The year was 1939. The Second World War had been raging for some months. The Jews in the Soviet Union, like the Jews the world over, were not yet aware of the horrendous events transpiring across the border in Poland, where the wholesale slaughter and genocide of their brethren by the barbaric Nazi murderers was already underway.
Pinchas Sudak, who was living in Russia, had no idea that within a few short years entire communities would be wiped out. But he suspected that something was amiss.
There were ominous signs emerging from Poland, as more and more Polish Jews began fleeing that country, even preferring to arrive within the dreaded Soviet Union than to remain in their homeland. Men, women and children were seeking refuge, hoping merely for the gift of life. Respected communal leaders, wealthy philanthropists and ordinary people from all walks of life had become wanderers overnight, seeking asylum and a roof over their heads and some nourishment for their empty stomachs.
These Polish Jewish refugees would arrive at train stations in Russia, with nothing left from their worldly possessions except for the small suitcases clutched in their arms. They arrived in this hostile land, where the language and customs were strange to them, with not a friend in the world and knowing no one to whom they could turn.
The Soviet government reacted to their guests with typical suspicion and cruelty. Under the ruse of their being possible “enemies of the state,” the government forbade any contact with these foreigners. The refugees would sleep in the open stations, exposed to the elements, awaiting deportation to frigid Siberia. Any Russian citizen communicating with these “foreign spies” would be threatened and penalized with imprisonment.
In such a climate of desperation, Pinchas and Batya Sudak opened up their home. To them it was simply unthinkable to desert one’s brethren in such a time of need, and they actively and resolutely sought out these refugees, despite the very personal danger.
Several times a week Pinchas traveled to the train station along with his eldest daughter, Batsheva. He wrote out a note in Yiddish, briefly stating, “If you want a warm meal, come to . . .” with the exact address and directions to his home.
“Batsheva, approach the Polish children as if you are looking at their strange clothing,” Pinchas instructed his daughter.
The Polish refugees wore different clothing, and tucked their pants into their socks, a custom considered bizarre in Russia. It wouldn’t arouse suspicion if a young child approached these children out of curiosity.
“Hand them this note, and we will have the mitzvah of helping our fellow Jews.”
Though only about seven years old, Batsheva understood the implications of her actions. Deftly and courageously, she would slip the note to the youngsters, acting like a curious child who had mischievously wandered away from her father.
The Polish Jews were immensely grateful for this extended lifeline. One by one they would slip away and come to the Sudak home, to be greeted warmheartedly with a nourishing meal and a place to rest.
On some Friday nights, so many refugees arrived at the Sudak home that a few had to sleep on the floor, for lack of any other space. Occasionally, if the police would make a
routine check, Pinchas warned his guests to exit rapidly through the back doors or windows, as he went to open up the front door, feigning innocence.
Pinchas understood the risk to his family’s lives and security. But there was no question in his mind, or that of his wife, Batya, that this was their duty.
One time, among the group of Polish Jews who found their way to the Sudak home there was one particular individual who stood out from the rest. He wore a beautiful and expensive fur-lined coat and, unlike so many of the downtrodden refugees, he had an aura of confidence about him and carried himself like a distinguished person.
Pinchas was pleased to host him during their Friday night meal and spent time conversing with him. He noticed, however, that his wife Batya seemed uncomfortable with him. She was hastily putting away their expensive dishes and silverware, which usually graced the
Sudak Shabbat table.
Towards the end of the meal, the individual asked to remain in the Sudak home for the night. Seeing his wife’s discomfort, Pinchas slipped into the kitchen for a private consultation with her. He was certain that, as always, Batya would be happy to open their home to this respected individual.
“Absolutely not,” was Batya’s forceful response to her husband’s question. “Not him! He may not sleep in our home.”
Pinchas was astounded by this reaction, so contrary to his wife’s usual generous spirit. He tried to dissuade her at first, but seeing her strong stance, regretfully explained to his guest that since his wife was not feeling well, it would not be possible for him to stay with them overnight.
At the end of the meal, Pinchas accompanied his guest to the door. He helped him with his coat and walked him out towards the street.
When Pinchas returned his face was an ashen white. “How did you know?” he asked Batya incredulously.
“What happened?” Batya responded.
“As I lifted our guest’s coat, I felt something hard inside. I could discern the shape of three large knives. The man was an impostor! A robber! I pretended that I hadn’t noticed his weapons and respectfully walked him out towards the street. Had we let him stay overnight, he certainly would have killed us all and robbed our home!” The words were tumbling from Pinchas’s mouth and he paused for a moment, thinking about the disastrous implications. “But how were you able to tell?”
“I just sensed something about him I didn’t like,” Batya answered simply.
The merit of the Sudaks’ hachnasat orchim (hospitality) allowed them no harm.
This unfortunate scare, however, did not prevent the Sudaks from continuing to host their brethren and continuing to assist them even after they left their home.
Pinchas made inquiries about the fate of several Polish Jews whom he had hosted, and learned that they had been sent to Siberia. Regularly he sent food packages to as many
family names as he could remember. He knew how invaluable these packages would be for them. For his own and his family’s safety, he did not write from whom these packages originated, nor his return address.
One time Pinchas did receive a letter back from a Polish Jew who realized that he was the benefactor. He thanked Pinchas for his benevolence and explained to him how “we shared your generous food with another member of your group who was slowly starving to death. This individual reminded us that in two weeks is the 19th day of Kislev.” These veiled words were a reference to the chassidic holiday of “Yud-Tes Kislev,” a day commemorating the first Chabad Rebbe’s liberation from Soviet prison.
Though Pinchas never found out his identity, he was gratified to learn that he had saved the life of a fellow Chabad chassid. Some nameless individual who was imprisoned due to his “anti-communist” work in spreading Yiddishkeit and Chassidism, and teaching it to young children, was saved due to his efforts.
On another occasion the Sudaks hosted an individual who, despite his modest demeanor, had a regal bearing and refined features, and was well versed in all areas of Torah. Immediately Pinchas sensed that this was a special person, and invited him to remain in his home for as long as he needed. The man, Hirsh-Melech, however, hesitated, seeing that he had no money to pay for this generosity.
Pinchas convinced him to stay by offering that Hirsh-Melech tutor his young son, Nachman, in exchange for the hospitality. Relieved with this offer, Hirsh-Melech agreed and remained for almost two years in the Sudak home.
Several years later, after the Sudak family had escaped from Russia and were settled in Israel, a large entourage of chassidim drove up to their home. The rebbe of this group, dressed in his regal clothing, knocked on the Sudak door and greeted the family warmly.
He explained to Pinchas that he had to come in person to visit them and to thank them for the kindness that they had extended to him when he had arrived, a penniless refugee, in the Soviet Union back in 1939.
Pinchas welcomed him in and, turning to Batsheva, asked if she recognized the man.
How could she not? It was none other than the unassuming “Hirsh-Melech.”