Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (the Rebbe Rayatz), was arrested by agents of the GPU (Soviet Secret Police) and Yevsketzia (“Jewish section” of the Communist Party) shortly after midnight of the 15th of Sivan of 5687. He was accused of dispatching teachers and rabbis to the farthest reaches of the Soviet Empire, establishing a vast underground network of schools, mikvaos, and lifelines of material and spiritual support.
From the memoirs of the Rebbe Rayatz:
– Tuesday night, the 14th of Sivan, 5687 (June 14, 1927). It was already twelve o’clock at night, shortly after I had concluded receiving people for private audiences. It was my custom to receive people for these audiences three times a week — Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. The meetings were scheduled for the hours of seven until ten at night, but usually extended for an hour or two more, particularly during the summer months, due to the many visitors. This particular night these sessions extended until half past eleven.
The prayers were scheduled for three fixed times during the course of the day. After the morning prayers we would recite a segment of the Psalms as divided according to the days of the month. I had established this recitation on the basis of a personal unrevealed reason and had requested all members of the Chabad movement throughout the world to adopt this practice in their respective synagogues. Thus, by following this recitation every day, they would finish the book of Psalms once monthly. After the daily recitation they were to recite Mourner’s Kaddish. Praise G‑d that this practice was widely adopted, and fortunate is their lot both materially and spiritually. For those following this practice my request persists to the present day; in the morning there should be a regular study session in Mishnayot, between Minchah-the afternoon prayer-and Maariv-the evening prayer, a study session of Aggadah and at night, a class in Talmud. On this occasion many people had come. I began the audiences with the chassidim at the regular time and concluded at 11:30.
I then prayed the evening prayer with a quorum group that assembled in my home thrice daily for public prayer. I was weary and exhausted from my tasks and also deeply distressed because of my recent communication with Rabbi Dovid Tevel Katzenelenbogen [the Chief Rabbi of Leningrad], in which I opposed the General Assembly planned by Leningrad’s communal leaders…
… Thus weary, I washed my hands in the traditional manner for the evening meal with the members of my household a few moments after twelve o’clock. About twenty minutes had passed when the doorbell rang forcefully. The door was opened, and two men burst into the dining room shouting: “We are representatives of the G.P.U. Who is Schneersohn? And where is he?” As they spoke, a contingent of armed men entered after them and stood in a line awaiting their commands.
I answered calmly and clearly: “I do not know which Schneersohn you seek. If you enter someone’s home, surely you know in advance who dwells there, and this drama is pointless. Deliver your message and clearly state your wishes. The building superintendent, who knows the identity of all the people in this house, is here with you. What need is there for this clamor and disruption?”
Thus began the incredible story of the imprisonment and liberation of the Rebbe Rayats.
For his activities to preserve Judaism throughout the Soviet empire the Rebbe Rayats was initially sentenced to death, G-d forbid. International pressure forced the Soviets to commute the sentence to exile and, subsequently, to release him completely.
On Tamuz 3, 5687, the Rebbe Rayatz left the prison and went to his place of exile, the city of Kostroma. He did not stay long in the city: on the 12th of the month of Tamuz, less than a month after his arrest, on the day of the Rebbe’s 47th birthday, he was finally released. Ever since the days of 12-13 Tammuz are celebrated as an annual “festival of liberation”.
Following the liberation, the Rebbe Rayatz left the Soviet Union in the month of Tishrey, 5687. He first lived first in Riga, Latvia, and later in Warsaw and Otvotzk, Poland. Finally in the year of 5700 he arrived in New York. After disembarking from the ship on the 9th of Adar Bet, 5700, the Rebbe Rayatz famously declared: “America is nit andersh” – “America is no different”, declaring that meaningful Jewish life could thrive here as well.
In his public address on Sivan 15, 5748, the Rebbe emphasizes: events that seem to be tragic at the outset, may turn out to be an ultimate and revealed blessing. The imprisonment of the Rebbe Rayats is just this kind of a story. Harsh as it was in the beginning, it brought light for the entire post-war generation of the Jewish people and the generation that followed.
In the Rebbe’s view:
– The event that took place on the night of Sivan 15 affected not only the Rebbe Rayats himself. It’s meaningful for every person in our generation. Just as with many other events in the life of a leader, the influence of this event is encompassing, in accordance with the rule of the Torah: “The Nasi (head of the generation) includes everyone”…
… At first, only the negative side could be seen in what was happening. As you know, many people prayed and asked for the cancellation of the decree.
But as time passed, the brighter side of the story became obvious. We are now able to see the great deliverance it resulted in.
As a result of the arrest (followed by the liberation), the Rebbe Rayatz was able to leave that country with his family, with his books and with his property (which, according to the laws of the country, would have been impossible if not for his imprisonment).
Subsequently, he was able to come to the place where he could lead a lifestyle allowing him to pursue the work of his life. Including the core part of it – the “dissemination of the Torah’s wellsprings”, spreading the knowledge of the “inner” dimension of the Torah and Jewish knowledge in general. And all this – without bounds and restrictions, with a constant expansion and increase in light – something we can appreciate even today…
More on the topic: The new scope of work: How the Rebbe Rayatz brought the inner dimension of the Torah to the whole world.