| Magazine Feature |

Secret Shepherds

An unlikely pair of underground scholars kept a spark glowing in the Soviet darkness 

Photos: Elchanan Kotler, Getty Images, Mishpacha and family archives

I was 13 years old on a cold Chanukah morning in 1983 when I was informed that my father, Rabbi Maaleh Galinsky a”h, had been dispatched on a secret mission to Soviet Russia in order to meet and teach members of the rapidly growing underground community of baalei teshuvah that was spreading across the U.S.S.R. Those were the days before the Iron Curtain came down, when thousands of young Russian Jews, separated from their heritage for over half a century, were rediscovering their birthright and were willing to sacrifice their livelihood and very safety for hidden opportunities to learn a bit of Torah; when even Western tourists could be arrested for smuggling “subversive” material such as siddurim or other ritual objects.

From the early 70s to the late 1980s, many brave activists, educators, and rabbanim made the dangerous trip to the Soviet Union, smuggling in Jewish books and ritual items and giving classes to an emerging network of these fearless baalei teshuvah. Joining the list of well-known activists such as Ernie Meyer, Jacob Birnbaum and other high-profile colleagues were rabbanim such as Rav Pinchas Teitz, who published siddurim and other seforim in Russian; Rabbi Tzvi Bronstein of the Al Tidom organization; Rabbi Yaakov Pollak, longtime rav of Boro Park’s Shomrei Emunah congregation; Rabbi Mordechai Neustadt of the Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel; Rabbi Shalom Gold; younger colleagues such as Rav Aaron Lopiansky, and a long list of others.

My father traveled with his good friend Rabbi Gold a”h, and upon their return after a nerve-racking two weeks, he was a different man. He never stopped talking about the mesirus nefesh he witnessed on the part of the young baalei teshuvah and their families under the constant threat of the KGB.

He would talk about the young Jews he encountered — Jews who until a few years before barely knew they were Jewish — how they risked their lives and livelihoods for the sake of studying Torah and the outside chance of leaving for Eretz Yisrael. These Jews kashered their homes, had bris milah, learned Hebrew, and began to daven and study Torah. They included doctors, lawyers, professors, and scientists who lost everything once they applied for emigration. My father would tell us that although he went to teach them, he actually learned so much more.

He also shared a little-known piece of information, which to this day is still mostly unknown: We were stunned to learn that an aging gadol b’Torah lived in their midst, a gaon by the name of Rav Avraham Miller, a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim who caringly nurtured their thirst for Torah and who was available to answer their halachic questions. This was really a surprise, because who thought anyone still remained from the previous generation?

We ran to develop the pictures and found the shining countenance of Rabbi Avraham Miller smiling into the camera.

And now, over forty years later, I was privy to discover the other half of the story. Rav Miller regularly consulted with another tremendous talmid chacham who was essentially hidden from the general public. This secret sage was a clean-shaven physician who headed a local hospital, yet who had Shas and poskim at his fingertips. His name was Dr. Menachem (Manuel) Solovey, and he, too, was a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim. Together with Rav Miller, his old and dear friend from Radin, the two of them managed to maintain an unbroken chain of pre-war Torah scholarship in the Soviet spiritual desert.

Those Who Stayed Behind

Stories of the Jews of Silence, those who clandestinely continued to observe Torah and mitzvos under the iron fist of the Soviet regime and their Jewish henchmen known as the Yevsektsiya, still evoke feelings of both horror and inspiration. Some of those stories —such as the heroic endeavors of Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, Rav Shlomo Yosef Zevin, the Rebbe Rayatz of Lubavitch, and many others — are known; others were buried with the heroes themselves.

From the time of the Communist takeover in the 1920s, almost any action related to Jewish observance meant prison or exile — both of them recipes for near-certain death. Well into the 1930s, though, elderly Jews were allowed to attend the main shul on Archipova Street in Moscow, one of the only shuls in the Soviet Union that continued minimal religious activity. And at night, the last remaining rabbis would secretly meet to share words of Torah and inspiration.

But the Great Purge under Josef Stalin in the late 1930s, when millions of suspected “enemies of the regime” were sent to their deaths, put an end to that as well. There were no more secret minyanim, no more gatherings. Still, the Jews of Mother Russia were never totally forsaken.

The odds, though, seemed too great. How could a defenseless nation protect its sacred heritage against a powerful world power willing to go to any lengths to destroy it? Although throughout the Soviet Union the official “rabbis” were generally unlearned clerks appointed by the Communist regime, the official chief rabbis of Moscow were actually full-fledged talmidei chachamim who walked a tightrope, balancing loyalty to the regime while doing their best to care for the religious needs of the Jews of Russia without offending their ruling oppressors.

The first of these heroes was Rav Yaakov Mazeh, an eloquent orator and talmid chacham who began his government-appointed tenure in 1893, during the Czarist rule, and held the official position of Chief Rabbi of Moscow through the rise of Communism until his petirah in 1924.

Rav Mazeh is perhaps best known for his brave and powerful defense of Judaism and chassidus during the Beilis trial in 1913. Falsely accused of the ritual murder of a 13-year-old Christian boy, Mendel Beilis— a chassidic Jew and father of five — was internationally recognized as a hook on which to hang the entire Jewish people (the police had actually caught the real perpetrators, but for a country struggling to hold on to its waning power, the Jewish question would be the Czar’s trump card). For the public, whether or not Beilis has actually murdered a Christian child was of secondary importance; the crucial point of the trial was for the prosecution to establish that the ritual murder of Christian children was a routine component of Jewish religious practice.

In order for Beilis to be acquitted, the broader allegation of Jewish ritual murder would have to be rebutted. The entire Jewish nation was essentially placed on the defendant’s bench.

And this task fell on the broad shoulders of Rav Mazeh. In an hours-long address that held the audience riveted, Rabbi Mazeh talked about a range of topics including the Jewish attitude toward non-Jews, the halachic obligation to obey the law of the land, the primary ideals of kindness, and detailed prohibitions regarding blood and injury. At the end of the trial, Mendel Beilis — who’d been incarcerated for two years — was acquitted. (The court presentation was later serialized in the Hebrew-language weekly Hatzfirah.)

Another widely recorded intervention of Rav Mazeh occurred after the Communist revolution, when he arranged for a meeting with Lenin himself in order to protest pogroms in the Ukraine and overall antisemitism on the part of the Communists.

At All Costs

With the petirah of Rav Mazeh in 1924, the post of chief rabbi was offered to Rav Yaakov Kelmes, a recognized gadol b’Torah and posek who’d received semichah from Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, the Aruch Hashulchan, and who corresponded extensively with the great poskim throughout the world. Yet it was only three years later that Rav Kelmes finally agreed to assume the position.

In addition to his valiant efforts to keep Yiddishkeit alive in the Soviet Union in general, Rav Kelmes somehow managed to personally care for rabbanim who were persecuted under the Communist regime and aided them financially. He did what he could to assist those rabbanim who wished to leave Russia, until he himself finally left for Eretz Yisrael in 1933. Upon his arrival in Eretz Yisrael he was appointed as a dayan alongside Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank. (A secular judge on the Israeli Supreme Court once sat in during hearings held by Rav Kelmes and was astounded by his sharpness and his instincts in revealing the truth among defendants, commenting that “the Rav cut down much wasted court time and let the lawyers know what he thinks of them.”)

While in Eretz Yisrael, Rav Kelmes continued to support refugee rabbanim from Russia and traveled overseas to collect funds for them. He passed away in 1953 from a heart attack while following proceedings on the radio of the so-called “Doctors’ Plot,” a Soviet state-sponsored anti-Semitic campaign and conspiracy theory claiming that there was a cabal of Jewish doctors with intent to murder leading government and party officials. Following the trumped-up accusations, many doctors were dismissed from their jobs, arrested, and tortured to produce admissions. In the middle of all this, Stalin died, new Soviet leadership took over, and the case was declared to have been a fabrication and dropped.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, Rav Shmaryahu Leib Medalia had been appointed as chief rabbi to replace Rav Kelmes. Rav Medalia was a towering personality who blended his Lubavitch heritage with the scholarship of Lithuanian Slabodka. He had previously served as the rav of Vitebsk, and was an active proponent of Agudas Yisrael.

Rav Medalia was one of those few talmidei chachamim who chose to remain in the Soviet Union and risk his life in order to guide his flock. He was a chassid and relative of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (the Rebbe Rayatz), who encouraged his chassidim to stay in Russia as guardians of the nation, creating a network of underground yeshivos to preserve Torah in the Communist “paradise.” After his own commuted death sentence and banishment from Russia, he eventually moved to Poland until his escape to the US at the beginning of World War II, yet remained at the helm of his underground network.

The chassidim who held tight to their convictions lived in constant fear of a midnight knock on the door, and many of them were eventually arrested. Some died under the pressure of the brutal interrogations and beatings, others from the bullets of the firing squad or the forced labor in the frozen gulag of Siberia.

By the time Rav Medalia was appointed rav of Moscow in 1933, the shuls and mikvaos had been closed under government order, and only the large Choral Synagogue in the city was allowed to remain in operation — under close surveillance. Any Jew who indicated any sort of active religious practice soon found himself under interrogation at the dreaded NKVD, the agency that preceded the KGB. In fact, Rav Medalia’s tenure would last just a few years — he was eventually caught in the Soviet net of torture and murder.

While Rav Medalia was constantly being tracked by the NKVD, Yom Kippur of 1936 was the turning point, about a year before he vanished without a trace.

According to Rabbi Tzvi Patlas, a Russian-born historian, Torah teacher, radio personality, and filmmaker who has produced several documentaries about Jewish life under Communism, that Yom Kippur posed a particularly thorny problem for the regime.

“Early on, the government decided to implement a ten-day work week instead of the traditional seven-day week accepted worldwide,” he explains. “On that particular year, the Jews of Moscow were overjoyed that the day off coincided with Yom Kippur, which meant they could participate in tefillos in the main shul. This, however, was met with opposition by none other than the Jewish communists, the ruthless Yevsektsiya. Instead, they drafted a request in the name of Russian Jewry requesting to ‘volunteer’ and work on Yom Kippur regardless of the national day off. Thus, Jews all over the Soviet Union were compelled to go to work on Yom Kippur — but many still flocked to the Choral Synagogue for Neilah after work hours.”

As this was the only tefillah of the day for so many, Rav Medalia prefaced it with a few words, knowing that among the audience were also planted informers who would be more than happy to bring about his downfall.

Taking a calculated risk, the Rav began with a parable: “Two Jews came for a din Torah before the rabbi of a town, carrying a hen bound at the legs, and each claimed that the hen belonged to him. Without rendering a decision, the rabbi offered a simple solution: They would untie the hen’s legs and see where she went when left to walk freely.”

The lesson was clear: When the chokehold on a Jew is loosened, he turns to the place where his soul always wanted to be — the shul.

Stalin’s NKDV agents, interspersed among the audience, did not like this message at all. As far as they were concerned, the “hen test” speech was the last nail on the coffin for the brazen Jewish rabbi.

The authorities let Rav Medalia operate freely for just a bit more than a year, when one day in January of 1938, he simply disappeared. Was he arrested? Tried? Exiled? Murdered?

For decades, no one knew his fate. Only 26 years later, in 1964, the family received notice of Rav Medalia’s murder at the hands of the NKVD.

Finally, in 2008, declassified documents from the KGB shed light on other previously unknown details: Rav Medalia had been interrogated and tortured for four months, having been accused of communicating with the Rebbe Rayatz and with German agents, and with corrupting the youth. Upon conviction by tribunal with no trial, he was sentenced to death by firing squad. He was murdered in the rear courtyard of the NKVD building — the “Kommunarka,” one of Stalin’s mass execution sites reserved for VIP “traitors” — where he was buried in a mass grave.

Despite the Pressure

Following the arrest and murder of Rav Medalia, the post of Chief Rabbi was left vacant until 1943, when the Soviets wanted to make a good impression on the Allies with whom they’d joined forces and show that there was, indeed, religious freedom in Russia. They appointed Rav Shmuel Leib Levin, a Lubavitcher chassid known among the chassidim as Shmuel Leib Paritcher, but soon after his appointment, the board of the official Moscow Jewish community decided to replace him for being too “extreme.” Instead, they nominated Rav Shlomo Shleifer, who, although he was employed as a bookkeeper for many years, was actually a giant in Torah knowledge and an incisive halachic arbitrator who had been a dayan on the Moscow beis din many years earlier.

Rav Shleifer, who bravely sustained the Choral Synagogue during the worst years of Stalinist repression against the Jews, was torn between displaying forced loyalty to the fiercely anti-Semitic regime and his efforts to sustain somewhat of a religious framework to serve the Jewish community. This included maintaining secret mikvaos, providing matzah and other religious articles, and enabling the study of Torah to a minimal extent. He even managed to open a yeshivah to train rabbinical students, shochtim, and mohelim with the tacit agreement of the regime, who wanted to give the impression of religious freedom — although only a dozen or so men were allowed to enroll. In 1957, Rav Shleifer passed away suddenly from a heart attack while he was teaching.

After Rav Shleifer’s sudden passing, the position of Chief Rabbi of Moscow was given to Rav Yehuda Leib Levin, a Slabodka talmid and respected rav in several cities throughout the Soviet Union who also served as Rav Shleifer’s official rosh yeshivah. He held the title from 1957 until his passing in 1971. Rav Levin was widely respected throughout the Orthodox Jewish world and was in constant contact with the gedolim of the era.

Still, in order to keep his position and salvage what he could of Yiddishkeit, he was forced to paint a rosy picture of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. On a visit to the US in 1968, where he was graciously accompanied by a KGB agent 24/7, he delivered a speech which contradicted the claims of religious oppression, but people in the crowd were furious and shouted at him for hiding the unvarnished truth.

Several Jewish activists came to his defense, explaining that he was forced to stick to the demands of the Communists. And so did the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who had a yechidus with Rav Levin (together with the KGB agent).  At the meeting, Rav Levin spoke very little, but tried to give the Rebbe an accurate report between the lines. For example, when the Rebbe asked him for some “good news” about the Jews in Russia, Rav Levin responded that in the city of Samarkand, Uzbekistan, there was a group of serious Torah scholars.  The Rebbe responded, “I’m asking you about Moscow, not about Samarkand….”

In an encounter with Rav Levin’s granddaughter years later, the Rebbe said that at one point Rav Levin managed to visit him secretly without the KGB agent during which he described the real plight of Soviet Jewry.  An additional secret meeting took place with other gedolim, during which Rav Levin asked them for permission to give up his position due to the tremendous pressure he was under from the regime. The gedolim told him that without his presence in Russia, the situation would become even worse.

Soon after Rav Levin’s petirah, his rebbetzin and daughters managed to make it out of the Soviet Union and arrived in Eretz Yisrael.

Guide in Their Midst

With the passing of Rav Yehuda Leib Levin in 1971, Russian Jews were left without an official rav or guide. As a nod to the West, “rabbis” were appointed in various cities, but these were, at best, civil servants with no serious Torah background, and at worst, KGB agents themselves. And it was at this time that the baal teshuvah movement began to take root as well, with young people beginning to rediscover the heritage the Soviets attempted to snuff out, teaching each other whatever they’d been able to learn clandestinely from Western visitors.

But they were never truly left alone, for in their midst lived an unlikely pair who studied together under the Chofetz Chaim in Radin before the outbreak of World War One. Rav Miller and his improbable partner, Dr. Solovey, would become a backdrop of support for both the elderly and a young, emerging demographic.

Ilya Dvorkin, a widely published faculty member at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Department of Philosophy and director of the Chais Center for Jewish Studies in Russian, became frum in the 1980s as part of the Torah-learning underground while a doctoral student at Leningrad Polytechnic Institute. He remembers how masses of Jews would gather in the shuls for the holidays, but the ones who were davening inside were primarily the elderly, who didn’t share a common language with the younger generation.

“They spoke a different language, literally and culturally,” says Dvorkin. “They were still connected to the Yiddishkeit of pre-World War I and still spoke Yiddish. Those gathered in the courtyard were all academics who spoke a modern Russian and didn’t grow up with a religious upbringing.”

Around that time, Rav Avraham Miller, who had been residing in Moscow for decades, was called upon to deliver the daily Gemara shiur to the elderly Jews remaining in Moscow. The government allowed this study group on the condition that the shiur be conducted only in Yiddish, in order to prevent young Russian Jews from attending. Eventually, though, the shul began to attract young baalei teshuvah, and Rav Miller risked his life to teach them in Russian. This relationship evolved, making him the central halachic address for the new baal teshuvah movement in Russia.

The outside world had essentially never heard about Rav Miller, until many years later when Rabbi Patlas created a documentary about his tumultuous life.

Although not much is known about his younger years, we do know that he was born in 1902 in Dvinsk and was sent at a young age to learn in Radin under the rosh yeshivah at the time, Rav Naftali Trop. Rav Miller once confided in a close talmid in Russia that the Chofetz Chaim was fond of him and wanted him as a son-in-law. But the outbreak of World War I brought an end to these tranquil years, as he was pushed deep into Russia which eventually became entangled in inner turmoil due to the Communist revolution.

We know that Rav Miller was exiled to Siberia twice for teaching Torah — one time under Stalin and later under Khrushchev in the 1960s. He was threatened with a third exile in the 1970s, after he was caught continuing to privately teach Torah to a refusenik talmid who had participated in a protest outside the offices of the Communist Party in Moscow demanding the right to leave Russia. When the KGB found out about this “subversion,” they summoned Rav Miller to an interrogation during which they threatened him with exile to Siberia. Rav Miller responded that they can send him to only one place in the outskirts of Moscow, referring to the Jewish cemetery. Although he left the meeting without punishment, he suffered a heart attack shortly afterwards. Nevertheless, Rav Miller continued to teach this particular talmid by phone, as his wife begged him not to meet with the refusenik in person.

“During his second stay in Siberia,” Rabbi Patlas tells Mishpacha, “Rav Miller felt that he was growing weaker and weaker. This was probably due to the fact that he refused to eat non-kosher food and was constantly put to work chopping wood. At a certain point he sat down under a tree and simply gave up, knowing that sitting outside in freezing Siberia without constant movement of the limbs is a clear path to certain death. While he was dozing off, he suddenly had a vision of a very bekavodig-looking rav admonishing Rav Miller to get up and start moving around before he froze to death, that he still has a mission in the world.

The mission was to come several years later, when the first academic young baalei teshuvah started to appear in the Choral Synagogue in Moscow where Rav Miller diligently taught elderly Jews Talmud, day after day, for years. In fact, his very first talmid of this new generation was Rabbi Eliyahu Essas, then a young mathematics student who discovered Judaism on his own through books he found in the university library.

Eliyahu Essas, who had no idea what to do the first time he came into the shul and Rav Miller, the acting gabbai, gave him an aliyah (he repeated word after word from Rav Miller), eventually went on to lead the baal teshuvah movement in Moscow while Rav Miller became the spiritual leader of the rapidly spreading group.

Unlikely Colleague

Rav Miller wished to share the burden with at least one other world-class talmid chacham. But where was he to find someone local with enough knowledge in Shas and poskim to handle all the complex issues that were arising with this new demographic?

It turns out that there was one other person in the Soviet Union who still held on to the vast scholarship and piety of the previous generation. He was a medical doctor and hospital director, as unlikely a candidate as one could imagine.

On the outside, you would never guess that this clean-shaven, bare-headed Moscow doctor was a hidden talmid chacham of stature, but in fact, Dr. Menachem (Manuel) Solovey knew Shas and poskim by heart.

And Ilya Dvorkin merited to attend to Dr. Solovey for the last few months of his life, after Dr. Solovey had moved from Moscow to Leningrad, where he lived for two years until his passing in 1985.

Ilya was born to Jewish but unaffiliated parents, themselves academics, and he had no knowledge of Yiddishkeit at all growing up. But he began having doubts about the Communist utopia early on, and when he began searching out Christian and even Muslim scholars to answer his existential questions, they told him, “If you’re going to be a heretic, better to be a Jewish heretic.”

Ilya wanted to do things right. On his first visit to the main shul in Leningrad (St. Petersburg today), Ilya already learned about Shabbos from a copy of the Bible but had no idea that Shabbos started on Friday night — he thought Shabbos started in the morning. But he first wanted to check out the shul, and so, not to desecrate the holy day, he rode to shul on his bike late Friday night. Davening had finished, but he met the gabbai, a tzaddik of a Yid by the name of Reb Abba who explained to him that Shabbos begins at night, and if he wished to keep Shabbos, he’d need to leave his bike, walk home, and return on foot the next morning.

“I didn’t think twice,” Ilya remembers today, sitting in his spacious Jerusalem apartment overlooking the Jerusalem Forest. “I walked the two hours back home and returned the next morning.”

Ilya became a regular in the shul, getting to know the elderly mispallelim and developing a close relationship with Rav Berel Medalia, a son of Rav Shmaryahu Medalia. After Rav Shmaryahu’s murder, Reb Berel was arrested and spent a decade in the gulag, yet despite all he suffered, he settled in Leningrad and became a strong influence on many young refuseniks. Reb Berel was provided with a room in the shul and was appointed its official librarian, and Ilya spent many hours there learning Torah from whatever resources there were.

Ilya’s first encounter with Dr. Solovey came about in a rather bizarre way. “One day I received a phone call — Reb Abba was on the line and he just shouted into the receiver, ‘Solovey needs help!’ I had no idea who Solovey was, but Reb Abba told me where he lived and that I should run over,” Ilya relates. “When I walked in, I was met by a frail, elderly woman who pointed to the floor — and there was a man, paralyzed on one side of his body, who probably fell while he was trying to get out of bed. Being in no position to help him get up, his wife called the shul to send help.

“While picking him up, I immediately sensed he was a special person. I later found out from Reb Abba that he was a baki b’Shas, so I started visiting him daily for about half a year. I wanted to see for myself his vast knowledge, so I’d mention a sugya and he immediately rattled off the whole daf and gave me an impromptu shiur on the spot covering all of the points in the sugya. He told me that once he reads something, it’s in his mind forever. He told me how, after leaving Radin with the outbreak of World War I, he enrolled in medical studies, but since he had no official diplomas or even secular education, the institution wanted to test him on a variety of subjects. Following a written exam in Russian literature, the instructor called him in and told him, ‘You know, no one ever dared copy during my exams.’ Dr. Solovey asked the instructor why he thought he’d cheated, and the instructor told him that based on his answers, where he quoted parts of books verbatim, he must have copied them during the exam.”

Dr. Solovey, Ilya learned, was born in 1898 in a town named Kraitzburg in Latvia. His father, who was a tailor, sent him early on to learn in Radin, where he enjoyed a close relationship with the Chofetz Chaim. During the war, Dr. Solovey lost his connection with the yeshivah, took up medical studies, and eventually became part of the medical faculty of Moscow State University.

Still, Dr. Solovey shared with Dvorkin many accounts of himself as a young student of the Chofetz Chaim, and one incident, he told Dvorkin, made a particularly strong impression.  During World War I, the Chofetz Chaim, who suffered from extreme hunger at the time, received a personal donation through the local post office, together with a telegram from the donor. The donor wrote that he wished to give the money as a gift to such a great tzaddik, but knowing the Chofetz Chaim would refuse it, he was giving it as a loan until times got better. The Chofetz Chaim immediately asked Dr. Solovey to run to the post office to return the loan, since, he said, it was given on the false assumption that he was indeed a tzaddik. The Chofetz Chaim waited anxiously for Dr. Solovey’s return and wasn’t calm until he saw the receipt attesting that the money was in fact sent back to the donor.

Secret Partner

Rav Miller and Dr. Solovey were a hidden duo of Torah wisdom. According to Ilya, they were actually friends from their days in Radin, and Rav Miller regularly consulted with Dr. Solovey on Torah and halachic matters (and of course, Dr. Solovey always responded by heart, citing the relevant sources verbatim). As Dr. Solovey lived the majority of his years in Moscow, he would attend Rav Miller’s shiurim in the main shul, but always sat in the back to avoid attention. Afterward, the two would go into a side room and review the shiur together.

Ilya — who founded a Jewish university in Leningrad after the fall of the Iron Curtain and was deeply involved in kiruv work during those years before coming to Eretz Yisrael in 1998 — says that one reason for Dr. Solovey’s secrecy is that back in the time of the “Doctors Plot,” there was an arrest warrant out for him, and since then he constantly covered his tracks when it came to Torah learning in order to protect himself.

So much so that his own grandson, a man by the name of Baruch Zeitchik, lived in his grandfather’s house for several years as a child and had no idea that the strange folios his grandfather would write by candlelight in the middle of the night — from right to left — were Hebrew. Zeitchik, who today lives in Germany and has come closer to Yiddishkeit over the years since his grandfather’s passing, later learned that those glosses were actually chiddushim on Shas.

“My aunt Galina Manuilovna, my grandfather’s youngest daughter, remembers how in January 1946 he, a major in the medical service, returned from the army with a drawstring bag of red apples and a backpack with notebooks of chiddushim and small-format Gemaras,” Zeitchik related.

“I myself had the opportunity to observe this. We lived in the same communal apartment and I remember how every day he came home from work, had lunch, went to rest, then got up and sat down at his desk. I well remember how my grandfather’s table was littered with old Jewish books, and how he was constantly bent over his manuscripts writing in a language I didn’t recognize. In 1966, my parents got a new apartment, but my mother and I often visited my grandparents — he’d already retired and had major health issues, but he worked on his chiddushim every day.

“Shortly before his death, my mother visited my grandfather in Leningrad. She handed me a note he wrote, that his Talmudic works had been sent abroad and were in the possession of a certain rabbi in the United States, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He didn’t mention the name of the rabbi, though, and for several years, it was more in the category of a family legend, so I did nothing about it.”

In fact, those manuscripts — some of them works on the Rambam — had been spirited out of Russia by legendary rav and Soviet Jewry activist Rav Pinchas Teitz.

Zeitchik eventually put the pieces together, and providentially discovered more notebooks in his grandfather’s house. He and Ilya contacted the family of Rav Teitz, who passed away in 1995, and this past year the two managed to publish a first snippet of Dr. Solovey’s Torah writings, titled Chiddushei Menachem.

And so, the circle is finally closed. The secret of Dr. Solovey, who kept himself hidden all these years, has finally been revealed, ending a chain eerily similar to the promise of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai that somehow, throughout years of oppression and efforts to wipe out any trace of Yiddishkeit, the Torah would never be forgotten.


Rachel Ginsberg contributed to this report.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1017)

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