Rabbi Zalman Kazen, patriarch of a well known Chabad family, passed away Sunday at the age of 92. Rabbi Kazen, a Chabad disciple of the sixth Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneerson, and later of Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, served as rabbi of the Tzemach Tzedek shul in Cleveland, Ohio.
He was a survivor of communist persecution in early Soviet Russia, and is survived by several generations of descendants who serve today as Chabad representatives around the world.
In 2005, I interviewed Rabbi Kazen to get his testimony for the Helsinki Commission hearings on the matter of the return of the Chabad library from Moscow’s State Library, to Lubavitch Headquarters in New York.
My interview with Rabbi Kazen was conducted in Yiddish. Below is an excerpt of the interview, part of which was submitted as testimony to the Helsinki Commission. In our conversation, Rabbi Kazen spoke about his mother, the legendary Mumme Sara, who whisked numerous Jews out of Russia with forged passports that she provided, at risk to her own life.
Lost in translation is the emotional impact of the few Yiddish words he used to describe his mother’s death in Soviet prison. “Mother’s heart could not carry the weight of her suffering,” is an approximation of “Di mamme’s hartz hut nit g’kent oys-halten.”
I was born on January 1, 1919, in Gizhatsk, near Moscow. As a Jewish child growing up in Russia at that time, I soon learned what it meant to live in fear and be the target of hatred. My family was persecuted because we were Chabad followers and had a strong connection with the Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph I. Schneerson. Though the Rebbe had later left the Soviet Union, he had established and maintained a network of religious schools throughout the country. I studied at these underground schools, which were held in basements and attics. We were always moving from one hideout to another, always keeping one step ahead of the authorities.
In 1936-9 I studied in many places clandestinely: in Kursk, in Varozhnitz, in Klintzi. In 1937, we studied in Zhitomir in a secret room at the top of a synagogue. But the NKVD were getting close, so we ran away. We were on the road, on the way to Kursk, and then on to Charkov, and then to Kiev, and then back to Kursk. That’s how it went until 1939.
In 1938, my father was arrested and jailed for no reason. He was then sent to Leningrad and shot. His crime? The study of Torah, specifically the Chasidic teachings of Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneerson. So many Chasidim were arrested and shot like that—Elchanan Marozov, Yitzchak Raskin and numerous others.
When I went to study in Berdichev, the authorities finally caught up with us. They arrested a group of students, among them my thirteen year-old brother, who sat in prison for five years. My three other brothers, Moshe, Yehoshua and Shimon were all arrested in different cities. Shimon was imprisoned for nine years. Moshe ran to Georgia, where the NKVD caught up with him. He served a seven year prison term.
My mother [Mumme Sara] evaded the police for a long time, but was finally arrested in 1952. Hoping to extract a confession and names from her, the NKVD decided to shake her up. For some reason, my mother was sure that my brother Moshe, 16 at the time, had already made it out of the country to freedom. Imagine her shock then, when the NKVD delivered Moshe to her cell, and with great relish, watched for her reaction.
My mother and Moshe, against all instincts, pretended not to know each other so as not to cave in to the NKVD ploy. But finding her young son a prisoner of the NKVD, being helpless to get him out, took a toll on her. She died in prison from heart failure. One of the guards was kind enough to let my brother know what time her body will be carried out through the prison yard, so that he could say his goodbye from the peephole of his prison cell.
I don’t know whether people living in the free world can understand how disposable we were to the communists. They did this as a matter of routine to anyone who studied in the Rebbe’s schools or was active in his educational and religious outreach work. They destroyed our childhoods, they dispersed our families, they stole years from our lives. I know so many of the Rebbe’s Chasidim who lost decades sitting in Soviet jails, all because they were “Schneerson’s people.” And I know many paid with their lives, making the ultimate sacrifice for their faith.
In retrospect, people wonder why we didn’t give up going to these illegal schools; why we didn’t abandon contact with the Rebbe and our work as Schneerson activists. They do not understand it. All I can say is that we were taught that Jewish continuity, the future of the Jewish people, depended on the kind of courage that the Rebbe exemplified. This is the kind of bravery and commitment we tried to emulate.