Shabbat In Lvov
Batya, the group is leaving on the train tonight," Rabbi Pinchas Sudak said to his wife.
He spoke in a whisper, even though there was no one present in the privacy of their home.
In Soviet Russia of the 1940's, where spies, informers or the secret police could be hidden in any corner -- where it was said that the walls themselves have ears -- precaution and secrecy was part of the fabric of their lives. One could never be too careful, and all the more so with the perilous topic at hand.
Batya was well aware of the meaning behind the emphasis in her husband's words and of the potential for hope that they held. The Sudaks were temporarily settled in Lvov, a city near the Polish border. They had chosen this location to plot their getaway from the Soviet Union. They had recently obtained forged documents which would allow them to pose as Polish citizens and board the train crossing the border into freedom.
The group Pinchas was referring to were families of fellow Lubavitcher chassidim who, together with him, had planned this bold escape. Should the group be caught and their papers examined more closely, it would mean immediate imprisonment and most probably a death sentence for each of them. It was a risk, though, which they felt they had to take.
"But tonight is Friday night, Pinchas," Batya voiced her protest.
"It is pikuach nefesh (an issue of life and death)," Pinchas answered tersely but decisively.
Batya was well aware that violating the Shabbat was permitted if it involved saving one's
life. She knew all too well that this situation would be classified as life-threatening, and traveling was unquestionably acceptable.
"Yes, of course," she replied, her voice faltering. "But how can we? After all that we've been through to uphold the sanctity of Shabbat and to keep the mitzvot, should we desecrate it now? At this point?" she paused, hesitantly.
"It is a dangerous trip. We could be paying with our lives," she argued. "How can we undertake it on the holy day of Shabbat?
"No!" Batya concluded, greater determination now evident in her voice. "We will not travel tonight."
"We'll miss the train and traveling with our group," Pinchas objected. "There may not be another opportunity..."
"No," Batya was adamant. "We will not travel. I will go and tell them."
Before any doubt could seep in and cause her determination to waver, Batya headed rapidly down the steps of her home, towards the front door. In her haste, however, she missed the last step and landed on the floor, her foot badly twisted. She cried out in pain and Pinchas was immediately at her side. He helped her to a chair and raised her leg. Within moments the foot ballooned out and became a large swollen mass.
Thus the decision was made for the Sudaks. With Batya's swollen ankle, it would be impossible for them to make the journey.
The Sudaks observed that Shabbat as they did every other one -- with as much joy and calm as they could muster. They would not allow any doubt or uncertainty about their future to mar the sanctity of the holy day.
It wouldn't be until several days later that the Sudaks learned the fate of the others with whom they had almost departed.
That Friday night, the families in the group boarded the train as scheduled, carrying their false documents and all their worldly possessions. The adult members of the group each breathed a deep sigh of relief as they crossed the Russian-Poland border. But their relief was short-lived. A new danger awaited them.
A group of armed bandits suddenly attacked the train. The passengers pleaded with the robbers to spare their lives. "Take all our money and possessions," they implored, "just allow us to live."
The passengers was fortunate that the bandits seized their belongings but consented not to kill them all. Many hours later, the group finally arrived in their destination in Lodz, Poland. They were thankful to be alive but were penniless and destitute, having lost all of their life's savings.
Back in Lvov, at the close of Shabbat, the Sudaks began once again making new plans for their escape. They received news that another train had become available and would be departing the following Tuesday night. Batya's foot was, by now, completely healed and the Sudaks made the necessary arrangements to board this train.
Batya and Pinchas and their three children arrived uneventfully in Lodz, grateful to have escaped from the Soviet Union and to have successfully completed this part of their journey towards freedom.
Batya's injured foot and the merit of the holy day of Shabbat had saved them from a terrifying and life-threatening ordeal and enabled them to keep their money and valuables, which would be so vital for their survival in a foreign land. Batya and Pinchas couldn't help but think how true it was that "more than the Jewish people have kept the
Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.
One of the children on that fatefully delayed train ride was my mother, Rebbetzin Batsheva Schochet, the oldest of the three Sudak children. Years later, she would serve, together with her husband, as the first Chabad emissaries sent to vitalize the Toronto Jewish community. Like her siblings, Batya's and Pinchas' other children, she has devoted her life to what her parents struggled so hard to uphold, helping others to discover the beauty and magic of Shabbat and the Jewish traditions.