The Unsung Hero

Rebbetzin Pessia Matusof, one of the pioneering Shluchos passed away this past week. We only met once, it was last summer on Gimmel Tammuz when I interviewed her for an upcoming book on Shlichus. 

Her story of pioneering with her husband in Morocco in the early fifties was legend. She was not strong, clearly suffering from illness surrounded by the warmth children and grandchildren. 

That evening I was privileged to peak into a life of unsung hero. She had trekked across the ice bridge from St. Petersburg in World War Two escaping the horrors of the Nazi siege. During the war years she taught together with her sisters in the remote Urals. After the war he was part of the Great Escape, the audacious plan that smuggled Chassidim out of Russia on false Polish passports by train. Then spent the decades pioneering Jewish education in Morocco. 

The following is an excerpt which describes the Mesiras Nefesh of Rabbi Shlomo and Pessia Matusof from my upcoming new book about "Modern Jewish Renaissance - How the Rebbe & His Emissaries Transformed Jewish Life":

For most leaving Russia was a terrifying experience, huddled in trains that traveled through the night from Levov to Poland.Pessia Karasik, who later in Paris would marry Shlomo Matusof, did not fear the trip. 

Originally from historic Chassidic town of Nevel, her family had moved to Leningrad. During the Nazi siege, her parents starved to death. She and her two sisters fled over the "Road of Life," the ice road the Russians constructed over Lake Lagoda. More than one million mostly women and children made the treacherous trek by foot. 

Pessia and her sisters found their way to remote mountainous Ural region. She was a teacher. Isolated from friends and community, the three girls maintained their religious observance. After the war they reunited with their aunt and uncle in Tashkent. 

To Pessia, Russia represented suffering; escaping was a pathway a better life. "They gave us passports with different names we had to memorize," she said. The train ride was one of personal liberation. "I was not afraid but relieved to leave the tribulations of Russia behind."

While Rabbi Michoel Lipsker was establishing a beachhead in Meknes, another Chassidic refugee was getting ready to get married. Shlomo Matusof was 33. Rabbi Binyamin Gorodeski, who headed the Chabad office Paris, had suggested that Matusof would be suitable candidate to be sent to Casablanca. His experience in Russia had been much more harrowing than that of Lipsker's. 

Matusof was born in the Russian town Vitebsk, at the end of the First World War. He attended underground Yeshivas, first in his hometown and then in other communities. When he was fifteen, he made the five day trek to remote Georgia and the town of Kutaisi where he hoped to learn in the secret Yeshiva located in the community.

There in 1931 he was arrested in a Soviet Secret Police sting operation, after attempting purchase papers to escape Russia. Imprisoned at sixteen for three months, he was released and traveled to Moscow to attend another clandestine Yeshiva. Matusof was arrested there in September of 1935. After a being held a year he was exiled for the crime of being part of "an organization of counter revolutionaries. 

Another Chassid, Rabbi Yaakov Maskalik, was also sent to the same small community in western Kazakhstan, and they continued learning together. 

In 1938, the long hand of the secret police reached out viciously again. Matusof and Maskalik were both arrested for their continued counter revolutionary activity and sentenced to 10 years in a labor camp. Rabbi Maskalik was never seen again. Matusof was sent to a labor camp near Rybinks, 250 miles northeast of Leningrad.

Shlomo Martusof ended up in the same camp with Rabbi Lazer Nanes, a Chassid a few years his senior. Both stood on principle and refused to work on the Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. They were thrown into solitary. Matusof was forced to stand in the middle of a camp with a sign proclaiming "Subbota—Sabbath Observer." One Passover he existed just on beets for more than a week because he refused to eat leavened products. 

In 1943, after five years in prison, his sentence was commuted as part of plan to draft prisoners into the Russian Army. His years in the camps had battered his body so he was spared combat duty. Instead, he was put to work in military camp in Kazahstan.

Realizing that he would be forced to work on the Sabbath, he deserted the army base and found refuge in Turkestan, a city full of Polish refugees. There he was able to obtain the papers of a Polish citizen who had passed away. With a new identity he found his way to Tashkent, where he was reunited with friends from the Chassidic community.

The famed scholar, Rabbi Nissan Nemanov asked him to join the faculty of the Yeshiva in Tashkent. His exit from Russia was not as arduous as others. He had been passing as a Pole for a few years and left without incident. When Rabbi Nemanov came to France he again asked Matusof to help him in the reconstituting Yeshiva. In the years after the war he spent most of his time in intense Jewish learning.

When the Rebbe's request arrived to move to Casablanca, he was engaged and dreaming of moving in Israel. He had never met the Rebbe, as had Lipsker. At 33, he yearned for some peace and quiet after years of tribulation. Two of his older brothers immigrated to Palestine years earlier. 
"Sitting in a Russian prison the dream that kept him alive was that of going to the Eretz Hakodesh—the Holy Land," said his son, Eli. He had lost his family in Russia and wanted to be reunited with his brothers. 

His wife Pessia didn't object the mission to Morocco. She was brought up in the city of Nevel, renowned for its Chassidim fiercely loyal to the Lubavitcher Rebbes. She said, "My father had instilled the principal in us, that when the Rebbe made a request you listened." In the summer of 1950, Matusof wrote one letter and a week later another letter to the Rebbe sharing his anxieties about accepting the request to move to the Arab country.

The Rebbe responded, "That we are not just "private individuals, that we are to be beacons of light to illuminate the lives of others, one, two three individuals, and that they will effect others that will touch all corners of the globe." With the Rebbe's encouragement, Matusof headed to Morocco shortly after his wedding. 

He set up schools in the Casablanca. He expanded the network to smaller communities. In these villages there had been no proper educational system. Working in cooperation with the local "Chacham"—what the Sephardic Jews called their rabbi—he would hire teachers and organize schools in these more remote communities. Eventually the network would reach seventy communities in Morocco. He brought many students to a dormitory in Casablanca, where they could study in a more intense academic environment. 

Years later Rabbi Mendel Matusof, Shliach in Calgary, was on a trip to Israel decided to visit Rabbi Shlomo Amar, one of his father's students in Morocco. Amar was sitting as judge in the Rabbinical Court in Tel Aviv. When Amar heard that Matusof was there, he took a pause in the proceedings to invite him in, telling his fellow judges, "His father is the reason I am an observant Jew." 

A few years later Rabbi Amar was elected Chief Rabbi of Israel. During a trip to the U.S. he visited his teacher of his youth, Rabbi Matusof who retired in Brooklyn after over 40 years in Morocco. In the modest apartment on Crown Street Rabbi Matusof was greatly honored to welcome his former student. The Chief Rabbi waited for his host to be seated, saying, "It was not proper respect for me to sit before my teacher."

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Today Shlichus is far less daunting, Chabad is everywhere. We must not forget the courage and Mesiras Nefesh of the fearless few who heeded the Rebbe's call that paved the way. This past week we lost one of those great heroines.