Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

1 Kislev 5763 - November 6, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Jews of Bukhara - Mitzvos in Hiding

by C. Ofek

Part III

This series recounts the trials and tribulations of the Jews of Bukhara, from the perspective of Shulamit Tilayov, a Jerusalem-born woman who spent twenty years of her youth in Bukhara. At the age of four she returned to Bukhara with her parents for a short stay, but due to the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I, their visit turned into a two-decade sojourn. Ms. Tilayov's memories paint a picture of Bukhara's splendor and the tremendous mesirus nefesh required to observe Torah and mitzvos under the Communist regime. Through a series of miracles, she had the merit to return to the Holy City and to Shechunat HaBucharim, the neighborhood her grandfather, Rav Shimon Chacham, helped establish years earlier.

Part III recounts the Tilayovs' and another family's efforts to keep mitzvos in hiding, risking their lives to cling to the Jewish faith. The sidebars include a harrowing account by the head of a talmud Torah who withstood terrible interrogations and torture and the rare hachnosas orchim extended to World War II refugees under dire conditions.

The harsh decrees and the ongoing suffering compelled some families to try to flee Bukhara for Eretz Yisroel. In a number of cases they forded raging rivers under the cover of night, traversed deserts and were spared from the clutches of Bolshevik secret police agents by the skin of their teeth -- only to be caught at the border.

Those who were apprehended faced horrible punishments: years of hardship and affliction, deportation, torture or hanging. Despite the harrowing accounts of those who were caught, Jews continued to steal towards the border in the hopes of reaching Eretz Yisroel.

In 1930, when I was 23 years old, my husband Yitzchak was sent by the government to oversee a large general store in the town of Dajar-Kogan, located near the Afghani border. During the two years we lived there, every month I had to take a three-hour train ride to Tarmiz, where the nearest Jewish community was located, to buy kosher food.

Some 300 European government workers lived in Dajar- Kogan and the rest of the population was comprised of Turks and Muslims. Yitzchak and I were the only observant Jews in the town, a fact we concealed from everyone else. I would light Shabbos candles in a tin case so their light could not be seen from outside.

As Pesach approached, we faced a serious dilemma. We lived in a single room adjacent to the store that my husband managed. Our neighbor was a guard, and his family and the foot traffic in the store were constantly passing nearby. We were afraid our secret would be discovered. The guard's wife was a Ukrainian woman and a virulent antisemite whose prying eyes were always scanning her surroundings. At the time, informing was an everyday occurrence and informants were well recompensed.

One day she spotted me kashering kitchen utensils. I trembled with fear, for I knew what awaited us: not only would my husband lose his job, but we would also be sent to Siberia for many years. Right away, my Ukrainian neighbor asked if I kept mitzvos, which I denied vehemently. But she did not believe me, saying she was well acquainted with Jewish customs.

On Erev Pesach, big signs were posted in the town notifying residents that a large delegation was slated for arrival to carry out a "purification" among government workers. Religious employees, employees from wealthy families or employees under the previous government would be automatically dismissed from their positions and sent to Siberia.

On Pesach Night, it was Yitzchak's turn to appear before the purification committee. I accompanied him, carrying our son Pinchas in my arms. The inquiry took place in a large hall. We stayed there until late at night waiting to be called. Then we had to sign a declaration, in the presence of the committee heads, stating that we were not from wealthy families and were not religious. After signing, we were released and sent home. This was a miracle from Above.

Coming home we shut the door and latched it tight. Then we soundproofed the door and windows with carpets and set the Pesach table according to the Bukharan tradition. I lit candles and recited Shehechiyanu with great kavonoh. During my last excursion to Tarmiz I had obtained homemade matzos and wine as well as kosher beef and chicken. I had prepared charoses myself and we held a kosher Seder despite the inherent risk.

When we came to Shefoch Chamosecho in the Haggadah we sang out loud, forgetting our enemies outside, and convinced the carpeting muffled our voices completely. But the armed guard constantly patrolling the store heard our voices and began banging on the door. We sat frozen in place, but the loud knocking continued.

Yitzchak turned off the light and opened the door. The guard, who could not see the set table, asked what the noise was about and Yitzchak told him I had shouted out in my sleep during a nightmare. Meanwhile I was so frightened that I passed out. The guard believed Yitzchak's story. As soon as he had gone a safe distance, Yitzchak quickly latched the door shut again and revived me.

We barely had enough matzo to last five days. For the last three days we subsisted on hard-boiled eggs and potatoes, earnestly hoping the words at the end of the Haggadah would come to fruition: "Beshanah haba'ah biYerushalayim habenuyoh."

A Vacation

Later that year, when Yitzchak completed three years as a government employee, he was granted a three-month vacation. Our son Pinchas was still small and we decided to take him to breathe some fresh air in the Caucasus mountains in the spa town of Kislovodsk, which draws people from far and wide for its fabulous views and excellent air. Like the other vacationers, we rented an apartment with an enchanting view and surrounded by lush greenery.

Staying in the apartment next door was a Jewish family from Tashkent -- nice, very respectable people we had met before. Our apartments were connected by a shared balcony.

We knew fairly little about them. The father's name was Rachamim Shlomahiov. Later we learned they had fled from Tashkent and had made foreign passports in Kislovodsk in order to leave Russia.

One day, policemen came knocking at their door. They heard the police asking questions about them and grew very alarmed. Citizens of a totalitarian country are always frightened when the authorities begin asking questions about them. Rachamim rushed over to us in a great panic, threw a wrapped package toward us and pleaded, "Please, guard this package well."

Not knowing what its contents were, we felt apprehensive. But realizing he was in dire circumstances we could not refuse. It was clear to me that if the package was found in our apartment we would come to a bitter end. I quickly hid it deep inside the oven, in a pile of ashes. Yitzchak told me that if the police arrive in a few minutes to conduct a search, I should be prepared to stand nonchalantly as if we had nothing to hide -- or else he would lose his job and we would all be sent to Siberia.

We remained in the room overwhelmed by utter panic and fear, while the police searched our neighbors' apartment. The Shlomahiov family was staying in the city illegally and did not have food stubs. It would have been very easy to find this out. When the policemen finally left, after what seemed like an eternity, the neighbors came to us as white as chalk and trembling with fear. We returned the package to them, but Rachamim begged us to guard it for a few more days. Despite our fears, his pleas touched our hearts so we agreed to his request and prayed Hashem would safeguard us.

For three days the package remained with us. We did not open it and its contents remained unknown to us. The police did not return, so after three days we returned the package to our neighbors and Rachamim revealed to us that it contained the travel documents he had prepared for himself and his wife and child, two pairs of tefillin, several siddurim and seforim and even some valuable gold jewelry -- whose possession was prohibited in Russia. I was astounded by the Shlomahiov family's mettle and their dedication to Torah and mitzvos.

Rachamim wanted to compensate us for saving him from disaster. He offered to give us some of the jewelry as a keepsake and as a token of his gratitude. Yitzchak and I declined resolutely, saying, "Sechar mitzvoh, mitzvoh." Yet Rachamim insisted we accept some of the jewelry and the next day, following our continued refusals, he said, "If you're not willing to accept anything from me, at least let me sell you one piece of jewelry as a memento."

At the time we did not know this would be the last time we would see him and the memento would remain with us forever. We bought one piece of jewelry from him because we knew he needed a lot of cash to cover his expenses.

Afterwards we discovered that in exchange for bribe money he had managed to obtain fake passports. Some time later the Shlomahiov family boarded a boat to flee from Russia, along with several other families. All of them were caught by the authorities and executed.

The names of the Jews who met their deaths along with the Shlomahiov family are Ephraim Davidbiov and his brother and another family related to him, Hy'd. I have kept the piece of jewelry all these years, even during my harrowing journey from Bukhara to Afghanistan. It reminded me of an observant Jew who clung to the Word of Hashem even in golus as the lion's jaws gaped before him.

The Mesiras Nefesh of the Melamdim

The talmidim of HaRav Eliezerov remained the community's leaders and chachomim, setting a laudable example by continuing to study Torah in hiding. Some of them displayed tremendous spiritual fortitude in their fight to preserve Jewish tradition.

HaRav Simchah Grodetzky, HaRav Eliezerov's leading talmid, who preserved his legacy, influenced all of Bukharan Jewry during this difficult period and showed tremendous self-sacrifice in his efforts to buttress the walls of the Jewish faith. He wrote a memoir that recounts the physical torture and tyranny to which the authorities subjected him for teaching Torah.

"On the night of the 13th of Nisan the melamdim at the talmud Torah, including myself, received a summons to appear the following day at the GPO, which caused great alarm. That night I went from one melamed to the next asking them not to divulge the truth about who was responsible for organizing and uniting the talmud Torah, telling them to say only that the parents hired and paid them on an individual basis. The law permitted a father to teach his son Torah or to hire a tutor, or even for several parents to hire a teacher together as long as there were no more than seven children studying together in one group.

"Before I went to the GPO I said Tehillim and asked Hashem Yisborach to have mercy upon me in the zechus of the lomdei Torah, for all that I did was for His honor.

"When I arrived I ran into several melamdim who had already been questioned. They told me they had held to what we agreed to say and apparently had been believed. I, too, went in to speak with the interrogators and said I had no ties with the other melamdim, but merely come to the beis knesses to pray. They claimed I was the instigator and the leader. I replied that this was a lie and that the fact I sometimes study Torah with talmidim between mincha and ma'ariv was just because the Jewish custom was to study. I added that a rival must have lodged these false charges against me and that all of the clamor that had been stirred was wholly unfounded. They accepted my explanation and I left.

"I saw I would no longer be able to maintain the talmud Torah openly. Right away I selected the top seven students and sent them to study in a distant city. Boruch Hashem I managed to continue this holy work until 5695 (1935), when I was taken into custody. This time when I came to the GPO the jailers treated me in a coarse and undignified manner. From the start I felt a change in their conduct toward me compared to the previous incident. They had brought me in to [torment me] until I died under their coarse hands.

"They wanted only one thing: for me to admit I was the leading organizer in Bukhara and that all of my teachings were intended to strengthen and buttress Judaism. Of course I denied all of the accusations and insisted I was not an `instigator,' but they were determined to break me and then certainly I would open my mouth and admit everything.

"All night, starting at sunset, I sat in their office as the investigators sat around me asking about every detail, whether relevant or irrelevant, primarily to confuse me. I spent several such nights without sleep or food except for a bit of bread and a bit of water.

"The reshoim found a new method of handling me: They placed me in a tiny prison cell where I had to stand on a wooden stool with my legs spread. The stool was placed over foul water full of dead animals, and if I shifted my weight I would fall into the water. The air had a damp stench and various fleas and flies and strange bugs crawled all over me, taking no heed of me, wandering into my eyes and ears.

"I had to stand like this day and night until the following session, and only if I stated an urgent need would the soldier guarding me escort me, wait for me and return me to the miserable cell. Despite the horrible suffering and torment, I decided not to speak up or admit a thing, and I asked Hashem to put an end to the terrible captivity.

"The daily interrogations became repetitive. My senses were dull by this time and the interrogators would jump on every word I uttered as if they had uncovered contradictions to what I had said yesterday or the day before. But I remained as steady as a rock, my mouth shut tight like a mute, waiting for the end to arrive.

"My only moments of respite during the course of the day were when I left the cell for urgent needs, but I could only make such requests a few times per day. One day, when I was taken from my cell, suddenly I heard my wife's voice crying out. In broken sobs she shouted and pleaded, `Simchah! Until when? I am sure you'll find me in the grave. I don't have the strength in me to bear it. Please, for my sake, Simchah . . . Simchah . . .'

"I recognized her voice and I could no longer withstand it. I shed no tears and made no sound, but stood still as if in a dream. And the truth was, this time they really broke me. I decided to confess to all of the allegations and I told my guard I had something important to tell the investigator. The soldier, who was guarding alone, left his post and went to call his commander.

"At that very instant I fell asleep standing above the water and suddenly, in a dream, I saw my friend and companion, R' Rafael Nachman HaKohen, saying, `Simchah! Don't break. We are praying for you. Soon you will be released.'

"Totally stunned I awoke to the sight of the investigator standing before me and asking what I wanted. I began to cover up my request and apologized, saying I had been half asleep, but the truth was that I could not move, and even if they killed me at least I wouldn't go to the grave a liar. The investigator issued a string of invectives, spitting out, `We have yet to show you with whom the truth lies!'

"They continued to torture me for 17 months. On the 17th of Kislev 5697 (1937) I received a telegram from my wife that my release had been approved in Moscow. The merit of dedication to Torah is what saved me from my persecutors."

HaRav Eliyahu Mani -- Grabbing Mitzvos in the Streets

During the Second World War, hundreds of Jewish refugees from Central Russia poured into the cities of Central Asia, including Samarkand and Tashkent. Polish refugees also arrived in Bukhara. HaRav Eliyahu Mani left aside all of his affairs and totally dedicated himself to assisting these homeless refugees. He was a major hachnosas orchim organizer and committed others to rescue activities.

In Carmena and Nur-Mateh, towns not far from Bukhara, refugees were placed in gigantic baskets once used to transport wholesale fruits and vegetables. Now they were filled with live, persecuted people who had been brought by camelback. During the summer heat, the streets were normally deserted by day, but now so many Ashkenazim were flowing into Bukhara that people filled the streets as if it were motzei Shabbos or motzei Yom Kippur after ma'ariv.

HaRav Eliyohu Mani delivered a droshoh in the beis knesses in which he said there were diamonds rolling in the streets -- i.e. mitzvos waiting to be performed -- and that the refugees had to be provided food, housing and jobs and all of their other needs had to be met.

People would bring them to live in their homes or courtyards and the wives would cook food for them. Among the refugees were Rav Eliezer Gurvitz and Rav Neta Barkan. All of this help was extended without compensation.

On one occasion, sixty refugee families arrived in the city of Samarkand on Shabbos. Since there was no eruv in the city the question of whether food could be brought for them immediately arose and was posed to Rav Chizkiyohu's beis din. The rov stopped in the middle of his shiur and ruled it was permitted to carry food for them due to the possibility of pikuach nefesh. The Jewish area of the city was divided into thirteen streets based on the number of participants at the shiur, and each of them went to his designated zone to bring food to the refugees and see to their needs.

HaRav Eliyahu Mani, brimming with the excitement over the mitzvoh, went to the home of a wealthy Jew where he was given permission to take all of the Shabbos food off the oven. "I'm sure nobody in the house will starve," he said, "but the refugees are very hungry. This is truly pikuach nefesh."

HaRav Mani was busy most of the hours of the day in the holy work of administering assistance. Once he asked his brother, Gavriel, if he would be willing to take in six refugee families. R' Gavriel agreed. Then his brother said, "Had you refused I would have sent them to you anyway!"

These were years of great hunger during which many people died of malnutrition. Others contracted typhus, which was spreading at the time. HaRav Mani's children were hospitalized with typhoid fever and recovered, but he caught it and succumbed to the disease at the age of 47, leaving eight orphans behind.

"In 1943, in the middle of the war, there was a very cold winter," recalls Professor Preib of the Brit Yotzei Bukhara Be'eretz Yisrael. "There was almost no wood available for heat and many people became severely ill. A stream of suffering refugees arrived in Bukhara seeking shelter. Despite the difficult circumstances prevailing at the time, we helped them. They were given food, clothing and even assistance in finding work. Our homes had four or five rooms, so we could make two available to refugees. When large groups of refugees arrived we would house them in the central beis knesses.

"My grandfather was a doctor and a father to eight children. To this day I remember how he would go from one sickbed to the next among the bloated, sick and bleeding refugees. `Who's Jewish?' he would ask. Then he would take the Jewish patients to his home and treat them with devoted care, ensuring they recovered.

"A portion of the refugees who fled Poland managed to smuggle diamonds or gold under their clothes, but those who came to Bukhara from the Soviet Union were really poor. We hosted them in our homes, treating rich and poor alike, and shared our bread with them.

"During those years, bread was rationed in Bukhara and a mere 400 grams [14 ounces] per person was issued upon presentation of a ration card. We stretched this limited amount to share it with the refugees. During chagim and simchas we would invite the refugees to dine with us. To this day there are Ashkenazi families that are grateful to the Bukharan families that saved their lives, and still visit them on holidays."


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.