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A Shining Personality – Reb Zishe

by Pesia Shorashewski

Translated by Jerrold Landau

Approximately two weeks before the war, I went to one of the greatest of the Baale-Mussar[1] (who now resides in America), in order to take counsel from him and to hear his opinions about various problems that arose with regard to the education of our daughters. I saw that he was about to stop his work (he was writing a letter to someone), and I requested that he complete it so as not to disturb him. I glanced at his letter without his knowledge, and I was astounded: How could this be described thus? And who is it that was writing? One of the greatest of the Baale-Mussar, who weighs out each word, and who restrains his mouth from exaggeration?

It was difficult for me to restrain myself. I asked him to explain the situation, and he said: “What indeed is your question? Do you wish to know why I use such a description for such and such a Jew? I will answer you: the Jewish world refers to him as that.” Who is the world? – I did not understand. Then he said to me: “You should know that of all the nations of the world, the Jews are the least descriptive. With us, the sense of smell is well developed. The nation of Israel senses and feels its great people. The intuition of the collective Jewish soul is always correct. I will give you two examples and you will understand. The Rambam (Maimonides) wrote a book that every Jewish scholar uses. He called his book the ‘Mishne Torah’ (‘Repetition of the Torah’). The Jewish spirit evaluated, with all due reverence to the Rambam and his book, that this name is an exaggeration. Thus it was not accepted. Everyone Jew refers to the book as the Rambam[2].

The holy Shela, a great Kabbalist, bestowed upon the Jewish people a very important work and called it ‘Shnei Luchot Habrit’ (‘The Two Tablets of the Covenant’). Once again, despite all the recognition and honor due to one of the giants of true wisdom, this name was not accepted in its full form, but only in its abbreviated form Shela, and not more than that. The nation of Israel is extremely sensitive, meticulous, and exacting, giving their due to those who exalt themselves… If the Jews use a specific description, you should not consider this to be an exaggeration, for our nation coronates those who are worthy of coronation, and shoots right on the mark.”

When I wish now to write on paper a brief description of the personality of Alexander Zishe Frydman, I remember these things. They still beat upon my ears. The collective Jewish soul does not err… It always makes the appropriate judgements… it does not exaggerate in its descriptions… It cloaks itself in the cloak that fits…

If you were to meet him, you could not say anything other than: Reb Zishe. This is not because of familiarity, and not because this was the accepted custom. It was simply because “the knowledge of his countenance answered for him”. His face was glowing, his high forehead slightly wrinkled, his eyes were deep-set, exuding fundamental Jewish wisdom, and particularly his polite behavior toward every man would convince you. You would realize that you are standing before a sage in the full sense of the word. You would nod your head due to deep-seated respect, and you would not be able to refer to him in any other way than Reb Zishe. It is interesting that even people who would speak to him in Polish would start off by saying: “Reb Zishe, what do you say?” I pointed out to Dr. Ringelblum (the well-known historian, the head of the Z.T.A.S., which is affiliated with the Joint), that it was not nice to say in Polish: “Reb Zishe”. He contradicted me and said: “There is no other way, since according to my opinion, he is a true sage with respect to his wisdom, his way of thinking, his breadth of knowledge, and primarily his pureness of heart.” Dr. Ringelblum continued: “according to me, he is the yardstick of pure hearted communal activity…”.

I heard a great deal about Reb Zishe Frydman in our house. My father of blessed memory explained to me that he was one of the shining stars of the Yeshiva of Sochaczew. It was also possible to discern this matter from his pure, full and overflowing language that he used with reference to the sages and halachic decisors in his articles in “Digleinu”, and later in “Darcheinu” (Agudas Yisrael monthly publications). When it was pointed out to him that his manner of speaking in Yiddish was simpler, and more understandable and acceptable to the people (he was one of the best orators of Agudas Yisrael), he answered simply: “On the contrary. With me, the language of the Torah is the natural language, in which I was educated and raised.” He was among the first editors (in the latter period of Agudas Yisrael), who published monthly publications and manuscripts in Hebrew. “Our manner of speaking will remove in no small manner the ignorance from among us.” He was among the zealous fighters against boorishness and empty-headedness. “A bookshelf is not only a nice piece of furniture in our quarters. We have to concern ourselves that our souls should be furnished with our libraries”, was an adage that was frequently on his lips…

I met him for the first time in 5684 (1924). He was at that time a candidate to head the “Beis Yaakov” seminaries after the death of Sara Schenirer may she rest in peace[3]. We heard our first lesson from him, on the first chapter of the book of Psalms. We were enchanted by his methodology of explanation and his clear language. I still remember the manner in which he expounded the end of the chapter “G-d knows the paths of the righteous, and he destroys the paths of the wicked.” He explained that ‘knowing’ has the meaning of ‘cleaving’. By cleaving to G-d, we remain in life. Life distant from G-d causes destruction in a clear fashion – based on the verse “And thou who cleave to the L-rd your G-d are all alive today”[4]. Jews who tie themselves to the name of G-d will remain eternally.

We realized at that time that he was more fitting than any other scholar to direct the network of girls’ schools – and we would not merit that he would remain our principal. There was another reason as well. He was not able to direct his energies to one endeavor, even though it was a very important endeavor. For his calling was to remove the stumbling blocks from the organizational bodies of Orthodox Judaism. He was not only the chief secretary of Agudas Yisrael, but he was also its living spirit, and the prime mover of the entire movement. Every city and town requested that Reb Zishe Frydman should visit, for he knew how to organize appropriate activities. His encouraging words, spiced with appropriate words of our sages, were of great influence. His visit in any town would turn into a large rally for Orthodox Judaism. He was one of the chief architects who nurtured and developed Agudas Yisrael. As a true leader with no airs about him, he realized that without the youth there would be no future for the nation. He gave himself over in particular to the Orthodox youth, and attempted to forge a bridge between the older and younger generations, to remove the natural and artificial friction from between them… He organized activities for the youth of Agudas Yisrael, and Poale Agudas Yisrael. The purpose of these activities was to raise their spirits, to refine their character traits, and to prepare them for the honorable title of ‘a member of the people of Israel’. He did not have the idea of factionalism, of separation of an elite group from the people of Israel. His concept was for the entire people of Israel with the spirit of the Torah. He recognized no other master other than the authority of Torah. He understood that the holy powers of Judaism are nurtured in the creative workshops of our nation, that is in the elementary schools (cheders) and Yeshivot. He expended much of his energy in improving the lot of the students and teachers. He fought against the widely accepted yet incorrect concept that the identifying mark of a teacher was his inability to be successful in any other endeavor. On the contrary, he was wary of such teachers. Someone who teaches Torah to children in school, aside from having fine personal character, must know his profession, since he is responsible for influencing and inculcating. He gave himself over, along with the elder Avraham Feldfevel and Rabbi Yosef Begun (may G-d avenge his blood), to establish a teachers’ seminary. When the Polish government issued decrees against the cheders and attempted to put an end to them under the pretext that the lack of secular education distorts the tender spirit of the youth, he participated along with the Chofetz Chaim of holy blessed memory[5], and Rabbi Eliahu Kirshborn of blessed memory (a representative to the Sejm) in a delegation to the prime minister Barter, and they were successful in averting this decree…

Rabbi Zishe Frydman set the wonderful curriculum for the “Chorev” cheders where secular subjects were included. He was the principal of “Chorev”, and the overseer of the seminary for educators. Just as the center of the Bais Yaakov network was Krakow, the center of the Chorev network was Warsaw.

His lectures in the community of Warsaw (he was a parnas of Agudas Yisrael there) always excelled in courageous explanations to support fundamental religious education. Aside from his communal work, he occupied himself in learning. “My prime pleasure is when I immerse myself in the ocean of Talmud”, Reb Zishe used to say. He made his nights as days, and learned without interruption. “I am very sorry that not everyone can appreciate and know the pleasure and spiritual satisfaction that is the lot of a Jew who learns Gemara”, he said to Giterman (the head of the Joint), when he asked him why he is always studying.

Prior to the war, his five-volume anthology “The Wellspring of Torah” (“Torah Kval” in Yiddish) was published. Those who were in the know would acknowledge that, of all anthologies, his was the most fundamental and exact.

His entire personality was a combination of Torah and Hassidism. In him was intertwined in an extraordinary manner the essence of the Gaon of Vilna, accompanied by Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov[6]. This exalted blend of Torah and goodness, for his channels of grace drew from the overflowing and ever-flowing wellspring of Torah. The Torah was the candle before him. The Rabbi did not start or continue with any endeavor without consulting the great sages of the generation.

Rabbi Pinchas Warshawiak (the brother-in-law of the Gerrer Rebbe) testified about him that all of his actions were links in the chain of the service of G-d. I had already heard these words after the war started, after the Nazis had conquered Warsaw. Thus, even in the most difficult of times he remained faithful to his spirit and to himself. His behavior during the great tragedy of our people was notable, and is worthy of elaboration.

It was already known that the Germans had hatched the plan to annihilate the Jews, and they were interested in appointing Jews who would help bring their plans to fruition. They organized a council of elders for this purpose[7]. Warsaw also had such a council of elders, which was chaired by the engineer Czerniakow. At the outset of its duties, Czerniakow invited Zishe Frydman to be part of that council. Reb Zishe refused to accept this ‘honor’ and reasoned with him. “It is impossible to meet with those defiled people, whose every word is blasphemy, and their face lacks the image of G-d. And if it is not possible for me to help the Jews, why do I need this honor?”. He added “I was accustomed to try to be the highest part of the door, that no other person could approach.”[8] Czerniakow interrupted: “But, your life would be assured. If you love your nation, you should give yourself over to our work.” (The engineer himself did not realize at that time that the entire council was just a net for the evil ones.) Reb Zishe answered: “First of all, as a believing Jew, I recite every day: ‘in Your hand do I commit my soul’[9] … Secondly, according to my judgement, my life would be even more in danger.” He did not accept the position, but rather he expended all his energy in assisting and saving fellow Jews. He represented Orthodox Judaism on the Joint and the Z.T.A.S. (The latter are the Polish initials for the Jewish Organization of Social Work.) Through his efforts, cheders, Yeshivot, Bais Yaakov schools, and kosher kitchens were established, and he supported them. Aside from this, he took personal concern in the lot of every Torah scholar. I sometimes would see in his house (on Pinska 44) long lines of Jews who were waiting for support. For the most part, the people waiting in line were suffering great tribulation, in particular due to the conditions of that time. Their eyes were sorrowful, and they revealed secrets that weighed them down. However, I was astonished that each one waxed great in his praise, as they would say: “The situation is very bad, with fear, hunger, and all sorts of troubles, however G-d did not forsake us, for he provided a man, Reb Zishe Frydman, who concerns himself with every suffering Jew.”

If a Yeshiva student did not receive his support (this was prior to the setting up of workshops, and aside from collective support, there was also private support), Reb Zishe would bring him to his house. He would apologize to his wife: “Perhaps he took ill, and I am required to look after him, for that is the way of the Torah.” Starwinski, the treasurer of the J.T.A.S. said of him at that time: “I am astonished. Every representative has against himself complaints and claims. The youths request their dismissal, and are suspicious of honorable people. Only with regard to Zishe Frydman do I receive letters of praise.” Dr. Ringelblum was correct when he called him “The yardstick of pure hearted communal activity…”

I was aware that with regard to his own household, he lived quit austerely. He answered me with his own explanation: “How can I behave otherwise. If it is a time of trouble for Jacob, can I be saved from it?”[10] It was amazing. He held the power of the entire community of Orthodox Judaism in an unofficial capacity, he stood on his guard post, and did not move from it. In the morning he occupied himself with assistance, in the evenings, he participated in meetings and gatherings, and learned the daily page of Talmud with the youth.

When a historian of the underground examines documents about the establishment of the Jewish underground, he would be able to write a great deal about the participation of Alexander Zishe Frydman. In general, he took a stand, he helped others, and he always entertained people with words of our sages, stories of a Rebbe, or a lighthearted word. At times he apologized to me with a gloomy face, and said: “Perhaps this is not correct… however my heart tells me that difficult days are coming. We require faith as strong as a rock, and G-d forbid we should not weaken, however”, he said in a low voice, “ it is worse for those who do not see the finger of G-d in the tragedies”.

The gloomy days approached as speedily as lightning. Aktions began. The support was cut off. Those who required support were sent to Treblinka. Reb Zishe, as a faithful friend of Hendel (we will speak about the influence of Reb A. Hendel later) entered together with the family of the Gerrer Rebbe and other rabbis into Hendel’s workshop. (Schultz was the director. Reb Avraham Hendel was his supervisor) and worked there as a shoemaker. I often saw him occupied with his work, removing nails from torn shoes, putting patches on the tears, humming during his work: “It once happened that two of them were running up the ramp to the altar together, and one of them pushed aside the other” (from Tractate Yoma Chapter 2, Mishna 2). I asked him: “Reb Zishe, we are all relaxing” (We only worked when we received the watchword “Achtung” from Mr. A. Hendel, which implied that the enemy was coming near.) “Therefore, why are you working, what is the explanation for this diligence?” He answered me calmly: “I am not working for the good of the defiled ones, I only want that those weaker than me should be able to take it easier.”

After that week (January 22, 1943), I was frightened by the terrible news. His wife, his only daughter, his son-in-law and daughter-in-law were all taken in one day, on a Friday prior to candle lighting time, to Treblinka. How can we be comforted, what can we say? Is it possible to comfort the forlorn and bereaved father, in particular when the father is Reb Zishe Frydman, who mourns not only for his own tragedy but also for the tragedy of his entire people? I could not go to him, it was impossible… I went into the workshop and was astounded. I did not recognize him. His face was as the face of a corpse, with only the eyes sparkling and revealing the secret, eyes that had not closed for a long time … He was humming quietly: “Rabbi Yehuda says, lest his wife die… for it says ‘and he shall atone for himself and his household’ … his household is his family” (a quote from Tractate Yoma). Instead of comforting him, I began to weep, and then Reb Zishe said to me: “Do not weep, for this is destructive, and the Torah forbids this. I only pray that these souls which are dear to me, which are beloved to me more than my own soul, should be the last victims, and no other Jewish father should know of my tribulations. However I want to show you” – with trembling hands he showed me two poems (prior to this time he had published poems). I only managed to read one poem, in which a bereaved father mourns for his only daughter – “I educated her in Torah, and I trained her in good deeds. If I did not merit to bring her to the marriage canopy, in the manner of most Jews, parents of Israel, – – – – let it be brought near to Heaven, the marriage ceremony that did not take place … the marriage canopy should be spread out between the Divine Presence and the community of Israel.” I became choked with tears. I felt as if I would shortly faint. As if in a dream, I heard his voice, hoarse from the troubles – “I have another delightful child. I have a handwritten manuscript, a commentary on the Torah. I have completed Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers. I hope that I will merit to complete Deuteronomy in the Land of Israel. Words that are stated in the Land of Israel are more important. Our sages have said that the Torah of the Land of Israel does not compare to the Torah of outside the land. I will come to you, I will see your husband, we will enjoy.” I left him stirred up and in turmoil, and without thinking I proclaimed in a loud voice: “Who is like Your nation of Israel, a singular nation in the world”[11]. What fineness in a time of distress! What a superhuman power!

I never saw him again after that day. On the seventh day of Passover 5703 (1943), we were transferred to Majdanek (in the third aktion which liquidated the Warsaw Ghetto). With great luck, Hendel succeeded in moving Schultz’s factory to Trawniki (near Lublin), and we were able to work there for about eight more months. This factory was liquidated after eight months. A few people who were moved to Majdanek related: “of all the Jews in Trawniki (there were 10,000), we remember one Jew. We don’t know his family name, but everyone called him Reb Zishe. He helped everyone, and shared the crumbs of his bread with his fellow. He stood up before the oppressors on behalf of any Jew. There he sanctified the name of G-d”[12].

Explanations were superfluous. I already understood the end. I told the people who related this the following: “You should know that all his life he taught how to live, and therefore he surely knew how to die."” The words of the Ramchal[13]in his wonderful poem “Shimshon” are appropriate: “For if I lost my spirit, I did not lose my heart – no, I did not lose my munificent spirit, it has supported me from earliest days!…”

His parents and his family (who currently live in Israel) remain in great sorrow. It is tragic for the loss, and there are no words of comfort for the sorrow of the public. Perhaps his parents and all of Jewry who mourn the destruction can find comfort from his commentary: “G-d knows the way of the righteous, by cleaving with the living G-d, one finds life”. This way, and no other way, was the essence of the life of Reb Zishe.

A note: many in Israel are his students, his admirers, and people who knew him. They should feel duty bound to collect all of his essays and publications and to publish them in a special anthology. In such a way, we could perpetuate his unforgettable name, and we will be able to educate, and make known to our young generation the glorious personality that was Reb Alexander Zishe Frydman.


1. Mussar (literally, chastisement or lessons), refers to the field of study of religious character and ethical refinement. A Baal-Mussar (literally, a master of Mussar), is a person devoted to the study and practice of Mussar. This field of Jewish religious thought was popularized by the famous Rabbi Yisrael Salanter of Salantai, Lithuania, who lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Return

2. The Rambam wrote the Mishne Torah as a summary of the entire corpus of Torah Law. Mishne Torah means 'repetition of the Torah' or 'summary of the Torah'. This book is not generally referred to by that name, but rather as 'Yad Hachazaka' (a numerical play on the word Yad 'hand', which adds up to a numerical value of 14, which corresponds to the number of volumes of the set), or more often just as 'the Rambam'. This work was subject to controversy in its day due to its claim of being the latest complete authority on Jewish Law, but now is accepted universally (although it is now accompanied by numerous commentaries and glosses that describe alternate opinions and record disagreements). Return

3. Beis Yaakov is a network of orthodox girls' schools, under the direction of the Agudas Yisrael movement. These schools are still prevalent today. This network was founded by Sara Schenirer. Return

4. Deuteronomy chapter 4, verse 4. Return

5. The Chofetz Chaim (literally, he who desires life, which was the title of his magnum opus on the laws of the prohibitions of slander), Rabbi Yisrael Kagan, was one of the acknowledged leaders of Orthodox Judaism. He died in 1933, well into his 90s. His works are considered basic texts of religious study to this day. Return

6. The Gaon of Vilna was a leader of misnagdic (non-Hassidic) orthodoxy, and the Baal Shem Tov was the founder of Hassidism. Return

7. Apparently a reference to the judenrat, a Nazi-appointed Jewish council. Return

8. Seemingly an idiom for his utmost of devotion in public service. Return

9. A quote from the 'Adon Olam' prayer. Return

10. A twisting of a biblical verse (Jeremiah 30, 7) : "It is a time of trouble for Jacob (i.e. the Jewish people), and they will be saved from it." Return

11. A quote from the Sabbath afternoon prayers. Return

12. Sanctifying the name of G-d here refers to dying a martyr's death. Return

13. Ramchal is the acronym for Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, a very famous 17th century Italian Rabbi who wrote several important works. Return

{289 - Yiddish} {692 - Hebrew}

Simcha Grundwag

by Y. Frydman

Translated by Jerrold Landau

The final word that came to us in the Land of Israel from the Warsaw Ghetto was very short.

“Father is no longer alive…”

Yes, this was the end of a family that sacrificed everything for the community, for Zionism, and did not merit making aliya to the Land that was dear to their souls.

This is a description of Simcha Grundwag, 40-50 years ago.

To him, the good of the public was more important than anything else, even than his livelihood and family. He was dedicated to the needs of the public from morning to evening. The family suffered from many tribulations, but he did not retreat. He only saw one path for himself, lined with flowers and sprinkled with light – and that was the path that led to Zion, from the day that he heard the decree of Herzl until the time of the ghetto, and he did not flinch from that path.

This was the way it was.

Where was he not active as a communal activist? In every place, the good of the community demanded this. He never asked his friends, in whose name he appeared.

He presented himself as a democrat, but he acted with strength. For years, he ruled with force, but it was always filled with faith. He was the chairman of the Zionist organization and the Jewish National Fund for decades, and in later years, also of Bnot Zion. He founded a library at the outset of the founding of the Zionist organization in Sochaczew, and he served as its chairman. He guided it until it became the public “Jewish Library” of Sochaczew. He represented the community, founded an elementary school that would teach Hebrew in Hebrew that later became “The Hebrew School”, and he always covered its deficit, as well as the deficit of the synagogue. He was not absent from any place that there was communal activity.

The older Zionists, who joined Zionism along with him, almost abandoned it later. He pushed them off, “In any case – there is me”. Even the youth was under his influence. Each Sabbath, he gave a lecture on history or Zionism, and he educated a generation of young Zionists. In the later years, they took the Zionist activities into their own hands, without agreeing with the ideas and methodology of their teacher. He often became angry, but he retracted when they promised him that it was for the good of the land of Israel. He could not remain indifferent, and see how the “youth” conduct matters, without requiring his assistance…

Decades passed, and Simcha Grundwag remained a communal activist, an enthusiastic Zionist, leading communal activities in the manner of the era, with the Land of Israel being the object of his love. He lent support, made demands upon the youth, gave lectures, raised the level of national consciousness and knowledge, and educated a Zionistic generation that it should be fitting for the Land of Israel. He stood at the helm of all the battles against the Rebbe's court, which fought against Zionism.

His entire life was given to the Land of Israel, yet he never merited in seeing the Promised Land. His met a cruel death at the hands of the Nazi murderers in the Warsaw Ghetto.

I must also mention his son Nachum. We don't know what his end was. He followed a different path. He left communal affairs to his father, and he himself turned to the theater. He made his livelihood in a variety of ways – he worked in his father's store and he was a wagon driver, anything so as not to be dependent on anyone else; however he never moved from the stage. Thanks to him, a dramatic troupe was founded; the income of which was donated to communal matters.

He was often asked: “Nachum, come to The Land of Israel. With your talents and sense of humor, you will find your place in the Israeli theater.” However he also did not merit, but he did send his son to the land of hope, expecting to follow after him after he got settled…

This was the bitter fate of the Grundwag family.

Simcha Grundwag gave himself over to the Land of Israel, and gave his life in the ghetto. Even his son did not make aliya to the Land, only his grandson.

His letters to his grandson and great-grandson, and also to me, are filled with reverence and love for the land, and every one of them concluded with the words. “Oh, that I may merit to see you in the Land”…

{Photo page 694 – Reb Chanoch (Henech) Zaonz and his wife.}

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