| Magazine Feature |

The Mashpia of Montreal   

The honor Reb Volf Greenglass fled from followed him to the end

Photos: Jeff Zorabedian, Family archives

IN 1941, a rumpled group of nine young men between the ages of 20 and 27 arrived in Montreal, after a circuitous escape from war-torn Europe. Chassidim of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson (the “Frierdiker Rebbe”), they were intent on fulfilling the Rebbe’s directive to establish a yeshivah in Montreal, a city that boasted very little Jewish infrastructure at the time.

Not everyone was enchanted by their mission. Samuel Bronfman, the founder of the Seagram liquor brand, exclaimed, “We left Russia to escape from G-d, and now you want to bring Him here? I’ll give you $5,000 to relocate to Toronto.”

But the Rebbe told them to stay in Montreal, and so they did. “They established a yeshivah that became the Harvard of Chabad yeshivahs,” says Rabbi Nissen Mangel, who survived the Shoah and was a talmid at the yeshivah before becoming a distinguished author and lecturer. His alma mater, Yeshivas Tomchei Temimim/Rabbinical College of Canada, has been thriving ever since.

Rabbi Mangel maintains that the success of the yeshivah was due in large part to its mashpia, Rabbi Volf Greenglass, one of the original group of nine and his rebbi for the  ten years he learned in the yeshivah. While many people outside the Chabad orbit may not be familiar with his name, Reb Volf — whose life was largely spent within the walls of the yeshivah — was a powerful force, leaving a lifelong impact on his talmidim and community. And even those who thought they knew him well didn’t always appreciate the depths of his learning, piety, deep humanity, and profound knowledge of Kabbalah.

“He was an authentic, old-school chassid,” Rabbi Mangel says. “He was from what we would call the chassidim rishonim.” Humble, devoted to his rebbe, and ever eschewing kavod, Rabbi Greenglass never wanted to be addressed as “Rabbi.” “Ich heis Volf,” he would say.

Reb Volf passed away 13 years ago, on 22 Teves, 2011, but his son-in-law Rabbi David Cohen of Montreal refuses to allow his life story and teachings to fade into oblivion. After 13 years, Rabbi Cohen finally finished documenting his father-in-law’s legacy in a sefer entitled The Mashpia, published this past Purim in both English and Hebrew by Wellspring Press. The book is full of information, anecdotes, and divrei Torah, but the hardest part, avows Rabbi Cohen, was trying to convey the nuances of chassidic philosophy in English.

Rabbi Cohen himself was a talmid of Reb Volf from the age of six, when his parents immigrated to Montreal from Casablanca and enrolled him in the yeshivah. Today, Rabbi Cohen and his wife Sarah have joined Mishpacha in the Crown Heights home of 90-year-old Rabbi Nissen Mangel and his wife to reminisce. In the Mangels’ comfortable, warm home, the memories come to life, painting a portrait of the man who shaped their lives and the lives of many contemporary leaders.

When Rabbi Nissen Mangel, renowned scholar, author, speaker, and pulpit rabbi, arrived at the yeshivah as a malnourished war refugee, Reb Wolf Greenglass took him into his own house, where he made himself at home for 10 years

Journey to Self

Reb Volf — Rabbi Menachem Zev Halevi Greenglass — was born on the sixth night of Chanukah in 1917 in Lodz. The Great War was ending, and in its aftermath, Poland became an independent republic.

Lodz was one of the largest cities in Poland, with a population that was about a third Jewish, and host to a thriving textile industry and other businesses. Most of the Jews were chassidic, primarily affiliated with Gur and Aleksander. Reb Volf’s father was associated with the Aleksander yeshivah and worked as a property manager and rent collector.

Reb Volf’s parents displayed genuine veneration toward the Aleksander Rebbe, and he credited his profound emunas chachamim to his parents’ example. His father used to recount that as a boy, he developed an infection in his left hand, which swelled to several times its normal size. His father brought him to a specialist in Vienna, who decreed there was no solution but to amputate the hand. The father immediately sent a telegram to the Aleksander Rebbe, who replied, “Do not amputate, for if he has no left hand, he will not be able to put on tefillin.” The doctor, exasperated, almost abandoned the patient. But ultimately, after intensive treatment, Reb Volf’s father recovered with his hand intact.

Reb Volf attended cheder until he was 16, at which point his family’s meager finances could no longer support his studies, and he had to go to work in the textile sweatshops doing strenuous physical labor. During that time, he became friendly with a young man who had become attracted to Lubavitcher chassidus and introduced him to Rabbi Zalman Schneerson, a descendant of the Alter Rebbe and rosh yeshivah of the Lodz branch of Tomchei Temimim, the Chabad yeshivah.

Inspired by the sight of Rabbi Schneerson’s intense davening, Reb Volf enrolled in the yeshivah. Shortly afterward, he aspired to move to the main branch of Tomchei Temimim in Otvotzk, a few hours away by train, where the Frierdiker Rebbe was then living. He feared he would not be accepted, as his family wasn’t Lubavitch and he had already been out in the working world, but he was advised to simply show up and ask for a farher. He did so, and the hanhalah, recognizing his sincerity, accepted him.

In yeshivah, Reb Volf worked hard on his middos.  For example, as a 20-year-old, he enjoyed making jokes. At the same time, he believed a ben Torah should be more serious, and he wrote to the Frierdiker Rebbe (who had since moved to Warsaw) to ask how he might break this habit. The Rebbe responded: “The salvation for your soul is only through kabbalos ol, by placing a muzzle on your mouth, and not saying anything without first thinking whether it’s better to speak or remain silent… To break a natural habit is difficult… but Hashem will help that it will get easier each day.”

Reb Volf took the advice to heart, but while he may have tempered his tongue, he didn’t completely suppress his ebullience.

“My father-in-law always possessed a sharp sense of humor and lived with simchah,” Rabbi Cohen recalls. In fact, Rabbi Shmuel Lew, who was a talmid in Tomchei Temimim from 1957 to 1961 (and is currently the principal of the Lubavitch Senior Girls’ School in London), recalls that Reb Volf used humor and stories to make his farbrengens with talmidim entertaining and inspiring.

“He used it in his avodas Hashem to keep his audience engaged and inspired,” he says.

Fleeing Fire

On September 1, 1939, the Nazis invaded Poland, and a few days later, Reb Volf received a draft notice to report to the Polish army.  He contacted the Rebbe via his secretary asking if he should return to Lodz and sign up, but the answer was a definitive no. Just a few days later, Lodz fell under Nazi rule.

“The Rebbe’s answer saved my life,” he later related. His family, still in Lodz, was forced into the ghetto. He never saw them again.

Several days later, on Erev Shabbos, the Germans arrived in Otvotzk. They forced the Jews, including the bochurim in their Shabbos clothing, to dig up the munitions and bombs the Polish army had buried and carry it all to the train station. The Germans were abusive to the young men, dunking their heads in water and making fun of them. When Rav Volf ran off, they fired on him. He escaped safely but spent two weeks recuperating, sick from the experience.

The ordeal didn’t stop him from volunteering to disguise himself as a peasant (with his fair coloring, he passed easily as a non-Jew) and go to Yamishov to bring back the elderly mother of the Amshinover Rebbe, or to fetch kosher meat for the Frierdiker Rebbe in Warsaw for Simchas Torah. When the yeshivah decided in Kislev to move to Vilna in Lithuania to avoid Nazi control, he returned to Warsaw to get a brachah from the Rebbe for a safe voyage.

Together with the other bochurim, he indeed reached Vilna safely, though the trip wasn’t simple. With funds from the Rebbe, they were smuggled across the border, but they didn’t completely escape detection. They were detained by Nazis who searched and harassed them, but ultimately let them go. After traversing the border, they had to cross a river, but when their boat got stuck in the ice, they were forced to get out and swim in the freezing water to the other side.

Their stay in Vilna was short-lived, for Lithuania soon came under Soviet control (the Nazis would invade a year later). The Russian government began moving all embassies to Moscow, but the Japanese embassy in Kovno, under the direction of Chiune Sugihara, a Japanese consul who secretly aided refugees during the war, remained open to issue foreign visas. Following the Rebbe’s advice to consult the Amshinover Rebbe in his absence, the boys reached out to him, and he told them to apply for Japanese visas (and procured one for himself as well).

Reb Volf, his friends, and others, journeyed to Moscow, where they boarded the Trans-Siberian railroad for the two-week long trek to Vladivostok. From there they were ferried to Kobe, Japan, and after some time there, relocated to Shanghai.

In 1941, the Canadian government agreed to issue 80 visas to yeshivah students, including Chabad. Tomchei Temimim received nine of these visas, and it was decided that the older students, who needed to begin shidduchim, would get priority. The chosen few included Reb Volf, Moshe Elya Gerlitsky, Yitzchok Hendel, Herschel Kotlarsky, Leibel Kramer, Yosef Rodal, Avraham Stein, Yosef Menachem Mendel Tennenbaum, and Yosef Wineberg. This group departed on the S.S. President Pierce with 20 other students, including the future rav and rosh yeshivah Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung, who would henceforth refer to Reb Volf as “mein shiff brieder — my ship brother.”

“It was a very difficult parting from our friends, having been through so much together…” Reb Volf recalled. “The other students would have to stay behind, with no idea when they would be able to leave.”

The group arrived in San Francisco and continued to Canada accompanied by FBI agents (who were there to ensure the students weren’t foreign spies), reaching Montreal in October, 1941. The students who had been left behind in Shanghai would not reach American shores for another four years.

After 13 years, Rabbi David Cohen finally finished documenting his father-in-law’s legacy in a sefer entitled The Mashpia

Building Boys

Montreal’s Jewish leaders had arranged for the newly arrived refugees to enjoy some recuperation time at a resort in the Laurentian mountains, but the Lubavitcher students declined the offer. They had been greeted upon arrival by fellow chassid Rabbi Yisrael Jacobson with a message from the Rebbe to establish a yeshivah in Montreal. Vacation would have to wait; they refused to waste even a day. After their very first Shabbos, during a Melaveh Malkah held in their honor, they announced they would open a Lubavitch yeshivah the very next morning in the shul at 100 Pine Avenue. Rabbi Shmuel Levitin, mashpia in the yeshivah at 770, came from New York during the first week and helped them set up, transmitting detailed instructions from the Rebbe.

It wasn’t long before the young men had attracted 24 students and opened a summer camp. Rabbi Hendel served as rav, Rabbi Kramer as menahel, and Reb Volf was appointed mashpia, a position he filled for the rest of his life. A few years later he was instrumental in founding a girls’ school, Bais Rivka. To attract yet more students, they began publishing a newsletter entitled Der Chaver.

One of Reb Volf’s early accomplishments in the yeshivah was to compile a booklet of halachos and brachos, which is still widely used today, entitled Likutei Dinim, a guide for those who were unable to learn the Shulchan Aruch. His original idea was to make posters with these halachos, but the Rebbe, who very much encouraged the project, suggested he publish it as a booklet and reviewed the entire text in pre-publication form.

Reb Volf was a warm person with a fiery devotion to Torah, and his students absorbed his passion. “He did not like the expression, yotzei — i.e., to be acquitted/exempt from a mitzvah,” Rabbi Cohen relates. “He always said no one should look at a mitzvah as something to come out of, as a duty to discharge. We should be nichnas to a mitzvah: We should enter into it, embrace it. He wanted Torah and mitzvos to become embedded in their souls.”

“He wanted his students to do mitzvos because they wanted to, not because they had to,” Rabbi Mangel says. “The students felt his fatherly warmth and lack of ulterior motives.”

Reb Volf would refer to the story of Pharaoh’s dreams of seven fat and seven thin cows, representing years of plenty and famine, and compare it to the spiritual life of a man.

“He would say the years from 13 to 21 are the years of plenty in ruchniyus,” Rabbi Cohen says. “Those are the years we educate and inculcate a young man with Torah, so that when he later gets married and has less time to study, he still has spiritual sustenance.

“When I was in the lower grades, I didn’t know Reb Volf. I would just sometimes see him come to my class, creeping up from behind. He looked intense. But when I got to high school and entered his class, I was mesmerized.”

He knew how to build up the boys. For example, he would take a boy who was a weaker student, bring him home after yeshivah, and tell him, “I want you to give over a discourse on Shabbos to the yeshivah.” When the boy would protest, “I can’t! It’s too hard!” he would have him learn a line, repeat it, and keep teaching him lines until he was able to deliver the discourse by heart.

“He would push the boys to learn by heart,” Rabbi Cohen says. “He said that that way, no matter where they were, they would always have words of Torah to think about. He would say the letters, the osiyos, are keilim that attract light, and to have them in your head brings light to the mind.”

He became a surrogate father to his talmidim. If someone didn’t have a suit or a hat, he found a way to procure one. He visited them when they were sick and brought tea and aspirin.

“Often he would just appear in our rooms to check up on us and converse with us,” says Rabbi Lew. Reb Volf kept in touch with his students for years after they left the yeshivah, writing letters in his elegant handwriting. He would say that the proof of good chinuch is that a talmid stays in touch with his rebbi long after he leaves yeshivah.

Reb Volf was extremely wise and perceptive about human nature. He taught his students that the yetzer hara can put us on a trajectory that we aren’t even conscious of until it’s too late. A person should carefully consider his thoughts and ask them, “Who are you, and where are you coming from?” He taught his talmidim that a person should never make snap decisions, but instead deliberate for a few minutes to make sure his motivations are correct and that he isn’t unconsciously caught in the net of his evil inclination.

As mashpia of the yeshivah, he set an example of davening. “His preparations for Shacharis could start at seven a.m., and the actual prayers went from nine  to twelve and even later,” Rabbi Cohen relates. “He seemed in an upper spiritual world.”

Rabbi Lew says Reb Volf was “a deep oved Hashem, and you could see it on his face as he davened. He inspired everyone else.”

If he saw a student rushing to take off his tefillin by pulling them or shaking them off, he would cite one of the Tzemach Tzedek’s students, who said he witnessed the Tzemach Tzedek taking off his tefillin as if separating from a dear friend.

“You should unwrap them slowly, kiss them, and then your whole day will be a chassidishe day.”

Heart and Home

Four years after arriving in Montreal, Reb Volf married Esther Silber from Williamsburg. Her family, Tselemer chassidim from Hungary, had immigrated in 1939. As the war drew to a close, with men returning from the front and people flocking to the city, the new couple found it difficult to find a place to live.

Reb Volf finally found a house for rent, but hesitated to put down the key money, a required additional deposit. He asked the Rebbe’s son-in-law, Rav Menachem Mendel, who would succeed him as Rebbe, to ask his father-in-law for a brachah, but received the response that the Rebbe was not well. He had already entered the Rebbe’s room that day and a second visit would not be possible. Reb Volf was deeply disappointed, worried that someone else would grab the house.

Shortly afterward, a call came in from Rav Menachem Mendel with the Rebbe’s response: a lengthy brachah that the house be a place of comfort, hachnasas orchim, study, spiritual sustenance, and light. Elated, Reb Volf asked what had changed.

“I was walking on Eastern Parkway, and thinking of the agony and distress you were going through, I turned around and went back to the Rebbe to ask for you,” Rav Menachem Mendel told him.

Reb Volf had ascetic tendencies, which his new wife was concerned about. He ate very little and avoided meat due to kashrus concerns, and developed a hunchback and back pain due to poor posture when learning. His wife wrote to the Rebbe outlining her concerns for his health, and he supported her, telling Reb Volf to listen to his wife.

Sarah Cohen remembers her father “mostly in yeshivah, but on Shabbos he told us wonderful stories. He had a lot of artistic talent and would teach us to draw.” In later life, he became a devoted grandfather.

His talmidim became his children as well. When Nissen Mangel arrived at the yeshivah as a malnourished war refugee, he told Reb Volf that he didn’t want to live in a dorm. Reb Volf found him a private room, but it was a long walk from the yeshivah. “Why don’t you just move in with me and my family?” Reb Volf said. “I have an extra room.”

For the next ten years, from 1951 to 1961, Nissen Mangel lived as a ben bayis in the Greenglass home. “I knew him better than his daughter did,” he jokes. “I was completely comfortable in their house. I could open the fridge at will, come and go as I needed. Mrs. Greenglass used to make the cookies I liked just for me.” He looks at Mrs. Cohen and grins. “Sarah used to come in my room to steal them,” he says, and she laughs, acknowledging her “guilt.” Then he adds that even more important than the cookies and his participation in the Greenglass family life were the discussions he had with Reb Volf, often into the wee hours of the morning.

When young David Cohen lost his father at age 16, Reb Volf stepped into the breach. “He took care of me like a father, making sure I had clothing and whatever I needed,” Rabbi Cohen says. “He would help me write letters to the Rebbe.”

Once, during that year, he and a friend came to the Greenglass home to drop something off, and their teenage daughter Sarah opened the door for them. “Maybe someday you’ll marry her,” David’s friend teased later. And that is exactly what happened a few years later, with Rabbi Mangel becoming his chassan teacher.

“I still repeat many of the lessons my father-in-law taught on shalom bayis,” Rabbi Cohen says. “He used to quote ishto k’gufo, that a man’s wife is like his own body. He’d say, ‘If the right hand accidentally cuts the left hand, should the left hand take revenge on the right hand? They’re the same person.’ ”

Reb Volf’s family life was infused with his emunas chachamim and devotion to his rebbes. When doctors told the couple it would be better to cease having children because of the many medical issues his wife had while expecting, Reb Volf immediately contacted the Frierdiker Rebbe.

“I will set up a beis din,” the Rebbe told him. “Let them pasken.” The beis din would consist of the Rebbe’s son-in-law, Rav Menachem Mendel, Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, and Rav Shmuel Avitan. This group decided that the danger to Mrs. Greenglass was not great enough to prohibit further attempts.

Some years passed. After the Frierdiker Rebbe was niftar, his son-in-law assumed the mantle of Chabad chassidus. During that time, Mrs. Greenglass went in to the hospital to give birth to a child.

“She repeatedly dreamed it would be a boy, and that she would name it Avraham Yechiel after her husband’s father,” Sarah Cohen  says.

Dr. Johnson, her physician (she used only top specialists due to her complications), examined her and told Reb Volf, “The baby’s position means that it will be impossible for it to survive. You really should just abort.” He proffered papers for him to sign, but Reb Volf asked for a 15-minute time out and ran to call the Rebbe’s secretary, Chaim Mordechai Aizik Hodakov.

Rabbi Hodakov transmitted the sh’eilah to the Rebbe, who answered, “Don’t listen, and don’t sign the papers. Insist that the doctor do everything he can to save the baby!”

The doctor agreed to examine Mrs. Greenglass again. When he returned, his pronouncement was even more grim.

“My dear rabbi,” he said, “I regret to say that now the news is even worse! If I try to save the baby, I will put both the life of your baby and the life of your wife at risk.”

Again, Reb Volf begged leave to make a phone call, and updated Rabbi Hodakov with the latest pronouncement. Yet the Rebbe repeated the same psak: “Tell the doctor he should try his best to save both of them.”

The doctor instructed Reb Volf to go home and rest, as the procedure would take several hours. At four a.m., he and Nissen Mangel were awakened by a phone call. “Mazel tov!” the non-Jewish doctor sang out. “Mother and baby are both doing well!” Reb Volf, euphoric, lost no time calling the Rebbe’s office to convey the happy news that the baby had been born at four a.m.

At around seven a.m., Rabbi Hodakov called the Greenglass home with an unusual question. “You told the Rebbe the baby was born at four a.m.,” he said, “but the Rebbe says that, according to his cheshbon, the baby was born at three thirty. Can you tell us which time is correct?”

Nissen Mangel set out for yeshivah while Reb Volf went back to the hospital to see his wife and baby. When Dr. Johnson finally arrived, somewhat late after his long night in the delivery room, Reb Volf hugged him in gratitude, then asked about the time of birth. “What difference does it make?” the doctor replied.

“It makes a difference to my Rebbe,” Reb Volf said.

The chief nurse was called, and showed them that the chart recorded the birth at four a.m. “You recorded this right after the birth?” Reb Volf said.

“Oh, no,” the nurse replied. “First, we have to clean up the baby, check his condition, and so on. It usually takes us about half an hour, so the real time of birth was probably around three thirty.”

Reb Volf relayed the updated information to the secretary, then asked why it was important. The Rebbe’s reply was telling. “I didn’t go to sleep until I was sure the mother and baby were okay, and I know that I went to sleep at three thirty.”

On another occasion as well, Rabbi Mangel witnessed the Rebbe’s spiritual intercession on behalf of the Greenglass family. The Greenglasses had a daughter, Chavi a”h, who had physical disabilities and passed away young. One Shabbos she became very sick, running a fever and even fainting a few times.

“As soon as Shabbos was over Reb Volf called Rabbi Hodakov,” Rabbi Mangel relates. “I was standing right next to him when Rabbi Hodakov gave him the response. The Rebbe said, ‘Tell him not to worry. Tonight, when I davened Refa’einu during Maariv, I was praying with her in mind.’ ”  Chavi turned a corner and the illness passed.

The Rebbe’s Mekubal

In farbrengens, the Rebbe referred to Reb Volf as “the Lodzer mekubal,” “the Montrealer mekubal,” and even “my mekubal.” Rabbi Cohen, intrigued, once asked him, “Are you really a mekubal?”

Reb Volf didn’t like to talk about his studies of Kabbalah, but when pressed, admitted that he corresponded about Kabbalah with Rav Yeshaya Asher Zelig Margalios of Yerushalayim, who wrote almost 30 volumes on Kabbalah. After Rav Margalios’s petirah in 1969, Reb Volf corresponded with Rav Margolios’s son Eliezer. When Rav Margalios had questions about Chabad chassidus, Reb Volf directed them to the Rebbe and mediated their exchanges. The Rebbe contributed money for one of Rav Margalios’s seforim, and Rav Margalios in turn became interested in Chabad chassidus and started teaching Tanya.

It’s likely that Reb Volf’s initial exposure to Kabbalah came from Rabbi Schneur Zalman Schneersohn, whom he’d met in Europe before the war. He also corresponded with mekubalim from the Weinstock family and the Sephardic community.

Rabbi Cohen relates that Reb Volf had a sort of sixth sense for when a bochur had failed to do something and always found a tactful way to let him know. “If a boy forgot to go to the mikveh, he’d ask, ‘How did you find the water in the mikveh today? Was it too hot, too cold?’ Or he’d ask a bochur if he put on Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, and the bochur would gasp, ‘Oy — I forgot!’ He just seemed to know when a bochur had failed to perform a mitzvah.”

When he gave farbrengens to the boys, Rabbi Lew says, “He would often choose words that would go straight to the heart of a talmid who was struggling with a private issue.”

In the last years of his life, while he was in his 90s and hospitalized after almost a decade of pulmonary infections, these uncanny incidents continued.

“The head nurse asked me if my father was a holy man, because she said he had an aura,” Sarah says. “I didn’t see it, but she claims she did.

“There were also two childless nurses who used to see me visit with my children and grandchildren and expressed their desire to have children. My father gave them a brachah, and both of them gave birth afterward.”

When Reb Volf drew closer to the end of his life, the family hired an attendant so that he would have care during the hours they were unable to be in the hospital. One day, Rabbi Cohen arrived to find the caregiver deathly pale. “What happened?” he cried, fearing for his father-in-law’s condition.

Reb Volf was fine, the aide reassured him, but said something bizarre had happened: A man with a long white beard, carrying a Jewish book, had come to visit Reb Volf. He looked distinguished and important, so the caregiver left the room to afford them privacy for the visit, stationing himself outside the door. Time passed, and more time passed. It seemed that the visit had gone on an awfully long time, so the caregiver peeked into the room — and the visitor was nowhere to be seen.

“We don’t know anything more, but the Tehillim was still next to my father’s bed,” Rabbi Cohen says. “It was an ArtScroll Tehillim with English translations and bookmarks stuck inside. My wife still has it.”

Reb Volf was niftar in 2010, after a life replete with challenges. He had lost his family in the war; he endured hardships escaping the Nazis; and he started over in a new country. He suffered from chronic back pain, his wife had health problems, and the severe disabilities and eventual death of his daughter Yuta Chava were devastating.  Yet photos of him always show a radiant smile, ever buoyed by his incredible emunah, ahavas haTorah, and ahavas Yisrael.

“He was always focused on doing Hashem’s will,” Rabbi Lew says. “He was so full of Torah, chassidus, and Kabbalah that it infused him with simchah and strength, even in his later years. In the last year of his life, when a minyan was brought to his home, I once saw him give a 45-minute farbrengen at Shabbos Minchah with the energy of a 30-year-old, and the people there told me this was not exceptional.”

Today, many people visit his kever in Montreal. “They know he was a holy Yid,” Rabbi Cohen says. “They go there hoping he can continue to uplift them and bring brachah to their lives.”


Four Generations of a Miracle

Rabbi Mangel’s relationship with Reb Volf came about as a result of his own war experiences. Born in Slovakia 90 years ago, Rabbi Mangel and his family were deported to Auschwitz, where he told Josef Mengele he was 17 years old (he was only ten) and went on to miraculously survive a series of six camps and a death march. His father perished, but his mother and sister made it through the war.

“I went back to Czechoslovakia after the war to see if anyone was left,” he relates. “But I was terrified of the prospect of going to my home and finding no one there. I feared it would push me over the edge to a nervous breakdown.

“I stayed in a hotel requisitioned by the Joint, but the next day I went to our old house. I paced back and forth in front, looking for signs that someone was there. Finally, the janitor came out, and I asked if anyone was in my home. ‘Your mother and sister and your aunt and uncle,’ he said.

“I came to the door wearing what I had:  a red army beret and a jacket from an SS soldier. I was unrecognizable. I was emaciated and had lost all my hair and my fingernails. My aunt opened the door and screamed to her husband, ‘Aaron, gypsies! A tziganer iz du!’ Then my mother came. We looked at each other for a long moment. We were so overwhelmed we couldn’t speak for several moments. Then we fell on each other with tears of joy.”

This reunion took place in 1945. In 1948, the Russians took over Czechoslovakia in a putsch, assassinating the prime minister and president. With the Communists now firmly in charge, Mrs. Mangel rightly feared there would be no Jewish education or future for her children. She was able to send them to England, where Rabbi Mangel joined about 65 other talmidim in the yeshivah of Sunderland. “It was smaller and more intimate than Gateshead,” he says.

After a few years, he learned that if he immigrated to Canada, he would be able to set up the paperwork to bring his mother there. He and his sister left for Canada, and were indeed later able to send for their mother.

The Tomchei Temimim yeshivah where Reb Volf was the mashpia was the only yeshivah in Montreal at the time. “I originally thought I would move to Rav Kotler’s yeshivah in Lakewood,” he says, “but I was still officially stateless, so I couldn’t get into the US.” He shrugs and smiles. “Nu, I stayed in Montreal and became a Lubavitcher chassid. Baruch Hashem!”

This past October, Rabbi Mangel made headlines when he, his wife, and close to 100 of their descendants, went back to Auschwitz to make the brachah she’asah li nes bamakom hazeh, and took an epic photo of four generations standing across the train tracks at the entrance to the camp.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1009)

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