Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

24 Cheshvan 5763 - October 30, 2002 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Jews of Bukhara

by C. Ofek

Part II: The Bolsheviks Come to Central Asia

"Exile is not good for exiles," says 95-year-old Shulamit Tilayov. "Yet leafing through the annals of the Jews of Bukhara can be a heartbreaking experience. Splendor alongside the great suffering and hardships that would strike mercilessly. Sometimes tranquility would descend upon our lives, then once again the storm waves would come sweeping through, leaving us vulnerable to the blows of a foreign country."

This series on the recent history of the Jews of Bukhara is based on the recollections of Mrs. Tilayov. Her family came from Bukhara to Israel, where Mrs. Tilayov was born, but her family returned to Bukhara when she was young. She married in 1924.

The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 did not have an immediate effect on the distant provinces of Central Asia under Russian rule, like Bukhara. The Jews, like the other ethnic groups, were happy to see the Czar fall, but their happiness proved short-lived. The revolution and Bolshevik soldiers eventually arrived in Central Asia and turned their placid world upside- down.

The situation became horrendous. Faithful to the Communist tradition, the soldiers drove merchants out of their homes and confiscated their property. Some were executed or sent to Siberia. Large factories, fields and stores were immediately nationalized. Personal safety declined as battles erupted between different segments of the population and the number of highway robbers increased. Chaos prevailed in all areas of Russian rule. Within a short time there were food shortages and the black market flourished.

In Kukand, 85 Jews were killed. Afterwards many Jews fled from Bolshevik areas to areas held by the Bukharan emirate, which maintained power over certain areas of Bukhara until the Red Army conquered them at the end of 1920.

On the 18th of Elul, 5680 (1920), when the Bolsheviks captured the city of Bukhara where we were living, they arrested my father who had had close ties with the former rulers, along with several other distinguished members of the Jewish community. The Bolsheviks sentenced him to death and, eight days later, on Shabbos, he was scheduled to be executed together with Yaakov Meir Loyoff (Pakir) and five Muslims who also had close ties with the Czar's government.

They were brought outside of the city and a large grave was dug. The firing squad shot my father first. The bullet hit him in the shoulder, merely wounding him. But he fell into the pit and pretended to be dead. After the other six men were killed, the members of the firing squad threw their bodies on top of my father, poured plaster over them and covered the pit with dirt.

My father, the tzaddik, was saved by a miracle. When all was quiet he began to dig with his good arm and, through tremendous exertions, he managed to crawl out from beneath the six corpses.

Upon emerging from the pit, he strained to wave at a farmer working his land nearby. The farmer, who had seen the executions earlier, was dumbfounded to see a man rise up from the grave. Undecided as to whether it was an angel or a man of flesh and blood, the frightened farmer crept towards him very slowly. After drawing near, he recognized Mullah Cohen immediately, brought him home and administered first aid.

That motzei Shabbos, my father gave the farmer a letter to send to his brother, Rav Chizkiyah Hacohen, who also lived in the city of Bukhara. After receiving the letter he summoned his younger brother, Mullah Rachamim, and sent him to bring the medicine my father needed, as well as money and food.

That Monday and Tuesday were Rosh Hashonoh and the two brothers spent the chag at the Muslim farmer's home in the village nearby.

The next day they set out on camelback for Afghanistan. During their journey, when night began to fall that Friday, they stopped and camped along the way to avoid chilul Shabbos.

The next day my father told his brother he felt the time had come for him to leave This World. He blessed his brother and made him swear to give him a Jewish burial in Bukhara alongside his forefathers. Then he began to say Krias Shema and his pure soul departed as he said the word, "echad."

On motzei Shabbos Shuva my uncle Rachamim buried his brother in the sand and erected a marker to help him find the grave upon his return.

After Yom Kippur, Rachamim retraced his steps but was unable to locate the grave. Raising his eyes heavenward he said, "My brother, my brother. You made me swear I would bury you with your forefathers. Please, may I find your gravesite."

His prayer was answered and soon he saw the gravesite nearby, in a spot where he had not noticed it previously. He unearthed my father's body and found it was intact. Loading the corpse onto the camel he transported it to Bukhara, and on the first day of Chol Hamoed Succos 5681 (1920) my uncle Rachamim carried out my father's final request, after going to great lengths to do chessed shel emes.

However, Muslim informers saw the burial and reported it to the authorities. My uncle was later arrested and executed on the second of Adar I 5681.

About My Father

My beloved father, Rav Pinchas Cohen Rabin, was born in 5628 (1868) and eventually served as head of the community. His father, HaRav Yitzchak Chaim Cohen Rabin, had been the chief rabbi and av beis din of the Bukhara District, and was the son of HaRav Pinchas Hagadol Cohen Rabin (known as Pinchas Hagadol).

My father always staunchly defended members of his community from pressure exerted by the government authorities. He had close ties with the Emir's court and had considerable influence on government officials.

I still recall how it was once decreed that the Jews must complete work on the fencing surrounding Bukhara's cemetery. My father became involved in the affair and managed to have the decree cancelled.

During the years 1911-1912, my father was able to reverse a decree banning shechitoh in the city of Sheharsbaz. He prevented a disaster by persuading the Emir to expel hundreds of Afghanis who were severely harassing the Jews.

My father also helped his Jewish brethren following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. The Bolsheviks had not yet reached Bukhara and the Emir managed to keep the revolution at bay for three years, but local revolutionaries threatened to depose him. He ordered a series of arrests of young revolutionaries, and police mistook two Jews trying to flee Bukhara for insurrectionists. Police arrested them at the train station and soldiers dragged them to the royal palace in empty flour sacks. The king was convinced of their innocence and granted them a pardon. When taken out of the flour sacks they were emaciated, exhausted and injured from the blows they had taken. My father's intervention saved them from certain death.

The Muslim rulers had never been kind to the Jews of Bukhara. There was always someone plaguing them, whether high officials or simple folk. The Emir, however, admired my father's merciful personality and leadership and held him in high esteem, awarding him ten prizes and medals of honor over the years, including a cloak of fine cloth (called a jama) and gold medals bearing the royal seal.

The Rule of the Communists

Terrible epidemics spread around the country when the Bolsheviks took over. Hundreds of Jews died of hunger and disease. The government concealed the high mortality rate and prohibited doctors from revealing the true causes of death.

The economic situation became unbearable, particularly for the Jews. The Bolshevik government instituted Jewish kolkhozes (collective farms) and, although well aware that the Jews lacked experience in agriculture, the rulers intentionally imposed large sowing quotas, beyond their ability to meet.

This policy effectively drove the Jews off the kolkhozes, forcing them to face a fate of hunger and suffering. Many were unable to pay the high taxes placed upon them. When the harsh Bukharan winter arrived, they were left with no heating and no money to buy food.

Meanwhile, the government began to ration bread and other staples. Government or factory workers received ration books at their place of employment, allowing them to scrape by. Yet many people who did not work-- including the elderly and the sick--were left with no food to eat. They collapsed in the city streets and died of starvation. Others, wandering around hungry and exhausted, would lie down to rest, fall asleep and freeze to death overnight. The government sent special units to collect the dead from the streets every morning.

The Revolution caused even greater spiritual harm. One by one, the Bolsheviks closed talmudei Torah, chadorim and botei knesses, converting them into museums, hospitals or other public facilities. At a certain point, it suddenly dawned upon Jewish community leaders that Jewish life as they knew it-- educational institutions, tzedokoh and chessed organizations, shechitoh and kashrus bodies--would have to be liquidated and turned into underground operations.

Under these difficult circumstances a closely united group of rabbonim, talmidim of HaRav Eliezerov, worked indefatigably, dedicating their lives to the task of preserving Jewish identity. Their mesirus nefesh for the sake of Bukharan Jewry knew no bounds. They continued these devoted efforts despite facing persecution, interrogations, extended arrests, torture and deportation for their activities.

These rabbonim maintained secret Jewish infrastructures in every Bukharan city. One thousand talmidim studied in the country's unofficial talmudei Torah. Mikvo'os were maintained, and kashrus and shechitoh supervision continued uninterrupted.

Yet meanwhile, the Communists were growing more and more powerful. The war against religion in general, and Judaism in particular, reached new heights. Rabbonim were frequently arrested and sent to Siberia without a trial.

The more underground Torah-based institutions developed, the more the notorious General Protection Organization (NKVD) was enraged and redoubled its efforts to battle the religious "offenders," most of whose activities were classified as subversive according to Communist law.

On Pesach Day 5688 (1928), upon completion of a campaign to gather criminal evidence, a wide wave of arrests took place around the country. Suspected Jewish activists were taken to interrogation centers where they were tortured and punished in public view "for the people to hear and see."

From that point onward, Jewish activists had to take tremendous precautions in their efforts to maintain Jewish life in the shadow of these harsh decrees. Furthermore, secular Jews who sympathized with the Bolsheviks appeared on the scene, encouraging locals to join them in closing the remaining botei knesses and turn them into clubs. Local Jews buckled under this pressure, managing to keep only two botei knesses operating.

Rabbonim who were not arrested or deported continued to watch over their flock. Some continued to deliver droshos on Shabbos in the botei knesses despite the personal risk involved, while others operated only surreptitiously.

The Bolsheviks did not relent. They contacted the heads of the kehilloh, ordering all religious activity stopped. In 1925, my uncle, HaRav Chizkiyah Rabin, the Chief Rabbi of Bukhara was told to discontinue his religious activities, which allegedly constituted anti- government incitement. Spies were sent to listen to his droshos and eventually he was summoned to the offices of the secret police for an interrogation. Nevertheless, he continued his work. Four years later he was arrested and jailed for one year. Upon his release, when he learned they wanted him dead, he fled to Afghanistan.

Yet the authorities were still not content. They closed the botei knesses still in operation, using them to house "cultural institutions." All of their contents -- siddurim, tallisos, tefillin and other tashmishei kedushoh -- were confiscated.

During this trying period following the Revolution, Zionist- socialist activists from Eretz Yisroel arrived in Bukhara to provide "mutual assistance and help for the needy."

Before Stalin's rise to power, Bolshevik policy encouraged Zionist-socialist activity among the Jews. In general they imposed Communism on all ethnic groups and minorities, but did not expunge the culture of any people or tribe. (Stalin, on the other hand, sought to erase all traces of ethnicity in all the lands under his control, and this policy remained until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1980s.)

Thus, they permitted Hebrew schools set up for the study of "Hebrew culture" -- as long as it was consistent with socialist doctrine -- combined with professional training programs. Meanwhile, the Zionist envoys began to persuade the Jews of Bukhara that aliya to the land of their forefathers would put an end to the suffering of Golus.

The Jews of Bukhara were weakened, persecuted and tormented and many of their rabbonim had been sent to Siberia or executed. Most religious functions were left in the hands of simple baalei batim. The Zionists sent to Bukhara were adept at organization and persuasion, which allowed them to make headway into every area of Jewish life. Meanwhile Bukharan Jews, who had no experience in organizing structured activity, found themselves unable to resist the influence of these foreign Jews.

The Zionists succeeded in promoting the establishment of various movements. They founded a Zionist center and offered economic assistance. The band of envoys, headed by Herzfeld, Pavezner and Valinsky, initiated several programs that had a major impact on the vulnerable kehilloh. Their plays were generally based on Biblical themes and their song lyrics typically centered on Jerusalem, expressing deep yearning to go there and cling to the holy stones of the Kosel in tefilloh.

The leading activity at community centers was evening courses in Hebrew, which drew a large number of participants. Everyone wanted to learn Hebrew, to familiarize himself with life in Eretz Yisroel and to prepare for the long-awaited moment when he would go on aliya. These activities introduced new, secular values, undermining the observance of Torah and mitzvos.

In their innocenc, the Jews of Bukhara were drawn to the Zionists' efforts to spur their yearning for Eretz Yisroel. Almost every single family took part in their activities. Every time I returned from the Hebrew classes my mother would praise the organizers, saying their projects helped forge bonds between different families. (Typically Bukharan Jews strictly maintained their privacy, hardly mixing with other families. In many cases matches were made between cousins for this reason.)

Another popular project was the Zion Co-op. The Revolution and the war drove up the prices of food staples and many became completely unavailable. Even everyday items such as sugar cubes and green tea could be obtained only on the black market at exorbitant prices. The authorities approved the setup of the Zion Co-op, which allowed us to purchase food at reasonable prices. The goyim followed suit, setting up cooperative associations of their own. Out of 45 co-ops set up in Central Asia at the time, six or seven were run by Jews, despite a much smaller proportionate representation in the general population.

The Chalutz organization also established roots in Bukhara. The Chalutz movement was centered in Russia and its primary activity was to pave the way for Jews who wanted to move to and settle in Eretz Yisroel. The organizers concealed their goal from the authorities, presenting themselves as "groups of agricultural workers." Due to the serious hunger prevailing in the Soviet Union during this period, the Soviet Union encouraged their activities in the hope that they might improve crop production.

Part of the organization's agenda -- to transform the Golus Jew into a "productive" socialist, i.e. hard- working farmer whose "religion" would be tilling the soil -- was hidden from Jewish participants as well. The Bolsheviks, who also wanted to eradicate religion, were glad to promote Chalutz endeavors.

At first Bukhara's Jews did not join the Chalutz Movement. Fathers attached importance to their sons' Torah studies, hoping they would gain chochmoh, and work as mohalim, shochtim or dayonim. If not, they generally became merchants. Agricultural work was hardly the type of work Bukharan Jews aspired to, to say the least.

But the Zionists knew exactly what they were doing. At the end of 1924, they held an impressive Chalutz Movement gathering in Samarkand, generating an atmosphere of pride in the fact that it was a Jewish event. This approach succeeded in elevating Jewish spirits. The organizers also made a point of displaying religious symbols at the event, which helped them lure in thousands of Jews.

The mainstay of the event was a resolution passed by a sweeping majority: "In consideration of the physical and economic decline among Bukharan Jews, the Jews see as the only viable solution a return to affirmative work and the creation of agricultural groups organized by the Chalutz Movement." The authorities were delighted. It offered a solution to the Jews' problem as well as problems facing the agricultural industry.

The Zionists' primary and most influential activity in Bukhara was the setting up of Hebrew schools endorsed by the government and run by Agudat Chovevei Sefat Ha'Ivrit, which was headed by Avraham Emanueli. These schools were a smashing success. After the authorities had been hounding talmudei Torah and other forms of Torah study for years, most families had no real option other than to enroll their children in these schools. I was enrolled there as well.

We learned the local language, Russian and Hebrew, arithmetic, drawing, gymnastics, geography and choir singing. There were 25 girls in my class, all of whom were highly motivated, particularly since the teachers said our studies were ideal preparation for aliya and acclimatization in Israel.

Once, we were asked by our Hebrew teacher to write an essay on Jerusalem. Having been born there, I depicted its majestic sights, its streets, houses, and most of all, the Kosel -- the remnant of the Beis Hamikdash.

Suddenly I was seized by a powerful surge of emotion. Tears streamed down my cheeks. The teacher came over and asked if something was bothering me. I said no and told her that for me Jerusalem was not an abstraction but a very real place and an enchanted dream of mine.

One of the plays our school held was about Yosef and his brothers. One day, the teacher asked me to join her after class. My mother agreed and I went with the teacher to the new neighborhood where most of the Jewish community was living. We went into the home of Abba Yehudayov, which had been confiscated by the government and converted into a cultural center. Inside was a hall big enough to accommodate 200 people.

When we arrived I was surprised to see a band and about 40 young people already gathered there. There was a tremendous din of excitement. When I entered the teacher raised her hand and announced, "Here is who will play the leading role, Yosef."

I was familiar with the story from my grandfather's translations and the play held great appeal. Yet I hesitated because I did not want to take the role away from other girls who might have been vying for it. The teachers convinced me that nobody else was being robbed of the part and that as a Jerusalem native, I was the most suitable candidate. They also told me the admission fees would go toward a fund to help Jewish schools.

The rehearsals and production plans lasted an entire month. An artist was specially commissioned to paint fabulous backdrops depicting Jerusalem and Chevron, Kever Rochel and other kivrei ovos, and panoramas featuring olive trees and Galile forests.

The teachers received permission from the Department of Education and Culture to bring elaborate costumes from the royal palace, seized by the Soviet authorities following the Revolution. We were given authentic royal garb, magnificent clothes embroidered with gold and silver. I wore a fine velvet tunic, dark blue, tailored according to the highest standards of European fashion. The collar and sleeves were embroidered with gold and the body of the tunic was decorated with gold and adorned with splendid images. Around the fringe was a gold necklace with little bells that made a pleasant sound with each step.

The performance was to be held at a large hall downtown. All tickets had already been sold out for weeks. The play turned out to be a raging success. The audience of women was enthralled, particularly by the settings, with their landscapes of Eretz Yisroel. The experience heightened our yearning for the Holy Land and the teachers made efforts to fix these feelings deep in our hearts.

End of Part II


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