Avraham Rainitz, Beis Moshiach
A 24-Year-Old yeshiva student, Binyamin HaKohen Katz, stood in “Gan Eden HaTachton”, waiting with ever-growing excitement for his turn to enter the Rebbe’s holy chamber for “yechidus.” During the previous years, he had been privileged on several occasions to go in for yechidus for his birthday on Yud-Beis Tammuz. However, this time, the excitement was far greater, as it would be determined during this yechidus whether he would go on the Rebbe’s shlichus to Denmark as an assistant to Rabbi Azriel Chaikin.
A few minutes before entering the Rebbe’s room, R’ Bentzion Shafran came over to him and said, “I think you are the person the Rebbe is looking for! You are not married, you have an outstanding memory, you can get by on minimal food, and you can learn alone without a chavrusa. Now that you are first going in for yechidus with the Rebbe about the possibility of going to Scandinavia—that is near Russia,” and he spread out a map of Europe and pointed at some places. “Copenhagen is close to Leningrad, five hours by train from Finland and you are there. Binyamin, this is a golden opportunity for you to help the Jews of Russia.”
Although Binyamin had been born and raised in the United States, he had already heard a great deal from his Russian-born friends to understand that a journey to the Soviet empire on the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s shlichus demanded tremendous courage and, if needed, literal self-sacrifice.
That year, R’ Binyamin had been present at the farbrengen on Shavuos when the Rebbe spoke very sadly about how chassidim in the United States don’t feel adequately the anguish of those chassidim remaining behind the Iron Curtain. “I sat behind the chassid, R’ Itche Chorgin,” R’ Binyamin recalled, “and I heard how he said ‘l’chaim’ to the Rebbe for the Jews of Russia. After what the Rebbe said, I saw him go over to the Rebbe and say, ‘Rebbe! I said l’chaim for the Jews in Russia …’ The Rebbe responded, ‘Indeed, you said l’chaim, but it was done quietly. You need to shout in a loud voice so that it reaches straight to the throne of Heaven. I wanted a loud l’chaim that would rent all the heavens and split the skies.’
“After a farbrengen like that, it was clear to us that something needed to be done. The Rebbe spoke about the need to help the Jews of Russia and we could not ignore the fact that we had to do something, but what?”
R’ Binyamin decided then and there that he would place his future in the Rebbe’s hands, telling him about the idea of going on shlichus to the Soviet Union and his total willingness to undertake such a mission.
In any case, after the Rebbe said that he approved the suggestion about his going to Denmark, R’ Binyamin dared to make a suggestion of his own. “My friend Bentzion Shafran told me that Finland [Denmark] is close to Russia and that it would be possible for me to go to Russia and tell Jews that someone is thinking of them, that there is someone who says, and it is not simply talk, that soon they will leave Russia. I will also try to retrieve some of the sefarim of the Rebbe’s father.”
“You will do this all by yourself?” asked the Rebbe with a smile.
“No, Hashem will help,” R’ Binyamin said, “and I am ready to accept the Rebbe’s instructions and advice.”
There was silence and then the Rebbe said, ‘You are going to Scandinavia and you need to think solely about Scandinavia. Write me a report about your activities in Scandinavia and as far as Russia, nobody knows that everything is changing there now. When you finish in Scandinavia, we will speak about Russia. In any case, you are in America now, so I will ask you to go to Rabbi Chadakov after this yechidus to tell him about your shlichus and he will provide you with everything you need.”
Binyamin understood from the Rebbe’s words that for the moment, the time was not right for a shlichus in Russia. However, during his stay in Denmark, that was bound to change.
PREPARING FOR A DANGEROUS SHLICHUS
“On Vav Tishrei 5725, Rebbetzin Chana, the Rebbe’s mother, passed away and I heard the news while I was in Copenhagen. I sent the Rebbe a telegram of consolation and also asked, ‘When I finish my shlichus, should I return to New York, go to Eretz Yisroel to visit my father who lives in Bnei Brak, or has the time come to go to Russia?’ I soon received an answer that I should prepare to go to Russia and that I should go there in disguise!
“After discussing it with Rabbi Chaikin, it was decided that I would go to Russia in the guise of an American tourist, as he put it, ‘there has to be some truth in every lie.’ Before leaving for Russia, Mrs. Chaikin taught me ninety important words in Russian so I would be able to manage when necessary.”
The one who helped Rabbi Katz prepare for his trip to Russia was someone he met after Yom Tov and guided him on how to conduct himself there. “If not for what he told me, it is possible that I would not have gotten out of there alive!”
This was Dr. Wilhelm Brickman, an academician who was fluent in the Russian language and culture and knew how to exercise the proper care in Russia during those days. “I met him in Copenhagen and he asked me what I was doing there. I explained that I was on shlichus for the Rebbe. When I told him that I might go to Russia too, he gave me a lot of information about how to behave without showing any signs of fear. He explained about the flight, the hotels, and the places I would need to visit. He told me that on the flight, Russian security people would intimidate the passengers. They would take passports and read the names of people in order to scare them, but I should display no signs of fear.
“He also told me that at the hotel there were women who worked as chambermaids and receptionists, but their real job was to spy on the guests. They looked in the trashcans, examined the contents of suitcases, and even checked the bed sheets in the morning. If the sheets were wrinkled, this was an indication that the person was nervous and did not sleep well, a potential red flag for them. As a result, I would sleep at night without a sheet, and in the morning, I would put it back on so it would look smooth.
“He also advised me to drink only tea, and eat only bread, fruits, and vegetables in the hotel, nothing else. He told me not to talk to anyone, not even with Chabad Chassidim; only with hints.”
R’ Binyamin took sefarim from the Royal Library of Denmark (“I took Sh”ut Yerushas HaPleita, Talmud Bavli, and Tanya”) and throughout his shlichus in Denmark he learned material by heart, “which gave me a lot of strength and confidence when I visited dangerous places in Russia.
“In one instance, there were policemen who did not like my having these sefarim. They wanted to take the sefarim from me, so I told them I wanted their badge number since I was going to complain about them for taking something that belonged to the king of Denmark. That scared them off.
“In general, whenever I went through the hotel lobby, a group of armed soldiers stood there, examining every move of the tourists for anything suspicious. One would naturally be nervous when walking past them. When I passed them, I would review pages of Gemara that I learned by heart, literally picturing the pages, and so I did not display any signs of fear. I don’t know whether this was the behavior they expected to see, but they never stopped me.”
R’ BINYAMIN, THE AMERICAN TOURIST
R’ Binyamin arrived in Russia in the guise of an American tourist, as Rabbi Chaikin had instructed him. This included putting on weight, in order that he shouldn’t appear like a skinny “yeshiva bachur”, and going with a camera wherever he went.
When he was in Moscow, he spent most of the day at the central shul. He hoped to meet as many Jews as possible, bolster their spirits, and collect information for the Rebbe. It was not a small matter, since the shul had state appointed gabba’im spying on everyone entering the shul, including R’ Binyamin.
“The Jews in the shul suspected I might be a KGB plant. Of course, I could not openly tell them that I was on the Rebbe’s shlichus, because it wasn’t clear who was ‘ours’ and who was a KGB plant reporting to the authorities. Sadly, there were Jews like that, so the suspicions were mutual. Nevertheless, there were Jews who checked me out and when they felt secure, they contacted me with hints, wanting to know about me. For example, R’ Yaakov Elishevitz, the head shochet at the shul in Moscow, would meet me every day. Then one day, he took out his shechita knife in front of everyone and said he wanted me to teach him how they slaughter animals and chickens in America. Then he took me to a private, side room that was designated for shechita where he revealed the real reason he had done that, fully aware that I did not know shechita. ‘I want to leave Russia,’ he whispered. ‘I want you to tell me how to get a visa to America. Tell me everything you know.’
“I traveled around Russia despite the dangers lurking everywhere, for the purpose of collecting information and reporting to the Rebbe what was happening with Anash in particular, and the general state of the Jews and Judaism throughout Russia. I could not write down anything, because if my notes were confiscated, the future of those Jews would be bitter, and perhaps for me as well, because then it would be obvious that I was not an innocent tourist. I had to memorize all the information.
“At the shul in Moscow, they would surreptitiously put notes with names into my siddur. I would study the names and then flush the papers down the toilet. I memorized the names of the heads of about a hundred Jewish families. Many people came to me so I would mention their name to the Rebbe for a bracha. Many asked me for help in obtaining an exit visa. I would memorize all the requests, the people’s names, and their birthdates. When I had a chance, I not only took messages from them, but I also conveyed the message that someone was thinking about them and was working for them to get out and move to Eretz Yisroel. Their faces lit up upon hearing that.
“In Russia of those days, espionage, or even the suspicion of espionage, was a crime punishable by death, but the Rebbe wanted information about the Jews of Russia and I had to obtain it. I saw how Divine Providence directed me and how things I needed to know to convey them to the Rebbe, came to me. However, I was really frightened the entire time.
“There was a tremendous interest in the Rebbe and a desire to know what was happening, and what was being said in 770.
“One day, the chassid, R’ Nosson Kanelsky, a local Lubavitcher, came over to me. While making believe he was davening, he managed to whisper to me that there would be an official government celebration that night in the shul. Every Lubavitcher wanted to connect to the Rebbe, and they knew that the Rebbe taught new niggunim in recent years. Thus, since they would not have an opportunity to sit with me and learn the niggunim, I should come that night and say that I was a chazzan from the United States and sing all kinds of songs, familiar and unfamiliar, and I should include niggunim from the Rebbe. All Anash, he told me, would come that night to the official celebration. In order to indicate which niggunim were from the Rebbe, I should preface the Rebbe’s niggunim by saying: This is a song from Malchus Beis Dovid, and Anash would get the hint.
“This is what I did. I sang all sorts of songs and included three niggunim from the Rebbe, ‘Eimasai K’asi Mar,’ ‘Hoshia Es Amecha’, the way the Rebbe changed it, to ‘V’Racheim Al Nachalosecha,’ and ‘Tzama Lecha Nafshi.’
“After the celebration was over, R’ Nosson Kanelsky stopped near me and whispered, ‘Many of Anash are outside and want to see you. Before R’ Mendel Futerfas left here, he farbrenged and made many ba’alei teshuva, including many of those you see here. We want more farbrengens, at least a farbrengen with our eyes, i.e., that you, the Rebbe’s shliach, will look at each one of us and we will settle for that. And another thing, Moshe Sarah’s, that is Moshe Katzenelenbogen, left prison today. Tell the Rebbe.’
“I went outside and saw many of Anash standing there and waiting for me. It was some official government holiday so they could allow themselves to be out in the open.
“A policeman came over and my heart began to pound wildly. R’ Yaakov Elishevitz noticed and whispered to me, ‘You should know that if you run away, we are all lost and you will be first. Whatever you do, don’t run. We have to start talking nonsense and laughing like chickens and you laugh like the biggest chicken of all.’ And that’s what we did. They started talking Russian among themselves (and since they spoke quickly, I didn’t understand a word) and laughed a lot and I joined in. Then, when the policeman turned aside, everyone suddenly scattered.
“When I was in Rostov, I held a farbrengen in an inner room of the shul with a few chassidim who took in every word I said in describing Beis Chayeinu, about the last ma’amarim that the Rebbe taught, etc.
“When I was in Tashkent, I met a few chassidim, including R’ Zalman Leib Estulin. They asked me to sing the niggunim the Rebbe taught on Simchas Torah. I sang ‘Eimasai K’asi Mar’ and ‘Hoshia es Amecha.’ The chazzan, R’ Levi Pressman, was there and he quickly caught on to the niggunim and taught them to the others.”
THE SENSITIVE INFORMATION THAT SAVED FAMILIES
R’ Binyamin’s shlichus brought many blessed results. Not only did he succeed in giving considerable information to the Rebbe about the chassidim, he gave encouragement to the chassidim, instilling them with a spirit of hope. He also helped to transmit the names of the chassidim to the right people, who would then make certain to send them visas to Eretz Yisroel. Many Jews were privileged to emigrate to Eretz HaKodesh in his merit.
In the interview he gave to “Beis Moshiach,” we asked him to look back and tell us about his shlichus from the perspective of today. He thought and then said, “It was an interesting adventure for a young bachur like me, interesting and frightening. However, when the Rebbe says something, when he gives an instruction, we must fulfill it immediately. I am very happy that I agreed to go there. It’s the kind of shlichus that if I were given a million dollars, I don’t know whether I would do it again, but once I did it, I would not sell the merit of that shlichus for the Rebbe for any amount of money.”
Upon his return from his secret shlichus, R’ Binyamin traveled to study in London, where he received offers of shidduchim with girls from the local community. However, when the shadchanim learned about his secret shlichus to Russia, they asked him that before any meetings, he would sign a written commitment that after the wedding he would not travel on such a dangerous shlichus again…
R’ Binyamin refused to sign, thereby delaying progress on the shidduch front… This went on until Rabbi Chodakov summoned him back to New York.
— To Be Continued —