GPU, NKVD, KGB), or ‘a knepl’ – ‘a button’ – after the buttons on their uniforms.)
The same fate was meted out to anyone who dared to educate his children in the spirit of Judaism. He was marked as an enemy of the state for tainting his children with religious propaganda, which was considered the “poison of the masses.” Since Mother Russia was concerned for the welfare of her citizens, the law stated that the parent’s right to educate his or her children was rescinded and the children were sent to special institutions for orphans where they were “reeducated.”
The words of the prophet, “Your demolishers and destroyers will emerge from you,” were born to fruition in communist Russia. The notorious Yevsektzia (short for Jewish section), a special division of the NKVD, directed the war against Jewish religion. Its administration included Jews who had turned their backs on Judaism, unfortunately, some even the children of religious Jews. Invariably, it was these Jews who made the most trying adversaries of Judaism. In his account of his 1927 imprisonment at the hands of the Soviet authorities, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson – the Lubavitcher Rebbe of the day – makes clear that it was the Yevsektzia who initiated the war against him. His arrest was a direct result of their work.
The Jewish schools and yeshivas were the Yevsektzia’s first target. Within a short time, all religious schools in the Soviet Union were closed. The newly opened public schools taught a curriculum based on the Marxist-Leninist ideology, along with its utterly heretical beliefs regarding a Creator of the world. Parents were legally obligated to register their children in these schools.
In Samarkand there was a local Jew named Daniel. As was the Russian tradition, the surname he went by – Borisovitch – was a derivative of his father’s first name. He was a cultural Jew, firmly irreligious, yet deeply appreciative of the Yiddish language and culture; a Yiddishist, as they were known. After the Revolution, he was one of the early members of the Yevsektzia, but once he saw through the lies of the Communists, he became disillusioned and left. Later, he would achingly tell us of the methods the Yevsektzia used to promote their agenda:
“We had to approach religious parents to persuade them to send their children to government schools, where the children would be taught – in Yiddish – outright heresy. But once the school administration received reports that the Jews were standing firm, and refusing to send their children to the schools outright, they had a new idea. The children would go to the schools, but the parents would be able to choose whomever they wanted for the teaching staff.
“The Jews accepted the offer,” Daniel continued, “and after some time had passed, and the children grew comfortable at school and amongst their classmates, the school discreetly switched a teacher with one of their own. Sometime later, they did the same with another teacher, and eventually, they were all replaced.”
With a pained heart, he recalled their orders to try and force-feed Jewish children non-kosher food, or bread on Pesach. The children held their mouths tightly shut, and desperately fought back. “I’ll never forget,” he said, “how we acted so cruelly towards those innocent children.”
But the Yevsektzia did not stop with that. They wanted to ensure that the children would be completely severed from all religious life, and in order to do so they closed down the shuls – the synagogues – as well. Anyone who organized a prayer service would be accused of involvement in illegal underground activity. In the big cities, the government permitted one or two shuls to be active, so as to demonstrate to the world that Mother Russia allowed freedom of religion. In many towns however, not even one shul remained. Minsk, to take one city, had 94 synagogues in operation before the Communist revolution; afterwards only one small, secret prayer group remained – and without its own quarters at that: they were forced to hold services in a rented room.
In order to receive government approval, these few remaining shuls were required to have a committee of twenty people, most of whom were loyal to the secret police.
The committee members reported the names of the individuals who prayed there to the secret police, and crucially, they ensured that parents did not bring their children along. Whoever violated the law and brought their children along was accused of contaminating their children with anti-communist values. This endangered the shul’s existence, as the accusation was often an excuse for the authorities to shut it down completely.
There was one Jew in Samarkand by the name of Chaim Tchernovitzer. He was an active presence in the shul and a proud member of the committee. Whenever a tourist would arrive from abroad he would approach him, talk to him, and not give anyone else a chance to welcome the newcomer. He would proclaim proudly that he is an appointee of the KGB, and if not for him the shul would be closed down. If the tourist had the idea of lending any support to the other members of the community, Chaim Tchernovitzer’s little chat was intimidation enough to make him think again.
Naturally, most of the people who prayed in the official shuls were elderly retirees: they hadn’t much to lose. Working people, however, were afraid to attend since their names would be recorded on a black list, and they were liable to lose their jobs.
The Hebrew term for ‘education’ is chinuch, but it means so much more. Chinuch refers to academic, emotional, spiritual, and religious upbringing; it is the cornerstone of Jewish tradition and continuity. You can understand how difficult it was to give children a chinuch without a Jewish school, or a yeshiva, without any official prayer, and worst of all – while sending them to a communist school where heresy was instilled in every possible way.
Every parent was laden with the burden of their own child’s education. If one wanted his child to receive a religious education, he had to sit down and teach the child himself or hire someone to do so, several times a week, and be ever vigilant that neighbors wouldn’t notice. The fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Sholom Dovber Schneerson, once declared that that just as the practice of donning the tefillin daily is a commandment incumbent upon every man, so too it is obligatory for every Jew to dedicate half an hour of thought each day to his children’s chinuch. In those days, people felt the immediacy of this instruction.
The Chabad Chassidim were educated by the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe to risk their lives for their beliefs. Summoning the innermost depths of their souls, they fought against the cruel regime with courage and unusual strength. Against all odds, they managed to instill a kosher education in their children. Some of these children learned at home, and some in secret yeshivas. Other staunchly religious Jews, who were not Lubavitchers, also brought their children to the secret Chabad yeshivos, pleading for them to be accepted, knowing that this was the only way to enable the continuity of their Jewish upbringing.