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An Angel Called (Rav) Avraham

Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz's rescue and rebuilding activities came during a busy career of rabbinical responsibilities

Title: An Angel Called (Rav) Avraham
Location: Global
Document: Buffalo Evening Times
Time: 1926

Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz (1887–1964) is primarily remembered for his heroic rescue work during the Holocaust, including almost singlehandedly funding the Mir Yeshivah’s escape from Europe and its existence in Shanghai. But his rescue and rebuilding activities came during a busy career of rabbinical responsibilities.

His decades of leadership overlaid the tumultuous first half of the 20th century. Following his Torah education in Eyshishok, Slabodka, and Telz, Rav Avraham assumed his first rabbinical position in Rakov in 1913. World War I was the impetus for his lifelong engagement with rescue operations. Refugees fleeing the crosshairs of invading armies found a receptive home and heart with the young rav.

Following the Treaty of Riga in 1921, Rakov wound up in the newly independent Republic of Poland, on the border with the Soviet Union. As the rabbi of this border town, Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz emerged as an early activist for Soviet Jewry. He raised awareness of their physical needs and issued a clarion call warning of the decimation of their spiritual life under the Communists.

Over the course of the 1920s, the dynamic young rav with boundless energy moved into public service on a national scale. He assumed leading roles in the Vaad Hayeshivos, enjoying a close relationship with its titular leader Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzenski; and in Agudas Yisrael, where he was one of the youngest members of its Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah.

He also became known as a charismatic speaker. Mir rosh yeshivah Rav Leizer Yudel Finkel hired him as president and fundraiser in 1926. In this capacity, he began traversing Europe and the United States on fundraising missions. His renown as a respected talmid chacham and posek was also spreading; he was soon hired as rabbi of the much larger town of Tiktin (Tykocin), while also heading a kollel for young married scholars in the Warsaw suburb of Otwock under the aegis of the Vaad Hayeshivos and Mir Yeshivah.

Following the outbreak of World War II, he was dispatched to the United States to fundraise for the refugee Mir Yeshivah. That role soon expanded to funding the rescue of the Mir, and he rose to the helm of the nascent Vaad Hatzalah organization. In that capacity, his rescue efforts came to include all refugee yeshivos and stranded rabbis. Toward the end of the war, the Vaad broadened the scope of its rescue activities to cover general rescue of all Jews under Nazi occupation, and Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz was at the forefront of these last-ditch attempts.

After the war, Rav Kalmanowitz turned his energies to new projects, new initiatives, and a massive rebuilding effort. He was ultimately successful in bringing over the entire Mir Yeshivah from Shanghai to the United States, where he proceeded to procure a former Coast Guard base in the Rockaways to host the refugees. He ultimately built a yeshivah in Brooklyn, where it remains today. (He also helped raise funds for Mir Yerushalayim and Bais HaTalmud.) Vaad Hatzalah’s postwar operations turned to assisting survivors in the DP camps and helping them emigrate to various other countries.

At around the same time, Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz applied his prodigious energies to another crisis emerging in the Jewish world. In 1940, the Committee for the Forgotten Million had been established to provide social, economic, and spiritual help to Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East. In 1944, these initiatives were consolidated within the new Otzar HaTorah educational network established by Isaac Shalom of New York and Joseph Shamah of Jerusalem. Their ambitious goal was to create Torah-oriented schools in Sephardic communities worldwide that were rapidly secularizing. Isaac Shalom and his team raised part of the funding, with the balance coming from the Joint and other philanthropic organizations.

As the Vaad Hatzalah wound down its activities in Europe, the new Torah institutions it had created in France began to fill up with students arriving from Morocco, and Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz found his new calling. Joining forces with Otzar HaTorah, he encouraged many of its leading graduates to continue their studies in yeshivos worldwide, and especially facilitated the admission of many Moroccan yeshivah students to Mir Brooklyn. In 1947 he traveled to Morocco to oversee the activities of Otzar HaTorah and to expand its reach. Through his efforts in Morocco, Syria, and other Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East, he helped pave the way for a Torah renaissance in the Sephardic world.

Rakover Rav

Rav Avraham was a born leader; his strong personality and authoritative voice commanded the respect of Jew and gentile alike. I vividly remember one Motzaei Shabbos when a fire broke out in Titkin. Most of the houses were built of wood, so fire posed a great threat to the whole town.

The volunteer fire department, however, was extremely primitive. With the clanging of the fire bells, the volunteers came running. The Jewish firemen still seemed half asleep, despite it being long after their afternoon nap. The Polish firemen were half drunk, having taken a nip in advance of Sunday, the day when they would all become totally drunk.

Soon Rav Avraham, the rav of the town, appeared on the roof of a house near the blaze, his imposing figure illuminated by the leaping flames. Apparently, from that vantage point, he not only had a better view of the rescue operations, but by the movement of his tzitzis and his kapote, he could judge the direction of the wind.

Like a field marshal on a battlefield, he stood erect in his knee-high boots, which still glowed from their Erev Shabbos shine. His high velvet yarmulke was tilted to one side, and his hands were waving frantically. With a single command, he dismissed the fire chief and took personal charge. Pole and Jew alike obeyed his orders instantly. Amid the panic and confusion, the Rav stood out as a tower of calm stability and authority.

—Chaim Shapiro in the Jewish Observer,  March 1972


The Jews Are Burning!

A driven man, Rabbi Kalmanowitz always seemed breathless and pressed for time because he was consumed by the plight of the Jews of Europe. His briefcase always bulged with copies of letters and telegrams sent to government officials pleading for help in rescuing yeshivah students who were being murdered or left stranded and starving in the Soviet Union. The rabbi would go anywhere and meet anyone who could help Jews in distress.

Typical of his dedication was his response to the arrival in September 1943 of Shlomo Mikhoels, the actor and manager of the Moscow Jewish Theater, and Itzik Feffer, the Yiddish poet, both members of a Soviet-sponsored Anti-Fascist Committee, who were in America to enlist the financial support of American Jews in the fight against the Nazis (even though the Soviets had originally allied themselves with Hitler). With the assistance of Yiddish writer Sholem Asch, one of the most popular Yiddish novelists in the Jewish world and a darling of the Left, Rabbi Kalmanowitz hoped to meet Mikhoels and Feffer to ask that they intervene with the Soviet authorities on behalf of these yeshivah students.

Asch spent the summer in Saratoga Springs, New York, where Rabbis Kalmanowitz and Baruch went to see him. When Rav Kalmanowitz told Asch, “Zey farbrennen Yidn” (“They are burning Jews”), Asch revealed that he knew about the killings from anti-Nazi underground groups in Europe and from sources in France and other countries. He accused the New York Times and other publications in the West of refusing to publish this information without “sufficient proof,” making it extremely difficult for the general public to accept the truth. To emphasize the need for immediate action, Rav Kalmanowitz told Asch a well-known story from the Book of Kings (Kings II 6:30):

There once was a wicked king in Israel. When he was told his subjects were dying of starvation, he bared his chest and screamed. Our sages considered this king an evil man, but he still reacted with pain to the terrible news about his people. You can imagine what our sages would say about a man who knows what is happening to his fellow Jews and does nothing to help them.

Asch appeared so shaken by the power and force of this presentation that he pleaded, “Rebbe, Rebbe, hut rachmones! [Rabbi, Rabbi, have pity on me!)]” He suggested that the rabbi contact him through Alfred Knopf, his publisher in New York City, and he would arrange a meeting with Mikhoels and Feffer. Baruch took the telephone number, but despite repeated efforts, they never succeeded in making contact.

—Alex Grobman, Battling for Souls: The Vaad Hatzala Rescue Committee in Post-Holocaust Europe


We Have to Save Them!

The first time I saw Rabbi Kalmanowitz, I thought he looked just like a patriarch, with his long black coat and cloud-white beard, leaning on a cane. He seemed aged and feeble, and the tears were streaming down his cheeks as he said to me, “Can’t you understand? There are millions — millions! — being killed. We have to save them. Isn’t there something you can do, Mr. Celler?”

I tried to explain to this old Rabbi that I had been in touch with the president about the problem but that the bureaucratic wheels of government turn very slowly and the Rabbi would have to be patient.

Suddenly the old Rabbi became an angry, energetic firebrand. Pounding his cane on the floor, he insisted, “If six million cattle had been slaughtered, there would be greater concern. A way would have been found to protect them. But these are people. People! And they must be saved!”


—Congressman Emanuel Celler, To Save a World, by Dr. David Kranzler and Rabbi Eliezer Gevirtz


Built with Blood and Tears

“The simple and oldest story that is told about Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz ztz”l [is] when he built the building of Mir Yeshivah on Ocean Parkway with red brick.

“A balabos was standing outside, and he walked over to him and said, ‘Rabbi, you built a beautiful building, I see nice bricks and everything.’

“Rav Kalmanowitz responded, ‘My friend, you see nice red bricks. I see my blood and sweat [in] each and every brick that I had to collect money for.’

“So that was the feeling of Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz when he finally built the building that he worked and sweated for. But he didn’t just go for the yeshivah, for himself. He was known to go to Europe to assist the DPs, he brought Moroccan boys from Morocco [to the yeshivah]. He was part of the Syrian community. It didn’t matter, Moroccans, Syrians, chassidish, whatever it was, he did whatever he did day and night.

“I went to get semichah from Rav Kalmanowitz, and the only time he had to give the boys a farher was at four in the morning. You know what it’s like to wake up at four in the morning for a yeshivah boy to take a farher. Why? Because he just didn’t have time for anyone else except that early in the morning, because he was out there doing hatzalah [work] and everything else that was possible to do. Thats the lesson that I was brought up with.”

—Mr. Rubin Schron, responding to a question posed by the writers regarding the difficulties in raising money for Torah in America during the postwar years


Saving Sephardic Jewry

Dear President Eisenhower,

World Jewry in general, and I in particular, will never forget the telegram you, as Supreme Commander [of the Allied Forces in Europe], sent me in 1945. You gave such care and attention to the tortured survivors of the German concentration camps. Nor shall we forget your warning to the Germans on November 7, 1944, against further ill treatment of concentration camp victims, which was the means that saved the remnant of Jewry from final extinction. The present emergency, though it affects a smaller number, is not less grave.

With every fiber of my being, I beseech you to help, as only you, in your exalted position and with your intense human sympathy, can.

—Excerpted from Rav Kalmanowitz’s letter to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, beseeching him to help the beleaguered Jews of Syria and Egypt escape before it was too late


An Unlikely Partner

Morocco was far closer to America than Iran, being a mere four thousand miles away, compared to Iran’s seven-thousand-mile distance, so the [Otzar HaTorah] committee felt they might be in a position to exercise a more hands-on relationship with the first project in the Maghreb. So, they began talks about investigating a teaching staff. While discussing potential faculty, it became apparent to Isaac that, despite his zeal, and other abilities, he was not a professional educator. He needed an experienced academic administrator to oversee the teaching staff and of religious curriculum. He needed a pious man who was passionately dedicated to Jewish education. He needed Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz!

Since their mission in Washington, D.C. (where they had traveled one Shabbos in 1944 to see Sec. Morgenthau), Rabbi Kalmanowitz and Isaac Shalom had stayed in touch. At that time, the rabbi was the head of the Mir Yeshivah in New York City, but when he heard from Isaac, he knew his life was about to take a detour. A call from Isaac Shalom had the gravitas of fate knocking on the door. Still, when his old ally tried to recruit him, Rav Avraham offered some perfunctory protest.

“Who will take care of my yeshivah if I go? The budget rests on my shoulders.” Of course, Rabbi Kalmanowitz knew that whatever argument he presented was feeble.

“For as long as you are away, helping us fix our problems, I will personally underwrite the entire budget for your yeshivos in America and Palestine.”

Rabbi Kalmanowitz knew that what the prophet of Brooklyn wanted was exactly what was needed, the education of Jewish children. Few people saw the scope of the crisis as clearly as they did. They were simply destined to work together.

When Isaac offered to pay the yeshivah overhead, Rabbi Kalmanowitz laughed at how prepared Isaac always was, and the humble rabbi had no choice but to agree to come to Casablanca. With his presence, and the clergy he had personally trained in Poland, the Otzar HaTorah team was now complete. The Committee for the Forgotten Million found the buildings, the Joint Distribution Committee paid the overhead, and the hero of Livni was there to set up the religious element of the education program and provide personnel.

Rabbi Avraham Kalmanowitz was Ashkenazi, and Isaac Shalom, Sephardic. The cultural milieus in which they were raised were quite different. One was European and spoke Yiddish, while the other was Middle Eastern and spoke Arabic. There was great divergence in their diets, dress, and tonsorial applications. They sang their prayers with different melodies. The rabbi always dressed in black, wore wide brimmed hats, and had a long beard. The other was clean-shaven and dressed like a typical Westerner. Standing side by side, they did not look as if they belonged to the same tribe.

But these were not men who dwelt on differences. These were individuals who focused on the positive. They were both observant, rising early and reciting morning devotions. They prayed over their kosher food, fasted when required, and recited evening prayers. They honored the Sabbath and all religious holidays. They both practiced Judaism in a manner befitting full-time Jews, dedicated to the institutions of their forefathers characterized as Orthodox.

And beyond personal observance, they were both actively committed to their faith and people. Religiously, politically and socially, and to the preservation of Torah. All of this qualified them to be on the Otzar HaTorah starting line-up. They were involved in Operation Save Judaism with the weight of six thousand years on their shoulders. They knew failure was not an option.

—Excerpted from Keeper of the Flame: The Life and Times of Isaac Shalom, by Isaac Richard Shalom and Jeffrey Michael Beal


Not Just Another Undertaking

“How can you leave the yeshivah just eight months after it has settled in America?” they asked Rav Avraham. “For seven years you have watched over the yeshivah, agonizing over its plight and sustaining it like a mother sustains her child. Now you are embarking on another rescue effort?”

Rav Avraham was preparing to undertake another massive project, saving the Torah in Sephardic communities in Arab lands. In the summer of 1947, just a few months after the Mirrer Yeshivah had arrived in America, Rav Avraham set off to Morocco in a concerted effort to preserve Moroccan Jewry and to establish Torah chinuch there.

Rav Avraham’s response was characteristic in its far-reaching vision. “You think the yeshivah will lose out if I divert my energies to other projects? That is a very short-range view of things. Anyone with long-range vision would realize that Sephardic Jews will one day be the primary supporters of Torah. [These words were spoken at a time when most Sephardim worldwide were living in abject poverty.]

“Why did I decide to embark on this project now?” Rav Avraham continued. “The bitter answer is that Hitler made sure that virtually an entire generation of our [Ashkenazic] children was slaughtered. There are almost none left. The Sephardic Jews, baruch Hashem, were not decimated. An entire generation of Sephardic Jewish children exists. Let us save these children for Hashem and His Torah!”

Excerpted from ArtScroll’s A Blazing Light in the Darkness by Rabbi Avrohom Birnbaum


“I Could Have Done More”

Rav Avraham’s son-in-law Rav Elya Svei related that on the final Shabbos of his life, he lay in bed holding the sefer Shaarei Teshuvah of Rabbeinu Yonah in his hands. As he lay there reading the words of Rabbeinu Yonah — “A person whom Hashem has endowed with understanding must constantly contemplate the fact that Hashem has sent him into this world on a mission to keep His mitzvos and watch over himself so as not to transgress. For his entire life, he cannot cease to focus on performing that mission” — he began to cry, tears streaming down his cheeks.

The Rav cried because he feared that perhaps he had not properly devoted himself to that mission. He, who was responsible for saving the continuity of the Torah in the post-World War II Torah world by saving the Mirrer Yeshivah and numerous Torah authorities, felt that perhaps he was remiss in accomplishing his mission. He, who almost single-handedly saved large segments of Sephardic Jewry from spiritual and physical destruction, felt that perhaps he could have done more. He, whose every waking moment was devoted to standing watch over the “vineyard of Hashem” so that the Torah and mesorah remained intact, was gripped with fear while lying in his hospital bed in Miami thinking, “I could have done more.”


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 999)

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