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The Jewish Underground of Samarkand: How Faith Defied Soviet Rule (October 31, 2023; Mandel Vilar Press) by Rabbi Hillel Zaltzman relates the largely unknown story of the Chassidic Jewish underground that operated in Samarkand under the watchful eyes of the KGB—a story of faith, courage, and resilience. When the Nazis invaded Ukraine, throngs of Jews fled eastward to the Soviet provinces of Central Asia. Members of the Chabad stream of Chassidism settled in the cities of Samarkand and Tashkent in Uzbekistan. Hillel Zaltzman’s family was among these refugees.


After the war, Jewish communities across the Soviet Union faced renewed efforts by Stalin and the Soviet regime to shut down their religious institutions and eliminate Jewish religious identity. As a child, Hillel studied in secret with Chassidic teachers who could have been sent to Siberia if discovered.


At sixteen, Hillel was recruited to join Chamah, an underground organization founded by a small group of young men to promote Jewish life through education. This clandestine group succeeded in establishing a network of underground Jewish schools for more than 1,500 children, as well as a secret yeshiva in Samarkand for older students. Zaltzman describes the memorable people he worked with and the sacrifices they made to share their love of Torah and Jewish learning. He also recalls some of their more colorful adventures—their attempts to celebrate Jewish holidays in secret, hold prayer services, make their own Passover matzah, and obtain religious texts when it was illegal to do so. 

In 1971, after fifteen years of waiting, Zaltzman finally received his exit visa and emigrated to Israel with his family. There he helped reestablish Chamah—this time to help new immigrants from the Soviet Union settle in their new homes and reclaim their Jewish identity. 

The Jewish Underground of Samarkand: How Faith Defied Soviet Rule

SKU: 9781942134923
  • Hillel Zaltzman  was born in Kharkov, Ukraine, in 1939. He was three years old when his parents fled from the invading Nazis and settled in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. At sixteen, he joined Chamah, an underground organization created to keep Judaism alive despite the Soviet government’s efforts to suppress it. In 1971, he received his exit visa and emigrated to Israel where he helped reestablish Chamah to help Russian Jews reclaim their Jewish heritage.

    Rabbi Zaltzman is president of Chamah, a successful organization assisting Jews in the US, Israel, and former Soviet Union. Under his leadership, Chamah has expanded its activities to include social and medical services, educational programs, and a publishing division. He was honored in the US Senate for his humanitarian work in 2016 as part of Jewish American Heritage Month. 

  • “While the Kremlin ruthlessly suppressed organized religion, Chassidic Jews in Samarkand managed to sustain their traditions with determined ingenuity. Brimming with vivid detail, this book will interest anyone curious to know how they survived in the face of Stalinist repression.”   —Joshua Rubenstein, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University and the author of nine books on Soviet history including The Last Days of Stalin

    “The inspiring story of Chabad’s underground followers in far-off Samarkand as recounted by a Lubavitch activist who defied the Communists and survived to tell the tale…. An unforgettable chronicle of courage and perseverance.” —Jonathan D. Sarna, Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, Brandeis University

    “Rabbi Zaltzman’s earnestness, his humanity, and modesty are irresistible. The bravery of resistance dominates throughout. You have in your hands a cultural treasure!" —Cynthia Ozick, Award-winning American novelist, short story writer, and essayist

    “Sheds light on aspects of the Jewish struggle for religious liberty in the Soviet Union…. This book will inform the reader about events that took place in Samarkand that in many ways changed the course of Soviet Jewish history.”—Michael N. Dobkowski, John Milton Potter Chair in the Humanities, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

    “Part historian, part I. B. Singer, Rabbi Zaltzman has the storyteller’s genius. In this astonishing narrative, he tells of his family’s journey and that of fellow Chabad Lubavitchers to Samarkand, fleeing the Nazi invasion of Ukraine, and their struggles to keep their religious practices alive under the brutal rule of the Soviet Union.”—Sol Gittleman, Alice and Nathan Gantcher University, and Professor Emeritus, Tufts University

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