A large number of Soviet Jews applied for exit visas to leave the Soviet Union, especially following the Six Day War in 1967.
The Soviets, patrons of and arms suppliers to the Egyptians and Syrians, had branded Israel the aggressor, predicting it would lose the war. The country had broken diplomatic ties with Israel. But when Israel won, the mood of Soviet Jewry changed markedly — and many people wished to leave the USSR. A trickle of Jews were allowed out in the 1960s, but this was only a tiny fraction of those who wanted to emigrate. By the early 1970s, many were receiving permission to leave. And yet there were still many who were refused permission; they either received immediate rejections or suffered years when their cases languished in the OVIR, the Office of Visas and Registration.
In many instances, the denial was blamed on their having been given access at some point to information vital to Soviet national security. My father was one such case, deemed a security liability or possible traitor since he had served time in Siberia for his involvement in “anti-Soviet activities.” Soviet leaders hoped the unsuccessful Jewish visa applicants would grow discouraged and give up. And seeking to further discourage large-scale Soviet- Jewish migration, the Russian government often imprisoned Jewish leaders. These prisoners of conscience became the focus of the new international Soviet-Jewish protest movement.
Applying for an exit visa was a big risk for the applicant. Once an applicant had applied for a visa, his employer was immediately notified. If his job had a direct impact on others — for instance, if he was a doctor, teacher, or engineer — he was fired. And since the state considered most visa applicants to be traitors, the majority of workplaces immediately fired them, not wanting to employ turncoats.
This made such applicants vulnerable to charges of social parasitism, a criminal offense. After all, in the Soviet Union, officially a “workers’ state,” every able-bodied adult was expected to work until retirement. Those who refused to work — or who did not otherwise study or serve — risked criminal charges. For this “crime” of social parasitism, in 1961, around 130,000 people were evicted, their property was confiscated, and they faced persecution. In light of all this, knowing that the outcome would be negative but nevertheless believing in Hashem’s hashgachah pratis, my father applied for exit visas again and again. In order to avoid the charge of social parasitism, he became self-employed, working as a glass recycler.
A HISTORY OF ACTIVISM
My father had distant memories of his own father, Reb Michoel Katzenelenbogen, who was a chassid of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, zy”a, as well as of the Rebbe before him, Reb Sholom Dov Ber Schneersohn, zy”a, known as the Rashab. Reb Yosef Yitzchok became Rebbe in 1920. In 1937, my grandfather, Reb Michoel, was imprisoned and shot. My father, six years old, was left without a father.
The family moved to Leningrad in 1938. In July 1941, they fled again, running from the advancing German army. Many Jews fled east due to the Nazi occupation in Soviet Russia. They knew the occupying army was followed by the Einsatzgruppen, mobile German killing units. These groups were charged with murdering entire Jewish communities, whose members were buried in mass graves.
The Katzenelenbogens finally settled in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, where they suffered great deprivation. They remained there until the end of the war. When the war ended, Polish citizens who had been held in Russia were permitted to return home due to the Russian-Polish repatriation of 1946. Special transports were arranged to send the Polish citizens back. The Katzenelenbogens traveled to Lemberg/Lvov, where the family matriarch, Sara Katzenelenbogen, managed to procure papers for two of her sons, Yehoshua Raskin and Zalman Kazen, and her daughter, Tzivia Goldberg, to leave Russia.
When Sara’s husband, Michoel, had been imprisoned, their son Yehoshua had changed his last name, taking on his mother’s maiden name, Raskin. He figured that if he were ever arrested, the name Katzenelenbogen would be immediately recognizable and it would be better to have a different name. Indeed, he was later imprisoned under the name Raskin, which he retained on his official documents. Because those documents accompanied him out of the country, he kept the name permanently. Zalman also changed his name, choosing Kazen, a shortened, Americanized version of Katzenelenbogen.
Later that year, the three “former” Katzenelenbogen children managed to leave Russia on those Polish transports. Yehoshua Raskin moved to London, and Zalman Kazen, his wife, Shula, and their three children moved to Cleveland, Ohio. Tzivia Goldberg settled in Brunoy, France.
The oldest brother in the family, Shimon Katzenelenbogen, was denied permission to leave. He was involved in helping Jews flee Russia and was arrested in Lvov in 1947. Sentenced to labor in a Soviet camp, he was imprisoned until 1956. After that he lived in Chernowitz, and later settled in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. He only obtained an exit visa to Israel in 1971.
The youngest brother, Moshe — my father, then only a child — was also forced to stay behind.
The restriction against overseas travel cut my father off from his family for over twenty-five years. He had last seen his mother, Sara, in April 1951 in Tbilisi, Georgia, where they were imprisoned together on charges of anti-Soviet activity. Sara had played a role in helping Jews escape to western Europe via Lemberg/Lvov in 1946. She passed away while awaiting her sentence on death row, in prison with Moshe.
Ever faithful to his upbringing and education as a chassid, and a follower of Lubavitch Chassidus, Moshe longed to be reunited with his family. The great constraints on religious observance behind the Iron Curtain, coupled with twenty years of separation from his beloved family, tortured him physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Vital Ties
Communicating with the family was difficult during those years. Although they frequently wrote to each other, the letters were read by censors, so any personal details were given with great caution.
The family overseas updated my father, Reb Moshe Katzenelenbogen, about their lives. He heard when children were born, when family simchos were celebrated, and what was going on in the news. He had to imagine what it was like to live in the West, free to practice Judaism and unhindered by the pressure to hide his Jewish identity. After settling in Moscow in 1954, my father continued his secret involvement in Judaism, helping others learn more about Yiddishkeit. Russian Jews began to study Jewish history and texts. There was a renaissance of Jewish feeling and pride. In 1961, under the rule of Nikita Khrushchev, my father was once again arrested and imprisoned, having being caught with gold coins in his possession.
It was a capital crime to own gold coins, which were considered state property. In 1965, he was released — and he immediately resumed his activism. Whenever visa applicants were successful in their quest for exit permits, my father accompanied them to the train station, where they departed for Vienna, Austria, and then flew on to Israel. He rarely missed an opportunity to accompany Jews who were leaving. The cars would fill up with these successful applicants, and he would go in to bid them farewell.
From 1965 to 1966, my father became acquainted with the staff at the Israeli Embassy in Moscow. They, too, would go to bid farewell to the Jews who had received exit permits. When they saw my father there, they would often ask, “When are you leaving?” After all, they always saw him there, but he was never one of the travelers.
Embassy staff members entered the train cars, where they would clandestinely give my father various religious items they had hidden in their clothing. They would draw the curtains in the car and pass him the items; my father, in turn, would quickly hide them in his own clothing.
Under the embassy staff’s instruction, my father would exit the train first so that they would not be seen leaving together. They then remained a while before leaving. This is how my father obtained the newly published booklets of Likutei Sichos, an anthology of essays by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Reb Menachem Mendel Schneersohn. These talks related to the weekly parashah and to special dates on the Jewish and Lubavitch calendars.
The Rebbe’s primary vehicle for conveying his teachings were the farbrengens held on Shabbos, the Yamim Tovim, and special occasions. His talks at these events were transcribed and compiled in dozens of books. The Likutei Sichos booklets my father received were the first of these publications.
My father also received the Rebbe’s first book, Hayom Yom, published in 1943. It contained vignettes based on the letters of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, as well as a daily study guide. The embassy staff, at great personal risk, also gave him some small siddurim and other books. The embassy staff also visited the shul in Moscow during Chanukah and Purim. But although they were in the same places as my father, they were careful never to be seen interacting with him publicly since there were spies everywhere.
All their arrangements were made clandestinely. For instance, when a staff member used a building’s facilities, my father would wait for him to exit and then quickly enter the restroom to see what they had left for him. On one such occasion, they even left him a tallis as a personal gift.
Unfortunately, with the closure of the Israeli Embassy in 1967 due to the Six Day War, all this came to an end. These items had connected my father to the chassidim overseas and to the Rebbe in New York, and with them he was able to learn and spread Chassidus behind the Iron Curtain. These acts reminded him that he had not been forgotten.
A LIGHT IN THE DARKNESS
Throughout these dark years, my father held private study sessions and taught Hebrew, Torah, and Chassidus. He came to know many returnees to Judaism whose spark of G-dliness flickered in a G-dless society. Because he was an underground activist and had a personable nature, many clung to him as a source of Jewish knowledge in Moscow and beyond. Of course, all his activities were conducted in utmost secrecy and at great personal risk.
My father’s many attempts to procure an exit visa had left him despondent and desperate. But across the ocean in the United States, he was never forgotten. His brother and sister-in-law, Reb Zalman and Shula Kazen, had raised a distinguished family of six daughters and a son. My father was proud of his brother’s children from afar, remembering all their names and birthdays and any other information he had gleaned from their frequent correspondence.
In time, the children married and established their own families. Through it all, Reb Zalman never forgot his brother, though it had been over twenty years since they’d seen each other. The idea of his brother living trapped behind impenetrable walls gripped Reb Zalman. He was filled with urgency over the need to get his brother out from behind the Iron Curtain.
The Kazens felt they must make an attempt — despite the difficulties in obtaining the necessary documents, my father’s arrest and imprisonment record, and the Soviet Union’s desire to keep him there forever.
Reb Zalman and Shula, rabbi and rebbetzin of Congregation Tzemach Tzedek in Cleveland, Ohio, were actively engaged in working with the local Jewish community. They decided to approach a well-known Jewish philanthropist they thought would be able to help them because of his connections and influence.
Mr. Irving I. Stone (born Sapirstein) was an American philanthropist and businessman, the founder and chairman of American Greeting Cards. A longtime resident of Cleveland and a generous contributor to its many institutions, both Jewish and non-Jewish, Stone seemed to be a good person to approach about helping my father. And indeed, it was to Mr. Stone that Reb Zalman and Shula turned, imploring him to intervene with the right U.S. government channels. Hopefully, under pressure, the Soviet Union would finally permit the release of Moshe Katzenelenbogen.
All my father wanted was the right to be reunited with his family. He would accept a visa to leave Russia and settle in Israel, the United Kingdom, or the United States. The Kazens believed that if there was pressure from the American government, the visa might be forthcoming.
Mr. Stone agreed to take on the plight of a brother trapped behind the Iron Curtain. The case appealed to him, both because of his sympathetic nature and because Rabbi Kazen, who was an active and extremely respected leader in Cleveland, had made the request.
On May 14, 1970, Mr. Stone penned a note on an American Greetings letterhead to Mr. Hubert H. Humphrey, who had served as vice president under President Lyndon B. Johnson. No longer in the White House, Mr. Humphrey lived in Waverly, Minnesota, where he had completed two terms as a senator following his vice presidency. Mr. Stone believed writing to Mr. Humphrey could bring about positive results.
Mr. Humphrey contacted the U.S. State Department a number of times, finally answering Mr. Stone on June 22, 1970, about the acquisition of the precious exit visa. Mr. Humphrey assured Mr. Stone he would do everything he could to help the family reunite.
With G-d’s help, almost a year later efforts of Reb Zalman and Shula Kazen met with success. On May 26, 1971, the Kazens received a letter from Mr. Humphrey, sent by the U.S. Senate Committee on Government Operations in Washington. He wrote with good news — their brother had finally been successful in his protracted effort to leave the Soviet Union and immigrate to Israel. He also assured them that Moshe Katzenelenbogen would receive a visa to visit them in the United States. How wonderful it would be to finally be reunited!
A NEW LIFE
My father left Russia in April 1971. This was almost a year after Mr. Stone had initially intervened, and a full month before the Russian authorities notified Mr. Humphrey. Thankfully, Moshe’s brother, Shimon, was able to leave Russia for Israel in October 1971, about half a year after his younger brother.
Since my father’s brother, Reb Yehoshua Raskin, lived in London, my father applied for a visa that would allow him to stop off in the United Kingdom en route to Israel. It was granted, and a warm family reunion took place in London.
The Raskins had not been informed in advance when he was leaving, and my father called from Heathrow Airport upon his arrival. It was the first time he had spoken to my Aunt Bluma Raskin. At the first opportunity, my father traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, to visit his brother and family. An emotional reunion took place.
In Israel, family members introduced my father to Zelda Pinsky, a technical engineer who had left Russia in 1972. Her father had been arrested and imprisoned with other Chabad chassidim in 1939, and even though he had passed away while she was still young, Zelda always remained faithful to her heritage.
My father and Zelda were married in Israel in 1973, during the Yom Kippur War. They subsequently moved to London. Reb Zalman did not forget his brother and often sent money to London to help my father with the costs of a growing family.
And my parents, in turn, never forgot the plight of the Jews who remained behind in Russia. My father worked with Reb Mendel Futerfas in London, procuring funds for relief packages for Jews stuck behind the Iron Curtain. My mother, meanwhile, worked as a translator for Agudas Yisrael in their efforts to help Soviet Jewry. I remember her sitting for many years with stacks of correspondence, with which she helped . My parents have always been a support, both morally and spiritually, to immigrants from the Former Soviet Union. They understand their background and needs and continue to be a part of their lives.