Pessy Matusof, a longtime Chabad-Lubavitch emissary who as director of the Jewish girls high school in Casablanca influenced the educational and spiritual development of thousands of Moroccans, passed away Oct. 11 at the age of 86.
Together with her husband, Rabbi Shlomo Matusof, the Russian-born educator established a far-reaching network of schools for an Arab-world Jewish community adjusting to the sudden international and cultural change brought on by Israel’s independence.
Born Pessiah Krassik in 1924 to Rabbi Leibel and Eidele Krassik, Matusof’s childhood was spent in Nevel – where her father served as a spiritual mentor at the behest of the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn – and, later, S. Petersburg.
In the northern metropolis – known then as Leningrad – the Krassiks lived close to the central train station, a location that allowed them to harbor Jewish activists who secretly travelled from city to city to strengthen local communities, earning the condemnation of Soviet authorities.
“She would always tell us about the Chasidic gatherings” at home, recalled her son, Rabbi Eli Matusof, a scholar and editor at the Kehot Publication Society, the publishing arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. “They were held in their home in secret. She loved the Chasidic melodies which the [spiritual] giants sang with cravings of serving G-d.”
Memories of Soviet oppressions stuck with Matusof long after she made it out of Russia and established her home in the constitutional monarchy of Morocco. Every Friday night, as she lit candles to usher in the Jewish Sabbath, she recalled the trepidation she once had that any moment, the KGB would catch her family observing Judaism.
“With all of the fear,” she said, “we never missed the lighting of the candles.”
During World War II, Matusof’s father served in the Red Army in an ammunition factory. Matusof, her mother and siblings found themselves, like most of the city, without their father and husband during the great Siege of Leningrad.
“The summer months were not bad,” she recalled, “as [people] were able to bring food through Lake Ladoga, but once the winter months arrived and the lake froze it became difficult to bring food to the city and people were dying in the streets from hunger.”
The lake became Matusof’s route of escape, and she made it out of the city to join her father in the Ural Mountains. Her sister Chiyena joined them shortly thereafter, but several months later, their father passed away from a sudden stroke. After they buried him, the sisters learned that their mother had succumbed to starvation back home.
The orphaned sisters decided to head to their uncle Yona Poltova in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, where he headed a large part of the national network of secret Lubavitch schools. They set out with bundles of their family’s heirlooms and papers, but tragedy struck once more when robbers left them without any property or identification.
Desperate, they turned to a government office to apply for transit visas, but were denied. With no family, or money, they headed out to the street when Matusof heard someone call out to her, using her Russian name Pola.
The woman happened to be someone that Matusof helped obtain daily rations in Leningrad. The woman’s husband was a government official, who arranged for the girls to get the travel visas they needed to make it to Uzbekistan.
After the war, the girls again made an escape, this time out of the Soviet Union on into France, where Matusof became a teacher and earned a reputation as a gifted educator.
Article Continued (Chabad.org)