At a massive levaya, headed by roshei yeshiva,
rabbonim, dayanim and communal figures from the front ranks
of England's Torah Jewry, HaRav Shamai Zahn zt'l was
accompanied on his last earthly journey. HaRav Zahn was the
rosh yeshiva of Netzach Yisroel, and the rav and av beis
din of Sunderland, as well as the President of Agudas
Yisroel of England.
The levaya this past Sunday afternoon in Gateshead was
attended by roshei yeshiva, rabbonim, dayanim, community
figures and students who had come from all over Europe.
Hespedim were delivered by: HaRav Betzalel Rakov, the
rov of Gateshead; HaRav Avrohom Gurewicz, the rosh yeshiva
of Gateshead; HaRav Yaakov Ehrentreu, one of the roshei
yeshiva of Gateshead; the niftar's son-in- law, HaRav
Avrohom Ehrentreu, and the niftar's sons, HaRav Dovid
and HaRav Avrohom, who are ramim in the yeshiva.
R' Shammai was born 1920 in Nuremberg to Reb Meshulam Zushe
and Pessel Zirel, Hashem Yikom Domom. Reb Meshulam was
a great baal tefillah, and a respected member of the
Polisher shtibel there. Reb Meshulem Zusha Hy"d
was murdered in the Holocaust. Reb Shammai learned in the
Wurzburg Seminar and gained a lot from Rabbi Shamshon Rafael
The following is taken from an article that R' Shammai Zahn
wrote of his experiences (at the age of 19) during
Kristallnacht in the Wurzburg Seminary (it was also quoted a
book about his mechuton HaRav Benzion Rakow zt"l
entitled My Father, My Rebbe).
The Last Days of the Seminary
For me, the beginning of the end was the 28th October 1939.
It was when we were finishing shacharis that all those
who had Polish passports were called out. We were met
downstairs by Gestapo officials and marched off to the
dormitories in the Bibrastrasse where we were told to pack a
small suitcase and then we were led to the town's prison.
There we were first searched and then led to the cells. By
that time a number of families from the town had joined us;
one man had brought with him two bags full of food -- it was
Friday morning and the Shabbos meals were already prepared.
He left them outside the room whilst he underwent a body
search and then promptly picked them up when led to the
cells. I was sent to his cell and so at least I did not go
There were six of us in a small, dark and evil-smelling
cell, and when the door was locked behind us, we realized
that we were at the mercy of the beasts. The loss of one's
freedom of movement is a terrible thing in itself and I
still remember clearly the feeling of desperation that
overtook me! And so Shabbos came.
We davened as best we could and had something to eat.
The food pushed under the door by the prison warden was,
apart from being non-kosher, quite inedible, and was
returned untouched. Late on Friday night we suddenly heard
whistling from outside [the prison]. Some of our
chaverim must have found out where we were, and they
whistled one of the tunes usually sung for "Lecho
Dodi" at the Seminary. This was wonderful and it gave us
new hope and courage. It reminded us that normal life went
on outside and gave us hope that one day we would again
enjoy the same freedom.
Very early on Shabbos morning we were told to get up and we
were led outside. We were told to climb onto waiting
vehicles which took us to the railway station. We still had
no idea of our destination, or our fate. The train took us
to Nurenberg where we were all gathered in one of the
Bahnhof-halls (train station shelters), which were
still decorated with welcome signs and swastikas from the
recent Reichsparteitag (the annual congress of Nazi
followers in Nurenberg).
There were already hundreds of people, mostly women and
children, in the hall. They came from Nurenberg, Munich and
other cities in southern Germany. The babies and children
were crying as there was no food for them, when the large
doors which led to the street opened and the venerable rav
of Nurenberg, HaRav Klein, appeared together with a Jewish
taxi driver carrying crates of milk and other supplies for
Finally, we were loaded onto a long train (there were about
1,100 people on it) and we began the slow journey to Poland.
By then we had learned that this was to be our destination.
One transport consisting mainly of men and women without
children had already left and had reached the border. My
father, Reb Meshulam Zushe, and elder sister were on it, and
my mother and my younger brother and sisters were on my
train, but we were not allowed to communicate, as each
carriage was sealed off and guarded.
The train moved slowly through the autumn landscape. At one
or two stations local Jewish people were allowed on the
platform and they handed food, milk and warm children's
clothing through the windows, all of which were very
urgently required and greatly appreciated.
Late at night as we were approaching the Polish border the
train stopped and, after a long wait, an announcement was
made. Germany had come to an arrangement with Poland and we
were free: we could leave the train or, if we wished, we
could stay on as the train which would take us back to our
hometowns -- and this is what everyone did. Apparently, the
Poles had closed their border and the Germans decided in
favor of allowing us to return home [in Germany] rather than
turning us loose in this sensitive area. The feeling of
relief at our regained freedom was indescribable.
I now stayed at home in Nurenberg to help my mother and the
children when on the 9th of November it was decided that I
should return to Wurzburg for the time being. And so we come
to the events of November 10.
Around midnight we could hear from our beds in the
Bibrastrasse the noise of a demonstration and eventually the
sound of marching jackboots on the cobblestones. They came
nearer and nearer until they stopped at the heavy wooden
doors of the building.
We listened with rising fear as they knocked heavily and
shouted to us to open the door. Before long we heard the
splintering of wood, and we knew that they were about to
break into the house. Now it was everyone for himself.
I ran up to the attic where I hid in a cupboard. I do not
know how long I stayed there; I heard the noise of breaking
glass, splintering wood and heavy articles dropping down on
to the stones in the yard. I had no idea what had happened
to the others -- I could not but fear the worst. Eventually
all became quiet and I ventured slowly out of my hiding
When I came downstairs, everybody was sitting around in good
humor and telling tales! It became clear that the Nazis had
not touched anyone but had taken their vengeance out on the
furnishings and other contents.
In one of rooms of the building the "Winterhilfe" had
a store. This was an organization of the Wurzburg community
that provided basic food items for needy people during the
winter. The bedding was torn and was smeared with flour and
honey which came from the "Winterhilfe" store room.
The beds and cupboards were smashed, and a number of
typewriters lay broken in the courtyard. We all breathed a
sigh of relief thinking that this was it and it was all over
now. Little did we know that the worst was still to come!
Later on that morning we all found ourselves in the ground
floor flat of Teacher (Lehrer) Stolberg when a group
of Nazi hooligans broke in and assumed very threatening
postures. They pointed at one of us and said he looked like
Hershel Grunszpan (the young boy who had shot von Rath, the
German diplomat, at the Paris Embassy as revenge for the
deportation of his parents to Poland on the 29th of
October), and with murder in their eyes and on their faces
they came closer and closer, encouraging each other to start
a pogrom. We feared the worst.
At that moment the Gestapo entered the room and told the mob
to leave, and we were all rounded up and marched through the
jeering and spitting hooligans to the local prison. Here I
was again in the same place, less than two weeks later, when
I thought that I had seen the inside of this particular
prison for the last time.
An officer came forward and asked whether there were any
Poles amongst us. We stepped forward -- there were two or
three of us -- and after a moment's hesitation when we
thought we were going to be shot, since Hershel Grunszpan
had been Polish, we were told to leave and to depart for
Poland. And so we found ourselves in the street, free again.
All the others were taken to the Concentration Camp.
I went to the Sandbergerstrasse and there I saw a sight that
haunted me for a long time. The sifrei Torah and other
seforim of the library were piled high on the playing
field in front of the Seminar and were burning fiercely.
Director Jakob Stoll was held by his arms and forced to
watch, surrounded by the wildly jeering crowd.
I left as quickly as I could and spent the day in the Jewish
Hospital across the road, which I reckoned was the safest
place. I was worried about my mother and the children in
Nurenberg and wanted to travel there but was frightened to
be seen in the street, especially at the station where I
feared there might be some sort of control. So I returned to
the Sandbergerstrasse and asked Herr Huffner, the gentile
caretaker, to lead the way for me on his bicycle and I would
follow. We arranged a number of appropriate signals to
indicate whether it was safe to proceed, and so I caught the
* * *
With great miracles, he dressed up like a farmer's boy and
arrived in London, England on Pesach 5699 (1939). In England
he had a narrow escape when he realized the Polish Embassy
was going to send him back to Poland, and whilst they were
inspecting his passport he quickly made an escape.
Throughout the war years he studied in Toras Emes yeshiva in
London ("Schneider's") with remarkable hasmodoh, and
even when the city was bombed, he did not cease his Torah
studies, clinging to his belief in the Borei
Yisborach. For some time gave a shiur there.
At that time, he drew very close to HaRav Yechezkel
Abramsky, and would speak with him in Torah learning. Soon
the two began to study bechavrusa every Shabbos night,
and HaRav Abramsky praised HaRav Zahn's greatness in Torah.
During those years he also got to know HaRav Dessler who was
in Chesham at the time. In 5704 (1944), HaRav Dessler asked
him to join the well known and unique kollel in
In '45 he married his most esteemed and noble Rebbetzen, the
former Lotte Bergman, daughter of Reb Avrohom Chaim one of
the most respected and dedicated directors of the Breuer
Kehilla in Frankfurt-on-Main. He was direct descendant of
Reb Yosef Hatzadik, a son-in-law of the Noda Biyehuda.
In '46 Rabbi Dessler and the old Gateshead Rov Rabbi Naftoli
Shakowitzky approached him and asked whether he would go to
Sunderland to help Reb Zushe Waltner establish the Yeshiva
there. In his typical ne'imos he used to say that,
"They asked me to help out, and I am still helping out."
In his capacity as rosh yeshiva of Netzach Yisroel, he
produced legions of students, who acquired the eternal
kinyonim of Torah, halocho, yiras Shomayim and
outstanding character traits from him. They regarded him as
a compassionate father, who sought only their benefit, and
who aspired to guide them along Torah's path in line with
the derech of his great mentors. In his mussar
discussions to his students and the members of his
community, he would impart the teachings of his illustrious
teacher, HaRav Eliyahu Dessler. In time, he published a work
on the Shemoneh Prokim leRambam, entitled Vegam
He was concerned with the yeshiva's welfare both in
spiritual and practical matters, assuming responsibility for
maintaining the yeshiva. Thus, while delivering his many
shiurim, he also attended to the needs of the yeshiva
students. As a result, he merited to produce many students
who regarded him as a unique figure. He was especially known
for the warmth he displayed to each and every one of his
students, in a natural unassuming manner, encouraging them
at all times. Due to the depth and quality of his
relationship with his students, they were attached to him
like sons to a father.
Beginning in 5711 (1951), he would to journey to Morocco in
order to bring students to the yeshiva. He dedicated himself
to these students with great mesiras nefesh, raising
them to Torah and yiras Shomayim and accompanied them
until they established their own Torah homes. He merited to
see many of his students growing in Torah and today, many of
them preside as rabbonim and marbitzei Torah all over
Reb Shammai became very close to Rabbi Babad, the rov of
Sunderland. Approximately 20 years ago, the baalei
batim, who loved him, asked him to lead the
kehillah as community rov. Alongside his illustrious
position as rosh yeshiva of Netzach Yisroel, he presided as
rav of the city of Sunderland, where he safeguarded the
walls of kashrus and taharoh. His pleasant manner
endeared Torah and mitzvos to the residents of the city. He
also presided as av beis din of Sunderland, until the
yeshiva and community moved to nearby Gateshead.
As a unique Torah personality, and as one of the those who
established Torah after the Holocaust and helped bear the
burden of European Jewry, he was chosen President of Agudas
Yisroel of Great Britain. In that capacity, he was called
upon to decide all issues of religion in England and Europe.
He also presided as the president of England's youth
activities. His partners in these educational activities
referred to him as a paradigm of nobility of spirit,
middos tovos, greatness and affability, who found the
golden mean in every issue without compromising on the Torah
true outlook by one iota. They especially note his firm
insistence that the chinuch of England's Jewish
children proceed according to the tradition transmitted to
us over the generations.
As President of Agudas Yisroel of Great Britain he was the
central speaker at every Torah event in the country,
especially at the famous Yarchei Kallah programs held in
England and attended by Jews from all over Europe. His
heartfelt words, which emanated from a pure heart, were
warmly internalized by his listeners.
In recent years he suffered from an illness, but with great
efforts he continued to deliver shiurim and mussar
shmuessen to his many students and to members of the his
community. Despite his suffering, he continued to pore over
his Torah studies ceaselessly. Three months ago, he was
hospitalized, but his situation continued to deteriorate. On
Sunday, 9 Adar, he returned his pure soul, which had been
refined by much suffering, to its Maker.
Over 55 years of harbotzas haTorah, starting with
bochurim from the D.P. Camps, establishing rabbonim
udayanim shochatim baalei batim oskim betzorchei tzibbur
world-wide whom he cared for like a father for a child.
Pesach Sedorim, summer camps, dressing them, giving
them pocket money were amongst his activities.
He traveled the world to support his yeshiva and
talmidim. He was at home in every crowd of Klal
Yisroel: bnei Torah, Anglo Jewry and chassidim. It like
we read in the Megillah: Eshter noseis chein be'einei kol
ro'ehoh, as if he were one of theirs.
To know R' Shammai was to love him. He had an appropriate
remark, vort, story for every occasion on the tip of
his fingers. He mixed amongst the hamon am but you
could immediately feel through his wit and wisdom that he
was a man of greatness.
Chaval al de'avdin velo mishtakchin.