Rav Menashe Yaakov Levertov רב מנשה יעקב לברטוב
Testimony in English (translated)
Taken from Rabbi Menashe Levertov, chief Rabbi of Krakow, between 1:30-4:30 on 7/15/1957 and 10:50-2:30 on July 27th 1957.
Recorded by Yanus Turkov, New York
(comments in Italics are from the translator, daughter of Rabbi Levertov)
I am the descendant of a Rabbinic family of many generations. My father Rav Issakel, a Rabbi in Krakow was among the greatest of the great Jewish scholars. From my mothers side - also Rabbis. My maternal grandfather was the Rabbi of Sanok, head of the Jewish court, Rabbi Leibel Frankel. I was born in Krakow, November 10th 1904 (should be 1906) studied in yeshivas in Krakow and was rabbinically ordained in the year 1928.
In 1927, I married the daughter of my uncle (great-uncle) Rav Shem Klingberg, the Rabbi of Zalashitz, one of the greatest masters of the Kabbalah. We had two sons (8 and 4 years old) (this would be the ages when the war broke out).
When the Germans took over Krakow they started seizing Jews for work. They drove across the city during the day and at night and one could see how they capture Jews with beards and earlocks and they pull and cut and rip out. It was dangerous to go out with a beard and earlocks and thousands of these Jews did not go out on the streets and did not see daylight, in order to protect their beards and earlocks and the Chassidic dress, because the Germans also cut the long Chassidic coats (kapotas).
In the year 1940, when I once went out on the street, Friday, in order to go to the Mikvah (Until the ghetto I lived in Zwierzyniec) a Gestapo caught me and led me into a barber, Stellhammer, on the Ditlowska street, where there were already perhaps 30 captured religious Jews, waiting in line to have their beards and earlocks cut off. When the Gestapo with the "katshel," that is what the small cars they road around in were called, went out into the streets to bring in some fresh merchandise - Jews with beards and earlocks- the group in the meantime ran out a back door; only those whose turn had not come yet ran away. On the other hand, those who unfortunately, alas, were in the middle of the work with a shorn earlock or a piece of beard remained there as long as the Gestapo were present.
At that time, there was an incident when a Chassidic Jew was dragged into the barber Stellhammer on Ditlowska Street to have his beard and earlocks cut off and when the German was standing next to him with revolver in hand, the Jew suffered a heart attack from fright and died in front of my eyes.
I was also among those who escaped. They had managed to cut off both my earlocks but had not yet started on my beard. Because the Gestapo had checked me when he brought me into the barber and found my documents in my pocket, he wrote my name and address in his notebook and he said before he went out to capture "fresh" Jews, "I will visit you in your apartment and if I find you with a beard, I will shoot you." So I sent my wife to my illustrious father-in-law to ask his advice what to do. My father-in-law (may he rest in peace) said that I should immediately shave off the beard. Not only shooting, even if he should say that he would get one blow from the evil people, he should take off the beard, because God will help and we will get rid of these evil people and the beard will come back.
Because it was already late Friday night and the barbers were all locked, I did not have a choice and I did not return home. I went to sleep at my brothers. And since no one from the Gestapo came in the night to my house, I thus did not take off the beard.
In the year 1940, the first of Sukkoth, a Jew, Rav Shlomo Heisner, a very learned man, a Gerar Chasid had an Etrog. At dawn, hundreds of Jews came to him to bless the Etrog; they pushed themselves. They endangered their lives.
As we were afraid to put up a Sukkah, we put up a few small walls, low, on a side of a yard, which according to Jewish law were Kosher and we covered them with thin lattice work for schach. Hunched over, one after the other, people crawled in to make Kiddush. We had a small bottle of water in our pockets and a glass for washing with a piece (kezayit minimum amount necessary) of challah in order to observe the mitzvah of Sukkah.
In the ghetto, we already did have a possibility to put up Sukkahs, but with great fear. By day it was still halfway (possible?), but at night, if one saw something lit up we lit up the sukkah with small lights- the granites" came in but one could buy them off with money.
The ghetto was established in March 1941. Till the liquidation, we still prayed in synagogues with minyanim (at least 10 men) three times a day. After mincha and maariv (evening prayers) we sat and studied; even those who were not religious, who never practiced, also came and listened to the studying. We hoped that soon, soon the war would be over. And immediately, the next day new troubles would begin, new ordinances and deportations and immediately after that we once again sat and studied.
In the ghetto we had cheders. The teacher, understandably, was at risk for his life, as we were officially not allowed to have them. He, however, did it with dedication and sacrifice in order to enable the children to keep up with their learning, boys as well as girls. There were no yeshivas but people sat with (continued) learning Torah and serving God.
A group of Gerar Chassidic young men, about 60 or 70, sat in the ghetto the entire time, in a hidden cellar, and learned with an extraordinary stubbornness. The rest of the world did not interest them. They could have been kosher and had the proper einsatz (assignment) cards and even not have to work, just be secure with the right documents. But, they refused to do it. Even the people who disapproved of their behavior and considered the young men to be suicidal, also had respect for them and saw to it that they were not lacking in food, because their (the students') dedication was immeasurable.
I used to go to them and provide them with things, as much as I could. Their ending occurred when we went into the concentration camp; they stayed behind hidden in the ghetto in a bunker. They were called the young men from the cave.
Weddings in the ghetto went on quietly. Chupa and kiddushin were given. Divorces were few, though from time to time there was a divorce. Officially, ritual slaughter was forbidden, but secretly ritual slaughter was done. On Shabbat and holidays, Chassidic Jews tried to get out of working as much as possible, and made an effort to send substitutes whom they hired.
In the ghetto there was a judenreit and a work ministry or an ordinance ministry (they were called the O.D.) At the head of the OD stood Commander Simcha Spira of Krakow. He was a Chassidic young man, from quite respectable parentage (his father was a Dzikover Chassid). When the Germans entered Krakow, he started working in the civil division of the Gestapo; later, they appointed him to organize the Jewish Police. Before the war he prayed before the congregation; even in the ghetto he pushed his way to the stand and they had to let him, because they were afraid of him. On Shabbat and holidays they had to let him pray Mussaf. When his brother died he sat Shiva. But, for all that he served the Germans faithfully.
When Tarnow became judenrein free of Jews, the Dzikover Rabbi, Rav Alter Horowitz, was brought to the Krakow ghetto He was, alas, shot on the day of the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.
Also the Rebbe from Belz, who spent some time in the Krakow ghetto, was smuggled out to Bochnia, and from there they led him away, disguised, to Hungary. The Rabbi of Belz was clean-shaven.
I remember now that on Simchat Torah, we still danced by the Dzikover; also Simcha Spira, the commander of the OD was a guest there and brought drinks.
The Zalshitzer Rebbe, Rav Shem Klingberg, who was in Niepolomice was brought by his daughter (the wife of Rav Levertov) to Krakow. She disguised herself as a nurse and with the car of the Polish Hospital, Dom Zdrowia, she brought him as a very sick patient, to the Krakow ghetto (to the house of Rav Levertov). Every Friday night on Shabbat, he still led the table, speaking of Torah. The Rebbe was filled with sobs. He kept trying to offer comfort, that from the power of faith, God would help. To all the questions that the Rebbe was asked, he answered that one should have trust and one should have faith.
The religious Jews from the other ghettos who had themselves smuggled into the Krakow ghetto were accepted with great sacrifice. With the exception of the Jewish Council, the Krakow Jews shared their last morsels with the newcomers. They also shared a shirt or clothing.
Until the liquidation, the chevra kadisha (burial society) was busy with burying the dead.
In the ghetto, there were times when in the middle of praying, it was heard that the Gestapo, Heinrich Kunda and others, had arrived at the ghetto, and there was immediate panic. People threw down their prayer shawls and dispersed. Mostly the Gestapo came on Shabbat and holidays, because they knew that the community was together.
Friday, before the liquidation of the ghetto, the panic was terrible. Still, people went to pray with Minyan. There were still synagogues with tens of minyanim, where they spent the whole time praying. Friday night we still prayed as a group and that was the last time.
Shabbos, the sixth day of Adar 2 , the year 5303, 1943, the Krakow ghetto was liquidated. Those who had workers permits were taken to the concentration camp; the selection was started Friday morning 9AM. One had to stand at the bramke that is to say the gate that led out of the ghetto. At that time no children were let out. My wife did not want to go without the children even though she had a workers permit. I did not want to go without my wife and children. We consulted with our father, with my father-in-law. Groups of Rabbis believed that whoever could save himself should go and the families should remain. No one at that time knew yet that those who would remain and hide themselves would be destroyed. We still believed that the ghetto would exist until all the goods of the ghetto would be liquidated, so it would be a good idea for someone from the family to go to the concentration camp and from the outside have contact with the remaining hidden people in the ghetto and rescue them by bringing them to the concentration camp.
In consulting with my father-in-law, he said, Can one say here not to go or say yes go and leave the wife and children alone?
So it was left that I should also stay with my wife and children, but my wife started to persuade me that I should go alone, for if we stay here together, we will all be lost. At least save yourself, she said. I in no way wanted to hear this. She won me over with her arguments, that if I will be in the concentration camp, I would still have a possibility to do something to get her out of the bunker. We convinced ourselves, that when the storm passed, one could have a contact with the ghetto when we would come there to gather the Jewish possessions. Aside from that, there would still be some remaining Jewish OD in the ghetto to guard the possessions and maybe the commander of the OD Simcha Spira, may his name be erased, would do something to help.
We arranged, my wife and I, that I would go with my eldest son, who was 12 years old, but who was tall. I thought that it would be successful meanwhile to take him out to the concentration camp, and later it would be easier to bring out my wife with my second son. I said goodbye to my wife and child. My wife Hindeze, decided to hide herself with the child and with her mother and sister, the daughter-in-law of Rav Shlomo Yoskovitch. Rav Shlomo was the Gerer Rebbes son-in-law. With them was another sister-in-law of mine with a son, and a whole array of rabbinic children, and also other respectable Jews, all together 30-some people.
I took a rucksack and inside placed, like all religious Jews, the Talis (prayer shawl) and Tefillin (phylacteries), took my son by the hand, and stood on line by the bramke. When I approached the gate, my child was torn away from me. He went back to his mother.
The whole group with whom I went was made up of leaders of the community. Together with me went my father-in-law, the Zalshitzer. We both had shorn beards and earlocks, like all religious Jews had been forced to do. On our heads we had Maczejowski hats in order to look like laborers. We were led away to the concentration camp Plaszow. There I saw it was not good to be a white collar that is what they called a Rabbi, so I immediately searched a way to get in together with my father-in-law to the paper company. The first job we had from the paper company was to lay down the monuments from the cemetery in Plaszow; we built roads from the monuments that were removed from the graves. Afterwards, we built barracks on the graves of the two cemeteries, the Podgorze and Krakow cemeteries. Machines paved the graves. In this work we took part.
In the middle of our work, whole wagons filled with thousands of dead bodies shot during the liquidation of the ghetto were brought from the ghetto. Among the shot was also the Dzikover Rav and other Rabbis and many other people. It was around Purim time; we read from the Megillah. Hundreds of people listened. The Megillah, like the small Torah scroll, was smuggled out of the ghetto and hidden in the concentration camp, in any way that it was possible. We prayed with Minyan and said Kaddish. They prayed, even those types who had never prayed in their lives. They were pulled along with passion and flooded with tears. Naturally, we had to pray quickly so we would be on time to the roll-call place.
As soon as I entered the Plaszow camp, I immediately began efforts to rescue my wife and my two children who were in a bunker hidden in the ghetto. I constantly sent my wife brief letters and food through acquaintances, who went from our camp to the ghetto to work. That is how contact was maintained for a few days. I still thought that today, tomorrow I would succeed in getting them out. Because of the children, it was harder.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Police, the OD of Simcha Spira, may his name be erased, found my sister-in-law the daughter-in-law of Shlomo Yoskovich, the son-in-law of the Gerer Rebbe, with her two children. This was the first Wednesday after we went to the concentration camp. Since they were hidden in a hiding place in the same house as my wife and children with my mother-in-law and other Jews hidden in the bunker, I understood that it was bitter. And in fact, two days later, the Jewish OD, while searching the whole house, found my family with all the other Jews. This was Friday. When the people from the clean-up detail came back Friday night from the work in the ghetto, I found out then that it was dark before my eyes. (bleak). This life had ended for me. I searched for means to bring them to the concentration camp.
Sunday, I snuck out of the camp with the clean-up detail to the ghetto and ran straight to the OD where they were keeping the captured Jews. I saw my wife and children. Also, my mother-in-law. I spoke to them. Sadly, for the last time. Before nightfall the Black ones came, the Ukrainians or Latvians in black uniforms, with ammunition. They came to take the Jews from the bunkers who were to be found in the OD. I saw them through a window, how they are leading away all the people, among them my wife, my children, my mother-in-law, and my whole family. They were led to the concentration camp. Seeing this I wanted to jump out the window and run to my wife and children. The rest of the workers who were with me pulled me back because they knew if anyone else was noticed, they would also be shot. The same thing happened to me in the concentration camp.
As soon as they took them out of the ghetto, they called all of the workers together and we marched back to the concentration camp. When I entered the concentration camp and approached the bunks, I saw from afar how they are shooting all the people they brought from the ghetto. You can imagine what I experienced then. I started to run in their direction. I was caught, hands turned backwards, and was not allowed to move from the spot. We saw, pitifully, how they undressed, heard the terrible shrieks, especially from the children, heard the shots, and saw how they fell into the ditches.
Later I was told by a certain Bierenfeld (I dont remember his first name), who was going from work and passed not far from the place of the execution, that he saw how my mother-in-law was sitting on a stone and the Black ones were hitting her with clubs so she should undress. She screamed that they would not live to see her naked body. They hit her terribly on her head and she still did not undress and that is how they shot her. I saw them later, so pitifully, lying, all of them. Many I recognized from their clothes as they were lying face down.
You can imagine what I lived through. Every night when I went to sleep, my greatest prayer was to no longer waken. I was terribly devastated.
In about a week, it happened that they brought out the cave Jews, the young Gerer men, who hid the entire time in a bunker from the ghetto; they were brought to the Plazow concentration camp, where they were all shot, to the last one. You cannot imagine the holiness of these young men. Everyone of them ran into the ditch and with great passion shouted Shma Yisrael (Hear oh Israel) You could hear the outcry Shma Yisrael, and right after that a shot. That is how it repeated until they were all shot, to the last one. We all in the camp heard the outcries and were left numbed - every one of us, in that moment, wanted to be together with those young men, who went to their death with such passion, that the human mind could not conceive of it. At that time, when every moment we waited for Death, we wished ourselves to at least die like them, with that kind of heroism.
The OD man Moshe Filler who brought out my wife and children from the bunker in the ghetto, told me later, that my younger one, my 9 year old son, said to him, You are probably taking us to be shot. The end will be that you will all therefore be shot, for what you are doing to us.
On the 27th of Nissan, at night, we came back from work to the barracks, prayed with minyan and said Kaddish. It was 4 weeks after the shooting of my wife and children. The room was full with sobs. People approached my father-in-law with many questions, Rebbe how should we understand this? That innocent children are taken and murdered. And the Rebbe flooded with tears answered, With the strength of trust, the strength of faith, the Lord will help and we will survive all of this. All these are hidden matters, things not understood, things we cannot understand. He who has learned and he who knows, that since Jews exist, in the destruction of the first temple, in the destruction of the second temple, that which is taking place today, has never happened before. There never was such slaughter of millions with extermination and no escape. Someday we will understand it.
When we sat down to take a piece of bread, the barracks were surrounded by Jewish Police. We felt that something was hanging in the air, but we did not know what was going to unfold. Suddenly, the OD man Shneider approached us ( I do not know his first name) and asked in Polish who Rabbi Klingberg was. Not aware of anything bad, the Rebbe stood up and said that it is he. Shneider ordered the Rebbe to go with him. I approached the OD man, Did he know whom he was taking? (I foresaw a catastrophe) and asked him to leave the Rebbe alone. The OD Shneider told me to leave for if he would strike me I will be covered with blood. When I hit you blood of a dog will flow. (in Polish).
I ignored him and remained standing. I was forcibly removed and Shneider took the Rebbe. No one else was then allowed out of the barracks, so that no one would know what was transpiring.
Half an hour later, the Rebbe surprisingly returned. Everyone approached him and asked: Zalshitzer Rebbe what happened? The Rebbe in tears answered, literally from death to life. So they asked, Rebbe what does that mean? So the Rebbe asked tearfully that they should first of all let him pray Maariv (the night prayer). So I spoke up, So Father-in-law will pray Maariv a little later. So he says, Can one know what will be one minute later? And he stood and prayed Maariv, flooded with tears. The group that had surrounded the Rebbe cried along intensely, out of joy that the Rebbe had come back, not knowing what had transpired. When the Rebbe finished praying, they once again befell him, what happened there? The Rebbe answered, What does it matter? They already took the other people to be shot. One of the group shouted, Thank God that you Rebbe were saved. So the Rebbe stood up, all trembling and said, What is the difference, my body or someone elses? By what am I more precious than the other Jewish souls?
And while we were thus speaking, the OD man Shpielman comes in (I dont remember his first name), and crying and breaking his hands, he called out, Give me the Zalshitzer Rebbe. He led the Rebbe away and the Rebbe unfortunately never again came back.
What we found out later was that he was taken to the OD commander Chilovich, may he be erased, who commanded that the Zalshitzer be brought to the hill, where the other Jews about whom the Rebbe had spoken were previously shot. There were about 60 men and women there. When the Rebbe was brought to the hill to be shot, where the SS man Straviensky stood, who had shot them all, the Jewish OD, as they told me later, justified themselves to the Rebbe, that they are not responsible, that they were told to do this. The Zalshitzer Rebbe said to them You are all no more than cogs in a machine. When the cogs fall over, the machine falls apart and cannot function.
When the Rebbe was brought to the hill all the previous victims already lay dead. When they told him to strip naked, he asked the Jewish OD they should let him say viduy (confession) in his Tzitzit. They let him do that. He recited viduy out loud. When he finished, his last words were Behold I am a redemption for all of Israel and added in Yiddish I should be the last sacrifice. Jewish blood should be spilled no more. And with a loud cry of Shma Yisrael hashem elokeinu hashem echad, he turned to the German Straviensky and motioning with his hand, he said Nu. When they took people to bury the Jews who were shot, I freely volunteered and I, alas, found the holy Rebbe lying there in his Tzitzit. This happened on the 28th day in Nissan at night.
This tragedy happened because a night before a Jew had smoked a cigarette in front of the barrack and the Commandant Goeth found out about it and as punishment he ordered the OD Commander Chilowitz to bring 60 Jews. So Chilowitz got in touch with the chief of the infirmary, the Jewish doctor Gross ( I dont remember his first name) who took all those who were admitted there as too weak to work or old people. The Zalshitzer Rebbe had a cold, so he was in the infirmary as well for a day or two. When they took the Rebbe the first time before he came back, it was accidentally found out by a Jewish man named Avraham Gross who had, still in the ghetto, done a lot of good to Jews; he had helped many Jews with whatever he could. He supplied eggs to the command post. When he found out that they took the Zalshitzer Rebbe, he did whatever he could to rescue him from the OD, before they took the other Jews away. This was the reason why the Rebbe came back the first time.
A woman, whose mother was among the 60 people, noticed that the Rebbe had been stolen away. So, she started to scream in Polish that she noticed how the Rebbe was taken away from behind. Her mother, she screamed, is younger but was still taken to be shot. So, the commander Chilowitz got scared, that it would get back to Goeth and he immediately ordered that they bring back the Rebbe and take him to be shot.
So life continued in Plaszow. In the time when nobody saw, I looked into a Gemara or Mishnayot. We also recited the Oral Law, Siddurim (prayer books) Gemaras, etc. They were smuggled into the concentration camp from the ghetto; every holiday we davened. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur it came about that I prayed with a minyan in the laundry. Others some place else. Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur everyone had to go to work. Like other religious Jews, I tried to be on a night shift, so I could pray by day in the barracks. In front of the barracks people stood guarding. I blew Shofar with closed windows. When the guard gave a signal six is going we knew that someone from the Germans was coming, and we dispersed through the windows.
We made an effort to have Chassidic young people in the kitchen and they watched that we should have kosher. Before Pesach we even koshered the kettle, and a select few even had a kezayit (minimum amount) of Matzah and on certain occasions we even baked matzah in the concentration camp from smuggled flour, small matzahs. People risked their lives for it. For wearing Tzitzit people were shot, but nonetheless, religious Jews wore them, Yiddishist Jews fasted on Yom Kippur, but not all.
I saw you wallowing in your blood & I said in your blood live & I said to you in your blood live!