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15 Av 5759 - July 28, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Chassidus Ashkenaz Restored: HaRav Yechiel Schlesinger zt'l -- 9th Adar 5759, His Fiftieth Yahrtzeit
By Moshe Musman, based on the writings of Rabbi Aharon Surasky and Rabbi Sholom Meir Wallach

Part III

Simchas HaTorah in Frankfurt

Despite the time and the energy which Rav Yechiel invested in the discharge of his duties as rav and poseik for Kehal Adass Yeshurun, his main joy lay in teaching the Jewish youth of Frankfurt, in the yeshiva and elsewhere. It was in this area that his influence was most noticeable and most enduring.

The yeshiva had been founded by HaRav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch's son-in-law, HaRav Salomon Breuer zt'l. He was succeeded at its head by his son HaRav Joseph Breuer zt'l, who later led Kehal Adass Yeshurun in Washington Heights, New York, and who greatly admired and respected Rav Yechiel.

The elder Rav Breuer's shiur followed the pattern of the yeshivos of his native Hungary, lasting for long hours, and dealing intricately with the topic being learned. It demanded thorough preparation and attention on the part of the talmidim. Rav Yechiel was well qualified for this regimen, though he also introduced an element of the Lithuanian style lomdus, which proved highly popular. One talmid recalled that he occasionally spent half the shiur delving into a single comment of the Maharsha!

As he showed his talmidim how to reflect, analyze and examine the components of every topic, they discovered a new sweetness in their learning and developed new enthusiasm. They watched their rebbe become fired by the Torah he taught; they saw how the veins on his forehead stood out; they caught his excitement. Rav Yechiel also repeated to them the thoughts and insights of the great roshei yeshiva in the Torah centers to the east. Yiddish was studied in the yeshiva, in order to facilitate the students' comprehension of the Torah of the roshei yeshiva, to which Rav Yechiel attached great importance for, as he told them, "There can be no Torah life without a connection to gedolei Torah."

The most succinct way of summing up Rav Yechiel's contribution to the chinuch of his talmidim in Frankfurt is that he injected a powerful dose of vibrant Yiddishkeit into their lives. The yeshiva and community were of course strictly Orthodox, but the local youth had no vision of the full Torah life that their rebbe had experienced in the yeshivos of Hungary and Lithuania, and which he now came to embody for them. Now there came an opportunity to live not only by the orderly ticking of the regulated Jewish way of life, but to beat in unison with its very heartbeat.

In the last few years before the final curtain descended on German Jewry, the community experienced a degree of spiritual revival and there was much that could be achieved. Where possible, Rav Yechiel directed bochurim eastward to learn. One such talmid was HaRav Moshe Eisemann, zt"l, rosh yeshiva of Vineland (a cousin of the Baltimore mashgiach), who went to Ponevezh. Other talmidim were sent to Yeshivas Mir and other major yeshivas in Eastern Europe. There were other talmidim who also went on to achieve greatness in Torah and yiras Shomayim, while others grew into upright ba'alei batim, fully committed to regular Torah study as well as meticulous mitzva observance.

The most symbolic expression of the new spirit which Rav Yechiel infused was the Simchas Torah dance the last year of the yeshiva in Tishrei 5698 (1938) in which he led his talmidim around the beis haknesses, despite the disapproval of some of the members -- to whom such conduct was so unheard of as to seem undecorous and ungenteel. This caused a real stir in Frankfurt.

Rav Yechiel was nicknamed Die Schwartzer Rov (the black rabbi). One of the "innovations" which earned him this title was his teaching that a chosson should not give his hand to his own kallah before their wedding. In general, although he personally accepted many stringencies upon himself, he demanded no more from his talmidim than faithful adherence to halocho, particularly in areas where a degree of laxity had become acceptable. His own conduct -- the selfless dedication to spreading Torah and to fulfilling mitzvos, which his talmidim had constantly before them -- may well have been the medium which conveyed his message most powerfully.

Reb Michoel Isaak recalled the time when a trip to Denmark for kashrus supervision necessitated Rav Yechiel's making a twelve hour train journey overnight, spending all of the following day supervising, returning by train that very night, and only reaching Frankfurt in the early morning. Yet nonetheless he arrived in the yeshiva on time and delivered his regular shiur, for its full duration and in all its customary depth.

Another talmid, Reb A. Rimon, remembered when several talmidim were sitting with Rav Yechiel while his father, HaRav Eliezer Lipmann Schlesinger, who suffered from foot ailments as an old man, was seated at the head of the table. The bochurim saw their rebbe suddenly leave his seat and bend down over his father to arrange his feet more comfortably.

Another example of his wholehearted dedication to mitzvos was his practice during the summer days which he spent resting and recuperating in a village not far from Frankfurt. Since there was no kosher minyan there during the week, Rav Yechiel made the trip back into town each evening -- a matter of walking and then spending an hour on the train -- for mincha and ma'ariv with a minyan. He would then spend the night in his own home, and after shacharis, travel back again to the village.

Wide Vistas and Keen Foresight

Rav Yechiel was a man of broad vision and he undertook harbotzas Torah in its widest sense. He did not limit his efforts to his talmidim in the yeshiva but worked to provide all groups of the Orthodox youth with as much spiritual preparation for their futures as he could.

He led a group known as Torah Umussar for young men who worked during the day. He delivered a nightly shiur to them which was aimed at covering as much material as possible, in order to give them as good and broad a grounding in Torah as possible.

One of the members of Torah Umussar recalled the strong desire which he and his friends had to participate in these shiurim, each and every one of which was precious to them. Even many years later, he still remembered their deep disappointment when their beloved teacher did not come to deliver the shiur one evening. Another talmid remembered the shmuessen which Rav Yechiel used to deliver to them. These formed the basis of their outlook upon life and introduced them for the first time to the idea of learning Torah for its own sake.

When the Nazis attained power in 5693 (1933), and began their gradual but systematic persecution of the German Jews, it was natural that the first to feel the impulse to get up and leave would be the youth whose lives lay ahead of them, while the older generations, were inclined to hope that things would eventually improve.

Chareidi youth in Germany was then organized in Zeirei Agudas Yisroel and Ezra. These organizations decided to set up No'ar Agudati, whose purpose was to prepare its members for aliya to Eretz Yisroel. The headquarters of the new group was in Frankfurt in the same building in which the Schlesingers lived, and members were expected to interrupt their work or studies elsewhere and to move there, where they would receive training in the pursuits they would be taking up.

Rav Yechiel built a relationship with the No'ar Agudati, being accepted by them as their halachic authority and spiritual guide. He aimed to introduce them to the idea that they needed spiritual, as well as physical, fortification for life in Eretz Yisroel and that a year spent learning there in a yeshiva would go a long way towards providing them with the tools they would need. In the framework of the training provided, members accepted this year of learning upon themselves. His halachic guidance included teaching them the halochos of kiddush Hashem, because of the uncertain future in Europe and elsewhere. Later on, in Eretz Yisroel, his involvement in the spiritual absorption of his landsmen continued.

Managing such an array of activities and responsibilities, each of which singly would have been enough to fully occupy most people, was only possible because Rav Yechiel's approach was that he was merely trying to live up to his obligations. He had originally accepted the post in Frankfurt because he felt a responsibility towards the youth in his country of birth. What prompted him to take on additional burdens was the conviction that if there was any way in which he could draw others closer to Torah, he had a positive obligation to do so, together with the determination to do his very best to live up to all such obligations. Because of this, his influence spread and was felt far beyond his own city. Leaving Germany purely for personal reasons was therefore an unlikely option; Rav Yechiel felt unable to take such a step without asking the godol hador for guidance.

It had always been clear to Rav Yechiel that his sojourn in Frankfurt would only last until his oldest son reached an age when the law of the land required him to attend school. He was unwilling to place him in a framework that included far more secular studies than the absolute minimum that was compatible with a Torah education. He was not against the school there, but he wanted more for his own children. This was what he had told HaRav Yosef Yonah Horowitz, the av beis din of Kehillas Adass Yerei'im, when he had inquired of Rav Yechiel how long he planned on staying in Frankfurt.

When his son reached school age, Rav Yechiel attempted to open a cheder type talmud Torah in Frankfurt but the time was not opportune due to the steadily worsening situation. Rather than send him to the existing school, he kept his son at home, and he asked several of his talmidim to learn with him privately until he would be able to organize a full cheder. This was in the fall of 1938 (5698), only a few months before Kristallnacht. The press of subsequent events prevented these plans from being realized.

Despite his foreboding regarding the future, Rav Yechiel was still reluctant to leave without getting Reb Chaim Ozer's approval. This was not forthcoming. Rav Yaakov Rosenheim also had a hand in the matter, fearing that there would be a sharp spiritual decline in the yeshiva and in Frankfurt in general were Rav Yechiel to depart.

Eventually things became so bad that he was hardly able to engage in any religious activities at all, and by that time Rav Yechiel himself was in danger. Reb Chaim Ozer now gave his consent to leave and the question of where to go came to the fore.

The Gathering Storm

Although Hitler ym"sh, had been crusading against the Jews for years and his party had come to power in 5693 (1933), some years passed before it became generally apparent that things were just not about to blow over. In April 1938 a meeting was held between the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the Nazi leader which yielded the Munich Agreement, granting Germany further territory in return for a pledge that there would be no further territorial demands. Chamberlain was proud of his policy of appeasement and hailed the agreement as ensuring "peace in our time." He was widely believed, though just eighteen months later Hitler cast the agreement aside when the German army invaded Poland, beginning the Second World War.

However, even at the time of the Munich meeting, Hitler's real ambition was fully understood by Rav Yechiel, who approved the agreement in a conversation with some bochurim, saying that it bought time: "Boruch Hashem -- if there had been a war he would have killed all the Jews." Those who heard him smiled and were convinced that his view was extreme. In retrospect, of course, he was tragically prophetic.

Antisemitic incidents sharply increased in the course of that year, and though Rav Yechiel felt that the entire kehilla should leave the country, there were many who still believed that there was no immediate danger and communal life went on. At this point, Rav Chaim Ozer would not permit Rav Yechiel to interrupt his activities and abandon the community.

One day, Rav Yechiel was travelling by train and studying a sefer in German entitled Chukei Ho'avodoh, by Rav Moshe Findling z'l. A Nazi officer noticed the book and confiscated it. When he saw the title, he yelled, "The Laws of Labor?! Underground communist literature!"

The Rosh Yeshiva was taken to the nearest police station and arrested for possessing subversive anti-government literature. It was only the next morning that his family realized that something was amiss and, after making inquiries, they found out what had happened. Rav Yechiel was released only after a concerted effort was made on his behalf with the authorities.

One day during Succos 5699 (1938), the last in Frankfurt, German hooligans attacked Rav Yechiel's succah with stones while the family was eating in it. One stone penetrated the sechach and only by a miracle did not hit someone. The Schlesinger's gentile maid went with the stone to the police station and said, "Herr Chancellor certainly doesn't want this!" but needless to say, her complaint went unheeded.

Rav Yechiel did not show the slightest sign of fear as the rocks came in, saying, "Lo ye'une latzaddik kol ro."

Rav Yechiel still insisted on sleeping in a succah, though he moved up to a neighbor's rooftop succah that was out of the range of projectiles.

Less than a month later, the infamous Kristallnacht took place, when hundreds of botei knesses and thousands of Jewish shops and businesses all over Germany were despoiled, burned and razed. Many Jewish men were arrested and in the morning, equipped with lists of names and addresses, Nazi officers continued to round up prisoners. These lists were headed by the names of religious and communal leaders.

Rav Yechiel left his house as usual on that morning and made his way to the shul. As he passed the beis haknesses, which he saw was going up in flames, he joined a group of Jews who were attempting to rescue the sifrei Torah from the burning building. Their efforts were to no avail, for a wall of fire blocked any approach. From behind, they heard cries of distress. The shamash had been among those already arrested that morning and his wife was beside herself with her distress and was refusing to leave her home, which adjoined the burning beis haknesses. Disregarding the flames, Rav Yechiel went inside and brought her out, saving her life.

Then Rav Yechiel went home. He wanted to go to the yeshiva, saying, "I know that it's dangerous for Jews to be seen in the streets today, especially those who look like rabbis, but I reached the conclusion that if even one talmid shows up today, it's worthwhile taking the risk in order to teach him." The truth is that people did not realize the full extent of the danger at that time.

Mrs. Schlesinger said that she did not want him to go alone and she would accompany him. As they approached, from a distance, the man in charge signaled to them that there were no classes that day.

On the way home, they passed a large group of Nazis who had congregated in the street. There was also an SS officer who was racing back and forth on a motorcycle. Any male Jew who came into their clutches suffered blows or worse.

Mrs. Schlesinger walked in front of her husband, trying to shield him from view. Miraculously, the two passed right by all the Nazis without incident. Mrs. Schlesinger said later that cannot understand how they managed this.

Rav Yechiel took his young son with him (to avoid yichud) to stay for a while at an almono who lived nearby. (HaRav Schlesinger today still remembers that they learned parshas Noach together there.)

From there they went to Mrs. Schlesinger's mother's home, and the rest of the family joined them.

Mrs. Schlesinger had sold her bedroom furniture in anticipation of leaving, and she received 300 marks for it. She kept the money in her morning dress, and it was in this dress that she left and it was exactly the amount necessary to get to the border.

In fact, just two days earlier, word had come from Rav Chaim Ozer allowing Rav Yechiel to leave. He had been considering whether to go to America or to Eretz Yisroel but in view of the immediate danger into which he had been plunged, how to get out of Germany now became the burning question.

Miraculously, contact was established with Rav Yechiel's sister, Mrs. Guggenheim, who lived in Basel, Switzerland. Her late father-in-law, Saly Guggenheim, had served as the Yugoslavian Consul in Switzerland and his family was still in possession of the means to enable the Schlesingers to get out of Germany and into Switzerland. They were told which border crossing to reach and were promised that the passports would be sent there.

From the Lion's Jaws

Escaping from Frankfurt was the next hurdle. It was difficult enough to find an empty taxi in which to travel, for many Jewish families whose heads had been arrested were now hiring cabs, trying to relocate for their own protection. The Schlesingers passed up the first available taxi, as its driver appeared more sympathetic to their oppressors than to them and he could well have delivered them to the nearest police station.

The driver that they found spoke strongly against the Nazis, which made them somewhat at ease. Rav Yechiel took the precaution of lying down on the floor of the car, shielded from sight by his children, since any male Jewish adult who was seen outside was arrested.

The family was already out of the city when they realized that one of the children was missing. He had been taken out earlier by a nanny for a walk and had not been at home when the others made their hasty departure. A decision had to be made about what to do. Cold logic dictated that having come thus far, the family should go on and find some way to have the child brought to them later on. However, Rav Yechiel was firm in his resolution that they continue together or not at all.

Returning to the city was unthinkable and, given the situation, it would be next to impossible to find yet another taxi to go back and bring the child. Then the driver remembered a friend of his who drove during the night hours and who was just then rising in order to begin his work. The driver reached the man at his home, gave him directions and the relevant descriptions for intercepting the nanny and her charge on their walk in the street, and told him where to bring the child in order to meet up with them. Things went quite smoothly, but only when this mission had been accomplished did the journey continue.

There was more danger further on. While waiting at a level crossing while a train passed, a Nazi officer interested himself in the family excursion, explaining how difficult it was to travel on the crowded roads just then. This too turned out for the best, for the officer did not suspect anything and he even gave the cab driver instructions as to the best way to travel, thus making his own amazing contribution to the escape.

Finally, late that night, the Schlesingers arrived at their destination: the town of Freiburg on the Swiss border. Mrs. Guggenheim was there to meet them. While Rav Yechiel and his rebbetzin had to wait until their new passports arrived, his sister took the children away with her in her own car, relying on the vehicle's diplomatic markings to ensure smooth passage past any guards. However, a policeman noticed that the car had arrived without passengers and was now full and he signaled her to stop. She ignored the order and drove on.

The following day, the Guggenheims received a visit from a policeman who was searching for the illegal arrivals. Mrs. Guggenheim tried to pass the children off as her own but when the policeman called the oldest Schlesinger child over and asked him to identify himself, the boy burst into tears and the truth emerged. The policeman declared, "I have been ordered to return the children to Germany. Though I have been in the police force for forty years, I would prefer to resign rather than to carry out such an order."

Mr. Guggenheim promised that the children would be out of the country within a fortnight and the policeman accepted his word and left. Mr. Guggenheim's mother arranged for them to stay at a chareidi boarding school in France.

In Hiding

Although the false passports gained Rav Yechiel entry into Switzerland, it was still prudent to lie low, lest the forgery be discovered upon close inspection. His brother-in- law, Reb Yechiel Guggenheim z'l, who was always at the forefront of the efforts to save the family, at times even endangering himself, found the Schlesingers accommodation in a village near St. Galen. Moreover, that place was in quarantine at the time because of an outbreak of cattle disease. This gave them a good chance to escape detection. Even under the trying circumstances, Rav Yechiel's trust in Hashem did not waver and he also adhered to all his customary halachic stringencies as best as he could.

So that he would resemble the picture on his passport, he was forced to shave. Though this caused him great anguish and some tears, he did so. He was careful to leave extremely long sideburns to ensure that he would avoid the transgression of shaving the corners of the beard, though this gave him a rather strange appearance. He managed to arrange a minyan for tefilla in the village and as Pesach approached, he invited a guest in as tenth man, so that there would still be a minyan. During the escape, he stressed that while he would do anything and everything permissible, he would not transgress the ruling of the Shulchan Oruch and declare himself to be a gentile, whatever the circumstances. Since this bordered on the Torah's prohibition against idolatry, there could be no question of leniency.

There were relief organizations in Switzerland that offered unconditional financial assistance to refugees. However, Rav Yechiel refused to accept anything from them, preferring to subsist frugally on whatever he had managed to bring with him from Germany of his own. He only agreed to take a loan from his brother-in-law. With the help of the Sternbuchs of Zurich, a legal temporary visa was eventually procured for the family and arrangements were made for the children's return from France.

While they were in Switzerland illegally, Rav Yechiel and Mrs. Schlesinger stayed at the home of the Sternbuchs for a time. Rav Yechiel did not want to stay long since, as he correctly suspected, the Sternbuchs gave their own bedroom to the Schlesingers while they hosted them.

Eastwards or Westwards?

Rav Yechiel's subsequent destination had been the subject of much thought, long before his sojourn in Switzerland. It seems that while still in Germany the matter had been resolved, though perhaps not finally settled.

Practically speaking, there were two possibilities: either the United States or Eretz Yisroel. HaRav Elchonon Wassermann knew Rav Yechiel from the latter's years in the yeshivos and he highly valued his character and his talents as an educator. Contacting his friends in America, Reb Elchonon had suggested Rav Yechiel for a position in Torah Vodaas in Williamsburg.

Through the efforts of HaRav Pinchos Teitz zt'l, high level diplomatic activity had been initiated in order to have American visas issued in haste to the family by the American consul in Frankfurt. From Vilna, Rav Chaim Ozer also gave his consent to this move. In the event, it seems that the visas did not arrive before the family was forced to flee Germany but at some stage during their stay in Switzerland, the option became viable again.

The other possibility was to go to Eretz Yisroel, where Rav Yechiel already had conceived the idea of establishing a yeshiva of his own. A bold, clear vision of what had to be done in order to bolster Torah chinuch among the young generation in Eretz Yisroel was certainly necessary, in order to even entertain the idea of opening a brand new institution in the conditions that prevailed there at that time. Yet Kol Torah did not yet exist, whereas Torah Vodaas did.

It seems only reasonable to assume that the family was assured of some means of support in Eretz Yisroel (though preliminary attempts made in Switzerland to raise funds for the new yeshiva were not successful), yet leaving any material considerations aside, the choice was still not straightforward. Even if we concede that the position in America may not have been a certainty, it was more certain than anything in Eretz Yisroel. Given the possibility of obtaining a position as a marbitz Torah in a large, established yeshiva situated in a major Jewish center, that was also materially well-established, the choice seems to have been visionary, perhaps even prophetic.

Yet it would be a complete mistake to imagine that Rav Yechiel was a dreamer of the type that harnesses everything to the pursuit of a hoped-for goal, even when there is no realistic plan of how it is to be achieved.

In general history lehavdil, such examples are numerous, and it is often the fate of the visionary to dash himself against a harsh and unsympathetic reality. Though it may transpire that the visionary was accurate in what he perceived, it falls to others, who are more well grounded, to seize the idea at some later time and develop it along more solid lines.

Gedolei Torah, in contrast, are pragmatic in their deliberations and in the decisions they make. They are inspired -- but at the same time, they keep two feet on the ground. Anyone who has ever discussed a problem at length with a godol beTorah has seen how a situation is examined exhaustively, from all points of view, all of which are taken into account in the answer.

When we examine the factors which were crucial in arriving at his decision, as Rav Yechiel himself enumerated them to his nephew HaRav E. G. Schlesinger of London, we discover that his plans for opening a yeshiva were not foremost among them. His prime concern was to make the right choice for the chinuch of his own family. He had been unwilling to enroll his oldest son in the Jewish school in Frankfurt because of the time spent there on secular studies, and he wanted something better for his children. He felt that it would be best for them, both in Olom Hazeh and in Olom Haboh, that they grow up with Torasom umnosom. This was, however, his personal desire for his own children.

He discovered that the situation in America was similar, while in Eretz Yisroel, there were chadorim that taught virtually only limudei kodesh. Another consideration which he mentioned was the opportunity to escape the need to conform to the gentile week with the Sunday holiday when, as Rav Yechiel put it, there was a whiff of idolatry abroad in the street. At the time he contacted HaRav Elchonon Wassermann about whether he could bring up his children to Torah in America. HaRav Elchonon answered, "In America no, but in Brooklyn yes."

Ultimately, the choice was not even his own. While still in Germany, Rav Yechiel had asked his brother-in-law, Reb Moshe Jacobson, to put the situation to his rebbe, HaRav Dushinsky, who was by then serving as rav of Yerushalayim, and to obtain his advice. His rebbe's verdict was: Eretz Yisroel.

Though the destination was clear, the deliberations had not yet ended. Since he had a chance for immigration visas to the United States, Rav Yechiel was loathe to make use of the valuable immigration certificate to British mandate Palestine that had been arranged for him. Legal entry to Eretz Yisroel was impossible for the vast majority of European Jews, except the few who could obtain certificates. Assured of a refuge across the Atlantic, Rav Yechiel was no longer in a life-and- death situation in Europe, as so many others were who had nowhere else to go. How could he make use of a certificate for Eretz Yisroel, when it could be the means of enabling another Jew to escape from almost certain annihilation? Although he fully intended staying in Eretz Yisroel, he nevertheless opted to forgo the certificate and enter on a tourist visa, on which basis he hoped to secure a permit for permanent residence, though this involved him great hardship. All the authorities were understandably skeptical that a German Jew would come temporarily and later return to Europe. They were reluctant to issue a tourist visa, but somehow they got it.

Thus it was that a few days after Pesach 5699 (1939), Rav Yechiel and his family set sail from Marseilles on an Italian boat, bound for Eretz Yisroel, holding tourist visas. In fact they were not sure if they would stay in Eretz Yisroel or continue on to America. It was only the first minute that they set foot on the holy soil of Eretz Yisroel that Rav Yechiel turned to his wife and told her that this was their permanent place.

End of Part III

The continuation of this inspiring series will be published, iy"H, after Succos.

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