Subject | Author Name
“I tell you, my brothers in America: If you keep Shabbos,
it will be good for you”
A rediscovered film.
How was the Minchas Elazar’s eternal message of Shabbos given over to American Jews in movie theaters?
A lost world.
by Aharon Rubin photos Ouria Tadmor, Eliyahu Cobin, Mishpacha Archives
40 M IISSHHPAC HHAA 40 M PAC
00 Month 0000 | Month 00, 0000
MM IH H PAC H A I S S PAC H A
Munkacz’s Nine Minutes of Fame
The entire film is less than nine minutes.
Jewish Life in Munkacz, a
rare piece of filmed history, includes just a scant few scenes. But those scenes of a vanished era tell the tale of the two worlds that co-inhabited Jewish Munkacz — the fiercely traditional chassidim and the passionate young Zionists — and they feature one of the most prominent leaders of prewar Jewry, the Minchas Elazar, Rav Chaim Elazar Spira ztz”l. only to keep it by davening. I mean not to desecrate it with your actions! You can preserve its kedushah.” Footage of the chuppah quickly replaces the close-up of the Rebbe.
Then the scene shifts to a
The first scene captures the joy-
ous, chaotic preparations for a momentous event: the wedding of the Minchas Elazar’s only daughter, Chaya Fruma Rivka a”h (“Frimaleh”), to the distinguished young genius Reb Baruch Yehoshua Rabinowitz ztz”l, the son of Reb Nosson Dovid Rabinowitz ztz”l of Partzev. The wedding was especially joyous, as it signaled the continuation of the Rebbe’s line: the Minchas Elazar, who had worked miracles for so many others, waited 20 years for his personal miracle, the birth of Frimaleh. The shidduch had been finalized four years earlier, when the young genius was just 14. Now, on 17 Adar (March 15) 1933, the wedding day that would herald the future of Munkacz had finally arrived. Streams of people — over 20,000 men, women, and children — fill the main street, vying to catch a glimpse of the ornate carriage making its way into the city. A tight ring of police officers cordons off the crowd, pushing the people to the side of the road to make room for the wagon driver to guide his vehicle, with its distinguished occupants, to their destination. The camera then zooms in on the Rebbe himself. Wearing a kolpik, the Minchas Elazar directs his gaze at the cameraman and raises his voice with his characteristic passion. He shakes a raised finger as he exhorts, “The Midrash says that Shabbos is alone; it has no partner. I tell you, my brothers in America: If you keep Shabbos, it will be good for you. I do not mean
large group of children singing. The tune is familiar, the words slightly less so. These are young adherents of Munkacz’s Zionist movement singing Tikvateinu, the precursor of Hatikvah. At that time, the Zionist movement infused its anthem with biblical references like “the age-old hope to return to the land of our forefathers, the city where David lived.” The children were completely unaware that, only a few short years later, this stanza would be altered, and the yearning to “return to the land of our forefathers” would metamorphose into a desire to “be a free nation in our land.”
The camera then segues to
the other end of the spectrum: religious cheder children reciting brachos with their rebbi, a traditional young man bargaining with a seforim peddler over the price of a Chumash, a bearded Jew supervising the production of tzitzis.
The final scene features rings of
young men and women spiritedly dancing to a strangely haunting and still popular tune while singing the holy words “V’al yedei zeh yushpa shefa rav b’chol ha’olamos.” In less than nine minutes, the film comes to a close. But the images remain, and questions linger. Who were the real Jews of Munkacz, the devout chassidim or the spirited young Zionists? What had prompted the Minchas Elazar to address his fellow Jews in America? Who had produced the film, and why? In honor of the Minchas Elazar’s 75th yahrtzeit this month, his grandson, along with an elder chassid, shed new light on the famous footage.
Who put the microphone in front of the Minchas Elazar?
Struggle for the Heart The Hungarian city of Munkacz in the 1930s represented the struggles of chareidi society against Zionism, and of Chassidus against religious compromise. On the one hand, the city was home to a community of chassidim who adhered strictly to every detail of halachah and followed the guidance of the Rebbe, who was the city’s rabbinic authority. On the other hand, Munkacz was home to an idealistic sector of Jews who had been influenced by the Zionist movement and had established a large Hebrew gymnasium in the town. The Rebbe, who was known for his determined opposition to Zionism and all of its effects, was not entirely successful in undermining the movement’s influence. The Zionist movement succeeded in attracting hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of families in the city, but the Rebbe did everything in his power to prevent the ensnarement of the members of his own camp. The presence of two pulsating streams of Judaism soon attracted the interest of RussianAmerican photographer Roman Vishniac, who had been commissioned by the Joint Distribution Committee to photograph Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. Vishniac eventually published a collection of especially wrenching photos in his famous A Vanished World. On his 95th birthday, he met with a grandson of the Minchas Elazar, Reb Chaim Elazar Rabinowitz, and revealed that he’d also had a hand in capturing the face and voice of the famed Rebbe on film.
Continued on page 46
16 Sivan 5772 | June 6, 2012
Although he was fiercely antiZionist, the Minchas Elazar was a magnet of respect and awe throughout Munkacz
42 M I S H PAC H A
M I S H PAC H A
Munkacz’s Nine Minutes of Fame
Continued from page 43 Rav Chaim Elazar Rabinowitz is a resident of Jerusalem, a grandson of the Minchas Elazar and the brother of the current Rebbes of Munkacz and Dinov, who both reside in New York. His older brother, Reb Tzvi Nosson Dovid z”l, passed away about two years ago. The three remaining brothers also have a sister, who is married to Rav Tzvi Limnovski, a prominent marbitz Torah in the United States. These siblings are the progeny of the royal couple who were married in Munkacz and whose wedding was documented on film amid much fanfare. At the time of the wedding, Vishniac was stationed in Berlin, making steady trips to European communities to capture the poverty and desperation of the Jews. Moved and intrigued by Munkacz’s two streams, he recommended to a German film crew that they report on what he called “a crisis in Jewish society.” There were about 30,000 Jews living there, and the contrast between the two groups was astonishing. This complex social fabric was something that the filmmakers found enchanting; they were excited by the potential for such a documentary and understood that it could attract interest in many parts of the world, including the United States and greater Europe. The “royal wedding” seemed a perfect focal point for the documentary. Reb Yosef Binyamin Williger, originally of Munkacz and currently of Boro Park, is a man in his upper nineties who has been blessed with an incredible memory. Every detail of the history of the Munkacz community, along with the unique ways of its rebbe, is engraved on his very soul. Eighty years have elapsed since the historic filming, but Reb Binyamin’s memory has neither faded nor lost any of the details. Reb Binyamin was a youngster at the time, and from what he remembers, a member of the community made the connection with an American film crew. “It is unclear exactly who invited the film crew,” he says. “Our community certainly did not need them or have any interest in their presence. One of the locals made a connection with various media figures in the United States and reported to them about the historic wedding taking place, in which tens of thousands of people from throughout Eastern Europe were expected to participate.” The current film is an outtake from a March of Time newsreel installment from the 1930s called “Jewish Peasants.” Years later, Reb Binyomin Williger and his friend Reb Moshe Nechemiah Shtreubel z”l were instrumental in restoring Munkacz to its former glory and perpetuate the dynasty. “Reb Moshe Nechemiah took the two orphaned brothers, Reb Moshe Leib of Munkacz and Reb Yitzchak Yaakov of Dinov, under his wing when they arrived from Brazil, where their father was living at the time, in order to learn in the yeshivah in Telshe,” Reb Binyamin relates. “He provided them with lodgings in his home. He honed their personalities and provided them with constant companionship during their years in the Beis Medrash Elyon in Monsey, as well. Both of us drilled into them the importance of restoring the Chassidus.” Reb Binyamin attributes his own longevity, and the fact that he has formed familial connections with many of the gedolei hador, to the Minchas Elazar’s promise that for anyone who aided his descendants, he would attempt to be a meilitz yosher in Heaven. “I did a little bit for the Rebbe’s children,” Reb Binyamin says modestly. “With Hashem’s kindness, I have been blessed with a beautiful family and much nachas.”
Keep Shabbos! It’s impossible to remain unmoved by the emotional outcry of the black-and-white image of the Rebbe waving his hand and thundering in an impassioned tone, “I tell you, my brothers in America: If you keep Shabbos, it will be good for you!” But who arranged for the Rebbe to address his American brethren? And how did he even know that an American cameraman was capturing him on film? It is widely believed that the director of the film crew asked a member of the
Moved and intrigued by Munkacz’s two streams, Vishniac recommended to a German film crew that they report on what he called “a crisis in Jewish society”
Reb Yosef Binyamin Williger (R) and Reb Chaim Elazar Rabinowitz (L). “My grandfather didn’t know what the medium was. He had no inkling of what purpose it was meant to serve”
kehillah to prevail upon the Rebbe to deliver some sort of message to the Jews of America — those faced with the anguishing weekly test of keeping Shabbos. Many Jews in America failed to withstand the trial and felt that they had no choice but to work on Shabbos; at the same time, they continued to attend shul and even make Kiddush while dressed in Shabbos clothes before going to work. The Munkaczer chassid who had been approached by the film crew suggested to the Rebbe that they had been given a golden opportunity to deliver a message to the Jews in America about the importance of observing Shabbos properly. “There is a group of people here who will record the Rebbe and will then pass the recording on to viewers in America. I am certain that the Rebbe’s words will have a profound effect on the Americans’ souls,” the man urged the Rebbe. His entreaties were well received. The Rebbe, who was known for his kana’us, was undoubtedly unfamiliar with the newer technological developments of the day and was unaware that he would be captured
in a visual recording; he agreed. “It was an undeniable accomplishment on the part of the film crew that they managed to obtain a recording of my grandfather,” says the Minchas Elazar’s grandson. “But he did not know what the medium was. He certainly did not have an inkling of what motivated their request and what purpose it was meant to serve.” According to Reb Chaim Elazar, the producers significantly shortened the clip of the Rebbe’s words. The original message was naturally much longer and more meaningful, but this is the excerpt heard from the Rebbe in the famous documentary known as Jewish Life in Munkacz. “There is another nuance here,” he points out. “He could have used the opportunity to tell the Jews of America that the Jews of Munkacz were poor and in dire need of funds, but he skipped that and instead only related to their own spiritual dilemma.” What was the Minchas Elazar’s reaction when he learned the truth about the film? Reb Binyanim relates, “It was only after the
wedding that the Rebbe was told that the film was going to be screened publicly. He was very angry and disturbed, and wrote a letter to his chassidim forbidding them to watch it. The letter was publicized after the local Jews were curious to see it and began flocking to the places where it was screened. As obedient disciples of the Munkaczer Rebbe, his family members also refrained from viewing it.” Williger relates that at the time, a chilling rumor was heard to the effect that the man responsible for informing the film crew about the wedding passed away at a young age due to the anguish that he caused the Rebbe. “Today, only ten minutes of footage of life in the city can be seen,” he laments, “with the wedding serving as the centerpiece. But the original version was a much longer film that, as far as I know, was an hour long. As was expected, it became a sensation and the topic of conversation throughout the city.” A local joke that circulated at the time related that a chassid was once caught viewing the screening of the documentary, despite the
46 M I S H PAC H A
16 Sivan 5772 | June 6, 2012
M I S H PAC H A
Munkacz’s Nine Minutes of Fame
“I discovered that the film had been catalogued as a wedding of Czech farmers. I re-catalogued the film, and in exchange I received a copy”
Rebbe’s injunction not to see it. When asked why he was violating the Rebbe’s instructions, he related that someone had kicked him during the chuppah, and as a result of the crowding and confusion, he hadn’t been able to determine who it was. “I came to watch the film now in order to see who kicked me and to settle my accounts with him.”
Lost and Found For years, Reb Chaim Elazar treasured stories and memories of his grandfather, but he had yet to see the famous footage. “I had heard about the documentary from my father, but I didn’t know where I could find it. At one point, I heard that a distinguished Munkaczer chassid in Los Angeles who is a history buff was in possession of a copy of the film, which he had located in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in 1994. [The Holocaust Museum purchased the film from the National Archives and Records Administration in 1990.] “But, as a fundraiser for Munkacz institutions, anyone who wanted to see it was required to pay $5,000; the money would be channeled to the Munkacz institutions under the auspices of my brother, the Munkaczer Rebbe shlita. The chassid’s intentions were noble, but I didn’t feel it was appropriate to spend such a sum of my own money on it, despite the powerful desire I had to view the film.” A few years later, he achieved his objective
with almost no effort. “At the end of the 1990s, on a trip to America, I visited some relatives in Lawrence. I noticed that they had a picture of my grandfather that seemed to have been a freeze frame from that film. My heart skipped a beat. I asked my host if he had any way of gaining access to that coveted film, and he told me that one of his close friends had business ties with various people in the media, and he might be able to help me toward that end.” As it turned out, the original film was in the possession of a company that specialized in restoring old films and optimizing their quality. “I remember that it was a particularly cold and rainy day when I visited their offices,” Reb Chaim Elazar relates, “where I discovered that the film had been catalogued as a wedding of Czech farmers. I re-catalogued the film for them and made them aware of its content. They thanked me, and in exchange I received a copy. At first I wanted it to remain the property of the family, but somehow, as is the norm these days, it leaked out and has become available in the public domain.”
No Compromises The film presents the Minchas Elazar as an impassioned, somewhat fierce leader, and the two camps of Jews as entirely separate. But Reb Chaim Elazar says that both of those pictures are actually more nuanced: the uncompromising kanoi also
The funeral, 1937. The chassidim thought the Minchas Elazar would be there to greet Mashiach
left a legacy of love, and the Zionist camp was not entirely divorced from Jewish observance. “I have met many Jews who once lived in Munkacz,” he recounts. “Many of them davened at my grandfather’s shul and loved him dearly, but they were not deterred from sending their children to a gymnasium, regardless of the fierce opposition of my grandfather and all of the gedolei Yisrael. ‘You have to understand the situation during those troubled times. The Jews had great difficulty supporting their families; poverty was rampant. They wanted their children not to starve when they grew up, so they wanted them to have some sort of profession. At the same time, it can be said in their defense that they all kept Shabbos, at least publicly. There was not a single store that was open on Shabbos. Even those who became far removed from religion still were careful to preserve the character of the city.” Reb Binyamin Williger personally experienced the love and concern of the Minchas Elazar. “One day, my mother developed a severe infection in her leg and had to travel to Budapest for medical care. Before my parents set out on their trip, they asked me to go to the Rebbe’s house and mention my mother to him. That afternoon, I knocked on the door and went inside. The Rebbe was sitting in his room with a large Gemara open before him, engrossed in his learning. I burst into tears before I could even open my mouth. ‘What is it, my son? What happened?’ the Rebbe asked, caressing my cheek compassionately. I sobbed at length, and the Rebbe was unable to calm me down. Finally, I somehow managed to tell him what had happened to my mother and about the danger she was facing. “The Rebbe quickly rose to his feet, closed his Gemara, and ordered me to come with him. Right outside his home were the offices of the kollel that the Rebbe headed. Unlike his home, these offices had not been bypassed by technological developments; they possessed a telephone. The Rebbe called one of the most prominent doctors in Budapest, and as soon as the doctor picked up the phone, he said, ‘This is Chaim Elazar Spira of Munkacz. The wife of
my good friend Rabbi Williger is planning to see you tomorrow morning. I would like to ask you to be in the ward early in the morning, to provide her with the best treatment you can, and to take her under your medical care.’ “The doctor carried out the Rebbe’s instructions. Even though he did not know him personally, all of Hungary lived in awe and fear of the Rebbe, and a simple phone call from him was enough to motivate the doctor to honor his request.” Reb Chaim Elazar Rabinowitz has unearthed another gem of a story that illustrates the prodigious influence of the Minchas Elazar. During a visit to Bratislava in the beginning of the 1970s, he tracked down an elderly man by the name of Reb Yudel Cohen, who had served Rav Akiva Sofer ztz”l, the rav of the city. Reb Chaim Elazar’s curiosity brought him to the door of Reb Yudel’s home, where he was rewarded with a large helping of stories and recollections about his grandfather. “It was 1947, and the Jewish community was struggling to rise from the dust and rebuild after the devastation of the war,” Reb Chaim Elazar recounts. “And the Communists ruled all of the states in the region. Meanwhile, Reb Yudel was summoned to repair the eiruv, which had been damaged in the war. Already on that first Erev Shabbos, he began traveling from rooftop to rooftop, examining all of the existing eiruv poles in order to see where they needed to be fixed. A number of policemen passed by and noticed a man climbing on the rooftops, examining the entire area intently with binoculars. His ‘suspicious’ activities led to his immediate arrest. They suspected him of being an American spy sent to check the city’s antennas and relay the information back to his superiors. “At the police station, he was seated across from a tough interrogator who directed a blinding light at his eyes in order to force him to tell the truth. He was questioned at length about the purpose of his actions, but the interrogator didn’t believe his explanations about the prohibition of carrying in a public domain and the halachic device of erecting a structure of poles and threads to ‘enclose’ the area. As Shabbos approached, Reb Yudel asked the interrogator
to release him, but the man refused. He notified his superior that a bizarre individual was being held in custody. ‘He’s either a spy or crazy,’ the interrogator declared. “The official decided to investigate the situation personally and came to question Reb Yudel. When he steadfastly clung to his version of the story, the officer ordered him released. “Before Reb Yudel left the station, he asked the official the obvious question. ‘I know the truth, and the truth is exactly what I told you. But how is it that I managed to convince you of my sincerity?’ “ ‘Ah,’ the official told Reb Yudel, ‘I was a Shabbos goy for the Munkaczer Rebbe. I am familiar with all the laws of Shabbos.’” Reb Chaim Elazar gleaned another memorable recollection from Reb Moshe Leib Parkovitz, who lived in the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood of Jerusalem. When Reb Moshe Leib learned that Reb Chaim Elazar was a grandson of the Minchas Elazar, he was overjoyed. “I couldn’t understand why,” relates Reb Chaim Elazar, “until he began to tell me about his life story. At age 19, he decided to leave Jerusalem, the city of his birth, in order to study in a makom Torah in Hungary. While he was searching for a fitting yeshivah, he came to Munkacz. It was Erev Yom Kippur, but for some reason, none of the local residents noticed him and he was not invited for the seudah hamafsekes. He had only a small amount of money in his possession, and he purchased a cluster of grapes in order to satisfy his hunger and keep himself going until after the fast. “When he had finished his ‘meal,’ Reb Moshe Leib headed for the beis medrash, passing by the home of my grandfather, the Rebbe. My grandfather was standing by the window, attired in his kittel, checking the tzitzis on his tallis before putting it on. When he noticed the stranger walking down the street, he motioned for him to come inside. The young boy was still starving and naturally did not decline the invitation. My grandfather quickly served him a lavish meal and made sure that he ate his fill. Only when he had finished eating, my grandfather turned to him and said, ‘Shalom Aleichem, young man. Where are you from?’
48 M I S H PAC H A
16 Sivan 5772 | June 6, 2012
M I S H PAC H A
Munkacz’s Nine Minutes of Fame
“You think that I was screaming because there’s some sort of minhag to scream? My heart was filled with pain for the Shechinah to be revealed”
The Munkaczer Rebbe explains the dual forces within his grandfather. “His love of Eretz Yisrael and the Jewish People was the cause of everything”
“ ‘Now you can understand why I was so excited to meet a grandson of the Munkaczer Rebbe,’ he told me with tears in his eyes. ‘That kindness has remained with me until today.’ ”
Pain from Love
In a conversation with Mishpacha’s Yossi Elituv about five years ago, the current Munkaczer Rebbe, Rav Moshe Leib Rabinowitz, explained the dual forces that coexisted within his grandfather: his love for his fellow Jews, and his fierce battle against the Zionists. “I’m not sure that those are two opposite sides,” he explained. “His love of Eretz Yisrael and the Jewish People was the cause of everything. If a father sees someone trying to corrupt his son, he will scream angrily and do everything in his power to save his son. Why does he do that? Because he loves his son, not because he hates the person attempting to influence him. “My grandfather’s love of Eretz Yisrael was beyond description. Perhaps the following incident will give you an idea of the love of Eretz Yisrael and the Jewish People that
flowed through his veins. The Minchas Elazar was once admitted to a hospital in Budapest. There was a Jew there by the name of Professor Rosenthal, who allowed him to organize a minyan, but asked him to preserve the quiet and not to make noise that would disturb the doctors and patients. “They davened Minchah on Erev Shabbos with fiery passion, and my grandfather roared, ‘yomru geulei Hashem …’ At the sound of his cries, the doctors and nurses rushed to find out what had happened. They were told that the Rebbe was davening. “On Shabbos morning, the professor came to complain to my grandfather that he had jeopardized his career in order to allow him to daven with a minyan, and he had relied on the Rebbe’s promise that it would be conducted quietly and calmly. Surely the Rebbe must understand that one cannot create such a loud stir in a hospital. “My grandfather didn’t answer the question. He told Professor Rosenthal that in the middle of the night, someone had been brought in to the hospital who was letting out loud screams that pierced the heavens, and the entire hospital
had woken up from his screams. “Professor Rosenthal looked at the patient list and said, ‘Yes, you are correct, but I don’t understand the comparison. He had been in an accident and arrived with a broken arm and leg.’ “My grandfather said, ‘You understand the man who was screaming from a broken arm and leg, but you don’t understand that I have a broken heart? You think that I was screaming because there’s some sort of minhag to scream? Absolutely not. My heart was filled with pain because I wanted the Shechinah to be revealed, for the Jews to be redeemed from everywhere in the world.’ ” t The film crew back in 1933 couldn’t put their finger on the nuances and passion within the man in their lens. But their cameras managed to capture the challenges he faced, the masses of ardent followers, the grandeur of his court, and the passion he exuded for all things holy. It’s less than nine minutes, but the blackand-white film is a window to a world struggling to hold onto that holiness. —
50 M I S H PAC H A
16 Sivan 5772 | June 6, 2012