It was our greatest privilege to become personally acquainted in the 1990’s with Rav Nanas, a giant soul, a master of invincible courage and high spirits.
In Russia he was known by many as a legend. He was called “Sabbato” (Sabbath in Russian). Born in 1897, in Odessa, Russia, he was the adopted son and student of the revered tsaddik, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, the leader of the Lubavitch movement.
Rav Nanas had a dynamic personality. His life was a constant flow of miracles as he survived five decades under the Communist regime. Twenty of those years were spent in the Siberian forced labor camps yet he remained active into his late 90’s. What was his crime that sentenced him to these camps? Secretly learning and teaching from the sacred Torah and the writings from our holy sages and masters. He was adamant about not working on the Sabbath, observing the Jewish holidays and praying. In those days of relentless terror and tyranny, these crimes were considered worthy of the worst punishments. Religion was defined as the “opium of the masses”, prayer to God was viewed as a form of mental madness or at best a primitive superstition. Many attempts to end the rebellious Rav Nanas’ life were thwarted and rendered null.
When our daughter, Yehudit, was sixteen years old, she discovered Rav Nanas in Jerusalem when she and her seminary classmates were invited to attend one of his lectures. Yehudit was so impressed with his example of self giving that she volunteered to do some housekeeping for his frail and elderly wife, Rebbetzin Nanas. Not having had children of their own, Rav Nanas and his wife acted like loving grandparents to her. When Judy married in Jerusalem at the age of eighteen, Rav Nanas not only attended the wedding and gave her his blessings, but also gave her a dowry from his meager savings. Later on, in his nineties, he surprised everyone when he appeared alone at her home in Los Angeles to visit her for her son’s Bris.
Rav Nanas remained steadfast with indomitable strength and endurance, with compassion, caring, and with an inner vision for a better world for mankind. Rav Nanas shone like a beacon of light in the midst of the most G-d forsaken, gruesome places and conditions of hunger, violence, cruelty, treachery and darkness.
Rabbi Nanes had been surviving the work camps of Siberia for many years. The camp director in charge tolerated him and his religious practices because Rav Nanas was an intelligent, honest, reliable and skilled worker willing to do dangerous tasks when necessary. When the amiable camp director was replaced by a new camp director, he took an immediate dislike for Rav Nanas. The fact that Rav Nanas was adamant about not working on the Sabbath and praying three times a day and that he had “gotten away with it” was an instant irritation for him.
Devising a scheme for getting rid of Rabbi Nanes and certain other prisoners as well took him only a few moments of plotting. He ordered them transferred to another camp via a forced march through the snowy white plains of Siberia at below zero temperatures for several days. With their minimal clothing, it would mean certain death. Rav Nanas was completely isolated from any available help, thousands of miles away from Moscow. He prayed constantly, realizing that so far there was no human way that he could be rescued from death. He could not imagine in what form God would send him a miracle to save him. In the midst of his prayers there was a knock on his door. The guard, opening his door announced:
-“You are requested to go to the visitors’ room. Follow me.”
No prisoners were ever allowed to go to this visitors’ room which was reserved for the leading staff only. When Rav Nanas entered the room, he found a beautiful young lady waiting for him. She looked like she was about 16 years old. She smiled and greeted him.
-“Please forgive me if I can’t reveal to you who I am,” she said respectfully. “I would be grateful to you if you could answer some of my questions.”
To Rav Nanas this young lady felt like a messenger direct from Heaven.
-“By all means,” he answered.
She proceeded to ask a few questions about him, his background, why he was held prisoner, his faith, etc. When she was satisfied with his answers she apologized again for not being able to reveal the purpose of her visit to him and she quickly took her leave. Rav Nanas noticed that she had a serious look on her face.
Rav Nanas was left pondering on the meaning of this meeting, sensing that G-d’s miracles were at play in some form or another. This incident had a mysterious reminiscence of events related in the Purim story.
His transfer to another work camp was delayed. Exactly eight days later he was summoned again to the visitors’ room. The young lady was awaiting him there beaming with joy and triumph.
-“Now I can tell you everything,” she practically burst.
She called the guard and requested that some cookies be brought to her.
-“First of all I want you to know that you are not going to be transferred to another camp. Your life is safe now.”
The cookies were set on the table. Rav Nanas noticed that she was eager to eat them. He ventured to ask:
-“If I understand, perhaps you are the person who was instrumental in accomplishing this change of situation for me?”
-“It is our Creator who did this for you,” she replied. “I was only an instrument. I am the daughter of the Administrator of this work camp and I live in the large home nearby. One week ago, I overheard my mother talking with a man in our living room and I listened in on their conversation from my room. She was speaking with a camp prisoner who had been allowed to leave for a few hours to paint wall murals in our living room with some creative designs because he is an artist. It was a big privilege for him. My mother was asking him:
-“So my friend, how is your life in the work camp?”
-“As you know, life is not easy there. Food is scarce, work is exhausting. The guards are brutal. There is no light and no joy. The years drag by endlessly. Many of us die.”
-“I know. It is awful,” my mother replied.
-“I tell you, there is only one comfort, only one good influence in this camp. There is a prisoner who has nothing but kindness, and good words to give to each one of us. I would not have survived without him. Many other prisoners say the same thing.”
-“And who is that?” asked my mother intrigued.
-“A holy man, a Rabbi. His name is Sabbato. We call him that way because he is unshakable in his crazy determination to observe the Sabbath, no matter what the threats against his life can be.
-“And now this new camp Director won’t tolerate such a rebellious prisoner. He wants him dead.
And the way he is going to kill him is by having him transferred to another work camp. This means a forced march in the snow and that will mean certain death.”
After this artist left I approached my mother.
-“Mother! We must do something. We cannot let a holy man die this way without trying to intervene. We cannot let one of our holy people perish when we have a possibility of saving his life!”
My mother was horrified with the thought of interfering with prison dictates.
-“Absolutely, not! You do not know what you are talking about. You do not know what the consequences can be. Forget about it, please. And absolutely do not talk to your father about it! And you know our rules: do not ever mention to anyone that we are Jewish.”
But that night, I could not restrain myself and I begged my father to intervene. My father was livid.
-“ How do you dare to interfere with my work? You must be mad! Do you have any idea what this Camp Director is capable of? I never want to hear another word about your crazy ideas! Now go to your room!”
I went to my room. The next day I secretly went to visit you. I realized that you were even greater than what the artist prisoner had described. I went home and with many tears entreated my parents again. They would not budge. I told them I could not eat nor drink until something was done to save your life. They scoffed and laughed at me.
-“Go ahead! Let’s see how long this will last!”
I did not eat; I did not drink for three days. I was getting very weak. My parents sat with me and kept entreating me to change my mind. On the fourth day they called a medical professor who examined me and told my parents that this was a serious matter that will have grave consequences if I won’t break my fast. My father was stubborn. My mother was hysterical. On the fifth and sixth days I would still not eat nor drink. On the seventh day, my father broke down. He went to see the Camp Director. I don’t know how but my father got his consent to spare you, dear Rabbi Nanas. I guess this Camp Director saw the desperate situation my father was in and did not want to be involved in some kind of bad reputation if I died. And here I am to tell you the good news.”
The young lady laughed happily, and eagerly ate some more cookies.
Rav Nanas was overwhelmed with wonder. How could such a young girl be so inspired, so magnificent? That moment, beholding her awesome courage and generosity of spirit, was enough to comfort him from all his suffering. He blessed her over and over again. Just remembering her sustained him in all the difficult years ahead. His prayers on her behalf eventually bore fruit. Later her father renounced his position as a concentration camp administrator in Siberia where integrity and kindness can be a great danger. He took his family back to Moscow and found other work.
There were many attempts to murder Rav Nanas. Each miraculously was turned around. Here is a story that is difficult to believe but truly happened.
This outstanding rescue occurred to Rav Nanas around the time when a bright eighteen-year old Jewish young man, Shmuel Mahtusof, joined him. He had been condemned to many years of hard labor in this concentration camp for the crime of learning in an underground Lubavitch yeshiva. Seeing this young man so despondent, Rav Nanas took him under his loving guidance. They found time to learn together from all the Chassidic teachings that Rav Nanas had memorized. The young man gradually regained his spirits.
Around the Passover Holydays the workload became more than the prisoners could cope with, even with the greatest exertion. Two anti-Semite prisoners began to shout:
-“We are all going to be punished because of these two lazy Jews who are refusing to work on the Sabbath. It’s all their fault.”
The prisoners kept their distance and from the looks that were being darted at them, the two Chassidim knew that their lives were in danger. They decided to run away from the camp. Better the snow than the sure death by inmates. On the next day, with foresight and ingenuity, they managed their escape. Rav Nanas had an acquaintance in a not too distant town that had previously offered to help. They walked for a few hours through the cold forest.
Suddenly, a man dressed in prisoner’s clothes appeared before them. Rav Nanas offered him a pack of cigarettes as a bribe and asked him for directions to the town. Instead, the man pulled out a pistol that was hidden under his shirt and pointed it at them. An agent in disguise, he quickly forced the two Chassidim to trudge straight to the secret police station nearby. Rav Nanas and the young man knew it was futile to attempt to escape. They were shown into the police station.
When Rav Nanas saw the reaction of the Chief of Police, with a triumphant glint in his eyes, Rav Nanas froze inside. This Chief had only one pleasure in life: torturing his prisoners and the bait had been led to his door. He ordered the two men to strip off their clothes and to lie down on the ground beneath his feet. He seemed to swell in anticipation.
Rav Nanas completely trusted in the powerful blessings of His holy Master, Rav Yosef Yitzchak, and he remembered how he had assured him many years ago:
-“In spite of all the darkness covering Russia, you will survive all these years of extreme difficulties as long as you will persevere in keeping the Sabbath and keep praying. At the end of all these trials, through God’s help, you will settle in Israel and live many blessed years in the Holy Land, in the Holy City of Jerusalem.”
Rav Nanas knew he would survive. However, his Holy Master had not mentioned anything about what physical condition his body would be left in at the end of all his trials, and Rav Nanas was afraid. Aside from that, he felt responsible for the fate of his young friend, Shmuel. Rav Nanas’ great cries to the heavens were sent silently up with his prayers. “Please save Shmuel, he can’t suffer in this horrible way!”.
The sound of a motor vehicle pulling into the driveway caught the attention of the Chief of Police. A large polished car was parked outside and a tall Russian General, clad in full uniform and insignia strolled forth into the station. The police staff saluted and stood at attention. In shock they realized that this General had been sent to inspect the area.
The General had a stern look on his face. With an incisive glance he quickly took in the situation.
-“What’s going on here?” he demanded in an accusing tone. “What are those people doing naked on the floor in your office? What is this? A fascists’ camp? I see the rumors about you and your prohibitive methods used against prisoners are true!”
The Chief of Police turned white and became speechless.
-“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” the
Stuttering, the Chief of Police searched for an excuse,
-“Eh…eh…These two men are fugitives. They escaped from the work camp and…”
The General interrupted him,
-“First let these men get up and dress and then we will continue with our investigation.” He said the word “investigation in a way that made everyone jittery.
Rav Nanas knew his prayers had been answered and that he just needed to flow with whatever was happening. The clothes of the prisoners had been inspected. The staff had found a few coins and some matzot. The General asked the prisoners why they were away from the camp and why they were carrying matzot in their pockets. Rav Nanas smiled and calmly replied:
-”This is our Passover holiday and our religion does not permit us to work at this time”.
After some deliberation, the General wrote out a prescription “accusing the prisoners of laziness” and a sentence of three days in solitary confinement.
The General briefly took his leave, and before anyone had the presence of mind to accompany him, they heard the engine roar of his departing vehicle. They rushed out, but he was gone.
So the two friends were returned to the camp and they had three days of blessed peace and quiet in which to thank their Creator for intervening in such a merciful way for them. The camp prisoners hadn’t been punished for their quota and many were glad to see the two companions back with them.
Later on Rav Nanas sought to inquire from everyone he could reach about this General. No one had ever seen him or heard anything about him.
Shmuel Mahtusof survived the camps and is now serving as a Rabbi and representative of Lubavitch in Morocco.
During his twenty years of internment in slave labor camps, Rav Nanas survived many attempts on his life. When Rav Nanas was sent to a work camp reserved for Nazi officers and Nazi commanders captured as prisoners of war, Rav Nanas knew that as a Jew, he was a marked man. Again he prayed for guidance and protection. Miraculously he found an empty basement to hide in during the day and on the first night he managed to convince the Russian guard on duty to allow him to stay in the guard’s booth for the night. The guard enjoyed having Rabbi Nanes’ company and invited him to join him every night, even though he risked dire consequences for doing so.
Later, Rav Nanas was transferred to a camp filled with gangsters, murderers and the worst of the Mafioso. But Rav Nanas trusted again that God would help him tackle that challenge. On the first night of his arrival, at curfew, he nonchalantly hung up his clothes and stretched out onto his couch. Soon he was fast asleep. But suddenly someone woke him up by hitting him with hard punch to his head. A grim looking hulk of a man was growling at him:
-“You had better know where you are! Here in this camp things are run by us! We are the elite criminals of Russia. Watch out!”
Rav Nanas sprung up to his feet and roared back at him;
-“Who do you think you are? I was sound asleep and you woke me up! If you have anything to say, you had better do it in the morning! I am not interested in your warnings.”
The gangster was taken aback. He figured Rav Nanas must have special connections to talk back like that. Over the course of the next few days “the Boss,” the leader of the prisoners, was checking him out. As a rule the Mafioso had no love or respect for political prisoners. But when “the Boss” met with Rav Nanas, there was a certain respect. Later on he said to Rav Nanas:
-“If any one of my people here makes you any trouble, just let me know and I will take care of it.”
Rav Nanas survived till at last he was released from camp at the end of his 20 year sentence.
Even then, as he at last tasted the bliss of some freedom and the reunion with some beloved friends, he continued taking some dangerous risks. He was willing to give up his treasured freedom again if necessary for the privilege of creating another underground Yeshiva! He continued teaching Torah and Chassidut till he was able to escape from Russia a few years later. All this happened through an intricate web of miraculous interactions.
How was he able to survive?
Rav Nanas had a deep connection with the Infinite One, the Creator of the universe. He knew how to focus within and reach this Eternal Source of peace and strength. He knew his life had a special purpose.
You may ask an obvious question: If Rav Nanas could be rescued so miraculously in so many instances, why then was he not spared those agonizing twenty years in the Siberian camps?
Rav Nanas was a powerful healing light to prisoners in the camps both Jewish and Russian. Rumors about his exemplary courage were spreading far and wide, an inspiration to millions who were living through years of oppression and fear.
Fearful darkness covered the plains of Russia in those days under Stalin’s regime of terror and denunciations. The constant threats from the KGB followed by mock trials and final sentences to prisons or the Siberian work camps were enough to leave everyone in a state of panic. Then there were the unofficial disappearances and murders.
These were times of systematic indoctrination with relentless propaganda to over 300 million Russians, as well as the populations of Lithuania, Poland, Tschekoslovakia, East Germany, Rumania, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Youths in the schools were especially targeted. Young children and teen agers were expected to denounce to the KGB anyone who expressed some disapproval of the regime, including and especially their own parents! I vividly remember seeing a photograph showing a monument erected in Russia, with life size statues of 2 children of about 10 to 12 years of age. These children were being honored for their loyalty to the Stalin Government because they had been obedient enough to denounce their own parents to the KGB!
Stalin even had some of his own family members murdered. He craved to be worshipped as the “Father of the Nation” expecting his authority to be above all else – even God. He held such a tight grip on all the borders that all communication with the rest of the world was cut off. To insure his power, and keep his people in submission, Stalin knew that he had to destroy the two most valuable assets that any human being can have. One of these assets is our connection with the Almighty, which means recognizing a Power much greater than any politician or ruler. The second one is our faculty of self-initiative and creativity.
Therefore, it was considered criminal for anyone to create their own source of income, or initiate some project of their own, no matter how honest or beneficial. And any faith in the Almighty was presented as foolish, superstitious and primitive.
A huge population was totally imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain and rendered helpless. It is estimated today that at least 80 million people were murdered and many more imprisoned in one way or another during the years under the Communist regime.
This sinister energy covering Russia and all of its captive satellite countries was threatening to engulf a great deal of mankind and bring untold destruction. Great light was needed to counteract this tidal wave of fear and despair and to withstand all this with their presence and prayers. These were unknown, saintly, heroic people, Jewish and also many gentiles, who were connected to the Highest with love and faith. As isolated and persecuted as they were, they persevered against all odds. The Source of their strength was in their connection with the Almighty One, the Source of all goodness and perfection, all blessings and true joy.
The great master of saintliness, Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, leader of Lubavitch, was thrown in jail and beaten so badly that he was left partially paralyzed. With help from some of his devoted students, he miraculously was able to escape to Poland during WWII. In 1940 he was somehow smuggled out of Europe and finally reached the United States. When he arrived at the Lubavitch Center in New York, he was immediately invited to accept the leadership, no matter what his condition was. His blessings were powerful; his presence transformed the lives of those close to him.
What is the secret of their strength?
If we ourselves could be privileged to experience the peace that the tsaddikim held within them, even for only a moment, we would be willing to exchange anything for the joy of holding on to this blissful state of being.
Great, saintly souls feel immense compassion for the plight of mankind. They have already perfected themselves and they do not need to come to our world any longer. They agreed to be born in our world to assist us to inspire, support and uplift us during the dark times of our difficult learning process. These great souls are ready for anything, anywhere, in any life situation to be of help and their magnificent generosity is opening the floodgates of blessing from Above for mankind.
Our Saints and our Sages have taught us that nothing ever happens in vain. Nothing is ever lost. In the realms above, no heartfelt prayer, no longing for justice and peace is ever ignored. In the heavenly worlds where myriads of shining souls reside, we are respected and loved. We are seen as really valiant souls, like heroic soldiers on the front lines, brave enough to embark to this world of ignorance, fear and darkness. Through our suffering we are humbly learning how valuable compassion can be. Through experiencing the madness of war and our own confusion within, we are cherishing the value of peace, integrity, and harmony. We are yearning for a state of love.
Times blessed with Light
We can now sense new consciousness emerging, compared to the previous mentality of society that held narrow views, an insensitivity to human rights, lethargy, ignorance and harsh condemnations. The insane cruelty of these past generations is gradually abating. Many of those who endured hatred and oppressions learned to be averse to the senseless hatred or oppression of anyone, anytime, anywhere.
All of this heroic self-sacrifice on the part of these great souls was not in vain. It brought forth one of the greatest miracle of our times. We little realize its impact and awesome power. It is a turning point in our history. In 1988 this gargantuan Communist Regime and its all-pervasive ideology controlling the lives of half a billion people just collapsed on itself! Within a few days, it suddenly disintegrated. Amazingly, it happened without violence. Has there ever been any other tyranny of this magnitude melting away and disappearing in such an easy way? We may search through all recorded history, looking through all its painful unfolding through the millennia; we will not find anything like this ever.
You may remember that just a few months before that in 1987, there had been a prayer gathering for peace all over the world, called the “Harmonics Convergence.” In many cities people held hands in long chains in the streets or gathered by the thousands in large auditoriums to pray together.
Since then hundreds of thousands of Jews have migrated to Israel, realizing a dream that looked impossible for so long!
What do we know about this vast Universe in which we live, about the infinite dimensions of existence, and the power behind it all. We do not even know what will happen tomorrow. But we can touch the beginning of wisdom when we pay attention to the teachings and examples of our great sages and holy men. The radiance of their love can open our minds. They seek to emulate the Infinite Being of eternal compassion who holds all life together. This is truly our easiest way to learn and grow.
In the 1970’s Rav Nanas was finally allowed, through an odyssey of miracles, to exit Russia with his wife. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson, lovingly welcomed Rav Nanas and invited him to stay with him in New York. He made sure that Rav Nanas’ experiences were being recorded and transcribed. A most fascinating book was thereafter published about the life of Rav Nanas entitled “Sabbato” by Eliyezar Nanas (1897-1997) under the pseudonym of Avraham Netsach. The Rebbe requested that Rav Nanas omit the cruelest incidents, knowing that these would be too gruesome to read about.
Rav Nanas moved to the holy city of Jerusalem with his faithful wife of many years. He was well loved and respected by all those wanting to know and learn with this heroic Rabbi. Until his passing in 1997, at close to 100 years of age, Rav Nanas was radiant with enthusiasm, gratefulness and eagerness to inspire and teach.
Encouraged by Rabbi Nanes our own daughter Yehudit Eichenblatt created a Woman’s Yeshiva in Los Angeles called “Bais Chana of California Women’s Yeshiva” which has been a center of knowledge to many women since 1994.
For a list of ongoing programs and teachings you may contact Yehudit at:
(323) 933-3919 in Los Angeles; or email: