Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam (January 10, 1905 – June 18, 1994) was the founding Rebbe of the Sanz-Klausenburg Chasidic dynasty.
Rabbi Halberstam became one of the youngest rebbes in Europe, leading thousands of followers in the town of Klausenburg, Romania, before World War II. His wife, eleven children and most of his followers were murdered by the Nazis, while he was incarcerated in several concentration camps. After the war, he moved to the United States and later to Israel. The Rebbe rebuilt Jewish communal life in the displaced persons camps of Western Europe, re-established his dynasty in the United States and Israel, founded a Sanz community in the United States and in Israel, established a hospital in Israel run according to Jewish law, and rebuilt his own family with a second marriage and the birth of seven children.
Reb Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam was born in 1905 in the town of Rudnik, Poland. On his paternal side, he was a great-grandson of Rabbi Chaim Halberstam of Sanz (the Divrei Chaim), one of the great Chasidic leaders of Polish Jewry, and a grandson of the Gorlitzer Rebbe, Rabbi Baruch Halberstam (1829–1906). His father, Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Halberstam, the Rav of Rudnik, instilled in the young Yekusiel Yehudah a love of Chasidus and Torah scholarship, sharing with him stories of how the Divrei Chaim learned, prayed and conducted his tish (Shabbos and Jewish holiday Celebratory “Table”). When Reb Yekusiel Yehudah was 13, his father passed away. Afterwards he studied with other leading Chasidic Rebbes, including Rabbi Meir Yechiel of Ostrovtza, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapiro (the Munkatcher Rebbe), and his great-uncle, Rabbi Shalom Eliezer Halberstam of Ratzfert. During this period, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah became known as the "ilui (genius) of Rudnik". In later years he would periodically return to Rudnik to visit his followers. In 1921, the Rebbe married his second cousin, Chana Teitelbaum, the daughter of Rabbi Chaim Tzvi Teitelbaum, the Rav of Sighet, Romania. She was also a descendant of the Divrei Chaim: her maternal grandfather, Rabbi Sholom Eliezer Halberstam, was the sixth of the seven sons of the Sanzer Rav and his paternal grandmother was a sister of her paternal grandfather. The young couple lived in her father's house for five years. In 1927, at the age of 22 Reb Yekusiel Yehuda accepted the post of Rav in Klausenburg, Romania. Although he was relatively young, he impressed the community with his charismatic personality, wisdom, and warmth toward Jews of all backgrounds. During the 16 years he spent there, he exhibited many of the qualities that would set him apart during his imprisonment by the Nazis. He slept only three hours a night, often on a shul bench, and he often ate only one meal a day, reserving bread for Shabbos. He spent much of his day in prayer and study. His love for and faith in G-d was legendary. He also paid special attention to the children, founding a Yeshivah consisting of 100 students. The Rebbe’s reputation spread throughout Romania and Hungary, reaching as far as Israel and beyond. In 1937 he was offered a seat on the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court. Uncertain as to whether he should accept the seat or stay with his community, the Rebbe wrote to his mother in Rudnik for advice. She advised him to stay where he was, saying he was too young to accept such a position.
When World War II broke out, the Jews of Hungary and Romania were not immediately affected by the German offensive against Polish and Lithuanian Jewry. However, local anti-Semitism flourished. Following the Second Vienna Award of September 1940, Transylvania, previously given to Romania in the post World War I Trianon Treaty, was partitioned between Hungary and Romania. Northern Transylvania, including Kolozsvár in Hungarian, Cluj in Romanian, Klausenburg in German and קלויזנבורג in Yiddish, was now part of Hungary, Germany's new Axis ally. The strongly Chasidic and Orthodox Jewish communities of Transylvania such as Klausenburg, were now under the authority of the government in Budapest. In 1941, a new law required all Jews living in Hungary to prove that their families had lived in and paid taxes in Hungary back in 1851. Suddenly thousands of Jews, including the Rebbe (who was born in Poland), were placed in jeopardy. The Rebbe, his wife and eleven children were arrested and brought to Budapest, where the family was separated. The Rebbe was jailed with a group of leaders who were eventually sent directly to Auschwitz. Thanks to the efforts of friends and supporters, the Rebbe was released and the family returned to Kolozsvár. Despite the danger, the Rebbe refused to leave his followers and made no effort to save himself from further searches. Instead, he threw himself into helping refugees from Nazi-occupied lands and tending to his followers. Between 1941 and 1944, the Rebbe never stopped studying Torah and praying for the Jewish people. On March 19, 1944, the Germans invaded Hungary. Gestapo chief Adolf Eichmann immediately organized the round-up, ghettoization, and the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. The Klausenburg ghetto was established on May 1, 1944, and was liquidated via six transports to Auschwitz between late May and early June. Knowing that the Gestapo targeted community leaders first, the Rebbe hid in an open grave in a cemetery for several weeks. He then fled to the town of Nagybánya, where he was conscripted into a forced-labor camp along with 5,000 other Hungarian Jews. Though hunger was not a problem here (the barbed-wire enclosure had a back exit through which Jews could buy bread and milk from non-Jews), the Hungarian soldiers constantly badgered and searched inmates for their valuables. He continued to conduct prayer services and even a Shabbos tisch. Conditions were not harsh, and he and many prisoners bribed the authorities to refrain from working. Auschwitz
About a month after the Rebbe's arrival, the Arrow Cross took over Hungary. The inmates underwent selection, and he was ferried to the Auschwitz labor camp. Several months beforehand, the Rebbe's wife and nine of their children who remained with her were also sent to Auschwitz on a transport from Klausenburg. They did not survive. The Rebbe, however, survived Auschwitz, and was later liberated. He attempted to remain fully observant in the inhuman conditions and to encourage his fellow prisoners. He never touched non-kosher food and refused to eat food cooked in a non-kosher pot. Often he went hungry. His staunch faith gave spiritual strength to many. He assured his fellow inmates that G-d was with them in the valley of death, and would not abandon them. In late 1944, a year and half after the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Rebbe was assigned to a special labor detail to clear out the ruined ghetto. He and 6,000 other prisoners searched for valuables and demolished the ruins by hand and with rudimentary tools so that the Nazis could sell the bricks and steel to Polish contractors. As they beheld skeletons piled in the street, and uncovered bunkers in which Jews had perished via gas or via shootings, the Hungarian prisoners realized for the first time the extent of the annihilation of European Jewry. The Rebbe did not shave his beard, which is considered a mark of holiness for Chasidim. He wrapped his beard and face in a handkerchief, pretending he had a toothache. This charade was accompanied by the fact that he cried all day as he worked, praying and communing with G-d. When the prisoners began to hear rumors that their labor detail was about to be liquidated, they decided to try to escape rather than let the Nazis kill them. However, the Rebbe encouraged them to adopt a "wait and see" attitude. In response to one plan, in which prisoners would storm the camp gates and make a run for the forest where they would connect with partisans, the Rebbe advised, "Until we see that the Nazis are about to exterminate us, it is prohibited for anyone to sacrifice his life and put himself in a situation of certain death. But one must remain vigilant, and as soon as it becomes clear that the Nazis are ready to attack us, we must do everything in our power to rise up against them." The prisoners decided to follow his advice. Sometime later, after most of the prisoners had been transported from Warsaw, 500 remaining prisoners did stage a revolt. The Nazis killed every one of them. As the Russian Army moved closer to Poland, the Germans decided to liquidate the special ghetto-clearing unit of which the Rebbe was a member. All the prisoners were taken to a field outside of Warsaw. They were instructed to stand near open pits and to undress. SS soldiers were waiting to machine-gun them. At the last moment, however, a car sped into the field. A high-ranking officer jumped out and read the special order from Berlin to stop the execution and send the prisoners to the Dachau concentration camp, where they were needed as slave laborers. This unexpected reprieve, however, led to a brutal death march. For the next week, the prisoners were forced by SS soldiers wielding wooden clubs and steel bars to march 21 miles a day at top speed. In the blazing July heat, the emaciated prisoners were deprived of food and water and allowed to rest only at night. Those who couldn't keep up were shot. On the third day, strained to the last of their endurance, the group was finally brought to rest for the night in a field surrounded by SS officers. As the guards slept, the Rebbe passed around the word: "Everyone should dig beneath where he’s sitting. G-d's salvation comes in the blink of an eye." Each prisoner began to dig with his fingers, spoon, or pieces of wood. Remarkably, each found water, and small springs began to sprout everywhere, quenching everyone's thirst and giving them renewed life. Many years later, the Rebbe explained why he himself didn't drink from the water; the date was the 9th of Av, a traditional day of fasting to commemorate the destruction of the Temple. On the fifth day, the surviving marchers were packed into cattle cars for the remainder of the journey to Dachau. Over the next few days, many succumbed to the overcrowding, thirst, stench and heat in the cattle cars. Of the 6,000 people that set out on the death march, less than 2,000 made it to Dachau alive. The Rebbe was one of the survivors. Muldorf
From Dachau, the Rebbe was dispatched to the Muldorf Forest, where the Nazis were building an underground airport, hangar and missile batteries in order to bomb major European cities. The Rebbe and thousands of other prisoners were forced to work 12-hour shifts, carrying 110-pound bags of cement from the rail depot to the cement mixers inside the hangar. The Rebbe grew very weak from this difficult work. When he collapsed under his burden, he was beaten. He refused to work at all on Shabbos, bringing upon himself more beatings. Finally, his friends persuaded the camp managers to give him the job of camp custodian, allowing him to sweep and tidy the barracks, while engaging in prayer the entire day. Despite the hardships and privations, the Rebbe was a beacon of strength and hope for his fellow prisoners. When one died in the infirmary—hardly a noteworthy occurrence in those days—the Rebbe stood up and eulogized him for having been a great Torah scholar in Hungary. He refused to eat non-kosher food or food cooked in the non-kosher kitchen, subsisting only on bread and water during the nine months in Muldorf. Moreover, he would not eat the bread until he had ritually washed his hands, and would often wait for days to find some water for this purpose. One prisoner watched him stand beside the cement mixer for hours at a time, collecting the drops of water that dripped from the tank. As the war wound down in the spring of 1945, the Germans disbanded the Muldorf camp and sent the inmates on yet another death march, chasing them from place to place without food or rest. Sometimes they were loaded aboard rail cars and driven to and fro. On Friday, April 27, the train suddenly stopped in a small town and SS officers jumped aboard, declaring, "You are free!", ripping the insignia from their uniforms. Many prisoners believed them and jumped off the train. But the Rebbe told the people around him, "Today is the eve of Shabbos. Where will we go?" Then he added, "My heart tells me that not everything here is as it should be." Suddenly, SS soldiers rode in on bicycles from all directions, firing machine guns and killing hundreds of people. At the same time, American bombers dove in, strafing the field. Only the Rebbe and those who stayed with him on the train escaped injury. Two days later, their actual liberation came when the train stopped near a village and the Nazi guards deserted them. American soldiers boarded the train with smiles, candy and chocolates. The group was brought to the Feldafing DP camp near Munich, exhausted, demoralized and penniless. Here the Rebbe’s leadership qualities rose to the fore and he became the spokesman and leader of the religious survivors. He immediately arranged for the proper burial of those who had died by the train tracks, and demanded kosher food for the survivors. On the first Shabbos after liberation, he led the public prayer services in a newly opened synagogue, and delivered a two-hour lecture, quoting from memory from the scholarly writings that he had last seen years before. The Rebbe’s wife and ten of his children were murdered by the Nazis during the war. His eldest son, Lipa’le, survived the war, but succumbed to illness in a nearby DP camp before his father even knew that he had survived. Yet the Rebbe never complained of his lot, and avoided depression by reaching out to others. He spent much time listening to and comforting people of all ages, and brought hundreds of people back to religious observance through his passionate public speeches.
In the DP Camps
In the fall of 1945, the Rebbe moved to the new DP camp of Föhrenwald, a larger location in Munich, which he turned into the center of religious Jewish life for all the DP camps. Here the Rebbe created a communal survivors’ organization called Sh'earit ha-Pletah ("the surviving remnant"), which operated religious schools for boys and girls and yeshivos for young men in 19 different DP camps. In addition, the Rebbe set up a kosher slaughterhouse, built a kosher mikveh, acquired and distributed religious articles such as tzitzit, tefillin and mezuzot, raised money to help couples marry, and established halachic (Jewish legal) guidelines for men and women who had no proof of their spouse's death, enabling them to remarry and start new families. On Yom Kippur, 1945, General Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the camps and came to see the Rebbe, who was reputed as a "wonder rabbi". However, the Rebbe would not speak with him until he had finished his prayers. Afterwards he told the general, "I was praying before the General of Generals, King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He. The earthly general had to wait." Impressed by the rebbi's leadership and frankness, Eisenhower asked him if there was any way he could help him in his efforts. In typical fashion, the Rebbe asked for the Four Species (arba minim) so that the survivors could properly celebrate the upcoming Sukkos holiday. In the spring of 1946, the Rebbe made a special fund-raising trip to New York on behalf of the She'eris HaPleita, raising $100,000, a huge sum in those days. That fall, he embarked on yet another fund-raising trip and decided to eventually resettle in New York to strengthen the American Jewish community there and to continue working for the Holocaust survivors from that side of the Atlantic. He came to the United States on the Marine Marlin, and recruited a number of orphans to come and learn in his Yeshiva on the boat ride to the United States. He established his court in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, New York, in 1947
On Friday, August 22, 1947, he married his second wife, Chaya Nechama Ungar, the orphaned daughter of the Nitra Rav, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Ungar ztz”l. The match was made by Rabbi Michael Ber Weissmandl, Rabbi Ungar's son-in-law who had survived the Holocaust and re-established his yeshiva in Somerville, New Jersey. The tenayim (betrothal ceremony) were held in Weissmandl's Nitra Yeshiva, while the chuppah and dancing were held at Yeshivas She'aris Hapleitah, the Rebbe's yeshiva in Somerville. Although the Klausenberger Rebbe had gone to great lengths to allow agunos and widowers to remarry after the Holocaust, relying on testimonies from people who had seen their spouses being led "to the left" in the Nazi selections rather than documented evidence, the Rebbe did not rely on the testimonies of his first wife's death. Instead, he sought the approval of 100 rabbis and sat on the ground for half an hour in mourning for his first wife before he remarried. The Rebbe and his wife had five daughters and two sons. His sons, Rabbi Zvi Elimelech Halberstam shlit”a and Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Halberstam shlit”a, succeeded him, respectively, as Sanzer Rebbe of Israel and Klausenberger Rebbe of Boro Park.
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