Exclusive: Secrets From the Cellar

By Yisrael Hershkowitz

Even after he was arrested and interrogated by Romania’s Securitate, Harav Shmuel Tobias, zt”l, could not have imagined how much the police already knew about him. They had watched all that went on in his private room, and they had listened to all his private conversations. They followed him in the street and listened to the advice he gave to others. Only today, 50 years later, has the full extent of the government’s insidious efforts to incriminate him come to light.

Hcoarav Shmuel was Rav of Piatra Neamț in eastern Romania after the Holocaust and after Romania was made into a puppet state of the Soviet Union. He had toiled for decades to prepare his chiddushim for publication, but it was impossible to have it published in Communist Romania. His only hope was to bring the manuscript to the Israeli embassy in Bucharest and to ask the consul to send it to where it could be safely published.

Taking along his 14-year-old son Menachem Mendel, Rav Shmuel traveled to Bucharest, with his precious manuscript hidden inside his clothing. He knew that the secret police were suspicious of him and that he was probably being followed, and so they tried to make their way nonchalantly, but as quickly as possible.

The guard at the gate knew Rav Shmuel from his previous visits, and so he allowed him to enter the embassy grounds. Just before he entered the building, where according to international law he would be immune from the local authorities, his way was blocked by two burly policemen. Pointing to the father and son, one of the officers said, “You two, come with us.”

This is what Rav Shmuel had dreaded most of all, and he knew that they were destined for harsh interrogations, perhaps even torture. Worse still, they were liable to be imprisoned for many long years.

During the next two days, the two were separated and each was interrogated. The police believed that the manuscripts that Rav Shmuel was carrying contained coded messages that were meant to assist Romania’s enemies. The police grilled him for the meanings of such phrases as “inspecting the lung” and “rinsing after salting.”

In another room, the police held young Mendel and attempted to get him to contradict what his father was saying. Mendel claimed that he was just a boy and did not know anything of his father’s activities. The police asked him the meaning of shecht, and Mendel replied, “Yeah, sometimes I try to shecht, but then the chicken wriggles out of my hands and runs all around the yard.” At this point, the police gave up trying to get anything out of him.

Back in Piatra Neamț, Rav Shmuel’s Rebbetzin and her children went to the train station to wait for him to return. They waited for many hours, while drunkards staggered about and lounged on the benches, but in the end they went home, understanding well what must have happened. They sat at home in dread, waiting for the police to come and tear apart their home in search of more “incriminating” evidence. When the door opened and Rav Shmuel and Mendel walked in, they couldn’t believe their eyes.

The children tried to ask their father what had happened, but he refused to tell them. All he would say was, “Just thank Hashem that you have a tatte.” The scars on his body from those two days of interrogations remained for the rest of his life. The police had managed to break his body, but not his spirit. The first thing he did upon his release, which was on Rosh Chodesh Elul, 5723/1963, was to go to the home of a Jew he knew in Bucharest and to ask where he could find a mikveh. Only after purifying his body from the filth of the Communists did he make his way home.

Rav Shmuel and his family were baffled by his sudden release by the police. They knew of many Rabbanim and other religious figures who had been arrested, and who invariably had served lengthy prison terms. For some reason he was sent home after only two days. No one could explain it, because no one could imagine how much the police knew about Rav Shmuel. It was likely that their records revealed more about him than he could remember about himself.

More than fifty years have passed since then. Now, we came back to Bucharest together with Rav Shmuel’s grandson, Harav Yaakov Solomon, who serves today as Rav of the Stefanest community in Bnei Brak. Together, we traversed those same streets until we arrived at a building with a formidable appearance – the Archives of the Securitate. Not so many years ago, people avoided walking near this building. Its very appearance struck fear in people’s hearts. Today, however, it is possible to go inside and examine the records to learn what methods of torture were used during interrogations, and how it spread such fear throughout the country. We came to try and solve the secret of Rav Shmuel’s arrest and his improbable release.

Rav Solomon has been working for several years to retrieve the manuscripts stolen by the police from his grandfather, so far with limited success. He has discovered, however, the protocol of the interrogation. It reveals that the police had been tracking Rav Shmuel and eavesdropping on his conversations for years. They were aware of everything that went on within his home, night and day.

Pulling out Rav Shmuel’s file, Rav Solomon showed us more than 1,600 documents listed under the heading “Rabbi Shmuel Tobias.” They are bound in thick loose-leaf folders and covered with dust. They describe all the steps taken by the police to spy on Rav Shmuel, and all the people interrogated for information about him. Obviously, he had been a target for many years before he made his way that fateful day to the Israeli embassy.

It is not easy to receive permission to peruse these archives. Permission is granted only to the subject who is named on the file or to an immediate family member. This is sensible, for it protects people from having their darkest secrets revealed to others who might use them to harm others.

Rav Shmuel and his son Mendel might have thought that no one knew of their train ride to Bucharest, but the police records include a series of photographs of the two nervous Jews at the station in Piatra Neamț as they boarded the train for Bucharest, while they were seated on the train, and as they stepped off the train at their destination. In fact, one photo shows the moment of their arrest that day.

These photos were taken long before the days of digital cameras and smart phones. Clunky, old-fashioned cameras must have been used, and yet the police managed to hide their activities from their prey. Ever-patient, the police waited until the very last moment to pounce upon the Tobias’s and arrest them, just as they were about to “commit treason and pass state secrets to the enemy.”

But who led the police to believe that Rav Shmuel was a counter-revolutionist and that he was about to commit this crime? The file reveals that a police agent was stationed outside Rav Shmuel’s home. This fellow had bugged the house so that he could hear all the Rav’s conversations, and he positioned himself where he could see inside as well. After collecting “incriminating” evidence, he passed the information on to his superiors in the Securitate.

One example of this espionage: “On this day at this hour, a Jew entered the Rabbi’s home and told him that a baby boy was born to him. The Rabbi told him to make sure to do a certain procedure on the eighth day. I wish to find out to what kind of procedure the Rabbi was referring.”

Another time: “The Rabbi spoke for eight minutes on the telephone with an unidentified party in the United States.” This presented no problem for the Securitate. They had recordings of all Rav Shmuel’s telephone calls, and this one was duly transcribed and included in the Rabbi’s file.

Again: “The Rabbi was seen walking in the city’s main street, and he suddenly turned into a side street and entered a vegetable shop. He came out carrying a bag of parsley. We must find out why a Rabbi of such stature would go to buy parsley. Perhaps this is a front, and he in fact is involved in underground activities.”

This went on for several years. The agents made note of every single visitor to the Rav’s home, with whom he conversed, and the subject of his conversations. At one point they learned that the Rabbi was planning to move to a different apartment. This was disturbing to the police, for it might be harder to watch him in his new home.

Later on, the agents reported that everything was under control. They already knew where the new apartment was located, and they had already prepared it even before the Rabbi moved in. The agent reported: “On January 25, 1963, a listening device was installed in the apartment. The original instructions were to install the device through the apartment opposite that of the Rabbi, but Mr. So-and-So, who resides there, refused to move out. In the end, we managed to persuade him to vacate the room, and we stationed agent Maria Wilff there.” Ms. Wilff was an experienced police investigator.

It is likely that Rav Shmuel was aware that he was being watched. Actually, all Romanians knew that they were always being watched. Just like in the other countries in the Communist bloc, no one was able to trust anyone else, even his closest friend. But it is unlikely that Rav Shmuel understood the extent to which he was under surveillance. He probably never realized that he was such an important target that the police invested so much time and resources to track his movements.

It is standard practice for the Securitate archives to blot out the names of the witnesses appearing in the documents that are declassified. This is because many of the targets of the police investigations are still alive, and the witnesses may very well have been their closest friends, family members, even their own spouses or children.

“In the case of my grandfather,” Rav Solomon tells us, “it appears obvious that the witnesses who testified against him were not Jewish. A Jew would not have wondered why the Rabbi would go and buy parsley two days before Pesach, or what procedure takes place on the eighth day after a baby is born. The one exception is a report accusing my grandfather of smuggling foreign currency. This apparently came from someone within the kehillah, someone to whom the police gave the code name Nathansohn.”

A Fearless Opponent

Why did the police feel that it was necessary to keep such an elaborate system going to watch Rav Shmuel’s activities? That is an easy question to answer. Rav Shmuel was one of the few Romanian Rabbis who refused to surrender to the Communists’ demands to shut down all religious practices. He persisted on telling his community to continue fulfilling all the mitzvos. When the authorities shut down the town’s mikveh, he put on his hat, took his walking stick and strode right into the office of the Communist party and demanded to know who was responsible for those orders. The clerks were astounded; they had never seen anyone speak against the party so brazenly.

A few months later, the government authorized the reopening of the mikveh. Rav Shmuel and his sons immediately went out and dragged huge blocks of snow to the mikveh building and dumped them into the bor in order to fill the mikveh with kosher water. During those few months that the mikveh building was locked shut, the Rav arranged for a pool of kosher water in the building housing the city’s swimming pool. He paid for it with his own money, for which “crime” he could have received a stiff prison sentence. When practical, he instructed people to use the river nearby.

The local school authorities ordered Rav Shmuel to send his children to school without a yarmulke, and to come on Shabbos. The Rebbetzin then fired off a telegram to the Romanian Minister of Education demanding that her children be excused from school on Shabbos, but the clerks at the post office refused to send it. They feared that they would be accused of assisting counter-revolutionary activity. The Rebbetzin argued, begged and persuaded until they agreed to send it for her. Shortly afterward, the minister issued an order permitting the Tobias children to skip school on Shabbos. The children all excelled and were model students, but when there was a province-wide contest for excellence in mathematics, they were deemed ineligible to compete as a punishment for their regular absences.

Romania’s Jews came to recognize Rav Shmuel Tobias as a courageous tzaddik, and he was revered on the level of Harav Aharon Roth, zy”a, author of Shomer Emunim; the Spinka Rebbe, zy”a, author of Chakal Yitzchak; Harav Yehudah Leib Tsirelson, zt”l; and the Stefanester Rebbe, zy”a. This fame, however, put Rav Shmuel under the spotlight of the Securitate. They understood that as long as Rav Shmuel led his community, the Communist party would have very limited influence on the Jews.

Despite this, Rav Shmuel’s active pursuit of Torah Judaism for his people is not what incriminated him in the eyes of the Securitate. The thing that really bothered them and made him a high-priority target was his ongoing relationship with the Israeli embassy.

A Man of Peace

Rav Shmuel developed a personal relationship with the embassy staff in order to help his people escape the Communist net and emigrate to Eretz Yisrael. The consul was only too happy to cooperate in whatever way possible. Rav Shmuel was especially close with Gershon Amir, the personal secretary of Ambassador Kasriel Shalmon. Amir’s lifestyle was very different than that of Rav Shmuel, but they were able to overlook their differences and become close friends. Amir respected Rav Shmuel for his indomitable courage and his fierce will to help his brethren at any cost. Rav Shmuel respected Amir for his integrity. Although he had been brought up with no Jewish education whatsoever, he still had a warm spot in his heart for Judaism and its sacred way of life.

The two men spent many hours discussing basic faith and the destiny of the Jewish nation, and Amir drank the Rav’s teachings with thirst. At one point, he introduced Rav Shmuel to his boss, Ambassador Shalmon. The younger man was immediately captivated by Rav Shmuel’s personality and told him, “My door is always open for you. I know that everything you do is in order to benefit others, and I am happy to be your partner.”

Shalmon came to an agreement with the Romanian government – Jews would be allowed to leave to Eretz Yisrael for an exit fee of $500 a head. The money had to be paid in advance, however. At first, Rav Shmuel paid these fees out of his own pocket. Later on, the Romanian officials became more trusting. After ascertaining a Jew’s sincere wish to move to Eretz Yisrael, Rav Shmuel would give him a document certifying that he is “a man of peace.” The applicant would then take this document to the Israeli embassy, and his request would be forwarded to the Romanian Ministry of the Interior to begin the process for his exit visa.

Rav Shmuel helped hundreds of Jews leave Romania for Israel, and this did not go unnoticed by the secret police. Rav Shmuel applied for an exit visa for himself and his family, but he was turned down time and again. He and his family had already packed all their belongings in huge crates that were to be shipped to Eretz Yisrael when they left. These crates became part of the Rav’s sparse furniture, serving as desks for the children to do their homework. At night, thick blankets would be spread on the crates, which then served as beds. This was not at all comfortable, since the iron bands bit into their flesh.

After waiting for 14 years, the applications were finally approved, and the family prepared to leave Romania for good. Then, the question came up – what should they do with the dozens of rare sefarim in the Rav’s library? The Rav resigned himself to leaving them behind, but then the question came up about the notebooks in which he had written his chiddushim and his correspondence with other Gedolim and tzaddikim. He had toiled for decades to compile them; it was not conceivable to leave them behind.

It was then that Rav Shmuel made the fateful decision to bring the manuscripts to the embassy and have them smuggled out of the country as diplomatic mail. Although he had visited the Israeli embassy dozens of times without incident, it was on this occasion that he was arrested along with Mendel, and interrogated in the cellar of the Securitate. They had stalked him fruitlessly for decades, and had even tried to accuse him, on the basis of a false witness, of smuggling. That accusation fell through since Rav Shmuel did not carry any money or valuables with him. Now, the police felt that they had caught him committing a crime, especially after finding the sheaves of notes that were undoubtedly the work of espionage. In the end, however, the notes proved to be totally innocuous, and they were forced to set him free.

Detailed Documentation

After Rav Shmuel’s release, the family lived in constant fear. They realized now that they had been targeted by the Securitate for many years, and the thought of that alone was enough to curdle one’s blood. Mendel, who is now Rav Menachem Mendel Tobias, spiritual leader of the Darchei Shmuel congregation in Bnei Brak, remembers that he always felt fearful as he walked through the streets, looking furtively in all directions every few minutes to see who might be following him. The two days he had spent in the interrogation cells had left him severely traumatized.

Rav Mendel came back to Romania many years later to visit his ancestral home. While in the airport terminal, he felt panic as he passed by a uniformed policeman. It was as if the Communists were still in power and watching him.

Nevertheless, this fearful incident signified a positive turn of fortune for the Tobias family. Two months later, on 26 Cheshvan 5724/1963, they arrived safely in Eretz Yisrael. Today, more than 50 years later, the family has come back to Bucharest to see if it is possible to retrieve Rav Shmuel’s precious manuscripts. So far, they have succeeded in finding the records of his arrest and interrogation. Studying these records has only intensified the mystery, or miracle, of Rav Shmuel’s release after two days.

On the day that the Skulener Rebbe, zt”l, was sentenced to a long term in prison for smuggling funds abroad, Rav Shmuel proclaimed a fast day in protest. The very fact that he identified himself as a supporter of the Rebbe, and continued with all his activities to further religious observance, would be considered treachery.

What’s more, when Reb Chaim Shalom Segal (Sirciano) was arrested and severely tortured for harboring foreign currency, he gave his money to Rav Shmuel for safekeeping. Rav Shmuel sent $10,000 of that money to the Skulener Rebbe’s family. He delivered some of it personally and sent the rest with another Rav who lived in Bucharest. Afterward, that Rav informed Rav Shmuel that he had carried out his mission, and he begged Rav Shmuel not to ask him to do such dangerous things in the future lest he also be sent to prison with the Rebbe.

Rav Shmuel did these things while under the scrutiny of the Securitate, as the files testify. The 1,600 pages are a record of everything that the Rav did or spoke during those years, including 1,500 photographs. Every little, insignificant incident was recorded. For example: “The Rabbi said a prayer for the man, and the man gave Rabbi Tobias 25 leu, besides the 10 that he had given earlier in the synagogue.”

At another time, Rav Shmuel apparently suspected that the police were listening to his phone conversations. The report states that he said, “Many of my relatives [who had moved to Israel] wish to come back. It is hard to make a living over there. Here I am doing well, and there are many other Rabbis over there. I don’t think that I will apply at this time.”

Another document reports that a Jew nicknamed Nathansohn testified that Rabbi Tobias intended to smuggle gold bars to Israel via the Israeli embassy. The family does not know this man’s identity, but apparently he was paid well to incriminate the Rav.

One agent reported: “The Rabbi received a sum of money, and he sent Yaakov Zucker of Piatra Neamț to the embassy to find out whether or not it came from the Joint.” He then went on to explain the hierarchy in the embassy.

The agents Mircĕ and Virgil reported that Rav Shmuel visited the embassy together with Chaim Shalom Sirciano and Sigmund Goldstein. The two men had collected funds and gave them to Rav Shmuel to distribute at his discretion to Jews moving to Israel. Rabbi Tobias encouraged all those who expressed a desire to move to Eretz Yisrael. They reported that people come to Piatra Neamț and speak publicly in the Rabbi’s synagogue about the virtue of moving to Israel.

“Shmuel Tobias encourages immigration to Israel and advises people to apply for exit visas. He tells people on the telephone whether their names appear on the list in the Israeli embassy. One agent told us that Tobias tells people to go to the embassy and tell them about their financial status, and to ask for Hebrew newspapers and books, and to ask for money. The embassy receives funds from expatriate Romanian Jews and distributes them to others who need such assistance.”

“Rabbi Tobias corresponds regularly with Aharon Berkowitz of Israel. Rabbi Portugal sent him a letter about religious matters, including advice on encouraging young people to attend synagogue services, since there has been a downtrend lately.

“Rabbi Tobias told Pinchas Goldstein, who was concerned that the police sought him out some time ago, not to worry. He added that Goldstein should remove any gold he owns from his home. Agent X reported that Tobias is frequently visited by people who tell him political news that they hear on Kol Yisrael radio. On January 29, 1962, we requested that the passport authority deny passports for Tobias and his contingent, but they ignored us and issued the documents. In light of our knowledge of his activities and those of the entire group against the Republic of Romania, we are planning to direct the authority to invalidate the passports.”

In light of all this, Rav Shmuel’s release from the clutches of the Securitate is absolutely mystifying. The facts are that he did settle in Eretz Yisrael, where he served as Rav of Shaviv in Herzilya. He also established Yeshivas Be’er Chaim Mordechai in memory of his teacher, the esteemed Rav Chaim Mordechai Roller of Neamt. He spent his last years in Bnei Brak, where he continued to guide and advise his fellow Jews without fear of the secret police.

Rav Shmuel passed away on the day after Yom Kippur, 5754/1993. He is survived by his children, who themselves serve as esteemed Rabbanim. His biography and a collection of his chiddushim have been published as Shalheves Shmuel. The writings that were retrieved from the Securitate will soon be published as Al Neharos Piatra Neamt.