Unsung Hero of the Month
Each month, we will identify an “Unsung Hero” - someone who, while living, made significant contributions to the Soviet Jewry Movement. This is my attempt to recognize and celebrate their efforts even though they are no longer with us
Reb Mendel Futerfas
Reb Mendel Futerfas passed away on July 2, 1995. He was a devote teacher of Chassidic Judaism and a leader in Chabad’s underground education system in the Soviet Union during the regimes of Stalin and Khrushchev. He was imprisoned in 1947 for his role in facilitating the repatriation of thousands of Soviet Jews to Poland. Futerfas’s story is chronicled in Chapter 2, “Chabad’s Clandestine Activities to Keep Judaism Alive.”
Like the Shagalows, tens of thousands of Jews escaped from Nazi-occupied areas of the Soviet Union to Samarkand and Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Among them was Reb Mendel Futerfas, who knew exactly what his fellow Jews needed – Jewish education for their youngsters. He was born near Minsk in 1907, and had studied and taught in underground yeshivas since 1925. In Samarkand he established of a network of cheders and a yeshiva that served hundreds of students.
When Polish citizens throughout the Soviet Union were allowed to be repatriated back to Poland at the end of World War II, Futerfas observed that the Uzbeki authorities were somewhat cursory in their scrutiny of Polish passports. It appeared that any scrap of paper written in Polish was acceptable. He therefore organized a committee of rabbis and launched a campaign to provide Soviet Jews with Polish documents, and with money and food for the 3,500-mile journey to Poland and religious freedom.
The committee functioned with utmost secrecy because if one of its members had been caught all of the Chassidim would have been in danger. The committee’s efforts kept the flow of repatriates orderly and by mid-1947 Reb Mendel and his associates had rescued 3,000 Jews, including his own wife and children. He then decided that it was time for him to forge a Polish passport and escape to Poland himself. But NKVD agents and armed soldiers boarded his train at the border, arrested him and took him back to Lvov.
When an NKVD officer gloated, “Now you are in our hands!” Futerfas paraphrased Zechariah 4:6 and declared, “Not with your might you arrested me and not with your power will you release me; God is in charge of everything.” For the next three months he was interrogated, tortured and threatened with death, but he would not reveal anything about his co-conspirators or the underground religious schools. He was sentenced to eight years of hard labor in Siberia. Upon arrival at the camp he informed the officers that he would not work on the Sabbath. They responded that they would do terrible things to him if he refused to work. He answered, “You can even kill me but on Shabbat I’m not working, no matter what!” The prison guards accepted his demands.
Futerfas also vowed not to eat non-kosher food even if that meant death. During his eight years in the labor camp there were times of extreme hunger and many prisoners died. Futerfas’s legs were so swollen that he feared for his life. When a barrel of fish arrived all the other prisoners were overjoyed but Futerfas checked to see if the fish were kosher. He noticed that the barrel was shiny and suspected that it might have been covered with non-kosher oil. Deciding whether to eat the fish was a soul-searching experience. His final decision was to not to eat it.
He was able to receive packages from home and use them as bribes to get easier work. Other Chabad rabbis who were imprisoned also had packages from relatives in the West and bribed guards to allow them to hold High Holy Day services. Chabad Rabbi Moshe Greenberg, put to work building an electric power plant in a Siberian labor camp, befriended a civilian engineer who was Jewish and willing to smuggle a prayer book into the camp and lend it to him until Yom Kippur. Greenberg copied the book by hand and when he was released after Stalin’s death, years later, the handwritten prayer book was Greenberg’s most prized possession. Ultimately, after emigrating from Russia, he presented it to the Rebbe in New York.
Futerfas had a remarkable Yom Kippur experience in his labor camp. A tall and ferocious-looking guard approached him and asked, “Are you fasting today?” Futerfas couldn’t deny it and the guard then said, “So am I. Ten days ago I heard you singing a tune that my father used to sing when he took me to the synagogue. It must have been Rosh Hashanah so I counted ten days until today, Yom Kippur, and now I’m fasting too.” Futerfas acknowledged his new friend by singing the hymn, V’Chol Ma’aminim (“All believe”) from the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Futerfas was released in 1955 and went to Moscow. Still clad in his prison uniform, he went to the apartment of Reb Moshe Katzenelbogen, an original member of the Samarkand repatriation committee. Futerfas asked Katzenelbogen for money – not to buy clothes, food or housing for himself, but to establish an underground yeshiva in Chernowitz (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine). Futerfas settled in Chernowitz with the funds he needed, established the yeshiva and applied to emigrate to reunite with his family in England.
Eight years later he was allowed to emigrate to England, thanks to an appeal for family repatriation made by prime minister Harold Wilson during his summit meeting in Moscow with Chairman Nikita Khrushchev. Futerfas later settled in Kfar Chabad, Israel, where he taught Chassidut and was referred to as a mashpiya (mentor, literally: one who influences). He died there in 1995 at the age of eighty-seven.