Dedicated to my mother, Batsheva Schochet, on the occasion of her upcoming birthday. May she and my father, Rabbi Dovid Schochet, be blessed with many more happy and healthy years, filled with much nachas from their children and grandchildren – the reason behind this story…
This is the story of a very special Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll), purchased shortly after the
Second World War by my maternal zeide (grandfather), Rabbi Pinchas Sudak, when he and
his family were on their dangerous trek escaping from Communist Russia.
Unlike most Jews living under in the Communist Soviet regime, Zeidy Pinchas did not
really lack for anything. He had an underground knitting factory and was a relatively wealthy
man. He also managed to sustain a Jewish, Torah-observant life for himself and his family.
When he escaped from Russia in the summer of 1946 at the age of 38, it was not because
of any material or even spiritual need. On the contrary, Zeidy Pinchas risked being shot at
the border for trying to escape. Nor did he do it for the spiritual future of his children. He
did it for his grandchildren.
My mother, Batsheva – the oldest of Zeidy Pinchas’ three children – grew up in a home
where commitment to Yiddishkeit was a way of life. As a young girl, she would ride alone on
a donkey for several miles through the desert to bring home the necessary wheat to be later
ground and prepared under exacting supervision for the Passover matzah. That was her task
because, as a child, she was not as subject to questioning by the authorities.
Nor was it an unusual sight in my mother’s home for music books to be swiftly spread
over the piano as soon as a stranger entered their home, hiding the religious books nesting
beneath. In this way, my mother was able to pursue her Jewish studies with her “piano
Zeidy Pinchas recognized that his children, raised to fight for the preservation of their
faith, would gain inordinate strength and faith to persevere in following the path of their
tradition – no matter what the circumstances.
“I am not leaving Russia for my own children,” he said. “They will always know that they
are Jews and will remain loyal to their faith. But what will become of my children’s children?
That I do not know. It is for them that I must leave the clutches of this regime.”
Fortunate to have crossed the Russian border alive, the Sudak family found themselves in
Cracow with a group of 46 other Lubavitcher Chassidim escaping the Stalinist dictatorship,
with their final destination unknown. Included in this group was the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s
mother, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson.
There, in Cracow, Zaidy Pinchas met a Polish Jew who was offering a Torah scroll for
sale, and he resolved immediately to purchase the Torah. He then had a heavy wooden box
fashioned to carry and protect it.
“Wherever this journey may lead us,” said Zaidy Pinchas, “how can so large a group of
Jews travel without a Sefer Torah in their midst?”
It was time for the group to move onwards, walking through Steczen, to cross the
Czechoslovakian border on their way to Prague. They left late at night. Each could carry
only their most basic necessities; all otherworldly possessions were abandoned. Zeidy Pinchas
had diamonds sewn into the soles of his family’s shoes.
In the blackness of the night, Zeidy Pinchas and Batya Sudak and their three children,
each grasping a coarse rope to keep them together, trekked silently through a dense forest.
Zeidy Pinchas clutched his beloved Sefer Torah as he marched behind Bubby Batya, who
carried their youngest child, Bracha. As time progressed, Bubby Batya grew weary and
motioned to her husband that she could no longer carry Bracha.
With tears in his eyes, Zaidy Pinchas took his Sefer Torah out of its wooden case, and
silently mouthed an apology. “My priceless Torah, you know that it is for you that I have
left Russia. I would not have left to an unknown future for myself – or for my children. I
am fleeing to ensure that my children’s children will know you and live with you.
“Forgive me, dear Torah, for betraying you now. It is either you or my child. I part with
you now, so that my children and children’s children should live a life where you are a real
and meaningful part.”
He embraced the Torah for the last time and gently laid it, in its case, under a tree. He
lifted his young child in his arms and journeyed forward.
Eventually, Zaidy Pinchas and his family reached the free shores of Israel. His children,
Batsheva, Nachman and Bracha, each grew up to become rabbis or rebbetzins serving their
respective communities and promulgating faith in Torah.
* * *
A few years ago, my mother, Rebbetzin Batsheva Schochet, was visiting in California
where she was invited to the home of Mrs. Faigy Estulin. Faigy was describing her own
father’s exodus from Russia – several weeks after my grandparents’ escape – and attributed
his longevity and robust health to an incident that happened over more than 50 years ago.
He and his wife were escaping Russia on a dark night. Along the way, their five-year-old
daughter wandered away from them and was momentarily lost. Frantically, the parents
searched for her, crawling on their hands and knees through the forest.
Suddenly Rabbi Gurevitch felt a hard surface. Upon further investigation, he opened a
wooden box to discover a Sefer Torah. Next to the wooden box sat his young child. Kissing
both passionately, he took the Torah from its box, unraveled it and wrapped it around his
body, tying it with his gartel (prayer belt). Eventually, that Torah scroll made its way to its
current home, in a shul in New York City.
Mrs. Estulin ended by crediting her grandfather’s long and healthy life to the merit of this
Concluding her story, she looked up at my mother and couldn’t fathom why my
mother’s face had gone completely ashen and tears were streaming from her eyes.
The legacy of Zaidy’s precious Sefer Torah had come full circle.