Flatbush’s busiest hub of prayer traces its history to an airless bunker beneath the Slovakian ground, where Rav Yechezkel Shraga Landau carved out a place of holiness and prayer despite the Nazi footfalls overhead. In 2012, his grandsons returned to the tiny hole that was his shelter, finally fulfilling the charge he bequeathed them
rammed uncomfortably in the front seat of a van, forced to sit at a 45-degree angle to avoid a head-on collision between my knees and the gear box, I’m surprised and relieved when my seatmate notices my pained grimace and graciously offers to share his legroom.
“Stretch your legs out, there’s room here,” says Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer Landau, the rav and mara d’asra of the famed Khal Veretzky (fondly known as “Landau’s”) at the corner of Avenue L and East 9th Street in Flatbush.
Sharing tight quarters is part of the Landau genetic makeup, as I would soon see for myself.
“It might be cramped here,” I say, “but it’s nothing compared to what your grandparents must have gone through.” Rabbi Landau merely replies by exhaling and raising his eyebrows.
We are on the road to Nitra, a city of 85,000 at the base of the Zobor Mountain, for a reunion with the surviving member of the Slovakian family that kept the Landau grandparents alive for seven critical months during World War II. We were also preparing to step in — maybe for one last time — to the bunker the size of a walk-in closet in which Reb Yitzchok Meyer’s grandparents and eight other Jews hid for those seven months, some of them with Nazi soldiers literally sleeping on top of their heads.
We cross the border from Austria to Slovakia. The rolling, green fields of the Vienna suburbs have long since given way to the stark, grayish-brown backdrop of the Slovakian foothills. It’s been an unusually mild winter in Europe. Every few miles you might spy a tiny patch of snow on the side of the road, barely enough to make a snowball. Every river we pass has no more than a thin veneer of ice on the surface.
As we exit Highway E-58 at Nitra, and drive through town, several contrasts strike the eye. Virtually every building is different from the next. Zoning doesn’t seem to be an issue here. Single family, two-story stucco homes, some with balconies, abut fashionable, glass-windowed shops.
We leave the city center and pull up at a more spacious, modern home on a quiet, hilly side street. We park and enter the house, where we encounter another contrast. Rabbi Landau and his brother, Reb Yechiel, exchange bear hugs with the elderly host, whose family has been eagerly awaiting our visit, dressed in their Sunday best. The host is 85-year old Frantisek Truska, who was a strapping teenager of 18 when he and his father dug the bunker.
The greetings are just about over, when a new arrival makes her entrance. Mr. Truska glances down at a bassinet holding Reb Yitzchok Meyer’s 11-week old daughter. His face visibly lights up. He may not know the baby’s precise identity, but it’s apparent that he too is shepping nachas from a soul that may never have been born had it not been for him.
Seeing bearded religious men and an older, non-Jewish Slovakian share such warmth may be a stark contrast, but it seems par for the course in this continent, which seems to be perennially grappling between its checkered past and a more tolerant future.
In a few hours, that contrast would be hammered home, as Mr. Truska would join 16 others and be awarded the honor of Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem at a ceremony in the elegant Historical Building of the National Council of the Slovak Republic.
“In those times, humanity was overwhelmed by inhumanity, so it is only fitting to honor those who risked their lives to save others,” said Ivan Gasparovic, president of the Slovak Republic, at the ceremony.
Between the Cracks
Today, the Landau family of Flatbush is renowned for having produced roshei yeshivos and mesivtos, as well as for the shul and beis medrash where as many as 4,500 daven each day, virtually around the clock.
It can get crowded inside the famous shul, but like my front seat contortions en route to Nitra, those tight quarters are nothing compared to what Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga and Rebbetzin Chaya Draizel Landau endured in the final days of World War II.
The Landaus moved to the Czechoslovakian town of Nitra in 1929. Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga Landau, who was known as the Veretzkier Rav, served as Nitra’s rosh beis din until 1946, when the Landaus left for America.
Before the war, Czechoslovakia — which had a German speaking region called the Sudetenland — had been sold out by Western nations to Germany on the hypocritical and sacrificial altar of appeasement, in the hopes that this one move would satisfy Hitler’s power lust. Hitler reneged on his end of the deal. By 1942, three years after the war began, the Nazi army grabbed all of Czechoslovakia and began deporting its Jews.
Rabbi Michoel Ber Weismandl, the son-in-law of the Nitra Rav, convinced the Czech government, with the help of $50,000 in bribe money, that its economy would collapse if it allowed the deportations of Jewish businessmen and factory owners. The Czechs conceded and did not subject the affluent to the deportations.
Even before this deal was struck to spare many Jews, Rabbi Landau had already experienced his first narrow escape from deportation to what would have been an almost certain death.
Rabbi Sholom Noach Landau, one of Rabbi Yechezkel Shraga’s three grandsons and rosh yeshivah of Yeshivah Ohr Shraga and Mesivta Bais Aron Tzvi Veretzky, is also the family historian, based on written records and recorded testimony he took directly from his grandfather. “My grandfather told us that deportations were handled in an organized manner, on a street by street basis,” he said.
There’s nothing like location when it comes to real estate. Since the Landau home in Nitra was one of only two houses on their block, it somehow fell between the cracks. Those in charge of the first stage of deportation thought the street was on the list for the second stage, and by the time the second stage started, the Nazis thought the residents on that little street had already been taken.
Six months later, the deal negotiated by Rabbi Weissmandl unraveled as the Germans demanded the Czechs fill a deportation quota. Rabbi Landau was spared again for another six months by virtue of a letter from the Red Cross stating that a resident in his house had typhus.
There was still one last holdout category of Jews who could beat the deportations. Certain rabbis deemed to be community assets were exempted, but to prove their worth, they had to work for the Czech government. When it appeared as if his own deportation was unavoidable, Rabbi Landau visited a high government official to see if he could be classified as a community asset. When he announced himself at the official’s office, an assistant asked the bearded rabbi to wait while he conferred with the official.
“My grandfather overheard them talking behind the closed door,” recounts Reb Sholom Noach. “$$separate quotes$$‘He probably wants me to give him a work furlough,’ said the official. ‘I can’t do that. Look at him, with his beard and side curls. I can’t just give him a furlough. Tell him I can’t help him.’$$separate quotes$$”
The assistant exited, but before he could say a word, Rabbi Landau announced, “Tomorrow I will be back without a beard and peyos and in work clothes.”
Reb Sholom Noach relates: “My grandfather told me the high government official actually left his office, picked up Rabbi Landau, kissed him and said: ‘Rabbiner, if you could do this, you will save yourself and be a role model for other rabbis in the city. As long as they’re ready to work, I can save them too.”
Rabbi Landau had to shave his beard and shorten his peyos, but he was able to at least salvage his moustache. He was also fortunate that during the next year, as he toiled in Czech labor camps, he was able to establish a kosher kitchen, and the workweek did not include Shabbos.
Thanks to the respite granted by his work furlough, Rabbi Landau was able to smuggle five of his children across the border to Hungary during the summer of 1943. Tragically, all lost their lives. Some were caught and killed in concentration camps and one daughter was taken out to sea in a boat with 300 girls, where the despicable Nazis opened the bottom of the boat, drowning them. Two or three survivors who swam back to shore related this story for posterity.
Rabbi Landau’s son, Aron Tzvi, who later became the Veretzkier rav and rosh yeshivah, was his only surviving child. In 1942 when Aron Tzvi was 14, he escaped Nitra right after Shacharis on the 17th of Tammuz. Secrecy was paramount, so he didn’t even inform his parents of his plans.
He trudged on foot for a month to Neiheisel, just over the Hungarian border, a village he remembered from a visit he took with his mother in 1936, when he was just eight years old. It was midsummer. The corn and wheat fields stood tall with their ripening crops — just tall enough to camouflage the young Aron Tzvi during the day. At night, he plodded through woods, mountains, and valleys. “He always told me the fear was unbearable, especially when he would hear dogs barking from the farm houses at night,” says Reb Sholom Noach.
The fear intensified when he made it to Neiheisel, knocked on a door he thought belonged to his cousin Lipa Loyash, only to discover an intimidating non-Jew glaring at him from the other side. He ran for his life, finding refuge in the local synagogue. Once there, he was reunited with his cousins. After being passed along to several relatives, he was finally caught and sent to a concentration camp, but survived the war, some of it spent alongside the Klausenberger Rebbe, and was finally liberated from Felderfink.
In the meantime, the summer of 1943 quickly turned into 1944, and the Germans’ fortunes were turning as well. The Nazis were on the retreat on every front. Sensing an opportunity, the Czech Republic took advantage of the German disarray to attack the Nazis. In response, the German army stormed into Nitra with a vengeance and started deporting all the Jews.
By this time, as many as ten bunkers had been built as hiding places for Jews, but most of the hidden Jews were ferreted out and deported.
Rabbi Landau turned to a non-Jewish friend named Jan Truska, with a plea for help. Truska and his wife Jozefina agreed to hide the Landaus on their farmhouse on Nitra’s outskirts. Together with his son Frantisek, Jan and two other Jewish men dug a bunker in a sub-cellar, underneath the basement of the home. Two weeks later, the bunker was ready, just in the nick of time, as the deportations were ready to begin in earnest.
Jan and Jozefina are long departed, but Frantisek was just 18 when he put shoulder to the shovel, and he still remembers that era.
“If the Nazis would have found out that they were harboring ten Jews in their house they would have skinned them alive,” says Reb Yitzchok Meyer. Today, 68 years later, Mr. Truska finds it easy to articulate why his family risked their own lives to save Jews, even if answer is difficult for the listener to comprehend.
“We really didn’t think we were doing anything so special,” Mr. Truska explained last week, as his granddaughter interpreted. “Our family had an appreciation for life and we wanted to save lives. We liked people and we didn’t differentiate between one person and another. We felt if we didn’t save these people, then even more people could die. We also realized that if these people could be deported to die, the same thing could happen to people like us, under different circumstances.”
12 Inches from Death
On the 20th of Elul in 1944, the Landaus, two other women, and six men entered the bunker where they would spend Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Succos, Chanukah, Purim, and the first day of Pesach. One of the men was Meyer Werdyger, an uncle of Mordechai Ben David, and one of the women was Mr. Werdyger’s sister. For those seven months in 1944–45 that seemed like an eternity, life for the Landaus in the miserable conditions of the bunker was fragile, hanging in the balance by the minute.
The sub-cellar was substandard. It was a tiny, cold room 6 feet by 8 feet, and only seven feet high, with no plumbing or running water and only a seven-watt bulb for light. Even if there would have been an opportunity to light Chanukah candles that year, there was so little oxygen down there, even a match wouldn’t have remained lit.
“Ten years ago when we came here for the first time, the bunker was smelly and musty and the cement was wet like liquid,” says Rabbi Yechiel Landau, as we all step inside the bunker. Reb Yechiel and his brother Reb Yitzchok Meyer stand next to each other, an arms length apart, and take up almost the entire width of the room. “Can you imagine ten people living down here for seven months?” marvels Reb Yechiel.
The bunker had a manhole-size cover that was kept open for air when the coast was clear, but the Jews had to keep on guard 24/7 and close the trap door whenever they feared a “visitor.” When the trap door was closed, they had a little revolving peg the size of a cork that gave them about 2 square inches of air.
Food was under ration at the time. Mrs. Truska bought food and medications illegally and when none were available for purchase, she would try to steal some from the Nazis. She would drop a bucket of food every day into the bunker and retrieve it at the end of the day, along with another bucketful of waste.
Despite the lack of food, Rabbi Landau never missed a Melaveh Malkah, even if it consisted of carrot peels. As he got older, he used to say, “How could I ever miss a Melaveh Malkah now, if I never missed one during those dark days?”
Despite the danger of capture if their voices were heard, not one day passed without a Torah shiur in the bunker. Rabbi Landau, being an ardent masmid, had taken two seforim along with him and he also wrote chiddushei Torah and kept a diary.
This status quo continued from Elul until around Chanukah, when the noose tightened a notch.
Germany was still in retreat and needed a base in the Nitra vicinity for their headquarters. Nazi troops took over the Truska home, forcing the Truska family to move to the attic while the Nazis commandeered the first two stories and parked their army jeeps and vehicles on their farmland.
Guards searched the house periodically. They knew there was a basement, but didn’t know about the existence of the sub-cellar.
One day, Rabbi Landau peered through the diagonal “window” and saw two German soldiers walking in the yard holding a newspaper. He overhead a chilling conversation. The soldiers were discussing a recent news article detailing deportations of Jews from various cities with the surprising finding that more Jews were deported than originally thought. They were jubilant, thinking that these regions were totally Judenrein. “My grandfather heard one of the German soldiers telling the other, ‘If I were to find a Jew today, I’d break him in half,’$$separate quotes$$” says Reb Sholom Noach.
In the bunker that night, the topic of conversation was, if we do survive — which seemed highly unlikely to them at the time — how will ten Jews live in a world without Yidden?
The Last Gasp
By Purim, the noose had tightened yet another notch and it was not clear who would end up at the hangman’s mercies, “Haman,” or “Mordechai.”
The Nazis, needing more lebensraum on the Truska farm, took over the basement as well. Fearing that the Germans would find the bunker’s entrance, Jan Truska hauled barrels to the basement, lining them up 20 wide and 10 deep, covering the hole to the bunker. “There were ten Yidden hidden maybe twelve inches below 50 Nazis, and the Truskas were moser nefesh every day,” Reb Yitzchok Meyer recounts.
Dozens of German soldiers were sleeping in the basement every night. The soldiers would return from their duties, cold, hungry, tired, and mad. Many hadn’t eaten themselves all day. When they saw barrels, they figured there might be food inside. One night they started jumping on the barrels and banging them. “Empty barrels make a lot of noise,” says Reb Sholom Noach. “Can you imagine the fear of the Jews sleeping and sitting right below that? They couldn’t cough, sneeze, or even breathe out loud.”
On a dark, sad Purim night, when it was quiet upstairs, Rabbi Landau delivered a dvar Torah.
King Achashveirosh told Mordechai that anything written and sealed with the king’s seal is irrevocable, yet the decree against the Jews of Shushan was ultimately revoked. Rabbi Landau explained that when the word “king” is mentioned in the Megillah, it is a reference to the King of the Universe. The dialogue between Achashveirosh and Mordechai was being played out in Heaven. Hashem was saying: “You know what? I can’t revoke my decree, but I can push it off.” World War II, said Rabbi Landau, was the realization of the original Purim decree, as men, women, and children were led to the slaughter, just as Haman had hoped for more than 2,000 years prior.
One month after Purim, salvation arrived. On the second day of Pesach, the Truskas came down to the bunker excitedly and announced that Germany had lost the war, the Nazi soldiers had fled, and everyone could come out of hiding.
The coast wasn’t entirely clear, however. The Russians had entered Nitra. As Rabbi Landau walked down the street, a Russian soldier halted him. Rabbi Landau didn’t speak Russian, but he understood the soldier to be asking where he had come from. Of course, he told the truth. “I was in a bunker.”
This turned out to be politically incorrect, because to a Russian soldier, a bunker was synonymous with an enemy foxhole. The soldier wanted to shoot Rabbi Landau, until a bystander who knew Russian explained what the rabbi had meant when he used the word “bunker.”
Suddenly, the demeanor of the Russian soldier changed. His harshness melted into mercy and he pulled out a loaf of bread to give to Rabbi Landau.
Rabbi Landau’s explanation that it was Passover and bread is chometz only served to insult the soldier. “What do you think, my food’s poison?” he spluttered. “I’m also Jewish. You can eat my food.”
Via the interpreter, Rabbi Landau proceeded to converse with the Russian-Jewish soldier, explaining the meaning of Pesach. While for some reason, this soldier was familiar with other Jewish holidays, he had never heard of Pesach. Now he knew.
The Value of Saving
The Landaus spent their first year of freedom from Nazi persecution in Nitra, rebuilding the mivkeh, burying sifrei Torah, and reinstating kosher slaughter. Rabbi Landau would go to Pressburg twice a week to sit in on a beis din to rule on the many cases of agunos that resulted from the war. Each week, at least one or two orphan couples would come to get married in the Landau home, which soon turned into the local catering hall.
The Landaus assumed that they had lost all of their children. They were unaware that Aron Tzvi had survived. Every now and then, reports would filter in that another young man was making his way home to Nitra. Time and again it wasn’t their precious Aron Tzvi. Time and again their hopes were dashed to the point that Rebbetzin Landau said, “I don’t want to hear these rumors anymore. I can’t take it.”
“My grandfather told me he noticed one day that their mailman’s hands resembled my father’s hands,” says Reb Sholom Noach, “so he actually paid the mailman to place his hands down on the table so he could pat them and my mother could gaze at them.”
This may have just been a Divine message, because a few weeks later, Aron Tzvi returned. “My grandfather was sitting and learning when he came in,” says Reb Sholom Noach. “At first, he didn’t even recognize his son, because of the passage of time and his disheveled appearance after years of being on the run.”
A year after the war, the Landaus moved to America. Reb Aron Tzvi eventually married Rebbetzin Shprintzy. She developed an unusually close relationship with her mother-in-law, who still bore occasional scars from life in the bunker. “She was afraid to go down to the basement by herself, so whenever she needed to go there, I would go with her,” remembers Rebbetzin Shprintzy Landau. “She was very special to me, and so was my father-in-law.”
For a period of time, the Landaus kept contact with the Truskas by mail, but once the communists gained a powerful foothold in Czechoslovakia, Mr. Truska asked them not to write anymore as it would be too dangerous for the family to be seen receiving regular mail from the United States.
Over the decades, the two families lost contact. Still, before Reb Yechezkel Shraga passed away, he instructed the family to one day reestablish contact and to do something special for the Truskas to show their appreciation.
And in 2002, they set in motion the process that came to a climax last Wednesday.
A contingent from the family returned to Slovakia (in 1992, Czechoslovakia split into two countries – the Czech Republic and Slovakia), not quite aware how difficult their quest would be. “We had no idea where we were going,” admit Reb Yitzchok Meyer. “My father [Aron Tzvi] had given us some directions and landmarks, but when we got to Nitra, we discovered that whatever sections used to be the suburbs had become the middle of town. Nothing matched up. We couldn’t put two and two together.”
All the Landaus knew is that they were looking for a World War II bunker on the outskirts of Nitra. They hired a local driver and told him they were looking for the Truskas. The driver began looking up names in the phone book, and called all of the Truskas until he hit the jackpot.
“Yes, we’re the ones!” said the man who turned out to be Frantisek Truska. He promptly gave the driver directions to his current residence, and waited outside to greet the Landaus on their arrival. Once inside his home, he pulled out a letter that Rabbi Landau had sent to the elder Truska in 1946, describing how he was trying to rebuild his life after losing all of his children in the Holocaust.
“My grandfather wrote him that the Jewish nation is blessed because they have a G-d who gave them a Torah, and if you immerse yourself in Torah learning, it helps you forget all of your hardships and reinvigorates your life,” says Reb Sholom Noach.
Then, Frantisek broke the bad news. He had sold the farmhouse some 20 years ago and the entire neighborhood had changed so much since then that he couldn’t even give them proper directions.
He did make one request though, when told that the Landaus had come to show their appreciation to him and his family: “I want the Truska family to be included among Yad Vashem’s Righteous Among the Nations. Try to do that for me.”
Saying they would investigate the subject, the Landaus bid Frantisek goodbye and got back in the car. “We’re driving down a country road,” says Reb Sholom Noach. “We see a young girl, who looks American to us by the way she’s dressed, so we stop, roll down the windows, and ask: ‘Do you speak English?’ She says: ‘Yes.’ We tell her we’re looking for a house that belonged to someone named Truska that has a bunker in it.
“Her eyes open wide. ‘That’s my father’s house!’
In a few minutes, the Landaus were meeting the new owner, Dr. Martin Bednarik, who told them that he discovered the bunker when he had bought the home and had contemplating demolishing it, but then had second thoughts. “I heard that there were Jews saved here during the Second World War,” Dr. Bednarik told the Landaus. “I wasn’t sure if it was true or not, but I figured if it is, why would I want to destroy such a sacred place that saved people? I want to keep something like that in my house.”
On that 2002 visit back to the bunker — the first such visit in 57 years — the Landaus found the hideout exactly as their grandfather had described it. The trap door was still there, and so was the round peg that was removed to let air in when the trapdoor had to be closed. There were even World War II shell casings scattered throughout the yard.
On our visit last week, Dr. Bednarik was obviously proud of his tastefully renovated home, which still conceals a tiny bunker in the sub-cellar. The old Truska farm is indeed the center of Nitra’s suburbia. All of the homes have grassy lawns and brick walkways and red, barrel-tile roofs. When asked if he was equally proud of having preserved a piece of historical heritage for the Jews, Dr. Bednarik suggested what he did was not only for the Jews.
“We are compassionate people,” he said. “This bunker is a part of our history. We are proud of the lives that our people saved.”
The Final Act
Now that the Landaus’ quest had come to fruition, the one piece of unfinished business was to carry out their grandfather’s will and reciprocate to the Truskas. It was easier said than done. Yad Vashem will not authenticate a story based on the testimonies of the children of survivors. Their committee must hear the account from the survivor, or from other firsthand testimony.
About six months ago, Yad Vashem informed the Landaus and Truskas of the good news. A man from Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital, was able to verify the account, and the Truskas would now be entitled to inclusion in an upcoming ceremony to honor other Righteous Among the Nations.
That ceremony, tearful at times and joyous at others, was held last Wednesday night. Seven members of the Landau family attended, including the newest arrival, 11-week old Chaya Draizel, named for her great-grandmother who had been confined to the bunker. For the Truskas, in addition to Frantisek, his daughter and son-in-law and his two granddaughters were on hand.
Families had been broken by the war. The Landaus lost a total of 104 family members. But this was a night of reunions — fortuitously following the ninth yahrtzeit of Rabbi Aron Tzvi Landau..
As an added tribute, the Landaus presented Frantisek Truska with a silver menorah symbolizing the light that he and his family had restored to the Landaus.
What the Truskas never imagined was that their risky campaign would culminate in a Flatbush landmark. After moving to America, Rabbi Landau established his own kehillah in Flatbush in the early 1950s, because he didn’t want to encroach on anyone else’s kehillah. Prior to that, Rabbi Landau, who was the only man to ever receive smichah from the Minchas Elazer of Munkacz, served as a posek for the previous Satmar Rebbe, the Divrei Yoel ztz”l. Their association began when Rabbi Landau’s father, Rabbi Yitzchok Meyer Landau, a rav in Chust, was instrumental in helping the Satmar Rebbe obtain his first rabbinical post. Later, Rabbi Landau merited being a chavrusah of the Satmar Rebbe.
At a 1967 chanukas habayis at the old shul, Rabbi Landau spoke passionately, saying he was davening to Hashem that his shul remain open for tefillah day and night.
“That was a wild dream in those days, because there were not many Yidden in Flatbush,” observes Reb Sholom Noach. Certainly the “minyan factory” that is Landau’s today seemed a distant dream. “But Hashem listens to every tefillah of a tzaddik, and about 20 years later it was fulfilled.”
In addition to the shul, Rabbi Landau built the community’s first public mivkeh with the assistance of Rabbi Solomon Scharfman, then rav of the Young Israel of Flatbush, and the area’s first Yiddish-speaking yeshivah, elementary and high schools, and summer camps in the Catskills.
As Binyamin Zev Levy, an elderly member of the Nitra Mt. Kisco community who remembered Reb Yechezkel Shraga, recently told Reb Sholom Noach, “Every time I hear about the shul, the yeshivah, and the all the mosdos, I say, Hashem repaid your grandfather in the most befitting way for his years of mesirus nefesh and ahavas Yisrael.”
(Excerpted from Mishpacha Issue 396)