# 347 (s5764-41) 11 Tammuz 5764
The Midnight Arrest
Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Shneersohn of Lubavitch
answered coolly to the dreaded secret police: "I don't know which Schneersohn
you are looking for."
by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn,
the Sixth Rebbe of the Lubavitch dynasty
My arrest began at 2:15 a.m. on Wednesday, 15 Sivan, 5687 ,
and continued until 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, 3 Tammuz, 5687 ,
in Leningrad (Petersburg). After these eighteen days, eleven hours
and fifteen minutes, I spent approximately six hours in my home, and
at 7:30 p.m. took the train to Kostrama. I arrived there on Monday,
4 Tammuz, and remained in exile until 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday, 13
Tammuz, for a total of nine days and seventeen hours.
* * * * *
A few minutes after midnight between Tuesday of the week of Parshas
Shlach, 14 Sivan, and Wednesday, 15 Sivan 5687 , weary and fatigued,
I washed my hands in preparation for the evening meal together with
my family. Before ten minutes had passed the doorbell rang noisily.
The door opened and two men rushed into the dining room, shouting:
"We were sent by the administration of the GPU [The
dreaded Soviet secret police, later called the NKVD, the MGB, and
finally the KGB]. Who is Schneersohn? Where is he?"
Within a moment a unit of armed men entered, stood in line, and awaited
I answered coolly and clearly: "I don't know which Schneersohn
you are looking for. If you come to a man's home you no doubt already
know who lives there. So there's no need for all the threatening noise.
Say what you have to say, what you want and whom you want. Besides,
the official in charge of the courtyard is with you, and he knows
all the residents by sight. So why shout?"
Their spokesman responded: "I'm not shouting; that's just the
way I talk. It looks like you're not yet familiar with the ways of
officers dispatched by the GPU. Show us all the ins and outs of your
home so that we'll be able to watch it as the law prescribes. You,
as head of the family, will accompany us to observe our search through
"True," I replied, "I don't know the ways of your administration's
officers, nor do I want to know them. It is clear to me that you have
either made a mistake, or else there is an intentional libel. It's
all the same to me. As to the officers of the said administration,
I have not feared them, I do not fear them, and I shall not fear them.
And as to the ins and outs of my home, the man in charge of the courtyard
can show you around. My home is in your hands: you can search and
probe according to your desires, or according to the law of which
you speak. At any rate, I am sure that you will not disturb me at
the supper table."
This cool and unimpressed response - or, more precisely, the naive
scornfulness of a Lubavitcher citizen - left a deep imprint even on
those rocklike men. Their wings drooped for a moment; they looked
at me in astonishment; the house fell silent.
A couple of minutes passed before Nachmanson spoke up. He was a Jewish
lad from Nevel whose father used to visit Lubavitch; he himself had
gone to school in Nevel. He gave the armed men their orders: "Go
out and stand guard at the doors. If anyone wants to enter, open wide.
If people want to move about, even from room to room, or even to talk
with each other, don't let them! You've been warned!"
He turned to Lulav, his aide, one of the Lulav family of Riga, and
added: "Let's get down to work."
To me he added: "We won't disturb you from eating - if you're
able to eat...."
With that, he posted one of the armed guards in the dining room to
police his orders.
* * * * *
They began their search in the room of my daughters, Chayah Mussia
and Sheine, and asked them: "What party do you belong to?"
"We belong to our father's party," they replied; "we
are non-partisan daughters of Israel. We are fond of the old ways
of our Patriarch Israel, and detest the new aspirations."
We heard Nachmanson's demand: "But why?"
My daughter Sheine answered: "Why? I'm not obliged to answer
that question. You asked for my views and I answered you, but as to
the question Why, I am under no obligation to reply nor to give reasons.
After all, you didn't come here to rummage through all my notes and
letters just for the sake of conducting a discussion! What we have
always been, that is what we are now. And what we are now, we are
telling you, irrespective of whether it makes you happy or not."
"You should really take into account our power and our opinions,"
Nachmanson warned. "The GPU administration which we represent
can open even a dumb mouth, and make it talk about whatever is hidden
under the heart. Our interrogators are remarkable craftsmen: people
tell them everything. Over there there's no saying No; over there
people talk, sometimes willingly and sometimes not; over there everything
melts: even a stone will become talkative."
"That's the whole calamity," replied my daughter. "People
want to take everything by brute force. What a repulsive and unjustifiable
thing it is to take hold of men with minds and opinions by the might
of a fist and by the threat of a revolver!"
I cannot deny that I found it pleasing to hear the way she spoke so
sensibly, in such a decisive voice, and with such coolheaded (though
simulated) calm. At the same time, however, I was anxious lest this
Nachmanson, who boasted so loudly about his power and violence, should
have her punished by a prison sentence.
* * * * *
They spent about an hour and a half ransacking every room, but this
did not appear to be their real purpose. Next, they wrote up a document
and handed it to me to sign. It stated that they had searched the
house, that I testified that all the laws governing such a search
had been observed, and that I had been informed that I was under arrest.
I explained that I could not sign that everything had been according
to the law when the whole notion of a house search appeared to me
to be questionable. Everyone, I explained, knew the identity of Rabbi
Schneersohn and his activities. It was clear to me that here was a
case either of a mistake or a libel; I could not sign and give my
assent to either.
I continued: "As to your desire to arrest me, it appears that
the requests of my family here are to no avail - but I too have something
to say about your desire.
"Whether this is a mistake or a libel, it will be clarified in
a day or two. Everyone knows who I am and what I do. I have not hidden
myself away. I live in one of the largest cities in the country; my
home is in the center of town; I have a synagogue; and I deliver discourses
on Chassidus on Sabbaths and festivals.
"From this you see that I am not in hiding. It would appear to
me that such an arrest would arouse undesirable publicity. I think
it would be preferable to wait with the arrest until you can establish
the truth - that is, if the truth interests you. If, instead, you
intend to becloud the mistake or the libel with layers of untruth,
it is clear to me that you will regret it. You are capable of doing
anything - but you will not arrest Schneersohn with ropes of libelous
Nachmanson interrupted me: "The administration of the GPU is
responsible for its own activities. It is not afraid of criticism
from the surrounding world. When it issued the order to have you arrested
it obviously had the necessary power. I am surprised that you speak
as you do. At any rate: For your information, you are under arrest."
I replied: "But I do not understand why I was interrupted before
I managed to express my request."
Nachmanson was losing patience: "If you have a request, then
you're allowed to make it. That's a right that every prisoner has.
But why are you talking so harshly? Don't you understand the situation?
We didn't come here to make conversation! Nor did we come here to
listen to the requests of your daughters or the rest of your family!
As to you," - he turned in anger to my daughters - "get
out of here! Just talk one minute more and you're all arrested!"
He held up his revolver and said: "With this I'll talk to you,
and then you'll give up your pretty phrases!"
My daughter Chanah spoke up: "We speak the language spoken by
those who at all times have been human. We don't speak the language
of those who have just come up out of the mire, who are unable to
speak honestly, and who are interested only in pointing revolvers
and making threats of imprisonment. Leave our father alone! Don't
take away the apple of our eye! My sisters and I will happily go to
jail in his place. He is weak, and his doctor doesn't allow him to
go outside. Bring a doctor to examine him and establish whether he
can be taken to jail. Take us, and leave a guard here until the doctor
decides that our father can go out. You are human beings, too, aren't
you? Surely you, too, have what the world calls feelings? Surely you,
too, have what the world calls decency?" And she
burst into tears.
Smiling, I explained to my wife and daughters: "Only wishful
thinking could imagine that tears and pleas could help. There's nothing
in common between a cruel gentile and pleas."
I addressed Nachmanson in a voice of authority: "Why did you
not let me finish talking? All your threats and your moral explanations
about how people should talk you can tell me in jail. Here, you have
to hear what I have to say. I am still within the walls of my home,
and I want it all to be heard by my family, by reliable witnesses
whose testimony you will not be able to refute."
"Your words," said Nachmanson, "smack of poison. So
you don't like the laws of the new regime? Well, we'll have time to
talk about that.... Now, say whatever you have to say so that it will
be heard by your family, by reliable witnesses whose testimony we
will not be able to refute." And he winked at Lulav and the three
armed men who were there at the time.
It was my turn to speak: "I demand that I be given permission
to put on tefillin and to pray, and if the law allows it, that my
food be brought to me by no one apart from members of my family."
"You're asking for permission to pray?" said Nachmanson.
"I'm telling you that you can take along your tefillin, as well
as books, and pencil and paper. I promise you faithfully that no one
will disturb you from praying, or reading and writing. You'll be back
here today. When you arrive there, the officer in charge will be waiting
for you. He'll ask you a few questions and you'll be able to return
to your home."
* * * * *
At that moment, when all the talking was over, and they were simply
waiting for the vehicle that was to take me to the new building of
the Spalerno Prison, my revered mother walked in. Until this moment
she had been in her room and had not known what was going on, because
Nachmanson had ordered everyone to move quietly so that she should
not be woken. I do not know how she found out, but at this point she
walked in and discovered the uninvited guests.
"What is this?" she exclaimed, and clapped her hands together
in consternation. "Why did they come? Would they force their
hands even on innocent people like you, my son, who work for the good
Quickly sizing up the situation, she declared boldly: "No, my
soul's precious one! I will not let them take you away. I will go
instead of you."
She addressed herself to Nachmanson. "Take me!" she pleaded.
"Don't disturb the repose of my only son, who is always responsive
to the distress of others. Do you judge even honest men so harshly?
No, no! Not arrest!"
She sobbed bitterly: "My husband! They're taking our son Yosef
Yitzchak! They're taking your only son, who sacrifices his very life
to do good! Your only son, who fulfills your instructions with self-sacrifice!
Brigands have come, murderers of an upright soul - and for what? Holy
forebears: They want to extinguish your lamp! My son: Come what may,
I won't let them take you away!"
Nachmanson now turned to me: "Please be so kind as to calm her
down. Take her to her room. It's not my fault that she is so upset.
We were quiet enough; we didn't want to disturb her rest. Just talk
to her gently."
At that moment it appeared to me that even in the depths of evil there
is an ingredient of good. Words of this kind sounded incongruous when
mouthed by a cruel individual whose hands were stained with human
blood. This man of rock, I mused, does he too have a heart? Does he,
too, have a sense of decency? Does he, too, have a conscience? Can
he, too, feel compassion? Can it be that he realizes that the sobbing
woman standing before him is the Lubavitcher Rebbitzin, whose good
name is known far and wide? Can it even be that he feels a flutter
of regret over the stroke of fortune by which he has come to be an
official of the GPU...?
I accompanied my mother to her room, where I spoke of things which
could not be discussed in the presence of our visitors. In fact they
did not disturb me at all: they had gone out for a stroll, leaving
behind only armed guards to wait for the van.
* * * * *
Though I had reasons to suspect this party or that, I could not determine
who was responsible for my distressing predicament. It only appeared
to be clear - and this conjecture I shared with my family - that I
was being taken as a kind of hostage.
"For what?" asked my son-in-law, R. Shmaryahu Gourary.
"I don't know," I said, "but these are the facts."
"There's an informer," said my mother.
"That's it," my wife and daughters agreed, "an informer."
"No," said I. "I do not believe that they would inform
on me, nor do I see a clear reason for it. I am simply being taken
as a hostage."
"What do you think we should do?" asked my son-in-law.
"What to do?" I replied. "First of all, convey the
message at the resting place of my revered father, the Rebbe [Rashab],
and at Lubavitch, Niezhin and Haditch,*** and ask the members of the
chassidic fraternity to recite Tehillim in the synagogues during the
*** Lubavitch is the site of the Ohel of the Tzemach Tzedek and his
son the Rebbe Maharash; Niezhin is the site of the Ohel of the Mitteler
Rebbe; and the Ohel of the Alter Rebbe is in Haditch.
"The first days?!" they all chorused. "What are you
thinking, G-d forbid...?"
"That," I said, "we shall see later, with G-d's help.
There's no need to make a noise: in no time this business will be
known in many places. Whatever chassidim will do here and in other
places, let them do. For your part, do what you can through contacts
that you know. Above all, make it known in all the places of learning
that the chassidim should not interrupt their holy work. Now, no doubt,
it will be even more difficult to collect money for their support,
because all the willing workers will be terrorized and intimidated,
and this will apply even more to those people who do this work out
of obligation: they will have a reason to withdraw.
"Let my directives therefore be clear to you: Irrespective of
the loans which I owe, make every endeavor to continue borrowing so
that you will be able to send the money that is needed wherever classes
are conducted. Until G-d brings me home, it is your duty to continue
my work in an orderly fashion."
* * * * *
According to what I was told by one of my family, it was clear to
me that my secretary Mr. Chaim Lieberman already knew what was happening
in my home. He had no doubt already destroyed all the documents that
could implicate him as my secretary. It would be advisable, I thought,
that he leave his home until the storm had abated. Why should he,
too, suffer? Besides, he was the one who would know how to keep the
work going, for he knew exactly what had to be done. Hopefully, thank
G-d, they would find nothing incriminating in his home.
Meanwhile my family all stood around me, their faces white from shock,
their eyes tearful, their tongues speechless. They gazed at me with
looks of consternation, hope, fondness, compassion, entreaty - without
breathing a word.
Remarkable, was it not? After all, we were waiting for the vehicle
to arrive any minute to take me to the Spalerno Prison.
Spalerno! The very word casts dread and horror upon whoever hears
it. It takes its name from the street over which it looms, and is
popularly known as Spalerka. It is a nightmare to all men, irrespective
of religion, nationality or party. Even children know that being taken
there is no laughing matter that will pass in a day or two.
Being sent there means either that one's sentence is already final,
or that the prisoner is about to undergo cross-examination and, more
particularly, a grilling interrogation. I assume that some readers
are unaware of the distinction, but for a number of reasons I shall
be brief. Cross-examination is verbal - questions and answers. Interrogation
involves devices that compel speech. As Nachmanson expressed it, "Over
there people talk; over there mouths open; they talk, and tell, and
keep on telling!" Cross-examination is lightweight; it is conducted
at other addresses. Spalerka is for the heavy treatment. And Spalerka
is the address which I am waiting to be taken to in the military vehicle
which is due at any moment.
* * * * *
In these limited moments there is much to say, much to request, much
to order, much to organize - but at this very time the mouth will
not speak, and the brain does not rule the heart. The heart is deeply
excited; it does not allow the brain to contemplate nor the mind to
think nor the power of speech to speak.
Nevertheless, thanks to G-d's kindness, I stood firm, and addressed
a few compact words to my family on the organization of the work that
had to be continued, as follows: "It is obvious that they have
cast a net to ensnare me with extremely serious accusations and libels.
They will also try to force me to confess on matters of which I am
not guilty, that is, on matters which are unconnected with my work
of buttressing the practice of Yiddishkeit and the study of Torah.
Come what may, they will not succeed in the slightest. If they ask
me about my work I shall tell them everything - that in some measure
I support the Torah and its students. If they ask me who are my associates,
I will take everything upon myself. Therefore, if they arrest anyone
else, G-d forbid, and attribute it to my information, know that this
is an outright lie. They will get nothing out of me. Nothing in the
world will force me to change this decision, and this must be clear
"It is obvious to me that they already have material for a major
libel against me; otherwise they would not have taken such a step.
I can read in Nachmanson's face that they know exactly what they are
doing. They have no doubt created material with which they imagine
they will be able to harm Jewry in general by means of the present
arrest. I have perfect trust, however, that the G-d of our holy forebears
will rescue me from their hands, and that I will return to my work
"Make sure that you observe what I have directed you to do. Let
your spirits not fall - and G-d will help us. Just make sure that
you remove all the chassidic manuscripts from the house and hide them
away in various safe places."
* * * * *
Barely had I finished, when Lulav returned to tell me that I should
hurry into the waiting vehicle.
I replied in Yiddish: "That's one of the things which in Russia's
current situation one can't miss.... Even those who arrest others
may rest assured that their turn, too, will come. One mustn't hurry;
no one is going to miss out!"
I put on my coat, received farewell blessings from my revered mother,
my wife, and my daughters Chanah, Chayah Mushka and Sheine, and went
to the room of my daughter's son, Shalom Ber, to see him before I
set out for Spalerka [and to bless him
I then said goodbye to the household staff. Once the guards freed
them from the kitchen, they were so shocked by what they heard and
saw that they averted their gaze from me and looked at the floor,
unable to return my greetings.
I kissed the mezuzah at the entrance to my home and sat down
on a bench, while Lulav and his armed henchmen surrounded me from
all sides in keeping with prison regulations.
One travel bag contained my tefillin (of Rashi, Rabbeinu Tam
and Shimusha Rabbah), my tallis, and a gartl; a Siddur,
Tehillim and Tanya; as well as a change of clothes,
a handkerchief, some food, Valerian, and a small pillow. This bag,
marked with the initial letters Sh. Sh., was bought and used by my
revered father for all his travels from the year 5673 . I was
also given a blanket.
Not wanting to carry these things myself, I handed the bag to one
of the guards. Lulav sprang forward said: "Give it to me; I'll
carry it. Chassidim remain chassidim! My grandfather carried parcels
for your grandfather, and I want to carry your parcel."
Taking it from his hand I said: "Your grandfather was a chassid,
so he had the good fortune to carry my grandfather's parcels wherever
my grandfather went; you want to carry this parcel so that I should
go (G-d forbid) where you want me to go. No, that cannot be! I'm not
going to go your way. You're right: chassidim remain chassidim...!"
I returned the bag to the hands of the guard, kissed the mezuzah,
and left, with armed guards surrounding me on all sides.
On the way down the stairs I could hear the entreaties of my family:
"Let us accompany my son; ...my husband; ...our father!"
As I reached the waiting vehicle in the courtyard I turned around
and saw an armed guard barring their way. I called out aloud to Lulav:
"Why don't the guards let them accompany me? Do you have permission
to prevent that?"
My self-assured words made an impact. Lulav ordered the guard to leave,
and allowed my family to walk together with me. I was even able to
exchange a few words with my son-in-law, R. Shmaryahu Gourary.
The courtyard was quiet. There was no one to be seen apart from my
family, the guards, and their officers, Nachmanson and Lulav.
"Here, at the entrance," said Nachmanson with a smirk, "you
will have to kiss each other goodbye, as aristocrats are accustomed
to do, because I will not allow you to go out into the street."
I turned to him: "For a high-ranking official who demands a signature
to testify that he visited and searched the house with all due politeness
and respect, it is inappropriate to prevent family members from accompanying
someone dear to them."
"Go!" roared Nachmanson. "It seems that you can't yet
get used to the idea that you are under arrest and have to take orders
from your commander!"
"Who is the commander," I asked, "and what is the command?
You can see that with all your tough words you are not going to intimidate
me. I ask you again: Fulfill my family's request!"
He immediately stepped aside and we all went out to the street.
The van was surrounded by armed men. Inside sat a dignified foreign
traveler of about forty, his face white as snow, his eyes filled with
terror. An armed guard faced him.
I caught sight of the big clock in the window of the watchmaker's
over the road, its face as white as the faces of my family. Its crow-black
digits told me that it was 2:20 a.m.
In the course of the last two hours and ten minutes, I thought, how
much pain, fear and distress had my family undergone! And the cause?
- A false libel; an informer; and my efforts for the preservation
of Yiddishkeit, of Torah study!
After we had stood together for a few moments, one of the guards helped
me up and I took the seat that I had been shown. The guard facing
me was Lulav, because Nachmanson sat next to the driver. He held his
revolver in hand, no doubt in keeping with prison regulations.
"Be well," I called out to my family, "and keep your
spirits strong! May G-d grant that we all meet soon in good health!"
At that moment the vehicle moved and commenced its journey to the
notorious Spalerno prison.
[An excerpt from the book, A Prince in Prison, translated by Uri
Kaploun from Likkutei Dibburim, as it appears on http://www.sichosinenglish.org/books/prince-in-prison/04.htm.
Published and copyright © by Sichos In English.]
is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and editor of Ascent
Quarterly and the AscentOfSafed.com and KabbalaOnline.org websites. He has hundreds
of published stories to his credit.