By KATHY CARLSON
When members of Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel’s family honored a remarkable forebear last summer in Russia, they were closing one circle in their shared history and simultaneously rededicating themselves to continue his work in nurturing and expanding the circle of Jewish life.
Their ancestor was Rabbi Yitzchok Raskin, a Chassidic rabbi in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and Rabbi Tiechtel’s great-grandfather on his mother’s side. Rabbi Tiechtel and his wife, Esther, came to Nashville in 1997 and established a branch of Chabad here. They spoke recently about their family’s history.
One night in March of 1938, Russian secret police forcibly took him from his home in St. Petersburg, then called Leningrad, in front of his four children.
Rabbi Tiechtel’s grandmother, Sima, was about 16, the second-oldest of the four daughters ranging in age from about 19 to 12.
At the time in Stalinist Russia, practicing Judaism was punishable by death. Some 1.5 million Jews lived in the Soviet Union then, and “there was a great depression among the Jewish people because they couldn’t practice their religion,” Rabbi Tiechtel said. Consequently, a Jewish underground developed under the leadership of the sixth Chabad rebbe, Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn.
“In every town, Chassidic Jews held secret Shabbat services and ran secret schools,” Rabbi Tiechtel said. His great-grandfather’s “home was known to be an address for anyone who wanted to eat to drink, for a Shabbes meal, as a gathering place for Jews, and he risked his life to do this.”
On that night in 1938, there was a knock on the Raskins’ door. “Sir Raskin, you are to come with us now,” officers in the secret police, the NKVD, told the rabbi. He turned to his children and said, “I want you to remember you’re Jewish kids. You should continue in the ways in which they are taking me.” It was the last they ever saw of their father, Rabbi Tiechtel said. It was a clear, sure message one that would be transmitted for generations.
World War II commenced the next year, and the Raskin family kept on the move to survive. Sima eventually met and married her husband, Rabbi Meir Itkin.
They had children, including Rabbi Tiechtel’s mother, who was born in a displaced persons’ camp in Europe. The family lived for a while in Paris, then in the early 1950’s came to the United States, settling first in Philadelphia and then in New York City. The Itkins’ home always welcomed visitors, in the tradition of Sima’s father.
The intervening years hadn’t changed much for Russian Jews, who still maintained their religion in secret and under penalty of death.
Thirty-two years after Rabbi Raskin disappeared, his family learned what had happened that night in St. Petersburg.
“Somebody had escaped Russia and came to my grandmother,” Rabbi Tiechtel recounted. The person told her, “I was there the night they took your father. It was the night they swept up a whole lot of Chassidim. They shot him in a firing squad in the state prison in St. Petersburg.”
Now at least one piece of the mystery had come to light. Rabbi Tiechtel was the first person in his family to be named after his great-grandfather Yitzchok. He was the fifth grandchild of Rabbi Meir and Sima Itkin.
Today, many of Rabbi Yitzchok Raskin’s descendants bear his name, Rabbi Tiechtel said. He remembers his grandmother saying, “You’re the first named after him. His name represents his spiritual energy. … I want you to continue doing what he gave up his life for.”
Over decades, the number of Rabbi Raskin’s descendants grew. Today there are perhaps over 300 descendants, continuing to work to fulfill his mission to keep Judaism alive. Rabbi Tiechtel’s brother, also a Chabad rabbi in Berlin, Germany, continued to research his great-grandfather’s life, this time to try to find where he had been buried, in order to place a stone monument at the mass grave.
He was able to access records of the Russian government, including a transcript of the police interrogation of Rabbi Raskin and at long last, a mass burial site holding his remains. Rabbi Tiechtel said family members decided to take a genealogical trip to Russia to mark his mother’s 70th birthday and to erect a stone monument in memory of his great grandfather who was murdered by Stalin because he was a proud Jew.
During the trip, the family was able to see where Rabbi Raskin was kidnapped by secret police on that night in 1938. Esther Tiechtel kept a journal on the trip to Russia.
“During our visit, a kind neighbor ably persuaded the burly security guard to let our family in to courtyard where we stood looking up at the third-story windows where our Zaidy Raskin lived,” she wrote. “We said a L’Chaim and some prayers and tried to imagine those moments at the very same courtyard on the 2nd of Adair.
“It was that night at 1 a.m. when the steel gates in the courtyard opened to let in the rare sight of a big black noisy automobile. … We will never know how (Rabbi Raskin) felt when the secret police stormed in and rifled through every document, waking every person and taking away by force (him) and one of his guests. We do know, that he had the presence of mind and calmness of spirit to turn to his daughters and speak to them with love. He told his oldest, Mina, then engaged, not to delay her wedding while he was gone. He told all of them … you should continue in the ways in which they are taking me.
Nearly 80 years later, Rabbi Raskin’s family gathered at the grave site to erect a memorial and to symbolically bring him to a Jewish burial and to say the Kaddish. Rabbi Tiechtel said there wasn’t a dry eye.
“Your descendants kept what you asked them to do: To continue to be truly a light to the nations, a light to the world,” Rabbi Tiechtel said. “…You can’t be here with us now but we are here to tell you, we have kept your message and life alive. … You gave up your life as a proud Jew in Russia. We are following in your footsteps in Nashville, and continuing to do what you started, but could not finish.” •