Rav Mordechai Leib Glatstein zt”l
The novi Yechezkel writes about Noach, Iyov and Doniel as three men who saw three worlds. Each saw a world in its glory, a world in its destruction, and a world rebuilt. Throughout the 106 years of Rav Mordechai Leib Glatstein’s illustrious life, he saw three worlds in many forms. There is hardly anyone alive who knew him during the early years of his scholarship in Warsaw, when he received semicha from the raavad of Warsaw, or as he sat together with the Piazecna Rebbe comforting broken Yidden. No one could have imagined that this quiet humble man was in the room when Rav Menachem Ziemba, Rav Shamshon Stockhammer, and Rav Dovid Shapiro, among others, were discussing whether or not to rise up against the Nazi beast that had tortured them in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Most people alive today knew Rabbi Glatstein as an iconic figure in the city of Pittsburgh. The longest serving rov, active for more than half a century, he was cherished by Yidden from every walk of life and every background. In addition to having a close relationship with the great tzaddikim, Rav Silberberg, the Pittsburgher Rebbe, and the legendary rabbonim of the Steel Sity, he, together with his wife, Rebbetzin Tzina, developed relationships with doctors and psychologists and clergy of all kinds only for one reason: to lift the spirits of the brokenhearted.
Over the many decades, from the time he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1951 until he left Pittsburgh just a few years back to live with his son, Reb Yossi, a prominent attorney who is one of the premier lecturers for the Discovery kiruv organization, he was one of the most cherished figures in the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.
They all knew him as the rabbi whose voice was as soft as velvet and whose soothing chizuk was available to anyone in need. For members of Pittsburgh’s Kollel Bais Yitzchok, they knew him as an elderly rov who for the last twenty years or so sat and learned in the kollel every day as if he was a yungerman. For members of Pittsburgh’s lay community, he was a prominent civic figure worthy of making an official “Rabbi Mordechai and Rebbetzin Tzina Glatstein Day,” a public holiday to honor them upon his official retirement.
Doctors and therapists knew him as the chief chaplain of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who, with superhuman strength, counseled and comforted.
His humility and simplicity were inversely proportional to his true self-worth.
Hardly anyone knew of his tremendous accomplishments, before the war, during the war, and after the war, in his efforts to mend the broken spirit of a shattered people. He never spoke about himself, but with his passing, it is worthy to talk about a giant of a Jew, who was considered a formidable talmid chochom in Europe before the war, was close to gedolei olam during the war, and who together with famed askanim like Mike Tress and Reb Yitzchok Ziemba helped rebuild prominent organizations like Zeirei Agudas Yisroel after the war.
His life defied all logic. He saw Mengele, Eichmann and so many other evil men who would have wanted to ensure the doom of all of Klal Yisroel, but he lived a life that ensured that the plans of these evil men would not be realized.
He was a most prominent survivor who spent at least six years in the Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp as a representative of the United States government to ensure that every survivor would have a new home to go to and sponsors to ensure that they received the proper visa and immigration papers. It is no wonder, said his grandson, Rav Daniel Glatstein, a noted rov and maggid shiur, that his levayah was filled with people from every walk of life, from Chassidim to Jews barely clinging to their heritage. Each had a story of how Rabbi Glatstein helped resettle their parents.
Rav Mordechai Leib Glatstein was born on the 6th of Adar in 1916 in the Polish city of Lipna. He was a descendant of a rabbinic family; his father was a rov and his zaide was a dayan in Lunchitz.
As a tremendous talmid chochom, his father was chosen to marry the daughter of the rov in Lipna, a well-known tzadeikes, Blima Michla Goldman. Together, they had three children, Mordechai Leib, Henoch and Shmuel. When the oldest, Mordechai Leib, was only four years old, his father passed away suddenly from a brief illness.
Their mother was left to raise the yesomim and, with tremendous mesirus nefesh, she did just that. Little did she know that despite the clouds of destruction that would wipe out her entire family, her three children would survive the war. Henoch would flee to Russia and eventually escape in the post-war years, while the oldest son, Mordechai Leib, would take care of his brother, Henoch, and miraculously the two would not only survive the Holocaust, but would remain steadfast in their emunah.
Life was not easy for the young almanah. Her first task was to make sure that her oldest son would learn in cheder. She sent him as a child to learn in Lipna, and although other boys would come home to eat, she would bring food to cheder so that he would not have to leave yeshiva.
As he outgrew the cheder, she sent him to learn in other yeshivos, first in Plotzk, where he met Rav Meir Don of Plotzk, and later as he became bar mitzvah in Warsaw, where he forged a kesher with the rabbonim of the city, among them the av bais din of Warsaw, Rav Shlomo Dovid Kahana, who bestowed semicha upon him.
He grew in avodas Hashem tremendously and was known for his kavanah in tefillah. A survivor once told his family that Rav Mordechai was once caught davening in the concentration camps and was beaten until he passed out. When he came to, he opened his eyes and began davening again – from the exact spot where he had left off.
He turned 23 in Adar of 1939 and would have begun to look for a shidduch, but the winds of war darkened the skies of Polish Jewry, and by September, the Nazis had invaded. Together with his rabbeim, he was herded into the ghetto, where he became close with the rabbonim of the ghetto and their families.
His memories of the ghetto provided historians with some of the most graphic firsthand accounts. In Dos Yiddish Vort, some 25 years ago, he published an account of the death and disease that he experienced there. His mother passed away in the ghetto, and his brother and he searched desperately to make a minyan to say Kaddish. Unfortunately, right after the funeral, the deportations had begun transferring the Yidden from an almost certain death in the ghetto to a certain death in Auschwitz.
His mother had given the boys some jewelry to use as bribes, but it was to hardly any avail. The uprising decimated what was left of the ghetto, and Rav Mordechai served as a lookout in aiding the cause. After the Nazis burned the ghetto to the ground, they were rounded up and brought as laborers in the brutal Bedzin camp. He forged a close relationship with Rav Yitzchok Meir and Rav Avrohom Ziemba, nephews of the gaon Rav Menachem Ziemba. It was through Rav Mordechai’s collaboration with Rav Yitzchok, Rav Avrohom and Mike Tress that Zeiri Agudas Yisroel rose from the ashes.
Throughout the years, they were in five different camps, each day a miracle of survival. His brother was once shot in the leg during a death march, and while the Ukrainian guards wanted him to stop so they could finish him off, Rav Mordechai pushed him to move forward. Miraculously, the bleeding stopped and they realized that it was a flesh wound.
His stories include being pulled from a crematorium by a miraculous angel and watching his brother stare down a Nazi who caught him wearing tefillin. The minute the Nazi saw the tefillin shel rosh, he shuddered and put the gun back in his holster, fulfilling the posuk, “They shall see the name of Hashem on you and fear you – that is tefillin of the head.”
The stories of his post-war experience are equally amazing. All his life, Rabbi Glatstein worried for the honor of the Jewish dead. He would often go to the Pittsburgh Kollel to see if he could get yungeleit to help with a meis mitzvah. When asked where the passion came from, he replied humbly, “After the liberation, no one wanted to help bury the dead in Dachau. After all, many died from typhus and other diseases. But for some reason, it did not faze me. I was always there for the meisim and will always be.”
Rabbi Glatstein’s tenure as a liaison for the Americans – both visitors and agencies – was prolific. He had taught himself English in Warsaw a bochur and used his skills as an interpreter for the American troops, including the Klausenberger Rebbe’s famed discussions with General Eisenhower. He met his aishes chayil, Tzina, whose father was Rav Yehuda Leib Vollman, the last rov in Sochatzov, and set up a home in Feldafing, refusing to leave Europe until every one of the survivors had a place.
He became close with Lt. Meyer Birnbaum, who worked closely with him in the rebuilding efforts. When Lt. Birnbaum went to Pittsburgh to address the community at a kollel event, his reunion with Rabbi Glatstein was the highlight of the evening.
Rabbi and Rebbetzin Glatstein leave behind a family of bnei Torah and marbitzei Torah. Their son, R’ Yosef, a practicing attorney spent decades in the field of kiruv as a senior lecturer for Aish HaTorah’s Discovery Program. Their other son, Dr. Yitzchok Glatstein, is renowned as a top doctor in the field of fertility, with many poskim seeking out his medical expertise. Reb Yosef and Reb Yitzchok are the parents of many children and grandchildren who are marbitzei Torah. Rabbi Daniel Glatstein, noted rov and mechaber seforim, is a grandson.
Rav Mordechai leaves behind a legacy of emunah, Torah, scholarship, askonus and ahavas Yisroel for all to cherish and learn from. He will go down in the annals of Jewish history as one of the great builders of Torah and Yiddishkeit in the 20th century.