By Nechama Goldberger
In conjunction with the yahrtzeit of the revered Reb Yankele of Pshevorsk (the Admor Harav Yaakov Leiser) on 27 Cheshvan, Inyan presents a personal reminiscence of the Pshevorsker Rebbes, with a special emphasis on their summering in the resort town of Aix-les-Bains, France, and their influence on the French kehillah after the devastation of World War II.
Pshevorsk. Antwerp. The names evoke images of the tzaddikim of old, of Galitzianer Rebbes of a prewar world that is no more, of holiness cloaked in simplicity. With no institutions of its own, the Chassidus is certainly not an “empire.” The Rebbes of Pshevorsk, who are referred to simply by their first names, Harav Itzikel and Harav Yankele, zy”a, were tzaddikim who learned and taught Torah, and made themselves available to the many people who turned to them for advice and blessings.
Yidden on different continents can attest to the yeshuos effected by these holy tzaddikim. Today many still travel to Antwerp to the current Rebbe, Reb Leibish, shlita, to receive his brachos and to daven with him, especially during the Yamim Nora’im and Simchas Torah.
What may be less known is the history of these Rebbes in the early years after World War II. An important part of it are the summers Rav Itzikel and his family spent in the French resort town of Aix-les-Bains, the strong relationships they developed there and how they helped shape the face of French Orthodoxy.
Aix-les-Bains is a beautiful resort town in southeastern France in an area known as the Savoie, strategically located near the borders of Switzerland and Italy. Established around the lovely Lac du Bourget and surrounded on one side by Mont le Revard and on the other by small hamlets, the town has been known for centuries for its thermal baths.
At the beginning of World War II many Jews fled to Aix-les-Bains because of its proximity to the borders. Networks were established to smuggle Jews out of France to safety in Switzerland.
The Yeshivah of Aix-les-Bains – Yeshivas Chachmei Tzarfat
After the war hundreds of refugees, mainly survivors of the Dachau concentration camp, arrived in Aix-les-Bains. Rav Moshe Lebel, z”l, a native of Warsaw and a talmid of the famed Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, made his way to Aix toward the end of the war. He worked selflessly to rehabilitate these survivors and, with the help of the Vaad Hatzalah in America, set up various children’s homes in and around Aix for girls and for boys who had survived the concentration camps and had nowhere to go. He also rescued children hidden in monasteries and with non-Jewish families.
But he knew that to truly help Klal Yisrael it wasn’t enough to rehabilitate; he had to build. With great siyatta diShmaya, he started a yeshivah in Aix-les-Bains named Yeshivas Chachmei Tzarfas, which opened its doors in Elul 1945.
The obvious choice for Rosh Yeshivah was Rav Chaim Yitzchak Chaikin, zt”l, who had just returned from captivity as a French POW in Germany. Born in Kosovo, Lithuania, Rav Chaikin was a talmid chacham of note and a very close talmid of Harav Elchonon Wasserman, Hy”d, and of the holy Chofetz Chaim. He had been privileged to be one of seven older bachurim who lived and learned in the Chofetz Chaim’s house for the last seven years of the tzaddik’s life.
Joining Rav Chaikin from the start was Rav Eliyahu Elyovics, zt”l, originally from Hungary and a talmid of the famed Maharshag (Harav Shimon Greenfeld, zt”l), who had also spent most of the war years in Germany as a POW.
The yeshivah started off with French-speaking refugee boys and young men. It also served the kehillos in North Africa like Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria. After the Chief Rabbi of Fez and later of the entire Morocco, Harav Yedidya Monsonego, sent his two sons to the yeshivah in Aix, many followed suit, thus creating a beautiful student body of French Ashkenazim and North African Sephardim. Rav Yedidya’s son Aharon remained in Aix for seven years, without returning home once, and developed into a great talmid chacham. He eventually took over the rabbanus in Morocco from his father.
Under the influence of Rav Chaikin and Rav Elyovics, the yeshivah flourished as a real makom Torah, changing the face of French Jewry. Rav Chaikin’s self-effacement and his thirst for authentic avodas Hashem drew him to any tzaddik, no matter his background. It is therefore no wonder that the quintessential Lithuanian Rosh Yeshivah was able to develop deep relationships of mutual respect with chassidishe Rebbes like Rav Itzikel.
Rav Itzikel of Pshevorsk, originally from Galicia, was a direct descendant of the Rebbe Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk. A large part of his youth was spent in the home of his holy uncle, the Shinever Rav. After spending the war years in Siberia with his daughter and son-in-law, Reb Yankel Leizer, and their young son, Leibish, the family arrived in Paris from Cracow in 1949 and lived in a cramped apartment in the “Pletzel,” the Jewish neighborhood in the center of Paris.
In 1951, to get away from the heat and small quarters, the Rebbe Reb Itzikel and his entourage went to Aix-les-Bains for the summer. The setting was ideal for the Rebbe: a beis medrash was available for him, while his living quarters were in the building of the yeshivah. Immediately Harav Elyovics took it upon himself to serve the Rebbe and to attend to his needs. The family of Rav Elyovics became very close with the Rebbe, and this relationship continued with his descendants. Over the years, a rich correspondence flourished between Rav Elyovics and the Rebbes of Pshevorsk. These letters, in the family’s possession, offer a glimpse into the greatness of these holy men.
The presence of Rav Itzikel and his son-in-law, Rav Yankele, in the yeshivah had a big impact on the staff and the talmidim. Many became close Chassidim of the Rebbe and would travel to him during other seasons, and did so even when the Rebbe moved to Antwerp and established his court there.
Rav Itzikel’s derech was to hide his greatness. He would sit in the beis medrash most of the time, pretending to say Tehillim, when a close observer would notice that in truth he was reciting Gemara by heart.
Once Rav Aharon Monsonego entered the beis medrash carrying the lung of a cow. A discussion ensued among the lomdim in the beis medrash regarding the kashrus of the slaughtered animal. Rav Yankel joined the discussion, proposing various theories, whereas his father-in-law, Rav Itzikel, continued murmuring, seemingly ignoring the scene. Suddenly, when Rav Yankel noticed Rav Itzikel’s murmuring had changed tune, he understood that the Rebbe was trying to tell him something.
“Wait,” Rav Yankel exclaimed, “the Rebbe is telling us that our entire thesis is based on false assumptions, and the halachah isn’t as we are saying.”
Chassidim in a French Kehillah
The submission of Rav Chaikin to the Rebbe’s ways was a lesson in emunas chachamim and mutual respect that taught his talmidim how genuine ahavas Torah has no boundaries. One year the Rebbe spent Simchas Torah in Aix-les-Bains, and by then already had his own small beis medrash near the yeshivah. While the hakafos in the yeshivah had ended, the dancing of the Chassidim was still in full swing. Passing the chassidic beis medrash on his way home, Rav Chaikin noted the enthusiasm of the dancers.
“We stood at the door,” related Rav Chaikin to his sons in his later years, “and looked on. The room was filled with a holy fire. It was an uplifting spectacle. I stood from a distance, my heart filled with pain at how far removed I was from such an exalted level. It was at that moment that I understood the secret of anti-Semitism. When a non-Jew sees our joy at living such a meaningful life, he is jealous, and that is why he hates us! But for us the situation was different, I realized. We were Jewish and there was really nothing holding us back from joining them and training ourselves to express such a boundless love for Hashem and His Torah.”
Attracted as if to a magnet, Rav Chaikin joined the circle of dancers and allowed himself to express the deeply buried emotions of love for Hakadosh Baruch Hu, although it wasn’t the way he had been raised. That year the bachurim of Yeshivas Chachmei Tzarfas danced with the Chassidim for a long time…
“The Chassidim have saved us,” Rav Chaikin would often say. He was referring to the weakened adherence to the laws of tznius in France over the years, even among Orthodox Jews of German and Lithuanian descent, due to the negative influences that had crept in between the First and Second World Wars.
Because the community in Aix was so small, when someone celebrated a wedding, the sheva brachos usually took place in the dining room of one of the mechutanim, the men on one side of the table and the ladies on the other. When Rav Yankel, the Rebbe’s son-in-law, was once invited to a sheva brachos, he accepted only on condition that there would be a proper mechitzah. And so it remained with all subsequent sheva brachos held in the community. A standard had been set…
Rav Yankel once passed the beis medrash of the yeshivah on Erev Shabbos and saw one of Rav Chaikin’s sons busily laying out red tablecloths on the tables in honor of Shabbos. He mumbled to himself, but loudly enough that others could hear: “Red tablecloths for Shabbos?” When Rav Chaikin’s son ran to tell his father what Rav Yankele had said, the Rosh Yeshivah immediately ordered that they be removed. He said that from then on they would use only the white tablecloths usually reserved for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “If the tzaddik doesn’t approve, we must change.”
A Tzaddik’s Brachah
The relationship between the Rebbe and the yeshivah ran very deep. After the early passing of Rav Eliyahu Elyovics in 1968, his youngest son, Reb Shalom Elyovics, took over the presidency of the Aix-les-Bains kehillah. At the same time he was also very much involved in running the yeshivah. He and his wife worked tirelessly in the yeshivah office until they moved to Antwerp in 1993.
He related the following story: In 1967, after the events of the Six Day War caused Arab countries to become very hostile toward their Jewish citizens, the yeshivah experienced a huge influx of talmidim from North African countries, mainly Morocco. The number of talmidim grew to nearly 180. The French government allocated special funds for these refugees, initially for one year, and then extended it to two. This was to help them acclimate to their new country.
The yeshivah, a recognized place of learning, received a special allocation of funds for each bachur from Morocco, thus enabling them to accept so many talmidim. After the initial two years were almost over, the administration’s concern was how they would be able to keep all the bachurim from Morocco when the special funds from the government stopped.
The menahel, Rav Gershon Cahen, traveled to Antwerp to discuss the matter with Rav Itzikel. The Rebbe calmed him and gave him a brachah and advised him to continue to submit the lists with the names of the Moroccan talmidim, and everything would be all right.
That month they sent in the updated list of the North African bachurim to the government office, and money was paid for all the students on the list. The same thing happened each month after that until Rav Itzikel passed away on Yom Kippur, 1976. The month after his petirah the yeshivah received a letter from the government stipulating that the students were no longer eligible for government assistance and the allocations would be stopped.
Rav Shalom Elyovics also relates that Rav Yankel’s connection with Rav Chaikin ran so deep that when the latter lost his Rebbetzin, Rav Yankele, already Rebbe at the time, traveled from Antwerp to Aix-les-Bains, a journey of at least eight hours, to be menachem avel. Reb Shalom felt privileged to have the Rebbe stay at his home for three days, a zechus that left a strong impression on him.
Eventually the Pshevorsker Rebbe stopped coming to Aix-les-Bains and vacationed in Switzerland instead, usually in Arosa. Nevertheless the influence of Rav Itzikel on the community of Aix-les-Bains and the talmidim of Yeshivas Chachmei Tzarfas left its mark. Until today, the bachurim call the room in which Rav Itzikel and Rav Yankele slept “Rav Itzikel’s room.”
More importantly, it can be said that the presence of the Pshevorsker Rebbes indirectly influenced the whole of French Jewry and even farther afield, since many of the talmidim of the yeshivah went on to lead Torah institutions in France and Eretz Yisrael and serve as Rabbanim in various kehillos. Anyone who observed his deep yiras Shamayim, his humility and holiness, could be affected.
When Rav Itzikel passed away in 1976, Rav Chaikin assembled the entire kehillah and delivered a hesped. “Morai v’rabboisai,” he announced with his standard humility, “I want you to know that the bit of hatzlachah we have merited in this town and the little yiras Shamayim we have managed to implant in our talmidim are all in the zechus of this tzaddik Reb Itzikel, who lived within our walls.”
In the summer of 1951, the current Pshevorsker Rebbe, Reb Leibish, shlita, celebrated his bar mitzvah in the yeshivah of Aix-les-Bains. In honor of the occasion, Rav Itzikel asked one of the talmidim in the yeshivah, known as a lamdan and masmid, 16-year-old Yitzchak Weill, to farher his grandson. After the farher, Yitzchak reported that the bar mitzvah bachur knew the entire maseches Kiddushin by heart. Rav Yitzchak Weill is today Rav and Rosh Yeshivah in Aix-les-Bains.
In July of this year the Pshevorsker Rebbe, together with the Satmar Rebbe of Williamsburg, traveled to Paris for an atzeres chizuk for French Jewry. As one of the elderly Rabbanim in France, Rav Yitzchak Weill gave the main address. He reminisced about the close relationship he had enjoyed with all the Rebbes of Pshevorsk, and how his Rebbi, Rav Chaikin, and Rav Itzikel together had taught by way of their mutual respect that Yiddishkeit is one. There are no real boundaries between erliche Yidden wherever they may live and however different they may seem to be.
The bond had come full circle.