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19 Iyar 5760 - May 24, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







"Klal Yisroel Is Indebted To Him": The Life Of Rav Wolff Rosengarten Zt'l of Zurich

By Rav Shimon Yosef Mahler

Introduction: A Unique Figure

He was a gaon and a tzaddik, acclaimed by his mentors as an outstanding talmid chochom. From his childhood home in Switzerland, he travelled eastwards to learn Torah. He grew close to the giants of the prewar Torah world and remained the friend and confidante of their spiritual heirs throughout his life. He was always the first to act on behalf of any holy cause, sparing neither effort nor expense. He left behind a record of seventy years of communal work, of rescue, relief and Torah support. Despite his own greatness and his multifaceted achievements, he always assumed the role of talmid. A truly unique personality, he possessed a blend of qualities that is virtually unequaled.

It is extremely difficult to appraise the life of a great Jew from the last generation, if only because of the sharp descent that has taken place between it and our own, which removes our frame of reference for correctly grasping the nature of the times and the greatness of the men who peopled them. In this case, the task is made even harder by our subject's having been the close disciple and confidante of some of our nation's leaders, from whom he received instruction and guidance that stemmed from even earlier Torah giants. Added to this is the task of trying to appreciate a man who was extraordinary in his own right, whose excellence encompassed far more areas of endeavor than that of most other people, as the following brief glimpses of Rav Wolff's multifaceted character demonstrate.

Fifty years ago, the Chazon Ish zt'l, remarked that, "Switzerland consists of two people: HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik and HaRav Ze'eiv Rosengarten" (reported by HaRav Chaim Greineman). The Brisker Rov zt'l, commented, "I didn't find a lamdan like Reb Wolff anywhere else in Europe!" (quoted in the name of HaRav Dovid Soloveitchik). It was perhaps HaRav Yechezkel Sarna zt'l, though, whose description was closest when he said, "Reb Wolff is the most distinguished ba'al habayis in Europe!"

On the one hand, Reb Wolff indeed conducted himself like a businessman and a ba'al habayis but on the other, he also learned Torah with tremendous application and was a great yirei Shomayim. When he prayed or made a brocho, each word was uttered in fear and dread. A grandson who heard him praying shema koleinu on one of the last days recalled how he wept profusely, so that he might merit being `an ehrlicher yid.' Reb Wolff was widely renowned as both a pillar of Torah and a pillar of chesed.

This account therefore does not attempt to evaluate. His life is the story of the fullest realization of the ideals which he imbibed during his formative years from his great teachers. The best perspective we can hope to gain will be from a review of those early years, which are rich in historical anecdote and which chart the development of an ever growing closeness to the great men who handed Torah across the gulf that separates a spiritual world of breadth and depth that is no more, from our own impoverished one.

A Jew once consulted HaRav Shach over a favor that he had been asked to do for a grandson of Reb Wolff's, which involved him in a certain difficulty. HaRav Shach's response to the man's question was, "All of Klal Yisroel is indebted to Reb Wolff. Are you a part of Klal Yisroel? If so, you are obliged to do it!"

Raised for Torah

HaRav Ze'eiv Rosengarten was born in Teves 5674 (1914). His father, Rav Chaim Yitzchok Ozer zt"l, was one of the founders of Kehillas Agudas Achim in Zurich. It was he who brought HaRav Yaakov Breisch zt'l, author of Shu"T Chelkas Yaakov to serve as the community's rav.

Reb Yitzchok was one of the senior and distinguished followers of the Admor Rav Boruch of Gorlitz zt'l, a son of the Divrei Chaim of Sanz zt'l. Reb Wolff would relate that his father once fell mortally ill and was close to dying R'l. While he was ill, the Rebbe of Gorlitz appeared to him in a dream and asked him to undertake to eat the melave malka meal every single week, as mentioned in Shulchan Oruch. Reb Yitzchok did as his rebbe asked and he recovered. This incident always remained a puzzle to him because the Rebbe of Gorlitz, like his father the Divrei Chaim, had not been scrupulous about eating melave malka for a number of reasons.

At a young age, Wolff entered the yeshiva of Montreux. It was there that he made his first acquaintance with HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky zt'l, who was taking a few weeks' rest in the town after attending the Knessia Gedola in Vienna.

One day, Reb Chaim Ozer tested the young bochur on the gemora he was then learning, in Bovo Basra. One of the questions involved bringing a proof from a gemora in Kiddushin, with whose discussion young Wolff wasn't very well acquainted. Reb Chaim Ozer recited the entire page from memory, and commented afterwards that, "Many tens of years have passed since I saw that gemora."

After the test, Reb Chaim Ozer gave Wolff a copy of his sefer Achiezer as a gift, inscribing it, "To the dear . . . multi-talented . . . Ze'eiv Rosengarten."

Reb Chaim Ozer stayed in Montreux over the Yomim Noraim. Reb Wolff related, "Once, when he needed to go out of the yeshiva's hall during the tefillah, he refused to go back in and asked them to bring him a chair. He sat down for some time at the entrance to the hall. It later transpired that he hadn't wanted to return to his place at the mizrach because he didn't want all the bochurim to have to rise in his honor as he came in and went to his seat. Only when a moment arrived when all the mispalelim had to stand up anyway, did he go back to his own place."

On one of the Rosh Hashanah afternoons, a group of the bochurim went over to his lodgings to hear some words of inspiration for yom hadin. Upon hearing their request, Reb Chaim Ozer began to relate stories about gedolei Yisroel. He continued for a long time, spending two hours telling them about the holy Chofetz Chaim zt'l, who was then still alive.

Reb Wolff also recalled the occasion when he gave Reb Chaim Ozer "semichoh." It happened one day as Reb Chaim Ozer, who was very weak, was coming down from the yeshiva and he turned to Wolff, who was standing at his side and asked him to "give him semichoh"!

Into Exile for Torah

In approximately 5690 (1930), Reb Wolff left Switzerland to travel eastwards, to the yeshivos of Lithuania. Throughout his life, he would relate with excitement and emotion how his mother accompanied him for half the journey. When she parted from him she said, "My dear Wolff, you should know that this separation from you is very difficult for us and that it will be very difficult for us without you. However, if you grow, and see success in Torah and yiroh, it is all worthwhile."

Reb Wolff used to say that his mother's message remained with him throughout his yeshiva years.

His first place of study was Yeshiva Ponevezh, which was headed by HaRav Osher Kalman Baron zt'l, a brother-in- law of the Ponevezher Rov zt'l. Interestingly, one of the last things Rav Wolff said before his petirah was a thought he had heard from HaRav Osher Kalman, which he repeated to his nephew. When Moshe Rabbenu was told that he would die "like . . . Aharon your brother" (Bamidbor 27:13), Rashi, quoting Chazal, says that we see from here that Moshe desired to die in the same way that Aharon did. HaRav Osher Kalman explained that while dying is usually thought of as a passive event, after witnessing his brother's death Moshe Rabbenu saw that a person can also actively participate at that time in fulfilling Hashem's will. This active role in the fulfillment of Hashem's will was what Moshe desired to emulate in his own death.

Another of HaRav Osher Kalman's ideas that Rav Wolff would often repeat was based on a Rashi in Vayeiro (Bereishis 18:5). Avrohom Ovinu told the mal'ochim, "And I will take a loaf of bread and you shall satisfy your hearts," on which Rashi comments, "In Torah, nevi'im and kesuvim, we find bread referred to as a meal for the heart." Rav Osher Kalman asked why it is necessary to bring proofs from pesukim to something which everyone can see is any case? He would answer that in truth, reality is not what we see with our eyes, but only what is written in Torah, nevi'im and kesuvim.

Sojourn in Telz

After a time, Wolff transferred to the great yeshiva of Telz. The Ponevezher Rov had not wanted him to leave Ponevezh and Reb Wolff had to wait for one of the Rov's trips away from the town for an opportunity to leave. Upon arriving in Telz, it then transpired that he could not be accepted into the yeshiva without a letter of recommendation from his previous place of learning. Wolff did not give up. He travelled to one of the nearby towns and asked the local rov to give him a letter.

When the time came for him to be tested by the roshei yeshiva, he was given the choice of sugya that he would be examined on. (He chose the difficult topic of pesach posu'ach in Kesuvos.) The test was conducted in the presence of all the members of the yeshiva's hanholo, sitting in a semicircle, which he found terrifying and intimidating.

After successfully answering the questions that were put to him, Wolff wanted to add a novel idea of his own on the topic but he was told that it had been enough. The members of the hanholo then discussed together in great seriousness (Reb Wolff said it was as though they were members of the Sanhedrin deliberating on a matter of capital punishment) which of the yeshiva's levels he was suited to.

Reb Wolff related that when he arrived in Telz, he heard how the tzaddik Reb Mordechai Pogramansky zt'l, had arrived in the yeshiva when he was fourteen years old, and within a year, had been promoted to the highest level and earned himself a name as the best bochur in the yeshiva. Subsequently, whenever a bochur wanted to jump to a higher level than he was by age entitled to be in, Reb Chaim Rabinovitch (Telzer) zt'l, would remark, "Alle meinen zennen Mottels! (Everyone thinks he's a Mottel!)"

To a chosson who had become engaged to a granddaughter of Reb Wolff, HaRav Mordechai Gifter, who also learned in Telz at the time, wrote, describing the kalloh's grandfather as "the friend and colleague of my youth, one of the group of exceptional [scholars] to which our holy master and teacher zt'l, admitted me."

All his life, Reb Wolff spoke longingly and lovingly about the period he spent in Telz. He particularly noted the fire of the learning in the yeshiva, and how bochurim would be seen walking in the streets of Telz, talking in learning. He would relate how, when a bochur posed a strong kushyo, the entire yeshiva would be in an uproar over it (and he mentioned that on several occasions, he too provoked an uproar with questions he asked). During the Telzer Rov's shiurim, the commotion was so great that the whole town could hear that there was a shiur.

It was the custom in Telz that every bochur would periodically go in to speak in learning with the rosh yeshiva HaRav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch zt'l, Hy'd. Reb Wolff would recall how Reb Avrohom Yitzchok would build up the bochurim in the course of those meetings. If a bochur asked an incomplete kushyo, Reb Avrohom Yitzchok would develop it, and say, "Perhaps you intended to put it this way, and if so perhaps one could answer like this . . . " and would start to allude to some way of approaching the matter. It went on like this throughout the discussion, and the bochur would leave with the feeling that he'd delivered a comprehensive treatment of the subject on his own.

One Simchas Torah, Reb Wolff danced with an enthusiasm that went beyond what was customary in Telz, where the conduct was always very restrained. The Telzer Rov called him and asked him if he could explain why it was that we are joyful on Simchas Torah? Reb Wolff responded that out of all the thousands of millions of people in the world, only several million were Jews. Out of them, only several hundreds of thousands observed Torah and mitzvos, and of them, only a part were truly G-d-fearing. Out of them, there were only a few thousand bnei yeshiva . . . "and," he concluded, "I am fortunate to be one of them! Should I not rejoice over that?"

The Telzer Rov repeated this answer again and again, throughout that Simchas Torah, praising the bochur who had uttered it, by name.

Rav Avrohom Yitzchok also invited him to eat at his table on the seder night and during Pesach. However, because it was the custom in his father's home not to eat gebrokts, Wolff did not want to accept the invitation. Towards the end of his life, he said that he regretted having done so. However, when asked if that meant that if asked now he would accept, he replied in the negative.

When recalling those days, Reb Wolff would note the great honor that ordinary Jews bestowed upon Torah scholars. For example, in Telz during bein hazmanim when bochurim would pray in the town's beis hamedrash, the other mispalelim would wait for them to finish their tefillah - [Telz was probably on a far higher level in this respect than most other communities.] On the other hand, he would also note with great pain, the terrible decline in the standards of the irreligious groups and would recall the shock that he had while learning in Ponevezh, when, returning to his lodgings after the tefillah on Yom Kippur night, he saw, outside, the Shomer Hatzair club that stood opposite.

A Long Lasting Friendship

Reb Wolff himself related, "My arrival in Telz Yeshiva coincided exactly with a certain controversy in the yeshiva. This naturally aroused the interest of the bochurim, who would gather in groups to discuss everything that was happening.

Once, I also listened in to what they were discussing and tried to catch what they were saying about the situation in the yeshiva etc. etc. Suddenly, I felt a light tap on my shoulder and when I turned my head, I saw a short man with a luminous face, motioning to me with his finger to come over to him. When I approached him, he asked me where I was from and when I told him I was from Switzerland, he asked me how I had reached the yeshiva. I did not understand what he was driving at, but I gave him a detailed reply, reviewing the progress of my journey by train from Switzerland to Germany, including how many kilometers I had travelled and how many hours it had taken, and then from Germany on to Lithuania, while he kept asking about distances and travelling time.

When I had finished, he looked at me with his piercing eyes and asked me, "Was it worth all that great bother just to hear this nonsense?"

"Later, I found out that the speaker had been HaRav Mordechai Pogramansky zt'l. Those words of his penetrated deep into my heart and they still echo in my ears. Was this what I had come from Switzerland for?

From then on, I became bound to him with bonds of love, from the days in the Telz Yeshiva where I spent much time learning and talking with him in learning, to the end of his life, when he was suffering from his final illness and I brought him from the hospital in Paris where he had been to our home in Zurich and on to a hospital in Switzerland.

Reb Wolff was a frequent visitor at Reb Mordechai's lodgings, where they would talk in learning. In later years, Reb Wolff would describe the tremendous yiras Shomayim and scrupulous devotion to every detail of halocho, which flickered within Reb Mordechai.

For example, he would keep his bread in a metal bowl that floated in a container of water, to prevent any bugs from finding their way to it. He wore a suit made from cotton to avoid any doubt of shatnez. In the house where he lodged he had erected a cardboard partition around his own quarters, lest the mistress of the house pass by with some of her hair uncovered.

Reb Wolff would repeat Reb Mordechai's elucidation of an obscure medrash in parshas Vayeitzei which, on the posuk (Bereishis 28:11), "for the sun had set," says, "from here we see that Yaakov observed Shabbos."

Reb Mordechai explained that since Shabbos is the foundation of the entire creation, it is not possible that the natural order would be changed for someone who did not keep Shabbos.

When Reb Mordechai grew ill towards the end of his life, Reb Wolff merited caring for him and bringing him for treatment to Switzerland. Reb Mordechai would not allow a nurse to tend him and Reb Wolff himself would change his bed linens and take care of his needs.

During this period, Reb Mordechai would say that he was now paying dearly for the miracles that he had experienced while he was in the Kovno ghetto. For example, he related that when the Germans ym'sh had once set fire to the ghetto houses, he had told those with him to stay close to him and the entire house burned except for the corner where he was.

Under Reb Boruch Ber

After several years in Telz, Reb Wolff moved to Kamenitz Yeshiva, which was led by HaRav Boruch Ber Leibovitz zt'l. Reb Wolff used to say that if one wanted to witness enjoyment in learning Torah, one had to see how Reb Boruch Ber learned, his face shining from joy over Torah. He would also speak about Reb Boruch Ber's great piety and holiness.

Reb Wolff would relate that the route from Reb Boruch Ber's home to the yeshiva passed by the house of a priest, at the front of which a cross was displayed. Reb Boruch Ber would avoid going that way, instead taking a more roundabout path so as not to pass by the house.

One day, the priest was seen demolishing the cross. By way of response to the amazement of the local gentiles who saw him, the priest explained that he had noticed that the holy rabbi did not want to walk by his house and he assumed it was because of the cross, so he was removing it!

Once, when he saw bochurim looking into seforim during the repetition of the Shemonah Esrei, Reb Boruch Ber commented, "Certainly, how can one go without learning? Yet how is it possible not to listen when the sheliach tsibur stands in prayer before Hakodosh boruch Hu?"

Reb Wolff's chavrusa in Kamenitz was Reb Boruch Ber's son-in-law, HaRav Reuven Grosovsky zt'l. However, since Reb Reuven was also preoccupied with the yeshiva's affairs, the Rosh Yeshiva advised Reb Wolff to take an additional chavrusa. For an entire zeman therefore, he learned with HaRav Noach Shimanovitz zt'l, rosh yeshiva of Knesses Chizkiyohu, and also with ylct'a HaRav Chaim Shaul Karelitz, av beis din of She'eiris Yisroel.

"I remember that in 5695 (1935), during the two years that I merited . . . learning in the Kamenitz Yeshiva . . . a bochur from the yeshiva went in to Reb Boruch Ber zt'l, and told him that he had received a draft notice for the Polish Army. He was very worried about how he would survive there for two years -- physically as well but mainly spiritually -- for things were very bad there. He asked the Rosh Yeshiva to write him a letter of recommendation for the Agudas Yisroel office, where they were able to grant him a certificate for entry into Eretz Yisroel, whereby he would escape the draft.

"To my surprise, and to the surprise of the others who were in the room, Reb Boruch Ber answered forcefully, `There's no way I'll give such a letter of recommendation . . . no way . . . ' and he explained that about a year earlier he had written such a letter for another bochur from the yeshiva who had also received a draft notice and the bochur had made aliya. However Reb Boruch Ber's disappointment knew no bounds when he'd heard that the bochur had become completely irreligious in Eretz Yisroel, since there were no yeshivos there yet. Reb Boruch Ber therefore told the bochur, `Better you should go to the Polish Army and we will take care of you from here. We'll send you parcels of kosher food and the like . . . and Hashem will help you succeed in waiting out the period of your service uneventfully . . . "

"And that was what happened. Without any choice, the bochur went into the army and spent two years there. During his entire stay there, he was cared for by the bnei hayeshiva in all sorts of ways. When two years were up, he returned, bisiya'ato diShemayo, both physically and spiritually unblemished."

While learning in Kamenitz, Reb Wolff once needed dental treatment for which he travelled to Brisk. He went in to visit the Brisker Rov zt'l, who was immersed in prayer at the time. Reb Wolff was unable to wait and he left a message with the members of the household that a bochur from Switzerland had called. Tens of years later when the Brisker Rov visited Switzerland and stayed in Reb Wolff's home, he still remembered the visit he had received from "a bochur from Switzerland"!

Elul in Mir

From Kamenitz, Reb Wolff went to learn for a short time in Mir Yeshiva, where he was drawn close by the mashgiach HaRav Yeruchom Leibovitz zt'l, who honored him with an aliya on Yom Kippur. Reb Yeruchom also seated Reb Wolff at the table for his va'adim. (In Mir, the custom was that for the va'adim, which were informal mussar talks which the Mashgiach gave in his home, the outstanding and senior bochurim sat around the table while other bochurim stood around it.)

On Simchas Torah, Reb Yeruchom would deliver a shmuess before the beginning of the hakofos, and between each of the hakofos he spoke again briefly. The rejoicing in the yeshiva was extremely spirited and it would raise the bnei hayeshiva to sublime spiritual heights. To give some idea of the atmosphere, Reb Wolff would repeat some of the short thoughts he heard from Reb Yeruchom on the Simchas Torah that he spent in Mir.

The posuk says, "Hashem, remember us, may He bless; may He bless beis Yisroel . . . " Reb Yeruchom asked why the expression "may He bless" is repeated. He answered that when Hashem remembers us, that in itself is a blessing, hence the first use of the phrase. Then, we ask further, "May He bless beis Yisroel . . . "

Another of the things which Reb Yeruchom said on that Simchas Torah was, "The entire Torah is a match with which to kindle a blaze of love in the hearts of Klal Yisroel for their Father in Heaven!"

Reb Wolff related that a bochur once came to Reb Yeruchom during the aseres yemei teshuvah to ask for money from the yeshiva's TaT fund [which assisted impoverished bochurim with their expenses] to enable him to buy a new pair of shoes. Reb Yeruchom responded, "You don't need them. It's not so bad."

On motzei Yom Kippur, Reb Yeruchom called the bochur and gave him the money. In response to the bochur's amazement he explained, "You came during aseres yemei teshuvah in order to exploit my fear of the impending judgment to influence me to give you tzedokoh money. I didn't want that factor to affect my judgment."

A Year in Malrita

Reb Wolff related, "While I was learning in Kamenitz . . . one of the bochurim there, a brother of HaRav Shlomo Chomsker zt'l, Hy'd, asked me if I would be willing to travel to learn with his brother who had been appointed as rov in Malrita [which was about one hour's journey from Brisk], as Reb Shlomo was looking for bochurim with whom he could learn. I went there with another bochur, HaRav Shaul Eisenstadt zt'l, to learn with the rov. I stayed in Malrita for an entire year. [When Reb Wolff spent Elul in Mir, he was apparently en route to Malrita.] We rented a room and we learned with Reb Shlomo Chomsker.

"Reb Shlomo had been one of the top talmidim in Mir. He had gone to learn with the Brisker Rov and had become one of his closest talmidim. Upon his marriage to the daughter of the then-rov of Malrita, Reb Shlomo had made his home there. However, his wife's parents had passed away during the week of sheva brochos and the communal leaders immediately appointed Reb Shlomo as the new rov. Since there were no bochurim or learned avreichim in Malrita, Reb Shlomo had asked his brother in Kamenitz if he could find him some bochurim who would be willing to come and learn Shulchan Oruch Yoreh Dei'ah together with him.

"After learning for a year with . . . Reb Shlomo . . . I received a telegram telling me that I had to return home because my mother z'l, was ill. In order to avoid any problems with the draft in Switzerland, I travelled to Brisk, in order to be examined by the head dayan, HaRav Simcha Zelig Riger zt'l, and receive from him a Yoreh Yoreh certificate entitling me to rule in halocho, which would enable me to escape the draft.

"I arrived at Reb Simcha Zelig's home at nine a.m. and he tested me and spoke together with me in learning until three o'clock in the afternoon. Then he gave me a letter permitting me to give halachic rulings. I remember that while I was in Reb Simcha Zelig's house, the sound of quiet sighing could be heard from time to time from one of the corners of the room. When I turned in the direction of the sighs in order to see who was sighing so much, I saw a figure, whom I could not distinguish.

"Whenever Reb Simcha Zelig heard the moans of pain and the sighing, he would go over to the bed and tend to the invalid with unbounded love and dedication. He would feed and give to drink, offering consolation and encouragement in a tender and loving manner. I asked people in Brisk who was undergoing such suffering in Reb Simcha Zelig's home and they told me that it was his wife, who had been paralyzed l'a for the past twenty years and who suffered terribly."

Times of Peril

Reb Wolff returned home because of his mother's illness. When she later passed away, he stayed on to assist his father. In letters to his friends he expressed his deep regret at being unable to remain in yeshiva all his life and devote himself wholly to Torah. He also wrote that in the light of the recent events in Germany which had deprived Jews of their livelihoods, many refugees had arrived in Switzerland.

He saw that these Jews had lost much of their humanity and he wrote of the revulsion this caused him to feel towards business, after having seen the levels to which people could sink as a result of immersion in the business world where there was neither faith nor trust in Hashem.

At that time, HaRav Avrohom Cahana Shapira zt'l, the Kovner Rov and author of Devar Avrohom arrived in Switzerland for medical treatment. Reb Wolff visited him to speak with him in learning and to assist him. He related that with the outbreak of the Second World War, the Devar Avrohom returned to Kovno. When the astonished Reb Wolff asked him how he could return at such a time to a place of danger, the Devar Avrohom replied that a shepherd never leaves the flock he tends, especially at time of trouble. He was returning to his kehilla, to be with them in their distress.

Reb Wolff gave the following account of his rescue efforts on behalf of bnei Torah who were trapped in Eastern Europe during the war: "During the dreadful World War, hundreds of talmidim of Mir Yeshiva were in Vilna. One of them sent my friend Reb Yitzchok Elchonon Erlanger (whose sister later became my wife) a letter in which he mentioned the great concern of the bochurim over their lack of any passports which would render any transit visas that they might possibly be able to procure (as bechasdei Shomayim they in fact did later on, through the Japanese consul), unusable. There were no more passports being issued in Poland anymore because of the critical situation that the country was in and the bochurim were at a loss as to what to do.

"Although the Polish government was no longer issuing passports, we bribed the Polish consul. We collected ten thousand francs (which was a huge sum in those days and which we obtained at great effort), and after lengthy negotiations and much persuasion and a promise to pay more money for each passport, the consul (who was starving, since his government had stopped paying salaries), agreed to issue hundreds of passports to us for talmidim of the Mir Yeshiva.

"We brought him accurate lists of names and dates of birth and he kept our agreement and issued hundreds of passports which we mailed to Vilna and which bisaya'ato diShemayo, were a great help to all the bochurim who survived the war. The last thirty passports that we sent never arrived at their destination because war broke out just then in full force between Germany and Russia and the German postal service no longer sent things to Vilna [which was under Russian control] . . .

"When the undelivered post was returned to Switzerland, the authorities spied a package of passports and since they knew that no more passports were being issued they assumed that they were forgeries . . . when they saw that the sender was "Wolff Rosengarten," they visited our home one morning at dawn and carried out a meticulous search. They discovered all the lists of names of the bochurim as well as all the other documentation. This heightened their suspicions against me and I was arrested for forging Polish passports and they detained me for several hours. I, however, maintained all the time that it had been the Polish consul who issued the passports.

"At ten a.m. when the Polish Consulate in Berne opened, they called him and asked him if I was telling the truth. Bechasdei Hashem, the consul affirmed that it was he who had issued the passports and I was released.

"When HaRav Elchonon Wassermann zt'l, Hy'd heard that we had managed to send hundreds of passports for the Mirrer talmidim, he sent me a long and detailed letter in which he asked me if I could also arrange for passports for him and for the members of his family. He provided all the dates of birth and other necessary information about the members of his family. This letter was confiscated from me by the Swiss police together with all the other documentation relating to the passports during their nighttime raid on our house. All my subsequent efforts to retrieve the papers were in vain. Nevertheless, with siya'ato diShemayo, I was able to carry out Reb Elchonon's request. I paid another visit to the Polish consul in Berne and I asked him to issue passports for all the members of the Wassermann family.

"I remember that he said to me, `How can I issue passports for them as well, when they weren't even born in Poland?'

"I answered him sardonically, `You are being paid anyway, so what do you care where they were born?'

"He thought it over and accepted. He issued the passports, which I sent to Reb Elchonon. After the war, I received reliable testimony from HaRav Eliezer Sorotzkin ylct'a that Reb Elchonon and his family received the passports that I had sent while they were staying in Telz. Reb Eliezer himself saw the passports in their hands. They intended to escape and had hired a wagon etc. but when they had started out, Reb Elchonon's son, HaRav Naftoli zt'l, Hy'd, suddenly fell and broke his leg, forcing them to return to Telz. They decided that they would not leave Reb Naftoli alone so they stayed with him and were eventually sent to the Kovno ghetto, where they were tragically martyred."

It is worthwhile mentioning what HaRav Aharon Leib Steinman in the hesped which he delivered at the airport when Rav Wolff's bier arrived in Eretz Yisroel. HaRav Steinman remarked that the merit of rescuing the bnei hayeshiva is enormous and that by saving hundreds of bnei Torah who later became disseminators of Torah and mussar, Rav Wolff has a considerable portion in the post war rebirth of the Torah world in Eretz Yisroel and in the United States.

In Klal Yisroel's Service

In Switzerland, Reb Wolff married his rebbetzin, a member of the Erlanger family. She related that when they established their home, he told her that he wanted it to be founded upon three things: studying Torah at every available moment, giving as much tzedokoh as they could afford and taking in guests. The home they built in the uninterrupted pursuit of these three objectives, grew to be a towering edifice, which radiated light that reached all over the world.

Throughout his life, Torah remained Reb Wolff's principle occupation and his work took second place. He arranged a number of daily chavrusas, for learning in depth, just as he had done during his years in the yeshivos.

The Rosengarten home was renowned as a meeting place for Torah sages. The family hosted some of the greatest leaders of the past generation, such as the Brisker Rov, HaRav Yechezkel Sarna, HaRav Eliezer Yehuda Finkel and many others, zt'l. Reb Wolff fulfilled the mishnah's advice to "cover yourself in the dust of their feet and drink their words in thirstily," (Ovos). In this way, he was fortunate to receive much instruction and guidance from them in life.

Rav Wolff had the singular merit of developing very close ties with two scions of the Soloveitchik family. These two relationships, which were perhaps the most influential ones in his life and the ones about which most could be written, are mentioned here only in passing, as fuller treatment is not possible in the context of this article.

Rav Wolff was the only person in whose home in Zurich the Brisker Rov zt'l, and his sons zt'l and ylct'a stayed for extended periods, over the four recuperative visits that the Rov paid to Switzerland, between the years 5714 and 5717 (1954-7). (Upon introducing himself to HaRav Shach for the first time, the Rosh Yeshiva, ylct'a asked him, "Are you Reb Wolff Rosengarten, who merited to host our master the Griz, zt'l?" When Rav Wolff answered in the affirmative, HaRav Shach rose from his seat and stood up in Reb Wolff's honor.)

Many of the incidents which took place in the course of these visits have been recorded in the work, Uvdos Vehanhogos Lebeis Brisk, and many others pass around by word of mouth. Over the years, the two families became bound together by ties of gratitude and mutual affection.

He also had an especially close bond with HaRav Moshe Soloveitchik zt'l. They were in contact on a day to day basis, learning together through difficult sugyos in Shas and poskim and collaborating on all communal matters.

It was together with Reb Moshe that Reb Wolff established, at the request of the Satmar Rebbe zt'l and of HaRav Yechezkel Sarna zt'l, the holy yeshiva in Lucerne. Reb Wolff directed the yeshiva for decades with selfless dedication. Alumni of the yeshiva remember to this day how, when Reb Wolff would arrive in Lucerne on yeshiva business, the very first thing he did was sit down with the rosh yeshiva -- in the first years this was Rav Moshe Soloveitchik zt'l, and later ylct'a HaRav Y. Koppelman -- and speak with him for a long time in learning.

The jewel in the crown of Rav Wolff's communal work in his later years was the establishment of Yeshivas Torah Chaim in Moscow, for which he worked closely with Reb Moshe. After the latter's petirah, Reb Wolff continued his work in supporting the yeshiva. He maintained a close connection with the teachers and the talmidim and endeared himself to all on the several visits which he paid to Moscow, when he delivered shiurim and met the talmidim.

As lengthy and impressive as the record is of Reb Wolff's tremendous work in establishing Torah centers and in supporting unfortunates, everything was carried out quietly, with modesty and wherever possible, anonymity. People are now coming forward to tell how Reb Wolff assisted them in every way he could.

One such story is told by a Jewish bank clerk, who once asked the manager of the bank where he worked why he was always willing to approve large overdrafts for the Jewish customers but not for the gentiles? The manager replied, "Because a Jew named Rosengarten always shows up to cover all the debts of those Jews who can't meet their payments."

The Last Letter

In his last letter, dated Adar II, 5760, Rav Wolff recorded an anecdote which he had heard from HaRav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman zt'l, the Ponevezher Rov. It is a fitting postscript to Rav Wolff's life, in which Torah learning always maintained prime importance, no matter what other weighty matters claimed his attention.

In 5665 (1905), the Ponevezher Rov passed through Radin and spent some time together with the Chofetz Chaim zt'l. Upon his return, he travelled via Telz and HaRav Eliezer Gordon zt'l, asked him to relate some example of the Chofetz Chaim's conduct. The Ponevezher Rov told HaRav Gordon the following story:

"It is the Chofetz Chaim's practice to deliver a few words of mussar every day for half an hour after the tefillah. One day, the Chofetz Chaim said that he was unable to give people mussar because the preceding day, he had been unable to learn at all. This, for him, was reason enough to feel unequal to giving mussar to others.

"The reason why the Chofetz Chaim had been unable to learn the day before was that parcels of Mishnah Berurah had arrived from the printer. He had spent the entire day checking through each and every page of each and every sefer to make sure that no page was missing or misprinted so that none of the buyers would be receiving faulty goods, annulling the sale. This was what had prevented him from learning all day."

When HaRav Gordon heard this, he was deeply impressed and he commented, "Now I don't need to hear anything else . . . "


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