Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
For the past several years, a large group of chassidim have been traveling to an important gravesite in Hungary, to be there on the yahrzeit of the Rebbe interred there. Descendants of the tzaddik, led by the Steiner and Rubin families, organize and sponsor the yearly events. They are grandchildren of the extended families of Rabbi Meir Yosef Rubin, zt’lHy’d (d. 1944), Kerestirer Rebbe; son-in-law of Rabbi Avrohom Steiner, zt’l (1843-1927), Kerestirer Rebbe; son of Rabbi Yeshayale Steiner, zt’l (1852-1925), greatly beloved Kerestirer Rebbe whose yahrzeit is commemorated and celebrated.
The nondescript rural city of Kerestur (Bodrogkeresztur), in northwest Hungary, was the home of Rabbi Yeshayale Steiner, beloved Kerestirer Rebbe. When Reb Yeshayale was three years old, his father died. At the age of 12, his mother sent him to study with Rabbi Zvi Hersh Friedman, zt’l (1790-1874), founding Liska Rebbe and author of Ach Pri Tevuah. When Rav Friedman died, Yeshayale started traveling to Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, zt’l (1793—1876), Sanzer Rebbe and revered author of the Divrei Chaim, and he became a disciple of Rabbi Mordechai Leifer, zt’l (1824—1894), venerated Nadvorna Rebbe who crowned Reb Yeshayale as a chassidicrebbe and directed him to take up residence in Kerestur.
Reb Shayeleh Kerestirer, as he was and still is affectionately known, had an overpowering love for his fellow Jews. He was regarded as a people’s Rebbe. He always made sure that plenty of food would be at his tisch and that no one would go hungry. On Rosh Hashanah, when other Rebbes were fasting, in deep meditation, intense contemplation, in preparation of the sounding of the shofar, Reb Yeshayele personally sliced and served kokosh (chocolate) cake and other sweets to his chassidim. He took orphans into his home and lovingly raised them as his own children.
Posting a picture of Reb Yeshayale on a wall is known to prevent infestation by mice. Once, a Jewish warehouse owner pleaded with Reb Yeshayele for help. His warehouse was infested with mice that were devouring everything that was stored there. The warehouse owner was facing financial ruin.
Reb Yeshayale asked whether the local priest in that village was kind or harsh to the Jewish residents there. When the man responded that the priest was rabidly anti-Semitic, Reb Yeshayale instructed the Jew to go to the warehouse and order all the mice to go to the priest’s home. Miraculously, all the mice immediately left the warehouse as ordered. Since then, Reb Yeshayale was known to have the power to get rid of rodents. Reb Yeshayaleh’s picture is used by many chassidim to protect against infestation.
Somehow, he always set exactly enough chairs for guests at his Shabbos and melaveh malkah tables. One winter Shabbos night, guests looked at each other and wondered why one seat remained empty. Late into the meal, a straggler showed up. Obvious to everyone there, the latecomer had gone through an ordeal. Reb Yeshayele enthusiastically welcomed the straggler and told him that he prayed intensely to protect the chassid and that he survive the dangerous confrontation he hadencountered.
Local gentiles also came to Reb Yeshayele for advice, counsel, and blessing. They stood on line, sometimes waiting for days together with other supplicant Jews, waiting their turn to cry to the Rebbe. They were all warmly received and found that their requests, too, were answered. His home, during all the years since the Holocaust, following which no Jews lived in Kerestur, was maintained and respected by the local population. The children and grandchildren of those non-Jews who were helped by Reb Yeshayale never forgot.
The yahrzeit, 3 Iyar, was on April 22 this year. A large group of descendants of Reb Yeshayele as well as chassidim from all over the world organized a repeat visit to the home and gravesite. The home had come into the possession of a non-Jew after the Holocaust, who respectfully maintained it. The homeowner was most cooperative and sold the well-maintained dwelling to a Jewish group in 2004. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain and cooperation from Hungarian authorities, including enthusiasm from the local municipality, many group visits have been successfully organized.
This year will mark the ninth time that the group was there for a Shabbos. The home itself has always been considered by chassidim to be imbued with holiness. The gravesite is in the cemetery at the top of a steep hill. In order to provide access for cars and buses, descendants paved a wide road. The paving was especially made for the aging Udvarer Rav. The gravesite, as well as the surrounding cemetery, is intact since gentiles also venerate the memory of the Jewish holy man and his eternal resting place.
The group conducted all tefillos, tisch, as well as melavehmalkah at the home, just as Reb Yeshayele did. Reb Shayeleh’s son and successor, Rabbi Avrohom Steiner, zt’l (1843-1927), Kerestirer Rebbe, reigned for only two years. Reb Avremele is buried in the ohel, alongside his holy father.
Once, when Reb Avremeleh was traveling to the city of Weitzen, the car ran out of gas. Reb Avremeleh had no money with him, nor did the driver. As they sat there, suddenly a childless chassid happened by and asked the Rebbe to bless him, specifically that he should have a child. The Rebbe smiled and told him that if he would pay for the benzene (gas), that he would be blessed with a “ben-ziehn” (a son, in Hebrew and in Yiddish). The chassid filled the car’s tank with premium benzene to an overflow and, within a year, he was blessed with a son, just as the Rebbe had promised!
Reb Avremele, just like his father, was known to give fruitful blessings to childless couples. One Friday night, at Reb Yeshayale’s tisch, the Rebbe gave a full soup-bowl of cholent to a particular chassid. The chassid had been married for many years but had not yet had any children. The soup-bowl of cholent was unique in that it had an oversized protruding bone in it. Ordinarily, Reb Yeshayale’s cholent at his tisch did not have large bones. However, everyone understood the meaning of Reb Yeshayaleh’s intention. The Yiddish word for bone is ‘bein,’ similar to the Hebrew word ‘ben’–son. Sure enough, that chassid became a father to a son within that year.
In years past, Rabbi Sholom Krausz, zt’l (1915-2010), Udvarer Rav and author of Divrei Sholom, graced the visits with his participation. The Udvarer Rav was a senior rav in Williamsburg and the last living European-city chief rabbi who held a pulpit before WWII. He survived the Holocaust and authored more than 30 sefarim titled Divrei Sholom.
The octogenarian Udvarer Rav, who lent great meaning to the organized group visits to the ohel of Reb Yeshayale, was the son of Rabbi Shmuel Krausz, zt’l (d. 1924), Volover Dayan. The Udvarer Rav married Rebbetzin Hentchie Miriam, a’h, daughter of Rabbi Yisroel Avrohom Alter Landau, zt’l (d. 1942), Edeliener Rav and author of Beis Yisroel, who was married to Rebbetzin Rochel, a’h, Hy’d (d. 1944), daughter of Reb Yeshayele. Thus, the Udvarer Rav was married to the granddaughter of Reb Yeshayele.
After the passing of his father in 1935, the young Rabbi Sholom, who was but 20 years old, was appointed as successor. This appointment was assisted by the personal intervention of Rabbi Sholom Eliezer Halberstam, zt’lHy’d (1862-1944), Ratzferter Rebbe and son of the Divrei Chaim.
In June 1944, the Udvarer Rav and his family, together with Jews from the area, were forced into a ghetto where they remained for three weeks. When deportations to Auschwitz began, the Udvarer Rav and his family were separated from the general population. They were transported to Budapest from where they were supposed to have been put on a train arranged with bribes by Dr. Rudolf Kastner, z’l (1906-1957), with an immediate destination of Switzerland. Unbeknownst to Rabbi Sholom, a select group of rabbis were being saved together with a larger group of secular Jewish leaders. On the same train were Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, zt’l (1886-1979), founding Satmar Rebbe and author of Divrei Yoel, and Rabbi Yonason Steif, zt’l (1879-1958), Budapest Rosh Beth Din and later Vienner Rav.
Because of some mix-up, the Nazis forwarded the train to Auschwitz but promised to send the next train to Switzerland. Dr. Kastner vigorously protested and the train sent to Auschwitz was miraculously diverted, instead, to Bergen-Belsen. Once in Bergen-Belsen, the prisoners were assigned to three tiers of wooden shelves which served as beds. After everyone scurried to secure a “bed,” loud murmuring followed. Mild-mannered Rabbi Steif had no bed. The Udvarer Rav jumped off his bed and offered his. Rabbi Steif demurred, but agreed to share the bed.
Every day in Bergen-Belsen was a life-threatening nightmare. Ultimately, after protracted negotiations by Dr. Kastner with the Nazis, on Thursday, December 4, 1944, the Udvarer Rav was aboard the train that crossed the border into Switzerland and to freedom. The salvation was made possible only by Dr. Kastner, who risked his life, bribed the Nazis and thus, providentially, saved 1,685 Jewish souls. The Divrei Yoel, Rabbi Yonason Steif, and the Udvarer Rav were amongst them.
Arriving in Williamsburg in 1949, the Udvarer Rav established Beis Medrash Beis Yeshaya, named after Reb Yeshayale. From the time of his appointment as Udvary Rav in 1935, he authored more than 30 sefarim, some of which have yet to be printed. The Udvarer Rav was appointed by the Divrei Yoel as the Yoshev Rosh (chairman) of the Vaad Hora’ah (halachah committee) of the Hisachdus Harabbanim, the organization of rabbis in Williamsburg, in which capacity he served for more than 40 years.
The memory of Reb Yeshayale lives on brightly for those few who still remember him personally, as well as for descendants whose lives today are still affected by the berachos that he gave.
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.