At the beginning of July 1952, the head of the 3rd department of the MGB in Steplag, Captain Zaitsev, conducted the interrogation. Sitting in front of the security officer was former colonel of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army Yevgeny Basyuk. Back in September 1944, Basyuk was recruited by the Soviet intelligence services and headed the intelligence and combat group of the USSR Ministry of State Security. He ended up behind bars because of rampant looting and other malfeasance, but he did not forget his profession as a provocateur. The Ukrainian reported to Captain Zaitsev everything he knew about a certain Boris Deksler, a convinced Zionist who hated Soviet power.
According to the informer's testimony, Zionist Deksler was preparing an armed uprising in Steplag. Bandera member Basyuk was supposed to prepare a combat group in the 5th section of the camp, and Deksler allegedly created the “Jewish group” in the 3rd section a long time ago. Basyuk claimed that Boris Deksler proposed to seize other camps in Karaganda region and fight to move to the Afghan border. If it doesn’t work out, go to the Siberian forests and wait for help from Moscow, where the underground Zionist center associated with America has long been strengthened.
It sounds absolutely incredible, but the entire staff of Steplag sincerely dreamed of, if not bringing Boris Deksler to the capital punishment, then adding another ten and a half years to his ten-year sentence. Demonstrating in every possible way his disdain for the “supervisory staff,” Deksler openly called himself an enemy of the Bolsheviks and a Zionist, quite annoying the camp administration.
Boris Moiseevich was born in 1896 in Minsk into the family of Moisei Shleimovich Gordon and Esther Davidovna Desler. His father was a representative of an ancient rabbinical family, and his maternal grandfather, Reb Israel David Desler, was known as the closest student of one of the founders of the Musar movement, Saba from Kelm.
Before the Soviet-German war, Boris Moiseevich had a double name, Boris-Isai, written in his passport. He simply became Boris because of a mistake made by a military clerk when he was hospitalized in 1943. His last name was different, too. Deksler explained to employees of the relevant authorities that in 1919, when he was discharged from the typhus department of the Stolypin hospital in Kyiv, he did not notice that an extra letter appeared in his surname – Desler – on the certificate. This is how it was henceforth written in official documents.
Family legend says the truth was different. In his youth, his name was Shaya Gordon, and he deliberately changed his last name and first name to hide his origin. According to his personal data, his father, Moishe Gordon, was a watchmaker and died back in 1905. However, Deksler told the family that his parent, a Minsk rabbi, was exiled to Palestine in 1931. In exchange for Gordon and other religious figures arrested in Minsk, the Soviet authorities received a group of Jewish communists from the British. Before the outbreak of World War II, the elderly Rav Gordon lived in Jerusalem. Boris Dexler also had siblings who were prominent “roshei yeshivot” in Lithuania, but he did not maintain any connections with them.
While still a teenager, Boris Deksler moved from Minsk to Vilna. In the city called the Lithuanian Jerusalem, he apprenticed at the Romm Jewish book publishing house. Deksler began his career with the Romm family as an “errand boy”, and then moved to the book warehouse. Boris Deksler devoted all his free time from work to studying at the local yeshiva. Fascinated not only by religious, but also by secular sciences, the young man often read at nights. In order not to fall asleep, he came up with an original method: as soon as he began to nod off, he put his feet in a basin with ice and cold water.
In 1913, Boris Deksler moved to Kyiv, where he started working at Goldfein's bookstore. He did not participate in the First World War due to health reasons. However, he enthusiastically embraced the revolutionary fervor. Witnessing the atrocities against Jews by conflicting parties, Boris Moiseevich voluntarily joined the Red Army in 1918. Many young Jews were then joining the Bolsheviks, who loudly proclaimed equality among nations and the fight against the old regime. Enlisted in a unit combating banditry, Deksler fought until the end of 1918. At one point, he even served as a commissar of an armored train. However, he had to leave the front lines of the Civil War due to contracting typhus in the trenches.
In the early 1920s, still quite weak, he returned to Kyiv, where he eventually found work in a newspaper kiosk. Soon, he met a girl – his first wife, Buzya Divinskaya. Conditions in Kyiv were difficult, and the young family decided to seek their fortune in Moscow. They moved there in 1921, and a year later, the couple welcomed a daughter named Liya.
Throughout the New Economic Policy (NEP) era, Boris Moiseevich changed professions, but he spent the longest time working as a craftsman in the Soviet capital: sewing bags and selling them to stores. A former Red Army soldier, ideologically aligned with the Bund, Deksler eventually became convinced that leftist ideas not only undermined Jewish national consciousness but also failed to address any of the pressing issues. Deprived of livelihoods and often civil rights, shtetl Jews ended up living worse than under the tsarist regime. The ancient language of the Jewish people, Hebrew, was practically prohibited, and the Jewish press in the Soviet Union, printed in Yiddish, only featured triumphant accounts of the achievements of the workers' and peasants' country.
In 1922, Boris Deksler seriously considered leaving the Soviet Union for Palestine. However, his young wife adamantly refused to discuss repatriation with their small daughter in the arms. Nevertheless, Deksler continued to dream of Eretz Israel and eventually resumed attending synagogue services. He began his public activities as an organizer of the cooperative movement. With his characteristic energy, he was engaged in the creation of artels in Moscow, which allowed religious Jews to support themselves and not work on Saturdays.
Over time, Deksler's family life began to fracture. In 1933, Boris divorced Buzya. There was nothing left for him in the Soviet Union. Writing to his second cousin, Zisya Desler, who lived in Tel Aviv, Boris Moiseevich asked him to obtain a British certificate for his departure to Eretz Israel. However, he couldn't just sit idly while waiting for the visa. Having long been involved in Jewish national circles, Deksler learned that there was an active Zionist underground in Moscow.
Meeting Mark Efimovich Bronstein at the synagogue, who had been involved in the Zionist movement in Saratov even during the tsarist era, Deksler quickly became his friend. Bronstein often brought him newspapers and books from Eretz Israel and shared news about events in Palestine. In the summer of 1933, Bronstein introduced Deksler to Joseph Kaminsky. Kaminsky, a doctor by profession, was a prominent Zionist who had even spoken at the Tenth Zionist Congress in Basel in his youth. After a brief check, Boris Moiseevich was accepted into the organization called Algemein-Zion. Its activists positioned themselves as "general Zionists," not affiliated with any specific Zionist movement. Among them, in addition to Bronstein and Kaminsky, were Ze'ev Jabotinsky's friend, the publisher Viktor Kugel, Georgian Rabbi David Baazov, member of the Zionist Labor Party "Tze'irei Zion" Sasha Gordon, Hebrew writer Avraham Krivoruchka, also known as Krivoruchko, also known as Kariv. Boris Moiseevich introduced himself to his comrades as a supporter of the religious-Zionist party "Mizrachi", which aligned most closely with his views.
The primary goal of Algemein-Zion, established by Boris Deksler, was to obtain newspapers, journals, and Zionist literature from Palestine, which the participants distributed within their circles. Boris Moiseevich became a distributor of the newspapers "Davar" and "Forverts", mainly supplied by Dr. Kaminsky and Sasha Gordon.
In an attempt to expand their ranks, the members of Algemein-Zion not only worked among "old" Zionists but also aimed to create a youth organization. Deksler, involved in Chassidic circles in Moscow, was responsible for this task. According to the investigation, the youth group he formed consisted of approximately 20 people. All were students of the underground Lubavitch yeshiva "Tiferes Bachurim" ("Beauty of Youth"). Members of the youth group included Neekh Bogatin, son of Saratov's chief rabbi, Joseph Yakovlevich Bogatin, and his brother, Gershl Bogatin. Another prominent representative of the religious youth was Motl Hanzin, a former member of the right-wing HeChalutz from Konotop, a student of the historical-philosophical department of Moscow State University, and a member of the Moscow Jewish community board. Trying to instill a national spirit in the youth, Boris Deksler and his colleagues held lectures on the history of Eretz Israel, the construction of the Jewish national center, and the international situation of Palestine. They also celebrated Jewish holidays together with the youth.
Another aspect of the work overseen by Deksler in Algemein-Zion was establishing connections with Zionists in places of exile and providing them with financial assistance. The money also went to “ransom” those Jews who received permission to leave the Soviet Union and had to pay impressive “compensation” to the Soviet treasury.
Meetings of Algemein-Zion took place at the apartments of Joseph Kaminsky and Viktor Kugel. The youth often gathered in the corridors of the Moscow Choral Synagogue located in Bolshoi Spasoglinishchevsky Lane. Once, the Zionists gathered at the Polyakovsky Synagogue on Bolshaya Bronnaya, and another time at the old Dorogomilovo Jewish cemetery. Similar gatherings occurred in other cities as well. In the summer of 1933, the Zionists held a meeting in one of the underground apartments in the town of Mozhaysk. According to information from the NKVD, which had its informant among the attendees, during the Mozhaysk meeting, the activists of Algemein-Zion decided to expand Zionist activities in the USSR.
Boris Deksler was first arrested on September 28, 1934. The day before his arrest, he finally received a summons from his brother and a notification of the expenses required for his move to Palestine. However, instead of the shores of Jaffa, he found himself within the walls of Butyrka prison.
Answering questions from Matusov, the authorized representative of the Secret Political Department of the NKVD, the arrested man immediately called himself a convinced Zionist. He stated that class struggle in Palestine should take a secondary role because it hindered the primary goal of the Jewish people — the creation of their own country. Expressing dissatisfaction with the Soviet national policy, Deksler claimed that behind the active assimilation of Soviet Jews was a deliberate effort by party and state agencies to suppress Jewish culture.
Upon learning about Joseph Kaminsky's arrest in prison, Deksler was compelled to disclose details about his trip to Ukraine in the summer of 1934. Traveling through the major Jewish centers of the Ukrainian SSR, Boris Deksler met with former activists of the Zionist movement and religious Jews whom Moscow planners intended to involve in underground work. In Odessa, the emissary of Algemein-Zion met with Pinchas Feldman, who had moved to Eretz Israel and managed to take out the remains of one of the founders of the Zionist movement, Yehuda Leib Pinsker, from the Soviet Union. According to Deksler, he asked Feldman to convey to his contacts in Palestine the need to establish a credit cooperative to assist Jews wishing to leave the Soviet Union for Palestine. Upon his return to Moscow, Boris Deksler soon received a message about an upcoming meeting of the Algemein-Zion activists, where he was supposed to report on his trip to Ukraine.
The meeting of Algemein-Zion took place in the middle of the summer of 1934 at the National hotel located on Mokhovaya Street. According to doctor Kaminsky, who was arrested at the same time as Deksler, it was Boris Deksler who proposed at the meeting to convene an All-Union conference of representatives of Zionist groups. Deksler believed that the legitimate body, “Mercaz”, could only be elected at an All-Union Zionist conference. Unexpectedly, Sasha Gordon opposed this idea, suggesting not to convene a conference for covert reasons but to co-opt several more people into the “Mercaz”. None of the resolutions adopted at the Zionist congress were implemented.
Boris Deksler was sentenced to five years of imprisonment for his involvement in the Zionist underground and anti-Soviet agitation. After his release from the Bamlag labor camp in September 1939, he went to the city of Alexandrov in the Vladimir region. He was not allowed to register in Moscow as a former political prisoner. People were afraid to hire Deksler, so he had to live off the sale of items brought to him by his daughter from the capital. Life became somewhat easier after he moved to the city of Shuya in the Vladimir region, where he managed to obtain a patent and work as a photographer.
When the Soviet-German war began, Deksler was on a business trip to Ivanovo. He had no reason to love the Soviet regime, but he considered it his duty to fight the Nazis. In August 1941, Boris Moiseevich enlisted in the People's Militia, specifically in the separate transport battalion of the 33rd Army. His last place of service was the 1247th Rifle Regiment of the 377th Rifle Division, fighting on the Volkhov Front. During one of the fierce battles in 1943, Senior Medical Sergeant Deksler was seriously wounded. In an unconscious state, he was pulled out from under shelling and evacuated to the rear. Following that, there were long months of rehabilitation at Evacuation Hospital No. 1289 in Baku, from where Deksler was discharged due to his health condition.
In January 1944, after leaving the Baku hospital, he came to Moscow to his daughter, Liya. Once again, he had to earn a living as a sales agent for increasing orders for photo portraits. However, this activity not only provided a decent income but also involved constant business trips throughout the Soviet Union.
In May 1946, Deksler traveled from Baku to Georgia. The official reason for the trip was a work assignment in Kutaisi, but from there, Deksler didn't miss the opportunity to visit Tbilisi. His longtime comrade from Algemein-Zion, Rabbi David Baazov, lived there. The meeting of the Zionists took place at Baazov's apartment. Remembering their comrades who perished in Soviet prisons, the Zionists shared news about their own lives and events in Eretz Israel. This meeting between Deksler and Baazov turned out to be their last. The prominent leader of Georgian Zionists passed away in September 1947.
In mid-February 1948, Boris Deksler traveled to the city of Yakutsk. He chose this city not by chance. His cousins, Reveka Levina and Dvoira Kurtzman-Olstein, lived there, having been exiled to Eastern Siberia from Kaunas. The husband of one of them, Ilya Kurtzman-Olstein, was a member of the Central Committee of the religious Zionist party "Mizrahi" in Lithuania. When Deksler learned that his cousins and their families were alive, he sold his very good stamp collection to an academician, bought a lot of provisions, and flew to Yakutsk.
Meeting his cousins for the first time in many years, Boris Moiseevich learned that his own brothers had perished during the occupation of the Baltics, his father had died in Palestine, and the "red Moloch" had reached his cousin, Girsha Desler. Girsha, a resident of the Lithuanian town of Kelme, was arrested by the NKVD in 1947 and was serving a sentence in the Uhto-Izhemsky labor camp.
When Deksler was leaving Yakutsk, Reveka and Dvoira asked him to visit their brother at the first opportunity, as he was imprisoned in harsh conditions. Promising to take care of their brother, Deksler asked to be assigned his next business trip to Uhta. Since a direct meeting with the brother was not possible, Boris Moiseevich decided to organize a delivery for him. The camp doctor, Vera Fedorovna Livchak, the wife of the repressed engineer Dolgoploska and later the mother-in-law of the well-known Jewish activist Meir Gelfond, helped him in this regard. Tefillin and the necessary books for a religious Jew – Psalms (Tehillim), Siddur, a compilation of Halakhic codes (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) – were handed over by another voluntary inmate, Shaya Turovsky, the blood brother of the Red Army Corps Commander Semyon Turovsky, who was shot during the repressions. In turn, Deksler helped people languishing in the camp send letters to freedom. One of them was a comrade of his cousin's brother, Yosef Meller, the organizer of the Zionist center "Ichud" in Poland, who was imprisoned for the illegal transfer of Jewish emigrants from the USSR. Boris Moiseevich forwarded his correspondence to relatives in Warsaw.
In February 1949, Boris Moiseevich got married for the second time. His chosen one was Rosalia Gedalievna Suslovich, originally from Ochakovo, who had long settled in Moscow. The couple settled in a private sector, in a settlement near the railway station "Krasny Stroitel" on the outskirts of the Soviet capital. The newlyweds did not live together for even a year when Boris Deksler was arrested for the second time.
On August 21, 1949, they came for Boris Moiseevich again. Deksler was placed in the familiar Butyrka prison. During systematic nightly interrogations that lasted until 7-10 in the morning, Deksler remained steadfast. The well-known philosopher and dissident Grigory Pomerants, who was in the camp with the Zionist, recalled that Deksler was interrogated with fervor. Boris Moiseevich, placed under a two-hundred-candle lamp directed into his eyes, was asked to name the surnames of those sympathetic to Zionism. "He strained his elderly memory and named the deceased. They left him alone for a week, then interrogated him again. And again, he named the deceased," recalled Pomerants, a convinced communist at the time, admiring the ideological steadfastness of the 70-year-old Zionist. That's how the 55-year-old Deksler was remembered by Pomerants.
Deksler literally taunted the investigators. Not only did he name people who had long since died in the GULAG, emigrated to Palestine, or were already known to the authorities, but he also constantly reminded the MGB about their agent – Gordon. "With whom among the former members of the Zionist underground did you have to meet after serving the sentence?" Lieutenant Chumovatov inquired, "I saw Sasha Gordon a few times in the Big Synagogue, but he didn't tell me anything." The testimonies of 1949 differed from the ones given by Deksler during his first arrest. He tried to shift all the blame onto the same "Sasha" from Algemein-Zion. Only under pressure did the arrested man admit that he had warned the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, Shlomo Shleifer: Sasha Gordon, a member of the choir synagogue's board, is an MGB agent! And he goes to the synagogue not to pray, but to identify enemies of the Soviet authorities. Boris Moiseevich suggested that the rabbi immediately throw the Chekist out of the synagogue, but there was no reaction. Even a conversation with Shleifer's deputy, Reb Davydov, did not help.
Boris Deksler was accused of conducting anti-Soviet nationalist agitation among those around him. Supposedly, in conversations with his acquaintances, he asserted that the Jewish issue in cultural and financial terms could only be resolved in the state of Israel, and the policies of the party and the Soviet government aimed at the destruction of Jewish national culture.
The Chekists also remembered that Boris Moiseevich had two cousins living in Palestine with whom he actively corresponded, using fictitious surnames. This fact also entered the case, as well as the fact that in his rented apartment in Krasny Stroitel, he repeatedly gathered "minyan" – prayer gatherings of Jewish believers, and celebrated Passover and Shavuot with them. The eagle eyes of the MGB did not overlook the fact that Deksler sent several packages with religious literature to Uhta, intended for the religious Jew Yakov-Meer Fridzon. They also noted that in Baku, he tried to teach Hebrew to the daughter of his friend and maintained contact with Zionists in custody. They were aware of his trip to Tbilisi to Rabbi Baazov, as well as his connections with the family of the Lithuanian Zionist Kurtzman-Olstein.
By the decision of the Special Meeting at the Ministry of State Security of the USSR on April 19, 1950, Boris Deksler was sentenced to 10 years of corrective labor camps. Considering the special danger of his personality to the state, the Zionist was sent to the Steppe camp of the USSR Ministry of Internal Affairs in Kazakhstan. In Steppe camp, or Special Camp No. 4, exclusively political prisoners were held. Boris Deksler left to serve his sentence without seeing his wife and his six-month-old son, Yuliy, who was born in December 1949, right during the investigation.
Boris Moiseevich made a lasting impression on other inmates. Among the Jewish prisoners, he formed "Ezrat-Aniim" – a kind of mutual aid fund, as well as a Zionist group. Felix Berger, convicted for membership in the Lviv "Union of Jewish Youth," recalled that the "nationalist Deksler" constantly admonished a guy in the camp, Senka Friedman: there was no need to run to the Ukrainian women's zone when there were Jewish girls.
More serious information came to the operational department of the Special Camp. Former Ukrainian Insurgent Army fighter Basyuk was not the only source reporting on the "unarmed" Deksler, who was organizing an underground movement within the Steplag. Some of this information contained elements of fantasy – "Deksler in Odessa has two sons who are also members of the Zionist organization and are fighting against Soviet power" – but it all boiled down to the fact that no sentence could correct Deksler's behavior. Former Soviet military commander, Lieutenant General Vasily Terentyev, who had redeemed his debt to the Motherland in Steplag, reported in April 1952 that Deksler behaved provocatively. While working in Terentyev's brigade, the Zionist declared that he did not recognize the Soviet Union as his state: "My homeland is only in Palestine!"
Boris Deksler was released from Steplag on September 4, 1954. By the decision of the Karaganda court, without specifying the Criminal Code article and term, he was sent into perpetual exile in the Ivanovo region. His wife and son, who were living in Odessa at that time, were forced to make an uneven exchange and move to the city of Ivanovo. The family lived in a tiny room of a communal apartment, but the doors to Boris Deksler’s were always open. Old religious Jews, university students – everyone loved to visit Boris Moiseevich. Sometimes they took books, of which Deksler had more than two thousand. Showing serious interest in the issue of education in schools, he corresponded on this matter with the writer Konstantin Paustovsky. Deksler also exchanged letters with a book historian and an entertainer, Nikolai Smirnov-Sokolsky.
Having endured years of imprisonment in prisons and camps, Boris Deksler treated those around him with extraordinary compassion, often helping complete strangers. Once, he and his wife encountered a girl crying bitterly who had been expelled from the institute due to a misunderstanding. Deksler not only sheltered her but also raised the issue with all the authorities, even publishing a large article in the main city newspaper. With his determined efforts, the old Zionist succeeded in reinstating the student in the shortest possible time.
Boris Deksler did not forget about Palestine until his last day. Regularly listening to "Kol Yisrael" radio, Boris Moiseevich would solemnly stand up upon hearing the Israeli anthem, "HaTikvah", broadcast on the Israeli wave. Every year, he sent a letter to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, requesting permission to emigrate to Israel, but he received a refusal with the same regularity.
All hope for Boris Deksler rested on his son. "Someday, you will be in Israel, Yuliy, and there everyone is like brothers and sisters," Deksler would say to his heir, who believed in the sanctity of those people determined to revive the Jewish state after two thousand years of exile and deprivation.
Boris Moiseevich Deksler, an unbroken underground activist from Algemein-Zion, died in October 1964 in Ivanovo. After Deksler's death, his wife wrote a letter to Kosygin, requesting permission to emigrate to Israel. Two years later, unexpectedly, the approval came. The Deksler family repatriated to Israel. In one of the letters from the "Organization of Prisoners of Zion," which helped the Deksler family settle in their new home, it was written: " His widow, without any doubt, can be equated with the wife of an IDF soldier who died for his homeland." Boris Deksler was indeed a soldier who gave his life for Eretz Israel.
Bibliography and sources:
Interview with Moshe Deksler for the "Jewish Heroes" project (09/19/2023).
Archive case of Boris (Isaya) Moiseevich Deksler - State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). F. R-8131. Op. 31. D. 65162.
Archive case of Boris (Isaya) Moiseevich Deksler - State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF). F. 10035. Op. 2. D. 26096.
Excerpts from the investigative case of Kaminsky I. B. - F. R-34930, Central Archive of the FSB of Russia.
Excerpts from the investigative case against Kugel V. R - No. N-9.263, Central Archive of the FSB of Russia.
Pomerants, Grigory Solomonovich (1918-2013). Notes of an Ugly Duckling / Grigory Pomerantz. – Moscow: Text, 2020.
Berger F. E. How It Happened… // Victims of War and Peace: Collection / compiled by V. M. Gridin. – Odessa: Astropint, 2000. – (Odessa "Memorial"; issue 10). - P. 63–95.
1896 - 1964