Reminiscing about the years of my youth in the Soviet Union in the early twentieth century brings back fractured memories and complicated images. Amongst them, however, there are some complete pictures and figures that are engraved deep, deep in my psyche.
I remember that long, cold, dark night when I awoke to the sound of sobbing. Mother was standing, crying hysterically as she waved her hands in the air. Father was standing half-dressed, scared to death.
Three young people dressed in uniforms were milling around the room, searching the closets and the beds and looking at the walls. I watched as they approached the bookcase and examined each book, page by page.
I wondered: Who are they looking for? What are they looking for? What do they need? Will they sit and study the books like Mother and Father?
And then I saw that they found what they were looking for. They found a few handwritten pieces of paper, and a picture of the Rebbe [Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe—Ed.].
One pointed to the other, “Do you see? This is Schneersohn!”
They then commanded Father to dress and come with them.
|Three young people dressed in uniforms were milling around the room, searching the closets and the beds and looking at the walls
Father came to my small bed, bent down, and gave me a kiss, long and painful. Tears—big ones, hot ones, blazing ones—rolled off his cheek and onto my forehead.
He then looked at Mother with fire and love in his eyes. He kissed the mezuzah on the doorway, and disappeared into the dark of night.
Only when the door closed did my childish mind grasp how great our tragedy was.
Mother began to sob, “Oy vey!”
The neighbors came and revived her. They tried to console her.
When the morning came, she threw on a scarf and ran out. She returned later, tired, despondent and broken. She fed me and fell into an exhausted sleep.
I once heard Mother tell the neighbors that on that night, “they” also took another fifty married men and several students, all of them Lubavitcher chassidim, friends and students of Father’s.
This was a communal tragedy; but that did not lessen Mother’s pain.
Now, day after day, she would run around the streets. She would go wherever possible, to beg, to protest and to cry, while I was left at home alone, like an orphan.
Out of pity, the neighbors would come to turn on the oven to heat our home and bring me something to eat.
I would sit at the window waiting for hours. Maybe Mother is coming? Maybe Father is coming?
My young soul was anxious. I held back my tears.
I felt as if a thief stole, without mercy, the beauty of life.
|“If I was able to, I would inject the entire Torah into his brain; who knows what tomorrow will bring?”
He stole my smile, my happiness, my childhood.
It was only a short while ago that Father would spend days with me, playing and singing. He would run to me, give me a hug and kiss me without end.
He would tell me stories. Extraordinary stories from the Torah and Talmud.
I was already studying the Torah with Rashi’s commentary. But Father would insist on teaching me lofty concepts that I did not completely understand. He spoke about G‑d, about Jews and the Torah.
Mother would say to Father, “Gevald, what are you doing? To a child as young as our Sholom’ke, may he be well, you speak of such subjects? His mind is still tender; he cannot grasp and understand it.”
“If I was able to,” Father would say, “I would inject the entire Torah into his brain; who knows what tomorrow will bring?”
Father the Shoemaker, Father the Teacher
|Painting by chassidic artist Zalman Kleinman.
I was told that originally Father had been a rabbi in a neighboring city, until he was forced by the Soviet authorities to resign and flee. He then learned to be a cobbler.
I remember one day a woman came running in, “Oy, where is the rabbi? I have an important question!”
Mother angrily responded that there is no rabbi here. “I told you thousands of times: there are no rabbis in this house. Have mercy on us, and stop coming here!”
What I did not understand at the time was how being a rabbi could be more demeaning than being a cobbler.
I remember that Father would go out into the dark winter nights and disappear for a few hours. He would return very tired, but always in joyous spirits.
One time he took me with him.
|They all had the same look on their face. Their eyes held constant fear. Scared of the unknown
We traveled on a trolley, and then by foot. We walked through side streets until we came to an apartment complex.
We passed through a long-neglected courtyard and through three doorways, and then trekked up the staircase to the fifth floor. We entered a large room with horrible lighting and a large uncovered table in the middle.
In the room were three dozen lads, in their early teens. They all had the same look on their face. Their eyes held constant fear. They were scared of the unknown.
Between themselves, they were friendly, as if they were all part of a large family.
When they saw me, they said excitedly, “Sholom’ke is here!”
“Your father says that you have a good head,” one called out.
Another said, “Don’t worry, Sholom’ke, don’t let your spirit fall. By the time you grow up, the world will be normal again.”
They all took out their books. They studied Chabad philosophy, while I sat there wondering what wasn’t normal about the current world.
The hours went by. The students got into heated discussions as they discussed the intricacies of the teachings. Then, one by one, they filed out, in intervals of a few minutes.
Everything about that evening fascinated me.
The secretiveness and the hiding spot where the boys gathered. The poverty in the home. The friendliness they had for each other. Their confidence, despite the fear.
Watching them study had a great effect on me. Their studying was filled with enthusiasm, Father’s love for them and theirs for Father.
After that I never met with them again, because a short while later they took Father away.
The Childless Uncle Moshe
A few months after Father was taken away, his sister’s husband, Uncle Moshe, came to town.
|After talking with Mother for a while, they decided that I was to go live with Uncle Moshe
He was a tall and thin man, and although elderly, was very strong. In his steps you heard confidence and assurance.
After talking with Mother for a while, they decided that I was to go live with Uncle Moshe in his city.
The parting was heart-wrenching.
All three of us cried. After Uncle dried his eyes, I burst into tears: “Mother, I don’t want to go. I want to live with you.”
“My child, what kind of life awaits you here? Who will study with you here? Soon, with G‑d’s help, Father will return home, and you will be able to return to a normal life.”
We hugged and kissed again.
Mother accompanied us to the train. There we piled into a small cabin. I watched as Mother stood outside, watching the departing train.
Her hands were open. The look on her face expressed her unspoken feelings:What have I done? My most precious . . . my only consolation . . . I have sent to the unknown.
Life with my aunt and uncle was not bad. Uncle was a carpenter and earned a good livelihood. They had no children.
I was sent to study under the supervision of Asher the melamed, the teacher.
Uncle Moshe would tell the teacher, “Remember that he is not just another pupil; he is the son of Shmuel, your childhood friend, may he return soon. And when he will see that his son is educated in the ways of Torah, his happiness will know no end.”
One day, Uncle said to me, “I think that it is a good idea for you to go study in ayeshivah, a place of advanced Torah learning.
|As students in an underground Jewish school, we were forced to relocate every few days
Here you have no friends. There you will have friends.”
Shortly thereafter, he took me to the school. There were thirty young students and some older ones. The teacher was a great scholar.
As students in an underground Jewish school under Soviet rule, we were forced to move every few days from one home to another. Our teacher never managed to deliver an entire lecture series in one location.
We studied and traveled, traveled and studied. Nevertheless, under these difficult circumstances we all gained great Talmudic knowledge.
We also learned Chabad philosophy, which revealed a new dimension to life. We recognized a new world, G‑dly and splendid. We viewed reality differently.
Our thirst for learning was great. There was no need to force us to study; we just wanted more and more.
A Living Orphan
|Avraham Elya Plotkin, center standing, who recorded this story. Sitting in the center are his parents, Chaya Rasyah (left) and Shmuel.
How I want to see my father one more time. To have one more talk with him. How I want to commemorate the anniversary of his passing, but I do not know when it is. Even the satisfaction of saying the mourner’s kaddish, to pay tribute to Father, I do not have.
Since my father was taken, they have called me the “living orphan.” As a child, I never understood—are other orphans not living?
Today I understand: I am indeed a unique orphan. Even to say thekaddish prayer once, to pour out my soul, I cannot.
But I know that there is something deeper that connects me to my father. There is something much greater than what any letter or telephone call could do.
There is a soul connection.
It is the Jewish practice I strive to maintain that connects us.
Based on an account related to Avraham Elya Plotkin, who recorded it in Di Yiddishe Heim (Kehot Publication Society) following his escape from the Soviet Union in 1946.