He symbolized the ideal of ‘sulam mutzav artza v’rosho magieah hashomayma’ — a ladder who was grounded in this world, who could lower himself to feel with and understand everyone’s difficulties and rejoice in their simchos while he himself served Hashem with exalted temimus. His passing another colossal loss in the link to greatness of pre-war Europe and his illustrious father, the previous Bluzhever Rebbe, zt”l.
Deeply Rooted in the Path of Chassidus
The Bluzhever Rebbe’s early years were dominated by the mesirus nefesh, piety and sharp brilliance of his mother, Rebbetzin Bronia (Broina) Spira. His mother had been born in 1910 in the Polish city of Sosnowitz to Rav Moshe and Chana Melchoir, Chassidishe Yidden who constructed a home not just devoted to Torah and chessed but with mesiras nefesh for Torah and chessed. In 1929, Rebbetzin Bronia married her cousin, Rav Yisroel Avrohom Koschitzki, a Radomsker Chossid. After seven years of marriage, in 1936, her oldest son, Tzvi Yehuda, later to become the Bluzhever Rebbe, was born. The young family settled in Berlin where Rebbetzin Bronia learned to speak impeccable German, something that ultimately saved her life and helped her save many others during the Holocaust.
Just before the war broke out, the young Koschitzki family had already been forced to flee to the Polish city of Lodz where their second son, Yitzchok Luzer was born.
The Miraculous Escape from the Window of a Cattle Car
The miraculous stories of how the Rebbetzin with her two small children managed to survive the ghettos and concentration camps are too numerous to be included in this article. We will suffice with a quick overview.
In 1941, the Koschitzki family left Lodz. The Rebbetzin separated from her husband, going to Dembitz while he went to Warsaw. They reunited in the city of Breigel where they stayed until the fall of 1942. The Rebbetzin then fled to the Bochnia Ghetto with her younger son, Yitzchok and leaving her older son, Tzvi Yehuda with her husband who stayed behind with his mother ostensibly until they could obtain papers. Her husband would not leave his mother because of the mitzvah of kibbud eim.
From Breigel, Rav Yisroel Avrohom and Tzvi were transported to the city of Tarnow and despite the Rebbetzin’s best efforts, she could not get them out of Tarnow. They were put on a cattle car to Belzec (where Rav Yisroel Avrohom was ultimately murdered by the Nazis in 1942). Rav Yisroel Avrohom somehow managed to pry open one of the bars of the cattle car and squeezed six-year old Tzvi through the bars, throwing him out of the moving train. Little Tzvi, the future Bluzhever Rebbe, landed in some bushes, bloodied and bruised but alive. Amazingly, Rebbetzin Bronia had a sixth sense that perhaps her son might have been thrown out of a train and be near the tracks. So she paid a large sum of money to have a non-Jewish peasant check the path of the train leading out of Tarnow on a daily basis. One day, during his rounds, the peasant noticed two small shoes on the top of a bush. The peasant found Tzvi lying next to the trees more dead than alive. When the peasant saw that the boy’s face matched the picture that his mother had given to him, he brought him back to his mother in Bochnia where he was hospitalized. One day, while he was in the hospital, his mother had a premonition that something was amiss. She ran to the hospital and took him out. That night, the Nazis burnt down the entire hospital with all of its patients inside.
The Belzer Rebbe’s Brocha in the Bochnia Ghetto
In Bochnia, the Rebbetzin was moser nefesh to save Yidden. Through her knowledge of German and her gentile looks, she was able to leave the ghetto and smuggle papers to give Jews.
One fascinating story that offers insight into the miraculous way that she and her children survived the war transpired in the Bochnia Ghetto. One night, there was a knock on her door. She was terrified to open the door. When the knocking continued, she had no choice. She opened the door and a Jewish man was standing there. He told her that he was the gabbai of the Belzer Rebbe, the kodosh, Rav Aharon who was hidden in the ghetto. The Rebbe had apparently heard about her tremendous self-sacrifice to save others and asked that she come to where he was staying.
She insisted on bringing her children with her. When she came in, the gabbai pointed out to the Rebbe, whose eyes were always down, that she had arrived. The Rebbetzin, however, was fully focused on what she wanted from the Rebbe, “Rebbe, ich bait doros — Rebbe, I ask for a brocha for future generations.” The Rebbe did not answer but the Rebbetzin persisted and asked again. The incredulous gabbai turned to her, indicating that she must be crazy. “You are asking for doros?! Don’t you know where you are?! (i.e. Don’t you realize that you are in a ghetto where death is everywhere?!)” She didn’t answer the gabbai but repeated her request a third time, totally immersed in the ideal of emunas chachomim. Suddenly, the Rebbe raised his eyes and looked up — something that he never did. He placed a handkerchief over the heads of her children and gave her a heartfelt brocha. Indeed, whoever was in that room at the time survived the war and merited generations.
From Bochnia, the Rebbetzin and her two sons were sent to the Bergen-Belsen Death Camp. Believe it or not, under those horrible conditions, the Rebbetzin was obsessed with giving her children a Torah chinuch. She would deny herself food and barter in order to pay for someone to teach her children Torah. She would send rations to the Bluzhever Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Spira (then known as the Prochniker Rov) to learn with her sons and in truth that was the beginning of their lifelong relationship with the Bluzhever Rebbe. Her mesiras nefesh for chinuch and for mitzvos was legendary. She managed to somehow procure beets and potatoes so that she and her children would not eat chometz in Bergen Belsen. She even sold her chometz to a gentile. That act also brought the family closer to the Bluzhever Rebbe. The Rebbe himself did not eat chometz the entire Pesach but after Pesach, he was in such a weakened state that it was feared that he would die if he did not have nutritious food. However, he refused to eat chometz from a Jew if it had not been sold over Pesach. A woman named Mrs. Heller heard that the Rebbetzin had sold her chometz and came to ask her if she would give something for the Bluzhever Rebbe who was in a terrible state. The Rebbetzin took out her most precious possession, a loaf of white bread and gave it for the Rebbe. That bread kept him alive. Later, she would remark that the value of a loaf of white bread in Bergen Belsen was worth more than a skyscraper in Times Square!
During that Pesach, the inmates were somehow able to bake a batch of matzah in a makeshift oven. There were many people who wanted matzah and therefore, the decision was made to only give matzah to men who were over bar mitzvah, not to children. The Rebbetzin vehemently protested and ultimately persevered. Her kinderlach ate matzah that Pesach as well.
After the war, the Rebbetzin put her children on a boat with the Aliyat Hanoar. She herself was not permitted to go to Eretz Yisroel. Eventually, she made her way there via Cairo and was reunited with her children.
Raised by the Bluzhever Rebbe
In 1947, a new tekufah, a new era began for the Rebbetzin and her two children who had miraculously survived the war. A shidduch was proposed between her and the Bluzhever Rebbe whom she had known from Bergen Belsen and who had taught her children and seen her mesiras nefesh for Yiddishkeit. The Rebbe had lost his wife, daughter and son-in-law during the war and had subsequently moved to New York. The Rebbetzin journeyed to New York where they were married and the Rebbe opened his beis medrash in Williamsburg. The Rebbe became a father to her two children regarding them as his own children. They took on his last name of Spira. He showered them and later, their children with the love of a father and grandfather. The Rebbe invested tremendous effort into the chinuch of young Tzvi Yehuda and Yitzchok Luzer. They became deeply attached to their father. In fact, people remarked that Rav Tzvi Yehuda and the Rebbe were so alike that when Rav Tzvi Yehuda davened he sounded just like his father, the previous Rebbe, both in his tone of voice and intonation.
The Rebbe learned first in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas and then in Beis Medrash Elyon in Monsey where he was known for his hosmoda and dedication to learning. In truth, during the various periods of his life, the one thing that remained constant was that the Rebbe was always preoccupied with limud haTorah. For decades, the Rebbe would learn together with his good friend, Rabbi Heftler who would come to the Rebbe’s house, for hours on end.
In 1958, Rav Tzvi Yehuda married Chana Klein-Leifer, daughter of Rav Naftoli Leifer, known as the Volya Rov who was Rov of the Kehal Chassidim Shul in Boro Park for decades. They raised a beautiful family of three sons and two daughters together. The Rebbe was supremely devoted to his Rebbetzin and especially in the Rebbetzin’s later years, when she took ill, the Rebbe cared for her with remarkable self-sacrifice.
Over the course of the years, the old Bluzhever Rebbe, Rav Yisroel, moved to Boro Park and his son, Tzvi Yehuda remained at his side. Rav Tzvi Yehuda’s innate humility did not let him have any airs. He may have been the Rebbe’s beloved son, but when he was in his father’s beis medrash, he behaved like any regular member of the shul.
In 1989, his father, the Bluzhever Rebbe passed away at the age of 100. In accordance with the tzavaah of his father, he was appointed Bluzhever rebbe. At his levaya on this past erev Shabbos, his son, Rav Shea Yosef, related how his father, in his profound humility, never saw himself as being worthy of filling his father’s place. He conducted himself as if his father had just left for a short time and he was simply holding his place for him until he would return…
The Rebbe truly did not feel himself worthy of filling his father’s shoes but that was only with regard to the special role that the Rebbe played which he felt was beyond him. However, his love of Yidden and the way that he listened to the pain and suffering of a fellow Jew, feeling with him and seeking to ease his plight was something that he did with his heart and soul. Soon after he was appointed Rebbe, the Rebbe remarked, “Whether I can help a Yid in a difficult time, I don’t know, but certainly, I can listen to Yidden’s tzoros.” The Rebbe did, in fact, possess a special ability to listen to another Yid’s difficulties and he had a unique way of connecting with each Yid.
In this week’s parsha, we find that when Moshe Rabbeinu asked Hashem to appoint his successor, he referred to Hashem as ‘Elokei Haruchos’. Chazal teach that the word ruchos, translated as spirit, means that a leader must be able to understand the spirit — the unique dimensions of every person. The Bluzhever Rebbe was such a leader. He was able to sympathize and empathize with every Jew. He understood and remembered the individual situation of every person who came to him for advice and succor; he even remembered the details of every person’s life, years later and not only did that make each person feel good and important but it also ensured that the advice that he gave took their complete life situation into context.
In addition, when a person came to speak to him, he had all the time in the world. He would sit, listen and advise for as long as necessary. Even when his gabboim would try to speed things up, he took no notice of them. He was there to listen to Yidden no matter how long it took.
Humility and Simplicity
The Rebbe was the epitome of humility. Humility does not refer to a person who knows he is humble and teaches himself to walk humbly. Rather humility refers to a person who truly doesn’t have any inkling that he possesses special qualities. The Rebbe was a true onov and possessed the middah of shiflus in a remarkable way. One of his sons related at the levaya that even the way he passed away and the way his levaya was held were in keeping with his desires as the posuk says, “Hashem performs the desires of those who fear Him.”
He passed away late Friday morning and in order to be able to take the aron to Eretz Yisroel immediately on motzoei Shabbos, a levaya was held on Friday afternoon when halachically no hespedim are delivered. This served to further strengthen adherence to the instructions in his will wherein he insisted that no hespedim be delivered at his levaya. Similarly, when the plane landed in Eretz Yisroel on Sunday evening, there was very little time to conclude the kevurah before shekiah. Furthermore, it was the end of the fast of Shiva Asar B’Tammuz. Thus the levaya was very rushed with only very short words of parting. Just the way he would have wanted it.
At the levaya, a son related that his grandfather, the old Bluzhever Rebbe once observed how his son totally negated himself and his own honor and, exasperated, he said, “Tzvi! Ah sheminis shebesheminis megst du doch yoh hoben — an eighth of an eighth of gaavah you are allowed to have!” The Rebbe was referring to the Gemara that states that a talmid chochom should have an eighth of an eighth of gaavah.
One Chossid related, “I remember coming to use the mikvah in the Bluzhever Beis Medrash one Friday and it was very full. Suddenly, I noticed the Rebbe coming down. When he realized that it was full, he took a chair into the hallway… It never even entered his mind that he should get any preferential treatment in his own beis medrash because of who he was!”
Another thing about him was that he never allowed the trappings of being Rebbe go past the door of his house. Once he entered his home, the Rebbistive was over. His kabbolas hakaha of Chassidim was done in the Bluzhever Beis Medrash several blocks away from where he lived. Only during the last period of his life when he was suffering from a terminal illness, did he move into his father’s apartment on top of the beis medrash. In addition, he insisted on walking the few blocks from his home to the beis medrash every day, eschewing a car, eschewing gabboim or anyone accompanying him, claiming that he liked the walk and that it was better for him.
The way that he interacted with his Chassidim was like a loving grandfather. One Chossid who lived outside of Brooklyn wanted that the Rebbe should put his son’s tefillin on him for the first time before his bar mitzvah. When he asked when he should come, the Rebbe replied, “I always daven at the first minyan at 6:30 a.m., but I will be here until late. You can come whenever you want and I will be there…”
Every single person who came into his beis medrash or met him was important to him, even small children. One Chossid recalls how on Shabbos morning when the Rebbe gave out kugel after davening, the Rebbe noticed every person and would not rest until each child had gotten his piece. He would look around and spot a bashful child in the corner and call him over to make sure that he too enjoyed a piece. Interestingly enough, the Rebbe himself give out kugel every Shabbos and kreplach on Hoshana Rabbah, but even when he gave out to others, he himself never made kiddush downstairs in the beis medrash. Instead, he would wait until everything was over and only later would he go upstairs to make kiddush.
The Rebbe’s humility was such that when he would come to a simcha and a speech was in progress, he never consented to walk in. Rather, he would stand outside discreetly waiting until the speech ended. This was not necessarily done because he didn’t want them to stand up for him and people would stand up for him regardless of when he came in, but simply because he could not imagine himself interrupting someone else’s speech.
Another Chossid remembers how the Rebbe’s shtender was right next to that of the baal tefillah. Whenever a baal tefillah would forget the nussach or the proper niggun, the Rebbe, discreetly, under his breath, would whisper the correct nussach enabling the baal tefillah to catch himself and get back on track.
When people would gather around him to shake his hand and at times, those near him — in an effort to protect him, would push others away, even children — the Rebbe would become visibly agitated. “How can one push away another Yid?!” he would exclaim.
The Warmth and Depth of His Tefillos
His humility notwithstanding, there was one component of being Rebbe that he couldn’t hide and that was his tefillah. When the Rebbe davened for the amud even a heart of stone could melt. He davened with such feeling, such heartfelt supplication as he begged Hashem on behalf of the congregation, that it was impossible not to be moved. “His beautiful nussach and dikduk in both the words and the nussach had a chein that is indescribable,” said one long-time member of the shul. This was even on a regular Shabbos and it was even more pronounced on the Yomim Tovim or the Yomim Noraim. People who grew up in the shul but had long left would often return for the special days because his tefillos so moved and inspired them. When he would start Kol Nidrei to usher in Yom Kippur, the tears that he was unable to restrain would pour down his face. One Chossid recalls on Hoshana Raba, when he would say the words, “Hoshana l’maan Kedoshim mushlachim b’esh— in the merit of the Kedoshim that were thrown in fire” — something that he had witnessed in the death camps as a child — you would have thought it was a Rebbe from 200 years ago davening! His deveikus, his kavonah, his depth of feeling were tangible.
He was also an expert baal korei and during the lifetime of the previous Rebbe he would lein, every week. Later on, he leined on important shabbosim and special occasions. It wasn’t just his expertise and dikduk that so moved people it was the feeling with which he leined. “When he leined the parsha came alive, said one chossid, “You didn’t just hear the leining you felt it!
The Rebbe did not have an easy personal life yet he accepted Hashem’s will with love, always smiling, always greeting others with joy, never letting his own suffering affect how he dealt with others. His Rebbetzin was ill for years before she passed away about two years ago. The Rebbe himself suffered for many years from numerous ailments. This became much more pronounced when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness two years ago. During the last two years, his greatness shone forth, for one could see that he was living completely for others. While he was in constant, excruciating pain, he still pushed himself to daven with his kehillah and to make himself available for others. Slowly, the disease ravaged his body, but his spirit shone forth and the grandeur of his neshomah that had spent an entire lifetime serving Hashem discreetly was clearly visible.
On Friday, 16 Tammuz, with his family, children and grandchildren surrounding him, the Bluzhever Rebbe’s neshomah returned to Hashem, refined by a lifetime of humble avodas Hashem and much suffering.
The levaya was held just hours later at his beis medrash in Boro Park. The beis medrash itself and the streets surrounding it were full of people despite the short notice and the fact that it was a summer Friday. Everyone felt compelled to come pay the kovod acharon to the person who always fled kovod.
Short words of parting were delivered by the Rebbe’s oldest son, Rav Avrohom Yaakov Spira, his youngest son, Rav Shea Yosef and his son-in-law, Rav Zeesha Shick. All of them gave special mention to the Rebbe’s second son, Rav Moshe Menachem and family, who did not leave his father’s side throughout the years of his difficult illness.
At the levaya, the shul’s veteran gabbai announced that in accordance with the will of the Rebbe, his three sons would jointly lead the Bluzhever Beis Medrash.
On motzoei Shabbos, the aron was flown to Eretz Yisroel where it arrived on Sunday evening. In Eretz Yisroel, the levaya was held outside the building of Rav Meir Baal Haness Kollel Chibas Yerushalayim of which the Rebbe was a Nosi. He was buried on Har Hazeisim next to his illustrious father, the previous Bluzhever Rebbe.
The Rebbe leaves behind his three sons and successors, Rav Avrohom Yaakov, Rav Moshe Menachem and Rav Shea Yosef, his son-in-law and daughter, Rav Zeesha and Tziporah Shick, Rov of Beis Yaakov Yosef Ostrow in Spring Valley and his son-in-law and daughter, Reb Chaim and Sarah Malka Nachum of Brooklyn as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are following in his illustrious path. Yehi zichro boruch.
Special thanks to Rabbi Nochum Weiss and other Bluzhever Chassidim who wish to remain anonymous for sharing their recollections.