The Klausenberger Rebbe: The War Years
The Klausenberger Rebbe, Rav Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam of the Sanz-Klausenberger chasidic dynasty: a biographical classic of the Rebbe's miraculous survival & his countless acts of chesed during the Jewish Holocaust.
Seeing three young yeshivah students who had arrived in the camp on his transport, the Rebbe walked over to them and began encouraging them to take strength in their faith in the Almighty. With great emotion, he asked them, “Do you believe that the Creator is here with us?”
The boys answered, “Yes, we do.”
The emotion in his voice rising, the Rebbe said with great emphasis, “Remember, the Ribbono shel Olam is here with us. He will redeem us. In the merit of your emunah you will be saved and will live to leave this place.” All three young boys did indeed survive the war.2
A short time later, when a despondent inmate cried out in agony, “We are all going to die here!” the Rebbe told him, “You have no right to say such a thing about me. I am certain that you and I will both be saved. If you do not believe that, you may say what you want about yourself, but do not say such things about me.”
“How do you know that we will be saved, Rebbe?” asked the man.
The Rebbe answered, “HaKadosh Baruch Hu is here with us, and He will certainly rescue us.”3
The Rebbe lived through Auschwitz with the verse “Though I shall walk in the valley of death I shall not fear, for You are with me” (Tehillim 23:4). He fulfilled the teaching of the Sages, “Even when a sharp sword is lying on one’s neck, he should not despair of mercy” (Berachos 10a). No matter what befell the Rebbe, he never stopped believing in and clinging to the Almighty.4
The Rebbe once found several torn pages covered with Hebrew letters in the garbage between the barracks in Auschwitz. He bent down to retrieve the pages and saw that they came from Pirkei Avos. The Rebbe hurriedly gathered up the torn pages with trembling hands and kissed them with deep emotion. Later, the inmates secretly gathered around the Rebbe in a corner of the barracks to satisfy their spiritual thirst with the life-giving elixir of Pirkei Avos.5
A survivor named Asher Brenner recalled, “In Auschwitz I was placed in the same group as the Klausenberger Rebbe. The Rebbe suffered even more than the rest of us because of his stubbornness. He refused to eat nonkosher food. He had managed to bring his tefillin into the camp with him, and he put them on every day. Notwithstanding the great danger, he organized daily minyanim for prayer services. We often forgot about Shabbos completely, but the Rebbe avoided desecrating Shabbos every week and made sure that no one else did the work that was imposed on him.
“All this, of course, drew the attention of the Kapos, and they punished the Rebbe with vicious beatings. (The Rebbe accepted the beatings calmly, whispering to himself, ‘For G-d is righteous and I have rebelled against his words’ or ‘May it be Your will that my death be my atonement.’ He also sometimes murmured, ‘Because you have not served Hashem with joy.’) But slowly a change in attitude took place among the Kapos. Looking at him with new respect, they started to treat him more kindly. They finally came to recognize the Rebbe’s unique character, principles and total devotion to Hashem.”6
Later in the Rebbe’s life, he told one of his followers, “In Auschwitz I wore only a torn, thin garment, even in the bitter cold. I preferred it to the other rags we were given because the buttons were sewn on the left in the custom of my holy ancestors. Who knows - perhaps because I was so careful about what I wore I was allowed to live.”7
On another occasion, overcome by emotion, the Rebbe related, “When I was imprisoned by the Nazis, I walked around in wooden shoes. One day I found a shoe padded with a piece of leather. When I lifted it up to look at it, I saw that the leather was really a piece of parchment from a tefillin scroll. It read: ‘Be very careful lest your hearts be seduced.’ I began to cry over the desecration of the holy tefillin and over the message that had been sent to me from Heaven.”8
The Rebbe never failed to say words of Torah to himself on Shabbos, particularly in the late afternoon, at the time of seudah shelishis. Covering his head with the bottom of his shirt or with the thin blanket from his bunk, he would recite words of Torah to himself.10
An irreligious Jew was once standing near the Rebbe and overheard him explaining the verse from Tehillim, “Sing to G-d a new song for He has performed amazing feats. His right hand and holy arm have helped Him.” The Rebbe translated the verse into Yiddish and then gave an explanation.
“I did not understand what he was saying,” recalled the man, “but the verse enraged me. Where were G-d’s amazing feats? Where was His outstretched arm? Many years and life experiences later, however, I recalled the explanation that the Klausenberger Rebbe had given and the idea entered my mind, Wasn’t that in and of itself an amazing feat? In the hell of Auschwitz there was a Jew who was still faithful to the Almighty and took strength in the amazing feats that He had promised to perform in the future. This thought caused me, late in my life, to begin to return to our faith.”11
Years after the Holocaust, the Rebbe’s followers noted that the Rebbe never failed to expound on the Torah at seudah shelishis, even when he was alone and no one else could hear him. Once they asked the Rebbe the significance of saying words of Torah at that particular time. He gave a short and mysterious reply: “The Torah must be expressed in this world; it has a purpose....”12