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[Page 461]

A Profile of Rabbi Chanoch-Gershon Szpilberg

by Mosze Siwek

Translated by Jerrold Landau

“Is there a tree there or not”
Numbers 13

“If there is a proper man among you who will protect you through his merit”
Rashi, there

As a native of Dąbrowa, I will unify myself with awe and reverence to the blessed memory of Rabbi Chanoch Szpilberg, may the holy be remembered for blessing, who lived and functioned in the city of Dąbrowa for more than 35 years. There, he raised two sons and three daughters, may they live long. He died in Israel at an old age on 26 Sivan, with a pure conscience and full realization that he had completed the destiny of his life and completed the circle of his world.

Before I elaborate on the story of his life and activities, I will tell a bit about the history of the life and family from which he took his wife, Mrs. Gitlish of blessed memory.

There lived a Jew in the Reden Colony named Reb Lebel Fruchtcwag, a prominent man and a cattle-feed merchant. He had five daughters and three sons. As was customary in those days for a wealthy Jew not familiar with the small letters[1], he got in touch with a Yeshiva head or well-known shadchan [marriage broker] to choose a fine lad fitting for his daughter, so as to fulfil the adage of our sages: “Forty days before the creation of the child,” etc.[2]

I do not know the path that Reb Leibel Fruchtcwag chose when his daughters came of age. However, in our city , there was no dispute that Reb Leibel Fruchtcwag had five fine sons-in-law, all scholars who observed the laws of G-d. The lion of the group was Reb Reuven Grosfeld, a man of pleasant demeanor, with a cultivated external presentation. He did not speak much, but was full to the brim with Torah. Second to him was Reb Shimon Wechsler, then Reb Yankel Rozen, Reb Avraham Yitzchak Dzows, and Rabbi Chanoch-Gershon Szpilberg.

Reb Leibel Fruchtcwag ensured that they would all be set up properly with a livelihood, so that they could be dedicated to their family and business. That was not the case with Reb Chanoch-Gershon Szpilberg, who dedicated his life to faithful communal service.

He came to us from the city of Łódź at the beginning of the 20th century. I will not spend much time on the days of his childhood and youth, for I do not know about them. He would don two pars of tefillin, and he was an exceedingly pious man. He never wasted the opportunity to fulfil a light or difficult commandment. He was an enthusiastic Zionist with all 248 of his limbs[3]. There was no Zionist activity or deed in which he did not take part. He was zealous for the Hebrew language, and he strove to give his children a nationalist education and to impart them from the spiritual treasuries of the nation from which he drew and absorbed during his younger days. As a great friend of the Zionist youth movement, he had great influence on all the youth of the city. He was active in the collection activities and the funds of the Zionist organization. He demanded of the youth who gathered around the Zionist organization actualization in a practical fashion, and aliya to the Land. He himself talked well and fulfilled well. His son Shraga, may he live long, was among the first olim from the city (1922), before he himself made aliya in 1935 to its soil.

Reb Chanoch Szpilberg z
Reb Chanoch Szpilberg z"l
who knew how to blend halacha and progress
– between worldliness and religion
– culture and societal activity
– an activist of the Zionist organization.

In 1935, Reb Chanoch Gershon merited to make aliya along with his entire family except his daughter Miriam, who was not able to join the aliya of the family for reasons not related to him. He toiled and worked a great deal in the Land immediately with his aliya. These were the first days of the Hitlerist pillage in Europe, and a wave of anti-Semitism rose in Poland, which wasted no opportunity to torment Polish Jewry. He even succeeded in bringing Miriam. How great was

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his joy when she made aliya. He attained that to which he aspired for his entire life. He and his entire family were now in Israel. Indeed, there was reward for his blessed work for the Zionist movement.

Since he was a Mizrachi activist throughout his entire life in the Diaspora, he could have received recompense from the Mafda'l [National Religious Party] upon his aliya. However, it would not be like such a man as Rabbi Chanoch Gershon, who occupied himself faithfully in communal matters for all his days without the purpose of obtaining reward, to obtain benefit from his communal activism in the Diaspora.

Upon his aliya, he opened a grocery store in the Montefiore neighborhood, a suburb of Tel Aviv. Despite his advanced age, one could see him riding on a tricycle outside Tel Aviv making purchases for his store, so as to sustain his wife and himself in an honorable fashion. Reb Chanoch Gershon fulfilled the adage of the sages, “Flay a carcass in the marketplace and do not depend on others.”[4]

He affiliated with the Aleksander Hasidim. He was a Hasid like all Hasidim on the outside, but more tolerant to his fellow. Therefore, he was beloved and revered by all the people of the city.

He tasted the taste of Haskalah [enlightenment] already during his youth. He was conversant with the writers of the era: Ryb'l, Mych'l, Mapu, and Smolenskin. He studied Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and read secular books. He got to know the Kuzari, and Sefer Ikarim of Rabbi Yosef Albo. He delved into the Guide for the Perplexed during his free time. He took particular interest in the Sephardic commentators on the Torah and their literature: Abarbanel, Ralba'g, and Ibn Ezra. To study the weekly Torah portion, he used the commentary of the Malbim, a commentator accepted in the Hasidic world. A general conversation with his was a spiritual joy for the interlocutor, and every visit with him concluded with words of Torah.

The community in our city, as in all communities of Poland at that time, was frozen in its tradition and led by trustees who were affiliated with Agudas Yisroel, who were suspicious lest any ray of light penetrate the communal life of the city. It is not for naught that they nicknamed the communities during those times: houses of death (meisim shtibelech).

A new spirit entered the communal council when the election of Reb Chanoch Gershon. The previous communal administrators (parnasim) acted in accordance to their own whims, without paying attention to the taxpayers. With his communal and Zionist inclinations, he turned the community into an institution fitting of its name. Never in the history of the community had clear and daring language been heard from the elected powers, such as was heard from Reb Chanoch Gershon. He brought the Zionist idea to the communal forum for the first time. Indeed, Agudas Yisroel people persecuted him sine they regarded the community as their personal fortress. In a deliberation over the communal budget, he strongly demanded a reasonable allocation for the Jewish National Fund, which aroused the ire of the Aguda folk. He took that opportunity to speak about the role of the Zionist movement and the redemption of the land. These were stormy debates, which were transferred to the Jewish street in the city the next day. The meeting was interrupted at times, but without him giving in when he discussed the Zionist idea.

Reb Chanoch Gershon told me about an incident that took place at the end of the communal debate relating to activity on behalf of the Jewish National Fund. This was before the eve of Yom Kippur, and the communal administrated were about to ban the placing of [charity] plates of the Jewish National Fund in the synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur. Reb Chanoch Gershon stood up strongly and defended this right. The leader of Aguda, Reb Chaim Moshe Ajzenman, rose up, and blasted him in this language, “This sinner of Israel does not satisfy himself with merely putting on Rashi tefillin, but also adds on the Rabbeinu Tam tefillin.” Indeed, Dąbrowa Jewry had someone upon whom to depend, in the words of Rashi, “A proper person who will protect them.”[5]

My father of blessed memory was a zealous and extreme religious Jew, even though he did not belong to any religious political party. To him, the fulfillment of the commandments of the Torah and “everything that the Talmud would eventually innovate” was in the category of “one should let oneself be killed rather than transgress.” The mode of dress and all manner of living in the house was as it was in previous generations, “for new is forbidden by the Torah.” The spirit of the times was a matter of “it shall not be seen and shall not be found.”[6] When my wine went sour[7] and I became involved with the Zionist idea, his world was destroyed, and he regarded this as going out to a bad crowd.

In conversation with my father of blessed memory, and with my strong will to assure him that there was no danger lurking for his son, I always relied on Reb Chanoch Gershon, stating that nobody in the city disagrees with the religiosity of Chanoch Gershon, even though he is an enthusiastic Zionist and regards Zionism as the purpose of the nation. At that time (1931), I was preparing for aliya.

My brother David had a son in 1943. My brother invited Reb Chanoch Gershon to serve as the sandek [godfather at a circumcision] due to his great reverence for him. After the ceremony of bringing his son into the covenant of Abram our forefather, as we sat around the table, Reb Chanoch Gershon told me the following story:

Once your father met me on the street and reproved me for giving support to sinners and leading them off the right path, causing his sons to enter a bad crowd, violate the Sabbath, etc. I responded, “Efraim, calm down. Your sons are good Jews, and the fact that they are making aliya to the Land is proof to their commitment to Judaism.” He continued and said, “I recall at the meeting when I held the baby on my lap, and your brother

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recited the blessing over the circumcision. This was the time that the first tidings of Job regarding the Holocaust reached us with the arrival of the Ochs daughters, natives of our city who were saved. They were the ones who told us of the destruction of Dąbrowa.” He continued and said, “Would it be that the dust be wiped off the eyes of your father to see that his sons are continuing in the traditions of their father who was so pious.” (That year, they hauled my father and mother of blessed memory along with their granddaughter to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.)

His life story was so rich and variegated, with many ups and downs. He suffered pain and anguish and also tasted joy. “His sons, like olive saplings, around his table.[8]” He therefore merited that his holy spirit was not take from him. He reached old age with a clear mind, pure intellect, and intact wisdom. He enjoyed contentment [naches] from his descendants. Here in the homeland that he loved so much, he found his eternal rest, as his upright life ended.

About people such as this they say, “Woe over those who are lost and will not be forgotten.”

Translator's footnotes

  1. i.e. not scholarly return
  2. From Talmud, Tractate Sotah 2a: “Forty days before an embryo is formed a Divine Voice issues forth and says: The daughter of so-and-so is destined to marry so-and-so” (Translation from Sefaria: https://www.sefaria.org/Sotah.2a.9?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en ) return
  3. The traditional number of bones or limbs in the human body. return
  4. Tractate Pesachim 113a. return
  5. See Rashi's commentary on Numbers 13:20. return
  6. A quote from the laws of Passover, regarding chometz [leavened products] during the holiday. return
  7. A reference to going off the expected path. return
  8. Psalms 128:3. return

Reb Chanoch Gershon
the Light of Our Community

by Mordechai Gotlib

(Words of eulogy on the thirtieth day [sheloshim] of his passing.)

Translated by Jerrold Landau

It was only about three weeks ago that we met. I was happy to see him and chat with him briefly. I did not know and could not imagine that today I would have to speak about him rather than speak to him. I am not able to get used to this idea and make peace with it, but this is something that we cannot dispute and think about. We must accept the judgment.

With the passing of Reb Chanoch Gershon Szpilberg of blessed memory, a Zionist communal worker of variegated activities, and a dear, good, unforgettable friend was taken from us. The most upright of men and finest of humans was taken for us. An erudite Jew with a warm heart, a scholar with deep logic, clean hands, upright heart, a great sage with a straight path, who displayed deep understanding and broad knowledge of Bible, Talmud, lore and Jewish law has left us. He was wondrously expert in our ancient literature, from which he drew the best and finest, and the precious stones, which we wove with great wisdom and understanding in his pleasant conversations, his meetings with friends, at discussions and meetings. He was filled to the brim, and displayed great expertise in Torah and halachic literature, in rabbinic and Hasidic literature, in the literature of the middle ages, and in Haskalah and classic and new Hebrew literature.

During his early youth, he became fully immersed in the Zionist idea. He joined the right wing of the Zionist movement – the Mizrachi Religious Zionist movement. He immersed himself with the full enthusiasm and energy of his soul to the Zionist and cultural work. He was very active, and he urged others to action within Zag³êbie Jewry in general, and Dąbrowa general in particular in disseminating the Zionist idea to the Jewish street. He brought news of the redemption to the masses of Jews for national freedom and for our national funds. He brought only blessing and honor to every place where he presented the Zionist movement. Even opponents and disputants related to him with honor, for his appearance was always accompanied with great moral enthusiasm and energy. He formally belonged to Mizrachi, but it is possible to say that he was the father of the entire Zionist family, starting from Mizrachi and ending with Hashomer Hatzair.

We all loved and revered him. He was revered and appreciated by all, for he we saw him as the uncoronated spiritual shepherd of the Zionist movement in Dąbrowa. Reb Gershon Chanoch reached a prominent status in the Zionist movement with his dedicated and faithful work. He became one of its heads. Great spiritual enjoyment fell to the lot of those who merited to work together with him on behalf of the Zionist movement. He had a sensitive heart and a clear mind to dissect various problems and to propose fundamental ideas. He was a man of mercy, benevolence and charity. He was deliberate and prone to compromise, and he always attempted to expose the good and fine in a person who was created in the image of G-d.

He would be pleasant to everyone. He was first to greet all who came to see him with a Good Morning, Good Sabbath, and Joyous Festival. He concerned himself with his fellow. His heart – a heart of gold – was always alert and open to the needs of his fellow. He rejoiced in their joy and was pained in their grief. He loved truth and peace, and distanced himself from controversy and disputes. I wish to cite here several of his words that he said to members of Agudas Yisroel during a stormy, sharp debate: “Truth and peace descended bound together from heaven, and one must not separate them. The truth that descended from heaven was complete, pure, absolute truth. If you remove even one letter, for example the letter aleph[1], what is

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left from your emet is met [death] and nothing more. You hide the truth from the masses of Israel, and the entire responsibility is placed upon you.”

He had a refined soul and noble spirit – but he was a strong fighter against any injustice, falsification, or distortion in the group. With these, he was a sharp fighter and very zealous. He never agreed to any compromise or concession at the expense of the Zionist movement. We worked together for seven years, and I got to know him during that time. Every meeting and conversation enriched those who were present with additional knowledge in various areas.

He was a paradigm of uprightness with exceptional morals. He was a man of understanding, with a deliberate temperament. He was both pleasant and exacting – like a wonderful blend between the House of Hillel and House of Shammai[2]: he had the strictness of the House of Shammai and the pleasantness and tolerance of the House of Hillel. He was happy when he made aliya to the Land of Israel, the land to which he so pined and so loved, and was so dedicated to with heart and soul. He was happy that he merited to see with his own eyes the rise of the kingdom [i.e. State] of Israel and the revival of the Nation of Israel in its historical land. He regarded this as the realization of his great dream to which he dedicated his soul and life. He neglected his private affairs and dedicated himself fully to the Zionist ideal.

His wife had a great role in his Zionist work, for she bore the entire yoke of livelihood. She acted as a woman of valor and accepted upon herself with love all the concerns and the education of the children, so as to make it easier for him to continue his holy work.

As a Jewish member of the intelligentsia, he knew and understood the platforms of all the parties in Israel. In debates with opponents of Zionism, he knew how to answer properly, and always had the upper hand. He armed himself with a great deal of cultural baggage, and could easily carry on conversations on various topics and issues: on the wisdom of Israel, and Greek philosophy, on the Rambam and Yehuda HaLevi, on Aristotle and Socrates, on religion and Kabala, on morality and culture, on Spinoza and Ahad Ha'am, on Pinsker on Smolensky, on Y. Y. Gordin and Luzzato, on Breinin and Lilienblum, on the sharpest opponent of the Hasidic movement the Vilna Gaon and on the Baal Shem Tov – the prince of joy and creator of the populist Hasidic movement. He could quote entire chapters of the Guide for the Perplexed of the Rambam, and the Kuzari of Yehuda HaLevi.

The sudden passing of Reb Chanoch Gershon of blessed memory shook up his family, and stirred up the souls of all natives of Dąbrowa Górnicza in Israel. His acquaintances and appreciators, especially his friends in Zionist work, will bear his memory with love and reverence.

Woe on those who have gone but are not forgotten. May his memory be a blessing.

Translator's footnotes

  1. Aleph is the first letter of the word Emet (truth). return
  2. Two sages of the pre-Mishnaic period. Shammai was known for his more stringent viewpoints. return

In Memory of a Teacher

by Isser Lavi

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The dear memory of the deceased points to a personality of many deeds, a man of the community, the faithful representative of our city Dąbrowa in the fundamental communal arena, an enthusiastic Zionist with understanding, dedicated with all strands of his soul to the ideal of the redemption of Zion in accordance with the path and understanding of the movement. He was a wise, intelligent man, imbued with the culture of life and close to Jewish sources. He was a scholar, religious, guarding the tradition, and with all that, close to any progressive, new cause. He had understanding and tolerance for his opponents. He knew how to tie the edges of opponents while still zealously protecting his outlook. All of this was with pride and a stance of honor. He was consistent with his understanding of Zionism, and it seems to me that he was the only one of the community of Dąbrowa who actualized [aliya] with his entire family, when he made aliya to the Land before the disaster.

How can we describe this variegated personality in a few sentences? To a man such as myself, who was raised and educated in a home that was influenced greatly by the personality and proximity of my father, this would also be to lament the home that was destroyed, the family that went to its eternal rest, the nest of my family that was destroyed and is no more – first and foremost of a father who was a personal friend of Reb Chanoch Gershon of blessed memory. Therefore forgive the personal slant of my words. When I received the bitter news of his passing, I felt pain, anguish and mourning as if for the personal head of the family, for a man who frequented our home, for a teacher and educator, a guide who orientated my dear parents of blessed memory.

For as long as I can remember, I can see it as if the image of the deceased is connected to our home and to my father. I saw at times an image of the two of them with their stubborn, logical stance on the status of fundamental ideas. Both of them belonged to Mizrachi, and stood out for their common stance and understanding of problems. Their appearance for all

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A letter from Lajbl Strzegowski to Reb Chanoch Szpilberg in Israel  - dab465.gif [30 KB]
A letter from Lajbl Strzegowski to Reb Chanoch Szpilberg in Israel

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sides was a known phenomenon among the residents of Reden. I do not exaggerate if I state that I drew from them no small amount of my approach and understanding of the problems of the nation and the world.

The home of Reb Chanoch Gershon, and his wife Gitlish of blessed memory drew me closer with the passage of time. As the years went on, all the younger members of the household became faithful members of the Hashomer Hatzair chapter, and we were brethren in one movement. The sisters Chana, Esther, and Miriam, and the brother Yitzchak were part of them. It was clear at that time that the home of their parents would turn into a meeting place for the movement. We knew well how much it pained them that they had joined this movement. Nevertheless, they expressed understanding of our path, and it seemed to me even to this day that he was at peace with himself having made peace with the path of his children. Apparently, this was from a deep sense that this was how fate would play out, and this was the obligation of the moment – actualization and aliya to the Land. Where is the person among us who can dredge up memories of Reb Chanoch Gershon from the recesses of memory – the man of the Zionist movement, the Mizrachi activist who represented his movement with pride in his struggle with dark forces at home and outside? Where can we specify the place for his large-scale work for the Jewish National Fund, which to him was not simply a collection activity, but rather a sublime goal and a commandment, in which we all dedicated all our energy under his direction, as he served as an example.

How can we discuss his memory without mentioning the real of life called Reden – he, with his tall stature and splendid beard, with his splendid garb, that exuded honor and glory?

How can we not recall how he set his steps from one activity to the next, from the party to the Jewish National Fund, from a discreet act charity and benevolence or an open one if the situation demanded such?

How can we not portray him as he stood in a strong battle against the civic authorities and the elected officials of the Gmina [community], as he expressed his Zionist statements with strength and pride?

The Beis Midrash of Reden – how can we portray it? Was it merely a religious center? Not exactly! It was a cultural and social center with experiences for everyone. How can we not see Reb Chanoch Gershon at its center when they gathered for prayer? On festivals, he stood next to the eastern wall and participated in the prayer alone. On weekdays, however, in the early evening between mincha and maariv, an audience would gather around him to listen with thirst to his words and debates with his various opponents. In this was his great strength.

He was an activist, but he knew how to spur others to action. I merited working with him in various institutions and common activities. Even though I was young, I always felt a relationship of understanding and love, despite our differences in age ant outlook. I do not exaggerate at all if I state that I was influenced by him in no small way, and his presence served as an example to me as how to act and urge others to action, how to react, and how would you respond to your opponents. Our outlooks were indeed opposite in principle, but our activities for the Jewish National Fund, culture, elections to the Zionist Congresses and Polish Sejm were the anvil upon which my appreciation for this dear man was forged. We were young then, and as is the way with youths, we were also brazen in outlook and appearance. Nevertheless, we always felt that he was standing behind us, and his consent was given from the outset. He set our mutual relationship on the basis of equality.

When I arrived in the Land 33 years ago, it was self-understood that I directed my steps to the home of Reb Chanoch Gershon and Gitlish in the Montefiore neighborhood of Tel Aviv. Our meeting was pleasant, and they were greatly mesmerized regarding all information as to what had taken place in our abandoned city.

Reb Chanoch Gershon's incessant activity in our organization was a known fact. Every one of our fellow natives regarded him as the elder of Dąbrowa Jewry. He served as the address and support for every new immigrant who arrived in the Land. We all felt boundless love and appreciation for him. In all our meetings with him, we regarded him as the archetype of our parents who could have been with us but did not merit such. He epitomized the destroyed Dąbrowa Jewry, which went to its eternal resting place in such a tragic fashion. His Israeli persona did not blur one iota the known persona of Reb Chanoch Gershon from the Reden Colony.

At the end we were connected through activities for an enterprise dear to all of us, the memorial book to our city. We all felt a duty – even if belated – to bring the memory of our city, its Jews, its children, and its many activities to eternal memory. This is a small memorial for all those whom we loved, and who did not merit being with us. We hoped to that portion of Reb Chanoch Gershon in this book would be central, honorable and pleasant, due to his many activitis over many years. We had the feeling that we must hurry to gather every detail from our deep, unextinguished memories, so that we can impart our story to ourselves and our children, so that they will know what ha been destroyed and uprooted from our midst. However, fate was cruel, and we are standing here, bringing forth his unforgettable memory and image, as he was cut off from us, as we still were pining for the words of his mouth to enrich and strengthen the history of our city, and its sons and daughter, in the book.

We are mourning with dear Gitlish, their sons and daughters, and their many relatives, over their great tragedy. Would it be that we could impart his precious persona to all those who did not know him from close. Those of us who merited to be raised and to act in his presence, and to understand his personality of great deeds will mourn bitterly for his departure from amongst us.

May his memory be guarded with us forever.

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