The story of Eliezer Nanas is a remarkable one. While living in Moscow under the yoke of Communism, he tried to keep as many mitzvos as possible. He even sent his children to a school that taught Judaism to youngsters, and for this “crime” he was sent to Siberia for ten years, a death sentence for most people. When after a long and arduous journey Nanas arrived at the work camp, he was thrown into a little hut where there was nothing but a bed, surrounded by vast, empty vistas and unending snow. The food that he received was hardly enough to keep body and soul together, and in the extreme cold of Siberia, caloric intake made all the difference between staying healthy and alive or succumbing.
A guard soon entered his hut to inform Eliezer that he had been assigned the relatively easy job of house painting. He was given a ladder, a paint brush, and a pail and told to paint different areas of the huge camp. Misery, cold, and despair were all around him. Yet, Eliezer Nanas made friends and encouraged those who were obviously Jews and kept a relatively positive outlook. However, after a few days he didn’t report for work and an angry guard came to look for him.
“Today is my Sabbath,” said Eliezer to the shocked guard. “As a Jew, I don’t work on Shabbos.”
“We’ve had guys like you in the past. We know how to deal with your kind. You’ll simply get less food until you know how to follow orders,” said the guard. Eliezer returned to work on Sunday, but started receiving starvation rations.
One day he was called to paint the house of the camp commander. The commander’s wife treated him civilly and right away he thought that she might be Jewish herself. He even said a few words in Yiddish to confirm his suspicion and to establish contact. They began to talk even as he painted. She heard about his background and saw that Eliezer Nanas was not a common criminal but a spiritual and intellectual person. She also heard that his rations had been reduced as a punishment.
That night, the commander’s wife approached her husband (who was also a Jew but never acknowledged the fact). She asked him to intervene to help the painter and reinstate his food allowance. “Don’t interfere in camp matters,” he yelled at her.
Their 16-year-old daughter was standing in the room and heard the discussion. “You’ll go to Gehinnom (purgatory),” his wife warned her husband in response. “What’s Gehinnom?” asked the daughter curiously. The mother told her what little she knew. “The old-time Jews believed that when one leaves this earth you either go up to Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden, or heaven) or down to Gehinnom depending on how you acted in this world,” her mother told her reluctantly.
One day soon after, a guard came to Eliezer’s hut. “You have a visitor,” he told the surprised Jew.
He stepped into the visitor’s room and saw a young girl. It was the commander’s daughter. She looked around, unsure of who was listening. Then, she quietly said, “If I help you, will you agree to give me half of your Gan Eden?”
Eliezer was taken aback. But as he peered at her, he saw her sincerity and naive yet strong faith, “Yes, I’ll give you half of my Gan Eden,” he replied. That was the end of the very short, decidedly strange conversation. The next day, Eliezer received his normal rations and he continued to stay in his hut on the Sabbath. Amazingly, he was never bothered again.
After several more weeks, the daughter was back to visit him once again. This time she was beaming. “Don’t tell anyone yet, but you are going to be released. They’re sending you back to Moscow,” she said. “But remember, we made a pact,” she reminded the incredulous Jew. “You are giving me half of your portion in the Garden of Eden.”
“Yes of course,” said Eliezer, still in complete shock. “But truthfully, I don’t know why you need it. After what you’ve done on behalf of a fellow Jew, you have a complete portion of Gan Eden waiting for you all on your own!”
Eliezer Nanas made aliyah to Israel shortly thereafter and was able to bring out his family after several months. He recounted his experiences in the book Subbota under the pseudonym of Avraham Netzach. Subbota, the Russian word for Sabbath, became his nickname in prison because of his total commitment to observe Shabbos under brutal circumstances. He lived in Jerusalem for the rest of his life. There is a street in Ramat Shlomo named after him.