Upon hearing his life story, I find myself deeply moved, struggling to see through my tears. The many tribulations Reb Tzvi has undergone are deeply saddening. I am sitting with him in his apartment on Rechov Chazon Ish, in the heart of Bnei Brak; it is one of the apartments associated with the Yeshiva of Ponovezh. He is a product of Ponovezh, a talmid muvhak of the Ponovezher Rov and a talmid of the roshei yeshiva and of Rav Yechezkel Levenstein. And to no less an extent, he is one of the people privileged to have been closely connected to Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner for over fifty years. But when I told him that it was an honor to be interviewing a talmid of Rav Wosner, he practically leapt out of his seat. “No,” he insisted. “I am not a talmid.”
What was he, then? “A ba’alebayis of Rav Wosner,” he says. “I davened in his shul. I wasn’t a student in his yeshiva.” Rav Wosner played two roles: He was the rov of the neighborhood of Zichron Meir and the rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. My host’s relationship with him was in the context of only one of those two roles.
I ask about his childhood, and Reb Tzvi says simply, “I never had a childhood.” He is a pleasant conversationalist, a noble-looking and impressive person, who speaks virtually in a whisper. He is nearing the age of eighty.
Reb Tzvi was born in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. At the age of nine, he was deported to Bergen-Belsen along with his parents and his two sisters, in the same famous group that included the Satmar Rebbe. He still remembers the beginnings of the persecution of the Jews in Budapest. First, Jews were prohibited to continue employing Hungarian servants. Next, Jewish stores were nationalized. Reb Tzvi still remembers the morning when his father took his life into his hands by entering their store, which was located across the street from their home in central Budapest, in order to smuggle out money and other items of value. Reb Tzvi and his mother stood at the window, shaking with terror as they awaited his return.
In Budapest, unlike in its suburbs such as the towns of Satmar and Grosswardein, the persecution of the Jews proceeded in stages. “We felt the change in the atmosphere,” Reb Tzvi recalls, “but we weren’t being taken to Auchswitz.” For that reason, many Jews from the surrounding areas, including the Satmar Rebbe, joined their brethren in Budapest in the hope of saving their lives.
Since the Tauski family was relatively affluent, they were among the Jews on the Satmar Rebbe’s forced journey to Bergen-Belsen. “We stayed together with the Rebbe on the ride to Bergen-Belsen, and we were with him afterward when we left for Switzerland.” Reb Tzvi still recalls every detail of those months. Among other people, he remembers Rav Yehonasan Steif, a “gaon olam,” in his words, who was with them and who later went on to serve as a rosh yeshiva in Satmar as a result of his acquaintance with the Rebbe during those months.
After the group made its way to Switzerland, Reb Tzvi’s sister gave birth to a baby boy. The child’s birth, which took place immediately after their departure from Bergen-Belsen, was miraculous. The bris was held in Switzerland with the Satmar Rebbe in attendance. His presence at the occasion was captured in a photograph that has never been revealed to the public. The Rebbe was present only at the seudah, since the mohel, who came from Lausanne, refused to wait for his arrival to perform the bris, fearing that he would miss the train back to his city. The infant was immediately taken away by the Swiss authorities and placed in quarantine in a hospital, out of fear that he might be carrying diseases from the camp. Reb Tzvi’s mother, the child’s grandmother, managed to smuggle him out of the hospital in a wicker basket when she came to visit him. We will not go into great detail about this incredible episode, but we will note that it illustrates the degree of Mrs. Tauski’s courage and resourcefulness.
From Switzerland, Reb Tzvi returned to his home in Hungary, along with his parents and sisters. Later, he went on to learn in England. “In Budapest, I attended a new Jewish school called Toras Emes. In mid-1948, Rav Smititzki, the son-in-law of the famous Rav Schneider, came and invited us to learn in his yeshiva in England. At my Talmud Torah, four bochurim accepted the invitation. I was one of them.” Reb Tzvi was quite young at the time; he hadn’t yet reached the age of bar mitzvah.
He spent about two years in Schneider’s Yeshiva in England. After Reb Tzvi had been in the yeshiva for about two years, word began to travel that any bochur who emigrated to Eretz Yisroel would be able to help his family leave Hungary by requesting that the family be reunited. Consequently, in 1950, two years after the State of Israel was established, a group of bochurim left England for Eretz Yisroel. One of those bochurim made sure to inform the Agudas Yisroel of their imminent arrival so that the movement would see to it that they would not be sent to a secular kibbutz. That bochur, Reb Tzvi adds, was “a very intelligent and energetic young man by the name of Moshe Sternbuch.”
Upon arriving in Haifa, the bochurim disembarked from their ship only after they were greeted by a bearded man with a yarmulke. This man was Rabbi Yaakov Katz, the deputy mayor of Haifa and a member of Poalei Agudas Yisroel. From the port, they were taken to an immigrant absorption camp for a few days, until the arrival of “Mr. Deutsch,” the legendary menahel of the Yeshiva of Ponovezh.
It was only then, Reb Tzvi attests, that he truly began to live. The vicissitudes of the previous years had robbed him of his childhood, but at the age of 16, he found himself in Bnei Brak and became a talmid at the Yeshiva of Ponovezh. With nothing in his world but the yeshiva and its rabbonim, it should come as no surprise that the Ponovezher Rov was like a father to him.
Reb Tzvi’s parents did come to Eretz Yisroel from Budapest, a year and a half later. Tragically, his father contracted a terminal illness and was forced to travel to Vienna, the capital of Austria, for medical treatment, since the medical system in Israel was in its infancy at the time. Unfortunately, the treatment was not successful, and the elder Rabbi Tauski passed away in Vienna and was buried there. His petirah occurred on Rosh Hashonah of the year 5717. Reb Tzvi, who had traveled to Vienna from Bnei Brak to assist his father during his final months, was at his father’s side when he passed away. Now twenty years old and almost completely alone in the world, Reb Tzvi transported his father’s body in a chair to the religious community’s cemetery in Vienna on yom tov; that year, Rosh Hashonah was followed immediately by Shabbos, and Reb Tzvi felt that it was necessary to remove the body from the hospital in order to preserve kovod hameis. Throughout the decades that have since elapsed, Reb Tzvi serves every year as the chazzan for Minchah on Rosh Hashonah at the Yeshiva of Ponovezh.
Reb Tzvi returned to Ponovezh, leaving his mother in Vienna. For his father’s memory and for his mother’s sake, he had to go on, preserving the family’s legacy. Mrs. Tauski tearfully took leave of her son, davening for him to succeed in his learning and to build a beautiful family of his own. Indeed, her prayers and tears achieved their effect, and Reb Tzvi went on to establish a wonderful family. In 1956, his mother settled in America, joining her two daughters who were already living there and had been very successful. One of Reb Tzvi’s sisters had settled in Elizabeth, New Jersey, while the other lived in Brooklyn. Mrs. Tauski took up residence in a multistory building in the heart of Boro Park, not far from her daughter’s home.
Nearly 60 years have passed since Reb Tzvi made his way through the streets of Vienna on Rosh Hashonah with the body of his deceased father. Now, he sits with me in Bnei Brak, sharing his vivid recollections of the past.
Our meeting takes place two days after the passing of his rebbi, Rav Shmuel Halevi Wosner. Ever since Reb Tzvi arrived in Bnei Brak as a young man, he viewed Rav Wosner as a person with whom it was both possible and highly worthwhile to forge a connection. Several years later, following his marriage, Reb Tzvi became a member of Rav Wosner’s kehillah and a regular attendee at his shul. Anyone who is familiar with Bnei Brak is well aware that Rav Wosner’s home, along with the yeshiva and shul under his aegis, is located between Rechov Chazon Ish and the site of the Yeshiva of Ponovezh. It was a perfect setup for a young avreich learning in Ponovezh and living on Rechov Chazon Ish, especially one with Hungarian roots.
“It was only natural for me to form a connection with Rav Wosner,” Rabbi Tauski relates. “My father had met him in the 1930s. My father was a businessman who traveled often, and he once met Rav Wosner on a train. He often described to us how he had met a ‘very young rov who was very nice.’ During the year and a half that my parents lived in Eretz Yisroel, my father davened regularly at Rav Wosner’s shul. He was soon asked to become the gabbai of the shul, mainly because he had been a gabbai in our shul in Budapest, as well.”
It must have earned you a good deal of respect to be the son of the gabbai of Rav Wosner’s shul.
Rabbi Tauski laughs. “There wasn’t anyone around at the time to respect me for that. How many people lived in Bnei Brak altogether at the time? There were barely any shuls in the city, and there wasn’t a single cheder in all of Bnei Brak.”
As a bochur, Reb Tzvi davened at the Yeshiva of Ponovezh, where he learned, but after his marriage he began davening at Rav Wosner’s shul on Shabbos. That marked the beginning of his close connection with Rav Wosner. Ever since then, Rav Wosner has been his rov, a status that must be distinguished, at Reb Tzvi’s insistence, from that of a maggid shiur or rosh yeshiva. The Ponovezher Rov, he relates, refused to pasken on shailos in Bnei Brak, even though he had served as the mara d’asra in Ponovezh. “I saw with my own eyes that a woman brought a chicken to him with a shailah,” he recalls, “and he said to her, ‘I don’t answer those shailos.’”
Reb Tzvi once went to ask Rav Wosner a shailah and was turned away at the door by the gabbai, who informed him that the rov was learning and couldn’t be disturbed. “Indeed,” Reb Tzvi relates, “I saw him sitting with an open Gemara, and I turned to leave.” Before he could go, Rav Wosner noticed his visitor and signaled to him to enter. Turning to the gabbai, the rov said reproachfully, “How could you not let Reb Tzvi Tauski from Budapest come in?”
Reb Tzvi’s wedding took place in Copenhagen, Denmark, so Rav Wosner did not serve as the mesader kiddushin. At the bris of a son, though, Reb Tzvi invited Rav Wosner to serve as sandak. “For my first bris, of course, I honored the Ponovezher Rov with the position of sandak. For my second son, I asked Rav Wosner.”
And did he accept the offer?
“No. When he found out that my father-in-law was coming from Denmark for the simcha, he told me to give the honor to him instead. He showered me with brochos, but he said that he wouldn’t be the sandak. And he didn’t come to the bris either, since he never attended a bris where he wasn’t the sandak.”
Do you have an example of a unique shailah that you asked him?
“The last one was several years ago. I was going to visit my sister in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and since she was ill, she had two women caring for her in her home. I was concerned that this might create a situation of yichud. Rav Wosner questioned me about all the details, and after giving me specific instructions, he permitted me to go there.” Reb Tzvi Tauski spent several weeks at his sister’s home. The sister’s son, a respected avreich from Baltimore, wasn’t comfortable relying on Rav Wosner’s ruling, and instead approached one of the rabbonim of Elizabeth, who is a talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein. The rov gave an identical psak.
The birth of Reb Tzvi’s first son also contributed to his close connection with Rav Wosner. The child was born with a rare heart defect, and the shocked young father went to inform Rav Wosner of the news and to seek his blessing and his encouragement. “I remember that I once came to the shul for Minchah and I was feeling exhausted, so I leaned on a shtender in order to rest. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Rav Wosner, who had also arrived for davening. Apparently, he thought or was worried that I was despondent, and that was why I had rested my head on my hand. He said something along the lines of, ‘Don’t worry. Things happen in life, and it isn’t a reason to lose your simchas hachaim.’”
The most serious and complex shailah he brought to Rav Wosner also concerned his sick son, albeit at a much later stage in life, when the child was already married and a father of children of his own. Then, Reb Tzvi asked the posek hador whether it was permitted for his son to undergo a heart transplant. It wasn’t entirely a practical question, since the son hadn’t yet been registered for a transplant, since he was too weak to undergo the procedure, and he would have required a transplant of both heart and lungs at the same time. Nevertheless, the ailing young man and his father both wanted to know what the halachah would dictate if the opportunity arose.
I assume that he took the matter very seriously.
“I assume that he did,” Reb Tzvi agrees, “but he didn’t have to grapple with it at length, since he had already written a teshuvah on the subject several years earlier. We were actually aware of his opinion when we came to see him. My son, zichrono livrochah, quoted from the teshuvah and entered into a halachic discussion with him.”
What, exactly, was the shailah, and what did his teshuvah say?
“The question was whether it is permissible to have a heart transplant in Eretz Yisroel, since it would entail taking the heart of another Jew. Rav Wosner paskened that it is prohibited; it is considered an act of murder.”
The murder of the person whose heart is taken for the transplant?
“Yes, and therefore it is prohibited, in keeping with Chazal’s rule that we cannot determine whose blood is redder, in other words, which person has more of a right to live. Rav Wosner told us that he had already issued a psak on the subject.”
He held that heart transplants are completely forbidden?
“Yes. But he did add a detail in his discussion with us that he did not include in his sefer. He said to us, ‘How can I advise an avreich to take the heart of a non-Jew?’ He told us that a heart is not like any other organ. How could he suggest that an avreich, a person who learns Torah, should have the heart of a goy?”
And that is why your son didn’t have a heart transplant?
“We never reached the point at which it was even feasible. My son was too weak to undergo a transplant.” Reb Tzvi’s son passed away on the 12th of Iyar, 5762 (2002); his yahrtzeit is in a few days. His petirah came shortly after that of Rav Shach, who had once told his parents that he davened for their son every day.
I ask to hear about other examples of shailos that he asked Rav Wosner, but Reb Tzvi says apologetically, “I didn’t ask him shailos very often. The situation in those days wasn’t as it is today, when everyone runs to rabbonim to ask questions. He was the only rov at the time, and we were embarrassed to ask him things when we were capable of opening seforim and endeavoring to determine the halachah on our own.”
Still, you must have something to share.
“I once visited Rav Wosner along with a distinguished person from Bnei Brak. We arrived on erev Pesach and sold our chometz, and that man then told Rav Wosner that he had a daughter who was older, and a number of shidduch suggestions for her had been dropped because of a concern over the names of the candidates not being a proper match. He wanted to know Rav Wosner’s opinion of the practice of evaluating a shidduch based on the names. Rav Wosner surprised us somewhat with his answer: ‘There is some validity to it,’ he said, ‘but I don’t think that there is anyone in our generation who understands the matter.’”
In spite of Reb Tzvi’s disclaimer that he does not have much to relate about Rov Wosner, the conversation is fascinating and the stories flow. Rav Wosner was a major part of Reb Tzvi’s life. From the balcony off his apartment, Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin can be seen; this means that Reb Tzvi was able to see Rav Wosner arriving at the yeshiva every day. Here, on this porch, he was able to stand and watch his rov. For many years, this same spot also afforded him a view of Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz, whose apartment near Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin was likewise visible from the porch overlooking Rechov Chazon Ish and Rechov Wilkomir, as he made his way to the Yeshiva of Ponovezh.
Now, both of those Torah giants are gone.
Reb Tzvi once witnessed a discussion between Rav Wosner and the Ponovezher Rov. “Construction had begun on the yeshiva, and the plan was for the beis medrash to be on the top floor, as a sign of respect, while the lower floors would contain the dormitory, the dining room, and the shiur rooms. Rav Wosner went to consult with the Ponovezher Rov, who had already built more than one building, and was surprised when the rov declared, ‘It would be best for the beis medrash to be downstairs!’ Rav Wosner asked why this was so, and the Ponovezher Rov replied, ‘A mashgiach or maggid shiur will not be able to climb the stairs over and over again to get to the top floor, and he might sometimes know that there is a bochur who needs his advice, but still feel unable to climb the stairs to the beis medrash. If the beis medrash is on the ground floor, though, the mashgiach can go there as often as necessary.’ In response, Rav Wosner changed his plans for the building.”
When Reb Tzvi Tauski’s father-in-law (Rav Eliyahu Kahan, the leader of the Machzikei Hadas community of Copenhagen, Denmark) passed away, Rav Wosner came to pay a shivah call. He had been acquainted with Rav Kahan, and had even once asked him to recite birchas kohanim for his rebbetzin, but many people were still surprised by his visit. He explained, “I could tell that he was a respectable person. I have a certain understanding of people.”
For the past fifty years, Reb Tzvi has heard Rav Wosner speak every Shabbos Hagadol and Shabbos Shuvah. He is unwilling to say whether he has identified a particular style in Rav Wosner’s deroshos, but he can definitely tell us that the rov was extremely consistent in his attitude toward anything pertaining to tznius. The topic was broached in almost every droshah, and Rav Wosner always spoke strongly about it. He also adopted a number of the views of the Satmar chassidus regarding the State of Israel; he often referred to the political leaders of the state as “reshoim.”
Parenthetically, Rav Wosner’s droshos on Shabbos Shuvah and Shabbos Hagadol were on sugyos that had been studied by the bochurim and ba’alebatim who attended his weekly shiurim. On Shabbos Hagadol, of course, he spoke about topics related to Pesach, while the Shabbos Shuvah droshah focused on the laws of Yom Kippur or Sukkos. He would spend about an hour on a detailed analysis of the sugya, then move on to a discussion of aggodah for about half an hour. He also invariably mentioned the most important halachos pertaining to that time of year, such as the laws of mechiras chometz, and if there had been any innovations in kashrus, he would present his own views regarding what was permitted and what should be avoided. In recent years, Reb Tzvi relates, Rav Wosner often spoke about the period before the arrival of Moshiach. He would quote various pesukim from Novi and then explain them. Rav Wosner’s knowledge of Tanach was extraordinary; he was capable of quoting entire pesukim verbatim from Novi.
Did he vote in the elections for the Knesset?
“No, but he had a unique approach: He kept his Austrian citizenship, so he didn’t have the right to vote in Israel. He also made sure that he was always on vacation on Yom Hoatzmaut, so that he would not be in the city.”
When people asked him questions, did he answer them quickly?
“He had a tremendous amount of knowledge; he was well-versed in the entire Torah. I once tried to debate with him on a certain subject, but he quickly ended the debate by declaring, ‘There is nothing to dispute here. These are the facts, and therefore this is the halachah!’”
From Reb Tzvi’s balcony, there was a sweeping view of the massive levayah that took place on chol hamoeid. A number of photographers asked his permission to stand on the balcony in order to capture the event from a better angle. Reb Tzvi granted every request to enter his home, but he himself went down to the street and marched along with the crowd, with bitter tears, to the house that had been more to him than a father’s home, for Reb Tzvi was robbed of his childhood, and any consolation he found came from the home of Rav Wosner zt”l.