A Shaking Encounter on the Paris-Petersburg express (1)

“Ach, mein G-o-t! I have no idea how many years it’s been since I last put on tefillin,” he wept unceasingly • Jottings from the diaries of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson of Lubavitch • The first installment of the riveting tale of one young chassid’s trip away from and back to Yiddishkeit

Petersburg, Tuesday 11 Shvat, 5672 [January 30, 1912]; Hotel Estari, Room no. 527; 11:30 A.M.

I have just now arrived on the Paris-Petersburg express. This train travels along the French and Italian coasts, along the following route: Paris, Marseilles, Nice, Monte Carlo, Menton, Ventimiglia, Genoa, Frankfürt, Berlin, Königsberg, Kovna, Petersburg. I spent about two hours in town, and informed all my associates that I had arrived. However, I am exhausted from the trip, and I also desire to record what occurred during my travels. Therefore, I told my associates that we would not meet until nine o’clock this evening.

I traveled by express train in a private compartment. In fact, all the compartments on this train were for single occupants. The train left Paris on Motzoei Shabbos Parshas Bo, the eve of Sunday 9 Shvat, at 11:30 P.M. Upon entering my assigned compartment, no. 3, I discovered that it was furnished with a table and chair in addition to the bed, and a wash-room that was shared with the adjoining compartment. There was also a bright lamp, which led me to believe that I would be able to do some writing. But when the train started to move, I found that its speed made it impossible to write more than a few sketchy notes, and even this entailed some difficulty.

We arrived in Marseilles Sunday, 9 Shvat, at daybreak. The train stopped there for ten minutes, and then resumed its journey. The porter informed me that we would make stops of fifteen minutes each at the stations in Monte Carlo, Ventimiglia, and Bordegheri, while the stops in Nice and Menton would each last half an hour. While the train traveled along the coast, it would do so at a slower pace, so the travelers could enjoy the natural splendor of the scenic view.

My saintly father the Rebbe, and my mother the Rebbetzin, were in Menton at that time; therefore, I looked forward to our arrival in Menton with special anticipation. When I had left Paris for Menton on Monday, the third of this month (as mentioned previously in this diary) it had been agreed that Father would come to the station to receive a report of my activities in Paris, and to give me instructions for my forthcoming communal endeavors in Petersburg and Moscow.

At nine-thirty the train arrived at the Menton station. Before the train came to a full stop, I already saw my father sitting in a chair in the station lobby, for the large windows afforded a wide view of the tracks. As soon as the train stopped moving, I hurried into the large station lobby.

As we met, Father’s face beamed with his usual soft and gracious smile that uplifts and inspires the heart. We exchanged greetings for a short while, and then I reported everything I had done in Paris. I began with a description of my visit to […], and ended with the final meeting that had taken place Motzoei Shabbos at seven o’clock in my hotel room number 223, “Hotel Garre du Nord,” and the decisions we had arrived at.

Father was pleased with the results of my trip, and presented me with a schedule for further communal work. He approved my agenda, which entailed remaining in Petersburg for no more than a day and a half. During this time there was to be a meeting with […] and I was to visit […]. On Thursday morning I would be in Moscow, and that evening I would return home to Lubavitch by way of Smolensk and Krasnoye. On Tuesday 3 Shvat I was to attend the convention in Kiev, on Monday and Tuesday (1 and 2 Adar) I was to participate in the convention in Petersburg, and on 7 or 8 Adar I would return to Menton with a detailed report.

The porter approached and informed me that the train was scheduled to depart in a few minutes and I should return to my place. Father gave me his blessings for a successful journey, and I hurried back to the train while he remained in the station lobby. He went over to an open window, and when the train began to move he spread out his hands in a gesture of blessing, as the Kohanim do. Fifteen minutes later we were in the Ventimiglia station at the Italian border, and from there our journey continued.

The trip along the seacoast was very beautiful; [indeed] the wonderful feelings evoked by this glorious scenery really deserve to be recorded in full. Unfortunately, time does not permit this, and I will only describe my impressions of a chance meeting with a chassid of the M. family who for various reasons had experienced a progressive spiritual descent (may we be spared such a fate). But Divine Providence arranged things so that he would not remain lost, and could rehabilitate himself.

The M. family as a whole was descended from a distinguished Jewish lineage especially the chassidic branch of the family. The patriarch of the clan, named Reb Shlomo, had been born in the city of S., the descendant of an important family. G-d had blessed him with sons and daughters, and with a large business in the diamond and jewelry trade. His chief income came from the large cities of Petersburg and Moscow, and he frequently traveled to Paris, Antwerp, and Amsterdam to purchase his diamonds and jewels.

Reb Shlomo was a fervent chassid, and as a young man he had visited theMitteler Rebbe, who had given him a threefold blessing: for many sons and daughters, great wealth, and long life. His son, the chassid Reb M. M., once told me a long story explaining why his father, the chassid Reb Shlomo, had been found worthy of receiving this threefold blessing. It is recorded in my diary of the year 5661.

Reb Shlomo engaged chassidic melamdim to educate his sons. Whenever he traveled to my great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, he would take his sons along with him. When they were of marriageable age, he arranged matches with wealthy chassidic families of his own kind, and he took his sons into his business as partners, for the business was constantly expanding.

In time, his sons and sons-in-law also became heads of large families, with many sons and daughters of their own, and they founded their own companies in the diamond and jewelry business. This wealthy chassid Reb Shlomo lived a very long life, and his descendants were prominent both in chassidic circles and in the diamond and jewelry trade.

At six o’clock, I entered the dining car to drink a cup of tea while reading several urgent letters given to me by my father in Menton. At one of the tables sat an elderly Jew eating his dinner, which included [unkosher] meat and wine. As soon as I entered the car, the man put on his hat and approached me, extending his hand in greeting of Shalom Aleichem! “Are you the son of the Rebbe Maharash, or perhaps his grandson?” he inquired.

My first impulse was not to answer him, for I was quite upset with this person who ate unkosher food. But since his facial expression was very gracious, I quickly changed my mind. “Yes,” I replied, “I am the grandson of the Rebbe Maharash of Lubavitch.”

Upon hearing my reply, his face grew red and his eyes filled with tears. Without another word he returned to his table, summoned the waiter, paid his bill, and departed without finishing his meal.

At eleven o’clock that evening, the train arrived at the station in Frankfürt am Main, where it stopped for some time. I got off the train for a breath of fresh air, and I noticed that this person had done likewise, and was now walking toward me. He approached and said that he would like to tell me an interesting story. He was quickly overcome with emotion, and tears flowed from his eyes, rendering him unable to speak. Meanwhile, the time arrived for the train to depart. I entered my car, and he entered his.

Early the next morning we arrived in Berlin. When I got off the train for some air, the man approached me again and wished me “Good morning,” complaining that he had been unable to sleep a wink all night.

When the train left Berlin, I stood up to daven; there had been no opportunity to do so earlier, as it was still before daybreak. Before I finished my prayers the porter entered my compartment and informed me that one of the passengers wished to come in and visit me. I instructed him to apologize for the delay, and to inform the man that he would be able to enter in half an hour.

At the appointed time the person entered and apologized for disturbing me. “I am so overcome with emotion that I am unable to speak,” he said. He began weeping loudly, which made a great impression on me. The man appeared to be over fifty years old, and was dressed in elegant fashion. His beard was shaven, and his moustache was curled in an ornate style. Suddenly, without a word, he covered his face with his hands and broke into bitter tears.

I was confused by this scene, not knowing whether to attempt to comfort him or to let him be. As I was watching him, his whole body shuddered; I thought that perhaps he had gone mad, or that some other misfortune had occurred to him. Unable to bear it any longer, I began to comfort him. Within a few moments he began to speak in a trembling voice, “Do me a spiritual favor please lend me your tefillin.”

I could scarcely believe my ears: what he was requesting was the favor of lending him my tefillin! Before I could question him further, he exclaimed, “Ach, mein G-t! I have no idea how many years it’s been since I last put on tefillin,” and he wept unceasingly.