In the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Russia was beset by anarchy. Civil war ravaged the country for the next few years, and various gangs sprouted throughout Russia, vying for power and influence. One of the most infamous bandit armies, notorious for its viciousness, was the Machnovites, under the leadership of the anti-Semite Nestor Machnov.
In those terrifying times, a train ride was treacherous undertaking for a Jew. If a Jewish passenger fell into the hands of one of the Machnovites, he could be taunted and eventually hurled to his death from the rapidly moving train. None of the other passengers would interfere or attempt to prevent the catastrophe.
It once happened that my father had to travel by train. He was then in his twenties, and his recently grown beard served as an obvious indication of his Jewish identity. He tried to sit quietly in a corner of the compartment so as not to attract undue attention.
Not far from his seat sat a Machnovite who noticed my father and began to mock and degrade him. My father was terrified and pretended that he didn’t realize that he was the target of the stinging remarks. The hoodlum increased the volume of his vile words until, overcome with a spasm of hate, he approached my father, grabbed him by the neck and started to drag him to the doors at end of the train.
My father began to plead with him, saying, “Let me be, I am still young! What do you want from me?!” But the thug continued to spit out a slew of curses and dragged him along the compartment. One can only imagine the great fear that overcame my father during those terrifying moments.
Suddenly, from a corner of the compartment rose a huge man, who was of a larger physical build than the Machnovite. He lunged forward and started bellowing: “What are you doing? Leave him alone!”
As he said this, he approached the Machnovite and grabbed him by the neck. The Machnovite dropped my father and began to argue with the giant, saying, “He’s a filthy Jew!” The giant ignored him, and clutching him firmly by the neck, he dragged him to the end of the train, opened the door, and shoved him out as the train lurched forward at high speed. My father, overwhelmed by the turn of events, fearfully returned to his place and sat down quietly.
Looking calmer, the giant returned to the compartment and gently motioned for my father to approach him. My father, still uncomprehending what had just occurred, or who this towering man was, was afraid to refuse and approached him with trembling steps. The enormous man calmed him, saying, “Do not fear. Come with me; I want to show you something.”
Needless to say, my father was still afraid. He followed the man to the small entrance room located at the front of the train compartment. The man bent down and whispered into his ear, “You should know that I am a her tzedek—a convert.” (The hard “g” sound is sometimes replaced by an “h” in certain Russian dialects. Thus the Hebrew term for a righteous convert, ger tzedek, was often pronounced as“her” tzedek by non-native speakers.)
My father gawked at him incredulously. To prove himself, the man recited the first paragraph of the Shema and then lifted his shirt to displayed the tzitzis that he wore underneath. He parted from my father with a smile and said smugly, “I taught that despicable anti-Semite a lesson. If he remained alive after I tossed him off the train, he will remember this until the end of his days.”