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.

…The 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 and release.

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 photos!)


Biographical note:
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.


Yerachmiel 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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