What does a top-secret post-war memo to Stalin’s MGB boss tell us about the Soviet campaign against Chabad?
By: Dovid Margolin
On June 6, 1950, Maj. Gen. Mikhail Popereka, a deputy minister of the Ukrainian branch of the MGB Soviet secret police—the precursor to the KGB—drafted an 11-page memo on the status of the ongoing investigation into the case of the “Chassidim” and sent it to Viktor Abakumov, minister of state security (MGB) of the Soviet Union. Marked with a hand-written “Top Secret,” the report synopsized information gathered by the MGB over the course of its investigation into “the Schneerson anti-Soviet organization” via foreign agents, informants and interrogations. An anti-Soviet center headed by the “tzaddik Schneerson”—standard shorthand for the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, in Soviet documents—had been set up in New York by American intelligence under the guise of a yeshivah, a European branch established in France, and all of it connected to an extensive anti-Soviet network within the Soviet Union. This, at least, is how the Soviet Union’s intelligence apparatus saw it, all the way to the top.
At the time that he received this memo, Viktor Abakumov was one of the most powerful men in the Soviet Union. A member of a younger generation of Communist Party cadres wholly devoted to Stalin, he joined the secret police at age 24 in 1932 and rose through the ranks to become a top deputy to the notorious Lavrentiy Beria, head of the secret police and a close confidant of Stalin. In 1943, Abakumov was appointed the head of the newly formed SMERSH (a Russian acronym for “Death to Spies”), Stalin’s particularly brutal, war-time military counter-intelligence organization, and began reporting directly to Stalin. At no point was Abakumov above personally torturing his captives. After the war, in 1946, SMERSH was merged into the secret police and Abakumov, by then one of Stalin’s favorites, was promoted to head of the MGB. “For the next five years, Abakumov was in control of the life of almost every Soviet citizen and his MGB could arrest any citizen it chose—without waiting for an order from Stalin,” Vadim J. Birstein writes in his comprehensive SMERSH: Stalin’s Secret Weapon. “Through the MGB branches in occupied countries, Abakumov also controlled half of Europe.”1
In other words, the danger posed by the “Chassidim,” a term used interchangeably with “Schneersonite” in Soviet secret police documents, to the state security of the Soviet Union and perhaps the fate of Lenin’s revolution itself, was of concern to literally the highest echelons of Soviet power.
The report to Abakumov, presented below in its original form and for the first time in English, focuses on the aftermath of what is today known as the Great Escape, a sophisticated and dangerous operation conceived and executed by Chabad-Lubavitch Chassidim to illegally escape the Soviet Union after World War II. With the Sixth Rebbe’s blessings, beginning in the spring of 1946 and concluding on New Year’s Day 1947, approximately 1,200 Lubavitcher Chassidim procured false or doctored Polish citizenship papers and fled the Soviet Union via the Ukrainian border city of Lvov (today Lviv).2 The last successful crossing took place on Jan. 1, 1947 (9 Tevet, 5707), after which, as mentioned in the document and in more detail in histories of the Great Escape, the remaining organizers of the operation were hunted down and arrested.3
But the main focus of this MGB memo is a second, far less known Lubavitcher attempt to flee the Soviet Union en masse through Romania. The plan was tested in December of 1948, when four Chassidim—Moshe Chaim Dubrowski, Meir Junik, Yaakov Lepkivker and Moshe Greenberg—left the city of Chernovtsy, Soviet Ukraine, less than 40 kilometers away from the border, and smuggled themselves into Romania.
This time, the results were tragic.
The Background: Post-Holocaust Polish Repatriation
From the start of the Bolsheviks’ war on religion, the Sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak, led the Jewish resistance. For this work, he was arrested in the summer of 1927 and initially condemned to death. His sentence was first commuted to 10 years of hard labor, then three years of exile, and finally, on the 12-13 of the Jewish month of Tammuz, full release. In October of 1927, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was forced to leave the Soviet Union “but not before he had trained many teachers whose influence was felt in the USSR long after his departure.”4 Through the absolute hell of the 1930s, Lubavitcher Chassidim continued to risk their lives to maintain Jewish life and learning in the Soviet Union, as they’d been charged by the Sixth Rebbe. Many, including Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson—father of the Seventh Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and until his 1939 arrest the chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine—paid the ultimate price.5
With the outbreak of World War II, a sizable portion of the Chabad-Lubavitch community escaped the German onslaught and local collaborators’ zeal by evacuating to Tashkent and Samarkand, in Soviet Uzbekistan. There, joined by tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from the USSR and Poland, they recreated Jewish life, opening yeshivahs, building mikvahs and praying together in synagogue. The Lubavitcher Chassidim did not just care for themselves but actively recruited Jewish children to study Torah, many for the first time in their lives. The children, who were cared for materially as well, drew from the widest background, including Bukharian locals, Polish refugees and members of the Soviet nomenklatura. Among their students was even a 16-year-old relative of Stalin acolyte Lazar Kaganovich.6 This is how the memo to Abakumov describes this period: “According to SCHNEERSON’s directives, the Chassidim intensified their anti-Soviet activities and created illegal schools in the cities of Samarkand and Tashkent, in which Jewish youth who fell under their influence studied in a religious and nationalist spirit.”
The war years in Uzbekistan were by no means easy, with the secret police continuing to operate, and adults and children dying from privation and diseases. Nevertheless, this was a relative period of peace for the beleaguered Chassidim of the USSR. With the end of World War II, however, it became clear that this situation would not last for much longer. That’s when a rare opportunity to escape the Soviet Union first presented itself.
Just a few months after the war, on July 6, 1945, the Soviet Union signed a treaty with the Provisional Government of the Republic of Poland agreeing on a population exchange. Ethnic Russians, Ukrainians, Belorussians and Lithuanians would have their Polish citizenship exchanged for a Soviet one, while ethnic Poles and Polish Jews who now found themselves in the Soviet Union would be repatriated to Poland. “A secret instruction of December 1945 specified that Poles and Jews (i.e., not Ukrainians and Belorussians) who had lived on the territory of Poland up to September 17, 1939, might return from the USSR.”7 This meant that even eligible individuals who’d formerly been residents of the eastern half of Poland, which in the aftermath of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact had been annexed by the Soviet Union (and to this day is a part of Belarus), could renounce their unilaterally granted Soviet citizenship and return “home” to Poland.8
Special joint Polish-Soviet committees were established to facilitate this repatriation, and as 1946 progressed, ever larger numbers of people were granted permission to leave. Many traveled to Poland in separate cars attached to regularly scheduled trains. Albert Kaganovitch estimates that over the duration of 1946 about 147,000 Jews were allowed to leave the USSR in this way. This might appear generous on Stalin’s part, but the truth was the Provisional Government of the Republic of Poland, formerly called the Lublin Committee, was a pro-Soviet puppet entity that Stalin was using to outflank the Polish government-in-exile in his plan to transform post-war Poland into a Communist satellite state. Whatever Stalin’s reasons were for allowing Jews out, the fact remains that Polish repatriation presented a limited window of opportunity to leave the Soviet Union.
The Lubavitchers in Central Asia and other places of evacuation throughout the Soviet Union had for the duration of the war lived side by side with Polish Jewish refugees. Now the Polish Jews were heading to Lvov to be repatriated back to Poland, from which they could go on to Mandatory Palestine, the United States or other countries in the West. As Soviet citizens, the Lubavitcher Chassidim were ineligible to leave, but by the end of 1945 the idea of somehow taking advantage of this window was percolating.9
The Great Escape From Lvov to Poland
In the beginning of 1946, a 22-year-old yeshivah student named Leibel Mochkin arrived in Lvov to scout out the town. With the help of his older brother, Shmuel (Mulle) Mochkin, and former Latvian-Jewish parliamentarian Mordechai Dubin, by then in Moscow, he connected with the chairman of the Lvov Jewish community, who in turn opened doors necessary for the operation’s success.10 The first trickle of Lubavitchers arrived in Lvov in the spring of 1946 and slowly began crossing the border. Their success encouraged others. As the months went by more and more Chassidim arrived in Lvov, abandoning their jobs, homes, furniture and any other immovable wealth for the chance to get out.
“The situation was becoming desperate, with a severe shortage of food and accommodation,” Moishe Levertov recalled. “Officially, as elsewhere in the Soviet Union, it was illegal to stay in the city for more than 24 hours or to receive food coupons without being registered as a resident. To obtain registration papers, one needed a work permit. Worst of all would be if anyone were stopped by a policeman without appropriate documentation. Since the situation was so dangerous, everyone clamored to be on the first [train] that would become available.”
It was no longer a matter of procuring a handful of false passports, but hundreds, and a larger and more complex escape infrastructure quickly came together. Its leaders learned to doctor passports, arranged phony marriages, and of course bribed necessary officials, including those who worked at the train station and officers of the local MGB.
With matters of life-and-death at hand, a specially formed rabbinical court of 23 judges was convened.11 The judges determined that everyone participating in the operation had to contribute whatever money or valuables they had to the pot to assist as many people as possible to leave. One of the members of the smaller operating committee leading day-to-day operations (as well as a member of the rabbinical court) was Moshe Chaim Dubrowski, whose story we’ll return to shortly. Dubrowski’s grandson, Berel Dubrowski, was about 17 or 18 at the time.
“I didn’t have a beard yet [and therefore less conspicuous], so I was sent to collect money from people … ,” recalls Dubrowski, 94. “I remember one time I needed to pick up money from someone. How do you do it? We made up he’d be sitting in the park on a bench holding a particular newspaper with a briefcase next to him. I came up to him and we exchanged briefcases, his was filled with cash, and mine had more newspapers.”
He was at various times also charged with distributing forged Polish documents. Once he was tasked with arranging a truck to bring a number of families to the train station in the middle of the night. Things nearly went south when the truck headed to the wrong place, leading to a Soviet sentry overhearing a member of the group speak Russian, a red flag that they weren’t in fact Poles. Dubrowksi followed the sentry into his post. “I asked him: ‘How much do you want?’ and he said ‘700.’ I told him, here, I have 300 in my pocket, 200 for you and 100 for your friend,’ he said ‘Okay.’ ”13
Leibel Mochkin was in charge of arranging fake Polish passports, Kahan and Futerfas handled the money, and the elder Dubrowski dealt with various emergencies. Another active member of the smaller operating committee was Tzipa Kozliner.14 Ultimately, combining Divine assistance, cunning, wits and a healthy dose of bribes, the operation successfully transplanted the nucleus of the surviving Lubavitcher community from Russia, where it had always been, to the West and Israel. That the transports were made up of visibly Chassidic men, women and children, none of whom spoke a word of Polish, is all the more startling.
By far the most prominent person brought out of the Soviet Union in this way was the Rebbe’s mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson.15 The single largest illegal transport arranged by the Chassidim from Lvov left on Dec. 2, 1946 (9 Kislev, 5707), all together numbering 232 people.16 Kaganovitch estimates that only about 1,500 Soviet Jews escaped illegally using false Polish documents during this period. The vast majority of them were Chabad Chassidim.