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12 Adar 5761 - March 7, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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HaRav Shammai Zahn, zt"l, Sar Vegodol Nofal beYisroel
by S. Baruchi and Yated Ne'eman Staff

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.

His Biography

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 Weiss.

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 hungry.

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 the children.

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 place.

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 train home.

* * *

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 Gateshead.

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 Leshmoneh.

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 the world.

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.



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