HaRav Yehoshua Yeshaya Neuwirth zt"l was born in Berlin on 14 Adar I 5686 (1926). His father HaRav Aharon was a well- known rav. His mother was a descendant of HaRav Yitzchok Dov Bamberger, the Wurtzberg Rov. His father refused to become an official, state-supported rov ("rav mita'am") and was thereby better able to keep halochoh.
In the latest edition of his well-known work Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchosoh, HaRav Neuwirth describes his experiences during World War II. He says that he and his brother were sent in a Kindertransport to Belgium. He celebrated his bar mitzvah there, and the only gift he received was a Kitzur Shulchan Oruch from his brother.
His parents were able to leave Germany for Holland in 1939 as part of a group of 42 German rabbis allowed entry by the Queen. This was before the outbreak of hostilities in September, and the Neuwirths managed to bring their sons from Belgium to join them there.
The family managed to contact the Hungarian embassy in Holland. The ambassador did his best to help Jews and he gave them documents stating that they were Hungarian citizens and were waiting for permission to go to Hungary. Rav Neuwirth writes that these documents helped save their lives.
The German occupation of Holland began in May, 1940. From then on there was pressure on the Jewish residents of Holland. Only 25% of Holland's Jews survived the war. It became more and more difficult for the family to get food to eat, as all food was distributed by ration cards which Jews could not get. The family survived because HaRav Neuwirth's father was appointed the official rabbi of the Jews fighting in the Underground, and every month they paid him a salary throughout the war. HaRav Neuwirth said that he regarded this as miraculous.
The family soon went into hiding. They remained in the same area, but out of sight. For three years they did not leave their apartment, or even show themselves at the windows. They used the time to say Tehillim, and HaRav Neuwirth learned maseches Kesuvos with his father, and other seforim by himself, including the third part of the Mishna Berurah (about the laws of Shabbos). From his Kitzur Shulchan Oruch he managed to figure out the rules of the Jewish year, and he made a Jewish calendar covering the whole time they spent in hiding, including all the special days of the year, both the Jewish dates and the secular dates. The Underground made copies which they distributed to Jews in the camps. Later it was confirmed that the calendar was completely accurate.
The final roundup of the Jews of Amsterdam was on 21 Iyar 5703. When they came to their street the Germans divided into two groups that started at opposite ends of the street. Their building was exactly in the middle. Instead of coming inside and checking all the apartments, they sufficed with standing outside and asking loudly if any Jews lived in the building. One of the non-Jewish neighbors, whom they were particularly afraid of, went outside and said that they knew of no Jews. HaRav Neuwirth wrote that he is not sure if he was ignorant or lying, but he credits Hashgochoh with helping them and causing him to say what he said and the Germans to believe him.
In May, 1945 the entire country was finally liberated by the Allied forces. HaRav Neuwirth writes that he and his family felt a tremendous sense of gratitude to Hashem that they had survived the war whole. He says that two incidents in particular left a lasting impression on him and influenced his subsequent approach to keeping mitzvos.
The first occurred before the first Shabbos after they were liberated, as they were trying to put together a minyan for the tefillos. They did not know of other Jews who had survived, although they had a very strong desire to daven with a minyan after such a long period when they did not have one. Suddenly a car pulled up with a number of soldiers from the Jewish Brigade who were eager to join a minyan for Shabbos. Nonetheless, and despite his fervent and sincere desire to daven with a minyan after going so long without one, his father refused to form a minyan with mechalelei Shabbos and preferred to daven as individuals.
"The second thing that left an impression on me was that without anything, since all Europe was destroyed, I traveled three days going and three days coming back to bring kosher cheeses whose production I supervised.
"I stayed in Amsterdam but I was hoping to leave to go to Eretz Yisroel. In the spring of 5706 (1946) a group of illegal immigrants was organized. All the borders were still closed as a result of the war. We were forced to cross the borders disguised as American soldiers, dressed in their uniforms. Thus we crossed borders until, after long weeks, we reached the port city of Marseilles in France. When the ship arrived that was to take us to Eretz Yisroel they ordered us to board it on Shabbos. That was especially painful to me. All the years of the war, we managed to keep mitzvos as much as possible and especially Shabbos Kodesh. How is it that now that there is freedom I have to be mechalel Shabbos? My situation was very bad and it seemed to me to be dangerous to stay in a strange place, without money, without food, without any property, with nowhere to go. I was forced, with no other choice, to board the ship but the impression was engraved upon me for many years, and all the more so since after some time I saw that it was all a ruse of the mechalelei Shabbos who wanted us, the religious group, to violate Shabbos.
"We traveled for three weeks in a Turkish fishing boat under very difficult conditions because of the heat and the lack of food. People who were weak or sick died and we had to lower their bodies into the sea to prevent the spreading of disease. We reached the shores of Eretz Yisroel and were immediately caught by the English. Boruch Hashem I lived through this journey, on which we had almost no food except for bread and jam.
"When we reached Eretz Yisroel the British took us straight to the camp in Attlit where I stayed until after Tisha B'Av... Some people advised me to work to provide for my daily needs and to be able to help my parents when they arrive. I asked my father zt"l in a letter and he answered very strongly: He Who has helped until today will continue to help! We endured five years of Holocaust so that my sons would learn Torah. If you must go to work I will be forced to take you back to Holland! You will learn only Torah. After the physical salvation during the years of the war I was saved again — this time a spiritual salvation.
"After some time I arrived in Yeshivas Kol Torah... With the beginning of the State by parents and younger brothers came to Eretz Yisroel, and here with His great mercy, almost the whole family was restored.
"When I was forced to board the ship and to be entangled in chilul Shabbos (because of the threat of pikuach nefesh), I undertook that if HaKodosh Boruch Hu will provide me the opportunity I will do something for Shabbos, and that was how the idea originated to write a sefer about shemiras Shabbos. After the birth of my eldest son Hy"v I noticed that there was no book that collects all the laws of Shabbos in language that is accessible to all that can serve to answer all the many questions that arise every Shabbos. And then I began writing the sefer. With the mercy of Hashem yisborach the first edition of the sefer was published and there were many responses. It was necessary to expand it and to study the sugyas again, and after the second edition came out around 30 years ago now the time has arrived to make a new edition."
This was in the introduction to the third edition of Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchosoh that was published three years ago.
HaRav Neuwirth entered Kol Torah yeshiva when HaRav Yechiel Michel Schlesinger and HaRav Boruch Kundstadt zt"l were its heads. After the passing of HaRav Schlesinger, HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l was brought in as rosh yeshiva and HaRav Neuwirth developed a deep and long-lasting relationship with him. He writes that it was "natural" that HaRav Shlomo Zalman went over his sefer on hilchos Shabbos when it first appeared, and subsequently he went over it with great care.
With HaRav Shlomo Zalman's passing he became close to HaRav Eliashiv zt"l. On many occasions HaRav Eliashiv praised HaRav Neuwirth and he gave a strong letter endorsing the most recent edition of Shemiras Shabbos Kehilchosoh in 5770.