Rabbi David Skulski’s mission to collect every scrap of Holocaust testimony
Following the advice of the Imrei Emes of Gur, Rabbi David Skulski’s father got his family out of prewar Poland and into Eretz Yisrael just in the nick of time. Growing up in Jerusalem, David Skulski’s heart and mind remained connected to the Jews of Europe who weren’t as fortunate as his family was. For the past half-century, Rabbi Skulski has dedicated his life to perpetuating the memories of the religious Holocaust victims and survivors, and in the process, has amassed a treasure trove of documentation showing how Jews gave their lives al kiddush Hashem as spiritual lions and not as lambs led to the slaughter
Only on rare occasions would Rabbi David Skulski’s uncle agree to recount his personal saga of how he survived the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz. The deprivation. The starvation. The cruelty. The fear of imminent death. The incomparable grief of seeing other Jews suffer physically and spiritually.
So on one such occasion, when his uncle opened up, young David listened intently for nearly three hours.
“Afterward, my uncle asked me, ‘David, do you believe the stories I just told you?’ ” Rabbi Skulski recalls.
“I replied, ‘What’s the question? Of course I believe you.’ ”
“Well, I myself don’t believe it’s possible that I experienced all this and still remained a human being,” his uncle said.
This riveting conversation — etched into Rabbi Skulski’s memory to this day — went one step further.
“David,” his uncle asked, “who was the biggest enemy of the Jews in the Holocaust?”
David said Hitler. His uncle said no. David guessed again.
“The commandant of Auschwitz?”
“No,” replied his uncle. “My biggest enemy was seeing the bottom of the food pot when it was empty.”
The story has a postscript that Rabbi Skulski takes to heart every day when he wakes up. “David, when I get up every morning and say Modeh Ani, I say it with a difference. In Auschwitz, I was as good as dead. I would wake up thinking, ‘How could I possibly survive another day?’ Just being able to say Modeh Ani was like receiving a new gift. David, remember — every day is a new gift.”
More than 60 years have passed since David Skulski heard this story, which influenced the course of his life forever.
Giving up an apprenticeship in his father-in-law’s diamond polishing business (“It didn’t speak to me,” Rabbi Skulski said), he instead grasped the opportunity to perpetuate the memories of religious Holocaust victims by telling their often untold and underestimated stories.
After almost 50 years of research — 40 of them as director of the Ganzach Kiddush Hashem in Bnei Brak — Rabbi Skulski and a team of dedicated archivists have documented the collective memories of thousands of Jews whose neshamos shined until their final breath with the luster of a mesirus nefesh that belied the condition of their emaciated frames.
The Ganzach Kiddush Hashem documents their stories through artifacts, photos, personal testimonies on videos, and books, making them accessible to the general public and to researchers through publications, teacher training, study sessions, conferences, and social media. The existence of the Ganzach itself demonstrates powerfully that no matter how brutal our enemies, and no matter how close we get to the brink of outright annihilation, no human force is stronger than the gevurah of Jews who adhere to their emunah in Hashem despite all suffering.
“We should never feel that we were led like sheep to the slaughter,” Rabbi Skulski said. “Our hearts clung to the ways of Hashem. That’s what drives a Jew. The Nazis want to nullify the mitzvos, but the Jews davka want to keep them. That was our way to fight. Did we have ammunition? Yes. The fight was in our hearts.”
The Crown Jewel
Soon to become a full-fledged museum, the Ganzach was founded in the 1960s by Rabbi Moshe Prager, a journalist from Poland whose parents were Gerrer chassidim and followers of the Imrei Emes. Rabbi Prager was one of the Jewish world’s leading authors and Holocaust historians, dedicating the bulk of his career to interviewing and documenting stories from religious Holocaust survivors.
Rabbi Prager didn’t live long enough to realize his dream of establishing a permanent home for a museum. Until the new facility (already under construction) is built, the Ganzach is headquartered on the upper two stories of the Gerrer Beis HaTalmud L’horaah on Harav Meltzer Street in Bnei Brak.
One could be excused for passing by the building and having no concept of the historical treasures stored inside. Tall green hedges that provide shade for the building wilt in the summer’s heat and humidity. A colorful advertisement for Tadiran air conditioners, posted on a community billboard across the street, is certainly apropos.
Inside the Ganzach, the air conditioning is cranked up, especially in the upstairs laboratory where aging, yellowed, and sometimes partially shredded documents, books, and newspaper clippings are carefully restored, catalogued, and scanned.
Some 40,000 books are packed into a modest space of some 3,000 square feet. Much of the material was obtained from collections in Europe, while other keepsakes came from individuals who survived the Holocaust on the run, or in various hideouts.
One of the most haunting exhibits is a blue-and-white striped uniform worn by a prisoner in Auschwitz. Other items include personal effects that Jews smuggled into the concentration camps at the risk of death. These include wooden dreidels, a shofar the size of the palm of one’s hand, a tiny mezuzah cover the size of a screw, a kamaya (amulet), and Rabbi Skulski’s personal favorite, tefillin boxes measuring less than half an inch in every dimension.
“Everyone who sees them, whether religious or not, is completely overwhelmed,” Rabbi Skulski said. “There were tiny parchments inside, and the donor took them out and brought them to us for preservation.”
The Ganzach stores some 300,000 photographs in its digitized database, but its crown jewel is some 2,500 recorded testimonies — videos of Holocaust survivors. Most, but not all, were taken from chareidi survivors, in Israel, North America, and England. While there are probably fewer than 200,000 Holocaust survivors alive today, and the passage of time has blurred memories, the Ganzach still manages to find an average of two new people a week to interview.
The Ganzach retains a crew of interviewers who underwent special training with Yad Vashem and the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive. It’s always a challenge to ferret out the remaining stories embedded deep inside the memory banks of so many Holocaust survivors.
“We tell the survivors we’re not doing this for us, or for our archives, but to raise a better-educated young generation,” says Rachel Yud, chairperson of the Ganzach, who helps Rabbi Skulski direct both day-to-day activities and the long-term plans for the museum.
What the Beis Yisrael Taught Me
Rabbi Skulski’s “office” consists of a simple desk at the end of a room he shares with the Ganzach’s eight archivists and a small staff of dedicated workers, including his son and a nephew. Rabbi Skulski is a masterful storyteller, gifted with the ability to command your attention in a kind and self-effacing way, although he is quite passionate about what he holds dear. These personality traits are typical of the “Yerushalmim” of yesteryear and are inborn from chassidishe yichus.
Rabbi Skulski was born in Jerusalem in 1943, some six years after his parents — both Gerrer chassidim — left Lodz for Eretz Yisrael. The path for Gerrer chassidim to Eretz Yisrael was paved some 20 years earlier, when the Gerrer Rebbe of that era — Rav Avraham Mordechai Alter ztz”l, the Imrei Emes — established a Gerrer yeshivah in Machaneh Yehudah that was named after his father, the Sfas Emes ztz”l.
The desire and love for Eretz Yisrael burned brightly in the Gerrer shtibel in Lodz, where Rabbi Skulski’s father Yossel davened.
“The shtibel nayes was always that one day, the Rebbe himself would move to Eretz Yisrael,” Rabbi Skulski says. “My father heard this all the time as a child. He would come home and tell my grandfather, ‘I also want to move to Eretz Yisrael.’
“My grandfather would reply, ‘When you get older, you’ll do what you want.’ ”
Shortly after Rabbi Skulski’s father married in 1932, he attempted to convince his wife to accompany him to Eretz Yisrael, but it was a hard sell. While Rabbi Skulski’s mother shared her husband’s love of Eretz Yisrael, she felt torn. She was the only girl in her family, and her parents worried about the precarious security situation of the yishuv during the British Mandate. Not that Poland was the safest place for Jews, but there was comfort level with the familiar.
“There is an allegory that if there is a worm in the middle of a radish, it must mean the radish is good,” said Rabbi Skulski. “Yes, there was anti-Semitism in Poland, but everyone lived together. The worm, in the allegory, was the Jews. The inside of the radish tasted sweet to them. One day, though, my father came home very excited. He had asked the Imrei Emes about moving to Israel, and he said yes, although he advised making a ‘pilot trip’ first.”
On that pilot trip in 1934, Yossel Skulski opened a bakery on Rechov Agrippas to give himself some parnassah once he arrived.
Yossel’s father-in-law, seeing this might be his last chance to keep his daughter close by, traveled to Warsaw to see the Imrei Emes. The Rebbe listened carefully to his concerns. At the end, the Rebbe shook his hand and left him with the words, “You must speak to her heart.”
The father-in-law returned to Lodz to speak to his daughter’s heart and to try and convince her to stay in Poland.
But he had also shared the Rebbe’s words with the shtibel upon his return to Lodz and the kehillah members interpreted the Rebbe’s advice differently.
“Word got around that the Rebbe said about my mother that ‘you must speak to her heart,’ ” Rabbi Skulski says in relating his family’s story. “The Rebbe didn’t say who should do it, so everyone thought they had to be the ones.”
“A day or two later, a pair of yungeleit knocked on the Skulskis’ door, telling my mother that Eretz Yisrael is a land of milk and honey. Another pair arrived the next day, quoting the Chazal that he who lives in Eretz Yisrael has a G-d, and he who lives in chutz l’Aretz doesn’t.
“So my mother said, if this is what the Rebbe meant, then I can’t hold back,” Rabbi Skulski said.
The Skulskis moved to Eretz Yisrael in 1937, two years before Germany invaded Poland at the outbreak of World War II.
“I’m alive today in their merit,” Rabbi Skulski said.
Three years later, the Imrei Emes himself escaped Warsaw for Eretz Yisrael. The Imrei Emes was niftar in 1948, but it was the next Rebbe, the Imrei Emes’s son — Rav Yisrael Alter, known as the Beis Yisrael — who exerted an ongoing influence on the Skulski family, especially young David. David grew up in the Beis Yisrael’s shadow, literally and figuratively, on David Yellin Street in Geula, separated only by a courtyard wall.
“When I was 11 or 12, my mother sent me outside with the garbage. I opened the door and the Beis Yisrael was in his courtyard. He saw me and called me over. I didn’t want to go see him with a pail of garbage in my hand, so I set it down. The Rebbe said, ‘No, come with the pail,’ and I did. ‘You’re doing a mitzvah,’ he said. ‘Be embarrassed by aveiros, not by mitzvos.’ That’s a lesson I carried with me all my life.”
On another occasion, the Eitz Chaim Talmud Torah, in which Rabbi Skulski learned, was in the midst of a fundraising campaign when he came home after the afternoon recess.
“The Beis Yisrael saw me and said, ‘You’re of bar-mitzvah age now, so you have to assist with this mitzvah. I want to give you a donation, and you will be responsible for delivering the money.’ ”
Once inside the Beis Yisrael’s home, the Rebbe left for a different room, returning with a small safe, which Rabbi Skulski remembers containing a stack of five-lira notes.
“He counted out five of them, one at a time. He counted the bills from one to five, three times, before handing them to me and asking me to count them myself. When I showed surprise, he said, ‘Money is something that needs counting.’ ”
Rabbi Skulski counted for himself and placed the money in his jacket pocket.
“Carry money in your pants pocket, not your jacket,” said the Rebbe. “It’s safer there.”
Armed with the practical wisdom he received from the Beis Yisrael and his formal chinuch at Yeshivas Sfas Emes in Jerusalem, Rabbi Skulski set out on his own course.
In 1964, he married the granddaughter of Rav Yehuda Leib HaLevi Ashlag ztz”l, a landsman from Lodz and the author of the Baal Hasulam peirush on the Zohar.
Rav Ashlag lived in Bnei Brak, so the Skulskis set up their home there. Rabbi Skulski was learning in the Gerrer Kollel, in its former facility on Rabi Akiva Street, when he became a shaliach for a mitzvah that changed his life.
One day, the menahel of the kollel, knowing that Rabbi Skulski lived near Rabbi Moshe Prager, asked Rabbi Skulski to hand-deliver a letter to Rabbi Prager.
“I knocked on the door and Rabbi Prager asked me, ‘Who are you?’ I introduced myself. He said, ‘How are you related to Yossel Skulski?’ I said I’m his son.”
Once he discovered that Rabbi Skulski was learning in his kollel, Rabbi Prager probed deeper: “Tell me, what do you think about my kollel?”
Rabbi Skulski thought this was an odd question. Why would Rabbi Prager care about the opinion of this yungerman who appeared out of nowhere to deliver a letter?
Rabbi Prager may not have known more about Rabbi Skulski other than who his father was, but in formulating his answer, Rabbi Skulski drew on his familiarity with Rabbi Prager’s writings. Rabbi Prager had published two epic seforim —Nitzotzei Gevurah in 1952, and Eleh Shelo Nichna’u (“Those Who Never Yielded”) in 1963. Both seforim drew on personal testimonies to prove clearly that the frum Jews of Europe lived, and died, displaying courage and yiras Shamayim above and beyond the call of duty.
“I was impressed with his writings,” Rabbi Skulski said, “so when he asked me what I thought of his kollel, I told him that to me, the kollel represented the confluence of those who didn’t surrender then and those who won’t surrender now, because they have chosen to dedicate their lives to Torah learning. That, I said, was the ‘magic’ of his kollel.”
On the spot, Rabbi Prager determined that Rabbi Skulski was precisely the young man he could partner with to achieve his dreams, so he hired Rabbi Skulski to work for him at the Ganzach. Not long after, Rabbi Prager donated a lot in Bnei Brak on which he hoped to build a Holocaust museum, and he was about to embark on an overseas fundraising mission.
“To our sorrow, he passed away before he could accomplish this and just left us with a few small rooms,” Rabbi Skulski said.
Determined to carry on Rabbi Prager’s vision, Rabbi Skulski became the director of the Ganzach Kiddush Hashem some 40 years ago.
Since then, he has devoted much of his time to the painstaking work of reviewing, categorizing, and cataloguing books and documents, poring over Holocaust-era history, and reaching out for contacts, clues, and leads to gather new material and verify existing ones.
“When I receive a book, I review it carefully,” Rabbi Skulski said. “I make notes of the parts that need to be emphasized and of the topics that would interest our tzibbur. After that, it gets catalogued for visiting researchers and scholars, or even for people who browse our library on the website, so they can find information easily.”
He also watches each of Ganzach’s 2,500 videos of testimonies of Holocaust survivors. Some are eight hours long, but it’s worth the effort to cull one pithy quote that he can circulate to inspire and speak to today’s youth.
“Our main goal is to instill in the young generation the awareness of the gevurah of the Jewish soul and how it grappled with the challenges posed by the Nazis,” Rabbi Skulski said.
“They fought a war too. Their war was that even though they were starving for food, they would sit and learn Torah until the Nazis caught them. Or sometimes they would show their gevurah by being the ones to share whatever little food they had with someone else.”
A Lifetime Guarantee
On a handful of occasions, at the request of certain survivors, Rabbi Skulski conducted the interviews himself.
Rabbi Skulski personally interviewed Rabbi Mordechai Gutterman, and the Ganzach ultimately published a soft-cover workbook of his wartime experiences.
The Nazis seized Mordechai when he was a young man and sent him to a labor camp, where prisoners were forced to construct a railroad line through a mountain pass. There were two types of work available: the backbreaking work of hauling and dumping the excavated rocks and dirt from the mountain to an adjacent valley, or smoothing out the excavated area for the rail line.
“It was work more suited to horses, but the Nazis forced the Jews to work, and on Shabbos too,” Rabbi Skulski said. “Mordechai told me he chose the backbreaking work, because it was in a carmelis, and hauling and dumping the debris was a d’Rabbanan, while smoothing out the land for construction would have been a d’Oraisa.”
In another instance, Rabbi Skulski interviewed Rav Zvi Hirsch Meislish, the Veitzener Rav. Many people know the famous story of how Rav Meislish blew the shofar surreptitiously on Rosh Hashanah in Auschwitz for a group of young men slated to be taken to the gas chambers that day. A lesser-known story is how he emptied a Nazi tent of cots and fashioned some makeshift sechach so he could observe the mitzvah of succah.
A youth at Auschwitz named Dovid Yisrael was responsible for the bread rations, and since there was no wine for Kiddush, Rav Meislish asked him if he could obtain lechem mishneh. He promised he wouldn’t eat them, so as not to take away the next day’s rations from anyone else, but he wanted to be able to recite Kiddush in the Succah over bread.
“Dovid Yisrael didn’t even know it was Succos, but he told the rav, ‘If you say so, I’ll get you the loaves, but only if you promise me I can join you for Kiddush,’ ” Rabbi Skulski relates.
Dovid Yisrael was just 16 at the time, and the rav admonished him that it would be too risky for anyone else to join him, but the youth dug in his heels, saying he would only supply the loaves on the condition that he too could hear the Rav’s Kiddush. Afterward, Rav Meislish guaranteed Dovid Yisrael that both of them would survive the war in the merit of the mitzvah they just performed.
Rav Meislish survived and eventually made it to Chicago, but lost track of Dovid Yisrael. Years later, Rav Meislish went to Venezuela to raise funds. During the course of his visit, he met a younger man with a long beard who was in Venezuela for his brother’s wedding. During a public event, this man related how he merited both hearing the shofar and making Kiddush in a succah in Auschwitz.
“The man who told the story was Dovid Yisrael, the same boy who had given him the bread,” Rabbi Skulski said.
It was only then that Rav Meislish knew for sure that Hashem had backed his guarantee of survival for the two of them in the merit of risking their lives for a fleeting Kiddush in Auschwitz. And today, Dovid Yisrael is president of the Venezuelan Association for Yad Vashem.
Check It Out Yourself
There was no upper or lower age limit for the Jews who showed valor during the Holocaust. Rabbi Skulski turned to the bookshelf behind him to show me a sefer that includes a question from a 12-year-old boy whose bar mitzvah would be three months later. This boy asked if he could put on tefillin with a brachah even before his bar mitzvah; he feared he might not live to age 13, and he desperately wanted to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin before returning his soul to his Maker.
“We can’t understand the power of a Jew, and that’s what we are trying to inculcate in our youth,” Rabbi Skulski said.
Stories of this genre make a lasting impression on observant and nonobservant Jews alike, and represent the raison d’?tre for the Ganzach.
A year after Rabbi Prager was niftar, Rav Yisrael Meir Lau, Israel’s former chief rabbi, spoke at a memorial kenes. Rav Lau related his visit to a secular state high school in Petach Tikva, where he retold the gripping story of one young Jew who risked his life by putting on tefillin in a concentration camp, knowing full well that if a guard caught him, he would have been executed on the spot.
After Rav Lau finished, three high school students approached him, asking, “Kavod harav, is this story you told us about the tefillin really true?”
Rav Lau had first heard this story from Rabbi Prager, who in turn heard it directly from another man who had witnessed it. Rav Lau told the youths the eyewitness was still alive and living in Bnei Brak.
“I suggest you go to Bnei Brak and hear it directly from him,” Rabbi Lau advised.
Before they left, the three boys told Rav Lau that their tefillin had been gathering dust on bookshelves ever since their own bar mitzvahs, but if they could verify this story, they would begin putting them on and davening in the morning.
Rabbi Skulski picks up the story from there.
A few months later, these same boys knocked on Rav Lau’s door with kippot on their heads.
“We checked it out,” they said. “We went to Bnei Brak and the man you told us to see convinced us the story is true and since then, we have started putting on tefillin.”
“They all became baalei teshuvah,” Rabbi Skulski added. “These stories changed the lives of these high school boys, but they can also change the way we view the Holocaust.
“And that’s why, when we have our museum, we will memorialize these stories. Ours will be a museum of eternal faith and resilience. By showing that what truly unifies the Jewish People is our adherence to eternal Jewish values, no matter what the circumstances.”
They Didnt Miss a Town with Five Jews
Since I have a lifelong interest in cartography, one of the first exhibits at the Ganzach that caught my eye was a hand-drawn map of Poland’s Jewish population, drawn in 1931 based on the official census.
Rabbi Prager discovered the map at a former Nazi headquarters building following World War II. It features circles of different sizes, each one representing the number of Jews in any given town, from thousands all the way down to five.
“The Nazis didn’t even miss a town with five Jews,” noted Rachel Yud, who led the private tour on the day of my visit.
While the future museum will be better equipped to handle larger crowds, the Ganzach still manages to arrange private tours and showings for schools, researchers, and the general public in its current limited space. Over the years, some 50,000 high school students from Israel and abroad have paid visits, some 75 principals of chareidi schools have attended daylong seminars, and well over 1,000 teachers have participated in workshops.
The Ganzach creates educational materials and programs for exhibit at schools and community centers. Prominent researchers, including Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein, the wife of Yeshivas Chevron’s Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Moshe Mordechai Farbstein shlita, provides ongoing guidance to the Ganzach in her capacity as one of the chareidi world’s foremost Holocaust scholars and historians. Professor Hava Dreifuss, formerly of Yad Vashem and currently a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s department of Jewish history, has accessed the Ganzach’s research on Europe’s chassidic underground.
“We have a good working relationship with Yad Vashem,” says Rachel Yud, who worked with Yad Vashem when they were doing outreach to the chareidi world in their project to collect the six million names of all of the Jewish Holocaust victims.
“Yad Vashem is very happy to have a facility such as ours in the center of the country that will serve the chareidi world,” Mrs. Yud said.
The impact of the Ganzach cannot be understated, says Sol Werdiger, chairman of the board of trustees of Agudath Israel of America and a board member of the American Friends of the Ganzach.
“It’s 75 years since the Shoah, and with the number of Holocaust survivors diminishing, it’s imperative that yeshivah boys and girls have a place to go to learn about the Holocaust in an environment that will give them the right hashkafah,” said Mr. Werdiger, whose family had a longstanding relationship with Rabbi Prager. “My father bought him his first Yiddish typewriter on one of his visits to New York. They were very hard to get at the time.”
The Ganzach also has tributes, in the form of posters, documents, and articles, to key figures who toiled tirelessly to save Jews during World War II. These include Rav Eliezer Silver, head of the Vaad Hatzalah; Mike Tress, who toiled to secure passage for European Jews to safe havens; Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld, who served as executive director of the Chief Rabbi’s Religious Emergency Council in the UK and was a prime organizer of the Kindertransport; as well as David Alter Kurtzman, principal of an orphanage in Krakow who accompanied his charges to Belzec, where he too died al kiddush Hashem.
There is also a model town made of matchsticks, of Jewish buildings in various Polish cities, crafted by Chanan Weisman in memory of family members. (His story was featured in Mishpacha Jr. #737, “Playing with Matches.”)
“This is the reason we need a museum,” Rachel Yud says. “In addition to what you see here, we have ten storage rooms all over the city with information, documents, newspaper clippings, and books.”
The Ganzach recently broke ground on a new eight-story building (the lot is small so they have to build up) on land granted to them by the municipality of Bnei Brak. The Israeli government will provide some NIS 20 million of the total estimated NIS 175 million the Ganzach will need to complete the project.
“This will enable us to meet the demand of annual visitors, training programs, ongoing research, and modern archival needs,” said Rabbi Avraham Kaminer, head of external affairs at the Ganzach.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 772)