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A Life among Giants

Leah Gebber

On the seventh yahrtzeit of Rav Shlomo Wolbe, Family First talks to the Mashgiach’s lifelong partner, Rebbetzin Rivka Wolbe, who shares her miraculous life story.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

old photos of rav wolbe“Why does anyone want to hear about my life?”

Rebbetzin Rivka Wolbe sits in an old wooden chair in her tiny Jerusalem apartment. She looks genuinely puzzled. “I’ve had a sad life. I’m a survivor.” A pause. “If you want to hear about my husband, ask his talmidim.”

I lean forward, touching the lace tablecloth, and study the portraits that hang on the wall — Torah giants, all. And then I see a reflection of those noble features on the face of the woman who sits across from me. For, despite her consummate modesty, Rebbetzin Rivka Wolbe is a woman of greatness.

I ask questions, talk, sketch some history.

She sighs, nods, and begins her tale. And what a tale it is.

 

                                                            *

 

Slabodka. The word is a legend, a worldview: spiritual excellence, the cosmic significance of man and his actions, mussar perfection, scholarship. For Rivka Wolbe, Slabodka carries an additional meaning — home. For Rivka is the daughter of the kadosh Rav Avraham Grodzinski, the menahel ruchani of the yeshivah, the granddaughter of Rav Dov Tzvi Heller, the yeshivah’s loving and dedicated mashgiach — known as Golfshrtom, “the Gulf Stream,” due to his warmth and good heart.

Rivka was the fifth of eight children; when their mother, in her early 40s, fell ill, tragedy entered their lives. In those days, the finest medical centers were in Germany, and Rivka’s mother travelled to Königsberg for treatment. And travel was no simple feat.

“It was springtime, and the Vilia River, running between Slabodka and Kovno had begun to thaw,” Rebbetzin Wolbe recalls. The Vilia froze each winter and come the spring thaw, enormous blocks of ice would break off and float down the turbulent water. Although a wooden bridge was constructed each summer, every spring the bridge was washed away by the floating ice. Leaving Slabodka was impossible.

Bochurim from the yeshivah carried my mother on her bed over the river, treading on the ice blocks. At one point, they almost slipped into the water. But they managed to reach the other side and put my mother on the train to Königsberg,” Rebbetzin Wolbe says.

The doctors operated, but Rebbetzin Grodzinski did not survive the surgery. She was buried in Königsberg, not far from the kever of Rav Yisrael Salanter. The blow was so devastating that it was a full two days after his wife’s death until Rav Avraham Grodzinski recited the brachah of Baruch Dayan ha’emes. He waited until he felt able to say the brachah with the joyful acceptance required by halachah. “I stood behind my grandfather throughout the shivah,” Rebbetzin Wolbe recalls. “The house was full of yeshivah bochurim.”

Soon enough, life resumed a sense of normalcy: the children returned to school — for Rivka, this meant Yavneh School, Kovno, where she studied Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Latin, and Lithuanian. A married niece came to stay and took care of the children; girls from the village helped out in return for some pocket money.

The life so painstakingly reconstructed by the orphaned family was soon upturned. German war planes hummed overhead. War had crossed the Vilia River.

 

 

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