Weekly Chasidic Story #1021 (s5777-40/
9 Tamuz 5777)
When the World Helped the Rebbe
The person most instrumental in securing the safety and eventual release of
the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1927, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn,
from Soviet imprisonment and torture was Madame Yekaterina Peshkova, one of
the most formidable and fascinating women of the era.
Connection: Seasonal--The 12th and 13th of Tammuz are celebrated as
a "festival of liberation" by the Chabad-Lubavitch community [the
themes of which the Rebbes insisted are relevant to all Jews -- join the fun
at your local Chabad House!].
When the World Helped the Rebbe
On Tuesday night, June 14th, 1927, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef
Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, was arrested [see story #347
in this series--YT] by officers of the Leningrad precinct of the Soviet Secret
Police (the OGPU). Seven years earlier, he had assumed the leadership of Chabad,
following the passing of his father, Rabbi Sholom DovBer, the Rebbe Reshab.
He had worked tirelessly to rally the Jewish community and rebuild the institutions
of Jewish life, which had been wrecked by years of civil war, famine and political
chaos. From the very beginning, however, he had been hounded by the virulently
anti-religious "Jewish Section" of the Communist Party: the Yevsektsiya.
person most instrumental in securing the Rebbe's safety and eventual release
was Madame Yekaterina Peshkova, one of the most formidable and fascinating women
of the era. She was the first wife of the famed Russian writer and friend of
Stalin, Maxim Gorky, and had personal access to the highest officials in the
Soviet bureaucracy. As head of the Political Red Cross, she was one of the very
few individuals in Russia who could petition for the rights of political prisoners
both safely and effectively. At every stage of the bureaucratic process, and
with every new obstacle that arose, the chassidim turned to her for help on
the Rebbe's behalf.
(In this picture, taken in 1928, she is seen at a private tea party seated directly
to the left of Stalin. Her husband, Maxim Gorky, is seated to Stalin's right.)
Perhaps the least likely person that Peshkova enlisted in the effort to free
the Rebbe was Vyacheslav Menzhinsky, the national chairman of the OGPU. It was
Menzhinsky's close associate, Stanislav Messing, who was directly responsible
for the Rebbe's arrest. Messing was the chairman of the Leningrad OGPU and deputy
chairman of the national OGPU. He was also a Jew and a one-time chassid. In
general, the Jewish branch of the Communist Party, the Yevsektsiya, wielded
political influence yet did not have the power to make arrests. But in Messing,
the viciously anti-religious sentiments of the Yevsektsiya were combined with
the ruthless power of a leading official in the state security apparatus. Initially,
the chassidim in Moscow feared that Messing might be so incensed if his superior
pulled rank on him that the Rebbe's life would be put at risk by the intervention.
But when news arrived that a death sentence had already been issued, they realized
that they had nothing left to lose. The central Moscow authorities had a more
ambivalent attitude towards Judaism than the Yevsektsiya, and there was reason
to hope that they could be persuaded to intervene on the Rebbe's behalf.
At the time of the Rebbe's arrest, Russia was in the midst of an international
diplomatic crisis, and the Soviets had placed an embargo on outgoing telegrams.
Consequently, news of the Rebbe's incarceration, and of the threat to his life,
trickled out even more slowly than usual. On the 28th of June, international
newspapers started to report the arrest.
The following day, Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Ha-kohen Kook, Chief Rabbi of the
Holy Land, wired the American Joint Distribution Committee with an urgent message:
"Grave news received, Rabbi Schneierson of Lubovitch (sic) arrested [in]
Leningrad [by] Bolsheviks. Try utmost for deliveration (sic). Wire results."
Two years later, the Rebbe would visit the holy city of Jerusalem, occasioning
a particularly emotional meeting with Rabbi Kook.
Another source of international pressure came from Berlin, where Rabbi Meir
Hildesheimer, head of the famed Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary, and Dr. Leo
Baeck, a prominent leader and theologian of liberal Judaism, contacted Dr. Oskar
Cohn, the Jewish representative of the Socialist. The latter arranged a meeting
with the Russian ambassador to Berlin, Nikolay Krestinsky, who assured them
that this was a Yevsektsiya plot, and that the Rebbe's arrest had not been instigated
by the central government in Moscow. Despite the insistence of the Yevsektsiya
that the Rebbe was an enemy of the state, senior state officials ultimately
understood that they could not legitimately classify his advocacy for religion
as criminal. Krestinsky pledged to do all he could to ensure the Rebbe's safety
The most powerful figure to intervene on the Rebbe's behalf was Alexei Rykov.
Though, practically speaking, Stalin was already asserting his supreme authority,
Rykov was the reigning Premier of Russia at the time. Under increasing internal
and international pressure, the central authorities in Moscow commuted the Rebbe's
death sentence, first to ten years of hard labor in the Solovetsky Island prison
camp-described as "the mother of the Gulag"-then to three years of
exile in Kostroma, some 300 km to the northeast of Moscow.
Messing, the anti-religious chairman of the Leningrad OGPU, was furious at
these interventions, and retaliated by ordering the Rebbe to travel to Kostroma
on Shabbat. Knowing that a public desecration of the Shabbat would weaken the
morale of all who looked to him for inspiration, scoring a victory for the Yevsektsiya,
the Rebbe refused to comply. In desperation, the chassidim again contacted Yekaterina
Peshkova of the Political Red Cross. Through Peshkova's efforts, Rykov personally
called Menzhinsky, the national chairman of the OGPU, and ordered him to reschedule
the departure for Sunday.
Much pressure had come from the USA as well, with even the Republican candidate
for President, Herbert Hoover, getting personally involved. Two years later,
in 1929, the Rebbe visited the U.S. for ten months. (His purpose was to drum
up financial support for the Jews of Eastern Europe and to decide whether to
move Lubavitch headquarters from Europe to New York, or to Israel.) On July
10 he was received at the White House, where he met with President Hoover and
thanked him for his help. [Hoover, one of only five US presidents to live into
his nineties, is said to have publically credited his long life to "the
blessing of the Rabbi from Russia" - YT.]
On the 12th of Tammuz of 1927, the Rebbe was officially granted release from
his sentence of exile to Kostroma in the interior of Russia. However, since
that day was a legal holiday, the Certificate of Release freeing him to travel
home was not issued. On the next day, the 13th of Tammuz, the Rebbe received
the documents authorizing his release from his sentence of exile. Thus, both
the 12th and 13th of Tammuz are celebrated as a "festival of liberation"
by the Chabad-Lubavitch community [the themes of which the Rebbe insisted are
relevant to all Jews, even the most unaffiliated].
Source: Compiled and adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from //Chabad.org-mainly
(i.e. all except the final two paragraphs):
http://www.chabad.org/3382505 (which contains twelve more extraordinary
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn [of blessed memory: 12 Tammuz 5640 - 10 Shvat
5710 (Jan. 1880-June 1950 C.E.)], known as the Rebbe Rayatz, was the sixth Lubavitcher
Rebbe, from 1920 to 1950. He established a network of Jewish educational institutions
and Chassidim that was the single most significant factor for the preservation
of Judaism during the dread reign of the communist Soviets. . In 1940 he moved
to the USA, established Chabad world-wide headquarters in Brooklyn and launched
the global campaign to renew and spread Judaism in all languages and in every
corner of the world, the campaign continued and expanded so remarkably successfully
by his son-in-law and successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor
of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories
to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells
them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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