The Gerrer community, as well as the wider Zurich community, mourned the petirah on Wednesday morning in Yerushalayim of Reb Leibel Bornstein, z”l, at the age of 95.
Reb Leibel (Yehudah Shraga) was born in Shevat 5783/1923, in Lodz, Poland. His father, Reb Avraham, was a noted Gerrer Chassid. In his youth, he grew up with his cousins, the famous Reb Shmuel Yitzchak Bornstein (Shmuel Lukova) and his brothers. As a child, Leibel learned in Talmud Torah Yesodei HaTorah, under the tutelage of noted mechanech Harav God’l Eisner. He would reminisce fondly about those years.
He managed to travel several times to Ger, to bask in the kedushah of the Rebbe, the Imrei Emes, zy”a.
All this came to an abrupt end with the outbreak of World War II. When Lodz was taken over at the beginning of the war, his family – like countless others – fled the city. Leibel helped the son of the Imrei Emes, the Lev Simchah, who was living at the time in Lodz.
The family later returned to Lodz, where they spent the next four years in the ghetto. Devoted to his parents, Leibel took it upon himself to take care of his parents’ needs – notably tending to the food rations. He also helped procure food for his cousins, who didn’t register in the ghetto.
Reb Leibel would often say that he thought he was zocheh to arichus yamim and nachas from his descendants due to his utter devotion to kibbud av va’eim. This is not a segulah, he would note, it’s a clear passuk in the Torah: “l’maan ya’arichun yamecha u’lmaan yitav lach – in order that your days be lengthened, and that it will be good for you.”
He would relate that at one Aktzia, the Nazis came looking for his mother, and he promptly hid her. The Nazis demanded that someone else come in her stead, and Leibel volunteered. He was taken to be killed, but managed to escape through the bathroom. He hid in the sewers for several days and returned to his family.
Through much perseverance, he managed to stay together with his father throughout the years in the ghetto, and would always do the labor his father was meant to do. Once a Nazi officer wanted to punish his father for not working up to standard. Leibel went instead. He received a whipping that caused him to faint, and left his back scarred for the rest of his life. He proudly said this was part of his kibbud av.
His father died during the last week of the war from typhus. His last words to Leibel were, “When you feel times are tough, remember the Rebbe’s countenance.”
After liberation in Buchenwald, he and his cousin, Yossel Bornstein, later of New York, searched for tefillin. As they only spoke German, they were unable to communicate with any of the American soldiers. A Jewish officer by the name of Birnbaum heard them say tefillin and graciously gave them his tefillin to wear. They met later in Israel and at family simchos.
In Switzerland after the war, Leibel was all alone in the world. Despite all he had been through, he only agreed to take a job that would allow him to wear a kippah at work.
It was during these years that Reb Leibel began what was to become a lifelong connection with the Gerrer Rebbes. He would send letters to the Beis Yisrael in Yerushalayim, and the Rebbe would respond with letters of chizuk and hadrachah. These letters deeply influenced Reb Leibel, and he treasured and kept them all.
There were barely any Chassidic families in Zurich at that time. The noted shochet Reb Avraham Shlomo Kowalski was the only frum man with a beard in Zurich. Reb Leibel was hosted by the family numerous times, and in 5710/1950 married their daughter Esther, tblch”t. His hanhagos all followed directives he received from the Beis Yisrael. Reb Leibel was the first chassan after the war to wear a kapote in Switzerland.
He and his wife saved money all year to enable Reb Leibel to travel to the Beis Yisrael and remain with him for the full month of Tishrei. This was an act of great mesirus nefesh by his wife and family.
Reb Leibel was one of the close Chassidim of the Beis Yisrael, and later of all the Gerrer Rebbes.
Reb Leibel was noted for his pleasant ways. He was never seen to get angry, despite all the hardships he had been through. Another notable quality was his kevius for Torah and tefillah. He was always the first in the shtiebel before Shacharis. Reb Leibel told others to come at least 15 minutes before tefillah, to be properly prepared. Even in his last years, when his mobility was limited and he needed help to get to davening, he would always be on time. One time, one of his grandchildren brought him late to Shacharis, and Reb Leibel, then in his 90s, told him that was the first time in his life that he had come late to davening!
Reb Leibel and his family were known for their tzedakah and chessed. Their home in Zurich was noted for hachnasas orchim.
Reb Leibel moved to Eretz Yisrael exactly two years ago on Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. He lived in an apartment adjacent to his daughter Mrs. Olewski, where his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren took turns to help him. He would relate many of his war stories and memories from “der heim.”
Even in these years, he davened with a minyan every day. As much as he could, Reb Leibel tried to participate in every tefillah and tisch he could with the Rebbe, shlita. This gave him much chiyus.
Over the last two weeks he was greatly weakened and was hospitalized, but later released. Reb Leibel was niftar peacefully at home early Wednesday morning. The levayah was held, with a large crowd in attendance, including the Gerrer Rebbe, shlita. Reb Leibel was buried on Har Hazeisim.
Reb Leibel is survived by his sons Reb Yisrael Mordechai of Zurich-Yerushalayim and Reb Yonason of Yerushalayim, and daughters who are married to Reb Eliyahu Chaim Pshitick of Yerushalayim, Harav Yosef Piekarski of Boro Park, son of Hagaon Harav Yisrael Yitzchak Piekarski, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah in Lubavitch, Rabbi Avraham Eiger of Zurich, grandson of the Lubliner Rebbes, zy”a, and Reb Yaakov Yitzchak Olewski of Yerushalayim, son of Hagaon Harav Yisrael Moshe Olewksy, zt”l, Celler Rav.
Reb Leibel was zocheh to be a mechutan with some of the Gerrer Rebbes: the Lev Simchah, the Pnei Menachem, zy”a, and, yhbch”l, the Rebbe, shlita, with his grandchildren marrying into the Rebbe’s family. His grandchildren also married to the children of the Sochatchov Rebbe and Sadigura Rebbe, shlita.
He is also survived by hundreds of grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren, all following in his illustrious ways.
Yehi zichro baruch.