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Generous Heart, Giant Spirit

David Damen, Belgium

For close to 50 years, Rav Chaim Kreiswirth occupied the throne of the Antwerp rabbanus, weaving together a lifetime of brilliant Torah scholarship and boundless chesed. A decade after his passing on 16 Teves 5762, the keepers of Rav Chaim’s legacy — today’s leaders of the Antwerp kehillah — recall the incredible personality that the Jews of the city took such pride in having as their leader.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

When the Nazis entered Poland and began their systematic roundups, Chaim Kreiswirth, just 21, was already a famed rosh yeshivah in Warsaw. In fact, from age 15, the young genius known as the Krakower Illuy served as a maggid shiur in several yeshivos. Now, he was being led into the woods behind Nazi headquarters, which had already been turned into a killing field. His turn was next.

As Reb Chaim felt the barrel of his captor’s gun at his back, he asked for one last request — to pray. “Ribono shel Olam, please let the merit of my Torah learning save me from death, but if that is not enough, please remember the merit of what I did for Rav Yeshayale Mishnah and rescue me from this grave.”

Rav Yeshayale Mishnah was a blind, elderly Jew and grandson of Reb Mordechai of Kremenitz who had made his way to a Warsaw yeshivah from the city of Ravna. The yeshivah didn’t have enough beds for its own bochurim, but Reb Chaim — a staff member with a coveted bed — gave his bed to Rav Yeshayale while he slept on the cold floor for an entire year.

Reb Chaim was waiting for the fatal shot, when the German hesitated. “Look, I also left my family and my children behind in Germany. You look like a fine fellow, and I don’t really want to take your young life right now. You know what? I’ll shoot twice into the air so that my superiors think I killed you, and you run away as fast as you can….”

This chilling story, says Rav Asher Chaim Sternbuch shlita, a dayan and posek in Antwerp’s Machzikei Hadas community, sheds precious light on the personality of Rav Chaim Kreiswirth ztz”l — leader of Antwerp’s Jews for close to five decades, who was a master of chesed as much as he was a brilliant Torah scholar. Reb Chaim’s encyclopedic Torah knowledge and penetrating comprehension was legendary, but, as he himself attested on numerous occasions, he was drawn to the books whose pages were filled with the names of widows, orphans, and other downtrodden, broken people whom he had encouraged, supported, and financed until the last days of his life.

Rav Asher Chaim Sternbuch — whose father Rav Eliyahu Sternbuch shlita is chief dayan of the Machzikei Hadas community and one of Europe’s prominent rabbanim — had a very close personal relationship with Rav Kreiswirth of his own accord, in addition to the bond created by his father. For 40 years, Rav Eliyahu Sternbuch served at Rav Kreiswirth’s side as both a dayan and in other public capacities, aiding him during some of the most difficult decisions he had to make during his tenure as the rav of the chareidi community of Antwerp.

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