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Excerpted from an article by Eli Rubin

1903, in Harbin, China. The Russo-Japanese crisis was coming to a head; Russia already had nearly 200,000 troops in the area, and more were heading east. At the same time Rabbi Shalom DovBer Schneersohn, the fifth rebbe of Chabad, was heading west to Paris. While the train carried him in the opposite direction, the Jewish soldiers in the east were not at all far from his mind. He was extremely worried that come Passover, without matzah, they would be deprived of both physical and spiritual nourishment. In Paris, the rebbe hoped to enlist the help of the most influential Russian Jew of the era, Baron Horace Günzburg, in the effort to coordinate a Passover relief campaign with the imperial Russian authorities.

Ideologically, Gunzberg and the rebbe almost always found themselves at odds with one another. But Rabbi Shalom DovBer hoped that while Günzburg might not sympathize with his religious sensibilities, he would yet be sensitive to the plight of the thousands of Jewish soldiers who had been sent to the front.

However, Günzburg dismissed the rebbe’s concerns with a wry twist of Talmudic irony. “For Jews, there is a resolution: there is yet a Second Passover.” The learned baron was referring to the day, a month following Passover, when anyone who had missed the opportunity to offer the Passover sacrifice in the Temple was given a “second chance.”

Rabbi Shalom DovBer was not impressed with this show of erudition. He replied, “At the front, there are no barons. The soldiers are regular Jews; they know nothing of such clever excuses. They need to have matzah on Passover.”

Unfortunately, Rabbi Shalom Dovber’s effort to provide matzah during the first year of the war met with limited success. He realized a wide collaborative campaign would have to be orchestrated for the next year. In November 1904, he wrote to Rabbi Yeshayahu Berlin—a wealthy and philanthropic chassid—asking him to establish a centralized office
to coordinate the public effort.

The production, transportation and distribution of matzah on such a scale would require a special permit that could be obtained only from the highest levels of the imperial government in S. Petersburg. While Rabbi Shalom DovBer himself spent nearly a month in that city, he also had very able proxies in R. Shmuel Trainin, a well-connected industrialist, and a certain Yitzchak Margolin. The previous year, Margolin had personally donated five hundred rubles to the cause. Now he promised to put his influence in government circles—and particularly his connection with the minister of transport and communication, Prince Mikhail Ivanovich Khilkov—to good use.

The odds, however, did not look good. As Rabbi Trainin pointed out, the government itself needed to raise as much money as it could for the war effort, and was unlikely to sanction a competing campaign to raise money for Passover matzah. Rabbi Shalom DovBer was unmoved by such arguments. “The Jewish people,” he said, “can achieve anything. It is G‑d who bestowed the Torah and its commandments upon us. It was us that He chose to serve Him. He will help us. All that is required of us is action.”

Eventually, a committee was convened. Rabbi Shalom DovBer himself oversaw the preparation of all the necessary documentation, and a meeting with the Minister of the Interior— Prince Pyotr Dmitrievich Sviatopolk-Mirskii—was scheduled for Friday, Dec. 11, 1904. But Margolin showed up late, and the meeting had to be rescheduled for the following Monday.

Incidentally, it was on the day after the missed appointment that the czar issued the Decree Concerning Plans for Improvement of the Social Order. Amongst other things, the decree offered a vague promise that some “unnecessary” discriminatory laws and restrictions aimed at ethnic and religious minorities would be removed.

7:00 Monday morning, the rebbe himself telephoned the house of Rabbi Trainin to make sure that the delegation was awake and on schedule, calling again at 8:00 to verify.

At 10:00, the group found themselves in the minister’s presence. Hearing their presentation, the minister proclaimed the project to be both “fitting and necessary.” The third delegate, Rabbi Menachem Moneszohn, went directly from the meeting to report back to the rebbe. Arriving at the rebbe’s lodgings, he saw the Rebbe’s eyes were red from crying. The good news that R. Moneszohn brought set his heart at rest, but he remained as impatient as ever to bring the project to fruition.

Two weeks later the official permit was issued. Now the campaign to raise sufficient funds and the logistical arrangements for the production and distribution of the matzah could begin in earnest. Rabbi Shalom DovBer penned a public letter calling upon the Jewish population to rally in support of Jewish soldiers He wrote:

Brothers! We must feel the hearts of our brethren at the war front, who are committed to difficulty and great danger, may G-d save them. They are forfeiting their lives on behalf of our king and the land of our birth…

The main thing in war is fortitude and strength of heart …and on the other hand, weakness of heart and low spirits bring great danger, for they cannot stand in the close combat of war…And what can cause our brethren lowness of spirit more than eating chametz on Passover, G-d forbid… The observance of the mitzvah of eating matzah on Passover will strengthen the hearts of our brethren, and give them strength and fortitude to stand firm in war and to overcome the enemy with might…

…It is incumbent upon us to participate in the pain of our soldier brethren . . . Certainly, each one of us has relatives who are soldiers in the war zone. We are obligated to save them and give them the strength and ability to stand in combat, and bestow upon them this lofty and exalted commandment, which will guard them and strengthen them. The sensitivity of hearts towards them [expressed] via this help will also strengthen their spirits and souls, by consolidating and uniting the feeling of our souls with them…

Over the next few months, the committee had their work cut out for them. The main problem was logistical; freight along the Trans-Siberian Railway to Harbin was reserved almost exclusively for military equipment and supplies. But the members of the committee successfully petitioned the ministers of transportation and war. Ten freight cars were provided for the shipment and transportation of Passover supplies.

Three days before Passover, Rabbi Shalom DovBer received a telegram confirming that all the arrangements had been brought to timely fruition. This could not have been an easy task; there were tens of thousands of Jewish troops spread over several thousand square miles, and all elements of production and distribution had to be coordinated with the Russian military and transportation authorities. Along the Trans-Siberian Railroad alone, seven stations were stocked with Passover supplies for the provision of Jewish troops passing to and from the war zone.

But not all the wagons had arrived as planned. Consequently there was a shortage of matzah, not at the front, but in Harbin itself. At the last minute, 10,000 rubles were wired by the committee to Harbin so that additional matzahs could be baked, regardless of expense.

While conducting his own Seder, the rebbe received a final telegram bearing the news that the matzah had been correctly distributed amongst the troops in the war zone. Upon reading it, Rabbi Shalom DovBer rose from his chair in joy and gratitude and declared, “Thank G‑d!”

Excerpt published in the Pesach 2022 issue of the Jewish American Warrior. For the complete original article, see here.