The question of what we should do remained as intense as ever. It was impossible for us to discuss this with anyone.
We heard unofficial rumors that the government had decided not to release deportees from their exile until the end of the war, and even then to permit them to settle only in places without a large community.
Our reserves of patience began to run out. As it later became clear, my husband was probably already suffering from the illness which would later take his life, for he no longer seemed to possess the same fortitude as before—although that was the time when he needed it more than ever.
“A fragrant spice called Shabbos”
At that time, only those employed by the military, or those fighting at the front, were entitled to send food packages.
Somehow we managed to get by each week, obtaining food through various means.
When Friday would come around, and there were no Shabbos candles, or when it was often necessary to queue up on line until quite late before Shabbos to receive “the bread of suffering”1 to use for the “double loaves of bread” [required on Shabbos2], it always adversely affected my husband’s mood on the Shabbos. As I left home to go to the bread line, he would say to me emotionally, “G‑d has given us a fragrant spice called Shabbos3—we need to prepare ourselves for the Shabbos!”
A surprise package
One Thursday, we received a notice from the post office that we had received a food parcel from a friend who had served as a soldier in the war. It was addressed to me because it was forbidden for a soldier who had served during in the war to have any connection with a “criminal” such as my husband.
On Friday I went to pick up the package. On my walk home, everyone who met me stopped to ask how I had received it. They asked this question enviously—not out of malice, but out of curiosity at what the package might contain. One acquaintance told me I should have concealed it so that no one should see it, because of the hunger pangs everyone was feeling!
When we opened it, we saw that it contained 100% white flour! The gratifying feeling this aroused is incomprehensible. We had long forgotten the taste and color of baked goods made with white flour.
Besides the flour, the package contained sugar cubes, two pieces of soap, a shirt and a pair of men’s socks—the sender wasn’t allowed to send more than that. Body soap seemed like the greatest possible luxury!
The package was sent by a young man4 who had lived in Dnepropetrovsk. During the war, he worked in the military division of the NKVD, which was why he had access to such products and was entitled, although not too often, to send them home to his wife and parents. To be entitled to receive them, I “became” his wife’s mother; since his family name differed from mine, I couldn’t be his mother.
Medical documentation in exchange for liquor
This young man discovered that the army planned to send his brigade to the frontlines. Accordingly, he became “ill” with a dangerous stomach ailment. He consulted with a group of doctors who sent him to Moscow with documentation allowing him to consult with specialists; as a result, he was released from military service.
He was drafted in 1941, and now it was 1944. Since being mobilized, he hadn’t seen his family, and his wife had given birth to their first child whom he had never seen. Nevertheless, before returning home, he came straight from Moscow to visit us and find out how we were.
He immediately got to work trying to obtain diagnoses from doctors specifying that my husband’s health did not permit him to remain in his present place.
Because Mendel Rabin was privy to “inside” information, he was aware of the tremendous efforts needed to get permission for my husband to leave his exile as soon as his five-year sentence expired; in the normal course of events this would not be allowed.
During the few days Mr. Rabin stayed with us, I spent all my time with him, seeking acquaintances who could arrange the medical records my husband needed, which Mr. Rabin could take back with him and begin working on the matter.
Despite expending much energy, as such an activity required, everyone refused to help. Finally, I met a townsman of ours, by chance in the street, and he came to visit us at home. We learned that his daughter was a doctor working at the local hospital, and she was on excellent terms with the head doctor there, who would need to sign the necessary documents.
The head doctor himself was from Korea, an educated man who was a deportee, too. In our village he had fallen into excessive drinking.
During Mr. Rabin’s military service, he had obtained some 180-proof vodka, knowing that this difficult-to-obtain liquor would serve as the best form of “payment” for the favors he knew was going to request. Within a day, our townsman managed to bring us the needed records, which he obtained in exchange for a liter of that liquor. The records included everything possible and required for the purpose, and were signed by three doctors, as required by law.
Our newfound “son” improves our status
When he first arrived, Mendel Rabin was still wearing his NKVD military uniform. We told people he was our son, and some even said he resembled me. Having such a son greatly improved our status, and thereby benefitted from the “merit of our children.”5
After he had assembled all the necessary documentation, he began considering where he should present the paperwork and in which city he should begin advance arrangements for us to leave.
Mendel Rabin comported himself with outstanding devotion, respect and deference to my husband. This was a result of my husband’s unique influence and ability to draw in people.
Mendel Rabin had come from a very different background. He was employed by the Soviet government as a factory manager, the head of a professional union.
In his childhood, he had studied at a cheder6 as was customary in any small Jewish village. Later, he started visiting our home, where he listened intently to the Torah discussions to the point that he was able to understand the profound Chasidic discourses my husband delivered on Shabbat and Yom Tov. On such days, when he finished work, he would change from his weekday “clothes” and pass over into the spiritual “world” of our home.
In terms of his high position, visiting our home should have been considered a treasonous act of “conspiracy” against the government. Nevertheless, Mr. Rabin used to say that he was prepared for any eventuality, as long as he could spend those several hours at the same table as Schneerson and listen to his words.
How malevolent of the authorities to uproot a person of such distinction—one who exerted such a positive influence on those absolutely distant to bring them close to the Torah—and to confine him to isolation, distant from all Jews and particularly from those close to him and from his familiar surroundings. Throughout his exile, this isolation ruined his health.
In any case, before returning to his family, Mendel Rabin traveled to Tashkent, where, his efforts to help us met with no success. He then traveled to Kirgizia,7 where his wife and child were living, and moved with them to Alma-Ata, where his brother8 already lived. Together they started working on rescuing my husband.
Before leaving us, Mr. Rabin wept hysterically, declaring, “I will do all a human being is capable of doing!”
We had spent several days together with a loyal friend, and it began to feel like we would indeed be rescued.
Dreams of a brighter future
Our daily life continued as before. My husband’s strength weakened dramatically. He tried to improve his mood but was not successful. Our frame of mind was not the most pleasant, was infused with anxiety.
Rumors circulated, and some claimed even to have heard it from “a reliable source,” that the government was creating many problems for deportees when their sentence expired, to make sure they remained in isolation. Their main objective was to restrict these exiles from living in large cities, and a strict decision had been made not to let them return to their hometowns from where they had been exiled.
In our hometown of Dnepropetrovsk, Hitler had killed all the Jews, and we had no reason to consider returning there. We wanted to improve our situation and to think about the good times that might await us. We imagined moving to a city where we could live among normal people. Perhaps it would be possible to speak to our children by phone, or even to see them, too, by means of a television. But my husband never lived to that point.
Meanwhile, our life had to proceed as before. Soon it was spring and the month of Adar, the worst month of the year in those parts, when the ground turns into deep mud, making it difficult to walk in the street.
But to obtain life’s most basic necessities, it was necessary to walk a long distance, although it was virtually impossible to get out of the quagmire. When you put your foot down, it became bogged down in the sticky morass, and you needed the strength of Samson for every step you took.
Deronomy 16:3, where it refers to the unleavened bread eaten by the Children of Israel in Egypt.
See above, p. 000.
See Talmud, Shabbat 119a.
Below he is identified as Mendel Rabin (or Rabinovitz).
The Rebbetzin humorously uses the Hebrew words z’chut banim, “the merit of one’s children,” in contrast to the common term z’chut avot, “the merit of one’s ancestors.”
An elementary Torah school.
A Soviet republic in Central Asia, now independent as Kirgizstan.