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[Page 121]

Rabbi David Spira, the Rebbe of Bukowsk

Translated by Jerrold Landau

A.

The name of this Admor of Bukowsk was David, the same as that of his brother-in-law, the Admor of Dynów. Both were named after Rabbi David Spira, the Tzadik of Dynów, the author of the book “Tzemach David” on the weekly Torah portions, who was the eldest son of the Tzadik Rabbi Tzvi-Elimelech Spira, one of the early founders of Hassidism in Galicia and the author of many important books on Torah learning, Kabbalah and Hassidism, including “Derech Pikudaich,” Igra Dekala, and Igra Depirka. Rabbi David, the Rebbe of Bukowsk, who lived in Sanok during the latter half of his life, inherited the seat of the Admor from his father Rabbi Meir-Yehuda Spira, the eldest son of the Tzadik of Dynów, Rabbi David, the author of “Tzemach David.” Rabbi Meir-Yehuda of blessed memory, the author of “Or LaMeir” on the weekly Torah portions, was the first Admor of Bukowsk in our times, and the founder of the Hassidic court in that town (see more about him in the Bukowsk section in this book). When he died, the well organized, developed, and nurtured Hassidic court passed to Reb Dovidl, along with a Hassidic community of hundreds of people in that town itself and residents of the near and distant area. The Hassidim of Bukowsk were of many varieties and stemmed from more than one class and stratum of society. One could find a very wealthy person sitting next to a poor teacher of children, a renowned scholar sitting next to a simple Jewish villager, a forestry merchant or estate owner next to a small-scale shopkeeper or impoverished peddler, or the like, in the Beis Midrash during services or during the conducting of the “table” on Sabbaths and festivals. The common denominator of them all was their love and faith for their rebbe and Admor, to the point of full self-dedication. They saw their rebbe as a holy and righteous man, whose greatness was no less than that of his father whose position he inherited. It is therefore no wonder that the Hassidim of Bukowsk did not do anything, or even half a thing, without first asking the rebbe – whether in a question of day to day life relating to business, commerce or work, or a fundamental question of serious weight, such as a decision regarding a marriage match or advice regarding health. Every occasion of such a Hassidic meeting, whether large or small and every memorial gathering was saturated with stories and legends, whether passed from mouth to mouth, or whether of the genre of “it happened to me,” with regard to good advice, an effective blessing or portent for success, or a “sign” or “miracle” performed by the rebbe.

 

B.

At the outbreak of the First World War, the Admor and his family escaped from Bukowsk to Hungary. He did not return to Bukowsk at the end of the war, since the entire court, including the large Beis Midrash, residential dwelling, splendid sukka, etc., had been destroyed by the Cossacks during the Russian occupation of that part of Galicia. After a brief period in nearby Lesko, he settled in Sanok, where a large proportion of the population was Hassidim of Bukowsk. During his time in Sanok, Bukowsk Hassidism was renewed and even flourished. Aside from his Hassidim in Sanok who basked in his shadow during their prayers and study in his Beis Midrash, during their visits to him for the Sabbath and festive meals, or while sitting at his table listening to his words of Torah, advice and blessing; Hassidim from all the surrounding cities and towns would visit on occasion for Sabbaths and festivals, as well as during the days of the week – some to request urgent advice, or others to “make themselves known” to the rebbe, so that they would be remembered for salvation and mercy. Their reverence for their rebbe was very great, and their faith in him was strong, as it was based upon seeing his sublime comportment with their very eyes, in accordance with all the traits and qualities that had been seen in the Hassidic greats from the founders of Hassidism, as are evidenced in the histories of Hassidim and books of fear of Heaven, as well as from the traditions passed on from father to son.

[Page 122]

A unique trait that characterized Bukowsk Hassidism can be seen in the strong connection of the Hassidim to their Rebbe, reaching the point of true devotion to the point of intimate family feelings. The comportment of the Admor of Bukowsk between himself and his Creator from one side, and his relationship to his Hassidim, interest in their day-to-day situations, private family matters, business affairs, etc. from the other side – attracted his Hassidim to him and bound them to him and to his entire family with soulful bonds, like the love of a family member to the father of the family and to the household.

Alas, this bright regal era of this Admorus[1] did not last very long, since the heart ailment of the rebbe, which had manifested itself already during his youth, began to show serious symptoms. His body suffered and continually weakened; however, he remained strong in spirit, and continued his holy work with Torah and Divine service.

 

C.

{Photo page 122: The Rabbi and Tzadik Rabbi David Spira.}

During those early days of the establishment of his court in Sanok, the Gaon Rabbi Meir Shapira of blessed memory was accepted as the Rabbi of Sanok. He later became famous as the driving force behind the study of Daf Yomi[2], and the founder of Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin. Deep and strong bonds of friendship developed between the Rebbe of Bukowsk and this Gaon. The mutual respect and admiration that pervaded between them was well-known in the city, and even reached beyond the bounds of the city. It was a topic of conversation for everyone. This fact itself was sufficient to attract the admiration of those who sought peace, calm and tranquility in the city. Here I should note that the Admor of Bukowsk was fully following the great principle of refraining from interfering in communal politics in the city, as well as national and state politics. He showed no inclination to lean toward any side at all, whether social, communal or factional. Stories are told of specific actions taken by the Gaon Rabbi Meir Shapira to turn the Rebbe of Bukowsk toward the organizational idea of Agudas Yisroel. These actions were not successful. Some are of the opinion that the Admor of Bukowsk explicitly stated his stance of non-partisanship when Rabbi Meir Shapira, to demonstrate the urgent need for the existence of the Agudas Yisroel party, used the reason of financial maintenance of the Orthodox community, whose power had been weakened in the wake of the increase of the power of the secular, and even anti-religious parties. The Admor rejected this reason by stating that, in his opinion, Hassidism is the sole force that has the power to preserve the attraction of full, traditional Jewish life. No party or organization aside from Hassidism would be able to succeed in that, not even the Agudas Yisroel organization, in which people invested great hopes. Here he used verse 10 of chapter 41 in Psalms, in a humorous fashion, “Even the man of peace, (Shlomei Emunei

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Yisrael was the original name of the Aguda at the time of its founding) in whom I have trusted… has raised his heel against me…[3]” “Here,” continued the Admor, “is a hint within a hint.” “Ish” is the acronym (Aleph Yud Shin) of “Shlomei Emunei Yisrael”).

 

d.

His heart condition became more severe during those times. Days of unremitting tribulations and suffering came – of disruption in his way of life and daily routines, his behavior of abstention and holiness, of prayer and Torah study. He was bound to his sick bed and was restricted from congregating with his Hassidim, partaking of Hassidic meals with them, and even worshipping with them. Before long, the seriousness of the illness and the situation became known among the masses of his Hassidim throughout the entire region and the residents of the city. A strong tension enveloped everyone. Fear and worry gnawed at the hearts of all of his Hassidim, friends and supporters. The Admor attempted to hide the severity of the situation, and tried to ease the mood of those around him despite his weakness. The Gaon Rabbi Meir Shapira of blessed memory would visit him weekly, and they would engage in deep, prolonged, Torah discussions. This continued until the bitter day came, the 29th of Shvat 5684 (1924), when the angels above overcame the great ones below, and the Admor of Bukowsk returned his soul to heaven. A deep sorrow and dark depression enveloped everything. Mourning encompassed the Jewish population in the city and the region.

 

E.

I will record here one detail related to the tragedy of the passing of the Admor of Bukowsk, which became widely known at the time it took place. During that period, the Gaon Rabbi Meir Shapira was already the rabbi of the city of Piotrków and a representative of Agudas Yisroel to the Polish Sejm. On account of the strong friendship between them, an urgent telegram was sent to Rabbi Meir Shapira, informing him of the tragedy and stating that they would wait for him for the funeral procession. This was a harsh winter day. A great deal of snow and ice covered the paths and the streets, grinding everything to a halt. Even the trains could not run due to the frost on the tracks. The Gaon Rabbi Meir Shapira was not satisfied with the situation, and did not give in to the idea and concern that he might not be able to accompany his beloved and revered friend on his final journey. Therefore, he demanded, in accordance with the law as specified for a representative of the Sejm, that a special train be placed at his disposal. A special car and locomotive was immediately placed at his disposal; however, the prime minister informed him that, on account of the freezing weather, he could not accept responsibility that this train would succeed in reaching its destination. The railway ministry informed all of the stationmasters on the route to Sanok that a special train carrying an important person was about to pass through. They thought that certainly an important statesman was passing through. However, when they went out to greet him as he passed through; they discovered that the important traveler was none other than a Jew wearing a fur hat upon his head. Many Jews came to the various stations to greet him when they found this out. Some of them even joined him on his journey to Sanok if there was room on the train. However, due to the difficulties of the journey, the rabbi arrived in Sanok when the funeral procession had already set out, for it was impossible to wait any longer for him. He forged a path for himself among the masses who were participating in the funeral, approached the casket of the deceased in order to eulogize him, and broke out in a mighty voice: “David King of Israel is alive and in existence!” He strongly emphasized the word “David,” the name of the deceased, and the sublime intention was clear through the remainder of the verse – a clear innuendo to the continuity of the Admorus of Bukowsk, and the continued existence of this court through the descendents of the deceased, who was the father of the dear, revered family who left it in agony in the prime of his life.

 

F.

Regarding the family of the deceased and the Hassidim who were close to the court – and it would not be an exaggeration if

[Page 124]

we would state: for all the Jews of the city, this was a day of tragic, heavy hours, hours and minutes filled with sorrow and pain, and suffused with deep, dark mourning, tormenting each soul and oppressing each person. Along with all of this emotion throughout the day, throughout the funeral the idea of the need to immediately start, that very day, with the coronating of the replacement of the late Rebbe of Bukowsk did not let up for one moment. This was because coronations of this nature were not accompanied by any form of ceremony. The prime activity, from a practical perspective, was the presentation of the first note of request (kvittel)[4] by a high-ranking Hassidic personality. This act would serve as the signal to this person, as well as to the entire Hassidic community, that he was now coronated as the Admor and Rebbe of the Hassidim.

When the congregation attending the funeral returned from the cemetery, many veteran Hassidim, headed by Rabbi Meir Shapira of blessed memory, entered the home of the deceased in order to coronate his son Rabbi Alter-Reuven of blessed memory as the Admor in place of his father. This gathering took place in the hall of the Beis Midrash in the home of the deceased. The coronation was the central matter, and all eyes were turned toward the two sons of the deceased, the twin 19-year-old orphans, Rabbi Alter of blessed memory, and Rabbi Tzvi-Elimelech, may he live, who was older by half an hour. (He has lived with us in the Land for some three decades, may he live to 120.) With respect to the issue of coronation, in deciding who would take the place of the deceased, one could surmise that one was speaking of the younger brother Rabbi Alter-Reuven of blessed memory, for already during his childhood the Hassidim saw his greatness from all perspectives related to traits that would be fitting for a future Admor and Hassidic Rebbe. This esteem toward him was continued by the Hassidim during his youth, and it increased as he became a young man; for as he grew older, he continued to grow greater in the study of Torah, the fear of Heaven, his sublime comportment, and his wonderful Hassidic, righteous behavior.

The atmosphere in the hall of the Beis Midrash was full of electric tension. Those present reached the pinnacle of emotion and longing when the Gaon Rabbi Meir Shapira, emotional and shaken by the nightmarish tragedy and the events of the day, approached Rabbi Alter-Reuven of blessed memory and presented him his kvittel that he had prepared beforehand. When Rabbi Alter-Reuven began to express his refusal to accept the kvittel, and this refusal implies his opposition to accepting the appointment as replacement of his late father, Rabbi Meir Shapira turned to his older brother Rabbi Tzvi-Elimelech may he live long, and said, “Apparently. Your brother refused to accept the appointment, out of honor to you, for you are older than him, therefore I ask you before this community and congregation: Do you agree that your brother should take the place of your father of holy blessed memory?” When Rabbi Tzvi-Elimelech responded positively, the Gaon Rabbi Meir Shapira once again approached Rabbi Alter-Reuven and presented him the kvittel, adding, “Even though I am already a rabbi in a different city, since Sanok has not yet chosen a new rabbi, I am still the rabbi of your city Sanok, and I decree upon you, Rabbi Alter-Reuven, with a rabbinical decree, that you must become the Rebbe.” These words, uttered in a deep voice with the tone of a command, as well as with a feeling of comforting, caressing emotion, had their effect. Rabbi Alter-Reuven of blessed memory conceded and gave in.


[Page 125]

Rabbi Alter-Reuven Spira, the Rebbe of Bukowsk

Translated by Jerrold Landau

{Photo page 125: Rabbi Reuven Spira, the third Admor of Bukowsk.}

No change for the worse took place with respect to the continuity of Bukowsk Hassidism at the time of the death of Rabbi David of blessed memory, both with respect to the externals: that is, with regard to the number of Hassidim from Sanok and the area, as well as from outside the city, who took shelter under his shadow during his life; as well as with respect to the internal, spiritual area: that is, the faith in the new, young Rebbe, expressed by coming to him to hear his words of Torah when he conducted his table, and worshipping with him, as well as through the mutual dedication between the Hassidim and their Rebbe. On the contrary, there was an increase from both perspectives. The during his time, the number of Hassidim continued to grow at a greater rate than the days of his father, for during the last period of the life of his father Rabbi David of blessed memory, as his illness became more severe, he was unable to be greatly involved with his community of Hassidim – which caused a diminishment the number of Hassidim who came to him. On the other hand, Rabbi Reuven, aside from being constantly involved and close with the Hassidim, also attracted a large community to him, especially from among the youth, due to his fine personality traits in which he excelled. He was graced with a musical sense, and had a pleasant voice. News of his prayers, as well as his hymns and melodies during the conducting of the “table” reached afar.

Rabbi Alter-Reuven of blessed memory continued to strengthen his leadership, righteousness, scholarship, mannerisms, refined spirit, and sublime character traits. Many of his Hassidim sent their children to him to sit in his presence and study Torah and fear of Heaven with him. He had many students, some of whom are with us today in the Land and others are scattered through the Diaspora. His house was open to any poor and oppressed person. He served as a merciful father and dedicated brother to each of his Hassidim. He was always into growth, and worked constantly and incessantly to purify and refine his character. His brother Rabbi Tzvi-Elimelech, may he live, tells, among other things, that when an argument broke out between the two of them when they were still children, as happens between brothers on occasion, especially between brothers of the same age, Rabbi Alter-Reuven would suddenly disappear in the midst of the argument. He would return a few hours later and tell him, “So, now, after you and I have calmed down, and the storm of the argument has abated, we can continue to clarify matters.” His strong refusal – at times even in a very sharp manner – to hear words of gossip or ordinary idle talk was well known.

With the outbreak of the Second World Ware and the conquest of Sanok by the Germans, Rabbi Alter-Reuven of blessed memory, his wife and four children were deported to the Russian side. He set up his


[Page 126]

temporary residence, “until the fury subsides” as many thought then, in the town of Felsztyn near Sambor. Despite the great economic deprivation in his home, as was the case in all Jewish homes in the area of wartime occupation, he was very active in charity and benevolence during the time he was in Felsztyn. Packages of food and clothing, as well as money were sent from his home to the Jews in far and near places in Russia, especially in Siberian exile. These were accompanied by letters of encouragement to raise their spirits during their wandering. He even founded a Yeshiva in Felsztyn called Or LaMeir, named for his grandfather Rabi Meir-Yehuda Spira, the first Admor of Bukowsk. He disseminated Torah himself.

{Photo page 126 top: The Rebbetzin Henia, the wife of the Admor Rabbi Reuven Spira of blessed memory. She was the daughter of Rabbi Pinchas Kanner of blessed memory, the rabbi of Zagórz.}

{Photo page 126 bottom: Three of Rabbi Reuven's brothers: Moshe (in the middle), David (on the right), and Yosef (on the left).}

When the areas of Poland and Galicia fell into German hands, the journeys to the Death Camps began along with the rest of the residents of that town. The Rebbetzin and two of their children were murdered at that time, and he was left with two young children. Holocaust survivors who were with him in the camp tell a great deal about the greatness of his spirit and the level of his dedication to his fellow. Even in the camp, he never stopped encouraging people, strengthening the spirits, and instilling sparks of comfort and hope. Many interesting details have been told about the deeds of benevolence and true kindness[5] that he performed even in the death camps. Stories of that nature are heard to this day from people living with us in the Land and Diaspora, including from some who claimed that they themselves received financial assistance in the Death Camps in which they found themselves. Stories and facts are also told about attempts by his Hassidim to save his life and remove him from the Death Camp. However, he refused this, suspecting that other Jews would be taken to the camp in his place.

It is known today that on the 33rd of 34th day of the Omer of the year 5702 (1942)[6], the Sambor Camp was liquidated and all of the martyrs in that camp were murdered, including the last Admor of Bukowsk, who lived a life of holiness and purity during his brief lifetime. May G-d avenge his blood!

__________

Translator's Footnotes
  1. State of being an Admor, or Hassidic leader. Return
  2. The study of a page of Talmud each day, resulting in the completion of the entire Talmud in around 7 ½ years. The Daf Yomi cycle has continued to this day. Return
  3. Ish Shlomi” means “man of peace.” Shlomi is a play on words of the first word of the name of the organization. The acronym in the next line uses the letters out of order. Return
  4. There is a footnote in the text here as follows: A piece of paper upon which is written the name of the person presenting the petition (for health, livelihood, a marriage partner or the rest). The reading of the request by the Tzadik also served as his prayer to G-d for fulfillment of the request. Return
  5. The term chesed shel emet “True kindness” often refers to tending to the dead, and providing burial. Return
  6. 18th or 19th of Iyar. Return
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