Weekly Story: Celebrating Sukkos Outside the GPU Office

by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon

Many details of the following story are well-known from the book Subbota, by Reb Leizer Naness. I am nevertheless posting it, as my father Reb Meir a”h — the other person in the story — related it as well.

I was arrested together with a number of other chassidim[1] on the 13th of Elul, 5695 (1935). Around two months later, we all were sentenced to exile for “counter-revolutionary” activities. The train transit took many days, until we arrived at the first destination. There the prisoners were sent to various locations, such as the Ural Mountains, Siberia and Uzbekistan. We were sent to Turkestan.

From there we were sent to Alma Alta, the capital of Kazakhstan. Once there, we were told to travel to Chimkent, where the local GPU (the precursor of the KGB) office would inform us where to go. Reb Itche and I were sent to Turkestan, while the others were ordered to go to the city of Lenger.

We arrived in Turkestan in the month of Teves, 5696 (1936). Around a half a year later, Reb Leizer Naness joined us. A year later, Reb Itche developed an illness and the doctors ordered that he relocate to city in a warmer climate, so only I and Reb Leizer remained there.

Before Tishrei of the year 5698 (1937), Reb Itche—who was a shochet—sent us two chickens he had shechted. We decided to use one for Rosh Hashanah and erev Yom Kippur, and the second one we salted and put away to be used for Sukkos.

Our apartment was a mere thirty meters or so from the offices of the local GPU, and our neighbor was the official in charge of the prisons. His name was Karim, and he was the brother-in-law of our landlord, a Muslim named Ibrahim. So if we sang or said anything out loud, it was heard by them.

We made a small sukkah and ate in it in complete silence, as we didn’t want to bring any additional attention to ourselves. We were well aware of the precarious situation in which we were found. There was a certain Bucharian Jew who worked as a driver and assistant to the reigning officer. He quietly passed on to us that every week, accusations were being received that we were trying to influence others to rebel against the government, and he told us that we should be careful with whom we talk. Thanks to him, we were spared from the many traps that the GPU set up to ensnare us.

Despite this, on Hoshana Rabba, I asked Reb Leizer to pick up a half-liter of mashke (112 proof whiskey) in honor of Simchas Torah. (I asked him to do this because my place of work was in another town which was an industrial center, while his was close to the stores.) But Reb Leizer replied that since we use a large goblet to make kiddush, he doesn’t want to make kiddush on mashke,[2] especially as we were just meters away from the notorious offices of the GPU.

“I will make kiddush for the two of us,” I replied. “Furthermore, we will do it late in the evening, when the offices are generally closed. We will be careful to be quiet, as we were the entire week when we were in the sukkah.” Reb Leizer agreed.

We came to the sukkah after eight in the evening of Shemini Atzeres. I made kiddush, drinking most of the goblet, and he sipped a small amount. Then we began eating the meal in complete silence. However, after a half hour or so, I took some more mashke and he also drank a little more, and we began singing extremely quietly.

As it is known, whiskey doesn’t always hit you immediately; sometimes it takes some time. So without realizing it, the song we were singing became louder and livelier, until we began dancing. Evidently we completely forgot where we were, and we danced and sang for a while.

We then sat down to rest and conclude the meal. Suddenly, we heard footsteps in the courtyard. The Gemara states that the powerful effects of wine become dissipated by fear.[3] This is what occurred to us: the fear of being discovered erased all the effects of the mashke. We waited with trepidation to see who was coming to us and what the consequences would be.

A moment later, our landlord Ibrahim entered and wished us a joyous holiday. He then said: “My brother-in-law Karim told me to pass on his best wishes to you in honor of your holiday.”

Hearing this, our faces became pale and showed signs of fright. Ibrahim noticed our fear and immediately said in a comforting tone:

“Karim was visiting me when you two were singing and dancing. He said, ‘Ibrahim, listen to what I have to tell you. I truly envy those two Jews.’

“When I heard him say this, I feared for your well-being. I asked Karim, ‘What is there to be jealous of?’

“‘Although they are your tenants,’ he replied, ‘I know much more about them than you. I can just tell you the following: If the GPU would investigate and believe even one percent of the accusations that we receive against them, no remnant would remain of them. And don’t think for a moment that they are not aware of their precarious situation. When I walk past their apartment on my way to the prisons, I notice that they sit with their backs to each other. So I know that the accusations brought against them — that they try to influence others to speak against the government — are completely false, as they barely speak to each other, fearing what the consequences may be.

“‘They were sentenced not only as counter-revolutionaries, but also as ones who recruit others to do the same. So their sentence is will last for many years, and they have no chance of being pardoned. They know that this is their situation, and I tell you that they fear even the slightest movement of a leaf, thinking someone is preparing an accusation against them. So tell me, why are they happy? What do they have to celebrate about? The only reason they are rejoicing is because it is their holiday!

“‘Tell me the truth: Do you or I ever have a joyous occasion such as this in our lives? We also have holidays, but we are not truly joyous then. When do we experience happiness? Only when we get even or take revenge against someone who has crossed our path. So there really is something to be envious of them, of their intrinsic happiness which neither of us have.

“‘The truth is that I would like to personally wish them a joyous holiday, but I fear that my presence will disturb their rejoicing, so I have decided not to visit them personally. But you should definitely go and wish them a joyous holiday. Just remind them not to dance and sing throughout the night. And after you wish them well, give over my best wishes to them as well.’”

Two months later, on Yud Tes Kislev, Reb Leizer was arrested. Ibrahim told me shortly afterwards that Karim had told him the following:

“When I come into my office every day, I sign the pile of papers lying on my desk automatically, without giving it any thought. The majority of them are death sentences.

“That day, I came into the office and for some reason, I glanced at the papers in front of me. Leizer’s document was on top; he, too, was sentenced to death. Reading the accusations against him, I knew they were false and fabricated, and I remembered being envious of his joy. So I crossed out that sentence and exchanged it with a number of years of exile.”

Ibrahim added that this is why Karim personally threw Reb Leizer into the wagon that took him to Siberia, as it was the only way he could save him. Otherwise, he would have been shot.

Years later, after both of us were able to escape or leave Russia, I met Reb Leizer one Tishrei, as we both came to celebrate it with the Rebbe. At that time he related to me the following:

“When I was arrested, I was waiting for interrogation by the GPU. As Karim was making his rounds, he came to my cell, and I said to him: ‘Comrade Karim, this is the third day I am here without anything to eat. I didn’t do anything to be arrested; the accusations against me are false. I am not healthy, and I can’t endure the pain of starvation.’

“In a loud and angry voice he replied, ‘You are a counter-revolutionary, and you deserve to be put to death. Suffering is good for you; it will teach you how to behave!’ Saying that, he stormed out of my cell, and I was shattered. But less than five minutes later he walked in again with a pita bread under his garment, which he tossed in my direction.

“He then said: ‘Eat it up without leaving a crumb, so that even if you die, no one will know that you had something to eat. If someone sees you eating it, don’t dare say that I gave it to you, because then I personally will shoot you. Say you were starving and stole it from another prisoner. Stealing is considered a minor infraction, and you will get a lighter punishment.’”

Karim was known to be a cruel person. The only explanation why he assisted us is that the joy of Simchas Torah sweetened all judgements.

Oros Ba’afeilah pp. 48–51. This story will be included b’ezras Hashem in the upcoming book Sippurei Meir: Stories of a Chossid.

May it indeed be a sweet and healthy year for all, full of happiness.

This story is being posted in honor of the 6th birthday of Chaya Mushka bas Cheyena, l’arichus yomim v’shonim tovos.

Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeim and their chassidim. He is available to farbreng or speak in your community, and can be contacted at avtzonbooks@gmail.com

[1] Author’s note: They were my future brother-in-law Reb Shlomo Matusof, Reb Abba Levin, Reb Yaakov hy”d Zuravitcher (Muskalik), and Reb Yitzchok (Itche) Goldin.

[2] Compiler’s note: The halachah is that one must only drink a majority of a revi’is of wine for kiddush. (According to Reb Chaim Noeh, based on a statement of the Alter Rebbe, a revi’is is slightly less than 3 ounces, so a majority of that is only one-and-a-half ounces). However, many follow the stricter opinion that one should drink most of the cup. So if the goblet is, say, sixteen ounces, to follow the stricter opinion, you would need to drink at least a bit more than eight ounces.

[3] See Bava Basra 10a. there is says the opposite – פחד קשה יין מפיגו, but there’s a story with the Tzemach Tzedek where he said the opposite) – יין קשה פחד מפיגו. The Rebbe talks about this in likkutei sichos vol. 25 p. 499

One Comment

  • 1. Ed Greenberg wrote:

    I realize that Hashem can harden and soften hearts, but I think Kareem had a bit of goodness in him to start with.


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