The Jewish community of Scandinavia mourns the recent death
of R' Avrohom Guttermann, the legendary Danish Jew who
dedicated his life to perpetuating the tenets of authentic
Torah observance in a region so distant from the hub of world
R' Avrohom's son, Shuvu-Israel Director Rabbi Chaim Michoel
Guttermann, delivered the hesped at the levaya,
which was held in Eretz Yisroel on 24 Ellul.
"Chazal teach us that Avrohom Ovinu was called `HaIvri'
because when it came to avodas Hashem, he was on one
side (ever) of the river, and the rest of the world
was on the other," said the Rabbi Guttermann in his
hesped. "Our father, too, was like our forefather
Avrohom Ovinu. When it came to protecting authentic
Yiddishkeit in Scandinavia, he was on one side and the
rest of the people were on the other."
R' Avrohom zt"l was a descendant of one of Denmark's
oldest Jewish families, which immigrated from Altona,
Germany, in the 1700s when the Royal Danish Court issued an
edict allowing Jews to live there.
Although the Jews of Denmark enjoyed security and freedom, no
yeshivos were established there, and naturally the level of
observance decreased with each passing generation. By 1920,
when R' Avrohom was born, Yiddishkeit in Denmark was
surviving purely on momentum: parents transmitted the
remnants of messora and minhag to their
children and hoped for the best.
R' Avrohom's father, Tzvi, was an exceptional individual who
expected more from his own children and from the Jews of
Known as a "chaver," a term of distinction granted
only to select members of the community who dedicate
themselves selflessly to the needs of the kehilloh, R'
Tzvi Guttermann played a prominent role in the struggle to
preserve authentic Torah Judaism in Scandinavia.
One of his boldest acts was to criticize the rabbi of the
central shul for diverging from halacha with regard to
conversions. R' Tzvi, together with a small group of frum
Jews, waged this battle completely on their own, without any
of the support systems that we take for granted today, such
as the direction of gedolei Yisroel and alliances with
other frum communities. "In this respect, he, too, was an
Avrohom Ovinu," his grandson, Rabbi Chaim Michoel Guttermann,
R' Tzvi and his small group of kehilla members broke away
from the main shul and created their own Torah-observant
minyan and community, which they called Machzikei
Hadas. Visitors to Denmark referred to it as "the Bnei Brak
R' Tzvi Guttermann certainly could not have dreamt that the
Machzikei Hadas community he and his chaverim brought into
existence would raise the level of observance not only in
Denmark, but all over Scandinavia. It was the knowledge that
there was a community in the region that defended its right
to perform shechita and maintain a kosher mikva
that kept mitzvah observance alive in the minds of
R' Avrohom zt"l followed in the footsteps of his
One relative recalls a particular incident that illustrates
R' Avrohom's similarity to his biblical namesake: a group of
Jewish youngsters, not all of them religious, went skiing
together in Sweden, where the Jews of Denmark found shelter
from the Nazis during World War II. Among them was young
Avrohom. While the group was busy winding down a steep slope,
Avrohom signaled to his friends to stop.
"It's time for Mincha!" he called out, pointing to his
watch. And right then and there, halfway down the mountain,
Avrohom and his friends unbuckled themselves from their skis
and began saying Ashrei. Such a level of observance
was completely unheard of in Denmark at that time.
In his youth R' Avrohom zt"l mastered the intricate
Danish nussach tefilloh, which consists of a different
niggun for each Yom Tov, and a different niggun
for each Yom Tov tefilloh. His dedication to
minhag and nussach were strong manifestations
of his love for Yiddishkeit.
World War II reached Denmark in 1940, when the Nazis took
control of the country without firing a single shot. The
Gestapo arrived soon after, setting up its headquarters in a
building adjacent to the Machzikei Hadas shul. On Shabbos, R'
Avrohom and his father would walk past Gestapo headquarters
on the way to shul. However, no harm came to them because the
Nazis were taking their time and amassing detailed
information about the Jews in Denmark before rounding them
R' Avrohom zt"l joined the Danish resistance movement,
but not for long. On erev Rosh Hashonoh 1943, the Germans
launched an aktion to round up the country's Jews, but
a few hours earlier the Danish underground, with the help of
the general population, evacuated virtually every Jew in the
country to Sweden by means of a large flotilla of fishing
boats. R' Avrohom and his family fled along with the rest of
When the war ended in 1945, R' Avrohom and his family
returned home to find everything exactly as they had left it;
the table was still set for the Rosh Hashonoh seuda.
Their non-Jewish neighbors had guarded the homes of the
Jewish evacuees throughout the war years, and none of their
possessions had been touched.
Upon his return, R' Avrohom opened a leather goods factory
which eventually received the esteemed status of "By
Appointment to Her Majesty the Queen of Denmark." He married
Mildred Levin, who was from one of the Jewish families of the
even smaller Jewish community of Oslo.
R' Avrohom was very active in the Scandinavian Jewish Youth
Movement (the SJUF), spearheading a number of programs to
promote Yiddishkeit among the region's youth.
He gradually emerged as one of the leaders of the Machzikei
Hadas community, and served as the head of the chevra
kadisha of Denmark. He also served one term as President
of the general Jewish community. As part of his "duties," in
his later years he opened a Jewish community center that
included a cheder, simchah hall, kosher kitchen and
Continuing in his father's footsteps, he defended the right
to perform shechita, which was the target of constant
criticism from the Danish authorities. And when the
leadership of the main chevra kadisha "modernized"
Jewish burial customs, R' Avrohom became the head of a
separate chevra kadisha that remained faithful to
Many remember R' Avrohom for opening Scandinavia's first and
only kosher hotel in Hornbeak, a popular summer resort area
favored by Scandinavia's Jews. R' Avrohom would often joke
that the hotel was the only business one could discuss on
Shabbos, because it wasn't really a business, it was a loss.
The only reason he opened it, and continued to run it, was to
provide the Jews who came to vacation in the area a place to
eat glatt kosher food and daven in a minyan.
For many years, the Jews at Hornbeak would rent a classroom
in a local non-Jewish school and use it as a classroom
throughout the summer vacation season. R' Avrohom saw the
need to establish a permanent facility, and to this end he
invited two wealthy acquaintances of his to go for a walk
through the town. At one point, R' Avrohom stopped, took off
his shoes, and instructed his two friends to follow suit. The
two looked at R' Avrohom with a puzzled look on their face,
as though perhaps they hadn't heard him correctly. "I said
take off your shoes!" R' Avrohom instructed. They did, and
now their curiosity was piqued.
"The place we are standing on can become holy," R' Avrohom
explained to his bare-footed friends. "We can buy this lot
and turn it into a shul. Horbeak needs a permanent shul.
Let's do it together." R' Avrohom's associates responded to
his dramatic appeal, and the lot did become holy. However,
they soon pulled out of the venture, leaving R' Avrohom to
bear the entire burden of maintaining the shul.
Even non-religious Jews who rented rooms in non-Jewish hotels
would go to daven at the minyan held in R'
Avrohom's shul. In addition to minyanim, the shul
featured shiurim by well-known rabbonim. Yeshivas
Ponovezh even ran Yarchei Kalla programs there, year after
year. Through this shul dozens of non-religious Jews were
introduced to davening, Torah study and mitzvah
observance, and many of them continued to explore Judaism and
became completely observant.
In addition, many individuals from religious families said
that the minyanim at the Hornbeak helped them maintain
their level of observance. R' Avrohom would himself made the
rounds through the summer resort in the early morning hours
and rustled people out of their beds for the minyan.
Those who didn't respond to his knocks on the door
received a telephone call. "No excuse was good enough to
escape R' Avrohom's minyan," a Hornbeak veteran
recalled wistfully, adding that he misses those early-morning
R' Avrohom's penchant for minyan-making continued in
Copenhagen, where he came up with a novel idea to ensure
there was a minyan every single morning in Machzikei
Hadas: He built several apartments on the top floor of the
Jewish community center. The rent was variable: either $1,000
a month, which was the going rate, or $50 a month if the male
tenants attended the morning minyan daily. Needless to
say, this arrangement made the task of putting together a
minyan each morning much easier.
One of R' Avrohom zt"l's crowning achievements was to
open the only kollel in Scandinavia in 1986. To this
end he "imported" from Eretz Yisroel 12 avreichim and
their families, and provided for all their needs, including
apartments and monthly stipends. The goal of this
unprecedented venture was to strengthen the local Jewish
community and to do kiruv work among non-affiliated
Jews in Denmark, Norway and Sweden.
Another landmark achievement was opening the first yeshiva in
Copenhagen for Russian boys from the Soviet Union and East
Germany, located in the very same building adjacent to the
Machzikei Hadas shul that had served as Gestapo headquarters
during the war years. An Islamic group had its eye on this
building to serve as a Muslim school, so all in all the Jews
of Copenhagen were quite happy when R' Avrohom secured it for
It was especially a moment of sweet revenge for the
generation of Danish Jews who had lived through the War
years. Turning the building into a yeshiva made a mockery of
the evil intentions of the Nazis, who sought to erase Judaism
from the face of the earth. R' Avrohom's yeshiva created an
entire generation of dozens of talmidei chachomim who
continued their studies at world-renowned yeshivos in Eretz
Yisroel, England and North America.
During the last months of his life, R' Avrohom became very
ill. He decided to come to Eretz Yisroel, his most beloved
place on earth, and there he spent the last three months of
He was niftar on Friday afternoon 24 Ellul, and was
buried shortly before Shabbos, only two hours after his
petiroh. "In his role as the head of the chevra
kadisha in Denmark, he would always make superhuman
efforts to bury people according to halacha, as soon as
possible after their petiroh, preferably on the same
day. Perhaps because of this zechus he was zocheh
to receive such a burial himself," said his son, Rabbi
Chaim Michoel Guttermann.
R' Avrohom was an extraordinary person with ideas that some
people considered outlandish and unrealistic. But with the
assistance of his dear wife, ad meah ve'esrim, who
always gave him the support and encouragement to put his
plans into action, his ideas invariably turned into concrete
actions that, in retrospect, are viewed as bold and
His list of achievements speaks for itself. He proved that
what everyone thought impossible could be done. All that was
required was emunah, bitochon, determination, and
fierce loyalty to Torah and halacha.
These were the qualities that were instrumental in changing
the face of Judaism in Scandinavia throughout his 84 years of
He is survived by his wife, Mina; two sons and three
daughters in Copenhagen, Manchester and New York; and
grandchildren and great-grandchildren who will carry on in
May his memory be a blessing.