The Rebbe Rayatz’s dramatic diary of imprisonment was rescued, but thousands of missing handwritten pages remain the shrouded legacy of a lost era
here’s an almost otherworldly pull that animates the bearded scholar sitting behind a desk piled with manuscripts, as he contemplates the figure that gave his own family life.
Rabbi Aharon Leib Raskin, with his encyclopedic knowledge of Shas, poskim, Kabbalah, and chassidus has spent the last three decades sourcing the teachings and history of the rebbes of Chabad. Yet when it comes to the writings of Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe (known as the Rebbe Rayatz), the unassuming talmid chacham springs to life.
Rabbi Raskin’s parents and grandparents fought the onslaught of Communism in Stalinist Russia as courageous soldiers of the Rebbe Rayatz, and the Rebbe’s name was a repeated motif throughout his childhood. But it’s his ongoing search for the Rebbe Rayatz’s thousands of handwritten pages of Torah, chassidus, and personal chronicles — buried somewhere in Russian archives — that keeps the Rebbe Rayatz ztz”l in the forefront of Rabbi Raksin’s present-day consciousness.
Pen in Hand
Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn was one of the most remarkable Jewish personalities of the early 20th century, encountering virtually every challenge to Jewish life at the time: the persecutions and pogroms of czarist Russia, Communism’s war on Judaism, and later, America’s melting pot apathy and even scorn toward an authentic Torah lifestyle. The Rebbe Rayatz not only lived through these challenging chapters of history, but as a leader of the Jews during those precarious times, actually faced them down, often single-handedly — and he kept a voluminous secret personal written account of everything he went through, most of it dangerously unpublishable until half a century later.
Rav Yosef Yitzchak, born in 1880, was the only son of Rav Sholom DovBer (the Rashab), the fifth rebbe of Chabad. While still in his teens, the young man served as his father’s right hand, a fearless and determined figure in the receiving rooms of government officials and nobles of Moscow and Petersburg.
“One day the Rebbe Rayatz’s melamed showed the child his own personal notepad of what he wrote down as a youngster,” says Rabbi Raskin, explaining what propelled the Rebbe to start keeping his own diary from age 11. “Yosef Yitzchak read his melamed’s account of the time there was a fire in the town of Lubavitch in the 1850s. The Tzemach Tzedek, who was the Rebbe at the time, was overheard telling his son Shmuel (the future fourth Chabad Rebbe) of how when he was a child, he would write down everything he heard, and how all of the diaries and manuscripts were burned in the fire. So the melamed instructed his charge to write down everything he’d see and hear from the older chassidim. When the Rebbe was 11, he was given a designated time for writing in his schedule — at 9 p.m.”
Over the years, writing became Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak’s passion, and nearly all the well-known photographs of the Rayatz depict him holding a pen. It’s estimated that he penned over 100,000 letters and pages of responsa, plus his own personal diary.
When Rabbi Raskin was growing up, his parents Reb Berel and Esther Raskin shared a particular brand of bedtime stories: tales of the Rebbe and chassidim outsmarting the Communist authorities in order to keep Yiddishkeit alive in the Soviet Union.
“My father would tell me how every Shabbos they would have to change the secret davening location,” Rabbi Raskin says, “and every Succos, remembering their midnight scurry to a succah at the end of town, my father would remind us of how lucky we were to live in the United States.” Still, that was nothing compared to the creativity needed for little Berel to avoid public school on Shabbos. One week he’d feign fever, another week he’d make sure to injure his hand.
The sacrifices weren’t limited to their private life. As emissaries of the Rebbe Rayatz, who dispatched chassidim to the far reaches of the Soviet empire, Berel’s parents and grandparents helped establish a vast underground network of schools, mikvos, and lifelines of material and spiritual support — although the Rebbe Rayatz wasn’t even in Russia anymore. In 1927 he was arrested, beaten, sentenced to death and exiled; by force of international pressure he was finally allowed to leave the country, but in leaving the boundaries of the Soviet Union, he left his emissaries and their infrastructure of Jewish life behind. Even though the Rebbe was no longer there — he was first in Latvia, then Poland, and finally in the US — the system continued to function and thrive, preserving and spreading the teachings of Torah and chassidus.
And throughout that time, through the tortures of prison, near-death, exile, and finally freedom, the Rebbe kept writing and writing.
The Rebbe Rayatz was arrested seven times, and the harrowing experiences of all those incarcerations were included in his diary. But the Rebbe never made his handwritten chronicle public, and it might never have become so if not for the quick thinking and determined copying efforts of his son-in-law Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the future Lubavitcher Rebbe, known then as the Ramash.
While residing in Berlin and Paris in the 1930s, the Ramash kept a low profile and his clandestine activities on behalf of his father-in-law were largely unknown — until about five years ago, when the Chabad publishing house Kehot discovered and printed 400 pages of letters from the Rebbe Rayatz to his son-in-law and daughter.
“Until we discovered those letters, we had no idea of the Rebbe’s intimate involvement in Chabad publishing during those crucial years,” Rabbi Raskin says. In fact, no one knew that it was the Ramash (who became the Lubavitcher Rebbe in 1951, a year after the Rayatz’ passing) who was the editor-in-chief of the scholarly Hatamim periodical. But a letter in that newly discovered collection made it all clear: in the letter, which the Rayatz wrote to his daughter Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, chassidim found the telling statement: “On paper it will say other names; however, the entire work is his.”
It seems that during those years in Berlin and Paris, the Ramash had begun indexing Chabad classics, such as Tanya and Lekutei Torah. At the same time, he also began to index all of the Rebbe Rayatz’s correspondence, and asked his father-in-law for the diaries describing his arrests, as they were replete with inspirational stories of defiance and strength. This is how the Rebbe Rayatz responded to the request:
In response to your question about my imprisonments and my days in Kostroma, even though all is written in my diary, for various reasons I cannot release them publicly. Only small excerpts that will not endanger others…
The Rayatz then lists the dates and reasons for his six prior arrests and then writes about the neshamah’s imprisonment: If confinement in a prison of wood and stone is an affliction, how much greater is the suffering of the G-dly soul in the imprisonment of the body and the animal soul. One should think deeply into this.
Lost and Found
Among the diary excerpts that the Rayatz cleared for publication, some sketchy accounts (without incriminating details) of his first three arrests that were printed in the Hatamim volumes of the late 1930s.
With the outbreak of WWII, the diaries were thought to have been lost — including the prized diary of the Rayatz’s final, harshest, near-fatal imprisonment in 1927, when he was arrested in Leningrad, accused of counterrevolutionary activities and sentenced to death. A world-wide storm of outrage and pressure from the United States, other Eastern European governments, and the International Red Cross compelled the Communist regime to commute the death sentence, banishing him to Kostroma for three years instead. That sentence was also commuted following additional political pressure, and the Rebbe was finally allowed to leave Russia for Riga in Latvia.
The Rayatz had recorded every detail, but would anyone ever know? Yet parts of the diary, the harrowing segments during the excruciating days in Spalerno prison, were in the Ramash’s possession after all — spirited out of Europe together with the Lubavitcher Rebbe himself — and he had them published in four installments a few years after the Rebbe Rayatz’s passing, between the years 1952 and 1955. Many years later, in a 1977 gathering, the Rebbe explained that he utilized those pre-war years not just to index the Rayatz’s work, but also to make copies of any manuscripts that he could get his hands on.
With those segments of the diary finally published, chassidim were able to visualize a small portion of what the Rayatz had undergone — the brutality of which left him injured and eventually wheelchair-bound. Parts of the diary were eventually published in Likkutei Dibburim. Here is a small sampling:
Entering the gateway we turned right, into a gloomy corridor lit by small lamps. Instead of merely requesting, I now literally pleaded with the guard that he should allow me to put on tefillin, and added that it was difficult for me to walk so fast. He replied that if I continued to insist he would take me straight to the dungeon.
I continued to plead: “Just five minutes, three minutes!” — and explained that I was an observant Jew who merely wanted to wear his tefillin for a few minutes.
In between puffs of his pipe he told me that he knew very well what tefillin were. He once lived in a small town near the local synagogue and knew what prayers were, too — but he would still not grant me my request.
Realizing that he would not relent, I decided to put on my tefillin as I walked. I placed the tefillin on my hand, and barely managed to place them on my head, when the guard saw what I had done. He struck me and pushed me down the ladder, and I fell down all the ladder steps. It’s only with G-d’s grace that I didn’t break a hand or leg. With great effort and in great pain I managed to climb back a few rungs. But then I realized that the metal buckle of my belt had broken and that it had apparently cut a gash in my stomach. I felt that in another second I would faint.
“Just wait and see what a delicious dish the chief of the sixth division is going to serve you!” shouted the guard. “Then you’ll forget about your requests and your prayers! When you lie three or four days in the darkness with the mice, in slime and mud, you will understand that you cannot transform Spalerno into a Jewish prayer house!”
If the Rebbe had managed to copy down these parts of the diary, could more have survived? It was a question that niggled at researchers like Rabbi Raskin, especially in light of the Rebbe’s later revelation that other manuscripts had been saved.
Rabbi Chaim Shaul Brook, who’s known as the “detective” because of his tireless searches for every item of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s Torah — some 117 volumes of which have been printed since the Rebbe’s petirah in 1994 — talked about how excited he was when the Rebbe’s “reshimos” were discovered in a drawer in his private office soon after his passing. The reshimos included large binders with writings of chiddushim, correspondence with gedolim including the Sridei Eish and the Rogotchover, and his own personal diary of what he saw and heard in the court of the Rebbe Rayatz.
The entries in these journals date between the years 1928, the year of the Rebbe’s marriage, and 1950, the year of his father-in-law the Rayatz’s passing. Throughout these years — which included his evacuation from Berlin in 1933, his escape from Nazi-occupied Paris in 1941, and his subsequent wanderings as a refugee in Vichy France and Fascist Spain — the Rebbe kept these notebooks with him at all times.
“In one of the binders of the reshimos,” says Rabbi Brook, “there were hand-copied pages of the Rayatz’s diary, which we assume were written between 1932 and 1934.”
In the corner the Ramash wrote: “The imprisonment of the Rebbe. Copied from the Rebbe’s handwriting. (Seemingly a first draft. M[enachem] S[schneerson]).”
It’s speculated that the Rebbe Rayatz gave the diary to the Rebbe for a short while during one of their visits and he copied it over by hand. Soon after the discovery, the expanded diary of the prison horror of 1927 was published in book form in The Heroic Struggle and is the basis for A Prince in Prison, published in 1997.
This is how the Rebbe Rayatz went on to describe his cellmates:
There were three men in the room; two of them reclined on boards supported by wooden frames, and one reclined on the metal bed attached to the wall. One of them was a Jew and the other two were gentiles.
The first one, K[uteinik], had been here for six months, and it was already nine weeks since he had been informed of his death penalty verdict. When his time would arrive, he would be given 24 hours notice.
The second man was a Jew, Sh[efeltilevitch], who had been there for two months and had been called for interrogation only once. He had been asked many questions about his business and about a number of specific business people. To the answer that he had no knowledge of them, the interrogator stated that he would sit in prison until he remembered. And if he found remembering difficult, the cold air of Siberia would refresh his memory. All he needed to be allowed to return home and eat his fill of bread was to agree to be an informer.
The third man was a gentile, S[eitin] a farmer on the Finland border, who was suspected of being a Finnish spy. When I entered the room, the first man to give me a place to sit was S[eitin]. He folded over his mattress (a sack of straw) and arranged my possessions.
I felt a flow of blood from the blow after the guard’s ruthless push. I removed my garment, took wet handkerchiefs, and placed them on my wound.
The Jew recognized me. Trembling, he cried out, “Rebbe, has the hand of the G.P.U. touched you also? It is already more than a week now that hundreds of prisoners are led down the corridor outside our cell to their death, and we hear their groans and outcries.”
He questioned me about the time and reason for my arrest. How had I received such serious wounds on my stomach and knees which appeared to have been caused by an iron bar, a wound from which the blood continued to ooze?
He spoke to me in Yiddish. I did not reply for two reasons. Firstly, the pain was so excruciating that I was unable to speak. I also feared I had been placed among informers who would make false accusations.
But if the Rebbe Rayatz kept on writing, where are the rest of his diaries and the additional thousands of pages that flowed off his pen?
“Based on what we know from references, we only have a small percentage of the diaries,” says Rabbi Raskin, whose desk is piled with the manuscripts that have become his life’s work.
Meanwhile, the chassidim read and reread the chilling excerpts they do have, taking bittersweet consolation in those fragments of writing that provide a window into their revered leader’s soul. —
The prison diaries of Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn are just a small part of a much bigger story. His father, the Rebbe Rashab (Rav Sholom DovBer), owned a massive collection of books and manuscripts, some dating back to the 16th century. In the fall of 1915, during WWI, the Rebbe Rashab and his family were forced to leave Lubavitch. They moved to Rostov, in south Russia, and the Rashab sent most of his collection to Moscow for safekeeping, planning to retrieve it after the war. In 1920, however, he passed away in Rostov, during the Russian civil war that followed World War I.
As peace gradually returned to the land, his son and successor, Rav Yosef Yitzchak (the Rebbe Rayatz) finally had an opportunity to request the return of the collection. The new Soviet regime, however, nationalized the warehouse and gave the collection to the Russian State Library; another part of the collection was looted in Poland by Soviet troops and moved to Russia’s military archive. Some of those books were eventually given to the Chabad-Lubavitch library, and despite a more recent lawsuit against Russia to return the remainder of the precious library, Russia has so far refused to return the Schneersohn collection of more than 12,000 books and 50,000 manuscripts.
In the early 2000s, the Russians did permit some chassidic researchers to copy some of the manuscripts, which was cause for great excitement in the halls of Lubavitch World Headquarters. “It’s not like we were sitting around waiting for manuscripts,” says Rabbi Raskin. “We had no knowledge of their existence. It caught us all by complete surprise and every page was another cause for celebration. This goes beyond a revelation of finding one manuscript; this is tens of thousands of pages.”
But the Russians have still not permitted a complete review of the manuscripts and it is believed that there are many more thousands of documents that were seized during the Holocaust. “There have been so many new giluyim from that archive, it can only be imagined what else is there,” he says.
Rabbi Shalom Ber Levine, the chief librarian of the Chabad library in Brooklyn who’s heading the legal battle to have all of Chabad’s books and manuscripts returned from Russia to the central Chabad library, has no idea when that will happen, given the latest development, the transfer of hundreds of books — “state property” — to Moscow’s Jewish museum. “When the manuscripts are returned to their proper home, everything will be much clearer,” he says.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 594)