Book Excerpt | ‘Who Will Lead Us?’
Rebbe on the Run
By Samuel C. Heilman
In 1939, like most of Polish Jewry, the Bobovers realized, perhaps too late, that what was happening in neighboring Germany would affect them profoundly. Three days before the September 1 German invasion into Poland, some Bobover Hasidim, sensing the precariousness of their situation, organized an escape for the second Bobover rebbe, Benzion Halberstam, his sons and his sons-in-law eastward toward the Soviet border and what they believed would be safety. The rumor was that only Jewish men were endangered. Protecting the rebbe and his holy seed was of paramount concern.
Late on the afternoon of July 25, 1941, the first day of the Hebrew month of Av—a month fraught with the sorrows of Jewish history—Nazis broke into the house where the rebbe was staying and captured him and those with him. Maintaining his dignity, he had donned his Hasidic finery: a shtreimel on his head and a fine brocade kapote or kaftan. Together with about 100 other Jews collected from throughout the city, they were stood at a street corner. The rebbe was beaten and his shtreimel knocked off; he bent down to pick it up. Several times this scene repeated itself. At last, on the orders of the Nazis, they began to walk. “Benzion was weak, and could not keep up with the fast pace of the march. When he fell to the back of the column, the policemen whipped him and shouted at him to move faster. The march continued until the prisoners arrived at the Gestapo headquarters. Rabbi Benzion’s family tried everything to win their release, but after three days, he was executed at the Yanover forest together with his son Moshe, three sons-in-law and the other prisoners.” Thus ended the second rebbe’s reign over Bobover Hasidim. News of his tragic fate soon reached the Hasidim and his family.
The ascent of the man who would become the Third Rebbe, Shlomo Halberstam, who would lead the Bobovers to resurrection and growth in America and the world, took place without any formal coronation. In those dark days no one knew if any future remained for Bobover Hasidism. Shlomo was alive, but he had not been spared suffering, having been with his father during that fateful last journey. Indeed, he was himself on the run still.
While Shlomo effectively became the Third Bobover Rebbe in the midst of the Holocaust following his father’s brutal murder, his succession had actually been prepared years earlier. The year was 1932 and Shlomo’s father had reached the age of 58, the same age his own father had been when he passed away. Imagining that he too might be nearing the end of his days, Benzion resolved, much to the consternation of his Hasidim, to “exile himself” and his immediate family from his court in Bobov and move 300 kilometers eastward to the town of Tschebin (Trzebinia). Before departing on his self-imposed separation, however, the rebbe was persuaded by his Hasidim to appoint his son, Shlomo, as head of the large Hasidic court in Bobov (av beit din), an honorific that effectively anointed him as the rav-tza’ir (young rabbi), or crown prince. Whether this appointment was really at the Hasidim’s urging, as contemporary lore has it, or part of the father’s strategy at a time when he thought he might be close to death to prepare for the ultimate transition to his heir, we cannot really be certain. But no doubt these events, puzzling as they might have seemed at the time, helped smooth the path to succession. The appointment provided the son ample opportunities to display his leadership abilities during his father’s lifetime.
Shlomo, who ran the larger home court in the village of Bobov, grew in social stature through his leadership of the yeshiva, where he also offered a regular discourse. His organizational abilities helped him establish more branches of the yeshiva. His reputation as an up-and-coming leader grew, especially among the younger Hasidim in the yeshivas. Indeed, when his father sent Shlomo’s younger brother Moshe back from Tschebin to study with and be mentored by him, this further raised the rebbe-in-waiting’s reputation in the eyes of the Hasidim. Even when at last his father returned to Bobov from his sojourn in Tschebin, Shlomo continued to run the day-to-day activities at the court and serve as av beit din. While the Rebbe Benzion’s word was always paramount, the Hasidim’s assurance that his son, Shlomo, knew precisely what his father’s will was and had the elder man’s full confidence and even shared in the instruction and guidance of his younger brothers allowed him to become a powerful intermediary between them and his father. For the yeshiva students, he was the most immediate representative of Bobov, and as they grew to maturity so did he and his authority over them.
The expected transition from Benzion to Shlomo was thrown into chaos, as we have seen, by the outbreak of the war. Yet it was their connection to the large network of Bobover Hasidim and supporters that would in the end be the key link to their survival.
Life under the Soviets was bitter, and it made the Bobovers understand that however bad things were for Jews under the Nazis, life under the communists was only marginally better. Jews were often terrorized by the locals. Like everyone else, they needed to find official registered work. Before his murder, Benzion had urged his sons and sons-in-law to find some formal occupations. Now, most of the holy seeds found jobs as factory workers, often completing their jobs at home.
With some help from connections and from bribes, Shlomo found a job as a factory night watchman. But this was no simple position. As the communists took over and confiscated private property, former owners might be expected to steal from their factories and former property in order to salvage what they could sell on the black market and thereby support themselves and their families. This made the job of a watchman more than a sinecure. Watchmen needed to be snitches. Alternatively, they might be accomplices to the thefts, or assumed to be by the authorities. Shlomo was in constant danger as he walked through the various parts of the factory seven nights a week in the dark, and he barely eked out a living to support himself and those dependent upon him. Still the job was viewed as a godsend, since it did not require major desecration of the Sabbath. But when after a few months as part of the position he was required to frisk and empty the pockets of all workers leaving the factory, he quit and found work in a rope mill, remaining until the Nazi-Soviet pact collapsed in June of 1941 and the war brought the Germans into Lvóv.
There was one silver lining in this dark event. Now that the Nazis had advanced to where he was, Shlomo was no longer separated by a border from those who remained in Bobov. The family could be reunited. The death of Benzion and the others, however, changed everything.
For a brief time, Shlomo found work in the local Judenrat (Jewish council) and tried in this capacity to save Torah scrolls in advance of the destruction and confiscation of synagogues. The fact that he had this official position saved him for a time from the deaths and deportations that many other Jews suffered. Indeed, when his father the rebbe, brothers and brothers-in-law were rounded up and taken off to their deaths, that was how he and his son Naftali (who actually saw them loaded on a truck) managed to avoid being included.
In July of 1941 in Lvóv (renamed Lemberg by the Germans), after he was effectively the new rebbe, still in mourning for his murdered father, one of Shlomo’s first acts was to “cut off his beard and payos [earlocks],” for he realized that “his ‘Jewish’ appearance could only be a liability.” A rebbe on the run needed to look as Gentile as possible if he were to survive. Few other rebbes had ever experienced a succession like this one.
A rebbe on the run needed to look as Gentile as possible if he were to survive.
Broken in spirit by the events that had made him the leader of the Hasidim and his family, Shlomo realized that there was no reason left to remain in Lemberg. His surviving brother, Yecheskel Dovid, who had become the rebbe in Pokshinvitz (Koprzywnica, Poland), a village some 140 kilometers northeast of Bobov where Jews were about a third of population in the 1920s, or about 800 people, had returned to Bobov. He and his sister Gitcha worked to get money to bribe the Gestapo for a travel permit and to send a car to pick up Shlomo and his family to get them back to Bobov.
No sooner did Shlomo and his son Naftali, now the new crown prince, return to Bobov than they learned that their presence there had been reported and that it was likely that the Gestapo would soon come to get them. Even though he had shaved his beard and shorn his earlocks in an effort to evade capture, he was certain he would be recognized here as the leader of Bobover Hasidism. Two days after his arrival in Bobov in November of 1941, therefore, he and Naftali fled to Kraków, leaving behind his wife, mother, brother and other children.
From Kraków, the two great hopes for Bobov were hustled to Bochnia in southern Poland, where they hoped to “disappear” in the ghetto there. In January 1942, Shlomo’s wife, younger children and mother-in-law joined more than 8,000 Jews who flooded into what would become a large labor camp in Bochnia. Shlomo’s mother, the dowager rebbetzin Chaya Freidel, remained in Bobov with her son Yecheskel Dovid and her six daughters and grandchildren.
Through the skills of one or two of his Hasidim with a talent for forging documents, Shlomo acquired false papers as a Hungarian. Identified thus as one Germans called an auslander (foreigner), he was able to escape the restrictive boundaries of the Bochnia ghetto, as well as to help others flee by providing them with forged papers or with food. “A Rebbe who is not willing to descend into hell in order to rescue his followers [is not a rebbe],” Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe who, turning down opportunities to escape, perished in a labor camp in 1943, was reputed to have said. By this standard, Shlomo was still very much the Bobover Rebbe. Although he had not had a coronation and no longer looked like a Hasid, Shlomo’s actions and experiences in these terrible days endowed him with a charisma of his own.
The moral choices Jews had to make were overwhelming: whether to hide or not, whether to take their young children and babies into bunkers (where their cries might inadvertently alert the Gestapo and lead to the capture or death of all who hid along with them), whether to go on the transports with their loved ones or separate from them and try to hide or escape and whether to arrange for children to be hidden among Gentiles. And what if the parents never came back alive to retrieve them and they were raised outside their Jewish faith? Was leaving them in the hands of Gentiles where they might convert to Christianity permissible, or was that a cardinal sin and, for the children, a fate worse than death? Accustomed to taking important questions in their lives (and even some simple ones) to their rebbes, many Bobovers came to Shlomo even in these days, and even though he was hiding his true identity, to ask for his guidance in these extraordinary matters.
The moral weight of such inquiries crushed the 34-year-old. If in these days he began to think about abandoning the role of rebbe or questioning his position as a Hasidic master, feelings that would only grow as the situation grew ever more desperate, who could blame him? Again and again, he shaved his beard and cut any shred of earlocks so that he would not look like a Hasid, or even a Jew. Yet Hasidim continued to look to him to help them through the moral and existential chaos in which they found themselves or for blessings before they met their fate. When he answered them, “You must do all in your power to save your children in any way that you can, and may the Almighty have mercy upon all of us speedily and in our days,” they could only assume he had the strength he needed. But Shlomo was slowly losing what he had.
In early September 1941, as he and his son Naftali reviewed the biblical portion of the week, including Deuteronomy 28—the curses the Almighty vowed to inflict on the Jews in days to come—he confessed that only now did he fully understand the meaning of those verses. As the gradual liquidation of the Jewish ghetto began, the two hid in a bunker with about 50 others. Those who had remained outside the ghetto walls, depending on their forged papers, were caught and killed on the spot; those boarding the transports went to their fate, mostly death and destruction. The few with Shlomo and Naftali in hiding managed to survive that day unscathed, but who can say with what degree of survivor’s guilt.
Coming out of hiding after the transports had departed, Shlomo sensed that the long-term prospects for his continued survival were poor. Indeed, on the Sabbath eve of February 27, 1942, the Gestapo arrested him. Imprisoned, he prepared himself spiritually and emotionally, thinking of himself as joining a long history of Jewish religious leaders whose murder over the generations by the enemies of the Jews had been understood as an expression of Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name—the ultimate Jewish sacrifice. He began reciting chapters of the Psalms, which he knew by heart, in spiritual preparation for his inevitable death at the hands of his persecutors. He also began to write a moral will in which he shared his religious and ethical thinking for his children and all those who might survive, proclaiming, “We must always believe [in the famous biblical oath] that ‘we shall do and we shall listen’ [to] the will of the Holy One, may He be our blessing, even when a sharp sword rests upon our neck.” But he did not finish the document, and when later in the night the door opened and his jailers came to get him, he whispered the words of the Shema Yisrael and the credo of Ani Ma’amin, expressing the confidence that the Messiah would soon arrive. The Gestapo led him into the dark streets, where he saw the Jewish policeman whose job was to carry the dead to the cemetery and called out to him to tell his wife to raise their children to fear God and observe his commandments. But the policeman assured him he was not about to be killed, and indeed after some further interrogations Shlomo was released, likely as a result of bribes that had been paid on his behalf by his supporters and Hasidim.
Back outside the ghetto with his forged papers, Shlomo would slip into the ghetto to spend some time with the remaining Bobover Hasidim. In secret gatherings at Sabbath’s end, after curfew, when the Hasidim would gather together, hold hands and form a silent circle, as if dancing and singing, he would offer hushed words of Torah, Hasidic teaching and spiritual encouragement. At times he stole Naftali, who was 11 years old at the time, in with him, taking the risk that if he were caught on the streets after curfew they would both be punished, if not shot. He wanted the boy to see how a rebbe had to act. Shlomo talked a great deal about the idea of religious self-sacrifice and how to prepare for it, something he had learned about in these last months as never before. He argued that the best method to prepare for the imminent coming of the Messiah (whose arrival would surely end Jewish suffering, a belief that roared through the hearts of many of those whose belief in God’s redemption rose in the face of horror) was to pave his way by saving Jewish children from death or abandonment at the hands of non-Jews.
As the situation deteriorated in 1943 and another large transport of Jews from the Bochnia ghetto left for the concentration camps, a plan took shape to smuggle Shlomo and his family to Czechoslovakia via Neumark (Všeruby) on the German-Czech border and then on to Hungary, where Jews still were relatively safe. The family was divided into separate groups so as not to arouse suspicion, but at the train station in Podgórze near Kraków and a stone’s throw from the infamous Płaszów concentration camp, Shlomo and Naftali, who were traveling together, were detained by the police after the son was identified by some local boys as “a little Jew.” Flashing his false papers, Shlomo successfully bribed their way onto the train and continued toward the border. By Friday, June 18, 1943, they reached Neumark, where the Gestapo, particularly interested in penetrating the network that had smuggled him thus far, were quick to arrest them. When Shlomo refused to reveal names, he and Naftali were thrown into a cell, after the youngster begged not to be separated from his father.
Covering their bare heads with their coats, they began the Sabbath prayers. Transported by their own chanting, Shlomo recalled that they had been on the verge of death before. But maybe this time they would not be saved. As he hovered between hope and despair, he wondered if this suffering was the famous birth pangs of the Messiah, moments before redemption. Perhaps his death would be prologue to Judgment Day. He turned to prepare his son for this moment of supreme sacrifice that he believed was now upon them.
“Naftali, my delight,” he began, “know that a Jew’s body is dust of the earth, and it is subject to death, but his soul remains eternal and no murderer or evildoer in the world can shoot at it. Today, Naftali, I am your father and you my son, and you can still perform the commandment of honoring thy father, one of the most solemn commandments in our Torah. Tomorrow, it seems, we shall be two souls together in the holiness of heaven. Do you know what an extraordinary merit it is for a Jewish soul to perform the commandment of sanctifying God, Kiddush Hashem? Tomorrow, if that be the will of the Holy One, Blessed be He, we two shall merit the fulfillment of that great commandment. In this final moment of our lives, I make of you, my son, one request.”
Naftali swore to abide by any and all requests his father made of him. The moment bound son and father together in ways that few could ever imagine, let alone experience.
“Do you recall,” Shlomo continued to his son, according to an internal account, “[the holiday of] Simchas Torah in Bobov, when with complete happiness we danced with the Torah scrolls in our arms or the deep joy we shared baking matzah on the eve of Passover? In a few hours, the only mitzvah remaining for us to perform together will be that of Kiddush Hashem, which we must carry out with the same profound gladness. The murderers will torture me because they want to learn who are those who have been smuggling Jews out and who have been forging the stamps and documents for them. But I will call out only the Shema until my soul leaves my body. When you see my suffering, my son, pay it no heed. Recite the Shema too, and fear nothing else in this world. Be strong and do not weep, for your tears will only bewilder me in that awesome and holy moment. Naftali, this is my last request of you, will you obey?”
“Father,” he replied, “I will ask the murderers to kill me first, for I shall surely not be able to watch your torture.”
Whether or not this conversation, so freighted with martyrdom, took place exactly as recounted, it has become a part of Bobover collective memory, enshrining the attachment of the two men who would be the Third and Fourth Rebbes and their powerful bond to each other, as well as their courage in facing their imminent destruction. It became part of their shared charisma and sanctity. Throughout the rest of that night, the two could not sleep, waiting for the morning and what they believed to be inevitable. Both were horrified by the thought of watching the other suffer and die. In the morning, however, when Shlomo was called into the office of the Gestapo, he was told that since he was obviously a Hungarian citizen he would be made to pay a fine for breaking the law and then would be returned to Bochnia. Shlomo could barely contain himself at this good fortune that he was certain was a sign of God’s deliverance. The Nazi took a fine of 600 zlotys and drove them to the railway station, sending father and son back with a note for his counterpart in Bochnia.
In fact, all this was the result of the fortuitous presence of a Bobover Hasid in the Gestapo office in Bochnia when the call from Neumark inquiring about the Halberstams came in. The Hasid was able to persuade the official who answered the phone to call back and in the name of the SS in Bochnia to request their return. Once again, the network of Bobovers had saved the young rebbe and his son.
Shlomo’s mother, wife, other son and mother-in-law had not been as lucky and remained in Gestapo custody. This wore heavily on Shlomo; he initiated desperate efforts to liberate them. Through the people still making their way to him for his blessings, he learned of various routes and strategies for escape. Thus he had discovered a car belonging to a German official that could be hired for a price and used to ferry people to the Slovakian border. He hoped to use it to ferry family there, the first of whom he hoped would be his son and successor, Naftali.
Those with the car demurred, explaining that the procedure they had developed was based on forged work permits and that an 11-year-old boy—even a future rebbe—could not be given such papers. Putting him in the car would endanger the entire effort. Shlomo used the power of the rebistve: He told them that God’s blessings and protection would ensure their success because they were transporting the holy seed of the Bobover Rebbes. Such was the belief in a rebbe’s powers and the conviction that preserving the holy line of succession mattered that they agreed.
Notwithstanding, the car was stopped and its passengers were brought to the police authorities in Kraków. Keen to discover who was behind the effort, they put pressure on the young Naftali. But despite the blows they rained upon him, he said nothing, claiming ignorance. Through further bribes and influence, Naftali was freed, but the others remained in Gestapo custody. Shlomo and his brother Yecheskel Dovid continued to scheme in order to find passage for the family. Finally reaching the banks of the Biały Dunajec River along the Polish-Slovakian border, they planned to ford the river and then run 12 kilometers to a house at the foot of the Pieniny Środkowe mountain range of the Tatra Mountains. All this would take place in August 1943, weeks before the final liquidation of the Bochnia ghetto on September 12.
After a harrowing run and more bribes, they reached Prešov in Slovakia, regrouping to get to Hungary. At Košice (called “Kashau” by the Hasidim) on the Hungarian border, in late 1943, with the help of Bobover locals, bribes and a good deal of luck, Shlomo, Naftali and some of the Bobovers made it to the Hungarian capital. Willing to come out in public here, Shlomo spoke before the congregation at the Chevra Shas. Quoting the prophet Jeremiah’s famous warning that “from the North shall the evil break forth” (1:14), he reported on the events in Poland, on what he had experienced and witnessed, and on the evil that he was sure would move southward toward Hungarian Jewry. The situation was far from secure in Hungary. Already Polish Jews discovered living in Pest were being expelled to concentration camps.
In time, dressed again in clothes that disguised both their Hasidic and their Jewish identity, the rebbe and Naftali fled toward Oradea (Grosswardein, as the Germans called it) 300 kilometers from neighboring Romania, where the situation for Jews was marginally better. His wife, younger son and daughter as well as his mother-in-law had made it there too and had gone into hiding. With his forged papers and in Tyrolean disguise, Shlomo moved cautiously but freely throughout the city, even as Nazis constructed a series of ghettos there from which Jews would be taken to death camps.
As the situation grew worse, he and Naftali also went into hiding, even as the rebbetzin, his younger son, his daughter and his mother-in-law were captured in their hideout. Shlomo tried to buy their release through an intermediary, but this time he failed. On June 29, 1944, the 38-year-old rebbetzin, Bluma Rachel, as well as her mother, his son Mordechai Dovid (born in 1934) and his daughter Henchi (born in 1938), were deported to Auschwitz and their deaths.
Reaching Bucharest, Romania, Naftali and Shlomo, who continued to be clean-shaven and bareheaded or wearing a Tyrolean-style hat, stayed free. No Bobover Rebbe had ever looked like this. With half his family gone or dead, on the run, trying to preserve the life of his son and heir, and staying a step ahead of disaster, he hung between hopelessness and terror, despair and hope, both rebbe and refugee. Romania’s Jews were increasingly subject to deportations and arrests. After three weeks of living there, Shlomo focused his energies on saving Naftali, and with him the future of Bobov and his own family.
Desperate to get the future Bobover Rebbe out of Romania, Shlomo knew doing so would cost a major ransom. After receiving a substantial payment, the Bucharest head of the Gestapo permitted three ships to sail for Turkey, allowing for the exodus of about 1,000 people— including Jews. This flotilla of the Morina, Mefkura and Bulbul had been arranged through bribes and efforts by the Zionists and local Jews. Shlomo exerted all his influence and cajoled enough money from supporters to place Naftali on board. Once his heir was safe, Shlomo hoped to find ways to save himself and those in his family who were still alive. Arrival in Turkey eased entry into Palestine, Naftali’s ultimate destination. In the summer of 1944, Naftali boarded the Bulbul.
There could be no mistaking that saving Naftali was not simply the desire of a father to save a beloved first son but, at least as the story of those days has come down to us from Hasidic and Bobover sources, nothing short of a rebbe’s assuring succession in Bobov. Moreover, given the extremity of the circumstances and the drama of all that had led up to it, no one could ever question that, whatever happened, Naftali was to be the next Bobover Rebbe, even though he was only a boy just past his bar mitzvah.
The three ships that left Constanta, Romania, in August of 1944 for Turkey did not all make it. The Morina and the Bulbul arrived safely, but the second ship, the Mefkura, was shelled in Bulgarian waters, and only five or six of the 374 people on board survived the shelling and fire that broke out. The sight of the burning Mefkura rattled the captain of the Bulbul, and he tried to jump ship. But before he could escape, he was captured by some of the passengers, who told him, “Our destiny will be yours.” With the first mate taking over, the ship diverged from the route taken by the ill-fated Mefkura. After a severe storm and a mistaken effort to land in a part of Turkey where there was no port, the passengers disembarked via small boats that took them to the Turkish mainland, from which they continued on to Istanbul. They were met there by agents of the Zionist Jewish Agency, who arranged their passage via a train that passed through Aleppo and Beirut to the safety of Palestine. These were the very Zionists that previous Bobover Rebbes had railed against in Poland before the outbreak of the war. Now the Bobover future was being protected by them.
Shlomo’s mother and his brother Yecheskel Dovid were not so fortunate. Caught near Oradea, they were taken to Pest and imprisoned. Shlomo, seeking to reach those left behind, went to Arad, on the Hungarian border, and bribed a Russian officer to drive him into Budapest and to arrange documents that would ease his passage to collect his mother and sister and bring them to relative safety. Although the siege around the city was nearing an end, the battles were still ongoing when he arrived. After reuniting with his mother, he traveled throughout the city searching for people he knew, hoping he could take them back to Arad or Bucharest and save them as well from the difficult straits in which they found themselves. Quite a few of the rabbis he came upon and offered to help did not recognize the clean-shaven man in the Tyrolean hat as the Bobover Rebbe.
Shlomo’s sister, Rebecca Baila, hiding with two of her children in a village outside Budapest, found herself caught in the battle. Hoping to convince his driver to remain a few extra days so that he might retrieve her, Shlomo discovered that the man’s fear of getting caught behind German lines was too great. Meanwhile his sister and her children found their own way to Budapest. In the Bobover recounting of these events, all these escapes and the apparent assurance of continuity they portended were viewed as no less than the hand of God saving Bobov from destruction.
With the war ending, Shlomo, writing in German to his family in Palestine on May 30, 1945, expressed concern about Naftali and regret that he had “sent the child away” because “he needs his father and mother to raise him.” At that point, he reported that the dowager rebbetzin was “in good health”; she would die in 1974 in New York. He still harbored hopes that his wife and the children who had been taken to Auschwitz would be among those few who survived, and he fretted as well about the fate of his brother Chaim in Siberian exile. Both those hopes would be dashed. Chaim died in a Soviet prison in 1944, and as we know the rebbe’s wife and other children were exterminated by the Nazis. Of the Second Rebbe Benzion Halberstam’s 12 children, two sons and seven daughters survived the war. But only Shlomo was the “heilige [holy] rebbe” and only Naftali his chosen successor.