Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

25 Sivan 5763 - June 25, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Torah For The Taking, Torah For The Giving: HaRav Zushe Waltner Zt'l

By Moshe Musman

1 Tammuz 5763, Seven Months Since His Petiroh

Part One

Introduction: A Gallery of Heroes

The establishment of major Torah centers throughout the world, that perpetuate the great yeshivos of Eastern Europe, is one of the greatest contemporary miracles. This began over sixty years ago. It was wrought by a handful of great builders who single-mindedly, often alone and against the prevailing trend, created, from scratch, environments where spiritual growth could take place and Torah greatness worked for. The significance of their achievements lies not in the size of what they left behind them, for the most striking growth came later, but in its very existence. Because of their tremendous self-sacrifice, the foundations they laid have proven enduring and today support a larger-than- ever edifice.

Among such men one might include founders of the powerhouses that have been raising Torah disseminators, authorities and legions of bnei Torah for fifty years and more, transplanters of specific approaches into new and foreign soil, and those who inspired thousands to turn from the profanity and materialism of the modern world and wholeheartedly embrace the timeless values that are our nation's pride. All of them, whether they built, transmitted, inspired, or did all three, effected genuine change. They breathed life into a nation's dry bones and infused soul into its spiritually wasted frame.

While it is interesting to reflect on the composition of such a list -- some names will probably spring to mind quicker than others -- HaRav Zushe Waltner zt'l, earned a place on it by any reckoning. While his work as a Torah disseminator began early in life and continued into advanced age, he is principally associated with the great achievement of his middle years, the creation of a Torah center in Tangiers. He brought the depth and intensity of Torah life to Morocco, thereby transforming a whole generation of Moroccan Jewry.

Most Tangiers alumni are grandparents today. Many of them fill important communal positions around the world. Many are distinguished scholars with disciples of their own. Virtually all are sincere, genuine bnei Torah. Who was the man that achieved such results and how did he do it?

I Will Take You Out . . . And Redeem You

HaRav Waltner was born on Tzom Gedaliah, 5689 (1918) in Bekestchaber (Tschabeh), Hungary. His father, Rav Yechiel Waltner z'l, served as the leading schochet and was one of the respected members of the kehilloh. While his father was an Oberlander, Rav Waltner's mother (nee Folman) came from a more chassidishe background. This is why he was sent, at the age of thirteen, to Cracow to learn in the yeshiva of HaRav Nechemiah Kornitzer zt'l. Another of his teachers during this period was HaRav Moshe Boyaner zt'l, the previous rebbe of Boyan.

He evidently used the years in Cracow on his own to the utmost, for he earned a reputation as a gifted talmid chochom even before coming to England. Growing antisemitism manifested itself in Poland in the years before the War, and Rav Waltner experienced it firsthand when he suffered a severe beating at the hands of a local gentile in Cracow. He was advised by HaRav Kornitzer to leave the country. As a penniless refugee however, this was no simple matter.

To help support himself, Rav Waltner had been tutoring young boys. One of his pupils was from the Erlanger family of Switzerland. Once the boy's mother was visiting her son and on Shabbos afternoon, she asked Rav Waltner to explain a Rashi in parshas Vo'eiro that she and her son were finding difficult. She was impressed with the young tutor's abilities and she asked whether he would agree to move to Switzerland and serve as their son's house rebbe in their home in Lucerne. This was the means by which he escaped the War, arriving in Switzerland in 1936.

Apparently, rather than trying to stay on and obtain Swiss citizenship, Rav Waltner still hoped to reach England, though immigration there too was extremely difficult. Many other European refugees in Switzerland like himself were then seeking asylum in the United Kingdom. Most of them waited outside the British Consulate in vain and they told Rav Waltner that the same fate awaited him.

Rav Waltner had been in Switzerland for a year when, while out walking one day with his talmid near Lake Lucerne, he encountered Professor Bichler z'l of Jews College. This meeting demonstrated to the professor that Rav Waltner possessed unusual pedagogic talents and he promised to further his cause upon his return to England. He was as good as his word and wrote, informing the authorities that the young man he had met was a genius and would be a great asset to Anglo Jewry.

The letter was effective. Rav Waltner suddenly received a call from the Consul in Switzerland and was given an English visa. He arrived in England in 1937.

Apprenticeship in Selflessness

Rav Waltner initially learned in Manchester Yeshiva, which was then run by HaRav Y. Z. Segal's father zt'l. He also spent time in London, where he became close to HaRav Rabinov zt'l and to HaRav Abramsky zt'l.

Within months of the outbreak of World War Two, German bombers were subjecting the cities of England to savage attacks and many families were evacuated to small towns and villages in the countryside.

While with evacuees in Chesham, Rav Waltner first made the acquaintance of the man who had the greatest impact on his life, HaRav Eliahu Dessler zt'l. He would accompany Rav Dessler on his travels and they became very close. Rav Dessler introduced him to the approach to learning of the Lithuanian yeshivos and also shared his own profound exposition of the mussar ideas of Kelm, both of which Rav Waltner fully absorbed and faithfully applied, with singular success, throughout his life. Many aspects of his own future life and work mirrored those of his great teacher.

Rav Waltner married in 1943. His rebbetzin (of the Haberman-Streicher family) had arrived in England several years earlier as part of a Kindertransport from Germany. She had since qualified as a teacher and was teaching Jewish school children in Chesham. Rav Dessler was their shadchan and was also the closest that either of them had to family at their wedding.

Afterwards, the Waltners made their home in Gateshead, where Reb Zushe joined the fledgling kollel which was under Rav Dessler's leadership. Among his close friends there were HaRav Leib Lopian zt'l, HaRav Chaim Shmuel Lopian zt'l, HaRav Aryeh Leib Grosnass zt'l and HaRav Moshe Schwab zt'l.

Rav Waltner and his family were fortunate in being able to retain their close relationship to Rav Dessler, for he lived in the same building as they, one flight above them. Rav Dessler was then on his own. His wife had been stranded in Lithuania with their daughter at the war's outbreak while on a family visit to Kelm, and had escaped to Australia where they had to remain while the war was in progress. While he was away from Gateshead for most of the week, teaching and travelling to raise funds for the kollel, he was at home from Thursday to Monday.

For several years, he would take his meals in Rav Waltner's home. The Waltners had ample opportunity to observe Rav Dessler's conduct and were privy to his ideas and attitudes on the home and education. He became so close to them that Rav Waltner's son described him as "a second father."

Rav Waltner recorded Rav Dessler's shmuessen and would not make a move without consulting his mentor first. Even after Rav Waltner left Gateshead, he and Rav Dessler continued corresponding. Some of Rav Dessler's letters to him appear in the fifth volume of Michtav MeEliyohu (see box).

In the Aftermath

Until 1944 when the Germans invaded Hungary, Rav Waltner had heard that his parents were still alive. But subsequently, nothing more was heard.

In 1946, Rav I. Herzog zt'l and Rav Ch. Mishkovsky zt'l, visited Gateshead on behalf of the Vaad Hatzoloh. Speaking in the kollel, Rav Herzog described the situation in Europe in the war's aftermath at length. He revealed that thousands of refugee children were being housed in camps all over the continent and he appealed for assistance in rehabilitating them. Rav Waltner and Rav Grosnass decided to travel there and see what could be done. This was the first of several trips that Rav Waltner made to Europe.

Two nights before Yom Kippur, 5707 (1946), Rav Waltner was in Budapest when he received a call from the British Consul informing him that he had just twelve hours in which to leave the country. He took the first flight to Prague, which was under Communist control, arriving on the morning of erev Yom Kippur with nowhere to go and no way of preparing for the approaching fast. As he wandered the streets, he spotted a man carrying a towel. Rav Waltner approached him and told him that he was on the run. The man was indeed Jewish and he offered to share his food.

Rav Waltner later described that Yom Kippur, which he spent in the famous Altneu shul, as his most memorable one ever. The shul was packed with brokenhearted refugees, who had survived the war physically but as lost and rootless souls. At the sight of his British passport, Rav Waltner was inundated by entreaties to "Save us -- take us out." He was offered the Maharal's seat, which he refused to sit in. He gave a droshoh in which he offered heartening words of encouragement, which made a deep impression. He said that the people didn't daven on that Yom Kippur, they just cried. Following this experience, he felt completely drained.

Together with Rav Grosnass, Rav Waltner began arranging a transport of children to the United Kingdom. In order to gain them entry, they had to show that the children would have a means of support once they arrived. It was difficult getting people to assume responsibility for a refugee's upkeep. One of those who made large undertakings in order to have the children accepted, was the late Mr. Fritz Nussbaum z'l, of Gateshead.

Eventually, enough families were found who were willing to adopt a homeless child. In those cases where surviving families wanted to send their children on ahead, this was temporary. Where the children were orphans, the commitment was long term.

Money had to be raised for transportation. Several thousand British pounds were needed to hire planes. Rabbi Kopul Rosen z'l, of Carmel College, helped out, donating money towards these expenses.

Another problem with bringing the children to England was their lack of documents. Without any choice, Rav Waltner forged papers for them. He consulted Rav Dessler who feared that the authorities might prosecute him, for there were still many irregularities in the papers, with girls' names appearing on boys' visas and vice versa. Rav Dessler warned, "Reb Zushe, you'll sit in jail for it. Keep me out of it!"

However, Rav Grosnass, who was in Budapest, insisted that there was simply no choice.

For some reason, the planes were compelled to take off from Budapest at an hour when their arrival would be after the curfew then in force in England. While the planes were in the air, Rav Waltner went to the military airfield in Croyden, which was already closed. He explained to the British officer that in an hour or two, planes carrying the first refugees from the camps would need to land and that there were problems with their documents. He hoped they'd be able to do something about the mistakes etc. but there had been no choice. Please, he begged, would they overlook the discrepancies and the late hour and open the airfield so that the planes could land?

Not only did the officer open the airfield, he also arranged for beds, food, clothes and even candies, for the children. That was how the children were brought into the country.

Among the seventy-six arrivals, Rav Waltner discovered his own sister, today Rebbetzin Chersky of Stamford Hill. Another was HaRav Zechariah Gelley, former rov of Sunderland and today rov of Kehal Adas Jeshurun in Washington Heights. Rav Gelley credits Rav Waltner with saving his life.

While the girls took up lodgings with Jewish families, Rav Waltner took the boys and founded what developed into Yeshivas Netzach Yisroel in Sunderland, a town near Gateshead. Among them were children who had been through the camps and were severely traumatized. These were hard cases.

Sometimes when he gave them food, they hid it instead of eating it. They would have nightmares and wake up screaming. He had to sleep with them every night. Some were not frum at all. Some thought they were still in the camps and attempted to run away in the night. Eventually, some of the boys found relatives in the United States and went to them.

Rav Gelley recalls Rav Waltner's greatness of spirit as well as the care that he took of his talmidim and his emotional involvement with them. In his shmuessen, he recalls, Rav Waltner would cite the Alter of Kelm, as well as Rav Dessler.

He remembers Rav Waltner often quoting a comment of the Maharal's on the gemora (Yoma 38), that describes the incident in which Hillel Hazokein almost froze to death in his determination to hear his rebbes' Torah. The gemora states, "Hillel obliges the poor" to emulate this level of devotion to Torah and prevent lack of material means from disturbing learning. The Rambam brings this lehalochoh.

The Maharal asks how the gemora knows that Hillel's standards are generally binding? Maybe his behavior was exceptional and such sacrifice is not demanded of others?

He explains that the concept of lifnim mishuras hadin, beyond the minimum requirements, does not apply in Torah study. If an effort is possible, it must be made.

With his care and concern and with such exhortations, notes Rav Gelley, Rav Waltner gave many of his talmidim the resolve to devote themselves and their lives to Torah.

In Search of New Vistas

Rav Waltner eventually founded Sunderland Yeshiva. Reb Dovid Pearlman, of the respected Pearlman family, was one of the major Torah supporters. He helped a lot in establishing and supporting the yeshiva. Rav Grosnass was instrumental in bringing his brother-in-law, HaRav Chaim Shmuel Lopian, to Sunderland to serve as a maggid shiur. HaRav Chanoch Ehrentreu ylct'a was also one of first talmidim in Sunderland.

However, there seemed to be little future there. Few local families were interested in sending their sons to yeshiva. After the bulk of the European boys had left, Rav Waltner looked around for new talmidim.

It was suggested that he travel to Morocco and bring over a group of boys from there. Rav Waltner went out to Tangiers, in Spanish Morocco. He took the best students graduating from the local talmud Torah and brought them to Sunderland, repeating the trip the following year.

Tangiers had been granted standing as a neutral, international city under Moroccan suzerainty, in 1923. This attracted intelligent and well-to-do European immigrants and ushered in a period of economic flowering.

Material prosperity however, only served to hasten the spiritual deterioration of the local Jewish community. The children attended gentile schools, from where they invariably continued to European universities on journeys that were one- way in every sense. The Alliance organization (Alliance Israelite Universelle a Jewish aid organization that was dedicated to bringing all aspects of modernity -- the blessings as well as the curses -- to the Jews throughout the world and especially in French-speaking lands) naturally found this fertile ground for its activities.

The traditional way of life of Moroccan Jewry was powerless to stem this tide, which was sweeping all of the country's communities but was accelerated in Tangiers because of the cosmopolitan influences on the city, due to its special standing.

In the nineteen forties, a tiny Ashkenazi community, composed of families of European refugees, took shape. Prominent among them was the Reichmann family, renowned for their wartime relief work and support of Torah causes in the decades that lay ahead. Most of the family later moved to Canada.

While in Tangiers in 1953, Rav Waltner met R' Shmuel Toledano, a member of the well-known Moroccan Toledano family, who passed away recently in Yerushalayim. Reb Shmuel and other local Jews were deeply concerned about what they saw happening in Tangiers, although they were helpless to do anything for there were no adequate internal spiritual resources upon which they could draw that were capable of holding onto the youth.

Reb Shmuel asked Rav Waltner: Why take boys all the way to England instead of establishing a yeshiva right there, in Tangiers?

While Rav Waltner could by now see the potential for spreading Torah in Morocco, he pointed out the need for a building and for money to run an institution. However, he must have expressed his willingness to consider taking up such an offer if the ways and means could be found.

Six months later, R' Shmuel Toledano was the beneficiary of an inheritance from a wealthy and childless uncle. He himself was an architect and he went ahead and built a fine yeshiva building, with a dormitory, a kitchen and even an apartment for the Waltner family -- all without asking if Rav Waltner would come.

He then sent Rav Waltner a telegram: "It's all ready. Come." R' Shmuel Toledano had already been in independent contact with Rav Dessler about who should be rosh yeshiva and the latter had recommended Rav Waltner.

This might have been the best advice for R' Shmuel Toledano but Rav Dessler had reservations about whether it would be best for Rav Waltner. While he had given his wholehearted support to his talmid's rescue efforts hitherto, he was more cautious about moving an entire family over to Morocco. In Sunderland there was the yeshiva from which Rav Waltner's young son could benefit; in Tangiers, there was, as yet, nothing. In Bnei Brak, Rav Dessler went to consult the Chazon Ish zt'l on Rav Waltner's behalf. The latter's verdict was, "If you think your son will be successful in his learning and will know how to read a shtikel Rabbi Akiva Eiger properly, you can go. But if not, not."

Rav Dessler offered three pieces of advice of his own concerning setting up a yeshiva.

First, he warned against involving family members, in order to remain above suspicion of nepotism. Second, he pointed out that every yeshiva had to acquire its own individual character; this might be done by the selection of a team of outstanding maggidei shiur, as the Ponovezher Rov had done in his yeshiva. Third, he insisted on keeping a distance from the Mizrachi and Jewish Agency groups, as from fire. No partnership whatsoever should be entered into with them.

HaRav Shammai Zahn zt'l, was brought in to take over in Sunderland and the Waltner family set sail on what was then a voyage lasting several days, to the North African coast.

End of Part 1 of 3


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.