In every chassidishe hoif, it’s the eyes of the gabbai that have seen it all. Privy to the secrets of the inner sanctum, the holy will of its occupant, the devotion its adherents, he carries their burdens, shares their joys and sorrows.
Reb Itche Duvid Rezmowitz was born into the Vizhnitz Chassidus and has been breathing its air for decades — and for several years, some of the most historic in the history of Chassidus, he served as in the pivotal position of gabbai..
He was gabbai to the Rebbe, the great Imrei Chaim — Rav Chaim Meir Hager — who made it his life’s work to teach his chassidim what Chassidus means, a legacy from his holy fathers. In a way, his task was harder than that of his predecessors. They had to share the meaning and depth of Kossov and Vizhnitz with chassidishe Yidden, the devout Jews of the towns and villages near peaceful Grosswardein. Reb Chaim Meir was charged with the mandate of reviving dry bones, of filling the deafening stillness that followed the great destruction with song once again.
Itche Duvid Rezmowitz had spent his best days in the Vizhnitzer court in Romania, where Shabbos brought peace and tranquility to throngs of warm-hearted Yidden from surrounding towns that would come find shelter in the Rebbe’s presence. It was a place where Yom Tov meant just that: good days, days when the simplest Yidden along with the most illustrious would come taste joy in the Rebbe’s court. The sights and sounds of the Vizhnitzer court seeped into the very essence of teenaged Itche Duvid Vizhnitz, defining him as a Vizhnitzer chassid.
When it all came tumbling down, the buildings and memories, and there was only smoke, he remained a staunch chassid. When Shabbos seemed to be just another day filled with hunger and abuse, he remembered. When the present seemed to herald a future even bleaker, when it was virtually assured that a Vizhnitzer “Lecha Dodi” would never again be heard, he still believed. And when a group of broken survivors regrouped in postwar Palestine, numb from grief and loss, he still identified himself as a proud Vizhnitzer chassid.
One Erev Shabbos, in 1950, the Vizhnitzer Rebbe, Rav Chaim Meir Hager, disembarked from a ship, carrying within him a hope for perpetuation of Vizhnitz Chassidus on the holy shores of Eretz Yisrael. Standing among the crowds of chassidim at the port, Itche Duvid Rezmowitz shed a tear.
It was time to rebuild.
He threw himself in to the task, working with single-minded dedication to reconstruct the Vizhnitz of his memories. When the Rebbe shared his vision, even while others scoffed, Itche Duvid knew that vision would be realized. Soon enough, the Vizhnitzer court would find a seat in Kiryat Vizhnitz, a shtetl in Eretz Yisrael that would match the small town in Romania.
He bent his young shoulders before his Rebbe and said, “I am here to serve you.” And serve he did.
The Calm Before the Storm
The story of Reb Itche Duvid goes back to his childhood in Kwassi, the last days of the leadership of the Saba Kadisha, the Ahavas Yisrael of Vizhnitz, who led the Chassidus from the city of Grosswardein. He vividly recalls the bitter day at the beginning of Sivan 1936, when the new of the Rebbe’s passing reached the towns of the Marmorosh region. “The sky was already dark with the ominous news of the German rasha’s steady ascent. Against that backdrop, we well understood that the passing of the tzaddik was ‘mipnei hara’ah,’ a portent of bad times.”
The petirah had been on Shabbos, so that the news of the levayah came too late for the chassidim to actually travel to Grosswardein to participate.
He recalls his father traveling to Grosswardein, the seat of the Chassidus, for the shloshim, when a successor would be crowned. “The Rebbe left over four sons, each one extraordinarily qualified to lead the chassidim, and the ‘olam’ was prepared to let the older chassidim make the decision as to whom the new Rebbe would be. The oldest son, the Sheiris Menachem of Vishive, was a tremendous talmid chacham with a yeshivah of his own, but he was in America at the time of the petirah, collecting money for the yeshivah; his absence withdrew him as a candidate for the ‘rebbisteve.’ The other three sons were the Vilchovitzer Rov, Rav Chaim Meir; the Damesek Eliezer, who lived in Vizhnitz; and the Mekor Baruch, who lived in Seret.”
Reb Itche Duvid recalls his father’s return, with word of a new Rebbe in mouth: Reb Chaim Meir, the Vilchovitzer, had been crowned by the chassidim as their new leader. The sun had risen again.
Reb Itche Duvid remembers his first “nesiya” to the new Rebbe, the Imrei Chaim. It was the first Rosh HaShanah of his leadership — 1937 — and a large contingent of chassidim came to join the Rebbe.
“How can I describe that first tefillah, Shacharis on Erev Rosh HaShanah? The olam was split in to two rows, and the Rebbe himself walked up and down between the crowds, his face aflame: I will never forget the picture.”
After the Yamim Tovim of that year, young Itche Duvid remained in Grosswardein for cheder, living with his grandparents, so he had the opportunity to spend time in the “hoif” of the new Vizhnitzer Rebbe.
“The Rebbe was in the year of aveilus, and he would lead Shacharis every morning at nine o’clock sharp. The doors of the beis medrash were locked at nine fifteen, so that no one should enter once the tefillos were underway.
“I had to be in cheder before that time, so I would stop by just to hear a bit from the Rebbe, a small part of birchas hashachar. But,” Reb Itche Duvid’s eyes twinkle mischievously, “there were days when I was simply unable to tear myself away and I would remain there to hear the Rebbe daven. On those days, I got punished for coming late.”
He pauses. “Today I know that the inspiration and invigoration of those early years entered my heart and they are what kept me warm throughout the years.”
The young boy celebrated his bar mitzvah while a talmid at the yeshivah. “My father couldn’t leave Kwassi to join me. He was the town shochet, and since Kwassi was a resort town, the summer was high season for him.” The Rebbe, the Imrei Chaim, affixed the tefillin on the boy’s head for the very first time, and it was at the Rebbe’s tisch that he delivered his pshetel. He was no longer a Vizhnitzer boy, but a Vizhnitzer bochur.
Not long after his bar mitzvah, the idyllic world of Itche Duvid Rezmowitz came tumbling down, just as it did for the majority of the Jewish nation. Far too young, he bid farewell to his parents for the last time. Far too soon, his youth was complete.
Years of Wrath
He spent the next few years — bitter, difficult ones — running, eventually being sent to Birkenau and Mauthausen. Those years spent without his Rebbe are worthy of an article of their own. (In fact, he documents his experiences in his fascinating memoir, Yamim M’kedem.)
Reb Itche Duvid recalls the last encounter with the Rebbe, right before the Rebbe left Grosswardein for the last time. The Hungarians were then collaborating with the accursed Germans, and were enforcing the law that called for every Yid to shave off his peyos and beard. A group of Yidden worked together, performing the painful task for each other. “No one wanted to be the one to touch the Rebbe’s heilege beard and peyos, and I couldn’t bear the thought of seeing his angelic countenance after it would be done. I had to go. I left the Rebbe for the last time, holding on the hope that his daughter, Rebbetzin Sheva [later Ernster], who was working assiduously to bring him to Romania, would succeed.”
The young chassid left Grosswardein and his Rebbe with nothing; nothing except a small tattered piece of paper that he clung to as to life itself. It was a relic from that last period, just before the exile from Grosswardein. At that time, the Rebbe spearheaded a campaign to collect funds to feed and sustain the swelling numbers of refugees from Poland and Galicia. To each donor, he gave a small receipt listing the amount donated along with their name and mother’s name. The opportunity to receive a paper inscribed with the Rebbe’s holy handwriting inspired many people to give, among them the young bochur. The small paper with the words “Yitzchok Dovid ben Chana Baila” became a treasured possession.
“Throughout the long and dangerous journeys, I kept that paper close to my heart, pulling it out and looking at it whenever I was particularly in need of chizuk. In the darkest times, I would contemplate the fading letters and in them, I saw a reflection of the Rebbe’s holy countenance and it kept me strong…. It was like having him with me.”
Reb Itche Duvid prefers not to focus on the time in death camps, but he recalls one bright spot. “I was walking between the ‘blocks’ one day, and I heard familiar voices. I approached a group of men and saw Reb Boruch’l, the Vishive Rav; Reb Moshe’le of Rimanov; and other Yidden from Grosswardein. They told me that they been hiding in a bunker in Grosswardein, but had been discovered by the reshayim and sent to Auschwitz.”
Reb Moshe’le from Rimanov, who had escaped Poland to Hungary before being sent back, sighed deeply as he shared his story. “Ana elech m’ruchacha,” he quoted the pasuk in Tehillim, “from here I escaped and to here I was sent back.”
The newcomers informed young Itche Duvid that the Rebbe and his family were safely in Romania. The news was a ray of sunlight in the valley of darkness.
“Hearing that my Rebbe was alive was a burst of energy, an injection of fresh kochos, a reason to keep fighting.” Reb Itche Duvid recounts.
After the liberation, the bochur spent several years learning in Yeshivas Sheiris HaPleitah in Rome, under Rav Eizek Moscowitz. It was only in 1948 that he finally made his way to Eretz Yisrael. Thus began what is undoubtedly the grandest part in Reb Itche Duvid’s tale: his role in the rebuilding of the Chassidus that had been decimated. He was no mere witness to the rebirth; he was part of the rebirth.
Immigrant Turned Activist
When he arrived, the Rebbe was traveling in Europe and America on a journey to lay the groundwork for a new Vizhnitz Chassidus, a campaign that most considered hopelessly optimistic.
The reunion between chassid and his Rebbe would have to wait, but Itche Duvid was ushered in to see the Rebbe’s oldest son. At the time, Reb Moshe’le, the present Vizhnitzer Rebbe, was known to Itche Duvid as the Vilchovitzer Rov, as he had replaced his father there. In Eretz Yisrael, he was known as the Rosh Yeshivah.
The sight of the Vizhnitzer yeshivah — with all the history that the name conjured up — saddened the new arrival; a small room, with just a few boys learning. The Rosh Yeshivah’s room adjoined the beis medrash, and Itche Duvid knocked.
The child that had left Grosswardein was no longer, and the bearded young man with eyes that had seen too much was a stranger to the Rosh Yeshivah.
“Vilchovitzer Rov!” shouted Itche Duvid emotionally. “It’s me, Itche Duvid Rezmowitz.”
The Rosh Yeshivah embraced him and held him close. He accepted Itche Duvid as a talmid in the nascent yeshivah, pending approval from his mother, the Rebbetzin, who was ‘in charge’ in the absence of the Rebbe.
This was the summer. Over the next few months, the resourceful chassid adapted quickly and quickly went from being a helpless new immigrant to a talented askan. He was in constant contact with his Rebbe, who expressed great joy that his chassid was thriving in the yeshivah. Finally came the letter from the Rebbe with news of his impending return to the Holy Land.
Reb Itche Duvid still remembers those moments. “On Rosh Chodesh Shvat we stood at the Haifa port on a Friday morning, about two hundred of us — older people, young people, all part of the simchah. What a moment it was … the LaGuardia pulled in the harbor and the Rebbe stepped out. Tears of joy, tears of anguish … memories of the past mingling with overwhelming gratitude. The Rebbe himself seemed overcome with emotion. When he had left Eretz Yisrael, a significantly smaller crowd than the one on hand had seen him off. The Chassidus had grown in his absence.”
The Rebbe greeted the chassidim, each one by name. “Suddenly, I heard his voice, so full of love, so gentle. ‘Itzik Duvid!’ he called out. He recognized me!”
The Rebbe lost no time in articulating his dream: a ‘kiryah,’ a shtetel of his own that would mirror the one that was lost. To most, it seemed a guaranteed failure.
At the time, the majority of admorim lived in Tel Aviv, and most people encouraged the Rebbe to remain there as well.
Bnei Brak was desolate, devoid of commerce, shopping, and convenience, and few saw potential for a thriving settlement there. Still, the Rebbe refused to be dissuaded and, with his loyal chassid at his side, got to work.
For ten years, Reb Itche Duvid worked as a mashgiach in the Vizhnitzer yeshivah, working on both the educational and financial fronts. He carried two major responsibilities, each of them daunting enough to break a lesser man: building a firm financial base to ensure the yeshivah’s future and establishing a firm spiritual base so that the Chassidus would have a future.
In 1961, the Rebbe called in the talented mashgiach and “promoted” him, asking him to work at his side — and from then until the Rebbe’s passing in 1972, the new gabbai was at the helm.
The Chazon Ish Has Ruled
Far from the end of Rabbi Akiva Street, a few buildings stood, proudly carrying a vision that seemed too grand for their lonely appearance: the revitalization of Vizhnitz. Yet what the kiryah lacked in convenience was compensated by the richness of the spiritual infrastructure. Reb Itche Duvid remembers the Old Country flavor that marked the new venture: “There was a Yid, Reb Mendel Daskal, who would walk through the dusty streets at dawn and rouse everyone for Shacharis, using the age-old nigun.”
Slowly but steadily, the yeshivah grew, and its new quarters in the kiryah were soon cramped. The rosh yeshivah, Rav Moshe’le, was appointed rav of the kiryah, though he continued to teach the bochurim in the yeshivah. With its firm basis of yeshivah complemented by some housing and a small infrastructure — all drawing strength and encouragement from the vision of the Imrei Chaim, Kiryat Vizhnitz became a reality. Finally, on the 2nd day of Sivan 1952, the settlement was officially inaugurated at a chanukas habayis. The giant of Bnei Brak, the Chazon Ish, attended and blessed the olam. He remarked to the Rebbe that a time would come that people wouldn’t say that Kiryat Vizhnitz is next to Bnei Brak, but that Bnei Brak is next to Kiryat Vizhnitz.
Reb Itche Duvid shares a beautiful story. “While in Tel Aviv, we used electricity in the yeshivah on Shabbos, in accordance with the psak of Rav Dushinsky. When we moved to Bnei Brak, however, the Rebbe directed us to follow the psak of the Chazon Ish, the local posek, who ruled that it’s forbidden. The generator we installed made a tremendous noise, one that could be heard throughout the neighborhood, and someone asked the Chazon Ish if the noise didn’t decrease the peace of Shabbos.
“The Chazon Ish smiled. ‘Adaraba,’ he replied, ‘the generator is proclaiming “Shabbos Kodesh, Shabbos Kodesh,” crying out that it is forbidden to use municipal electricity on the holiest of days.’$$separate quotes$$”
Reb Itche Duvid was also privy to highly sensitive negotiations between the Rebbe and his esteemed family members. This account, too, centers around the words of the Chazon Ish.
“The story begins with the Rebbe’s leave-taking from Grosswardein, which had been the seat of the Vizhnitzer Chassidus for so long. Before his escape, the Rebbe visited the gravesite of his father, the Ahavas Yisrael, and placed his hands on the stone. ‘Tatte, I must leave our town — Grosswardein — and I hope to reach Eretz Yisroel. I promise you, Tatte, that I will do everything in my power not to leave you here, but to bring you up as well.’”
After the war, the Rebbe convened a beis din who gave him a heter to move his father’s holy aron to Eretz Yisrael. There were all sorts of hindrances — bureaucratic, technical, and financial — and it wasn’t until 1950 that the Rebbe was able to fulfill his promise.
At that time, Reb Yankel Halperin was developing the Zichron Meir neighborhood in Bnei Brak and offered the Rebbe a plot in the cemetery adjoining the village. The Rebbe was ready to accept the offer, but others in the family felt that the Ahavas Yisrael belonged in Tiveria or Yerushalayim, with the great rebbes of the generations.
It was decided to ask the Chazon Ish.
The Rebbe went to meet the gadol hador accompanied by his son-in-law, Reb Yidele Horowitz — a talmid of the Chazon Ish — and Reb Itche Duvid.
There weren’t enough chairs in the room for all the guests, and the host offered his own chair to the Rebbe while he himself sat on his bed. With complete simplicity he gestured to Reb Yidele to sit next to him on the bed — a request that Reb Yidele turned down, refusing to sit in the presence of his rebbi.
The Rebbe explained the different opinions within the family, but the Chazon Ish’s response was immediate. “Definitely here, without a doubt. Chazal tell us about Chizkiyahu HaMelech that they established a ‘yeshivah al kivro,’ and you are in the midst of building a yeshivah here, next to where he will be.”
The Chazon Ish had ruled.
The conversation seemed to have come to a close. But then Reb Itche Duvid caught a few more words that fell from the holy mouth of the Chazon Ish. “We will have a ‘gutte shcheinos,’ be good neighbors.”
Reb Itche Duvid remembered those words a few years later, when the Chazon Ish was niftar and laid to rest next to the Ahavas Yisrael — good neighbors, two tzaddikim protecting the holy city of Bnei Brak.
Decades later, when the Rebbe realized his dream of having a sefer Torah written in memory of his father, Reb Itche Duvid heard him comment: “Before I left to Eretz Yisruel, I traveled from Bucharest to Grosswardein and I hurried to my father’s tziyun. As I did, I thought, Heilege Tatte, all your life, your passion was to be with other Yidden, among Yidden, and so it’s been since your passing — you’ve always been surrounded by Yidden. Now, I am leaving, the Yidden are leaving ... must you remain alone? Since then,” the Imrei Chaim continued, “my goal was to bring him here, and despite the hardships it entailed, we merited to do so. I only hope that he is happy ... all he ever wanted was to be with Yidden!”
Reb Itche Duvid shares a memory from many years later. “The Lelover Rebbe, Reb Moshe Mordche, wanted to move from Tel Aviv to Bnei Brak, but he first came to ask the Rebbe for permission. The Rebbe smiled at the request and responded with a question of his own: ‘Is the Lelover Rebbe familiar with 47th Street, in New York?’
The Lelover wasn’t, so the Rebbe explained that it’s a diamond center, and the sheer number of businesses selling the same merchandise assures the sellers that anyone seeking a diamond will come to that street. There is no way someone seeking the right diamond can come to 47th Street and not find what he is looking for.
“I envision that Bnei Brak will be the center of Chassidus,” the Imrei Chaim shared his vision with the Lelover Rebbe. “If a Yid needs a rebbe, he will know where to look.”
Reb Itche Duvid laughs. “There you have a story that highlights both the Rebbe’s sweetness and his wisdom at once.”
Years of Rebuilding
As the kiryah expanded and the population grew, Itche Duvid played a major role in its continued development. Even as he continued learning in the yeshivah, he contributed his considerable organizational talents to the administration, steadily gaining a name for himself. One day, a gentleman from Yerushalayim, Reb Yitzchok Filip, came to the office and inquired about sending his son to the yeshivah. He was actually “checking out” the personable bochur who worked there, and in time, a meeting was arranged between Itche Duvid and his daughter.
The wedding is still poignant in Reb Itche Duvid’s mind. “From my own family, no one attended — after all, I had no one. But the Rosh Yeshivah and his Rebbetzin came as mechutanim from my side.”
At the chasunah, the Rebbe himself served as “shushbin,” escorting the chassan to the chuppah, dancing joyously, and lifting the spirits of all those around him.
As a married man, Reb Itche Duvid juggled responsibility for his own home with administration of the Chassidus. He was charged with the difficult task of organizing and soliciting funding from Vizhnitzer chassidim, essentially creating a network where there was none. It was far from easy, but if afforded him a special connection with the Rebbe.
Once, a wealthy Vizhnitzer chassid who made his home in Europe visited the kiryah in Eretz Yisrael. He was amazed at what he saw. His reaction wasn’t lost on Reb Itche Duvid, who requested a meeting with him at his hotel.
“I asked him for the money necessary to complete the building of the shikun — a large amount — and he hesitated. He said that if the Rebbe specified an amount, he would donate that amount.
“I went in to the Rebbe and relayed the offer to him. He smiled and responded, ‘You know that my father never asked for a specific amount, and maybe this Yid knows that and is looking for a way out.’
“I pleaded with the Rebbe, just this once, to state a number, so that the burden of raising the funds to finish the project would be removed from his shoulders. The Rebbe suddenly grew very serious and told me, ‘If I specify an amount and he refuses, I am worried that his entire fortune will be in jeopardy. It’s better not to ask.’”
Reb Itche Duvid pauses and reflects on the way the Rebbe walked in seemingly ordinary paths, but in essence, so much mystery shrouded his actions and words. “He would make a joke to someone, and later we see how he was effecting salvation.”
The Rebbe once casually remarked to his gabbai that “it isn't that difficult to be mashpia refuos, assist akaros, and bestow other blessings, but there are two areas that are difficult for me: to be mashpia parnassah and help heal depressed children.”
Reb Itche Duvid is no youngster, and he has little strength to continue our conversation. He suggests that he has said enough. I plead for a few more memories, for he has the gift of the storyteller … and one cannot get enough of listening to him.
Reb Itche Duvid thinks for a moment and accedes. “One summer I accompanied the Rebbe to St. Moritz on his vacation. It was his habit to go for lengthy walks in the mountains. One day, he asked if anyone was prepared to join him on a ‘long walk.’ Of course, I accompanied him, as did another chassid. The Rebbe asked me to bring a chair, a bottle of water, and a towel. We started to walk, the Rebbe gripping his stick. We walked and walked, with the Rebbe leading the way up hills and paths, obviously with a destination in mind. After three hours, we reached the crest of a hill and the Rebbe stopped. There was a small kiosk and the Rebbe handed me a few coins to buy a bottle of cold soda. He poured a cup for each of us and then made a brachah, shehakol. A soon as he finished the drink, he immediately began to descend, not remaining to enjoy the magnificent view for an extra moment.
“Though that event was a memorable one, it wasn’t an isolated incident. Other times, when we would travel, he would instruct us to stop the car at a certain place and he would step out and make a shehakol on a drink.”
The First Kvittel
Reb Itche Duvid’s memories span the highest moments of elation and the lowest times of despair in Vizhnitz. On that darkest of days, the 9th of Nisan 1972, when his revered Rebbe ascended heavenward, he was in the room along with the immediate family.
After the kvurah and the customary seudas havra’ah, he entered the house where he had served his master so faithfully. The Rebbe’s two sons, Reb Moshe Yehoshua, who had been Rosh Yeshivah, and Reb Mottele of Monsey, were sitting forlornly.
“I reminded them that in Vizhnitz the minhag is for the yorshim to accept kvittlech immediately after the levayah. They both refused to listen. They were overwhelmed and it was Erev Shabbos. I insisted. The younger brother looked to the older one, who said, ‘Perhaps after Shabbos, not today.’
“'I don’t understand,'" I said. "'If one is able, then why not now?'
‘Nu,’ the new Rebbe waved his hand, ‘do whatever you think is right.’”
The Imrei Chaim’s trusted gabbai, Reb Itche Duvid, handed over a kvittel and pidyon to the older brother, who read it with great intensity, and then to the younger, who did the same.
His hands extended the first kvittel to these two tzaddikim, the Rebbes of Vizhnitz in Bnei Brak and Monsey.
The Rebbe was gone and his sons had replaced him; Reb Itche Duvid felt that his work was done. He had poured his very lifeblood into the arid earth and watched the desert bloom. He had heard the optimism in his Rebbe’s voice and followed his call, a true mechutan in the simchah of the great rebirth.
He retired from public life, moving to America, where he continued to take a leading role in helping the Chassidus, and a wide variety of other worthy causes.
Still, each Erev Rosh Chodesh he tries to travel from his home in Boro Park to join the Monsey-Vizhnitz Rebbe, who leads the recitation of the entire sefer Tehillim.
Visitors to the beis medrash might notice an old man sitting in a corner, with a snowy-white beard and eyes that have seen it all.... But his heart is no different than it was that first time, a young boy from Kwassi ...
And the brachos of the Rebbes accompany him still.