The Jewish Underground of Samarkand: How Faith Defied Soviet Rule (Paperback)
A portal into the perseverance of Jewish culture in the face of attempts to destroy it.To answer his son's question: what was it like growing up in Samarkand? Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman wrote and researched this memoir and history about Chassidic Jews who found refuge in Samarkand during the World War II and continued to live there under Soviet rule. This is a personal story for Zaltzman, who was born in Kharkov, Ukraine. When the Nazis invaded Kharkov, Zaltzman's parents fled with their three young children to Samarkand (Uzbekistan). There they reconnected to other refugee Chassidic families, as well as some famous Chassidic rebbes also in flight. In Uzbekistan they created a thriving Jewish community until its institutions were abruptly shut down by Stalin immediately after the war. Still this Jewish community in Samarkand, Uzbekistan is remembered as shpitz Chabad--the epitome of Chassidic ideals and devotion. Zaltzman's father kept him out of the Soviet schools, where atheism was promoted and Sabbath observance was impossible, teaching him furtively at home, until a neighbor discovered his existence at the age of 9. Zaltzman had no choice but to attend a public school then, but he still observed the demands of his faith and stayed home from school when necessary. Hillel studied with esteemed Chabad Chassidic rebbes who taught at great personal risk. If discovered, they could be sentenced to harsh labor in Siberia. Zaltzman credits his father's unswerving commitment to his chinuch--his Jewish education--was beyond any compromise, and it was an exemplary expression of their Chabad brand of Chassidic Judaism: "The Chabad community was infused with a rich inner world of Chassidic vitality," Zaltzman writes. Meanwhile, the Soviet regime remained obsessed with eliminating a Jewish religious identity; a special division of the NKVD (Soviet secret police) was assigned the task of destroying Jewish schools and yeshivas, and surveilling individuals through synagogue informers. Zaltzman records his experiences and adventures and those of other memorable people he has known and the sacrifices they made to share their love of Torah and Jewish learning in the secret underground yeshivas. He describes their attempts to celebrate Jewish holidays, make matzah, and obtain prayer books, as well as their other colorful escapades. He also tells of their exasperating experiences trying to obtain exit visas to leave the Soviet Union. The largely untold story of Chabad activism and heroism comes through with great immediacy in this first-person account of spiritual resistance to a Communist regime at war with the Jewish devotion to God and Torah. From the age 16, along with several other idealistic young men, Hillel Zaltzman was involved in Chamah an underground Jewish organization that helped sustain and preserve Jewish life in the Soviet Union through education. Chamah established a network of underground Jewish schools that clandestinely taught more than 1,500 children over the years and provided material and spiritual support to Jews trying to obtain exit visas in the 1960s and 70s. Hillel himself was allowed to immigrate to Israel only in 1971, after years of trying. Now living in New York, he is the director of IChamah, an international organization which is devoted to serving Jews from the Former Soviet Union in Israel, Russia, and the US. Rabbi Zaltzman was honored for his humanitarian and Jewish outreach in the U.S. Senate in May 2016, as part of Jewish American Heritage Month.
Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman was born in the city of Kharkov, Ukraine, in the year 1939. During the Second World War, as the Germans closed in on Kharkov, the Zaltzman family escaped to the city of Samarkand--present day Uzbekistan. Living under Soviet rule, Hillel had to received his childhood Jewish education in secret. His Jewish education came from the Chassidim present throughout his youth; his uncle the shochet, Reb Boruch Duchman and Reb Berke Chein who spent six years in the Zaltzman home while on the run from the authorities, and Reb Mendel Futerdas. Under their influence, his Chassidic perspectives formed properly.When he was sixteen, the Chassid Reb Moshe Nissilevitch recruited Hillel to become involved with the communal work of an underground organization by the name of Chamah, founded to promote the teaching of Torah and Chassidic philosophy. In the darkest days of Communist Russia, just being a Jew put one's life in jeopardy. This small group of courageous young activists refused to let the flame of Judaism be extinguished. At peril to their lives Chamah started as a clandestine group with the aim of strengthening Jewish identity and helping their brethren both physically and spiritually. In 1964, Hillel married Mussia Shoshana Esther, her father was Reb Efraim Fishel Demichovsky, a graduate of Tomchei Tmimim, and the nephew of the Rogotchover Gaon.From his earliest days, Hillel Zaltzman remained deeply involved in activities and development of the Chamah. Over the years, Chamah grew to become an international Jewish organization working with Russian and Ukrainian Jewry conducting a broad range of humanitarian, social, and educational programs in Israel, Russia, and the United States. In 1971 Rabbi Zaltzman emigrated from the USSR to Israel and helped established the Chamah branch office in Israel. Two years later, in 1973, Hillel was asked to open the first Chamah branch in New York City. Shortly thereafter his family moved to join him in New York. He continued his work on behalf of Soviet Jewry, expanding Chamah's operations to include medical aid, furthering Jewish education among Russian Jews in America and abroad. Today, Chamah International headquarters are located Manhattan and in Brooklyn and Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman is president of this international organization.