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Always a Pressburger

JUST KEEP GIVING Rabbi Cohn 88 still radiates the strength of a forest warrior although over the years he’s channeled his kochos into other areas of community service (Photos: Shulim Goldring)

I t was a chilly day exactly 75 years ago when Rabbi Romi (Avraham) Cohn was a 13-year-old setting out on an escape route from his hometown of Pressburg across the Slovakian border into Hungary — a trek that set a pattern for the bravery smarts and cunning that would accompany him throughout the war years and beyond. Many readers are no doubt familiar with his captivating story of survival as told in The Youngest Partisan (ArtScroll/Mesorah) — the account of a daring teenager who sneaked across borders financed Jews in hiding under the noses of the Germans and fought Nazi troops with a partisan brigade in the snow-covered forests of the Tatra Mountains.

Rabbi Cohn 88 still radiates the strength of a forest warrior although over the years he’s channeled his kochos into other areas of community service: He’s one of New York’s foremost mohelim (he’s conducted 35 000 brissim and represented the American Board of Ritual Circumcision at recent governmental bris-milah hearings); he’s the author of Bris Avrohom HaKohein — a definitive sefer on the halachos and minhagim of bris milah; he’s a wealthy contractor who has taken upon himself the support of up-and-coming gedolei Torah; he became the driver confidant and diary documenter of the holy Ribnitzer Rebbe; and he was the man responsible for salvaging and renovating the burial grounds of the Chasam Sofer in Bratislava (known as Pressburg in German).

Yet in speaking of any of his accomplishments the conversation will always return to those transformational early years of survival that molded his life. “In order to know where I am going ” he tells Mishpacha today “I need to remember where I come from. No matter where I am today or what I’ve done, ich bin a Pressburger.”


Borrowed Time

Avraham “Romi” Cohn was nine years old when the Germans invaded his native Pressburg Czechoslovakia in 1938. Because his father Yom Tov (Leopold) Cohn was a wealthy businessman involved in international commerce the family was granted an “economic exemption” during the mass deportations of Slovakian Jews in 1942 to the death camps of Auschwitz Majdanek and Treblinka. However as the war raged on they realized that staying in Czechoslovakia meant their days were numbered and so they made plans to steal across the border to Hungary which would not see the Nazi invasion for another two years.

“My parents told me that we had to be ready to die al kiddush Hashem but they prayed for one thing: that Hashem leave at least one family member alive to recite Kaddish for the rest of the family and perpetuate their memory. My parents found a smuggler who for a huge sum of money helped people escape through a tunnel network and because I was the oldest they decided to send me.”

Young Romi made it into Hungary and initially stayed with relatives while enrolling in a local yeshivah in the town of Yarmot but it was close to the border and the Hungarian police were constantly looking for refugees in the area whom they promptly handed back to the Slovakian border guards. The Hungarian Jews themselves weren’t keen on harboring refugees either fearing for their own safety and protection (and generally not believing that in another two years they too would be deported to Auschwitz).

Eventually Romi’s parents and sisters managed to cross the border too and although he was soon reunited with his father in Budapest his mother and sisters were taken prisoner (his mother didn’t survive but his two sisters did passing themselves off as gentiles until the war was over). Romi meanwhile traveled from one yeshivah to the next as no local Jews and no institutions were willing to take him in — until he came to the Pupa Rebbe Rav Yosef Grunwald who guaranteed to protect him.

Decades later Rabbi Cohn says that the time in the Pupa yeshivah was a landmark in his personal development. He remained there from the end of 1942 until March 1944 when the Nazis invaded Hungary and within mere weeks sent close to half a million Jews to their deaths.

Hungary was no longer a haven, but Nazi oppression in Slovakia had lost its intensity after the deportations of 1942 (Slovakia was separated from Czechoslovakia as an independent state with the help of Nazi Germany in 1940 and graciously did the Reich’s bidding, although it wasn’t overrun by Germany until 1944), and so Romi decided to cross the border again and return to his native country — only this time with false papers his father managed to procure, under an assumed identity of a Christian named Jan Kovic. Once over the border, Rami joined the Nitra yeshivah under the protection of Rav Michoel Ber Weissmandl, who had organized underground bunkers and shelters and kept the yeshivah going until just a few months before the end of the war. The yeshiva was dubbed “the Vatican” because it had extraterritorial status, thanks to a precarious agreement that Rav Weissmandl reached with the authorities. Many rabbanim and refugees sought a safe haven in the yeshivah, and initially, the Nazis didn’t enter.

“When Slovakia was overrun by the Nazis around Rosh Hashanah of 1944, I realized that in Nitra, we were living on borrowed time, that at some point the Nazis would violate the agreement. I couldn’t stay in the yeshivah and just wait for the Germans to come for me.” At that point, Romi left Nitra and traveled to nearby Pressburg to organize official papers for himself.

“The next day,” he remembers, “the Nazis entered the ‘Vatican’ and took everyone to Auschwitz, except for about 20 talmidim who hid in the underground bunkers.” [Rav Weissmandl escaped and survived the war, eventually rebuilding the yeshivah in the US.]

Meanwhile Romi — under the Christian persona of Jan Kovic — linked up with the underground and used cunning and connections to finance lodgings and documents for other Jews hiding in Pressburg, creating a veritable network of support for them — until he got onto the Gestapo’s radar and the net closed in on him. In a daring escape from their clutches, he fled to the mountains and joined a partisan brigade (where he was given a gun by his commander, although the rule for the others was that guns only come from murdered Germans).


Good for the Business

Romi Cohn was just 16 when the war ended, and his time with the partisans made it clear to him that life would always be about fighting against evil. He returned to Slovakia a war hero with a gun and a collar of medals, but his first order of business was to return to Pressburg and look for any family that may have survived the horrors of the last years. He was overjoyed to discover that two of his sisters, Chana and Sarah, were alive, but what of the rest?

“I heard about a transport of refugees that was expected to arrive in Pressburg,” Rabbi Cohn says. “So I went to the train station and waited to see a familiar face. The car doors opened and hundreds of people poured out, but there was no one from my family. A few days later, I heard that another transport was slated to arrive. Again I waited on the platform, again the stream of people, and again, none of them were from my family. Each time I heard that a train of refugees was headed to Pressburg, I went to the station, and each time my hopes were dashed.

“But then I recognized my neighbor emerging from the train and I was horrified: This formerly strapping, strong man was nothing more than a sack of bones. I asked him if he perhaps had seen my father, and he told me that he had been together with him in Mathausen, but that I should have no expectations that my father had survived the camps. When I heard this, I no longer went to the station. To distract myself, I tried my hand at a business venture.”

Rabbi Cohn made his first foray into business by obtaining a truck and smuggling matches, sugar, and whiskey across the border from Pressburg to Hungary, where they sold for several times the price. With a wad of cash in his pocket, he went to town to buy a new hat.

“As I was walking, I saw a Jew who looked like a walking skeleton. He was still wearing his striped prisoner’s clothes, and he was so weak that he was gripping an electric pole so he shouldn’t collapse. I looked at him and thought, Yimach shemam vezichram — look what the Nazis did to this man. As I walked past this pathetic figure, I heard a weak voice calling my name. That voice! But it was a body I didn’t recognize… until it clicked. This man who looked like he’d just stepped out of the Other Side was my father.

“I went over to him and began to weep — from pain and joy together. He had a black scar down the middle of his head, and I took him into my arms and brought him to a private clinic in Pressburg, where I knew he’d get better care than in the overcrowded, understaffed public facilities. After a few weeks, he was literally brought back to life, and began to regain his strength.”

For the next two years, Romi, his father, and two surviving sisters rebuilt a semblance of family, and Romi and his father were able to grow their business to the extent that they were considered wealthy. In 1948, Leopold Cohn — who had once again become a leader of the community — was invited to the US as a delegate to the Agudath Israel convention. But just a week after his arrival, the Communists seized power Czechoslovakia, and Romi told his father to stay put. Two years later, after securing his business assets and assisting other kehillah members with the help of some high-level government contacts he’d cultivated, he joined his father.

When he arrived in the US, Romi Cohn was just 21 years old and spoke no English. But that didn’t stop him from eventually establishing a successful construction company (he built 3,500 homes in Staten Island) through which he was blessed with assets and wealth. But that was never enough for the man who had spent the war years dodging Nazi bullets, assisting his hapless fellow Jews, and fighting the Nazis in the frozen forests. One way he could give back was by becoming a mohel and then a teacher of mohelim — bringing Jewish babies into a covenant of Jewish eternity.


Into the Covenant

A mini aron kodesh adorns the eastern wall of Rabbi Cohn’s office in his well-appointed Boro Park home. Inside is a special sefer Torah he had commissioned from the mekubal and sofer Rav Fishel Eisenbach ztz”l, Rosh Yeshivas Hamekubalim Shaar Hashamayim in Jerusalem.

“I gave the sefer Torah to the Ribnitzer Rebbe ztz”l, who read from it until he passed away,” says Rabbi Cohen, recalling the years he spent with the miracle-worker rebbe from Russia, whom he’d initially met on a visit to Jerusalem.

Soon after Rabbi Cohn returned to America with his new-found inspiration, word spread that this mysterious tzaddik would be relocating to New York.

“People vied for the zechus to use him as mohel, but he needed milah tools, so someone contacted me. I joined the Rebbe at the bris he was performing and shared my keilim,” Rabbi Cohn told Mishpacha in a separate interview two years ago, about the diary he’d compiled on his life with the Ribnitzer Rebbe.

Rabbi Cohn, expert mohel in his own right, looked closely at the Ribnitzer’s handiwork — and felt there was something wrong: The job was somewhat imperfect. So he decided that the next day he’d pay a visit to the family, ostensibly to check on the baby, but really, to finish the job.

“The next day, I went to the child’s home, and they recognized that I’d assisted the Rebbe by the bris and let me in. I was astounded. The bris was perfect. It was extraordinary.” From there, Rabbi Cohn went straight to the Rebbe. “Nu? Hust gezehn? Bist tzefriden? You saw the bris? Are you satisfied now?” the Rebbe said to him. After that, there were no more questions, just an awe-struck talmid and his mystical mentor — they did over 200 brissim together.

Rabbi Cohn says he knew milah was his calling from the time he was a child in Pressburg, enthralled with the work of a family friend and mohel named Reb Yisrael Stern.

“I used to follow him to every bris and learned the skill. When I came to America, I continued to keep track of mohelim and their work. I’d identify a mohel not by his face, but by the way he sharpened his nail.” Ten years later, Rabbi Cohn became an active mohel, and in the ensuing decades, has trained over a hundred students.

But one thing he’s always been strict about: Milah would never be a form of parnassah.

“When someone comes to learn milah under me, I ask him: Why do you want to learn this? If he tells me, ‘I’m a maggid shiur and I want to make a bit of money on the side,’ I tell him, ‘If you want to make more parnassah, become a contractor like me. Lots of people come and learn from me how to be a successful contractor, how to build buildings. That’s where the money is. But brissim you do for free — you don’t take money for holy work.’ None of my students charge for their work. Some of them will accept it when pressed by the family, but I don’t take a penny even if they try to force it on me. Some people will try to push as much as $2,000 on me, to show how much they value the mitzvah, but I tell them, ‘not by me.’

“By the Ribnitzer Rebbe,” Rabbi Cohn continues, “if someone wanted to pay him he would say, ‘Keep the money and do me a favor — don’t even tell me yasher koach, because your yasher koach will reduce some of the magnitude of my mitzvah. He told me that in Moldova, he would often travel all night through the dense forests in order to give a bris to a Jewish child in some remote location.”

For many years, Rabbi Cohn would do up to 12 brissim a day; for 24 years he worked as a mohel in a New York hospital, and he also performed about 15,000 brissim for adults, in addition to 35,000 babies.

“Each one of them is like my own child,” he says — a statement that carried special significance, as Rabbi Cohn himself was never blessed with children.


Getting Eternity

If each one of those babies is like a child to Rabbi Cohn, so are the dozens of yungeleit who have benefited from his forward thinking for the klal through the Keren Avraham Cohn, Rabbi Cohen’s private fund that has already aided dozens of top-tier Torah scholars. The fund provides a monetary prize of $35,000 to two promising Torah scholars each year, paid out over a five-year period of intense study.

“When a person has children,” he reveals, “he leaves behind a generation that gives him eternal merit. You know, I never merited to have children of my own, and I deliberated for years about how I too could achieve that merit. At first I thought of establishing a chesed foundation, but then I saw that all these funds close after a few years. Then I thought, perhaps I would donate a building to a yeshivah. But one day, I passed by a building in Jerusalem that had a sign ‘Yeshivas So and So,’ with an inscription commemorating the Jew who had donated the building a hundred years earlier as an everlasting memorial. I entered to see who was learning there — well, the building was occupied, but there were no bochurim sitting and learning. So a man left a building but it was no longer a yeshivah.

“I wondered what else I could do, and then I realized that there are so many great talmidei chachamim imbued with so much Torah, but they spend their whole lives in kollel… until they’re carried out in a tallis. They never reach hora’ah, dayanus or rabbanus because their father isn’t a rav and their father-in-law isn’t a rosh yeshivah. So I decided to establish a fund that would encourage the growth of the gedolim of the coming generations. The point is to encourage brilliant avreichim who don’t come from a prestigious background, whose fathers are not rabbanim.”


Midnight Rescue

For all his philanthropy and communal askanus, Rabbi Cohn says that his most meaningful personal accomplishment is the merit he had in saving and refurbishing the tziyun of the Chasam Sofer — the spiritual father of Hungarian Jews. As he always says, “Ich bin a Pressburger.”

The Chasam Sofer, zy”a, passed away on 25 Tishrei 5600/1839, at the age of 72 and was buried in the ancient cemetery in Pressburg — the city from which he disseminated Torah to the rest of the Jewish world. For 103 years, the Chasam Sofer’s burial place drew the Jews of Slovakia and Hungary, until the Nazi takeover of the city. Pressburg was a city of great strategic importance, because the Danube River — which begins in Germany, crosses through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, and the Ukraine — bisects the city lengthwise on the river’s way to the Black Sea. The ancient cemetery was situated on the bank of the river, but at the end of the winter when the snow melted, the water would flood the main highway that followed the river, and the cemetery as well. (In one of his derashos, the Chasam Sofer referred to the regular flooding of the beis hachaim and subsequent damage to the graves).

In 1942, the Nazi-backed new Slovakian government ordered the entire cemetery be cleared in order to elevate the road by 12 feet. The local Chevra Kaddisha did not dare object, and worked quickly to clear all the gravesites, leaving the section of the rabbanim, where the Chasam Sofer is buried, for the last.

This was right before the deportations, when the Jews were stripped of all their assets and possessions. Everyone was forced to give over their silver, jewelry and any other valuables — even wedding bands, and anyone who was found to harbor his possessions was shot.

But one Jew held onto a sack of possessions, which led to the preservation of the Chasam Sofer’s kever.

“Here in Boro Park, I used to daven by Rav Moshe Stern, the Debrecener Rav,” Rabbi Cohn explains. “One day Rav Stern told me about a Yid named Avraham Reichner, whose father was the head of the Chevra Kaddisha in Pressburg. Reichner testified in the name of his father that the night before the Chevra Kaddisha was supposed to clear the tziyun of the Chasam Sofer, a Jew came to him with a sack of valuables worth a small fortune. ‘Take the sack and do everything possible to ensure that the Chasam Sofer’s tziyun isn’t destroyed,’ he told the elder Reichner.

“Reichner’s son related that his father was distraught: A stranger comes in the middle of the night with a sack of silver items and demands to violate the orders of the Nazis. ‘If they catch us,’ he said, ‘they’ll shoot us both. Take back the sack, please.’ But the stranger insisted, left the sack and disappeared, repeating ‘Do everything possible to ensure that the tziyun is not violated!’ before he fled into the night.”

That night Reichner couldn’t sleep. The next day, he took both the silver items and an additional large sum of money that the Chevra Kaddisha had accumulated over 200 years, and went to the Slovakian prime minister, who worked for the Nazis. The prime minister couldn’t resist the bribe, and the plans were changed. Instead of clearing the section where the Chasam Sofer is buried (there are an additional 23 graves of rabbanim in the section), a thick layer of concrete was poured on top, and train tracks were laid over it. Reichner and his staff, however, made sure that there would be access to the tziyun nonetheless, by crawling through a low-ceilinged tunnel they quickly constructed. True, trains were rumbling on top, but the gravesite was preserved.

After the war, Pressburg/Bratislava fell under Communist occupation until 1991, when the Soviet Union fell apart and a democratic government was established in Slovakia. This development reignited the dream of the followers of the Chasam Sofer to return to Pressburg and restore the glory of the gravesite.

“One day, a delegation of Jews from Lugarno arrived in my office,” says Rabbi Cohn. “They were emissaries of Rav Simcha Bunim Schreiber, the son of Rav Akiva Sofer, the great-grandson of the Chasam Sofer (and known as the Daas Sofer). Rav Simchah Bunim had sent them to ask me to get involved in saving the kever of the Chasam Sofer from great shame. But I told them, ‘My friends, the train tracks pass right over the kever, and to demand of the Slovakian government to change the route of the tracks is just an impractical dream — clearing out a train station and moving tracks? It’s just impossible.’ ”

But the delegation didn’t take no for an answer.

“So I went to work,” Rabbi Cohn recalls. “I called a gathering in the home of Rav Simchah Bunim Ehrenfeld, the Mattersdorfer Rav in America. I said I was ready to work, but that it would cost a lot of money, and it would be extremely undignified to schnorr money for the kever of the Chasam Sofer. I said, ‘Let’s try to put $100,000 dollars on the table — then we can begin and see what can be done.’ In four minutes, the money was on the table. Everyone there gave $20,000 dollars.

“Now I realized that I had to contact the Slovakian government,” Rabbi Cohn describes the process. “Rabbi Moshe Sherer of Agudah helped me out, and we were able to contact the Slovakian ambassador to the United States and tell him that the US was interested in renovating the gravesite. Fortunately, the ambassador agreed to help. We arranged to get a letter from the mayor of New York to the mayor of Bratislava, asking him to work on renovating the tomb of the great Jewish sage. Meanwhile, unconnected to this, I received a message from the government in Bratislava: They wanted me to participate in a ceremony in appreciation for World War II heroes. They wanted to give me a medal. Well, talk about timing — what could be a better opportunity to speak to the government about saving the gravesite than that? Hashem helped, and despite the many anxieties and setbacks we had, the Slovaks kept their word. A short time later, the train station was cleared away and the tracks were moved.”

The group traveled to Pressburg, cleared the ground and erected a dignified ohel over the gravesite. But Rabbi Cohn says there was one piece missing — that anonymous Jew who held onto his valuables at the risk of death, in whose merit the kever was saved.

“We had no idea who he was, but he was the most important person in the story. Reichner’s father had already passed away, and he had been the only source of information. So I decided to do some investigating on my own: I knew he had a business in Pressburg before the war and thought that perhaps I could find some memory of his name, some pictures, something. But nothing came up, and I shelved my dream to make a memorial to this man of mesirush nefesh.”

More than a decade passed.

“I was sitting here in my office, when a UPS deliveryman threw a package at the door,” Rabbi Cohn recounts. “I bent down and took the package, and saw that it came from Columbus, Ohio. The sender was a Chabad shaliach named Rabbi Aryeh Keltman, whose father, Reb Yosef Keltman, learned with me together in cheder in Pressburg. Now this shaliach, Rabbi Keltman, likes to collect old seforim and antiques, and in his hunt, he he came across an old sefer Mishnayos. When he saw in the inscription that the sefer came from Pressburg, he purchased it for a few dollars and sent it to me, a gift to his father’s childhood friend.

“I opened the sefer somewhat curiously, when suddenly, I saw what I’d been looking for for a decade. In the flyleaf there was a stamp that read: Moshe Aryeh Watitz, Pressburg. This sefer is mine, and if it gets lost it is because of the decree of 5702.

“I had no doubt about what this was referring to: This was the man who gave all his assets to save the kever of the Chasam Sofer. The ‘decree of 5702’ that he was referring to was the decision of the Nazis to clear the gravesite for which he had given away his fortune. He and his entire family were murdered, but his merit lives on. Who would think we’d get ‘regards’ from him in the flyleaf of a sefer?”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 684)

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