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14 Tishrei 5764 - September 29, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Staying Jewish: The Heroic Story of HaRav Yitzchok Zilber's Life under Atheist-Communist Rule

by Binyomin Y. Rabinovitz

HaRav Zilber was niftar on erev Tisha B'Av this year. In a life focused on talmud Torah and shemiras mitzvos he accomplished quite a bit, even though more than half of his life was spent in Communist Russia -- the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Earlier this year, before he passed away, we published several feature articles describing various aspects of his life in the Russia of Stalin. It did not make any difference to him whether he was working in Soviet Russia, or living in the Soviet Gulag prison system. Stubborn for Torah and determined to keep everything, Rav Zilber saw extraordinary hashgochoh several times.

In his later years, in response to an illness he suffered, he and his students set up Toldos Yeshurun to minister to the spiritual needs of the Russian community.

The following passages are his account of some of the trials he underwent in his life.

To Jail

After they arrested me in my home they conducted another search. They came in the night, waking up the children with their noise. My daughter Soroh and my son Bentzion were still small. Alarmed by the strange people and the melee, the children broke into tears. My wife predicted there would be more searches and after the first incident she burned everything that seemed suspicious to her. This led to the loss of many pictures and letters that were valuable to us, and perhaps to others as well.

The investigation began. Before every interrogation they kept me in a poorly-ventilated room the size of a phone booth. After a few moments I already felt like I was suffocating and would die at any time. (Later I read about such torture techniques in works by Solzhenitzin.) At the last moment, they would take me out and lead me to an interrogator. I still remember his name: Satarover.

The interrogations included torture. Not for naught did those arrested always claim half an hour with an interrogator was like a year in the lager. When I was brought for interrogation for the first time, five people were sitting there.

"You know what? For now, we are not investigators. Just regular people, friends sitting here and talking. We don't intend to report anything to anyone. Prove to us that Hashem exists!"

I was absorbed in thought. Should I talk or no? I sensed there a trap had been laid for me. What if they suddenly use my remarks against me? I could be accused of "religious propaganda."

One of the investigators, a Jew, asked no questions and sat in silence. But somehow he appeared uncomfortable. From the expression on his face I could tell it was difficult for him to watch this game. Suddenly he began to take part.

"You know, comrades, we will not succeed in changing him and he does not want to change us. Let's get to the point," he said, cutting short the "friendly conversation."

Only then did I realize how dangerous the game had been.

Time went by. Once, I was summoned for an interrogation with this investigator, whose name was Pindrus. He spoke with me kindly and asked how he could help me. "My wife doesn't have any money," I said, "and I should be receiving my salary from the school. Order them to pay the money sooner." He honored my request.

Then came the trial. It was 1951, a difficult time under Stalin, who was brimming with antisemitic propaganda. So I had to pay the price. In the end I was in prison for just two years before receiving clemency.

My father was arrested on the second day of Shavuos and he left the lager on the 30th of Nisan. On this day he always wears his father's tallis and blesses us.


During the interrogations, I was held in prison. The conditions there were unbearable. Forty-three men in a crowded cell, hot, stifling and two open buckets for relieving oneself. I was embarrassed to use them in front of the other men and I would only use them at night while everybody was asleep. Everybody was taken to the lavatory together twice a day, at 6:00 in the morning and at 6:00 in the evening, and for just 10-15 minutes.

The prisoners noticed I couldn't use the open buckets and when we were taken to the bathroom they would occupy them intentionally and sit there until the last moment so I wouldn't have time to go in. Relieving myself turned into a great torment for me and I felt my end was drawing near.

I soon contracted dysentery. In 1951 on my daughter's birthday, the 10th of Tammuz, which fell on a Shabbos, I washed my hands to eat a piece of bread in honor of Shabbos Kodesh, but in spite of my efforts I was unable to swallow even a single crumb. I didn't have the strength to go out to the yard, but when I asked to be left in the cell they would not grant me permission. I went out and after taking two steps, fell to the ground.

I regained consciousness in the prison hospital. There I recovered somewhat and then I was told that my chances of recuperation were about the same as my chances of contracting another more dangerous disease. The diagnoses of the other patients in my room were as bad as could be . . . I hurried back to the prison ward.

Sleeping was also a problem. I was given a blanket but I didn't know whether it contained shatnez or not so I couldn't cover myself with it. My cell mate had a cotton blanket. I proposed we swap.

"What for?" he wanted to know.

I explained the problem to him and he started fuming. "You people should be shot! Because of people like you we cannot build socialism!" He was totally infuriated.

Three days later he was transferred to another cell. He came up to me on his own initiative and said, "Here, take it." Why the sudden change of heart? I really don't know, but I was very grateful.

What about tefilloh and Bircas Hamozone? In the prison cell the stench from the open buckets made prayer prohibited. There was not enough room for me to move four amos away, so I was left with no choice other than to cover one bucket with a jacket and the other with a coat.

My cell mates may have thought their pranks were funny, but I was not amused in the least.

Once packages sent from home were brought to the cell and a pencil was handed around so everybody could sign for receipt of their parcels. After everyone had signed the overseer asked for his pencil back, but it was nowhere to be found. We searched everywhere but somehow it had disappeared. All of the criminals there pointed at me. The overseer said he would wait five minutes. If the pencil was not returned nobody in the cell would receive packages for one month.

Despite his threats, under no circumstances was he allowed to leave without the pencil. A thorough search of the entire cell was conducted and the pencil was found in my bed! How they hid it there I can't say, but this is why they are known as experts in their "profession." Miraculously the prison authorities didn't punish me.

Holy Days

Rosh Hashanah arrived one week after I first came to the lager. I knew the tefillos by heart, of course, but still I yearned for a machzor to show other Jews. Believe it or not it was the secretary of the Communist Party in the lager, a Jew named Vishnev, who brought me the machzor.

How could it be that I was unafraid to approach him with such a request? I happened to know that despite his Communist education he was a decent and honest person. When nobody else was listening I argued with him about Stalin and proved he did not have prophetic powers, despite the lofty traits attribute to him, including ruach hakodesh. To say such things was extremely dangerous.

I don't know whether Vishnev really believed his own words, but to explain Stalin's poor treatment of the Jews he said, "Imagine a father who has two sons. One works and does everything he's supposed to do while the other avoids works and remains idle. A holiday arrives. Who should he seat at the head of the table? The son who is idle and does nothing or the son who works hard? The Russian people are building socialism while the Jews shirk the call of duty. They are involved in either commerce or science."

Nevertheless I could see he was a decent man so I asked him, "If I give you an address and ask you to bring me a book, would you bring it?"

"I'll bring it," he replied.

In addition to the machzor he brought me Mishnayos, a Tanach and even a pocket-sized Haggadah. While handing me the books, Vishnev warned me not to say who brought them even if I were to get torn to shreds.

Years later, I happened to run into Vishnev's son. In 1992 I held a Pesach seder at a yeshiva in Moscow and at the end I started to recount how I conducted the seder in the lager. I also mentioned Vishnev. I don't think it was a coincidence, but rather yad Hashem, that among those present was a couple from Kazan.

They returned to Kazan, found Vishnev's son's address (Vishnev himself had passed away by then) and told him the account. Vishnev immediately traveled to Moscow to meet me. He hugged me and kissed me and then began to tell his story.

"I was five but I remember how Father would recount the story of the Jew in the lager who wouldn't work on Shabbos. He spoke with respect and admiration."

I read a bit of Tanach with him and he sat and listened intently. I taught him how to read Kaddish and he recited it for his mother and father.

So bringing the machzor to the lager did have an effect in Olom Habo! Just that one Kaddish made it worthwhile!

Years later, Yosef Vishnev called me in Jerusalem and asked me to pray for him. He was about to undergo a dangerous operation. Thus even the lager had a purpose. If I had to stay in the lager, maybe it was so that Vishnev's son would call me with such a request.

So I had a machzor and on the first day of Rosh Hashanah I prayed together with several other Jews, quietly so that nobody would see or hear.

As soon as we finished the prayers a fire broke out in the lager. Pandemonium set it in right away. The whole lager went up in smoke and flames. Prisoners and guards ran around in a state of chaos and panic, shouting and giving orders. The guards devoted their attention to the prisoners more than the fire, in order to prevent escapes. They brought us into a smoke-filled room and locked us in.

It was very frightening. A short time earlier we had recited the words, " . . . Unesaneh tokef kedushas hayom ki hu noro ve'oyom . . . " and "BeRosh Hashonoh yikoseivu . . . kamoh ya'avrun vekamoh yivorei'un, mi yichyeh umi yomus, mi bekitzo umi lo bekitzo, mi bamayim umi bo'eish . . . " Less than an hour had gone by and the whole lager was going up in flames! The outer wall burned down along with some of the bungalows and administrative buildings.

How many people died, I don't know. Boruch Hashem I lived through it. At first my wife was notified that I was among the victims. Oh, what she must have gone through!

Yom Kippur

On Yom Kippur, again, I tried to arrange for a few Jews to pray with me. We planned to start working half an hour later than usual -- to pray all day in the lager would not have been possible. We waited until everybody left and the bungalow was empty. Whenever someone stepped inside for a few moments, we would stop praying.

I persuaded all of the Jewish prisoners that on Yom Kippur it was obligatory to fast and not to work. Nevertheless, if someone was pressed to work, he at least had to postpone whatever he could to the next day. On Erev Yom Kippur, I performed the traditional kapporos with each of them in turn.

The evening after Yom Kippur, I visited one of the prisoners. "Listen, Yitzchok, I have a question." he said. "You said working was forbidden. But what about smoking?"

I thought for a moment and decided not to tell him. These people knew nothing. Before his imprisonment this man was a known Workers' Organization man (that is, a Communist).

I managed to organize a group prayer, but I only succeed in gathering together a full minyan on one occasion during the entire period of my imprisonment -- on my father's yahrtzeit. Not everybody prayed, but at least there were no informers among the Jews.


Whatever I could I tried to observe strictly. But on Succos I was unable to build a succah or obtain daled minim. If someone has no possible way of observing a certain mitzvah, he is exempt from it, but it has to be truly impossible despite his efforts. Presumably, this leniency applied to me under the circumstances.

I always prayed at the set times before going to work. If the supervisor appeared and noticed me, I would stop praying and continue hauling water.

I remember once I was summoned by the head of the lager while I was in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei. Obviously, I didn't budge. They came up to me again and began to shout. I kept standing in place. One of the prisoners said, "If he's standing like that there's nothing to do about it even if you kill him." They had no choice other than to wait until I finished praying.

Laying Tefillin

I asked my wife to obtain the smallest tefillin available in Kazan. She came to visit me together with the children. I was given two-year-old Soroh to hold in my arms. Three guards were watching us carefully. I knew the tefillin shel rosh was hidden in one of her shoes and the tefillin shel yad in the other. I sat her down on my knees and crossed my legs. I was wearing wide shoes. Holding the girl I removed her shoe and turned it upside-down directly over my shoe. Then I laboriously pressed it under my foot. I repeated this procedure with the other shoe. Presto! The visit was over. I was searched and nothing was found on me.

My next mission was to find a safe place to hide the tefillin. I combed the whole lager, but couldn't find a suitable place until finally I came across a bungalow with a pile of tattered shoes. A narrow space about a foot wide was covered by a curtain. "Hashem specially prepared this bungalow as a hiding place for my tefillin," I said to myself.

I went to the person in charge of the bungalow, Michoel Avanovitz. "I want to live in your bungalow," I said. He gave the traditional reply. "And what will I get out of it?"

This time it was simple. "You have to wash the floor and bring six buckets of boiling water in the morning and six in the evening. I'll bring the boiling water for you and I'll help you wash the floor." He agreed.

Now I could hide the seforim under the shoes behind the curtain, but I didn't dare leave the tefillin there all day. What if somebody decided to clean up in the middle of the day? So every day I would put on the tefillin there and then hide them in my coat pocket. Then I would bring the coat to the prisoners' deposit room where valuables--watches, money, etc.--were kept. Anything that was not deposited would be taken away from you by force right away. The jacket would remain there overnight.

At 5:30 in the morning, I would collect the coat, lay tefillin, pray and then deposit the jacket again. What those who manned the deposits room thought of my routine didn't matter to me.

This was the reason why throughout the two years I was in the lager I always worked in the street wearing only a jacket. Winter in Tatria is very cold--minus 20-25 degrees [minus 5- 10 degrees Fahrenheit]. My hands and ears froze but I never caught a cold.

An Unexpected Proposal

As you can tell, the lager was not a place of friendship and camaraderie. But there was a criminal named Ovrov who made my life unbearable. Sometimes his vicious pranks brought me to the point of despair.

He was about forty and this was not his first time in the lager. I know nothing else about his past or why he was so eager to make my life bitter. Nor does it matter.

When he noticed the area beyond the curtain was important to me and that I would pray there, he broke the rod that held the curtain. This was the most painful place for him to strike at me. It was terrible. I no longer had a place to learn and daven.

In the lager, his job was to fix tools. When he was given tools he would bring them to the management. "This was given to Zilber. He broke it and threw it away." Or he would break my broom and dustpan, throw the pieces on the roof and place the blame on me. In short, he sought every opportunity to cause me trouble.

Suddenly, Ovrov came to me one Friday with an unexpected proposal. "Listen, you're looking for people to haul water for you on Shabbos. Look no further. I'll bring it for you every Shabbos. Just hang the key to the bathhouse and I'll open it and take care of everything.

One of the Jews heard this exchange and started to laugh. "He must think the key is muktzeh."

Ovrov fulfilled his promise. Until he left the lager I never had to ask for anything. He always brought water and washed the floor well. I would pay him for his work, of course.

What made Ovrov change so drastically I didn't ask. But the people around him were very curious and asked him. It turned out he had been warned in a dream that if he didn't want to cause himself trouble he had better treat me well rather than maliciously.

This dream made such a strong impression on Ovrov that once he risked his life. The prisoners were given a vaccination. As an experienced prisoner Ovrov assumed the shot was liable to endanger his health so he adamantly refused to receive it. They tried persuading him, cursing him, threatened to put him in solitary confinement, but he wouldn't comply. When the vaccinations were about to end suddenly he came and said, "OK, do it."

"What did you think at first," the prisoners asked him, "and why did you capitulate in the end?"

"I remembered that tomorrow is Shabbos!" he explained. He didn't want to spend Shabbos in solitary confinement because then there would be nobody to wash the floor and bring water. He didn't want to break his promise. Is this not mesirus nefesh?

Everybody called Ovrov "Pakdah" though he was already in his forties. It was his seventh time in prison. He had tremendous insight and an amazing mind. He was an extremely bright person. He understood everything, including human nature, interpersonal relations and life in general.

On Pesach I sold the chometz to him. We gave him all of our bits of fried bread. "We're not allowed to use bread for eight days," I explained to him. "We're selling you whatever remains in our possession until the holiday begins. Give me a deposit."

He didn't have any money. I gave him half a ruble and he handed it to me as a deposit and everything was sold properly. Ovrov also received all of the bread rations for 15 people for eight days. He must have been very happy. He helped me for a year, until his release.

They Set Up a Yeshiva on his Grave

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

On Rosh Chodesh Elul 5764 (August 18, 2004), a new study program -- a kollel for halachic studies -- dedicated to the memory of Rav Yitzchok Zilber zt"l was opened by Toldos Yeshurun for the leaders of its evening learning centers. This program was organized at the advice and with the blessing of gedolei Yisroel in Israel and in the United States.

Russian-speaking avreichim who themselves have founded and are running evening learning programs for Russian- speakers are invited to learn in the new kollel, with the aim of obtaining smicha at the end of the program.

HaRav Ben Tzion Zilber, the spiritual leader of Toldos Yeshurun, told the students that they should study halacha deeply and learn to figure out the law in every particular case in accordance with the Torah.

Rabbi Yosef Schwinger, HaRav Yitzchok Zilber's son-in-law, said a few warm words and congratulated the avreichim on the beginning of studies.

The kollel's five year program is based on daily studies, nine hours a day. The program includes the main rabbinical areas of Jewish Law -- the laws of Shabbos and Niddah. These two topics will be studied in depth. One hour to an hour-and-a-half per day is dedicated to Mishna Berurah (at the pace of one page a day) or gemora (at the pace of 4 folios a week).

The Kollel is led by a well known halachic authority, HaRav Moshe Petrower. Many of the kollel's students wanted to learn from him even before they heard about the Kollel. As one of them put it, "My dream came true."

HaRav Moshe Petrower says, "In previous generations there were a lot of generals and few soldiers. That is to say, there were many outstanding rabbis while relatively few people learned in yeshivas and kollelim. Today, there are, boruch Hashem, a lot of yeshivas and kollelim but not so many rabbis.

"The main reason people do not become talmidei chachomim after many years of learning is that they were not taught thoroughness and depth in their approach to learning. A rabbi must be formed by another rabbi. For example, I learned from HaRav Elefant, and from HaRav Michel Zilber and finally, from HaRav Shmuel Auerbach. And I continue consulting with HaRav Shmuel afterwards. I was built by the communication with these people, by their advice, by learning from them.

"My task, as I see it, is to nourish talmidei chachomim -- may it be G-d's will that they will become such."

Avraham Cohen, the director of Toldos Yeshurun, stressed in his speech that this kollel is in essence the final missing link in building a viable Russian-speaking religious community in Israel. "Indeed, there have appeared a lot of places for Torah learning for Russian-speakers as well as hundreds of new Russian-speaking bnei Torah families. We keep opening new yeshivas, kollelim, seminary programs . . . But leaders, rabbis, real authorities and talmidei chachomim are still missing in the Russian street. May it be G-d's will that this kollel will produce them," he said.

At present, the Kollel is located at HaRav Yitzchok Zilber's former apartment. The home of the Russian rabbi, which always welcomed talmidim, has filled up with Torah again.

The kollel's students include: Moshe Gekraiter, director of the support fund for Russian-speaking bnei Torah and their families; Moshe Weisburd, head of an evening kollel for Russian-speakers in Brachfeld; Yosef Zrudinski, community leader and head of an evening kollel for Russian-speakers in Modiin, maggid shiur for a group of Russian-speaking students in Kollel HaRan; Uri Superfin, head of a kollel for halacha studies in Beitar Illit; David Grosman, head of an evening kollel for Russian-speakers in the Sanhedria Murchevet neighborhood in Jerusalem; Yaakov Shub, community leader and head of an evening kollel for Russian-speakers in the Ramot neighborhood in Jerusalem; Naftali Panarovski, community leader and head of an evening kollel for Russian- speakers in Tel-Tzion; Shalom Kaplan, community leader and head of an evening kollel for Russian-speakers in the Neve Yaakov neighborhood in Jerusalem; Chaim Shaul, Russian- speaking community leader in Kiryat-Gat, maggid shiur in the Shuvu yeshiva; Daniel Gink, program coordinator in Rishon Letzion and Lod; Eliakim Zalkind, maggid shiur in an evening kollel; Mendl Agranovich, head of an evening program for Russian-speakers in the Bayit Vegan neighborhood in Jerusalem; Eliyahu Erenburg, head of an evening program for Russian-speaking young men at the Mirrer Yeshiva; Alexander Nurenberg, community leader in Petach Tikva; Uri Geller, head of an evening kollel for Russian-speakers in the Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem; Leib Nachman Zlotnik, mashgiach for the group of Russian- speaking young men at the Mirrer Yeshiva; Eliyahu Levin, community leader and head of an evening kollel for Russian-speakers in Netivot.

For more information, contact Toldos Yeshurun at P.O.B. 50566, Jerusalem 91505, Israel. Tel: (972)-25-400-005; Fax: (972)-25-400-946; Email:


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