How Pious Jews Hid a Hasidic Rabbi’s Grave from the Communists

August 6, 2020 | Dovid Margolin
About the author: Dovid Margolin is an associate editor at, where he writes on Jewish life around the world, with a particular interest in Russian Jewish history.

While the shtetls of Eastern Europe tended to have populations split roughly evenly between Jews and Gentiles, the Ukrainian town of Berdichev was a mega-shtetl, with Jews constituting some 80 percent of its population for much of its history; it was also larger in absolute numbers than most of the other market towns where Polish and Russian Jews once lived. In the late 18th century, its claim to fame became the presence of a major ḥasidic holy man by the name of Levi Yitzḥak, whose grave has remained a pilgrimage site to this day. Yet, even though the grave’s location has been preserved, only recently has his actual tomb been found. Dovid Margolin explains:

[I]n the first decade of Bolshevik rule [in the Soviet Union], an unrelenting onslaught [on traditional Jewish life] was led by the yevsektsii, the Jewish sections of the Communist party, [which] worked to uproot every vestige of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—confiscating synagogues, beating rabbis, and paving over Jewish cemeteries. The yevsektsii were most powerful in traditionally Jewish areas, and there was no place more Jewish than Berdichev.

“The conversion of the 200-year-old Jewish cemetery of Berdichev into a public park has resulted in a war between religious Jews and policemen and laborers employed in excavating the cemetery and transforming it into a park,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on July 12, 1929. While the city’s rabbinate proclaimed that ancient Jewish remains were being desecrated, “the Communists declare that . . . only the skeletons of horses have been dug up.”

Berdichev’s oldest cemetery was indeed destroyed and is today the city’s central Park Shevchenko. [But] one grave remains—that of a legendary Berdichev rabbi named Liber the Great (d. 1771). Rabbi Levi Yitzḥak, on the other hand, was buried in what was a relatively newer cemetery, destruction of which it seems the Jewish section did not get around to. In 1930, Stalin ordered the yevsektsii disbanded, and by the end of the year Jewish Communists had lost their power in the city.

[It seems that] some time after this episode, to head off the destruction of the rabbi’s grave, observant Jews in Berdichev themselves took down the brick mausoleum surrounding the grave and capped it with pavement and a headstone in order to make it less of a target.


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