Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Shevat 5763 - January 15, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Jews of Bukhara -- Part IV
Escape from Bukhara

by C. Ofek

This series recounts the trials and tribulations of the Jews of Bukhara, from the perspective of Shulamit Tilayov, a Jerusalem-born woman who spent twenty years of her youth in Bukhara. At the age of four she returned to Bukhara with her parents for a "short stay," but due to the Bolshevik Revolution and World War I, their visit turned into a two- decade sojourn. Mrs. Tilayov's memories paint a picture of Bukhara's splendor and the tremendous mesirus nefesh required to observe Torah and mitzvos under the Communist regime. Through a series of miracles, she had the merit to return to the Holy City and to Shechunat HaBucharim, the neighborhood her grandfather, Rav Shimon Chacham, helped establish years earlier.

Part III recounted the Tilayovs' and another family's efforts to keep mitzvos in hiding, in Bukhara, risking their lives to cling to the Jewish faith. The sidebars included a harrowing account by the head of a talmud Torah who withstood terrible interrogations and torture, and the rare hachnosas orchim extended to World War II refugees under dire conditions.

Part IV describes worsening hardships the Tilayov family faced, which led to their decision to cross the border into Afghanistan illegally. Following Yitzchak's successful passage, Shulamit remains alone with their children, planning her escape. While trying to cross she is caught by soldiers and taken into custody.

Under the hostile climate of tension and menaces introduced by Russian rule, life became harder from day to day. In 1932 we were still living in Kagan, Bukhara's new city. My husband Yitzchak worked as the manager of a large government-owned general store. The economic situation deteriorated and the KGB began to arrest people as they searched for gold and diamonds. My husband and father were also arrested.

We were relatively well off because of Yitzchak's good job, but I constantly felt nostalgia for Jerusalem and an urge to return. I also yearned to go to the holy city to be with my mother, who had moved there six years earlier. When my husband and his father were arrested, I finally managed to persuade Yitzchak's parents that we would have to leave the Soviet Union.

A few months later Yitzchak and his father were released and we began planning our escape. There were no Jews in Kagan. This was very difficult for us, both because we wanted to live a Jewish life of Torah and mitzvos and because we wanted to educate our children as Jews. In cities with established Jewish communities, the Jews, in mortal fear of the authorities, were even afraid to go to the beis knesses.

It was in 5692 (1932) that we decided to flee from Bukhara to Afghanistan and from there to Eretz Yisroel. In a letter I sent to my mother in Jerusalem I hinted at our arrival in rhyming verses. My mother then registered our names with the Jewish Agency so entry visas would be ready for us upon our arrival.

To outside observers we continued to live our lives as usual, but meanwhile we made preparations to flee the country.

We decided to make our escape separately. Some families had been caught trying to cross the border and all of the family members were executed. In 1933 Yitzchak and his parents made it across the Afghani border. I remained with the two children and moved to Karaki, a town on the Caspian Sea.

Alone in Bukhara

During the eight months I resided there I volunteered to assist other families that wanted to flee from Russian rule. I acted as a liaison between local guides and families planning to escape. This was an extremely dangerous endeavor, so it was done in complete secrecy. I would go from one house to the next, personally informing the families that the guide had arrived to take them across the border into Afghanistan.

Many other women also sent their husbands across the border first, to reduce the risk to their children. Later they had to send letters but did not know how to read and write. Therefore they would come to me and I would write the necessary instructions regarding transferring money and jewelry. These letters were highly confidential and of course were not sent by regular mail, but sent via private guides escorting people across the border.

Despite the great risk, I felt I was performing a great act of chesed by helping families in distress in their time of need. Connecting families separated by the border gave me a tremendous sense of satisfaction.

Eventually my turn to cross the border arrived as well. It was June of 1933 and I had already spent many months preparing to make my escape. We were too large a group to travel together: me, my two small children, Mrs. Meirov Hussani, wife of Chai, and her five children (ranging in age from one to twelve), Mrs. Hussani's sister-in-law Kolengi Hussani, my sister-in-law (Yitzchak's sister), who was young and single, and one of my relatives, a 15-year-old orphan named Nisan.

We provisioned ourselves with food and clothing. At the designated time in the afternoon, the guide sent his assistant to call us. To avoid raising suspicions he set out ahead of us and we plodded along behind him at a distance. We were supposed to follow him to a designated meeting point in a field and from there to continue by donkey.

Slowed by the small children under our care we arrived at the meeting spot three hours late. The way had been full of mud and sand. It was particularly difficult for the children to walk for such a long time. On one occasion the guide carried one of the small children to lighten our burden.

As evening approached we arrived at a thick forest and were swallowed up within. The guide gestured for us to sit beneath the trees to rest and await his return. We were extremely tense and apparently misunderstood him. He intended to return in the morning to continue with us, but we thought he would return after a short time.

We remained alone in the forest. We were near the main route used by people leaving the Soviet Union illegally. Not far away was a sidetrack on which military vehicles passed periodically. We were very afraid, but there was nothing for us to do other than to wait under the trees. We took out some food for the children. The hours passed and the exhausted children fell asleep.

Suddenly, around midnight, we heard footsteps approaching. We huddled together, knowing that in this remote spot if something happened nobody would rush to our aid. Eventually we made out two figures who turned out to be highway bandits who would waylay people trying to escape and rob them of the money and property they were carrying. The two bandits lit matches and saw us clearly. "Who are you?" they asked.

We told them we were a group of women and children trying to escape from Russia. Seeing there were no men with us they lit a large bonfire and pried us with questions in the firelight, trying to find out if we were carrying any valuable jewels. Eventually they gave up, disappointed.

Well aware of the danger of being ambushed in the forest we had coated our faces in advance, with a yellow cream that made us look old and wrinkled, donning plain clothes and old scarves on our heads. In general we had the appearance of aging, destitute grandmothers crying for bread. Assuming we had nothing worth stealing the bandits motioned for us to get up, for they intended to move us to a different location. We begged them to leave us there, saying the children were all sound asleep, but they would not listen and threatened to harm us.

Thoroughly frightened we roused the small children, who began crying out in fear and alarm. We hoped the sound of the children crying would attract the army personnel driving along the road nearby. The bandits also seemed to fear this might happen. They grew very angry and ordered us to hush the children immediately. They demanded we hand over all of our valuables -- gold, silver and jewelry.

The two women with me, who knew a bit of Uzbekistani, begged them to take pity on us, promising them we had nothing. In truth, under our outer garments we had hidden gold coins, jewelry and lists of articles that had been smuggled into Afghanistan. I was afraid they might search us so I preferred we not rise from where we were sitting.

We handed over some conspicuous items of value, cheap jewelry we were wearing, as well as some money we were carrying in our bags. The women with me looked helpless. I look broken and dispirited, too. In my heart I prayed to Hashem to save us by sending us a good idea for how to deal with our desperate situation and how to wrest ourselves from these dangerous bandits.

Suddenly I was struck by a thought, seemingly Heaven- sent. I fabricated a completely fictitious story to extricate us from this bind. I told the robbers we were waiting for three men to come -- our husbands -- who were scheduled to arrive in the morning carrying various valuables. I persuaded them to leave us there so they could catch the men with all of the valuable property.

My story appeared to have an effect on the bandits, but a dispute broke out among them. One of them decided everyone should remain here until the men arrived while the other one said we must be taken to another location. They must have planned either to take us to a nearby Uzbekistani village or to sell us as maidservants to Afghanis across the border.

Their argument lasted until 2:30 a.m. Meanwhile we were overcome with great apprehension, hoping for help to arrive in some form, but unable to see any rays of hope on the horizon. Eventually they decided to leave and return at 5:00 a.m. to await the arrival of the men and the promised valuables. The robbers warned us we would meet a bitter fate if we went anywhere or if my story proved false.

The instant the sound of their footsteps faded we got to work. A faint light of dawn was breaking, for during the summer it was light outside by 4:00 a.m. We decided to take our chances and to make a run for the main road, even if it meant being discovered by soldiers. We had no other choice, for the bandits would not hesitate to do as they pleased with us if they found out we had misled them.

We made our way to the road about two kilometers [just over a mile] away as fast as we could, prodding the small children along. The way was difficult and we came to the road panting for breath. Catching sight of the two bandits at a distance accompanied by two other men for reinforcement, we were again filled with anxiety. They had not been dissuaded and had decided to ambush the three men I had invented in my story. They could see us clearly but, afraid of being caught by the army, they did not dare approach the road. They were armed with hammers and axes.

While we were waiting on the road, along came a military vehicle. The soldiers soon understood we had been trying to flee across the border. One of the soldiers remained to guard us and the others went on to the army camp nearby. Ten minutes later a sealed military truck arrived and we were transported to the GPO facility in Karaki. There we were ordered to wait until about 8:00 a.m. when the senior officers would arrive to interrogate us.

While we waited, we took out the food and fed the children. I was afraid they would discover the gold coins, which would mean we could expect a severe punishment. I looked for a way to get rid of them.

Looking around I saw the building was not far from the house I had been living in. The room where we were being held was up one floor. The door was open and the children were permitted to come and go freely. I decided to take advantage of this and gave Nisan a kettle to fetch us some water. Then I whispered to him to go to our landlord's home and change into a different pullover there, because the coins were hidden inside it. The landlord's Jewish wife was a good friend of mine who knew Nisan and would be willing to help.

Nisan did as I asked him, taking along one of my sons without anyone taking note. Then I indicated to Nisan to wait, for I wanted to secretly remove the gold coins I was carrying and to smuggle them inside the kettle. Unfortunately, my sister- in-law also wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to unload a silk curtain she had hidden deep inside her bag. She took out the valuable cloth and at that moment the duty officer noticed the incident and angrily placed us in the inner courtyard and shut the door. This sealed our fate and marked the beginning of a string of suffering for us. Ironically, there was no prohibition against possessing silk.

The officers did not arrive until 9:00. The duty officer told them what had transpired and women were brought in to search our bags. They found nothing with Meirov Hussani and Kolengi Hussani, who were subsequently sent home with their respective children. I remained there with my sister-in-law and the three children. When it came time to search me they found seven gold coins imprinted with a portrait of Czar Nicholas. Possession of these coins was a serious offense, and trying to smuggle them out of the country was even worse. They also found jewelry and the list of articles that had been smuggled into Afghanistan. They confiscated all of these items, had me sign a statement and arrested me.

Not knowing what to do with me they contacted a high- ranking officer, who instructed them to release us and to have me report at the nearby police station every morning and evening. The GPO would not allow me to leave Karaki without permission while my trial was pending.

I was now in dire straits and was left with no money for the five of us to subsist on or any means of educating my children. As if that was not enough I was awaiting trial and was forbidden from traveling to relatives in another city to seek their help. Every day I would report twice a day at the GPO bureau and was told I would soon receive a summons.

During this entire time Yitzchak was waiting for me in the town of Safar in Afghanistan. He managed to send me a letter saying the Afghani authorities would soon be transporting all of the refugees to the capital city of Kabul and by the time I arrived there would no longer be any Jews there and I would be sold to the goyim as a maidservant. Meanwhile I was very anxious over the upcoming trial for the crime of smuggling gold coins and of course over the sentence I would receive.

A Desperate Attempt

Left with no alternative I made a very daring and risky move: I contacted a Jewish GPO agent who appeared to be working for the authorities against his will. He had a large family and lived nearby. I took my small children with me and went to his house at night so nobody would see us.

Opening the door slowly the wife of the Jewish GPO agent was astonished to see me at her doorstep--a mother set to stand trial. She felt sorry for me and convinced her husband to try to find a solution. He said he was familiar with my case, saying the day before he had been summoned to the GPO offices to translate from Bukharan to Russian the letters that had been confiscated from me. He added that if someone saw I had come to their home, he would be in real trouble.

He realized I wanted to avoid trial and flee the country to join my husband in Afghanistan. I asked him to help me in exchange for payment, but he refused to take anything from me, saying if I were sent to jail as could be expected he would smuggle in kosher food purchased with the money I left with him. Regarding my children the agent said he would not be able to help at all.

I went home in a state of despair. Unable to sleep, I contemplated my plight and what could be done. I did not have a single person to offer me advice and assistance. I was confined to the city of Karaki by court order and had to report to the office of the secret police twice per day. My funds began to run low and I had to borrow from other people to buy food on the black market. I promised to send money from Afghanistan and in my heart I prayed I would arrive there soon.

Meanwhile my husband Yitzchak was tense and worried. In his letters he kept asking why we were delayed and had not yet arrived in Afghanistan. I could not tell him the real reason, that I was anxiously awaiting my court date, unable to change the course of events unless I managed to cross the border.

An Opportunity

One week before Rosh Hashanah an incident took place that I saw as Hashgocho protis. Apparently my numerous tefillos and the tears I had shed penetrated into the Heavens. The head of the guides, a Turkmenistani named Najar Juma, secretly contacted my landlady asking if I knew of any Jews who wanted to cross the border. He had five strong horses ready to set out and he needed money. I saw in this chasdei Hashem and rachamim, and hoped this time I would succeed in making it across the border. I had my landlady tell Juma I would try to recruit the necessary number of people, but only on condition he add me and my children to the party.

The guide was strongly opposed to the idea, saying he never took women and children on horseback. He explained that a child could fall off one of the galloping horses and, because they would have to travel fast, there was no time to stop and search in the dark desert night. I persisted. Begging and pleading and already in tears I mentioned the sentence hanging over me. She translated everything to the guide and persuaded him to transport me across the border.

As I stood beside my landlady laying out my entreaties, suddenly a government agent who often passed on information about suspects entered the room. He, too, was a Jew.

I was struck with fear because the man knew my family and my righteous grandparents from the city of Bukhara, and I was afraid he would inform against me and turn me over to the authorities. Najar Juma was scared, too. A heavy silence fell. I knew that if the authorities heard about our plans, all of us would face execution.

Then Hashem put the right words in my mouth. I began to speak to the agent openly and to let him in on our secret. In any case I had nothing to lose. I began to tell him I intended to flee with my children to join my husband in Afghanistan and as a Jew he was commanded to help me.

He took a look at the guide and then said quietly, "I knew your holy forefathers. May their merit protect you and may no evil befall your family."

I took his words as a sign from Heaven to continue with my plan. Najar Juma calmed down and on that same day the date of the escape was set.

As I anxiously awaited the day of our departure a blow fell from a different direction: I received a summons to appear in at the GPO offices on a Friday at 10:00 a.m. I went straight to the home of the Jewish agent and told him I had decided to flee the country despite the summons, and had come to ask his advice. He grew very angry that I had dared to come to him and told me he was obligated to turn me over to the authorities. He also warned me that if I got caught this time I would be in a very bad situation.

I chose not to heed his warnings. Returning home I began preparing for my escape. Along with the other possessions I was carrying, I wrapped up a package containing five valuable seforim written by my grandfather, HaRav Shimon Chacham, that I wanted to save, for they were impossible to replace. I had to pay for this package separately because, as a rule, guides refused to transport heavy packages.

Over the course of time I had already sent a portion of our family's property to Anchoi, Afghanistan, and the rest would be left with neighbors in Karaki. I tried not to take along anything that would weigh us down, not even packages of food and clothing. Our guides provided bread and water for the journey.

Najar Juma decided we would set out Friday morning. The horses would be waiting for us at the designated meeting point. I did not tell him that my trial was scheduled for that same morning but I asked him to take my children with the rest of the party as planned and said I would join them on motzei Shabbos.

When the time came for us to part I hugged my children tight and broke out in tears. I told my sister-in-law about the trial awaiting me on the day of our escape and asked that they wait for me at the meeting point until 11:00 at night on motzei Shabbos. If I did not arrive by then it was a sign I had been taken into custody and that they should not wait but should continue on to Anchoi without me. I asked that my small children be brought to my husband. I told my oldest son, Yitzchak, to take care of himself and his younger sister and that be'ezras Hashem we would be together again.

As I parted from my children my heart cried out to the Ribono Shel Olom. I can still remember the heart- rending words that poured out of my mouth: "Ribono Shel Olom, at the age of 13 I lost my dear father zt'l. At the age of 19 I parted with my mother, who left Bukhara and returned to Jerusalem. At the age of 26 I parted with my husband Yitzchak, who crossed the border and is waiting for me in Afghanistan. All I have left is my two small children. They are my whole world. Please help make this parting a short separation, that I may once again see my children and that I make it over the border finally."

I told my children over and over again that they are Jews and I had them repeat their names and their parents' names. I was afraid of their falling into the hands of highway robbers lying in wait for refugees on both sides of the border. The children clung to me refusing to leave, but I urged them to set out on their way, promising to join them later. I had decided to delay my departure because I had to appear for trial at 10:00 a.m. and I knew that if I did not arrive at the court they would begin searching immediately and might block the border, which would mean all of us would get caught.

End of Part IV; Next week the final part: Reaching Jerusalem

About My Grandfather, HaRav Shimon Chacham, zt"l

In 1902 the Rothschilds sent a shaliach from Paris to Jerusalem carrying a peculiar object made of a fragile material resembling porcelain and shaped like a human thigh. On it was an ancient and ornate inscription. Baron Rothschild, known as a collector of art and antiques, sent this piece to experts in various parts of the world, all of whom were unable to decipher what it was and what was written on it.

The Rothschilds knew of my grandfather, R' Shimon Chacham, through his books and translations, which reached France as well. Therefore the Baron had decided to send the mysterious item to him via a specially designated shaliach. My grandfather spent several days scrutinizing the object and the writing on it, which eventually proved to be ancient Hebrew script.

Upon deciphering the writing, he determined that the object was in fact a bill of sale recognized among Persian Jews 900 years ago, during the time of King Pirdusi. During that period, when property was bought or sold the Jews would mold a porcelain image of a thigh on which they would record details of the transaction. The buyer, seller and witnesses would sign the edge of the porcelain piece. My grandfather explained to the shaliach that in ancient times, vows were taken by placing a hand on another person's thigh. Apparently this form of taking vows was preserved among Persian Jews even in the 10th century as a binding formulation in finalizing business deals.

My grandfather deciphered the ancient handwriting, translated it into standard Hebrew and even translated it into French, for which the Baron's emissary paid him three gold napoleons - - a handsome sum in those days.

The Rothschild family was happy over the discovery of the ancient custom and wanted to find a special way to thank my grandfather. They sent him a thank-you letter and another 20 gold napoleons. In the letter they asked him for a photograph.

Using the picture he sent, the Rothschilds prepared a printing block, which they sent to him asking that it be printed in his seforim. Since then the picture was printed in all of his seforim.

In 1974 the City of Jerusalem honored my request by naming a street after him in the Tel Arza neighborhood. Today it runs between Givat Moshe (Gush 80) and Bar Ilan Street.


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