Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, the Klausenberger Rebbe, was a spiritual giant whose passionate devotion to God and the Jewish people remained strong even after his wife and eleven children were murdered at Auschwitz.
Born in 1905 in Rudnik, Poland, the Rebbe was the scion of an illustrious Hasidic dynasty. From an early age, he exhibited a remarkable degree of charisma, kindness, and Torah scholarship. After his father died when he was 13, he became known as the “genius of Rudnik.”
The Rebbe married his 2nd cousin Chana Teitelbaum at age 17. At only 22, he was appointed Rabbi of a fervent Hasidic congregation in Klausenburg, Romania. He was known for his deep wisdom and genuine love for Jews of all backgrounds.
He was so devoted to prayer that he slept only 3 hours a night, on a hard synagogue bench, and ate one meal a day. He had a special love for the children in his community, and founded a school for 100 students while still only in his mid-twenties.
In 1941, the Rebbe, his wife and eleven children were arrested and separated. Due to the efforts of his supporters, the Rebbe was released but his family was sent to Auschwitz. Between 1941 and 1944, the Rebbe refused to leave his followers in Hungary but instead devoted himself to prayer, Torah study, and helping refugees.
The Germans invaded Hungary in March 1944 and started deporting Jews to Auschwitz. The Rebbe evaded capture by hiding in an open grave in a cemetery for several weeks. He was finally caught and conscripted into a forced labor camp, where he maintained his strict adherence to Jewish ritual practice despite horrific conditions. He refused to eat non-kosher food, even if it was all that was available, although he urged his followers to stay alive in any way possible, including eating prohibited foods.
The Rebbe was forced to help demolish the Warsaw ghetto, where he saw ghastly piles of naked, dead Jews covering the streets. He realized for the first time the awful extent of the annihilation of European Jewry and Jewish life.
Because of his piety and prominent religious status, the Rebbe was selected for special torture and public mockery by the Nazis. Although he was beaten constantly, and still did not know the fate of his wife and children, the Rebbe was a tower of strength to his fellow prisoners.
Forced on a death march to Dachau, he was marched mercilessly while Jews around fell from exhaustion and died. He himself was shot, and would have bled to death if he had not improvised a bandage from leaves and branches. The Rebbe was one of the few who survived.
It was at this moment that he vowed, “If God granted me life and I was healed, for I looked like a walking skeleton… and if I left this place and the evil Nazis, then I would build a hospital.”
After liberation, the Rebbe learned that his wife and ten children had been murdered. His oldest son survived the war, but tragically died of illness before being reunited with his father.
Despite surviving unimaginable tragedy, the Rebbe never complained but devoted himself to inspiring others. On the first Shabbat after liberation, right after receiving the terrible news about his family, he delivered a passionate speech to hundreds of fellow survivors in a Displaced Persons camp, exhorting them to maintain their faith in God and dedication to religious observance.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower visited the DP camps and wanted to meet the Rebbe, having heard about his saintliness. The Rebbe would not speak with Eisenhower until after he’d finished his prayers. He later said, “I was praying before the General of Generals, King of Kings, the Holy One, Blessed be He. The earthly general had to wait.”
The Klausenberger Rebbe moved to Israel in 1947, where he married fellow Holocaust survivor Chaya Nechama Ungar, with whom he had seven more children. He devoted his life to rebuilding Jewish communities in Israel and America, raising money for schools, orphanages and old-age homes.
One of the Rebbe’s most notable projects is the establishment of Laniado Hospital in Netanya, Israel. Run according to Jewish law, the hospital is a non-profit organization serving a wide variety of patients, including religious and secular Jews, and Arabs.
At the cornerstone laying for the hospital in 1980, the Rebbe said, “I was saved from the gas chambers, saved from Hitler… They murdered my wife and 11 children, my mother, my sisters and my brother – of my whole family, some 150 people, I was the only one who survived… I promised myself that if, with God’s help, I got well and got out of there, away from those wicked people, I would build a hospital in the Land of Israel where every human being would be cared for with dignity. And the basis of that hospital would be that the doctors and nurses would believe that there is a God in this world and that when they treat a patient, they are fulfilling the greatest mitzvah in the Torah.”
The great and saintly Klausenberger Rebbe died in Netanya in 1994. He was survived by his second wife Chaya Nechama and seven youngest children.
For maintaining his faith under conditions that would defeat almost any person, and rising from unimaginable loss to create a hospital that has saved thousands of lives, we honor the Klausenberger Rebbe as this week’s special hero at Accidental Talmudist.
Learn more about this story at laniadohospital.org
With thanks to Sol Goldner
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