A debut history that details the plight of a family of Jews who fled from Ukraine to Uzbekistan while pursuing their faith.
Zaltzman was born in Charkov, Ukraine, in 1939, into an environment that was ideologically hostile to religion. During World War II, the Nazis invaded Charkov, and Zaltzman’s family fled to Samarkand, Uzbekistan, already home to a sizable population of friendly Sephardic Bucharian Jews. Still, the Soviet regime remained devoted to eliminating Jewish identity; a special division of the NKVD (Soviet secret police) was assigned the task of destroying Jewish schools, yeshivas, and synagogues. Zaltzman’s father kept him out of the Soviet schools and hid him, teaching him furtively at home, until a neighbor discovered his existence at the age of 9. Zaltzman had no choice but to attend a public school then, but he still observed the demands of his faith and stayed home from school when necessary. In the fourth grade, his attachment to Judaism was discovered, and he was compelled to attend yet another school. His father’s commitment to his chinuch—his Jewish education—was beyond any compromise, and it was an exemplary expression of the Chabad brand of Chassidic Judaism: “The Chabad community was infused with a rich inner world of Chassidic vitality,” Zaltzman writes. At the age of 16, he became involved in an organization, the Chamah, which established a network of underground Jewish schools that clandestinely taught more than 1,500 children over the years. In 1971, he immigrated to Israel. Overall, the author does a remarkable job of vividly depicting the city of Samarkand, which became famous for its tenacious preservation of Jewish customs despite zealous political persecution. It serves as an effective historical study of Jewish life under Communist tyranny, and Zaltzman’s mastery of details of the period is undeniable. The book is long—more than 700 pages—partly because it’s filled with digressive asides and detours, which can be engaging but also fatiguing at times. However, this remembrance’s artful combination of rigorous research and narrative drama makes it seem much shorter that it actually is.
An edifying portal into the perseverance of Jewish culture in the face of attempts to destroy it.