The Jewish Underground of Samarkand follows Chabad-Lubavitch activities in Soviet Russia, focusing on their clandestine activities in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, between 1946 and early 1971, when the author finally received permission to emigrate.
Author Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman begins by describing the evolution of the general governmental policies of Russia, and its intense hostility to Jewish interests, which it deemed “counter-revolutionary,” along with all other religions. The reader then encounters one anecdote after another concerning the experiences of numerous members of the Chabad movement as they attempted to fulfill mitzvoth and study Torah.
Being gifted with a sterling memory and possessing outstanding research techniques, the author discusses the lives of several rabbis at length, including an elementary school teacher, R. Benzion Maroz; the author’s father, R. Avrohom Zaltzman; a maternal uncle, R. Avrohom Boruch Pevzner; a profound role model, R. Berke Chain; a Jew who was no stranger to sacrifice, R. Simcha Gorodetzky; the distinguished Bukharian benefactor, R. Refael Chudaidatov; and the devoted activist, R. Mendel Futerfas.
Many pages describe the challenges that the author and others had to overcome in order to observe Shabbat, kashrut, organize a yeshiva for young men, and live in accordance with Chassidic values, parts of life many may take for granted today.
Some were able to survive the unending persecution harassment, but many Jews were killed, imprisoned, or exiled by Stalinist policies. Reading how individuals did their utmost to avoid arrest, withstand torture during interrogation, survive exile to the furthest reaches of Siberia for decades, and fabricate stories to cover-up religious activities, is inspiring.
The book is written from a Chassidic perspective, and the role of women during this time is not explored and non-Jews are generally depicted as being against Jews. The author tells the story with a mentality of Lubavitchers against the world. The author makes a poignant remark over the course of a particularly difficult recollection that indicates that for him Jewish life in Samarkand held good times and bad:
After leaving Russia, it was difficult to grow accustomed to the type of conduct we observed elsewhere. During my first Rosh Hashana in Israel, I still cried as I prayed, but to be honest, those tears were less from the atmosphere of Rosh Hashana itself, than for my longing for Rosh Hashana in Samarkand.