She grew up under KGB surveillance. Today, she’s teaching Torah in Moscow
Ella Varazov sits opposite me at Aleph, a mehadrin dairy café in Moscow under the hashgachah of her husband, Rabbi Yosef Varazov. Young, beautiful, and put-together, Ella’s face doesn’t show any signs of the challenges she endured as a child behind the Iron Curtain in the final years of the Communist era.
Together we flip through an album of photos of Ella’s nine children, all of whom are growing up in the former Soviet Union, their parents on shlichus to spread the flames of Yiddishkeit for which Russian Jewry sacrificed so much to keep alight.
Ella’s parents, Rabbi Shimon and Nechama Asch, were born in Russia after World War II. They knew nothing about Torah or mitzvos, but when they married in 1969, they vowed that they would raise their children as proud Jews in the Land of Israel.
But for ten long years, it seemed that the young couple’s rosy dreams would never materialize. Despite their fervent prayers, the couple remained childless.
Ella's grandmother, a senior surgeon at a prestigious hospital, sent the worried couple to doctors all over Russia, but at each appointment, the young couple met with disappointment. “You won’t ever have children,” they were told.
They refused to accept the doctors’ bleak prognosis. “Although my parents barely knew their Creator, they had emunah peshutah,” Ella recalls. “They had no doubt that one day they would hold a child of their own. They didn’t give up and continued praying for a miracle.”
And then the miracle happened: After ten long years, the couple was finally blessed with a baby girl. Ella.
During this period, the Iron Curtain had been lifted slightly. The government was less rigid, and some Jewish families who applied for aliyah had received visas.
The Asches applied for visas and started packing, confident that they would soon receive their exit permits. “We had one open miracle when our daughter was born,” they told themselves. “Our second miracle will be when we get an exit visa.”
But nothing happened. There was no exit permit.
The Asches became refuseniks — Jews who for seemingly arbitrary reasons were blacklisted and denied permission to emigrate.
“Maybe they were afraid that my grandfather knew too much,” Ella suggests. "He was a former commander in the Red Army and he applied to leave with us. They might have been afraid that he’d disclose information to hostile countries.”
Many of the refuseniks banded together and formed an underground Torah-learning network. This was a turning point in their lives; while they had previously felt alone, they were now surrounded by others in the same circumstances. This was also their first introduction to Torah Yiddishkeit — and they embraced it, overjoyed, eagerly adopting each new mitzvah they learned. Finally, they understood what it meant to be Jewish.
Being blacklisted meant more than being refused a visa. Both Shimon and Nechama held senior positions in the civil service — Shimon was an engineer, Nechama an architect. Both were fired from their jobs and encountered blanket rejections from all the jobs they applied for.
“My father had no choice but to stand on the street selling watermelons at a stall,” Ella says.
And her mother? Ella can’t forget the day she first learned of her mother’s work, when she was just seven years old.
“I always thought my mother worked in a beautiful office,” she recalls. “But then one day, my mother asked me if I wanted to come to work with her. We walked together until we reached the messy, rundown yard of an old, decrepit building. I thought my mother was joking, I was sure we’d soon go upstairs to meet the other employees. But then my mother picked up a rake and said, ‘Do you want to help me? Come, let’s rake the snow.’
“I was in total shock. My mother? Raking snow? I was traumatized. I could never go to work with her again.”
For eight years, Ella and her family lived out of boxes, praying and hoping that they would soon be granted permission to leave.
“My parents were devastated when I started first grade — they’d been sure that by the time I started school, we would already live in Eretz Yisrael,” Ella recalls. “And then I had an anti-Semitic teacher, who made my life miserable. The other students never understood why she kept picking on me. Every day at the end of recess, we’d all line up in pairs, and the teacher would lead us into the classroom. One day the teacher was late, and we decided to go back to the classroom by ourselves.
“Our teacher was livid — and obviously, she blamed me. She motioned for me to approach her, pointed to one of my shoes, and ordered me to take it off. ‘Now, throw the shoe out the window and go downstairs to look for it,’ she told me.
“It was winter, and the schoolyard was full of snow. I looked at her in shock. I didn’t understand why she was punishing me.
“She also humiliated my mother. In Russia, parents don’t have private PTA meetings with the teacher; all the parents sit in their child’s seat in the classroom and the teacher goes around the room and gives a report about each child in front of all the other parents. I was an outstanding student, and my mother sat there, expecting to hear kind words about her conscientious daughter. But the teacher didn’t say a single good thing. She blamed all the problems in the classroom on me.”
Outwardly, Ella appeared to be like any other child in her class. Yet she had a secret that accompanied her everywhere she went — the Jewish Underground. “Those hours we spent secretly learning Torah were the most beautiful hours of the day,” Ella says. “I met so many other children leading the same double life as me. Together we dreamed about moving to the Promised Land.”
The Underground was under constant KGB surveillance. And in 1981, when Shimon was learning in a secret location with some friends, they were caught. “My father still remembers which masechta they were studying at the time — Maseches Shabbos,” Ella says. “Suddenly, there was loud banging on the door, and then it was brutally broken down by a battalion of police officers. They held a list of all the members of the Underground.”
The men were taken to the nearest police station. Nechama heard about their arrest and went to join them, terrified. Each man was called in, one by one, to the commander’s office and forced to sign a pledge that they wouldn’t participate in “activities of subversion.” Seven people signed and were released, and three, including Shimon, were told to remain sitting on the bench.
“My mother, who’s a good actress, started making a fuss,” Ella relates. “She went up to the police officers and said, ‘Are you crazy? My husband has a heart condition. Look at him! He’ll collapse soon, and it will be on your head!’ My father took his cue from my mother and let his head droop and his eyes roll back.”
The police officers summoned a doctor, who recommended that Shimon be immediately evacuated to a hospital. A paramedic arrived with a stretcher and put my father in an ambulance, with Nechama accompanying him. When the ambulance reached the city center, the paramedic driving the ambulance stopped the vehicle, turned around, and asked, ‘Can I drop you off here?’
Shimon and Nechama got out of the ambulance, stunned. “They were sure they had just met Eliyahu Hanavi, who had been sent to save them,” Ella says.
After that, Shimon was under house arrest, and Nechama did whatever she could to keep him from leaving the house. Her salary supported the young family.
One day, not realizing how precarious Shimon’s situation was, his grandmother asked him for a favor — she’d made hot porridge, but she didn’t have any raisins to add to it. Could he bring her some?
“My father, the devoted grandson he was, didn’t think twice,” says Ella. “He grabbed a bag of raisins, put on a warm coat, and left the house. He didn’t even have a chance to cross the street before two policemen jumped out of a patrol car in wait near the house and arrested him.”
At the police station, Shimon underwent a short interrogation and was thrown into jail for a month — a shortened sentence in deference to his “precarious state of health”; many of his friends, arrested for similar activities, spent years in prison.
In 1984, Shimon and Nechama were blessed with another miracle: a baby boy, who they named Daniel. The couple saw the baby as Heavenly “compensation” for the suffering they’d endured with Shimon’s imprisonment.
“I’m a Jew!”
“Daniel was an adorable child, with long curls, and everyone thought he was a girl,” Ella recalls. “One day, he and my mother boarded a tram. Everyone sat quietly — Russian culture is such that in public, everyone sits quietly with an inscrutable expression on their face. There’s no smiling or chatting. Suddenly, from one of the benches, a woman said, ‘What a sweet girl you have there.’ Daniel heard her, stood up, and shouted: ‘I’m not a girl. I’m a boy, my name is Daniel, and I’m a Jew.’ All the passengers turned around to see the brave boy who dared to declare himself a Jew.”
In 1987, the members of the underground group organized a Purim shpiel, determined to celebrate the day with the appropriate joy. Shimon, of course, was one of the actors. Nechama, Ella, Daniel, and Ella’s friend went to the subway station to take a train to the home where the Purim party was to take place.
“Anyone who’s visited Russia knows that the subway stations are some of the most complicated and dangerous places in the country,” Ella says. “Thousands of people are there at a time, and hundreds of outdated trains fly along the tracks, making a terrible noise. And the escalators. They move slowly and are so steep, you can’t even see the bottom of the escalator when you get on at the top.”
A cautious Nechama warned her children to remain at her side — but soon enough, Ella and her friend were lost.
“It was Purim, the happiest day of the year, and two little Jewish girls stood there, sobbing,” Ella recalls. She remembers hundreds of indifferent passersby streaming past, ignoring their tears.
“There was a police officer nearby, and I debated whether to approach him. On the one hand, we were in greater danger as two little girls alone at a busy train station. On the other hand, the policeman would surely ask questions about where we were going and who we were.”
The girls decided that they had no other choice and approached the policeman, where Ella stuttered that she had lost her mother. The policeman asked where they were supposed to go, then drove them to the address.
“While he drove, he looked at us in the rearview mirror,” Ella says. “He said, ‘So you’re on your way to friends. What’s happening there?’
I was an innocent little girl who didn’t know how to lie. “A party,” I answered, very frightened.
“Party? A Purim party?”
Ella was shocked. “I saw black. There was a rushing in my ears, and I couldn’t hear anything. I was in a kind of faint. Then from the car window I saw my mother running down the road, my little brother in her arms.
“I shouted to the policeman, ‘There’s my mother.’ He pulled up at the curb.
“‘You wanted to run away, lady? Here are your daughters,’ he said to my mother and drove off. We stood there on the street hugging my mother, trembling with fear. My mother came to her senses and urged us to hurry, the party had probably already started.
At the party, Ella kept eyeing the door, convinced that at any moment, police officers would break in, looking for her. That day remains one of her most traumatic childhood memories.
Shimon decided to fight for the family’s freedom, determined that his family would leave Russia before Daniel was old enough to start school. He wrote a letter to the immigration department, threatening to hold a demonstration on a central city street if he and his family didn’t receive exit visas by a certain date. Threatening to hold an unauthorized, vocal demonstration in a central location was a risky move; in those years, the only form of demonstration permitted was a silent gathering in a preapproved place at the edge of the city.
The emigration department summoned Shimon for a meeting, where they assured him they would reconsider the family’s application. This meeting took place on Chol Hamoed Pesach. The day before the meeting, Ella and Daniel sat in the living room, coloring signs. Ella’s sign read, “For eight years, I’ve been refused aliyah.” Daniel’s: “I was supposed to be born in the Land of Israel.”
The next day, the family set out, picket signs in hand; the children were very excited to demonstrate. When they reached the emigration department offices, the street was swarming with police officers.
“My father turned around to us and said, ‘Listen, I’m going into the office now,’” Ella recalls. ‘If by three o’clock, I don’t come out, start waving the signs and demonstrating.’”
“My mother was very worried. The clerks at the emigration offices had a lot of power, but my father courageously walked into the building, back straight. The commanding officer there was notorious, and most refusniks had experienced her viciousness. She had a long, heated discussion with my father.
“At the end of the conversation, my father, aware that his wife and children were waiting for him outside the building, peeked at his wristwatch and gave a deep sigh. In an instant, something changed. She abruptly sat down calmly at her desk and changed the tone of her voice, as if they hadn’t just spent an hour arguing, and said, ‘At last night’s meeting about your case, we decided to grant you exit permits…’
“My father didn’t wait for the rest of her sentence. He swung open the door and flew out of the building to share the happy news.”
At first, young Ella and Daniel were disappointed by the news — no demonstration? But eventually, they understood that their long-awaited dream was on the brink of being fulfilled.
The Asches were to leave Russia in one month. They tried to sell their furniture and household items, but no one wanted to buy anything from a refusnik. Finally, one neighbor — whom Ella recalls fondly as a righteous gentile — sold the contents of the house on their behalf and gave them the money.
The day of redemption came on Lag B’omer. The Asches, accompanied by Shimon’s parents and grandmother, flew to Vienna, and from there to Israel, where the famous tzaddik of Leningrad, Rabbi Yitzhak Kogan, was waiting for them. In Jerusalem, they were at first housed at the Tamir Hotel, and shortly afterward they moved to a neighborhood in Ramot that the Lubavitcher Rebbe had founded for frum Jews of Russian origin.
“My grandfather had been a high-ranking officer in the Red Army,” Ella says. “When he landed in Israel, he announced that he was now an officer in the army of Hashem.”
“I inherited his siddur, with its Russian translation and footnotes in his neat handwriting, on when to sit, when to stand, when to bow, names for tefillah. I show it to those not-yet-religious women who come to our home, to teach them what prayer is, and to show them it’s possible to pick yourself up and change direction even at the age of 70 or 80.”
Ella was received with open arms by the students and staff at the Bais Yaakov in Ezras Torah. “I was the new girl with the red ribbon in my hair,” she recalls. “At every break, the girls would sit me down on a chair in the hall, play music, and dance around me.”
Ella smiles as she reminisces about their first year in Israel. “The girls in my class argued over whose turn it was to visit me at the Tamir after school. They showered me with pens, sharpeners, and erasers. The excitement around us continued for a long time. We felt the people of Israel, felt the country’s special beauty.”
The family acclimated to Israel, but didn’t sever contact with Russia. “My parents insisted that we speak, read, and write in Russian in order to preserve our knowledge of the language, because the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that soon the Iron Curtain would fall and my parents wanted us to use this language to bring together immigrants who would come from Russia.”
The Iron Curtain did fall — and ever since, from the age of 16, Ella began traveling to teach in the camps and schools that were established with the fall of Communism. After the birth of her first child, Ella and her husband, who also emigrated from the Soviet Union as a young boy and comes from a similar background to hers, went on shlichus.
“When we got married, it was clear that we would go on shlichus, and in Russia specifically,” Ella explains.
Today, the couple lives in Moscow, where Ella teaches and publishes children’s books. “I give my students everything that I didn’t get as a child in Soviet Russia.”
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 811)
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