Rabbi Levin's Blog

A Story Of Survival

This Wednesday we will mark the holy day of Yud Shevat – the Tenth day of Shevat.  This is the day on which the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneerson, passed away, and his successor, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, became the leader of the Jewish people.  At this time, it is customary to learn and discuss the teachings and life-stories of these giants of Torah, saintliness and leadership, and to gain inspiration from them.  You can read more about this day and the lives of these great people here


One of the themes of the previous Rebbe’s life was extreme self-sacrifice, in a very literal sense.  In the face of the murderous Soviet Union, he ran a network of underground schools and yeshivot, synagogues and Mikvahs, and much more.  He himself was sentenced to death for this and was then miraculously released.  Thousands of his chassidim, who had committed to continuing to live as observant Jews and who accepted the Rebbe’s mission to keep Judaism alive, were sent to Siberia or murdered.  My grandfather was one of those, and I want to repeat a story I heard again from my mother this week.  I have heard it many times growing up, and it is a story of miraculous survival and reward.


My grandfather was arrested and sent to prison for “counterrevolutionary activities” – meaning being a religious Jew, teaching children Torah, performing circumcisions which were strictly forbidden by the regime, and refusing to work on Shabbat or send his children to school where they would have to write on Shabbat and be indoctrinated in Atheist Communism.  My grandmother was now left alone to fend for herself and her children.  Against all the advice of friends and acquaintances, she continued to keep the children at home and follow all the observances of Judaism.  That itself is a story worth an entire book.  My grandmother was actually a legend herself, known and respected throughout the Chabad community as “Rebbetzin Mariashe.”  Anyway, to cut a very long story short, she was forced to leave her home in Gomel and move to the outskirts of Moscow where her family was not known and the children would not be forced into school.


A major asset in those days was a wood stove that heated the house.  My mother describes it as an oven that was in the middle of the house with a chimney going up through the roof.  As she was preparing to leave, my grandmother was able to sell the stove.  The children expected her to use the money for the trip and to settle in the new location.  They were impoverished and these few rubles would help them in their move.  But my grandmother had another idea.  There was a couple nearby who had no oven (not everyone had them and they had to endure the freezing weather), so she gave them the money to buy a stove.  When the children asked her how she could do that, she answered that these people really needed a stove and “Hashem will take care of us.”


The family arrived in the Moscow area, and my grandmother, with her kids in tow, went from house to house asking if there was space for them to rent.  They were turned down at every house.  There were places available, but these were summer houses that people had, and they were without any heating and therefore impossible to live in during the freezing winters.  When she came to the last house on the street, the owner told her that he did have a place available, in his summer house.  When she asked him how they could live without heating, the owner said that there was actually a hearter in the house, something that was generally almost non-existent.  He explained that someone had rented the house to use as a factory for the winter and installed a stove.  Then they disappeared and he had not heard from them since, so now she could have the house.  My grandmother asked him when they had rented the house.  It turned out that it was on the exact day that she had given the money to the couple for the stove.





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