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[Page 73]

The Great Teachers

Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapira

Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapira
Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapira

Rabbi Yehuda Meir Shapira was born in March 1887. His father was Rabbi Yaakov Shimshon of Schatz (Bukovina), son of Rabbi Yehuda Meir, son of Rabbi Dov of Tlost, son of Rabbi Yehuda Meir of Shpitovka, son of the famous tzaddik and friend of Besht (the founder of Chassidism), Rabbi Pinchus of Kuritz, a descendant of Rabbi Natan Shapira, author of Megalah Amukot of Cracow. In his youth, he caused a stir in the world of the Torah with his wisdom and great knowledge. This is confirmed by the great sage, Rabbi Shalom Mordechai Svedron of Berzan, in the ordination certificate he issued for the Rabbi Meir, in which he writes, “I saw a young man named Meir and I offered the blessing Yotzer Ha'meorot (creator of the lights).”

Rabbi Shapira had studied with his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhak Schor of Munstritz, author of Minchat Shai, mastering all aspects of Torah and knowledge; soon he became known as a great scholar. A wealthy Galician Jew named Rabbi Yaakov David Breitman of Tarnopol gave him his daughter's hand in marriage.

He became totally dedicated to the study of Torah at his comfortable home in Tarnopol. In a short time the “genius of Schatz” became one of the leading lights of his generation. His home became a meeting place for rabbis and scholars who would direct their questions to him; his answers always hit the mark and were accepted favorably, which drew much attention to him. He was seen as a rising star in the world of Halacha, and he proceeded to publish his first book, Imrey Daat. Around that time he was offered the position of rabbi of the town of Galina in Galicia and he quickly accepted it, although his in-laws were against his becoming a servant of the community. In Galina he continued to learn Torah and tried to start a school for children and a yeshiva for young men. The neglected town became a center of Torah. His first yeshiva in Galina, which he headed, became a source of famous rabbis who followed in his footsteps.

But Rabbi Shapira's restless spirit would not let him remain in Galina. He became a public champion of Torah and faith, and in public gatherings he raised his voice against the neglect of young people and proclaimed himself spiritual father to the yeshiva students who, because of lack of attention, were condemned to waste away. He had labored successfully in Galina for ten years, but he started to feel that the place was too small for him; in 1922 he became rabbi in Sanok.

Public Leader and Delegate to the Sejm

In Sanok he also found much to do. Here, too, he did a great deal for the community, and his fame increased. Legends spread about his dynamic personality. He became a member of Agudath Israel and did a great deal for that movement. From Sanok he was often invited to appear on the podium on behalf of Poland's religious Jewry, as a speaker, he fired up the masses. He was chosen to head Agudath Israel and was elected delegate to the Polish Sejm (parliament).

On Adar 16, 1924, he was chosen rabbi of the great town of Piotrkow, which boasted many sages and writers, devoted Jews and Jewish scholars. In 1923 he had proposed at a great assembly of Agudath Israel in Vienna the study of a “daily page” of Talmud and the establishment of universal yeshiva; both proposals were received with loud applause.

When Rabbi Shapira became the rabbi of Piotrkow, he was only 37 years old; not since the days of the Gaon author of Brit Avraham, who had become rabbi of Piotrkow at a young age, had anyone been appointed so young to serve as a rabbi of a town that had known so many great rabbis and sages. He served as rabbi of the town whiles pending most of his time away because of his frequent trips on behalf of the Lublin Sages Yeshiva, which he had organized. But his leadership was felt in Piotrkow, as he was dedicated to his work in the community. This imprint was felt in all matters, great and small. His fiery sermons inspired people, and he became extremely popular; his speeches always drew an overflow crowd.

Head of the Lublin Sages Yeshiva

Rabbi Shapira's crowning achievement was the establishment of the Lublin Sages Yeshiva. He brought together exemplary people, old Chassidim, heads of Orthodox Jewry and public leaders who proceeded to establish the great yeshiva which was his life's dream. The Piotrkow community gave him a great deal of help. Many of its communal leaders supported him because of his great influence and their admiration for him. While serving as rabbi in Piotrkow, he was fortunate enough to see his dreams fulfilled, and even took part in the first conclusion of Talmudic study (siyum), which occurred on the 15th of Shvat, 1934. He was able to teach Torah to his students after the foundation was laid for the great building of the yeshiva, an event that was joyously celebrated at his home in Piotrkow. It took seven years to complete the building; he worked day and night raising funds for the cause. In his short life he was able to see this project completed.

In 1926, Rabbi Shapira published his responsa book Or Hameir, a second edition of which was published by his brother in New York in 1951. In Iyar, 1931 he became president of the rabbinical court in Lublin and moved to that city, having served in Piotrkow for six years. His many cares gave him no rest after he settled in Lublin, and he would often tell his friends that he missed his rabbinical position in Piotrkow. Because of his difficult work in Lublin he became prematurely old, and despite his young age his hair turned gray. He suddenly took ill and on the 7th of Heshvan, 1934, after living in Lublin for two and a half years, he departed this world at the age of 46 and eight months. Nearly one hundred thousand people attended his funeral, and religious Jewry in Poland and elsewhere went into deep mourning.

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Rav Shapira with his talmidim
Rav Shapira with his talmidim


[Page 76]

Rabbi Moshe Hayim Lau
The Last Rabbi of Piotrkow

Rabbi Moshe Hayim Lau-Lavie
Rabbi Moshe Hayim Lau-Lavie

For several years, Piotrkow was without a chief rabbi, and rabbinical matters were handled by local Jewish functionaries. Only three years before the outbreak of World War II, Rabbi Moshe Hayim Lau was appointed to that Post. A native of Lvov, he was born on Iyar 14, 1892 to Rabbi Zvi Yehuda and his wife Leah Hinda, and was the scion of a famous rabbinical family in eastern Galicia, a descendant of the holy SHLA, author of Bayit Hadash and Turey Zahav, and of Rabbi Menachem Mannes Halevi Ish Horowitz, the head of the rabbinical court in Altona, Hamburg and Wandsbek.

The great community of Lvov, capital of Galicia, where he grew up, was a stronghold of Torah and piety in Poland for seven hundred years. In his youth, he served leading scholars, and for several years he studied in a rabbinical academy in Lvov with Rabbi Yosef Teomim, author of Peri Megadi, who was the head of the rabbinical court in that city. The school was crowded with rabbinical students, and the voice of Torah was heard everywhere. Moshe Hayim spend days and nights studying all branches of Torah and acquired great knowledge and skill. He also pursued Jewish philosophy and had a great knowledge of secular subjects. He was ordained by the last poskim, the Rabbi of Barjan, Rabbi Sholem Mordechai Hakohen Shvedron, Rabbi Meir Arik of Tarnow-Buczacz, and Rabbi Shmuel Angel of Radomishl.

Rabbi Moshe Hayim was elected at a young age to serve as the rabbi of Schatz (Sochava) in Bukovina. He devoted most of his energy to bringing the youth closer to the life of Torah and mitzvot. He was successful in his work and became a major influence with youth, since he understood young people and was able to lead them in the ways of truth, Torah, and purposeful living. Besides possessing great knowledge, he was also a great orator. He was a wonderful conversationalist, and anyone who came to him to discuss problems or express doubts left encouraged. Soon he became well known in his own country and abroad and many important communities asked him to serve as their rabbi. From Schatz he moved to Pershov, an old and renowned community in Slovakia. There he founded the Torat Hayim yeshiva, which attracted hundreds of students from Slovakia, Poland and Austria.

Rabbi Lau became even better known in the Jewish world because of his book Kiddush Hashem and his writing about the Jewish mother and family. His essays and articles were enthusiastically reviewed by the Jewish press in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria, but he was best known as a great speaker who could move the masses and affect the individual. He had many students who became religious and communal leaders, both in Israel and in the diaspora.

In addition to his educational work and the training of a new generation of rabbis, Rabbi Lau devoted much of his time to the Jewish public in general, and was one of the prime movers for the establishment of educational and vocational institutions for children who did not continue their studies in the yeshivot and Batei Midrash. He was one of the advocates and founders of the religious schools for girls, Beit Yaakov, and through his initiative many such schools were started throughout Galicia.

After his cousin, the Gaon Rabbi Meir Shapira, the head of the rabbinical court in Piotrkow, was chosen rabbi of Lublin, Rabbi Moshe Hayim was chosen for the post of head rabbi of the court of Piotrkow. He derived deep pleasure from the great library that he had brought with him, with over ten thousand valuable books. In Piotrkow he soon became popular, and his talks and speeches made a strong impression on the public; many came to hear him. His influence was unusual, and he created a pious atmosphere around him and brought many back to the teachings of Judaism.

The subject of “Kiddush Hashem” is unique to the Jewish people, and in almost every generation individual Jews and entire communities have had to sacrifice themselves for the sanctification of the holy name. Rabbi Moshe Hayim seems to have felt that he would have to sanctify the holy name with his own body, and he proceeded to write a comprehensive book on the subject. He did an enormous amount of research for this book, gathering material from many sources, old and more recent, adding his own innovations; Torah scholars who read the first copies praised the book as a valuable addition to halachic literature. He wrote other manuscripts with innovations in Torah, Halacha and Aggadah, as well as responsa, which he planned to prepare for publication. Unfortunately, they were lost along with his great library. He conducted a correspondence with other sages on such wartime questions as the agunah (a married woman whose husband is missing) – among them Rabbi Hayim Ozer Grudzinski of Wilna, Rabbi Menachem Zemba of Warsaw-Praga, and the Gaon of Chivin, Rabbi Dov Beirish Weidenfeld.

After Piotrkow was occupied by the Germans, Rabbi Lau sought to use his ties with the leaders of the German minority to make things easier for the local Jewish community, and during the early stages of the occupation he was able to avert many evil decrees.

During the first year of the Second World War, the problem of wives whose soldier husbands were missing, either because they had died in battle, were taken prisoner, or had escaped to the Soviet Union, became acute. The rabbi formed a special court composed of the judges of Reb Mendel Weiss and Reb Moshe Temkin, joined by the judge from Aleksandrow near Lodz, Rabbi Hanoch Henich Sherfinski, who was know for his expertise in Halacha. The court took care of dozens of women whose husband, were missing.

The rabbi paid special attention to this matter, with which he had been familiar from his younger days during World War I, and devoted a great deal of time to each case, while looking for ways to free the women from their indefinite status. In the course of his work he added his own commentaries to Section 17 of the Shulchan Aruch – Even Haezer, which deal with this matter. But this valuable composition, based on Rabbi Lau's vast experience in this area, was lost along with his other important writings, including a Hebrew diary of the German occupation of Poland until the day the rabbi was sent with the last members of his community to Treblinka.

During the Nazi occupation he worked tirelessly on foiling Nazi schemes against the Jews, and was in touch with various persons in Slovakia trying to help people escape and alert Jewish institutions in England and Switzerland. The Pershov community, where he had previously served as rabbi, did a great deal to save the rabbi and his family and bring them to Slovakia. But he chose to remain in Piotrkow until the very end.

In Heshvan, 1943 the rabbi, along with thousands of members of his community, was transported by the “death” train to the extermination camp of Treblinka, while members of his community from Pershov were brought there at the same lime. He did not become discouraged, and continued to lift the spirits of his followers. Even at that fateful moment, when the end was near, he would keep saying, “For you shall go out joyously.” In other words: Joy enables a person to overcome trouble, hardship and suffering. He resembled a captain whose ship was sinking in a stormy sea, as he waited to be the last one to jump into the treacherous waves when all hope of rescue was gone. He and his congregants died as saints, and with their death these holy communities came to an end. May their memory endure in the hearts of the survivors. He left three sons who live in Israel.

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