Motzaei Shabbos story: When the Lantzuter Rov insisted that Lubavitcher chassidim speak in his shtiebel in Williamsburg, it was because decades earlier the Rebbe Rashab had saved his father’s life in a miraculous turn of events.
As heard by Rabbi Sholom DovBer Avtzon
The following story was sent to me by Rabbi Yossi Shochat who heard it from someone of the Satmar Bikur Cholim. It took me a few phone calls to the family to verify the details. The following is what I heard:
My grandfather HaRav Alter Yitzchok Yaakov Wagschul was the Rov in Lanczyc a town in Galicia (Poland). When the German army may their remembrance be erased attacked Poland, the first ones they were trying to take captive were the Rabbonim and the leaders of the community. Through Hashems’ miracles and kindness, he was able to escape with his wife and five children to Russia.
On the 23rd of Sivan [I believe 5700 (1940)], the communist government decreed that all refugees have to become Russian citizens, or they will be exiled to Siberia. People were in a dilemma, they were fearful that if they became Russian citizens, they might not be allowed to return to their home in Poland after the war. On the other hand, who wanted to live in Siberia? You might not live long enough for the war to end.
My grandfather heard that the tzaddik Reb Yitzchok Gvirzman, known as Reb Itzikl of Pshevorsk, (who later settled in Antwerp, Belgium) was in the vicinity so he together with others asked him what to do
Reb Itzikl replied that the 23rd day of Sivan is a wonderful day in the Jewish calendar; for on that day, Mordechai wrote to the Jews the wonderful news that they are to defend themselves and change the cruel decree of Haman into a blessing, that crushed their enemies plans. So in truth, this is a positive decree.
No one understood how being thrown out of your house in the middle of the night exiled to Siberia is positive. But a tzaddik’s vision is better than a regular person’s vision.
The end was that those Jews who went to Siberia most of them survived and being that they were Polish refugees, after the war they were allowed to return to their homeland. However, those who became Russian citizens and remained in Russia many of them were killed in the war.
My grandfather, Reb Alter, was one of the Polish Jews who were exiled to Siberia.
In Siberia the communist authorities allowed a person to practice his religion, as long as you did so in the privacy of your home. However, it was forbidden to do so in a group setting or in someone else’s home.
Since my grandfather was a Rov in Poland and he saw many religious Jews in the town that he settled in, he encouraged them one by one to come to his house and he had a minyan. He was arrested twice for a short period of time as a warning that this behavior is unacceptable. However, as a Rov that did not deter him, as he is answerable only to Hashem.
The third time he was arrested by the communist regime was more serious. This time they charged him with being counter-revolutionary and treason. He faced either a long sentence or even the possibility of the death penalty.
The day of the trial came, and the judge was around fifty years old. He spoke harshly to my grandfather and didn’t allow anyone in the community to speak on his behalf. He then said, if the defendant wishes he can say something in his defense.
My grandfather said, “I am a religious Jew who is guided by Jewish law. Jewish law instructs us to pray for the well-being of the country and its government. I am personally indebted to this great country for giving me refuge from the onslaught of the German atrocities that are destroying the Jews. I have with me a prayer book and the Honorable Judge and court can see the prayer we say every day.
“In Jewish tradition, the prayers of a quorum of ten is much more powerful than the prayer of an individual. Therefore, out of my deep and sincere appreciation and gratitude, I asked nine other Jews to join me in this prayer. It is an act of loyalty, not rebellion. We pray for the well-being and success of this great country!”
The judge sat for a moment and then banging his gravel he declared, “Case dismissed!”
The family’s relief was tremendous and many people there were shocked. This judge was so harsh with him and yet pardoned him. The speech must have swayed him.
Decorum is that no one leaves the courtroom before the judge. The judge stood up and began walking out and everyone stood up in respect. As he passed by my grandfather, he stretched out his hand as if to say Comrade be loyal. My grandfather took his hand and said thank you, but he broke out in a sweat. He felt the piece of paper that the judge had just placed in his hand.
Realizing that secrecy must be maintained, he put his hand and took something from his pocket, while placing the note there.
When he came home, he looked at it and began to tremble. The judge wrote his address with the words hope to see you. What does he want from me? However, his Rebbetzin said to him, Alter don’t be nervous. If the judge wanted to harm you, he could have easily done so. Go to him.
While my grandfather wasn’t positive that his Rebbetzin was correct, he knew that to disobey or even ignore the Judges request would be extremely foolish and perhaps dangerous. So that night he walked by himself as if he was out for a stroll and after making sure no one was following him he knocked on the judge’s door.
The Judge welcomed him in and asked him to sit down. He then said, “You think that you gave a beautiful speech in your own defense and that is why I dismissed the charges against you. I have heard better speeches from accomplished orators, and I gave them severe punishments and sentences. So why did I free you?
“Around twenty-five years ago I was drafted into the Czar’s army. My father was a chossid of the Rebbe Rashab of Lubavitch and he took me to the Rebbe pleading that the Rebbe give me a blessing that I would be able to be discharged by the draft board as we were informed that he did this on behalf of others.
“The Rebbe replied, ‘I can’t free him from the army service, however, I can promise him that he will survive. Please bring him in.’
“I entered the Rebbe’s room, and he said to me, ‘I see you are a talented and intelligent individual. You are going to rise in the ranks. I will promise you that you will live if you promise me two things: 1. That you wear a tallis koton whenever possible so you will always be reminded that you are a Jew. 2. That when you have the opportunity to help another Jew you do so.’
“I gave the Rebbe my word and as you see his promise was fulfilled. I survived the war and rose in ranks until I became a judge. When you came in front of me today, I fulfilled my promise to the Rebbe.”
The judge then unbuttoned his shirt and showed Reb Alter that he was wearing a tallis koton under his undershirt.
Boruch Hashem after the war my grandfather was able to leave Russia. He then came to America where he opened his beis midrash.
Now the aftermath of this story.
After the war in 1967, the difference of opinion between Lubavitch and Satmar was evident. Nevertheless, when Lubavitcher chassidim came to Williamsburg on yom tov, many shuls allowed them to speak and say over a teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
However, as the years passed some shuls became more aligned with Satmar and some of them no longer allowed the Lubavitchers to speak or even to enter. This came to a head in 5737 (1976) when there was an organized act to stop Lubavitchers from speaking.
The president of my father’s shul decided that he too would ban them, however, this he cannot do on his own and decided to discuss it with the Rov.
My father informed him that he will allow them to speak and the man protested saying that the Rov is giving him no choice but to sever his relationship with the Rov and the shul that was so dear to him for so many years.
My father asked him to hear him out and related the above story. He then said if the Rebbe of Lubavitch helped save my father’s life, his chassidim are always welcomed in my shul.
Rabbi Avtzon is a veteran mechanech and the author of numerous books on the Rebbeiim and their chassidim. He can be contacted at [email protected]