Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Iyar 5759 - April 28, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







Rabbi Alexander Zusha Friedman Hy"d: One of the Few

by A. Avrohom

Toward the end of the winter of 5703 (March 1943), the Agudas Yisroel of Switzerland gave Rabbi Alexander Zusha Friedman Hy"d a Paraguayan passport. With the passport in his pocket, he was taken to the Trawniki death camp. That very winter, he was murdered by the Nazis.

In the death camp, a great soul went up to Shomayim, the soul of an illui, a genuine chareidi activist who courageously battled the spirit of the times, a thinker, an author and an outstanding speaker, an educator, who produced many students and raised the glory of Torah in Poland. He left behind many works, the most famous being Ma'ayono Shel Torah on the weekly parshos.

This set occupies a notable place in nearly every Jewish home. It was perhaps the first of the popular modern anthologies. It showed the way for many who followed, and is still consulted by many.

Many speakers know that if they need a good vort, a pertinent interpretation from which they can develop a discussion, one saying from Ma'ayono Shel Torah will serve to fan and enthuse the hearts of their listeners, and will serve as a source of much light.

Ma'ayono Shel Torah is, true to its name, a well which flows with pure waters -- waters which restore the soul and satiate the thirsty. But the topic of our essay is not the sefer, but its author. Who was that Jew, Alexander Zusha Friedman, mentioned on the title page of the book? What did he accomplish on earth? What did he bequeath to successive generations?


Alexander Zusha's father was Reb Aharon Yehoshua Friedman. Alexander was born in the Polish city of Sochotchov a hundred years ago, in 5659 (1899), where he served as a shamash in a shul, and earned a very meager living. His wife helped him by traveling to various fairs and markets with her wares.

Their son Zusha amazed everyone with his talents. When Zusha was only three he knew all of Bereishis by heart. When Zusha was nine, his melamed told Reb Aharon: "Your son has nothing more to learn from me. I suggest that you place him in the yeshiva of the Admor of Sochotchov."

At first the father didn't want to hear of it, out of fear of the ayin hora. Hearing that three of the wealthy men of the city had hired a special teacher for their own ten year olds, he asked that Zusha be included in their group. However, he made one condition: that he pay the full tuition, just like the wealthy parents. The wealthy parents, for their part, were delighted that the young genius would join their sons' small class, and said: "We'll give you three rubles a week in payment for your son's learning with ours." But the father insisted: "I'll pay the three rubles a week." That was his entire salary, and he gave it. From that point on, the family existed on the meager earnings of the mother of the household.

The fame of the young Zusha spread far and wide. His sharp mind and proficiency in Torah were the talk of the town. The name of the young illui was mentioned with admiration by all the Polish talmidei chachomim. All who knew him, delighted in speaking with him in Torah.

At the age of eleven, he was accepted into the yeshiva of the Admor of Sochotchov, the famed author of Avnei Neizer and the son-in-law of the Seraf of Kotsk. He continued to study there after the Admor's petirah, under the Admor's son, the Shem miShmuel.

There was a wealthy and learned watch dealer in Warsaw named Meir Yoel Schwartzman. He was especially fond of youths who devoted all of their time to intense Torah study, and used the wealth which Hashem had granted him, in order to encourage them to study Torah. Whoever knew fifty pages of gemora by heart received a prize: an expensive watch. Zusha Friedman, who had just become bar mitzvah, was tested and succeeded. He received the watch, which he kept with him until his final day.

At his bar mitzvah celebration, Zusha delivered an astounding drosho, which was remarkable for its breadth and sharpness. All of the inhabitants of the city crowded around the windows of Reb Zusha's home, because there was no room inside. All wanted to hear his speech, for his mouth spewed jewels. The Admor of Sochotchov and the great rabbonim of the city participated in this festive seudas mitzva too.


The young Zusha continued to study in the yeshiva until 5674 (1914), the year in which the First World War broke out. Then he fled with his family to Warsaw where, in the summer of that same year, he married the only daughter of a simple Jew.

His father-in-law was not wealthy in money. What distinguished that house? The reputation of the mother. She was known as one of the most righteous women of the area, due to her yiras Shomayim and generosity. It is related that she gave all she owned to the poor and to talmidei chachomim. It was from this home of chessed that Reb Zusha, who after his marriage continued to live in Warsaw, took a wife.

A Troubled Generation

At the age of twenty, when he was already a married man, he perceived the spiritual situation of the younger generation. With pain and sorrow, he saw their spiritual retrogression. Distressed by the situation, he pondered the issue at length, and devised plans for uniting and organizing them under Torah's banner.

This was a period of rebellion. Many youngsters had left their fathers' tables. It was a period during which they were filled with delusions, false dreams and fantasies about the end of days. During that period, the First World War ended. New reforms "promised" the youth better days, good tidings and hopes for an enchanted unknown. Poland had received its independence. The Communist Revolution was at its height. From out of all this also emerged the Balfour Declaration, which the younger generation believed was a harbinger of the end of the golus -- or so they thought.

Who wasn't caught up? Who didn't believe in the new, world- embracing tidings? Young people who had been educated in the walls of the yeshivos, stormed the idealistic youth who aspired and longed to be redeemed from the yoke of slavery of the golus, and believed that one organization or another would answer their hopes. All these dragged the youth to the abyss.

A very few remained loyal to the spirit of Yisroel Saba. A very few remained dedicated to Am Yisroel and heeded the gedolei Yisroel, who with their foresight saw that all that was false, and that the new ideology and tidings would in the end be smashed to bits and all those ensnared by it would find themselves divested of Jewish content, lacking any affinity to Torah.

One of those few was Reb Zusha Friedman. He considered it an urgent calling to unite the Orthodox organizations, especially the youth who were still loyal to Hashem and His Torah, within one strong framework which would serve as a dam against the sweeping current. He founded the Orthodox Federation, focusing mainly on saving the youth, who declared that "we the younger generation will not, chas vecholila betray our Torah and sacred faith. We are prepared to wage a sacred battle against the destroyers of religion."

Rabbi Zusha behaved in this war, as Jews behave in all wars. He made use of all of the traditional war wiles. Using doron (presents), he enthused the youth with his ardent speeches, which gave off sparks of Chassidic fire which warmed the hearts of those youngsters who so thirsted for substantial meaning in their lives. He utilized tefilla, by either uttering prayers about the situation or as a means to instill the younger generation with the fervor of avodas Hashem, which filled the entire being, and which inspired the youth who with all their souls yearned to savor the fervor of kedusha and the joy of avodas Hashem.

Alongside this, he knew how to fight the destroyers of our faith, to guard against breaches, and to warn against any fissure in the walls of religion.

At the first Knessia Hagedola in Elul 5683 (1923), it was the young, twenty-four year old genius of Sochotchov, Reb Zusha, who read, in the name of chareidi youth the world over, a declaration of allegiance to the authority of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah.

At this time, all of the Orthodox youth organizations united under the banner of the Agudas Yisroel movement within the framework of Tze'irei Agudas Yisroel. Reb Zusha was still young when he became active in Agudas Yisroel, and it was quite easy for him to integrate with Tze'irei Agudas Yisroel.

A Gifted Speaker

At that point, all of his unique capacities and talents came to the fore. In addition to his organizational ability, he was blessed with another gift from Shomayim, the gift of speech. Using that capacity, he stood like a strong rock against the destroyers of religion, repelling every attempt to undermine the hallowed values of the nation. With his rhetoric ability, he publicly expressed da'as Torah in a firm and unequivocal manner. With his sweetness of speech and perceptive insights, he succeeded in instilling his listeners with ideals, which they accepted with deference.

At his public appearances he felt that he was fulfilling a mission in the name of all Jewry. Filled with such a sense of responsibility, he would prepare speeches which would be pointed and clear, and not merely conglomerations of empty verbiage and rhetoric.

However when he spoke at public rallies, he would permit himself to deviate a bit from the "dry" matter-of- fact style and, without detracting from the content, would bring many Chassidic sayings. These commentaries on verses from the parsha were so relevant, that it seemed from his speeches that the entire parsha focused on the issue on the agenda. With great talent, he adapted his speeches to the issue at hand and to the times.

He also knew how to respond sharply to the mockers and detractors. We have in our possession interesting testimony about a controversy which erupted during the Holocaust at a meeting in Warsaw. At this meeting, attended by the Jews of Warsaw, the issue of the certificates which could help many people save themselves from the inferno was discussed. At that time, the certificates were distributed according to a party system and Agudas Yisroel was deprived of its rightful share and received only a disproportionately small number of those permits. The outcry over the deprivation was sounded by Reb Zusha. As he was speaking, someone who didn't belong to the chareidi camp, shouted: "He who toils on erev Shabbos will eat on Shabbos."

"True," Reb Zusha replied. "That's what is written. However, we never heard that one who toils on erev Shabbos will continue to work on Shabbos and will eat on Yom Kippur." Hearing this, the intruder turned red.

In this manner, he "got things moving," and contributed greatly to strengthening religion not only in Warsaw, but also throughout the entire country, by means of the branches of the Aguda.

There are certain people who have rhetorical and speaking talents. There are others who are talented in writing and not at speaking. There are those who are blessed with both these abilities -- writing and speaking.

Reb Zusha Friedman was such a person. With his writing skills, he contributed amazing articles to the chareidi newspapers, articles which expressed his deep feelings and his burning desire to act on behalf of his people.

Sometimes he would express himself by means of articles, and at other times through poems, depending on the need and the issue at hand.


He founded and edited the first Agudist Hebrew journal, Digleinu, which served as a source of guidance for the younger members of the Aguda. This paper appeared between the years 5679 (1919) and 5684 (1924), and later on between 5690 (1930) and 5691 (1931). Its editor Reb Zusha used the paper as a means for strengthening, explaining and influencing.

His clear style and lucid language helped to present his ideas in a concentrated and brilliant manner, enabling him to reach logical and convincing conclusions, which were the fruit of his clear and straightforward mind.

It was evident that the writer was expressing genuine da'as Torah, because he never stopped his Torah study for even a moment. Despite his many involvements, he did not pause from his Torah studies. He utilized that very same capacity when he published the newspaper, Darkeinu, the official journal of Agudas Yisroel of Poland.

Ma'ayono Shel Torah

In Torah study his pen also proliferated with ideas, chiddushim and Chassidic insights. He compiled all these in his well-known work, Ma'ayono Shel Torah.

In his introduction to Ma'ayono Shel Torah, his aspiration to bequeath love of Torah along with pure hashkofo to the generations is clear. He writes: "Our current period is one of tremendous spiritual regression. Torah's words are increasingly becoming guests in the Jewish environment. Man's mind is broken. His spirit is dejected, and the simple Jew lacks the time and the presence of mind to even glance through a Torah work. There are many ba'alei batim who are no longer capable of probing the depths of a Jewish sefer, and a book like this, written in loshon hakodesh and in ancient Talmudic style, is like a sealed book for part of our religious youth.

"We are obligated, then to unlock this source of life, and to bring it closer to the hearts of the simple Jews. We must dress the Torah dictums in light garments, comprehensible and appealing to everyone, so that all of the troubled and anxiety-ridden minds will be able to understand them. We must recast -- as did our great leaders in previous eras -- the ideas and the Torah sayings into the clear, common language of the people, and make them easy to understand. In that manner we will draw the masses closer to our Book of Books.

"Downcast spirits will be encouraged by the glorious rays of the genuine Jewish idea. Minds will be illuminated by the splendor of the sharp Chassidic vort. Hearts will be refined by the deep ethical idea. The younger generation will begin, once more, to regard the Chumash as the mighty, eternal well which is replete with the wisdom of life, ethics, good character traits, chizuk and dedication to Yiddishkeit. All will come to see that this Chumash contains all of the sources and causes of our suffering and of our joys, the sources of the suffering of the exile and the hopes of the Redemption, and all will return to be loyal sons to the People of the Book."

He also merited to compose seforim on in-depth analysis of Torah. One of those is a book of chiddushim on the rules of the Talmud, called Kesef Mezukak (published in 5683 (1923)) and the book Readings for the Jewish Woman (published in 5681 (1921)).

His new book was about to appear in 5699 (1939), when he was 40 years old. It had been prepared for print with the help of Reb Dovber Mandlebaum, who later on served as the librarian of the Rabbenu Yitzchok Elchonon yeshiva in New York. But the German foe put an end to all these plans.

His Torah

Torah study was the essence of the life of Reb Zusha Friedman. In all periods, despite the travails he underwent, Torah was always a candle to his feet, his source of delight in times of peace and his consolation during times of distress. He merited to assemble hundreds of his chiddushim in a large volume on Gittin, Kiddushin and Yoma, and called them Even Haezel. By the same token, he wrote many pamphlets on various topics, but they were destroyed during the Holocaust. He also deliberated in halocho with R' Menachem Zemba Hy"d, and some of these chiddushim appeared in the discussions cited in Chelkas Yoav.

Toward the end of his short life, when his wife and family had been taken from him, he found solace in the study of the sacred Torah. In all situations, the eternal Torah which forever remains the heart of the nation, beat in his heart and was a source of life-giving vitality. This source enabled him to retain his clarity of mind, and to stride with equanimity amid every evil decree and travail, amid shmad and murder, amid the liquidation of the ghetto and his final steps in this world.

In the Holocaust

Reb Alexander Zusha Friedman's name became an integral part of all of the accounts of kiddush Hashem which was the lot of many during the terrible Holocaust. At this front, he reached a peak in his dedication to the great ideal of sanctifying Hashem's blessed Name in public. He expressed this through word and deed, through initiative and through his exemplary resoluteness. He was a spiritual hero, one of the great mekadshei sheim Shomayim of our generation.

We can understand his greatness during the difficult days, and the attention he paid to devorim bekedusha which he regarded as above all else.

The words of the Noam Elimelech on Rashi, "to warn the great about the small," are well known. According to the Noam Elimelech, these words mean that a person should prepare himself during his best days, when he is in an exalted spiritual state, for the "small" days, the days of distress and affliction.

As illustrated by the following story, Reb Zusha prepared himself in that manner: At the beginning of the Holocaust in the winter of 5699 (1939), he was arrested along with twenty other activists, and imprisoned for a full week. He was released toward evening, and as soon as he left the prison, he ran home as quickly as possible. Why was he in such a rush? He wanted to lay tefillin before the sun had set.

In prison, he didn't have tefillin, and he told a close acquaintance that this had caused him untold suffering. Upon laying tefillin the first time after his release, he felt tremendous joy, which was no less than his joy at being released

During the beginning of the occupation, the Joint Distribution Committee became active on behalf of the Jews. At that time, the chareidi Jews suffered from shocking deprivation. They had only one delegate to present the needs of the chareidi community to the Jewish welfare organizations. He stood before the directors of these organizations with courage and fortitude, and cried out: "Woe to mankind for the affront to Torah." Due to his efforts, the situation improved a bit.

Thanks to Reb Zusha, free kitchens and relief institutions for the religious Jews were opened. The largest of them was a kitchen which was situated in the Beis Yaakov auditorium on 37 Benelbaki Street, and which was run by the teachers of the school.

It was in that difficult period that he sent his famous SOS telegram, which read: "Mr. Amos fulfilled his promise of Tuesday and Thursday." This telegram was deciphered abroad, as referring to Chapter 5, verse 3 in the book of Amos: "Thus says the Lord G-d: The city that went forth a thousand, will have a hundred left, and that which went forth a hundred will have ten left of the house of Israel."

And indeed it aptly described the situation in the Warsaw ghetto, where only ten percent of the Jews remained alive. The remainder made their way to what was to them the unknown, but which later on became notorious as the crematoria, where the Jewish Nation perished al kiddush Hashem.

This cry for help resulted in a bit of fruit. A small amount of support came from other countries, and along with the local support, Reb Zusha was able to take at least some measures to help his brothers.

With the money he received, he concerned himself, even in the darkness of the ghetto, as he had done his entire life, with the chinuch of the youth. He organized a broad network of underground chareidi schools -- Yesodei HaTorah schools for the boys, and Beis Yaakov schools for the girls. These schools functioned under the guise of free kitchens, or as playrooms for children and health institutions.

When the Germans permitted the Judenrat to open schools, all were surprised to discover the organized chareidi schools which could emerge from the underground and joined the school system in the open.

Until the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, on erev Tisha B'Av 5702 (1942), these institutions continued to function. Afterward, the travail, the suffering and the torment began. Many died from various illnesses, and the mortality rate was terrifyingly high. But because the Jews endured even under the difficult conditions, the Germans banished them to the death camps. With that, all of the schools were shut down, and for Reb Zusha this was the severest blow of all. All of his efforts were laid to waste before his very eyes.

The only places which remained for the chareidi and the destitute Jews were the workshops, where they toiled under the supervision of the Germans. After much effort, he was "accepted" by one of these "shops," where he mended boots and shoes. Throughout his entire work day, he did not stop reciting verses from the novi, or from studying mishnayos and midroshim which he knew by heart. His work companions benefited from these teachings during the twelve hour days they had to work.

By means of the "shop" Reb Zusha merited to save many Jews, or at least to postpone their deaths. After the Warsaw uprising, he himself was taken, like his friends, to the death camp of Trawniki in the Lublin region, where he was murdered by the Germans. But his memory remains on many sheets of paper filled with divrei Torah and chizuk, and in the hearts of the younger generation which survived, and which is left with the path he paved for them -- the path along which they were enabled to traverse the course of life.


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