If Not For Our Mordechai: When The Rebbe ‘Killed’ Stalin (Part II)
This year marks 70 years since the renowned farbrengen of Purim 5713, in honor of the occasion, Chabadinfo pulled out from the Beis Moshiach Archives a two-part article in which R’ Hillel Zaltzman tells the story of the Farbrengen and the Doctor’s Plot: A terrifying episode and its resolution with the death of Stalin on Motzaei Purim, 1953. And was there a connection with the Rebbe’s farbrengen? • Part 2 of 2 • Full Article
This year marks 70 years since the renowned farbrengen of Purim 5713, in honor of the occasion, Chabadinfo pulled from the Beis Moshiach Archives a two-part article in which R’ Hillel Zaltzman tells the story of the Farbrengen and the Doctor’s Plot: A terrifying episode and its resolution with the death of Stalin on Motzaei Purim, 1953. And was there a connection with the Rebbe’s farbrengen? • Part 2 of 2
From the memories of R’ Hillel Zaltzman. Prepared for publication by Avrohom Reinitz
THE BEGINNING OF THE DOCTORS’ PLOT
On 26 Teives, 5713, the following report, titled “Vicious Spies and Killers under the Mask of Academic Physicians,” appeared in the communist newspaper Pravda, courtesy of the official news agency of the Soviet Union, TASS:
A terrorist group of doctors, uncovered some time ago by organs of state security, have been planning to shorten the lives of leaders of the Soviet Union by means of medical sabotage.
Investigations have established that participants in the terrorist group, exploiting their position as doctors and abusing the trust of their patients, deliberately and viciously undermined their patients’ health by making incorrect diagnoses, and then killed them with fraudulent and vile treatments. Covering themselves with the noble and merciful calling of physicians, men of science, these fiends and killers dishonored the holy banner of science. Having taken the path of monstrous crimes, they defiled the honor of scientists.
… The majority of the participants of the terrorist group… were bought by American spies. They were recruited by a branch-office of American intelligence — the international Jewish bourgeois-nationalist agency called the “Joint.” The filthy face of this Zionist spy organization, covering up their vicious actions under the mask of charity, is now completely revealed…
Unmasking the gang of poison-doctors struck a blow against the international Jewish Zionist organization…. Now all can see what sort of philanthropists and “friends of peace” hid beneath the sign-board of the “Joint.”
… The investigation will conclude shortly.
The names of nine people who had been arrested were listed, all of whom were top doctors in Russia at the time. Six of them were Jewish.
Initially, thirty-seven were arrested, but the number quickly grew into hundreds. Scores of Soviet Jews were promptly dismissed from their jobs, arrested, sent to labor camps or executed. This was accompanied by show trials and anti-Semitic propaganda in the state-run mass media. This libel later came to be known as “The Doctors’ Plot.”
The newspapers and radio reported this along with a commentary of incitement against the Jews of the Soviet Union and Jews worldwide. The commentators and the media called upon the public to be wary of the “enemy of the people” and asked all citizens to be on the alert for “terrorists in the guise of doctors.”
In all sorts of public venues – schools, universities, factories and army camps, and foremost, in all medical institutions – there were “explanatory meetings.” The speakers, members of the party and secret police, defamed the “terrorist doctors” and called upon the public to guard against additional fraudulent doctors.
The anti-Semitic rhetoric intensified. Day after day there were articles in the major newspapers about robberies, corruption, and swindling. The common denominator in all of this was that all of the suspects in these crimes had Jewish names. At first, the newspapers didn’t refer to Jews explicitly. They used euphemisms such as “rootless cosmopolitans,” “bourgeois,” “Zionist agents,” etc. Within a short time though, they removed their kid gloves and began writing explicitly: “we mean the Jews, reactionary Jews who work for Zionist, capitalist purposes,” etc.
This massive propaganda campaign soon began to affect the Russian nation, who believed the party line. Non-Jewish patients were afraid to be treated by Jewish doctors. Numerous Jews were fired from their positions, especially in institutes of science, universities and, of course, medical centers.
Our fears heightened as the incitement grew. We anxiously awaited the show trial. There was a very serious fear that when the arrested doctors would be incriminated – and we had no doubt that they would – the Jews of Russia would be in grave danger of pogroms far worse than those that were routine under the czar.
After Khrushchev rose to power, minutes of all the secret meetings of the central communist party in Moscow were marked down in a small book. Copies of this book were sent to all the communist centers throughout Russia, where it was read at secret meetings.
Since my cousin, Yaakov Pill a”h, presented himself as a sworn communist, he was trusted and even allowed to take the book home for a night, to read at leisure. Whenever this book would reach the communist party center in Samarkand, Yaakov would invite us to his house to read it.
From these books we found out that the Doctors’ Plot was the final component of Stalin’s elaborate plan, which was organized down to the smallest details. The doctors would be incriminated, the public would be outraged, and at the last moment Father Stalin would come to the protection of the Jews. His protection would entail a mass exile of the Jews to Siberia.
Stalin’s timetable for this expulsion was as follows: On March 5 (18 Adar) the doctors would be tried and a week later, March 12 (25 Adar), they would be executed. Immediately after that, the expulsion plan would begin to be implemented.
Two to three weeks before the designated expulsion date, dozens of trains were readied at stations in all the big cities in the Soviet Union, prepared to take Jews to Siberia. In clandestine areas in Siberia, concentration camps were quickly set up and 40,000 barracks were built to contain hundreds of thousands of Jews. The calculation was simple: a third would be killed by Russian murderers in the pogroms, a third would die on the trip to Siberia, and the final third would arrive at the barracks in Siberia.
As the date for the trial approached, we suffered more and more from insults and degradation. We were humiliated and persecuted wherever we went, on the street, at work, and by our neighbors. The antipathy reached a point that Jews refrained from going out on the street. When Jews were beaten on the street and police were called to intervene, they told the perpetrators, “Don’t strike them now, for in a little while we’ll be able to beat them publicly with full government support…”
My brother-in-law, Aryeh Leib, lived in Minsk. He was once taking the train and the goyim, noting his obvious Jewishness, mocked him. Nobody intervened on his behalf. When he tried to defend himself, an army officer grabbed him by the neck and threw him off the train.
Under these circumstances, every day seemed longer than a year. It was just a question of who would die when…
In February, 1953, a 15 kilogram bomb was planted at the Soviet embassy at 46 Rothschild Street in Tel Aviv. The building was greatly damaged. The Soviet Union reacted in a fury and cut off diplomatic ties with Israel. The Russian papers publicized this prominently, adding fuel to the already blazing fire of hatred.
Another brainchild of Stalin, designed to fan the flames of Russian hatred, was narrowly avoided. Lazar Kaganovitz, the only Jew who served on the Politburo, Stalin’s government in those days, was sent by the government on an official mission to Afghanistan. The pilot was given a secret order to fly the plane to Israel and to say that Kaganovitz decided to defect to the Zionist entity. Needless to say, such an incident would have caused unimaginable suffering for the Jews of Russia.
By a miracle, the plan was discovered by Kaganovitz’s brother-in-law, Vyatsislav Molotov, who served as Russia’s Foreign Minister. Family ties and Molotov’s sense of justice outweighed political considerations, and he immediately called the airport and urgently asked for Kaganovitz.
Kaganovitz was already on his way to the plane when he was called to the phone. Molotov told him of Stalin’s plot. Kaganovitz, one of the most loyal of Stalin’s men, initially refused to believe him, but in the end he was afraid and he canceled the flight.
The Doctors’ Trial was getting underway and the poisonous propaganda continued to spew forth. The feeling was that the Jews in Russia under Stalin were in great danger, with no positive resolution forthcoming. We all cried to our Father in Heaven.
UNUSUAL ACTIONS IN THE REBBE’S COURT
Of course, we in Russia had no idea what was going on in 770, but when we heard about it later, after leaving Russia, we realized that “Mordechai knew everything that had happened.” The Nasi HaDor and leader, the Rebbe, knew what was taking place secretly in the dictator’s office and, like Mordechai HaTzaddik, he worked to pre-empt the evil decree through heavenly channels.
In hindsight, it is obvious that in those winter days of 5713, the Rebbe was aware of the terrible danger hovering over a large portion of our people. At the farbrengen of Shabbos, Parshas VaYeira, 20 Cheshvan, 5713 (1952), the Rebbe began to sing a new niggun that had never been sung at farbrengens before. In the middle of the singing portion of the farbrengen, between sichos, the Rebbe suddenly asked, “Does anyone here know how to sing, ‘Ani Maamin’?”
One of the people present began to sing the famous niggun that Jews sang in the Holocaust, and the rest joined in. As soon as the niggun was begun, the Rebbe’s face changed and he became very serious. He motioned with his hand that they should sing it forcefully and he too joined in. Those who were aware of the atmosphere among the Jews of Russia recognized the appropriateness of the niggun..
At farbrengens during that time, the Rebbe spoke a lot about the intensifying darkness of galus and about the special quality of the Jewish people which can overcome the darkness. Despite the fact that the Jewish people were under the control of the nations of the world, they had the ability not to be impressed by the concealment and to stand strong, weakening the klipa.
The Rebbe unexpectedly published a new maamer, “Hashem does not come with impossible tasks for His creations,” on 21 Teives, 5713. The date was not a special one in the calendar, but it was just a few days before the Doctors’ Plot erupted. This maamer is about the mesirus nefesh of the Jewish people in a time when it is hard to keep Torah and mitzvos, and declares that if this is our lot in galus, then surely we have the ability to prevail.
Two days later, at the farbrengen of Shabbos, Parshas Shmos, 23 Teives, the Rebbe referred explicitly to Stalin in Russia and expressed amazement over the special Jews whose faithful resolve was ironclad. They had to hide in order to put on t’fillin, kept Shabbos despite the danger in losing their jobs, traveled great distances to immerse in a mikva, and studied Torah in cellars. Their commitment did not wane despite the poverty and the lack of food and shoes.
Then came the Purim farbrengen. On Tuesday, Motzaei Purim, a large crowd gathered to farbreng with the Rebbe. Dozens of Russian Jews, who had left the country just a few years before, were present. Some of them had sat in jail for long periods of time and had felt Stalin’s iron fist. They and their friends could not help thinking of their brothers in captivity and terrible danger behind the Iron Curtain.
In the course of this very long farbrengen, the Rebbe said eleven sichos. He began with a deep maamer, based on the verse in Esther, “and he reared Hadassah.” Then the Rebbe said sichos on relevant matters, with niggunim interspersed, as usual.
The hours flew by. Towards morning, the Rebbe began to relate a story:
“During the Russian Revolution, after the fall of the czar, the Rebbe Rashab told the Chassidim to take part in the elections. One loyal Chassid, who was completely removed from matters of this world and knew nothing about what was going on in the country, went to vote as the Rebbe had directed. Naturally, he first prepared himself by immersing in a mikva and putting on his gartel, as one should when carrying out the Rebbe’s instruction.
“After he voted, as his friends told him to, he saw people standing and proclaiming, ‘Hoo-ra,’ and he stood there too, announcing ‘Hoo-ra, hoo-ra, hoo-ra.’”
As he related this, the Rebbe put his hands together like a triangle (see picture) and, with a big smile, proclaimed “hoo-ra” three times.
The Rebbe then turned to his right and repeated the story, once again putting his hands together and proclaiming “hoo-ra” three times. Then he turned to his left and repeated it again, doing as the Chassid did.
The astonished crowd of Chassidim at the farbrengen realized that they were witnessing something beyond their earthly comprehension. Then the Rebbe’s face grew serious once again and he began the second maamer of that farbrengen, based on the verse in Esther, “therefore they called these days Purim, for the lot.”
WITHOUT REJOICING BUT WITH A SIGH OF RELIEF
Three days later, on 17 Adar, 1953, the Soviet radio announcer sorrowfully announced that Stalin was seriously ill and had lost consciousness. This official proclamation of Stalin’s illness was unusual for the Soviet Union, which had always refrained from announcing the illnesses of the top echelons. We suspected that Stalin had died, and the wording of the public announcement was to prepare the citizens of the country for the truth in order to prevent chaos. Only later was his death confirmed.
The next day the official announcement was made that Stalin, the wicked enemy of the Jews, had died. The top government radio announcer, Yuri Levitin, dramatically announced, “On the 9th of March, at 10:50, the heart of the First Secretary of the communist party of the Soviet Union, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet Council, the Generalissimo Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, stopped beating.”
What caused Stalin’s sudden death? Like everything in those days, this was also murky. Some said he had had a stroke and he lingered for three days and then died. Some said he died in the midst of a psychotic episode, which occurred with some frequency in his later years. Some said he wanted to shoot the members of his government and they preempted him and eliminated him.
A confidante of Stalin, who had defected to England immediately upon Stalin’s death, reported in the London Chronicle that Stalin had given Voroshilov, the Premier of the Soviet Union, a document decreeing that every Jew in the Soviet Union be exiled to Birobijan, where they would all be killed. His goal was to complete what Hitler had started.
Voroshilov took the paper from Stalin, read it, and threw it back in his face. Stalin, shocked and angered by his chutzpah, had a heart attack on the spot and died.
Others said that Stalin had been poisoned by the head of the KGB, Beria, because senior government officials feared that an expulsion of the Jews would lead to a third world war and a probable US victory, which would completely undermine Russia.
Stalin’s death was not met with the joy that Haman’s death was received. The people were too stunned. Citizens of the Soviet Union, who from their youngest years had been raised to sing and praise the “Sun of the Nations,” who were exposed daily to radio programs and newspaper articles that lauded Stalin and his personal concern for every citizen throughout the empire, found it hard to imagine how Russia could go on without him.
People believed that Stalin preserved peace in the world. The “Father of the Nations,” is how he was known. I remember a children’s song that described the residents of the empire asleep in their beds at night and from just one window did light shine for that is where Stalin sat, concerned about peace for all… In every book, no matter the topic, the author had to praise Stalin in the introduction for his contribution to the book. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be approved for printing and the author would be accused of treason.
Thus, despite the massive incitement campaign against the Jews perpetrated by Stalin, there were Jews who cried upon hearing of his demise. A woman who worked for my father tearfully complained, “We finally had someone who cared about us, and now G-d took him away too…”
After the initial shock, the Jews of Russia breathed a sigh of relief. They couldn’t imagine a better ending to the Doctors’ Plot.
On Chol HaMoed Pesach it was reported on the radio that the doctors had been released. The false witnesses who had incriminated the doctors had been sentenced to imprisonment and exile.
Though not every home had a radio in those days, our landlady did, so I was among the first to hear the good news. I ran to my uncle, R’ Boruch Duchman, and to our friends, the Mishulovins (who later became our mechutanim) and announced the wonderful news.
My uncle Boruch said that the day would come when Stalin would be denounced and he would be thrown out of Lenin’s mausoleum. It sounded like a wild dream, but only a few years later, Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s atrocities and he was indeed thrown out. Forty years later, with the collapse of communism, all remaining statues of Stalin were removed from public places.
Following Stalin’s death, the situation in Russia changed significantly. Many political prisoners were freed, including many Chassidim who had been exiled to camps in Siberia. Thus ended a terrible era in the lives of Russian Jewry.
THE REBBE ACKNOWLEDGES HIS ROLE
The Rebbe never explained the otherworldly events that took place at the Purim farbrengen in 1953. A sort of “acknowledgment” was given only forty years later, when that special maamer was edited by the Rebbe and reprinted. The Rebbe also edited the introduction to the kuntres, including the following:
“To mark the approaching days of Purim, we are publishing the maamer ‘Al kein kar’u l’yamim ha’eila Purim,’ which the Rebbe said at the Purim farbrengen of 5713. This is the second maamer said at the Purim farbrengen of that year, the recitation of which was apparently connected with the events taking place at that time including the downfall of the ruler of that country who was an enemy of the Jews. This is according to what they understood at the time from the story that the Rebbe related, by way of introduction and in juxtaposition to saying this maamer, about the instruction of the Rebbe Rashab during the period of the Revolution after the fall of the czar.”
The wondrous timing of Stalin’s death, on Purim, the day the biblical arch-enemy of the Jews had his downfall, served to underscore the message of ‘ba’yamim haheim b’z’man ha’zeh,’ that just as in those days, so too in our times, a great miracle took place for the Jews of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries. ‘Kein tihyeh lanu’ – may we merit the same with Moshiach Now!
Levik Raksin (ben R’ Mendel) – Crown Heights to Mushky Korf (bas R’ Bentche) – Miami Beach, FL.
L’Chaim: Next Sunday, 4 Nissan at Lubavitcher Yeshiva, 8:00 pm
Levik Raksin (ben R’ Mendel) – Crown Heights to Mushky Korf (bas R’ Bentche) – Miami Beach, FL.
L’Chaim: Next Sunday, 4 Nissan at Lubavitcher Yeshiva, 8:00 pm