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Missing In Action

Ruchama Paz

Decades after the mysterious disappearance of Moscow’s Rav Shmaryahu Yehuda Leib Medalia in 1938, his fate still remained a mystery. For the last twenty years, Moscow’s current chief rabbi, Rav Pinchas Goldschmidt, has been digging. Would he succeed in unearthing the mystery? Newly released records about the NKVD and Stalin’s reign of terror provided Rabbi Goldschmidt with some answers — and finally, a measure of closure on a tragic piece of modern history.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Winter, 1938.

The worshippers in Moscow’s Choral Synagogue cast worried glances toward the doors and windows, but there was no movement outside, just the bleak, black wintry horizon in this frozen city. The rabbi’s tardiness was uncharacteristic, and fear began to gnaw at their hearts. Why was he late? Had something happened to him? In Moscow of 1938, disappearing was a common as crossing the street. Millions had already been killed or exiled in Stalin’s “Great Purge.”

Since Comrade Stalin, the “sun of the nations,” had risen to power, the frozen air outside had reached their hearts as well. The mysterious absence of their rabbi, Rav Shmaryahu Yehuda Leib Medalia, did little to thaw their fear.

In 1938, although Rav Medalia had officially served as the rav of Moscow for the previous five years, as the Russian Torah world began to fall apart, he had become the unofficial leader of all of Soviet Jewry.

With the rise of Communism during the 1920s, gedolei Torah soon realized the grave danger to the Jewish future in Russia. But while many fled to safer shores to preserve Torah scholarship and escape prison, exile, and death, there were those who remained to ensure that those millions of Jews trapped behind the walls of the new regime still retained some Jewish connection. The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, encouraged his chassidim to stay in Russia as guardians of the nation, creating a network of underground yeshivos to preserve Torah in the gulag. After his own commuted death sentence and banishment from Russia, he eventually moved to Poland until World War II and remained at the helm of his underground network.

The chassidim who held tight to their convictions lived in constant fear of a midnight knock on the door, and many of them were eventually arrested. Some died under the pressure of the brutal interrogations and beatings, others from the bullets of the firing squad or the forced labor in the frozen tundra of Siberia.

By the 1930s, Rav Shmaryahu Medalia, who was both a relative of the Lubavitcher Rebbes and a talmid of the Lithuanian Slabodka yeshivah, remained one of the only rabbinical authorities in greater Russia.

On October 1, 1938, the Soviet newspaper Pravda carried a story about anti-Soviet subversive activity, with the “agent of imperialism” on this occasion being Rav Medalia, then spiritual head of the Moscow Synagogue. According to the report, he “cheated and stole from believers and speculated in matzos, the sale of seats, and burials,” as well as “indulging in nighttime bouts of drunkenness.”

On that snowy day soon after the report, the rav did not appear in shul as he usually did. The Jews of Moscow were overcome with fear. His family, too, had no idea where he was.

As the hours passed, it became obvious that the disappearance wouldn’t end with a collective sigh of relief. And those hours turned into days, weeks, and years.

The mystery remained unsolved, and his wife — or perhaps his widow, Devorah — remained an agunah for the next twenty-six years.

In 1964, Devorah Medalia was informed only that her husband had been unjustly executed by the Stalinist regime, and the government tendered its regrets.


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