100 Years: The First Knessiah Gedolah
By Rifka Junger
Trembling ripples through the crowd as the senior Rabbi of the Kenessio, the sage from [Radin], the “Chofetz Chaim,” led by younger Rabbis, ascends the platform to bestow his blessing upon the Congress. The assembly is spellbound by the holy radiance emanating from his alabaster countenance, by the fire that blazes forth from his transfigured eyes, as if gazing into another, higher world. Thousands hang on his every word with bated breath, not understanding a word, for while the spirit remains eternally young, the voice of old age is weak and faltering. Yet everyone listens and is spellbound… feeling deep within — a saint from another world is speaking to us
— Der Israelit, 15 August 1923
It was August 1923, and the majestic city of Vienna was flooded with frum Jews from across the world, traveling long distances by boat and train, carriage and automobile to partake in the historic Conference of the Agudas Yisroel — the First Knessiah Gedolah.
One hundred years have passed, and entire worlds have been shattered and rebuilt. Still, the story of that week in Elul of 5683/1923 generated a change that endured through the Holocaust — to this day.
Founding of Agudas Yisroel
It was at the turn of the last century that the world was experiencing rapid changes, and Jewish communities along with it. While poverty was rampant, people were looking for a promise of a better tomorrow. Change permeated the air, and new movements described as ‘isms’, such as communism, socialism, Zionism, had a strong appeal to the youth, pulling them away from their homes and Yiddishkeit.
The Orthodox world was desperate for a solution to stem this tide and grapple with the very challenges that were enticing so many to abandon their mesorah.
Some organizations were founded in various countries across Europe, such as the “Freie Vereinigung für die Interessen des Orthodoxen Judentums — Free Association for the Interests of Orthodox Judaism” in Germany, founded by Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, zt”l. But what they were lacking was a cohesiveness, an umbrella organization across the board of frum Jewry.
It was at the beginning of the 20th century that Harav Yitzchok Eisik Halevi Rabinowitz had the idea of establishing exactly that type of organization, in order to tackle the myriad of problems Jews were grappling with regarding ruach haTorah. In 1906, he began proposing the idea to Gedolim and soon gained the support of Hagaon Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky, Hagaon Harav Chaim Soloveitchik, and the Imrei Emes of Gur, zecher tzaddikim livrachah, among others. The first gathering was in Bad Homburg in 1908. With the blessing of the Gedolim, this concept took shape and eventually led to the establishment of Agudas Yisroel, a global movement in the years that followed.
Agudas Yisroel emerged with a vision of an umbrella organization for frum Jewry worldwide. The aim was to create a cohesive bond that transcended regional and communal boundaries, uniting Jews under a single banner for the sake of Torah and mesorah.
In 1912, Agudas Yisroel convened the first official conference in Kattowitz (Katowice), attended by 300 dignitaries from Orthodox Jewry of Eastern and Western Europe. New Orthodox activists became known in the Jewish world including Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim, a prominent figure among German Orthodox Jewry. Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Cohen, Rav of Ansbach, and Rabbi Dr. Menachem Emanuel Carlebach, Rav in Cologne, were appointed Agudas Yisroel world executive committee chairmen.
It was decided at that gathering in Kattowitz that the ambitious undertaking to convene a large convention would be set for Elul 1914. Yet, with the outbreak of the First World War only a month before, all plans were abruptly canceled. The Great War unleashed in all its fury went on for four years, ending in 1918. It wasn’t until 1923 that the dream of an international conference became a reality.
Vienna as the Center
The Austro-Hungarian Empire was home to more than 2 million Jews, most of them living in Galicia (today a part of Poland) and Bukovina (today part of Ukraine and Romania). With the outbreak of the war, thousands upon thousands of Yidden fled their hometowns westward, toward Vienna, the empire’s capital. Over 60 Rabbanim and Rebbes were among the refugees, particularly Rebbes of the Ruzhiner dynasty, including the Pachad Yitzchak of Boyan and Harav Yisroel Friedman of Tchortkov. Other Gedolim included Harav Yosef Engel from Krakow; Broder Rav, Harav Avraham Steinberg; Harav Meir Arik from Bucsacs; the Alstädter Rav and others, zecher tzaddikim livrachah. They were personalities who changed the face of Vienna’s Jewish community.
Following their arrival, and given Vienna’s central location in the heart of Europe, the city became the center for the global Agudas Israel executive committee.
Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim wrote: “Vienna, the capital city of Austria, emerged as an essential base for the Agudah, and it was decided that its main offices would be permanently based there. All the activities in Vienna were under the supervision of the Tchortkover Rebbe… ”
Many others dedicated to the cause joined the movement in Vienna, including Harav Shmuel (Leo) Deutschländer, zt”l. Harav Binyamin Wolf Pappenheim, zt”l, a leading figure in the “Schiffshul” kehillah, became head of Vienna’s Agudah branch.
The Knessiah Gedolah
Harav Yehuda Leib Zirelson, zt”l, Chief Rabbi of Kishinev, proposed the name “Knessiah Gedolah,” drawing inspiration from the historic Anshei Knesses Hagedolah, to symbolize the reverence for the chachamim of the past and to follow in their footsteps.
Vienna, priding itself for its modernity and secularization, internationally renowned as the city of art and culture, didn’t take well to the — visibly — frum Jews, derogatorily termed “Ostjuden” (Jews from the east). But in August of 1923, Vienna was transformed, adorned with flags and welcoming signs in Hebrew, Yiddish and German. The event attracted attendees from all over the world who hoped to get a glimpse of the many Torah giants gathering for this exceptional occasion. The streets bustled with frum Jews engaged in lively discussions. Shuls and shtieblach filled with locals and guests, the streets echoing with Torah and tefillah day and night.
Austrian newspapers reported on this unique event, many predicting failure. They ridiculed and spoke of the “conference of shtreimels,” not hiding their disdain for the “old-fashioned” Jew. They were convinced the Orthodox Jews and the endeavor of Agudas Yisroel would not succeed.
What made this event truly extraordinary was the spirit of unity and respect among the participants, regardless of their different traditions. The participants hailed from various countries, including Lithuania, Russia, Poland, Galicia, Germany, Hungary, England, France, Holland, Switzerland, even as far as Eretz Yisrael, the United States and beyond. Five thousand Yidden — Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews, Chassidim, Yekkes, Litvishe, and Oberlander — stood shoulder to shoulder, recognizing the common bond transcending geographical and cultural boundaries.
The Zirkusgasse (Circus Street), in Vienna’s second district, derives its name from the imposing building of the Circus Renz that stood at number 44. It was in this location that the first Knessiah Gedolah assembled.
In the Israelit, we find the following description: “The atmosphere cannot be put into words. One must have experienced it at a large congress or elsewhere. And those who have seen it elsewhere draw comparisons and conclude that they have never experienced such powerful impressions.
“When we arrived in Vienna on Tuesday evening by ship after a full day’s journey on the supposedly blue Danube, we were already captivated by lively and vibrant festivities at the Prater Harbor. Adorned in festive colors, young people greeted us with a ‘Shalom aleichem!’ Cars and horse-drawn carriages quickly filled the streets.”
With an influx of so many guests, the local postal authorities established a post office on the premises of the Knessiah and issued a special stamp bearing the inscription: “Erster Weltkongreß der Agudas Jisroel Wien” (First World Congress of Agudas Yisroel, Vienna).
The Opening Session
It seems there was no coincidence that the Knessiah was set for the week of the 269th yahrtzeit of the Tosfos Yom Tov (6 Elul), who had been Rav in Vienna during the years 1625-1627. He mentions in Megillas Eivah: “… I was appointed as Av Beis Din of the city of Vienna, the capital of Austria, a city full of Torah, wisdom, wealth and honor. May Hashem increase for them more…. ”
Indeed, so it was. On that day, so many years later, Vienna would prove to increase Torah and wisdom to the Jewish world at large. On Wednesday, 3 Elul 5683, August 15, 1923, the grand columned hall started to fill already in the early hours of the morning. Despite the ushers maintaining strict order, everyone was desperate to get a glimpse of the distinguished tzaddikim gathered under one roof.
On both sides of the podium, the Rebbes and Rabbanim of the Rabbinical council had their honored seats.
Despite his frail condition at age 84, the eldest Gadol, the Chofetz Chaim, had insisted on participating in person. The Imrei Emes of Gur, leader of Polish Jewry, the Gaon Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky from Vilna, Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim of Frankfurt, the Tchortkover “Rebbe of the Rebbes” were all present. They were joined by countless other Torah luminaries: Harav Moshe Mordechai Epstein of Slabodka; Harav Bentzion Yadler from Yerushalayim; Harav Aharon Levin of Raisha; Harav Yehuda Leib Zirelson of Kishinev; Harav Elchonon Wasserman, Rosh Yeshivah in Baranovitch; Harav Yitzchak Zelig Morgenstern of Sokolov; the Daas Sofer, Harav Akiva Sofer of Pressburg; Lubliner Rav, Harav Meir Shapiro (at the time, Rav in the city of Sanok); Harav Yitzchak Meir Levin of Warsaw; Rabbi Dr. Leo Jung of New York; Harav Avraham Tzvi Perlmutter; Harav Dr. Shlomo Zalman Breuer, successor of his father-in-law, the great Harav Samson Raphael Hirsch, in Frankfurt; numerous Chassidish Rebbes including those of Boyan and Sadigur; Piesteiner Rebbe, Harav Kalman Weber; Harav Moishe Blau, from Yerushalayim and many others, zecher tzaddikim livrachah.
The opening session was intended as a ceremonial prelude to the actual work that commenced a day later. The crowd was regaled with songs by the Schiffschul chazzan and his choir, followed by the magnificent voice of world-famous chazzan, Yossele Rosenblatt.
Rabbi Dr. Pinchas Kohn, the executive president of the Agudah, opened the Knessiah, welcoming all distinguished guests. He expressed the assembly’s gratitude to Austria for hosting the congress. In attendance and seated in the first row were representatives of the Austrian government and other distinguished guests, such as the German consul general, the Czechoslovakian embassy secretary, the Polish embassy representative and delegates from the British, French and Swiss embassies.
He then proceeded to read from a letter written by Austrian chancellor Ignaz Seipel, who apologized for being unable to attend and added: “In a time that reminds broad sections of the population of the constructive work of faith in G-d and the importance of remaining loyal to one’s ancestral religion, as a Catholic priest, I sincerely welcome it when Agudas Yisroel, this organization representing the purely religious-oriented part of the Jewish community, wholeheartedly advocates for these eternal ideas.”
Letters of greeting were read from many Gedolim who were unable to attend. From Yerushalayim came a letter written by Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, as well as from the Ahavas Yisroel of Vizhnitz, the Telshe Rosh Yeshivah, and many more, zecher tzaddikim livrachah.
Finally, those awe-inspiring moments, described in the opening lines of this article, arrived. Moments the crowd had been waiting for — the speeches of the rabbinical giants of that generation.
In his humble and gracious manner, the Chofetz Chaim took to the stage. He began his drashah by explaining that while he wanted to avoid being the first speaker, it was his duty as a zakein and Kohen to bestow his brachos upon the event. He then shared a poignant mashal about doctors offering varying treatments to an injured man. A master healer wisely suggested healing the heart, to save all other organs. The central role of the Torah serves as the heart and soul of Jewish life, concluded the Chofetz Chaim, urging the establishment and support of Torah institutions worldwide.
For most of the crowd, it was impossible to follow his words, and Harav Meir Shapiro was asked to repeat the speech. Delivering the words in his famous, powerful oratory style earned him a quip from the Chofetz Chaim, “Ich hob nit gevust ich kun azoi gut redn — I didn’t know I could speak this well.”
When the Imrei Emes of Gur approached the dais at the fourth session on Friday, 5 Elul, August 17, the crowd once again rose in reverence, which the Rebbe quickly dismissed. The Gerrer Rebbe began his address by invoking the teachings of Rabbeinu Yonah into the core essence of the Agudas Yisroel movement. He spoke of the importance of being mekadesh shem Shamayim to bring brachos upon a community.
The Rebbe stressed the importance of unity — “our gathering mirrors the gatherings of the leaders of the past,” conjuring up scenes of the gatherings with the Sanhedrin.
With a call to action, he urged all Agudists to unite in their devotion to the Torah and spread its teachings worldwide, inspiring each member to play an active role in this sacred endeavor. “Let us work together to strengthen Yiddishkeit and the Holy Torah.”
In his drashah at the fifth session on Sunday, 7 Elul, August 19, the Tchortkover Rebbe quoted the passuk, “Moshe yedaber v’haElokim ya’anenu b’Kol” exemplifying the importance of faithfully transmitting Hashem’s message without adding personal interpretation. “The Knessiah Gedolah can be likened to the idea of ‘Moshe yedaber,’” he explained. “We do not seek to insert our personal ideas or private agendas. Rather, we are like a gramophone transmitting without change or deviation.”
The Rebbe emphasized the importance of chinuch, recognizing its significance in strengthening the very essence of Yiddishkeit. He stressed the role of the Gedolim in guiding the people while encouraging a true achdus among the members.
Additionally, the Rebbe spoke of a commitment to Eretz Yisrael, urging listeners to spread their message far and wide, likening it to the journey of the Mishkan that carried its sacred values from place to place.
The list of speakers was long, so speaking time for the other presenters was restricted to five minutes each. A moment of concern occurred when 80-year-old Harav Perlmutter, Chief Rabbi of Warsaw, fainted during his speech and had to be carried out of the hall, though he recovered soon after.
Drashos and Decisions
As the conference progressed, the many issues and concerns plaguing Jewry in the east and west were discussed, countless speeches were delivered, ideas proposed and decisions made. The diverse voices shared one common message: preserving the Torah and religious observance and strengthening Yiddishkeit. They emphasized that despite variations in customs and practices, the underlying values and principles united them all.
Moreinu Yaakov Rosenheim spoke of “a group of people that has been in the shadows until now finally steps into the open light with wishes and demands. This requires a great education, inwardly and outwardly. A very momentous occasion is upon us,” he continued. “It holds great historical significance, whether we achieve immediate success or not. We aim not to create another organization among many, but to address the urgent needs of Klal Yisrael, the Jewish people, based on our holy Torah.”
Harav Shlomo Zalman (Salomon) Breuer from Frankfurt, quoted his father-in-law Harav Hirsch, and eloquently expressed that the goals of Agudas Yisroel align with those of all Torah-observant Jewry. He compared the Knessiah to the gathering of siblings, acknowledging the depth of emotions shared during such a long-awaited reunion. “We have waited over 2,000 years for this gathering. And what moves our hearts at this long-awaited reunion can be understood only by the One who truly belongs to us and has waited with us… ”
Hailing all the way from Iraq, Chacham Nissim Nachum spoke in Sephardic Hebrew. He said that the community in Baghdad “awaits the realization of the Agudah program with great anticipation — b’kilyon einayim.”
Many decisions were made during that week, including the establishment of a Torah fund to fortify yeshivos and promote talmud Torah globally, alongside strengthening girls education through Bais Yaakov schools. The Yishuv fund was established for the development of Eretz Yisrael in the spirit of Torah.
It was decided that the Knessiah Gedolah would convene every five years, electing a central council of 10 members, overseeing a five-member world executive committee, aligned with the Gedolim.
Rabbi Dr. Kohn presented a 16-page report, illuminating the achievements of Agudas Yisroel: the establishment of numerous Torah-focused educational institutions worldwide. Particularly noteworthy was the organization’s compassionate relief endeavors, which extended generously to alleviate the profound suffering of the Jewish populace during and after the war.
The plenary sessions of the youth conference gathered in the Talmud Torah school at Malzgasse, served as a unifying force for the Agudah ideal-driven youth. The various youth organizations from across Europe were consolidated into a single entity, the Zeirei Agudas Yisroel, with the introduction of new initiatives, including shiurim, catering mainly to working youth.
Amidst this euphoric state, the local townspeople and guests welcomed an unforgettable Shabbos. The entire Shabbos afternoon, guests and townsfolk alike rushed to and from, wanting to gain glimpses of the Gedolim. “When all the shuls shut, one still has time to visit the private minyan of the Gerrer, the Tchortkover or other Rebbes where things seem pretty lively,” a reporter wrote. “It’s Yom Tov for the Chassidim, Kenessio-Yomtov!” In the afternoon, masses gathered to hear divrei Torah from the Chofetz Chaim and Harav Chaim Ozer Grodzensky.
Ne’ilah of the Knessiah
At the closing session, the hall and galleries were filled to capacity. The week’s work was about to conclude, and feelings of joy and satisfaction mingled with nostalgia. Many speakers wished to deliver words of departure, but the program was limited to 15 of the most prominent members. One of the last speakers, Harav Bentzion Yadler from Yerushalayim, gave a brachah that they would soon gather around the Chofetz Chaim as their Kohen Gadol in Yerushalayim. That brachah was greeted with prolonged applause.
Attendees later described the atmosphere as one of Ne’ilah when the Ponevezher Rav recited Shema before the crowd. The mood soon turned into unrestrained joy as Harav Shapiro proclaimed, “The next Knessiah Gedolah will be in Yerushalayim,” followed by Rav Kohn ringing the bell. With that, the Knessiah was officially closed.
The assembly, however, did not immediately disperse. Participants embraced and joined hands, singing “Baruch Elokeinu shebra’anu lichvodo,” expressing unity and a shared commitment to kvod Shamayim. “The Sokolover Rebbe (Harav Yitzchak Zelig Morgenshtern)and the Sanoker Rav (Harav Meir Schapiro) started a mitzvah dance,” one reporter wrote, “and the youth joyously joined, uniting east and west to celebrate…”
This monumental world congress, for which many had predicted failure, proved a resounding success. Even those newspapers that spoke derogatorily about the event and questioned its purpose had to admit: “It is undeniable that the Agudah achieves much in Jewish life and the establishment of Talmudic Torah schools, and the introduction of shiurim and religious Jewish contracts cannot be praised highly enough, as these institutions serve to preserve Judaism.”
Another Austrian newspaper remarked, “The charitable activities of Agudas Yisroel are undoubtedly praiseworthy. In all countries where they have Agudah organizations, including almost all places where Jews reside, orphanages, hospitals and apprentice workshops are established, which are excellently organized. The organizational talent of the Agudah leadership is also evident in the organization of the Vienna Congress, where everything runs smoothly.”
Vienna — Destruction and Rebirth
It was 100 years ago, but it might as well have been 100 lifetimes ago, for Vienna’s Jewish landscape of the last century is gone.
Gone is the scene of that week in August 1923. Gone is the Circus Renz that housed the Knessiah; today, an apartment building stands in its place. But the street scene of the buildings we know from the film still exists. And daily, one can see countless Jewish children riding their bikes or playing ball in the nearby playground as they walk on the very path of those giants from the last century.
Gone are the scenes of Chassidic Rebbes living in Vienna. Gone are the over 100 shuls that dotted the city, all but one destroyed on that terrible night of November 10, 1938. Gone are the hundreds of thousands of Jewish residents. Most of their names can be found on the vast “Wall of Names” for the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.
Gone is the Schiffschul with all its glory, the magnificent shul whose members were founders of the Agudah movement. Today there is a parking lot, a gaping wound with a dream to restore it. For now, all that is left to commemorate is a plaque stating, “In memory of the members of the renowned Orthodox Jewish community. Many of them were deported and murdered.”
But new life has emerged. The building adjacent to the Schiffshul, which housed the beis medrash and the community offices, still stands and is filled with Jewish life. On the ground floor, one finds Khal Chassidim, the shul led by Harav Avrohom Yonah Schwartz, the senior of Vienna’s Rabbanim. On the first upper floor, is the historic Beis Medrash Torah Etz Chaim, of Adass Yisroel Schiffshul. Today it’s led by Harav Michoel Pressburger, who made this shul a welcoming place for thousands of Persian Jews who have passed through Vienna, on their way to the United States, in the past four decades after fleeing the regime in Iran.
Indeed, many of the scenes from 100 years ago are gone, but Yiddishkeit in Vienna is far from gone. The majority of today’s community descend from Eastern-European survivors who came in 1945 “on their way out of Europe,” joined by Hungarian Jews fleeing the uprising in 1956. Two decades later, Jews from the former Soviet Union joined the ranks, the majority known as Bukharian Jews, who today comprise a third of the community. Last year, the community swelled by another 1,000 Jews forced to flee the war in Ukraine.
One hundred years have passed; entire worlds have been shattered and rebuilt. Still, the spirit of that week in Elul of 1923 lives on. It lives on in Eretz Yisrael, the United States, Australia, South Africa and many countries in Europe. And yes, it lives on in Vienna too. The city where the spirit of Agudas Yisroel — the union (the unity!) of Jews — truly existed.
Founded towards the end of the 19th century by Harav Shlomo Binyamin Spitzer, son-in-law of the great Chasam Sofer, Hungarian and Slovakian Jews formed the Kehillah Adass Yisroel in Vienna. Centered around the famed Schiffshul, named for its location on the Große Schiffgasse, it was the center of Orthodoxy in the city during the interwar period, providing amenities like a slaughterhouse, kosher butchers and mikvaos. The community also established educational institutions, with around 500 students in the network. Various tzedakah organizations and the women’s association supported those in need.
The Rabbanim and Roshei Kehillah of the Schiffshul played crucial roles within Agudas Yisroel, contributing to its activities and leadership. Most notable was the Rosh Hakahal, Mr. Wolf Pappenheim and supported by the Rav of the kehillah, Harav Yeshaya Fürst, a leading member in the Agudah since the conference in Kattowitz. He served the community until the Anschluss.
After Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany, many community members managed to flee, founding new communities in their adopted countries, such as the Viener kehillah in Brooklyn. The shul was destroyed on the terrible night of Kristallnacht, November 10, 1938.
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The First Knessiah Gedolah
Resolutions concerning Eretz Yisrael1
In 1917, the Jewish world was astounded by the Balfour Declaration which was given by the British government about a Jewish home in Eretz Yisrael. This matter was discussed all over Europe by leaders of the Jewish community. The first Knessiah Gedolah was the first opportunity where the gedolei hador got together and were able to react on this significant development. Meanwhile, in Eretz Yisrael the Zionists strengthened their power and made themselves the self-appointed leader of the yishuv.
At the sixth session (Elul 7 1923), Rabbi Yonasan Binyamin Halevi Horowitz brought the blessing of Sir Herbert Samuel, the high commissioner of Palestine.
Rabbi Yitzchak Gerstenkorn, who a year later was to establish the new town of Bnei Brak and who participated in the Knessiah Gedolah, spoke about the differences between Agudath Israel and other movements regarding matters related to Eretz Yisrael:
Let us make it known to the entire world that our obligation to Eretz Yisrael is no less than that of other organizations. However, unlike them, we do not announce it loudly in public, because it is part of our very being; it is natural, and nobody denies anything that is natural, such as one’s sense of hearing, or the functioning of one’s five senses. Chillul Shabbos and eating treif have prevented us from participating until now in working for our sacred Eretz Yisrael.
Later in the session, a series of resolutions was adopted by those present — among them: an appeal to the high commissioner to allow independent regularization of religious and community matters, support of yeshivos and schools, ensuring the inclusion of Torah and religion also in non-chareidi institutions, concern about matters of religion and spirituality for the new Yishuv, and establishing a fund to support chareidi immigrants.
The Sokolover Rebbe, Harav Yitzchak Zelig Morgenstern, a member of the board of Agudath Israel in Poland, rose to speak:
Chareidi Judaism does not need to reach a compromise with elements not faithful to Torah. We must fight against heresy, and we must know that keeping silent is not simply tolerance. Silence means cooperating with those who are out to destroy. While we kept quiet for so long, in the Holy Land, heretical schools were established, whose whole aim is to uproot our religion and faith from the hearts of Jewish infants. When an egla arufa was brought, the elders of the congregation had to announce: “Our hands did not spill this blood.” Chazal explain: “It was not [just] that we saw him and sent him away unaccompanied.” This means, therefore, that even just being silent, passive behavior, to let him go without accompaniment, not to raise one’s voice in protest, that itself is considered spilling Jewish blood […]. We are not out to make new legislations, only to implement [existing ones], to stand on guard that the laws of Hashem and His Torah will be upheld. Tolerance does not mean ish kol hayashar be’einav ya’aseh — each person doing what he considers right. Agudath Israel must enforce a Torah order in Eretz Yisrael to elevate once again the kavod haTorah that has been degraded.
One of the resolutions adopted at the first Knessiah Gedolah, as well as at the meeting of the World Mo’etzes Gedolei Hatorah which took place at the same time in Vienna, was to send a delegation of Gedolei Torah to Eretz Yisrael. This resolution was implemented with the Gerrer Rebbe’s second journey to Eretz Yisrael.
1This information was taken from an upcoming book (Elul 5783), A Leader in Turbulent Times.
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The Film of Fame
The Knessiah Gedolah was a historical event in Jewish history but after the war remained unknown to many. It was Yosef March who discovered and publicized the now-famous reel, in the archives of the University of South Carolina several years ago. On that reel, many of the Gedolim and other participants can be seen arriving at the conference.
To see the regal figure of Harav Perlmutter arriving in his top hat, curly peyos, and flowing coat and beard; to watch the Tchortkover Rebbe, who came from his home around the corner, gracefully walking while holding his umbrella; to recognize the image of Harav Elchonon Wasserman, as he brusquely makes his way past the gate; and then to behold the Chofetz Chaim, as he humbly shuffles towards the camera, (only to have the lens blocked, as instructed, by Rosh Hakahal Wolf Pappenheim because the Gadol Hador refused to be photographed) is nothing short of breathtaking. Many other Gedolim can be seen in this film, giving the viewers a glimpse into a world that has been lost to us, and an inkling of the excitement that surrounded this momentous event.
For many years it was speculated that there were further reels of the Knessiah. Upon our inquiry, the curator at the University of South Carolina stated: “Our designation of ‘outtakes’ refers to this unused footage as well as actual outtake footage from those few stories edited into a newsreel; the material online is the entirety of the film submitted by the cameraman in 1923.”
It is these outtakes that give us a glimpse of the Torah giants from the last century.
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The Trip From Poland to Vienna
Although I am heavily involved with journalism, I have never been a writer. I wish only to share a single episode with you. I was a young delegate traveling to the first Knessiah Gedolah on the same train as the Gedolei Hador, including the Chofetz Chaim and the Gerrer Rebbe. It was an express train, and it stopped only at major train stations along the way. At each stop, throngs of Jews stood, hoping to get a glimpse of the Gedolim.
Minutes before we were to arrive at the station in Pietrokov, a fire broke out in the train’s engine. We were in serious danger of derailing and crashing, but suddenly the train came to an abrupt stop. Miraculously, no one was hurt, and the train suffered no real damage. Even the non-Jewish Poles admitted that it was a miracle.
Everyone quickly climbed out of the train onto the ground. All the young delegates of Agudas Yisrael surrounded the Chofetz Chaim and the Gerrer Rebbe. We were then eyewitness to an amazing exchange. The Chofetz Chaim said to the Gerrer Rebbe, “This was a real miracle! And it took place entirely in your merit, Gerrer Rebbe!”
“Hashem be praised,” the Rebbe responded, his face beaming, “and it is entirely in the merit of the Chofetz Chaim.”
I believe that this exchange was published in Warsaw’s Agudah newspaper, Der Yid. However, it appears that there is not a single copy of that issue left in existence. Also, all those who recorded the goings-on of the Knessiah Gedolah made no mention of it. Now, it appears that I am the only living witness to this conversation. I asked the chairman of the World Vaad Hapoel, Harav Pinchas Levin, about it, but it turns out that he had been ill and didn’t attend the Knessiah Gedolah in Vienna.
– Rabbi Yosef Friedensohn
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Memoir of Rabbi Pinchas Levin
I believe that anyone who travels far from home can tell us interesting episodes connected to the Daf Yomi program. I also have such a story to share with my readers. In 5694/1934, after a major conference took place in Poland to encourage immigration to Eretz Yisrael, I traveled to Eretz Yisrael as an escort of Agudas Yisrael’s first group of pioneers who had received — after a lengthy and difficult battle — entry certificates through the Jewish Agency, permitting them to immigrate.
I toured the Land, and in many of the cities and settlements I found organized groups learning the Daf Yomi program. The concept of Daf Yomi was immediately popular with all bnei Torah, and its influence had reached as far as Eretz Yisrael. This was not at all surprising.
As a result of this initial success in obtaining entry certificates for Agudas Yisrael pioneers, an emergency meeting of Agudas Yisrael’s Eretz Yisrael committee was scheduled to take place in Zurich, Switzerland. Therefore, I made sure to pass through Zurich on my way back to Europe. Once I reached the seaport in Trieste, Italy, I investigated how I could travel from there to Switzerland. My itinerary took me through Milano, where I waited for a train to take me to the Swiss border.
While there, I asked where I could find a kosher restaurant. Apparently, I was given an incorrect address, and I found myself wandering the city’s streets with no idea whom to ask for directions. All of a sudden, I heard the sweet sound of someone learning Gemara, and I stopped in my tracks. Could it be? Here, in the middle of Milano?
I listened more carefully, and I realized that I was listening to someone learning that day’s daf. I had learned the blatt earlier that day, using the miniature edition published by Chorev that I always carried in my suitcase when I traveled.
Of course, everything fell into place after that. It turned out that the kosher restaurant was right around the corner, and the restaurateur was none other than the person whose voice I had heard as he learned the day’s Daf Yomi. Although he lived a lonely life in Milano with few Jews, he made sure to follow the schedule of the Daf Yomi program. It gave him great pleasure to know that he had joined a veritable army of Jews stationed all around the globe.
– Beth Yaakov Journal
* * *
My Personal Recollections of the First Knessiah Gedolah
We came to Vienna as members of Zeirei Agudas Yisrael. At the time, I am not sure we realized the full significance of the Knessiah Gedolah, though we already sensed that it was to be an extraordinary event. We spent many days in high spirits preparing for it.
The Austrian government was cooperative, and they provided a room at each [train] station where we could receive the travelers in a friendly yet respectable manner. A large contingent from Germany arrived aboard a luxury cruise ship down the Danube River. We went to meet them at the dock.
The great Chassidic Rebbes, the Rabbanim, the Roshei Yeshivos, and the dignified laymen who arrived from Poland and Lithuania made a deep, unforgettable impression on us. The Chofetz Chaim and the Gerrer Rebbe arrived… and were greeted by a very large group of our youths.
We were amazed to see that the Chofetz Chaim didn’t even wear a rabbinical frock. His head was covered by the same simple cap you would see on a Chassidic child. I remember that the Chofetz Chaim stayed at the home of Reb Akiva Schreiber, and the Gerrer Rebbe stayed at the home of Reb Moshe Schreiber.
Throughout the week that the Chofetz Chaim stayed with Reb Akiva Schreiber, he refused to eat any meat. On his final day, however, he went into the kitchen to thank his hostess for her graciousness, and he asked for some meat to take on his trip back to Radin. He did not want anyone to say that he would not eat meat from the kitchen of Reb Akiva Schreiber.
Vienna’s residents warmly received their venerable guests. My father-in-law, Reb Yaakov Shlomo Steinfeld, z”l, moved his family out of his spacious home and gave it to Harav Isser Zalman Meltzer and his son-in-law, Harav Aharon Kotler, zichronam livrachah.
– Klonimos Richter
* * *
Memoir of Harav Ben Tzion Yadler, Maggid of Yerushalayim
The first Knessiah Gedolah of Agudas Yisrael in Vienna was attended by representatives of each Jewish community. The residents of Yerushalayim chose me to be their representative. The truth is, I was very excited to go and meet all the Gedolim who were to attend, but I was not sure that this mission justified my leaving Eretz Yisrael. I consulted the elderly Harav Yitzchak Yerucham Diskin and he said I was obligated to go to the Knessiah because I understood the stress facing the religious community in Eretz Yisrael much better than most others.
Harav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld also pushed me to attend the Knessiah, and so I joined the delegation along with Harav Mordechai Leib Rubin, Av Beis Din of the Eidah Hachareidis, Harav Moshe Blau, Rav Raphael Katznelenbogen, and Reb Yosef Levi Chagiz, zichronam livrachah.
Hashem performed a miracle for me during our travels. We boarded a train to Egypt, and because I found no seats on the car we boarded, I decided to move over to the next car, where there were empty seats. The passageway from one car to another was lined with boards. But the boards I stepped on were not secured well, and I fell between the cars. My suitcase, which held my tallis and tefillin, remained above the boards, and I held onto its handle for dear life. If not for that, I would have dropped down onto the train tracks.
The train continued speeding along the tracks. My strength ebbed fast as I struggled to hold on. I feared that my end was near, and I called out, “Shema Yisrael.” Miraculously, Harav Raphael Katznelenbogen noticed what had happened, and he pulled me to safety. Once this took place, I made a solemn commitment to use great caution during my speeches at the convention, when I would describe the character of the residents in Eretz Yisrael. Although I would be forced to tell the truth, I would do my best to avoid belittling anyone’s honor…”
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