The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson (1880-1950). By Miriam Teleshevski. Artbymiriam.com
When asked in the 1960s what the impact of the French Revolution had been, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai famously said: "It’s too early to tell."
If there was ever a battle fought in vain, this was it.
The year was 1924. Lenin, father of the communist revolution, died. Joseph Stalin, serving as the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, prevailed in a power struggle over Leon Trotsky, and became the undisputed dictator of the Soviet Union. During the following thirty years, Stalin would murder over 20 million of his own people, purging the country of all opposition to the “party.”
Jews and Judaism would become one of Stalin’s primary targets. The Yevsektsiya -- the Jewish section of the communist party – would successfully crush and uproot every facet of Jewish religion and culture. It would ensure that Russian Jewry in its millions embraces the paradise of communism, a paradise -- they would soon come to learn -- constructed of bullets and gulags.
At his home in Leningrad (today Petersburg), a 44-year-old rabbi, heir to some of the great spiritual leaders of Russian Jewry, summoned nine young disciples. He offered them an opportunity most would refuse: to take responsibility for the survival of Judaism in the Soviet Union; to ensure that Jewish life and faith would survive the hellish darkness of Stalin’s regime. He asked them to fight “till the last drop of blood,” in his words.
They agreed. He gave his hand to each of them as a sign that they were accepting an oath, one that would transform their destiny forever. "I will be the tenth,” he said; “together we have a minyan"...
The nine men were dispatched throughout the country. With assistance from colleagues, they created an elaborate underground network of Jewish activity, which included Jewish schools, synagogues, mikvaot (ritual baths), adult Torah education, Yeshivot (academies for Torah learning for students), Jewish text books, providing communities with spiritual leadership, etc.
Over the 1920's and 1930's, these individuals built six hundred Jewish underground schools throughout the U.S.S.R. Many of them lasted for only a few weeks or months. When the NKVD (the secret Russian police and intelligence agency; later it would become the KGB) discovered a school, the children were expelled, the teacher arrested. A new one was opened elsewhere, usually in a cell or on a roof.
One of the nine young men was sent to Georgia. There were dozens of mikvaot there, all shut down by the communists. This young man decided to do something radical. He falsified a letter supposedly written by the KGB headquarters in Moscow, instructing the local authorities in Georgia to open two mikvaot within 24 hours.
The local officials believed the letter. Within a day, two mikvaot were opened. Several months later, when they discovered the lie, they shut them down again.
And so it went. A mohel (a person performing the mitzvah of circumcision) was arrested, and another one was dispatched to serve a community; a yeshiva was closed, and another one opened elsewhere; a synagogue was destroyed and another one replaced it in secrecy.
But it seemed like a lost battle. Here was an individual rabbi, with a small group of pupils, staging an underground rebellion against a mighty empire that numbered in the hundreds of millions, and aspired to dominate the world. It was like an infant wrestling a giant. The situation was hopeless.
Finally, in 1927 -- eighty years ago -- they lost their patience with him. The rabbi behind the counter-revolutionary work was arrested and sentenced to death by a firing squad. Fierce foreign pressure and nothing less than a miracle convinced the KGB to alter the sentence to ten years in exile. It was then converted to three years of exile, and then -- quite unbelievable in the Soviet Regime where clergy and laymen alike were murdered like flies -- he was completely exonerated. This Friday, June 29th, the 13th of the Hebrew month of Tamuz, marks the 80th anniversary since the day he was liberated from Stalin’s death sentence and imprisonment.
The individual behind the mutiny was the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schnueerson (1880-1950). He selected nine of his young pupils to engage in battle with him. The one sent to Georgia, falsifying the KGB document, was my grandfather, Simon Yakabashvili, my father’s father (1900-1953). He, together with hundreds of his colleagues, Chassidim throughout the Soviet Union, was arrested in 1938, tortured mercilessly and given a 25-year sentence in Siberia. Most of his eight colleagues who took the oath perished in the Soviet Union. (My grandfather made it out and died several years later in Toronto).
Eighty years have passed. Today let us ask the question: who won?
Eight decades ago, Marx’s socialism and Lenin’s communism were supposedly heralding a new era for humanity. Stalin engineered one of the mightiest and bloodiest regimes in human history and it seemed undefeatable. Hundreds of millions of fine men and women the world over, including millions of Jews, believed in the Communist Revolution with heart and soul. Some of the most passionate leaders of the party and of the Yevsektsiya were Jews.
Yet in those dark days, one man stood up, a man who would not allow the awesome war machine of Mother Russia to blur his vision, to eclipse his clarity. In the depths of his soul he was aware that history had an undercurrent often invisible to most but discernable for students of the long and dramatic narrative of our people. He knew with full conviction that evil might thrive but it will die; yet G-dliness -- embodied in Torah and Mitzvos -- are eternal. And he chose to invest in eternity.
He did not know how exactly how it would work out in the end, but he knew that his mission in life was to plant the seeds of immortality even while a titanic storm was downing every tree.
Cynics scoffed at him; close friends told him he was living in a fantasy. Even many of his religious colleagues were convinced that he was wasting his time and energy fighting an impossible war.
But 80 years later, he -- and what he represented -- emerge triumphant. Today, in 2007, in the republics of the former Soviet Union stand hundreds of synagogues, Jewish day schools, yeshivot, mikvaot, Jewish community centers. As summer is about to begin, dozens of Jewish day camps are about to open throughout the former Union with tens of thousands of Jewish children who will enjoy a blissful summer infused with the celebration of Jewish life.
Last Chanukah, a large menorah stood tall in the Kremlin, casting the glow of Chanukah on the grounds where Stalin walked with Yezhov, Beria and Molotov. On Lag Baomer (a Jewish holiday), thousands of Jewish children with kippot on their heads marched the streets of Moscow with signs proclaiming, "Hear oh Israel... G-d is One."
Comrade Stalin is dead; communism has faded away as hopelessly irrelevant and destructive. The man once hailed by Soviet editors as “our sun,” is today a cloud of darkness. But the Mikvaot built by the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1927, they still stand.