by Dovid Margolin – chabad.org
Deeply embedded within the biography of Lubavitcher Chassidim in the 20th century is the story of the Great Escape from the Soviet Union. Just after World War II, from early mid-1946 until New Year’s Day 1947, more than 1,000 Lubavitcher men, women and children illegally fled the Soviet Union using purchased or doctored Polish citizenship documents.
This was an intricate and dangerous operation. The Soviet Union had been harshly policing its borders for decades, employing a vast network of guards, plants and informants to halt, trap and imprison anyone wishing to leave the workers’ paradise. In executing their escape, the Chabad Chassidim, writes historian Gennady Estraikh, “showed remarkable resourcefulness in finding a way to leave the country that suppressed their form of life.” But it came at a price. Many of the escape’s leaders, both men and women, were eventually arrested and sentenced to long terms in prison or the Gulags. Some never returned.
While there were already Lubavitcher Chassidim living abroad, others who remained behind the Iron Curtain and many more who had perished in the Holocaust, this single, coordinated operation successfully transplanted the community’s nucleus from Russia, where it had always been, to the West and Israel. In fact, due to the sheer number of people who participated, escaping the USSR with fake Polish papers in the course of emigration to the Americas or Israel is a nearly ubiquitous biographical note for a certain generation of Lubavitchers.
In this way, Chaim Osher Kahanov, who passed away April 14 at the age of 96, shared a background similar to that of many of his Chassidic neighbors in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Yet Kahanov’s emigration story has a significant twist: He escaped the Soviet Union not once, but twice.
Some time in late 1945 or early 1946, the then-22-year-old left home in Tbilisi, Soviet Georgia, without telling his family and trekked 1,400 miles to Lvov, Ukraine. There, Kahanov procured Polish identity papers and absconded to Poland, sending word home when he was safely on the other side.
The Jews of the Soviet Union had suffered harsh persecution for decades. Chassidim in particular were targeted for belonging to what was, according to Communist ideology and Bolshevik policy, a subversive group. Kahanov’s own brother-in-law, a Chabad rabbi and shochet in Georgia, had just recently been released from three years of imprisonment. Realizing almost immediately that there was a good chance that his family and other members of the Chassidic community were unaware of the rare window to freedom, Kahanov chose to do the unthinkable: He turned around and went back.
Later, in post-war Paris, he would become attached to the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory—even giving up his ticket to America so that the Rebbe and his mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, could travel together.
Some details of Kahanov’s heroic exploits remain difficult to nail down for the simple reason that he never spoke about it. For Kahanov, an unassuming man who worked for decades as a diamond cutter and polisher in Manhattan, and served on the board of the Lubavitch Youth Organization of New York, there was nothing heroic about his actions. It was merely what had to be done.
“You’ve got to do the right thing,” he’d say.
Influencing the Jewish Street
The second of two children of Rabbi Eliyahu Shmuel and Chava Risa Kahanov, Sholom Chaim Osher Kahanov was born on June 27, 1923, in the small mountainous city of Akhaltsikhe, southwestern Georgia. His father, a graduate of the original YeshivatTomchei Temimim in the village of Lubavitch, had been dispatched from Russia to the distant outpost in 1918 by the Fifth Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber of Lubavitch, to serve its Jews as a rabbi, shochet, mohel and Torah teacher.
The elder Kahanov was a part of Lubavitch’s thriving network in Georgia, directed by his brother-in-law, Rabbi Shmuel Levitin. By 1924, Chabad emissaries were operating in at least 10 locations, including Batumi, Sukhumi and Kulashi, with a special focus on educating Jewish children. These Lubavitcher Chassidim worked not only to strengthen local Jewish life, but to teach and inspire young Georgian Jews to become chachamim (Sephardic rabbis) and lead communities in their own right. Indeed, among Kahanov’s students in Akhaltsikhe was Emmanuel Davidashvili, who would go on to become the chief rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Georgia’s capital of Tbilisi. (Years later, on a trip to the United States in the 1960s, Chacham Davidashvili traveled to Crown Heights to visit his old teacher).
As the new Bolshevik regime consolidated control over the country in the early 1920s, it turned its attention to the problem of religion. Joseph Stalin famously defined the USSR’s early policy of socialist development as “national in form and socialist in content,” a construct that not only allowed for (secular) Jewish ethnic expression but gave the Yevsektzia—the Jewish sections of the Communist Party—the mandate of bringing the revolution to the Jewish street. Throughout the decade, the Yevsektiza used its immense power to enforce Communist indoctrination and crush every expression of traditional Jewish life, learning and especially practice.
But the Yevsektzia, coming almost exclusively from Ashkenazic Jewish families, never successfully planted roots in the Sephardic regions of the Soviet Union, sparing the Jews of Central Asia and the Caucasus—Georgian Jewry included—from its particularly zealous and cruel brand of persecution. This of course made things easier for the Jews of Georgia, the elder Kahanov and his Chassidic colleagues, although it did not stop a number of both Georgian chachamim and Ashkenazi, mostly Chabad, rabbis from being arrested over the years, some dying in the Communist regime’s labor camps or being executed.
There were other difficulties as well. Georgia did not have much of a Jewish infrastructure—the very reason why the Fifth Rebbe, and then his son and successor the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, had sent emissaries in the first place. Thus, with no Jewish school, legal or illegal, to speak of, young Chaim Osher’s Jewish education was whatever his father was able to give him in between his overwhelming Jewish communal responsibilities.
Around 1928 the Kahanov family moved back to White Russia, where for a short time Rabbi Eliyahu Shmuel served as rav of the village of Dribin in the Mogilev district. While there, Kahanov’s daughter became engaged to Rabbi Meir Chaim Chaikin, a young Chabad Chassid serving as rabbi of another Belarussian town. Under the shadow of impending arrest, Chaikin was forced by the Yevsektzia to flee town and headed to the mountains of distant Georgia, where he was followed shortly thereafter by his bride-to-be and her family. Back in Georgia, the elder Kahanov became the shochet and mohel first of Zestafoni before joining his new son-in-law in his work in the town of Sachkhere.
Towards the end of the 1930s both families moved to Tbilisi, where Chaikin became a rabbi, shochet and mohel, and Kahanov took up a position as the shochet of the Great Synagogue. There, the Kahanovs lived in a few small rooms above the community mikvah on the synagogue grounds.
Over time, Georgia’s comparative safety drew the attention of the administrators of Chabad’s now-underground Tomchei Temimim yeshivah system. In 1938, a branch was opened in the Georgian city of Kutaisi with classes taking place in an abandoned structure at the edge of that city’s synagogue complex. Chaim Osher, by now 15 years old, was sent to Kutaisi to join the yeshivah.
“We studied diligently and enthusiastically, not wasting a moment,” one of Kahanov’s classmates, Chatzkel Brod, would write in his memoirs. Brod and most of the other yeshivah students had escaped to Georgia from elsewhere, and he recalled those years of Torah study in Kutaisi as an island of peace. “Gradually the constant fear we had experienced during our wanderings in Russia evaporated.”
Survival on the Black Market
For Chaim Osher, this period of Torah study would last until 1941, when he returned home and began working. Ever dedicated to the yeshivah in Kutaisi, he religiously sent half of his earnings back to assist with its maintenance, using the other half to help his family subsist. His return some time after the beginning of World War II would prove tragically fortuitous.
In late 1941 or early 1942 Kahanov’s brother-in-law Chaikin headed to Samarkand, Soviet Uzbekistan, to investigate rumors of a refugee Chassidic community having formed in the Central Asian city. He never made it there. Instead, he was arrested enroute by the NKVD and sentenced to nine years in a correctional labor camp for “speculation.” This left Chaikin’s wife and three young children without a breadwinner in an already perilous place and time.
“My father’s arrest meant that supporting our family fell upon my grandfather, but mainly on my uncle, my mother’s brother, Chaim Osher,” recalls Kahanov’s nephew, Rabbi Azriel Chaikin, at the time a boy of 10. Despite the harsh punishments meted out for economic crimes, turning to the black market was for the average Soviet citizen basically the only path to bettering their economic circumstances. As Rabbi Chaikin recalls it, his uncle became acquainted with a circle of young Georgian Jews who trusted him enough to supply him with goods to sell there. Once in a while, the young boy was even enlisted to help.
“In Tbilisi there was what in America you would call a flea market, located a little bit outside of the city,” Chaikin remembers. “People brought their things and sold them. One had a pair of shoes, another a jacket. Some people went there to sell their own personal things, but there were also people who worked the black market. The trick was that while legally you couldn’t have more than one pair of whatever you were selling, once you sold this pair you could put out another one. That’s what my uncle did.”
On the occasions when Kahanov brought Chaikin along, the little boy would sit some distance away with, for example, three or four pairs of shoes in his pockets, around his waist and wherever else they would fit. When Kahanov sold a pair, he’d surreptitiously retrieve another pair from his nephew.
“I was a little boy, but I knew that there was a danger involved. … Every time someone passed by I became afraid,” Chaikin recalls. “But that was our whole life there, fear.”
‘Even Now It Sounds Crazy’
On July 6, 1945, the governments of Poland and the Soviet Union signed an agreement allowing bonafide Polish citizens who found themselves in the USSR, including the millions who had lived in the half of the country annexed by Stalin in 1939, the chance to return to Poland, even if it meant renouncing Soviet citizenship. The first to take advantage of this arrangement were actual Poles—Jews and non-Jews—who found they could cross over without issue. Then word filtered out that the border had become so loose that something perhaps more daring could be attempted.
“Not everyone knew about it, it was unzere [‘our crowd’] who knew, and it obviously carried a risk,” Chaikin explains. In the meantime, his father had been released from the labor camps after serving three years, and although free, the elder Chaikin’s categorization as an ex-convict placed an added pressure on everyday life for the family. That’s when word of a large-scale Chabad effort to leave the Soviet reached them in Tbilisi; Rabbi Chaikin remembers his father and grandfather arguing late at night whether to join or not.
Meanwhile, Chaim Osher disappeared. With his knack for people, Kahanov had befriended a small circle of young Polish Jews in Tbilisi who in turn helped him obtain tickets and Polish documents, and took him along with them. As far as anyone knew, he was gone for good.
“Some time passed and then suddenly one night, there was knocking at the door,” remembers Chaikin. “In Russia, this is not a very pleasant sound, and we were scared. But it was Chaim Osher.”
The family was not sure how to react. This being the Soviet Union, there was reason to believe Chaim Osher had been arrested in the interval and was now being used as bait, his sudden appearance at the door in reality a pretense to arrest them all. It was a tense moment. “Chaim Osher begged us to open and insisted he had come alone,” Chaikin recalls. Finally, they relented.
Although he had not served in the military, Kahanov strode in wearing a Red Army uniform, his arm bandaged and hanging in a sling. Everyone wanted to know what had happened, but as soon as he entered he took off the coat and began unwrapping his bandages. It was all an act—one that allowed him to travel through the country unmolested but was at the same time highly dangerous.
There was little time for talking. Kahanov explained that he had returned from Poland to let them know it was really possible; they must seize the opportunity and leave immediately. “He was a very big influence on our family to go,” says Chaikin. While his parents, sister and brother-in-law headed for Lvov, Kahanov went in the opposite direction, to Samarkand, where he likewise raised the alarm.
His warning pushed even more Lubavitcher Chassidim in Uzbekistan to head towards Lvov, where an organized escape attempt was forming. The Great Escape, colloquially known as the Eschelonen (Yiddishized Russian for “military train convoy,” referring more specifically to the three massive convoys that carried the majority of escapees), was led by R’ Yonah Kahan (arrested in 1948, died in the Gulag in 1949); R’ Mendel Futerfas (arrested in 1947, released from the Gulag in 1956); “Mumme” Sarah Katzenelenbogen (arrested in 1950, died in Soviet prison in 1952); and R’ Leibel Mochkin, among others. An ad-hoc Chabad rabbinical court ruled that everyone must pool their money and valuables to assist others, the money being used to purchase and/or doctor Polish citizenship papers and furnish massive bribes for various officials. None of this was easy, and many families spent months waiting in Lvov trying their best not to draw too much attention to themselves. Although ultimately successful, consequences aside for the waves of arrests included decades, even life-long family separations.
Meanwhile, Kahanov returned to Tbilisi, and a new reality dawned. His family was gone. Polish citizenship papers were expensive, and he had already used a set to leave the Soviet Union once. It would be far too suspicious and dangerous for him to reappear in Lvov and hope to score yet another set of Polish papers. So he was stuck, alone. The gig could not last much longer.
Hope once again came in the form of friendship. In Tbilisi, Kahanov met a Polish Jew named Garfinkel, a former soldier in the Red Army who had lost an arm in the war. After his discharge, Garfinkel had drifted to Georgia, where he met and married a Russian Jewish girl. The two young men became friendly, and one day Garfinkel offered to give his legitimate Polish citizenship papers to Kahanov, who looked somewhat similar to him. “What will happen to you?” Kahanov asked. “I’m actually Polish,” Garfinkel replied. “I can always find other ways to prove it.”
Papers in hand, Kahanov headed straight back to Lvov, once again safely crossing over into Poland and then going on to Czechoslovakia. He would continue to use the name Garfinkel for decades.
“Even now it sounds crazy,” considers Chaikin. “Can you imagine someone who runs away and then comes back?”
‘Connection Was Extremely Deep’
After a short stint in Prague, where Kahanov served on a committee assisting the resettlement of fellow Chassidic refugees, by 1947 he was in Paris, where he first met the man who would soon become the Rebbe: Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson. The Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson, had left the Soviet Union on a similarly perilous route, going from Kazakhstan to Moscow to Lvov, where she was furnished with false papers, and on to Poland and eventually Paris. In March of 1947, the future Rebbe, by then in New York, flew to Paris to greet and accompany her to the United States.
Kahanov took to the Rebbe immediately, escorting him, for example, each Friday night on the long walk from the Paris home and synagogue of Rabbi Zalman Schneerson, where prayers were held and Rebbetzin Chana stayed, back to the Rebbe’s hotel. He did this often during the week as well, when he would also deliver food prepared by his mother or another Chassidic woman, Taibel Lipsker, for the Rebbe. Years later Kahanov would recall that by the time he came back to pick up the dishes, the Rebbe had already cleaned them himself.
“My grandfather once told me that when he brought the food to the Rebbe’s hotel room he noticed the bed was made and there were seforim [holy books] piled up on top,” says Kahanov’s grandson, Rabbi Zalman Bendet. “It was clear to him that either the Rebbe slept on the floor or he didn’t sleep at all.”
On one memorable occasion, the Rebbe went to buy a new hat. Kahanov and another Chassid accompanied him on the train, the Rebbe pointing out various Parisian sites as they passed them. At the store, the Rebbe donned one hat and turned to the pair, asking their opinion. Perhaps it was this unique mix of obvious greatness and warm approachability, or maybe something entirely deeper than that, that caused Kahanov to form a lifelong bond with the Rebbe.
“My perception was always that his connection to the Rebbe was extremely deep, internal,” says his son, Rabbi Dovid Kahanov. “From Paris, he was totally given over to the Rebbe’s mission and directives, extremely sensitive to fulfilling them exactly.”
Kahanov was due to sail for America in June of 1947, but instead gave up his ticket so that Rebbetzin Chana and her son could travel back together. As a token of his appreciation, the Rebbe loaned Kahanov a couple-dozen-page letter written by his father-in-law, the Sixth Rebbe, to read on his subsequent Atlantic passage later that year. This rare letter, known as the Lange Briv, or the “Long Letter,” tells the dramatic story of the earliest generation of Chassidim of the Baal Shem Tov, and was later rendered into English as The Making of Chassidim. Kahanov would maintain a close relationship with Rebbetzin Chana in New York in the years to come, taking her out for walks and serving as a witness at her 1953 U.S. naturalization ceremony.
After arriving in Brooklyn, Kahanov studied for a time at the Chabad yeshivah before getting a job as a diamond cutter and polisher in Manhattan’s 47th Street district. When Kahanov’s mother passed away in the summer of 1951, about five months after the Rebbe had formally accepted the Chabad movement’s leadership, he sat shiva in a small room in Chabad headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, with the Rebbe among those who came to comfort him. During the shiva, the Rebbe asked Kahanov by name to join the farbrengen gathering down the hall marking the anniversary of liberation of the Sixth Rebbe from Soviet imprisonment and gave him a bottle of vodka.
“He was a young student from Russia and the Rebbe noticed him,” says Chaikin. Later, at the Purim gathering of 1966, the Rebbe asked for a Kohen, Levite and Yisrael to especially imbibe in the l’chaim being distributed, again calling Kahanov—as the Kohen—by name. “The first time I saw him in Paris,” the Rebbe joyously recalled in Yiddish, “he was making kiddush on 96 percent [alcohol]!”
Following Kahanov’s marriage in 1956 to Sarah Miriam Rosenblum, he requested that the Rebbe send them out as emissaries, but the Rebbe replied that their mission was in New York. In the ensuing decades, the Kahanovs would open their Crown Heights home to guests and stragglers. Even as he worked endless hours to support his family, Kahanov also dedicated himself to the work of the Lubavitch Youth Organization. Famously, he never missed a farbrengen gathering of the Rebbe’s, nor did he ever shirk the smaller things, for example always joining those far younger than himself for taahalucha, the custom per the Rebbe’s instructions to walk far distances on Jewish holidays to share the joy of the holiday with other Jewish communities. He kept a stringent daily Torah-study schedule until the end of his life, feeling that it was his duty to make up for the yeshivah years lost to persecution, war and the vicissitudes of 20th-century life.
He almost never spoke of his past adventures—his wife first learned of it years into their marriage, when a woman whose family had left Russia due to Kahanov’s warning hugged her in a store, exclaiming “Your husband is an angel!”—always preferring to focus on the task at hand, no matter how big or small.
“He was a quiet person, not a loud activist,” says his son. “But he was a Chassidic Jew to the very essence of his being.”
In addition to his wife, Kahanov is survived by their children: Chavie Bendet (St. Paul, Minn.); Chana Hayes (Ottawa, Canada); Rabbi Yossi Kahanov (Jacksonville, Fla.); Chaya Levin (Kfar Chabad, Israel); Rivky Block (San Antonio, Texas); Rabbi Dovid Kahanov (Brooklyn, N.Y.); Rabbi Meir Kahanov (Brooklyn, N.Y.); and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
This article has been reprinted with permission from chabad.org