Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

18 Tammuz 5764 - July 7, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








On the Guarding of the Jewish Bodies in Hamburg

In Honor of the First Yahrtzeit of HaRav Yitzchok Kulitz, Rov of Yerushalayim, 24 Tammuz

by Chaim Arbeli

Twenty one years ago, a storm raged over excavations of graves in Hamburg, Germany. Demonstrations were held on the site, and once again German police were seen forcibly evicting Jews. Later on, HaRav Yitzchok Kulitz zt"l, the rov of Yerushalayim, was called in to give his opinion on the construction of the site. He traveled to Germany, returned to Israel and announced his ruling that there must be no digging on the site.

The Germans announced their rejection of the ruling, but then . . . one hour later they suddenly announced their complete acceptance of the ruling. The Rav's confidant, Rabbi Menachem Blumenthal, who accompanied him on the trip, dubbed its success as "open miracles."


The Hamburg episode began some 833 years ago, when the Jewish community purchased some land in Hamburg for a cemetery, in nearby Ottensen, Altona. In those days, Altona was under the control of the government of Denmark where it was possible for Jews to buy land on a permanent basis, rather than only for a temporary lease as was the case in other places. Thus, in Altona there was no fear of the land ever being requisitioned, and close to four thousand Jews were buried there throughout the years.

During the Second World War, the Germans desecrated the graveyard and nationalized it. After the war the British, as conquerors of the region, gained ownership of the site, and they subsequently handed it over to the Jewish community which was then in Hamburg. The Jewish community viewed themselves as the full owners of the cemetery.

Forty-five years ago, the community sold the land. Twelve years ago, a construction company named B&L purchased the whole area, for development. The company managers claimed that at the time of the purchase, they had no idea that it was a Jewish cemetery.

At that time, some of the graves were no longer in existence, since a bunker had been dug in part of the area, and other excavations had been done as well. However an examination of the area revealed that any further digging in the area was likely to damage the remnants of the graves.

The company suggested relocating the remaining graves to any place that was decided upon, to enable them to carry out the excavations in accordance with their plans to build a major shopping center.

A few forceful community activists attempted to prevent the project from starting, but the company managers put up a stubborn fight.

The Jews in Europe began to demonstrate on the site, and the German government was quite discomfited by the scenario of German policemen seen forcibly evicting Jews. The federal government held back from any involvement in the actual dispute.

The German construction company found itself smack in the middle of a storm, which grew increasingly more intense. The company applied to a businessman named Shaike Kariv from Bnei Brak to investigate whether it was possible to solve the problem by relocating the graves to Eretz Yisroel. Funds for this purpose were already available.

Kariv met with representatives of the community activists, and the two sides decided to apply to and accept the ruling of HaRav Yitzchok Kulitz, then the official rov of Yerushalayim. Consequently, HaRav Kulitz embarked on a three- day visit to Germany.

At this point, Rabbi Menachem Blumenthal, secretary, aide and confidant of HaRav Kulitz, joined the trip.

"The visit was planned as a private one," said Rabbi Blumenthal. "I cannot reconstruct in my mind today how it was that the visit took on a distinctly `royal' character. It was hosted at the Ramada Hotel in Hamburg, the most magnificent hotel in the region. Kariv claimed that serious affairs are conducted in luxurious settings.

"In addition to the rooms, Kariv rented a glamorous suite to host private meetings, as well as a spacious room for more public meetings. Rabbi Chananya Shachor, a native of Hamburg, also joined the travel party. We traveled around in official vehicles. It was only later that we realized why HaKodosh Boruch Hu had arranged events such that HaRav Kulitz was simply cloaked in grandeur."

Why was HaRav Kulitz, in particular, chosen to decide on the issue?

Rabbi Blumenthal explained that HaRav Kulitz had been involved in incidents concerning graves a number of times in the past, including some in Germany as well. He had once convinced the government to relinquish a certain graveyard. Furthermore, even local activists in the region had faith in him.

During that period, a certain German journalist by the name of Ulrich Zeem was, "coincidentally," staying in Israel. He was married to a Jewish woman but claimed to have converted. Ulrich was a writer for one of the German stations, and he would quite often come to the country to interview HaRav Kulitz on a variety of subjects.

As Rabbi Blumenthal put it: "I get excited today just rehashing in my mind about how all the events unfolded."

Ulrich greatly admired HaRav Kulitz. When the incident of the graves came up, HaRav Kulitz called him and asked him if he would be willing to act as translator during the trip. As compensation, HaRav Kulitz suggested that he also act as spokesman during his visit, which was covered by the German media. Naturally, he agreed, added Rabbi Blumenthal.

The German text of HaRav Kulitz's final ruling was translated by this journalist, who was most faithful and precise. HaRav Kulitz spoke German and really had no need of a translator for conversation. But every mark on the official documents had to be most exact, especially since HaRav Kulitz added specific expressions to his ruling about which he was very particular that they be understood as he wished. Every one who knew him was conscious of how carefully he weighed each word.

According to Rabbi Blumenthal, at this stage the German government--both the central government and the local one-- kept out of the affair, dismissing the issue as a "private" matter.

When they first set out on the trip, the delegation was far from any thoughts of influencing or changing the stance of either the construction company or the German government. But as the trip progressed, certain matters evolved which Rabbi Blumenthal termed "obvious miracles."

The Jewish community did its utmost to ensure that the visit be as distinguished as possible. Their members had no reason to be ashamed about the actual sale of the land, explained Rabbi Blumenthal, since it had been implemented by Jews who had just chanced to be in Hamburg after the war and had moved on--it was really an incidental community with no connection to the present one.

According to Rabbi Blumenthal, his role on the trip was to mark out where the predominant channels of power lay, through whom it might be possible to influence and effect changes. He managed to contact a few of those who could pull strings, who had leverage with the heads of government.

One of those he contacted was a woman by the name of Kahan, whose father was Jewish. She was later to have a key role in the success of the mission.

Seeing the Officials

After HaRav Kulitz studied the site and investigated the problem, he requested a meeting with Hamburg's Minister of Justice. During that meeting he queried the minister about German law, and then went on to prove to him that the sale of the area had no validity from a legal standpoint.

"I do not remember the exact details," recalls Rabbi Blumenthal, "but he argued that the graves belonged to the actual original purchasers [who are buried there], since the whole power of the community which sold the area derived from the British government, which had in turn conquered the region from the Germans, who had nationalized Jewish property . . . The Minister of Justice was very impressed and responded, `Nothing can be done against that. That is an argument.' "

Asked whether the idea had come into HaRav Kulitz's head during the meeting, Rabbi Blumenthal said he could not possibly know. He added that HaRav Kulitz had not mentioned the matter to him beforehand, but he doubted that the Rov could submit such an argument had he not first checked out matters with the Minister of Justice, with whom he had met on more than one occasion.

HaRav Kulitz also argued that the community that sold the land was only an incidental community, i.e., a group of Jews who had arrived there in the aftermath of the war, who could not be viewed as "the Hamburg community."

Additionally, HaRav Kulitz met with the Minister of the Police and the police commandant and requested that during his stay they ensure that all work be halted on the site.

As the trip progressed, it got a lot of coverage in the media. Then, HaRav Kulitz received an invitation from the mayor of the city to visit the Municipal Council. (The State of Hamburg is one of the 16 states that constitute Federal Germany.)

During that visit, HaRav Kulitz was met by hundreds of journalists. The mayor accompanied him to the furthermost point that he was allowed to accompany guests, according to German law. Beyond that line, the mayor was forbidden to cross, even when heads of state came to visit.

After a series of meetings, HaRav Kulitz met with leaders of the construction company who were . . . `most rigid,' according to Rabbi Blumenthal. They argued - -and quite rightly from their perspective--that they had purchased the site and paid for it in full. HaRav Kulitz tried convincing the central government, as well as the local government, to buy the site from the company, but neither would consent.

As Rabbi Blumenthal put it: "HaRav Kulitz never gave his resolution on the spot, nor did he ever reveal what he was thinking. But during the consultations, I learned to grasp the direction to which he was striving. We returned to Israel without his giving a ruling on the matter. The pressure back there had been really dreadful. When we got to Israel, we were met at the airport with singing."

Rabbi Blumenthal quoted from a letter sent to him by one of the local activists, to illustrate the tremendous effect that HaRav Kulitz had on the general atmosphere in Germany:

"The general atmosphere that I witnessed in the public, the media, and the political echelons, generated a very distinct sensation of it being just not possible to go against the word of the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem . . . It was surely a case of "Hashem nosan chein ha'am be'eineihem, ve'gam ho'ish . . . godol, etc. (Hashem put the grace of the people in their eyes, and also the man . . .) This I want to say -- that I was a witness to the extent of it."


In Israel, HaRav Kulitz sat and wrote his decision, entirely forbidding the construction company from carrying out any new excavations on the site. The whole site had to be covered with concrete vaults, and building was only to be done above the concrete. He had consulted with experts as to whether this was technically feasible, and had received positive responses. In the bunker area, which had already been dug up, pits could be set up as shafts for the elevators.

HaRav Kulitz also requested that, to ensure that the construction company not deviate from the stipulations of his ruling, a supervisor would go to Hamburg from Jerusalem, to follow up on the construction work. The company was requested to provide the funding for the supervision.

"I will never forget," recalled Rabbi Blumenthal, "how I got a phone call announcing that the company would not accept the ruling. The Hamburg Senate was also not prepared to accept it. Irate people called me from Hamburg, stating that if another ruling was not forthcoming by Friday, the excavations would start up again. The company had already transferred their heavy equipment out there and were getting ready to plow the area.

"I phoned HaRav Kulitz less than an hour before Shabbos, and asked whether it was not perhaps necessary to change his decision. Things couldn't continue like this . . . we standing here, so far away, while over there the tractors were already starting up their motors!

"And then the Rov spoke, in a voice very different from the one I was familiar with. He said, kehai lishna (using this language): `Menachem, you are not running the world, and neither am I running the world. There is a Ribono Shel Olam, and He wants us to do what He has asked us to do. I gave my ruling in accordance with all the sequences of halochoh. More than that -- it is not my task to do, and neither is it yours.'

"I notified Germany instantly that there was no change whatsoever and that the ruling was final.

"An hour later, I received a phone call from Germany that the Senate had convened and had decided to accept the ruling. I went and told HaRav Kulitz immediately, and he burst into tears of emotion. In only one hour, the situation had undergone a complete turnabout: from the tractor that was ready on the site, to the Senate's agreeing to accept the ruling. The person who led the motion in Germany was Mrs. Kahan. She was the shaliach of the Ribono Shel Olam."

The construction company, after that was faithful to the agreement down to the last detail. The appointed supervisor, Rabbi Aaron Gottlieb, was dispatched to the site from Jerusalem.

Rabbi Blumenthal added that even today he is unable to give any logical explanation of what happened in Germany.

Mark of Disgrace

Although HaRav Kulitz ruled that it was permitted for the construction company to build on the site -- without any new excavations -- he did so with a heavy heart. As the Rov himself put it, he only made that concession because the buyers had invested enormous capital in acquiring the place. It was definitely not respectful to the graveyard, to have buildings erected upon it.

Yet, as HaRav Kulitz stated: "Surely, each building erected over this graveyard constitutes a further mark of disgrace for the German government. I refer to the general government which turned a deaf ear to the pleas, and to the local government which, though it did lend an ear, it was to no avail, since the two authorities shook off their responsibility, and each tried to pass it on to the other. Despite all the efforts and the pleas, the two authorities did not manage to reach a clear decision to liberate the site which had been desecrated by the Germans, and convert it into a memorial site and/or guard it so that it would never be built on at all--like Jewish cemeteries elsewhere in the world."

As Rabbi Blumenthal put it, "He pushed them on their most ultra-sensitive point. Ulrich Zeem, the German journalist who accompanied HaRav Kulitz on the trip, was well aware of German sensitivities, and he tried a number of times to explain that a certain word in the text of HaRav Kulitz dealt an extremely harsh blow to the Germans, the worst possible blow, in fact.

"However, HaRav Kulitz was adamant that it be written."

"Never Has Such a Dreadful Thing Been Done"

From the ruling of HaRav Yitzchok Kulitz, issued on 18 Iyar, 5752

"We must hereby note clearly, decisively, and unequivocally, that no private or public body has any authority whatsoever to sell, hand over, or transfer, in any form whatsoever, the graveyard, or a portion of it . . . That community which was given the site of the graveyard, as a consequence of the laws in the times of the Nazi rule, as already noted above, did not become the owners of this holy place, and certainly not of those buried in it. I am not making a claim here from a legal perspective, according to German law, but according to Jewish law: this sale is fundamentally abolished and invalidated.

"It should be noted that the prewar Hamburg community was appalled at the notion of the sale of the cemetery, and not only the eminent Jewish communities of Hamburg, but the entire Jewish community of the whole world was horrified by it. For never has such a dreadful thing been done before, to sell a cemetery with graves. Even the Communist government of East Germany understood that, and annulled the sale of a site in Berlin which contained graves."

From the ruling which was laid down on 27 Sivan, 5752:

After a visit to the cemetery, and an in-depth examination of the entire issue, the resolution is herewith reached, as follows:

1. It is forbidden to move the graves and the dust from the cemetery, including even for the purpose of transferring them to Israel.

2. We are not preventing construction above the cemetery, but only upon it, including no digging upon it.

3. Construction in the site must be done under tight supervision, by a supervisor appointed by us.

HaRav Yitzchok Kulitz, zt'l

HaRav Yitzchok Kulitz zt'l, Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem for over two decades, passed away last year on 24 Tammuz at the age of 81 after a protracted illness.

HaRav Kulitz was born in Lithuania on 18 Sivan 5682 (1922) to HaRav Eliyohu Dovid Nachman, rov of the town of Alita and one of Lithuania's leading rabbonim. HaRav Eliahu Dovid was very close with the Chazon Ish and learned with him bechavrusa for many years. When his son was only three, Rav Eliyohu passed away and when Yitzchok was just 10 years old his mother sent him to Yeshivas Slobodka. Among his rabbei'im during this period was HaRav Zevulun Graz who was later a rov in Rechovot.

On Rosh Chodesh Elul 5693 (1933), when he was 11, his family moved to Eretz Yisroel and settled in Yerushalayim. His mother sent him to learn with the mechina of Chevron Yeshiva.

When he was 14, his friends advised him to relate his chiddushim to HaRav Isser Zalman Meltzer. The young bochur went one evening and after that visit the two often engaged in pilpul.

His rebbe, HaRav Yechezkel Sarna, was very fond of the young man and even helped his family. During the war of 5708 (1948), as shells fired by the Jordanian army were falling on Jerusalem, HaRav Sarna brought the entire Kulitz family into his home for an extended stay.

During R' Yitzchok's time at Chevron, the yeshiva was full of renowned talmidei chachomim who had a major impact on the young man and later he would regularly visit the homes of maranan verabonon. As a young yeshiva bochur, he would sit and learn constantly. Every night as midnight approached, HaRav Aharon Cohen, later the rosh yeshiva, would come to the beis midrash to send him to bed.

HaRav Kulitz received semichoh from HaRav Meltzer before he got married. HaRav Kulitz also grew close to Maran the Chazon Ish zt'l who had been his father's chavrusa. After Rav Kulitz sent him his chiddushim, at the Chazon Ish's request, the two would often exchange letters on Rav Kulitz' learning.

He married Gittel Tovoh a'h, the daughter of HaRav Yaakov Shimshon Auerbach, a prominent Karliner chossid from Tiveria. After his engagement, the Chazon Ish sent him a letter of congratulations with the blessing that Rav Kulitz should have the merit to study in accordance with his pure aspirations.

At the age of 25, he was appointed a ram at Yeshivas Chevron, replacing Rav Aharon Cohen who was unable to reach the yeshiva from the Central Region due to the war then raging. Afterwards he refused a permanent position at the yeshiva.

He moved to Bnei Brak, where the couple had a meager subsistence. The Rebbetzin devotedly raised the children without distracting Rav Kulitz from his Torah study, preparing them for lives of Torah and instilling in them middos tovos.

Rav Kulitz davened in Yeshivas Ponovezh and formed strong bonds with the Ponovezher Rov, HaRav Shmuel Rozovsky, HaRav Dovid Povarsky and Maran HaRav Shach zt'l. He was graced with a fine speaking ability; Rav Kahaneman once asked him to speak for the yeshiva's board of governors.

Rav Kulitz taught Torah until 5715 (1955), when he was appointed a dayan at a Tel Aviv beis din. He sat on the bench for many years, during which his rulings set an example for many other dayanim. In 5739, he was appointed to the Beis Din Hagodol and in 5741 (1981), after the petiroh of HaRav Betzalel Zolti, he was made rov of Jerusalem.

Rav Kulitz would deliver his Shabbos Teshuvoh droshoh at Beis Knesses HaGra in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Shaarei Chessed, where his listeners included Maran HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt'l.

One year after suffering a heart attack, Rav Kulitz announced he would be unable to give the Shabbos Teshuvoh droshoh. On the Thursday night preceding Shabbos Teshuvoh, HaRav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach came to his home and said, "I heard the Rov would not be delivering his droshoh due to his weak state of health, so I've come to hear it in his home."

Rav Kulitz left his imprint on every area of life in Jerusalem and beyond. Of particular note was his uncompromising struggle to protect Jewish graves in Jerusalem and around the world. Before the reunification of East and West Germany, Rav Kulitz traveled to Hamburg to provide his expertise as part of efforts to save a cemetery. The West German government submitted to his halachic decisions, as detailed in the main article.

In Eretz Yisroel as well, he fought against attempts to destroy Jewish graves. His firm stances helped solve many problems that arose throughout the years in numerous places, including French Hill, Givat Zeev, Maaleh Adumim Road, Begin Road and the Modi'in area.

Never raising his voice, his resolute insistence on truth overcame whoever confronted him. He raised the level of kashrus supervision in Yerushalayim to the extent that its mehadrin supervision has a very good name.

He was also known for his uncompromising campaign to prevent the entry of Reform figures into positions of authority in Jerusalem, particularly the repeated efforts to bring them into the Religious Council.

HaRav Kulitz also had a special friendship with Maran HaRav Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, shlita, who would direct all of the halachic problems regarding Jerusalem to him and would meet with him frequently to discuss various issues.

As a dayan he was known for his sharp perception. Without unneeded words, he knew how to identify the point of contention and to pursue the underlying truth. Soft-spoken and pleasant, his noble manner radiated all around him.

A few years before his passing he retired from civic life and stopped answering halachic questions, due to his weakness. During this difficult period, when he would discuss Torah, he would regain some of his strength and speak animatedly. He published a sefer called Minchas Eliyohu, named after his father. Six-and-a-half years ago his wife passed away.

HaRav Yitzchok Kulitz, zt'l

by R. Kulitz

24 Tammuz marked the first yahrtzeit of HaRav Yitzchok Kulitz zt"l, whose noble character has not been forgotten. One year has passed and the rays of light still shine forth from this extraordinary personage--a giant in Torah and middos. From early childhood until his parting this world, Torah was always on his lips. With a smile and a radiant countenance he trod the path of his fabulous life, leaving behind a powerful stamp of Torah, wisdom, leadership, faith, warmth and love.

One year has passed, yet the flame of the Torah blazing in his heart has not faded--a fire that burned in his flesh and bones. Every moment, at every phase of his lifetime, all of his attention was devoted to Torah study.

On a cold and rainy winter night in Jerusalem, as a talmid at Yeshivas Chevron, he delved deep into a sugya late into the night. It was during the British Mandate period and a curfew was in place. Suddenly, R' Yitzchok needed a certain book to resolve a kushyoh. Wearing an impassioned look on his face and just a thin shirt on his back he ran from his room, which was at a distance from the yeshiva, to the book room at the yeshiva. Fifteen minutes later he was back in his room, beaming. He had hardly noticed the cold wind and driving rain. Once the machlokes in the Tosafos had been resolved his face burned with fervor and the warmth of Torah radiated from him, protecting him from the fierce wind and storm.

The passion of Torah from his youth remained with him even after he had left his youth far behind. The song of Torah never left his tongue.

And Torah cannot endure without truth and peace, which were HaRav Yitzchok's guiding lights. He dedicated himself to work towards peace between husband and wife and bein odom lechavero. As a dayan, with his tender heart and a yearning for truth beating in his chest he never showed favoritism, but only steadfastness, integrity and unbound sensitivity. On one occasion, when he caught one of the litigants in a lie, he was as strict as halochoh permits. And when a brokenhearted widow came to claim an inheritance he cried along with her.

His face exuded graciousness and kindness, epitomizing ve'ohavto lerei'acho komocho. HaRav Yitzchok Kulitz loved every Jew at least as much as he loved himself. His personality radiated beneficence and love. His every word and act spoke of an agreeable, noble nature. Even when he once had to raise his voice against a kashrus worker who had betrayed his trust, he confided to someone that he was not angry but had "to wear the coat of anger."

He treated people young and old alike with the utmost respect. Both gedolei olom and unfortunates sought him out. Some for pilpul, others for advice and still others for support, consolation and encouragement.

One year has passed since his histalkus and we continue to absorb the rays of light from this towering lighthouse of Torah, trying to make even a bit of this light our own.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.