(C) Inna Rogatchi
ART VIDEO for the Essay: Inna Rogatchi (C). The Legacy of Light – Homage to the Schneerson Family: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bP79ECmR1GU
“For Inna Rogatchi the camera is an extension of her eye and heart. With them her memory captures quiet but deep passion. Inna’s The Schneerson Family Collection is a keystone to understanding Jewish life in Ukraine. Inna Rogachi’s honest and beautiful pictures restore a history that demands to be seen, told and remembered.” – Photographic Power of Memory, by Jerrold Schecter and Leona Schecter.
The full text of the Photographic Power of Memory, the introductory essay by Jerrold L. and Leona Schecters to the Inna Rogatchi’s The Legacy of Light project -http://www.rogatchi.org/ir_0003_Reviews_0005_The_Photographic_Power_Of_Memory.shtml
The Rebbe’s Yahrzeit & Evocation of Memory
The date of the 3d of Tammuz 5754 – which was June 12th in 1994 and which is July 9th in 2016 – is a very special day in Jewish calendar. For the multi-million world of Chabad, it is the day of extra-ordinary importance. Also for many quite different people in both Jewish and non-Jewish world, the date is very meaningful. It is the date of the passing of the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Each Yahrzeit of the Rebbe during the past 22 years is marked with warm memorable events in every Chabad community worldwide. Recently, I was asked by our dear friend, Chief Rabbi of Estonia Rabbi Shmuel Kot to write on my own and my family’s connection to the Schneerson family. Some people are aware with it because they have read about the part of the story in the memoirs of the Rebbe’s beloved mother Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson. Her unique memoir is regarded as very precious among the Chabad Jewry, and it is read widely and regularly, in portions.
Rebbe’s mother, who was the eldest daughter of the Chief Rabbi of Nikolayev in Ukraine, was the outstanding and heroic woman. Similarly to the self-sacrificing decision and act of Rebecca who being aware on the imminent threat to his life has sent her beloved son Jacob far from home knowing that she won’t be able to seeing him again, Rebbetzin Chana did insist in the turmoil of the Bolshevik power in 1927 that her son Menachem-Mendel would leave the country for good. It was too dangerous for religious people to stay in the communist Russia.
On insistence of his mother, the future 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe has left the Soviet Union in the age of 25 after brief, but intensive and very special Simchat Torah with his parents. He never saw his father again, and he was able to re-unite with his mother only after twenty years’ gap. Maybe, partially due to that torment, after the re-unification and coming together to the USA, the Rebbe has visited his mother daily, and twice a day on Fridays, despite his enormous busy schedule, during 17 years, until her death in 1964.
Rebbetzin Chana also was incredibly brave to follow her husband, the Rebbe’s father, into his exile by the Soviet authorities to Kazakhstan where they both were stricken by unspeakable poverty and perpetual illnesses. They both were in advanced
age. At the time of his arrest by the NKVD, Rabbi Yitzhak Levi was 66, and Rebbetzin Chana was 60-year old. The Chief Rabbi of Ekaterinoslav-Dnepropetrovsk, the one of the giant of Talmudism and Kabbalah studies in XX century died in unspeakable poverty and being gravely ill, in Kazakhstan in 1944. He had many ‘crimes’ in the eyes of Bolsheviks and their blood-thirsty regime. The last drop for them was his public encouragement to his community members not to conceal the fact that they are observant. It was regarded as ‘open anti-Soviet activities’. His biggest crime, however, was his straight back and his refusal to hash Judaism and its practices in the place where the number of the Jewish community at the time of its leader arrest in 1939 was numbered as 100,000.
But there also was a formal complaint in the NKVD documents citing the reason of the Chief Rabbi’s arrest – he was ‘guilty of selling matzot’ to his community.
And here comes the one of my family’s connections to the family of the Rebbe.
The Family Connection
My great-grandmother Dinah Paley was the sister of Sergey ( Shmarja ) Paley, prominent figure in Ekaterinoslav in the beginning of the XX century. It was to his father, Feitel Paley that the 5th Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Sholom DovBer Schneerson known as Rashab, wrote in early XX century asking his help in securing a rabbi position for his relative Rabbi Yitzhak Levi Schneerson, the father of future 7th Rebbe, the man of exceptional talent and integrity.
Feitel Paley who grew up in a Chassidic tradition and did respect the leaders of the movement very much, asked his son Sergey ( Shmarja) to use his influence in the Jewish community of Ekaterinoslav to help this to happen. Sergey, who looked almost identically with his sister Dinah, my great grandmother, took the request of his father seriously, but not automatically.
Being initially sceptical, he has met with Rabbi Yitzhak Levi and had been enormously impressed by him. Their first meeting which supposed to be just an introductory encounter lasted seven hours and ended well in the night, according to the memoir of the Rebbetzin Chana, the Rebbe’s mother. The two men started to meet regularly and often, and became big friends and close confidants each to other. Sergey Paley, well-known engineer and entrepreneur who studied in St Petersburg and then returned to his home town of Ekaterinoslav, had to do a hard and demanding job in order to convince a huge Jewish community of Ekaterinoslav which was not necessarily entirely Chassidic, very far from it, and its leaders to invite Rabbi Yitzhak Levi to become the rabbi of the city’s Chassidic community in 1907. Rabbi Schneerson’s invitation and appointment is credited largely to the efforts of that influential personality, brother of my maternal great grand-mother, my great grand-uncle.
Esther’s aunt Dinah, my great grandmother was the wife of my great grandfather Meer Chigrinsky, who was the nephew of the treasurer of the Ekaterinoslav Choral Synagogue Aron Chigrinsky, and a very special and well known man in Ekaterinoslav.
Dinah’s Lace and Meer’ Matzot
I remember Dinah Paley-Chigrinsky vividly, as if I saw her just yesterday. I think it is a due to her exceptional outlook and behaviour. She was drastically different from anyone I knew and saw around. Belonging to the Jewish nobility, she looked and behaved correspondently – always impeccably dressed, living in impeccably neat house, she was a living illustration for the old-time’ novels – even if after the revolution and following ordeals, her impeccable dress was just one and same, and her impeccable house was just one room in a communal apartment left to them by the Bolsheviks. Still, a fine lace was decorating both the room and the room’s hostess, and its beauty did stand out distinctly. I still remember that modest and yellowed lace as if it still be in front of me. I was so impressed by the beauty of that lace, the only one I saw in my childhood, that I has become a lace-aficionado for life. It is the legacy of my great grandmother Dinah Paley-Chigrinsky.
Reading was the Dinah’s main occupation in life; and probably, not occasionally – her brother Avram Paley who was lucky to live a long but quite dramatic and uneasy life, had been notable Soviet writer, the one of the fathers of the world-class school of the Soviet science-fiction.
And her dignity was outstanding. It did help her to fight the famine that she and the rest of the family was exposed to quite a lot before and during the Second World War. After my great grandfather Meer Chigrinsky passed away in early 1950s, my grandmother Adel Chigrinsky-Elovitch was taken care of Dinah, visiting her at least twice a week and bringing to her fantastic home-made food.
My grandmother was a genius cook and a woman of unlimited kindness. She always took me with her to visit great grandma who was taken off her pince-nez and smiled delicately on our appearances. She would never show that she was hungry, or interested in food in any way. She would have a nice courteous conversation with my grandmom and a bit with me, and would eat only after we would leave. But before that she would serve us tea with some cookies. She held that regular mini-reception ceremonially to the smallest detail despite we were so frequent visitors to her. This was a family of stoical people, stern in their belief, modest in their ambitions, and noble in their behaviour, does not matter what.
* * *
Meer Chigrinsky, my great grandfather, was known to the entire city of Ekaterinoslav due to his extraordinary honesty and his legendary fairness. Being Menshevik, not Bolshevik, and never a member of the communist party, nevertheless he was appointed to the extremely sensitive position of the head of the food supplies and distribution department in the Dnepropetrovsk city administration. In the time of famine, it was the position of extreme importance and palpable vulnerability.
My great grandfather had been so scrupulous on that his work that he had almost died three times because of hunger. Not for a once did he bring a gram of sugar or piece of bread, or anything else in his or his family house, I was told by my grandparents and parents. Almost dying of hunger, Meer Chigrinsky, the nephew of very well known man, the treasurer of the Jewish community of Ekaterinoslav in the beginning of the XX century Aron Chigrinsky, had been instrumental in saving
the members of the huge Jewish community there from devastating famine.
He did it together with Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Levi Schneershon who had been appointed the Chief Rabbi of Ekaterinoslav in 1921. They saw the fast spreading catastrophic results of the famine in 1930s around them, and together, they have invented ‘the plot’ to save the Jewish people from imminent and sure death.
The Chief Rabbi had appealed to the Dnepropetrovsk city authorities with request to allocate a substantial amounts of flour directly to the community on the ground that Jewish sacred bread matzot, according to the strict religious rules, must be baked by the members of the community exclusively. Being on ‘the receiving end’ of this inquiry, Meer Chigrinsky did support the Chief Rabbi appeal. Bolsheviks did not know much about the religious rules, neither did they care. In the result, the Jewish community had been allocated enough quantities of flour for keeping tens of thousands of its members and their families out of the risk of starving. It was a very big mitzva and incredible deed of the father of the Rebbe with assistance of my great grandfather who was barely alive at the time, as his family was too, being stricken by permanent hunger.
The Tragic Ending
Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Levi Schneerson led and took care on his huge community for 32 years being beloved and hugely respected by many thousands of people both in Ekaterinoslav and far beyond it. Unlikely many of his colleagues who were broken by the cruel Soviet regime, he never gave in to the pressure, and kept his faith and stand uncompromised. This was extremely annoying for the communist thugs. They have arrested 66-year old Chief Rabbi in 1939, have sent him to different prisons in different cities for the exhausting interrogations; they tortured and insulted him aiming to break him morally – without any result.
Rabbi Yitzhak Levi had been exiled to Kazakhtan. In early 1940s it was a nowhere land of wildnerness and harshness, with an extreme climate. His letters to his children from that exile are absolutely heart-breaking.
And there was another reason for the Rebbe to live with broken heart with regard to his immediate family members. With his father arrested exiled in 1940 and his mother followed him, the Rebbe’s younger brother Dovber who was known for having a weak health, was left in Dnepropetrovsk alone.
Prior to that, the Rebbe’s parents were increasingly worried about Dovber and tried to leave Soviet Ukraine in order to save him. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Rebbe’s father had been invited many times to very prominent positions in Palestine and the other countries. But he repeatedly declined the honour. He could not leave the community, he was saying. However, from mid- 1930s forward, the situation has become tragically clear to the great Kabbalist, and he tried to get out of the USSR with his family. The only written appeal of Rabbi Yitzhak Levi to the Soviet authorities with request to permit them to leave the Soviet paradise due to his son’s serious illness was rejected.
When the Nazis entered Dnepropetrovsk, lonely and sick Dovber did find himself on his own. He did help to the Jewish people who were running from the occupied territories and who came to Dnepropetrovsk before the Nazis occupied the city providing shelter and organising food for them.
But nobody was there to save him. At the certain stage of the Nazi occupation, Dovber did return to the psychiatric clinic in Dnepropetrovsk where medical personnel knew him, as he was spending some periods of time there for occasional treatment. Along with the other patients of the Igren hospital, Dovber was murdered in June 1942. There also the information exists telling that the killing of the patients of the Igren clinic has been conducted by ever eager Ukrainian Nazi collaborators. Dovber was 36 at the time.
We do know on the Rebbe’s attitude towards the theme of the Shoah. He was the one who tirelessly healed the wounds from the Shoah of many people coming to him with their bleeding hearts. But the Rebbe who was the man of extra-ordinary modesty, did not discuss his own wound of the Holocaust, a terrible death of his younger brother Dovber in the hands of the Nazi beasts and those who were so eager to help them. That pain was with him till the rest of his life.
Homage to the Schneerson Family
Seventy two years after the father of the Rebbe was forced from his house, his synagogue and his city, I came to Dnepropetrovsk with the project to fulfil. I was researching the places connected to the Jewish life in the city of my family, the life that had been reduced to none during the Soviet times and was revived from the scratch thanks to the giant efforts of the outstanding Rabbi of our times, Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki, a dear friend of ours.
In 1990, Rabbi Shmuel had been sent as shlicha, the Chabad Emissary, to Dnepropetrovsk, the Rebbe’s city, by the Rebbe himself. We know from many sources how absolutely special and important Ekaterinoslav–Dnepropetrovsk had been to the Rebbe, especially given the circumstances in which he has left his parents, and the tragic destinies of his beloved father and brother whom he never saw after leaving his house in 1927.
Leaving Russia in the age of twenty five, the Rebbe loved to speak the Russian during all his life. And the connection was not only linguistic one. Sixty three years after he left Dnepropetrovsk, Menachem Mendel Schneerson choose young Shmuel Kaminetzki to be his shlicha in his city, in the place where his family , his parents and brothers has lived and led the Jewish community. There is no question in my mind that Rabbi Kaminetzki had been the most important schlicha for the Rebbe amongst all the thousands of his emissaries sent anywhere and at any time. It was the Rebbe’s own return to his and his family city.
He could not make the better choice, as we all can see during all those over 25 years when Rabbi Kaminezki is building and re-building the Jewish life in the place of the essential importance for the entire world of Chabad. But of course, the Rebbe knew it at the moment of sending the recently married couple of Shmuel and Chana Kaminetzki to Dnepropetrovsk. He saw it all happening back in 1990, before any of it has started.
* * *
And now I, in 2012, was trying to restore the original foot-prints of some of the Rebbe’s vision, to revive the pictures which he might have remembered in connection with the city of his childhood and youth.
Coming to the place of my childhood, I was focusing on the places connected with the Schneerson family. It was the most important thing for me to capture: the places, or what has left of them, where the Schneersons has lived and had direct connection to. After more than seven decades of non-existence, and somewhat hectic post-Soviet period, it felt almost commanding to try to find and memorialise it.
After the research made, I was going from the one address to another trying to feel what the life was like for the young Menachem Mendel who had been brought to the city where my family has lived, too, by his parents in 1907, at all four of their houses. The first of their houses has been demolished, already in 1990s-2000s, and it was a big and empty construction spot on the place, a very sad place. But I did find the three of the Schneerson family houses, and spent a lot of time in each of them and their courtyards, trying to feel a pulse of time in a backward motion. In some places, the non-existence of time was palpable. It was a very special feeling, precious and memorable one.
I also found the heder in which young Rebbe was studying, and the exceptional place for the world Chabad movement – the synagogue of the Rabbi Yitzhak Levi, the Rebber’s father, his own one. Nowadays, there is a board-house for the Jewish orphaned boys who are living and studying there. Our Foundation is supporting them, as well, as the similar establishment for the girls. The one of my husband’s most special works, The Faces of the Holocaust, dedicated to the memory of his family which has been from Ekaterinoslav, too, has been donated by him to his very place, “a very important for us address in the whole city” – as Rabbi Kaminetzki is saying.
There were many places which I visited in that place working on my project – Jewish neighbourhoods, former schools, synagogues, libraries. It was very nostalgic, not with regard to my family, but with regard to the Jewish life which had been so enormous in Ekaterinoslav and of which we never knew a bit while the city was the Soviet Dnepropetrovsk.
And then, in the end of the one of the days, I came to the certain address, on Krasnaya Street, in the middle of the city. I was full of impressions already, and a lot of thoughts were whirling in my head. We came there to film the Sandomirsky Synagogue, or rather what has been left of it. It was our last destination for the day, with the workload almost done by then.
As we arrived, I started to feel strange; tense and almost stricken, without realising by what, yet. The old house was staying in front of us, and its door was mystically open, just for bit, and somehow fixed this way, as if inviting me inside. I entered slowly, realising that this is the house of my great grandmother Dinah Paley where she lived with my great grandfather Meer Chigrinsky. This is the house which I visited with my grandma twice a week for a few years, to feed Dinah and keep a company to her. My heart was almost stopped.
But what was the most incredible, there has been exactly the same smell which suddenly did come back to me and gripped me after all those years. It was distinctive smell of dust, medicine, and old wood; the one which I had never experienced anywhere else at any time. I was back to my childhood, literally. My Jewish childhood of my Jewish family in that profoundly Jewish place. The place that was home for the Schneerson family and for the Rebbe in his childhood and youth. I saw all and every detail inside the house: the staircase, the doors, the bells on the doors, the windows. Amazingly and overwhelmingly, all these details were literally the same as I saw them the last time, a half of a century ago. There was no sense of time at this moment at this place at all.
I was dizzy and could hardly breath. My young assistant, a very modern man without much sentimentality if any, suddenly told me: “Inna, I feel somehow strange here. I cannot explain it, but I feel something overwhelming here. I never had it before. It is very strange, indeed”, – and he left the house slowly in some bewilderment.
I stayed for some while there, alone, forgetting to take pictures. It was an ecstasy of memory. A very quiet ecstasy, I would say.
When I came out that strangely opened door, there was a completely empty street in front of me. It was a bit strange. This street is quite vivid, and it was the late afternoon when there are a lot of people there usually. On the grey pavement, just opposite that strangely opened door, that was still mysteriously fixed, there was an absolutely white dove sitting firmly.
I started to move, but the dove was not frightened away by me or my movement. He was sitting there, in all his purity, serene and confident at the same time. The symbol of the Jewish soul, the white dove, just had landed in the front of my family’s house on Krasnaja street, 4, in Dnepropetrovsk, after I completed my journey tracing the places of the Schneerson family in the place of their life and work. I knew that they all were happy and probably smiling now.
* * * *
Often, we are realising the real necessity of what we are doing only afterwards. After my work has been completed and the collection of the fine art photography The Legacy of Light: Homage to the Schneerson Family was created, my husband has told me: “It so good that you have captured it all now. Who knows what will happen with those buildings and places in the future. We already saw several of crucial for the Schneerson family’ history buildings disappeared. And how we can be sure of what will happen with this historic material legacy in the future?..” We don’t. And I am so grateful to the Providence that has sent me the signal to come to Dnepropetrovsk and to walk with my camera on the footsteps of the Schneerson family, and of my family, too.
Dr Inna Rogatchi is the author, scholar, film-maker and fine art photographer. She is co-founder and president of The Rogatchi Foundation – www.rogatchi.org Her The Legacy of Light project dedicated to the Schneerson family will be exhibited in the USA and world-wide from 2017 onward.