Breaking through the Iron Curtain – A first-hand report of one of the first trips to Uman from Israel with life-threatening circumstances under USSR communist control
Cheshvan 5738 – October 1977
Participants: Rav Eliezer Berland, R’ Avraham Eckstein, R’ Yehoshua Dov Rubenstein, R’ Aharon Shapira, R’Nachum Dov Shapira, R’ Shimon Shapira
Rav Berland and a group of six others traveled on American passports to Uman via Vienna and then Kiev.
Upon arriving in Vienna airspace, the obstacles already began. Due to heavy fog, the plane was re-directed to Salzburg. Hoping for a quick trip to Vienna to catch their connecting flight to Kiev, the six ended up on a 4-hour bus ride and missed their connecting flight. Exhausted, they went to a local synagogue to spend the night. The next morning, upon discovery of a 11:30 flight to Kiev, they hurried to get organized and catch that flight. But for various reasons, they missed it.
To compound things, missing flights and scheduling new ones proved very expensive. They turned to a member of the Viennese Jewish community, who directed them to a Jewish-owned bank in the vicinity.
When they approached the Jewish manager, he immediately stopped what he was doing to listen to them.
Rav Berland softly explained their unfortunate and unexpected financial situation, asking for a loan.
Though obviously sympathetic, the bank manager protested that he could not give such a large loan to people he’d never met before and had no idea where they were even from.
R’ Berland said, “My name is Eliezer Berland. I live in Eretz Yisrael, in Bnai Brak.”
Happily, the bank owner-manager had a married daughter in Bnai Brak! Upon calling and consulting with his son-in-law, the bank owner-manager heard him answer: “Berland? Rav Eliezer Berland? Of course! You can loan him even a million dollars. He is completely trustworthy.”
The chassidim then caught a flight to Budapest, which connected to a flight to Kiev. On the plane, they met the American ambassador to Russia, Malcom Toon. He was eager to help them get through customs smoothly, but ultimately, the Russians wouldn’t let him.
The Soviets put Rav Berland to the side while letting the rest of the chassidim pass. The Soviets would not let Malcolm Toon intervene to help the Rav. They kept davening and in the end, the Soviets let R’ Berland pass.
Then they needed to fill out forms with all sorts of questions that made it easier for the Soviets to spy on tourists. Since Rav Berland possessed the best English, he filled out everyone’s forms.
Then they underwent a body and luggage check, but the Soviets didn’t discover the smuggled rubles.
Though registered at a major hotel, Lybid Hotel, they tried to get a room at a smaller motel in the hope that their comings and goings would be less noticeable. But the motel-owner made a quick call and then refused his Breslov guests. So they ended up at the major hotel, where the clerks smirked as they checked them in as if to say, “Why did you even try to hide? You’re registered here and there’s no escaping that.”
On Wednesday morning 14 Cheshvan, they woke up and took a 15-minute taxi ride to daven Shacharit in the Kiev Synagogue. Shadowed in a depressing atmosphere, most of the other daveners were elderly Jews, who glanced at them with obvious curiosity, but no one had the courage to actually approach the mysterious visitors, for fear of the KGB. The six davened long with deveikut, then sat and learn the rest of the morning.
In the afternoon, the contacted a brave and money-needing Russian taxi driver who’d made this trip before and set to meet with him at 6PM in an alley near the synagogue, from there he’d take them to Rebbi Nachman’s kever. He was also supposed to bring another driver and car because one was not enough to hold 6 passengers.
They arrived at the synagogue. In their determination to purify themselves before davening at the Tsion, they convinced the terrified gabbai to open the mikveh. They even offered him a large amount of money to express the strength of their desire and to show him how much they understood his fear and risk.
At 6, they were in the alley but only one car and driver showed up. The driver apologetically explained that no other driver was willing to take the risk. Heavily disappointed, the chassidim agreed that Rav Berland, the only one who knew the way to the Tsion, and 3 others would go (while the remaining two would go the next day). They drew lots to decide who.
At 3 in the morning, the 4 returned to the hotel, reassuring the remaining two that the entire trip to Uman and back went without a hitch.
Thursday morning, they davened in the shul again and this time the fellow daveners were thawed out more and started conversations with them, and even dared to accept tashmishei kedushah (siddurim and the like) the chassidim brought with them to pass out to the trapped Jews. Yet all the while, the 6 were careful not to let on that they were Israelis on their way to daven in Uman because often, there was at least one KGB spy in the synagogue. Upon seeing the deveikut and enthusiasm with which R’ Berland davened, one of the elderly Jews broke into tears, pointed to Rav Berland and said, “I see him davening and I remember how the chassidim in my city were davening 70 years ago. And what remains of them today? Nothing. How can I not cry?”
At noon, the Shapira brothers (who went to Uman the day before) returned to the hotel, while R’ Berland suddenly stopped a taxi and asked to be taken to certain address. The Russian driver declined, saying that he has no idea where that address is. After some discussion R’ Berland convinced the driver to take them, saying that he would show the driver the way. R’ Berland entered the taxi still wearing his tallit and tefillin and sank into his sefer limud. From time to time, he would pause, without looking up from the sefer and tell the driver directions.
All this time, the other 2 chassidim had no idea where they were going–it wasn’t to Uman. Finally, after a tiring ride, they arrived at a little town in a suburb of Kiev where everybody stared at them. In fact, hundreds of people left their apartments to gaze at the strange visitors. But R’ Berland strode quickly to one home.
There, lived an elderly Jewish woman who had once stopped him at the airport (where she happened to be for some reason). It took enormous courage, but after she checked to make sure no one saw her, she approached him. “Where are you from? I’m a Jew.” After realizing that she was no KGB agent, he explained that he was from Eretz Yisrael, a place she hadn’t heard a word about for 10 years.
It awakened something within her.
“I lost my entire family here,” she said. “And even my husband was killed by the authorities after he was suspected of belonging to an underground organization, while all the time he never engaged in any activities except to innocently spread Torah without any intention to commit any crime.” She suddenly burst into tears. “Take me with you to Eretz Yisrael!” Her plea and yearning were so sincere against the stark reality of impossibility. Suddenly, R’ Berland said, “Don’t worry. We will take care of you. B’ezrat Hashem, you’ll arrive in Eretz Yisrael.” She left her address with him. (How he was able to give exact driving directions to the Russian taxi driver remains a mystery).
And now R’ Berland had come to take her.
She couldn’t believe he’d come to fulfill his promise already!
He said to her in Yiddish, “Get ready, rebbetzin! We are already prepared for the journey.”
As the chassidim waited on her sofa, she took an hour to collect her things. When she was ready, R’ Berland was the first to pick up one of the heavy suitcases and stride out the door toward the waiting car without looking back. The other 2 followed, also carrying her things. Frighteningly, HUNDREDS of people surrounded the entrance as they stared at the goings-on. But as R’ Berland started placing her things in the taxi’s trunk, the elderly woman, who had grown more terrified at all the spectators and her fear of the authorities, let out a scream and ran to hide in one of the entrances.
“She ran away,” the 2 explained to the Rav.
A cloud of gloom descended on his face and he said, “After she first told me how she thirsted to make aliyah, I arranged all the necessary documents for her. I also took care to arrange quarters for her to stay in another place in Kiev, within the synagogue, where she could wait until we’d make our return to trip to Eretz Yisrael. I thought we could smuggle her already on our current trip. Apparently, the time has not yet arrived.”
This “side trip” robbed hours from them. They returned to the hotel.
But a short while later, they set out again with R’ Berland to visit a Jew sentenced to 12 years in prison immediately after his wedding, whose wife already made aliyah. “This is a woman who almost doesn’t know her husband,” said R’ Berland and the others sympathized.
R’ Berland went at the behest of R’ Yitzchak Zilber, a Russian Rav who made aliyah not long before and since then, dedicated his life to the material and spiritual needs of his brothers and sisters still trapped behind the Iron Curtain.
They finally found a driver willing to take them to the prison, but night fell during the ride and the driver refused to continue. So they went back to the hotel.
Later, they tried to meet the first taxi driver again to go to Uman. But he never showed up. So they took a bus to the nearest taxi stand, even though such a public place was certain being spied on. Finally, they found a taxi who agreed to take them, but the driver was so terrified, he shook the whole time.
Once there, R’ Berland led them through the dark, the confusing paths and cold to the Tzion (burial place of Rebbe Nachman). The Tzion, located directly under the window of a Ukrainian family, needed to be approached carefully and silently. Unfortunately, the light was still on in the home. “We must be very quiet, said Rav Berland. “The family members are still awake and they are lible to discover us hanging around their yard and reveal us to the police. Let’s hope that they’ll go to sleep soon and we’ll be able to daven without fear.”
Then they followed the Rav until he fell to the ground and they understood that was the place of the Tzion. They lay on the freezing cement for hours. With a tiny flashlight under their tallisim, they said Tikkun Haklali with tremendous kavanah. Despite the spying, the KGB, and the Iron Curtain, their greatest fear was that they would be caught before they’d completed the Tikkun Haklali.
At 6 in the morning, they made their way back to the taxi, feeling like new creations.
Then they arrived at the hotel to get ready for Shabbat
R’ Berland tried to convince the owner to “sell” him the hotel just for Shabbat so the six could bring things from room to room as is permitted within an eruv, but the perplexed owner refused.
Motzaei Shabbat, they needed to set again on a mission, again to Uman. But half-an-hour outside of Uman, the police caught them and sent them back to Kiev.
Sunday night, they needed to catch their flight to Vienna.
On the way to the airport, someone very nervous asked Rubenstein if he would hold onto the thermos in which rubles were smuggled in the screwed-on bottom. He agreed. But after extensive checking combined with measuring the traveler’s reactions to the luggage (and thermos) check, they cottoned on to the thermos-ruse and discovered the rubles.
All the airport officials were majorly excited and they took the 6 in for questioning. Because only R’ Berland knew English well enough, he needed to translate all the interrogations–including his own! They all acted as if they’d come to arrange a get for a man who never showed up, so they never knew who he was. They claimed someone else gave them the thermos to pass on to someone in New York.
At one point, a scary official entered the cell as Rav Berland was davening. The Rav, immersed in tefillah, paid him not one bit of heed. He started to get really angry until one of the others explained that the Rav was immersed in tefillah at this hour. Oddly, the official understood and left.
After more than a day of interrogations with no sleep and little food, one broke and admitted to the ruse and the real reason for their trip. R’ Berland then decided that they should all admit. This led to a new round of interrogations, this time by a Yiddish-speaking Jew working in the KGB.
After everything finished, they went back to their cell terrified. They remembered Rebbe Shmuel Horowitz, one of the gedolei Breslov, who was imprisoned and sentenced to death for sneaking into USSR, but was ultimately freed.
They knew they possibly faced a long and grueling prison sentence, or even death.
Then they were taken to another room and commanded to line up against the wall. They started saying Vidui and Shema when they saw a policeman come in holding something black like a gun. They closed their eyes and heard…Snap! Click!
They opened their eyes and saw…a camera.
Yes, the officer was just taking their pictures from different angles, individually and as a group. This was so they could recognize them if they ever tried to sneak in again.
Then they were sentenced to…exile from Russia!
And that was it!
They couldn’t believe their great fortune.
The Jewish interrogator asked them how they could lie when the 10 commandments say not to lie? R’ Shapira explained that it means lying in a vow. But the six only lied to save their lives. “We have no interest in spying in Russia or anything like that,” he explained. “All we wanted to do was to pray at the kever of our Rebbe.”
The Jewish interrogator accepted this explanation. Then he started to ask them about EY, the Kotel, and Yerushalayim, and how these holy places looked today. When they described it all, he was visibly moved, showing the Jewish spark still within him.
Then Rubinstein tried to convince the Jewish interrogator that Russia could fill its coffers with the money to be made from Breslov tourism to Uman.
“How can we know your motives are pure?” asked the Jewish interrogator. “Would you even be willing to be escorted their blindfolded?”
Rubinstein reassured him they would.
But the Russians made them wait around a lot longer until they released them to a plane going to….Warsaw! Oh, drat!
They feared that the Russian notified all the other airports that they were traveling on faux passports, but R’ Berland reassured them that the Russian would never want to admit to such an oversight on their part. And true to his words, they passed through Polish customs and then to Vienna. And then EY, where they were met by relieved and happy family and friends.
On the ride from Ben Gurion airport, R’ Berland sat deep in thought, then declared, “We saw great miracles on this journey. HKBH gave us our lives and our freedom. The mission standing before us now is to sanctify them for much kavod Shamayim. B’ezrat Hashem, we will open a yeshivah that will bring the masses close [sheh tikarev rabim] to avodat haBoreh.”
And that year, Shuvu Banim opened in Bnai Brak.
Article was translated from the book אומן – געגועים שהפילו חומות