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30 Tishrei 5766 - November 2, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
TziYun Le'Isha Gedoloh — Finding Family History

by Rabbi Yaakov Rosenes

Many who have collected old books or family history, or even discovered a box of old letters and pictures in the attic, will recall the thrill of discovering the human side of our ancestors.

The history of the Jewish people is intimately tied between Seforim and Mishpachology (family history). The Jewish people's only enduring records between exiles, pogroms and wanderings are often found not in the land offices or the population registries, but in the seforim that rabbis wrote, printed and carried with them from golus to golus.

As a Judaica researcher, bibliographer, and more recently virtual bookseller, for almost thirty years, I have had many stories of strange connections, serendipity and siyata deShmaya. For example, from unforeseen connections we once found a Responsa which helped a bet din give permission for a girl from an unclear family background to marry.

However, the following story from last year is one of the most remarkable episodes I have ever encountered. Not only because of the chain of events that brought the document into my hands, but even more so because of the powerful and amazing human story that it uncovered.


In a sense, we were looking for a proverbial needle in a haystack. Our correspondent, Mr. Jonathan Hodes of London, was looking for a hesped of Rebbetzin Chaya Shatzkes- Blazer, his wife's great-great-grandmother. All he knew about it was that it was printed in an Eretz Yisroel newspaper sometime before the Israeli War of Independence (5708-1948).

In a sense the problem was solved even before it started since another descendant of this great lady is a well-known talmid chochom with whom I daven every morning who had once seen the hesped. However, he didn't have a copy of the hesped and though he had seen it, he couldn't recall which relative had shown him the eulogy.

So we set out on a fruitless chase through most of the major Jewish archives in Israel and New York. In the end, we found the hesped very close by, here in Yerushalayim.

Originally, we expected that the hesped would have been printed in 1945, on the first yahrzeit of the Rebbetzin, and therefore would be included in the Hebrew University microfilm copy. However it turned out that it was printed much later, in 1947, a year which was missing from the microfilm archive.

This was a story in itself. The hesped was actually written shortly after the Rebbetzin passed away, but was only finally printed a full three years later. Her twice son- in- law (he married two of her daughters) the well-known rov of Kernick, HaRav Chizkiyohu Yosef Mishkovsky, had prepared it for the chareidi journal Neeman which that year ceased publishing in Tel Aviv. Then unfortunately HaRav Mishkovsky (father of HaRav Refael Eliyohu Mishkovsky, current rosh yeshiva of Kfar Chasidim) himself passed away, and the eulogy was only found by chance among his personal papers and printed in another chareidi newspaper called HaDerech, which also ceased publishing shortly after that time.

In the end, a family member led us to another family member and then to a little known archive in the Bais Yaakov HaYoshon Jerusalem Seminary Library, where an older teacher had saved a copy in a scrapbook.

Family research is a great pastime and can dig up very meaningful stories for the people involved. However after I discovered the hesped of Rebbetzin Chaya Shatzkes- Blazer I really felt that I had found on this very last piece of newsprint from 1947 a forgotten testimony to mesiras nefesh which is unknown in our generation.

This great woman, widowed at a young age with four small children in Lithuania, chose to remarry one of the talmidim of Rav Yisroel Salanter, one of the gedolei hamussar HaRav Itsele Peterburger, who was 27 years older than she, since she believed that he alone would be a suitable father for her children. Indeed her son Rav Moshe Shatzkes became one of the gedolei Torah in Lithuania and the USA after the war.

The article describes how she then followed her husband to Eretz Yisroel at a time when people here were not sure they would have food to eat; how she became a mother of young children again when her daughter passed away at the age of 26 and left her with four orphaned grandchildren while their father, Rav Chizkiyohu Yosef Mishkovsky, was delayed in Europe unable to return for the duration of the entire First World War; and how, despite a crippling injury, she became like a mother to all the bnei yeshivas in Lithuania and Eretz Yisroel.

I once heard that Rav Boruch Ber Leibowitz of Kamenitz, when asked to tell stories of the gedolim of the last generation, answered that he'd prefer to tell stories of the great Jewish Mamas of the last generation. As her 51st Yahrzeit approaches I feel it is an obligation to share this hesped with the readers of Yated. Here then is a story of a truly great Jewish Mother!


Translators note: We thank Rav Chizkiyohu Mishkovksy, the Abramowitz family and the Bais Yaakov archive for their help in obtaining a copy of this hesped. Rav Itsele Blazer and his Rebbetzin went to Eretz Yisroel in 1904, and settled in the famous Strauss Courtyard in Yerushalayim.

Thursday, Parshas Devorim, 7th of Menachem Av 5707, 24.7.47

Editor's (HaDerech) note:

This article was found among the papers of HaRav Chizkiyohu Yosef Mishkovsky zt"l. Apparently the Rov had prepared this hesped on the first yahrzeit of his mother- in-law, for publication in the journal Neeman which was printed in Tel Aviv. However when the Neeman ceased publication, the article remained unpublished. We are printing the article now out of respect for the greatness of the author.


Today, the 8th of Av the eve of Tisha B'Av, is the yahrzeit of the famous tzaddeikess HaRabbonit Chaya Blazer, the widow of the great Gaon HaRav Yitzchok (Itsele) Blazer. As her levaya took place on Friday afternoon, there wasn't sufficient time for the many great rabbis that attended her funeral to eulogize her adequately. So in order to pay proper respect to her greatness and importance, I decided to write a eulogy and print it in HaNeeman which is the organ of the bnei yeshivos, most of whom are the students of the students of my master, teacher and father-in-law HaRav Yitzchok Blazer zt"l.

The older rabbonim gedolei mussar and roshei yeshiva who are still with us and who studied with Rav Itsele in Slobodka and Kovno and visited his home, remember and praise to this day the eishes chover, the great woman who was like a mother to the bnei yeshivos. All the more so myself: for me she was a caring mother each day so that I should fulfill the words of Shlomo HaMelech: " . . . and her sons will praise her."

She was a great woman in every sense. Not only from the aspect of her illustrious ancestors — but she herself was a great woman in her knowledge of G-d and in her fear of G-d. She was a great woman in her wisdom, in her wonderful character traits and in her great deeds.

Her great-grandfather HaRav Yonoson Davidovsky was famous for an episode in which he stopped a fire which was raging through the town by simply addressing it: "You have burned and destroyed enough." Her grandfather HaRav Chaim, av beis din of Zelleve, was among the rabbonim who frequently corresponded with HaRav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector. And her father HaRav Avrohom Abba Sherwinter was a talmid chochom and important lay leader in the Vilna community. On the side of her mother, she was descended from HaRav Eliyohu Eliezer, the son-in-law of HaRav Yisroel Salanter and the father-in-law of Rav Chaim Ozer Grodensky.

At the age of 18, my mother-in-law married HaRav Avrohom Aaron Shatzkes who was an illui from one of the leading families in Lithuania. However at the age of 24, her husband passed away and she became a young widow with four small children, including a baby who was born at the very hour her husband's levaya was taking place.

As a beautiful young woman, full of life and from a famous family, she was offered outstanding matches for a second marriage but she turned them all down. Instead she remarried, on the advice of her uncle HaRav Eliyohu Eliezer, a widower, HaRav Yitzchok Blazer, who was at the time in his fifties. When asked why she took Rav Itsele she explained that with him alone was she assured that her children would grow up as bnei Torah. And indeed this is what happened.

Rav Itsele related to her children as if they were his own and and cared for them from their childhood until their marriages. Indeed her son HaRav Moshe Shatzkes, the Lomza Rov, became one of the leading rabbonim in Lithuania and, after the war, in New York.

If as a young woman my mother-in-law had the foresight and maturity to make such radical decisions, her exceptional wisdom stood out all the more so as the wife and companion of Rav Itsele. In Slobodka the students not only sought out her advice but trusted her in word and deed as they would their own mother. Important rabbonim have told me that during their days as yeshiva bochurim in Slabodka, far away from their own families, that she worked to get boys admitted even where the Alter had previously refused. She found them shidduchim and arranged and even helped fund their weddings. HaRav Aharon Bakst and others from his time were known to have called her Ima.

Greatness in suffering: In the winter of 5661 (1901) she fell and broke her leg badly. The injury never healed properly and she suffered from intense pain for the rest of her life. She even was able to joke about her pain and would say the suffering is good for you and atones for your sins. In 5773 (1913), while I was in Europe, her own favorite daughter, my wife, passed away at the age of 26 leaving her to care for four orphans. She accepted G-d's will with nobility and even tried to conceal my wife's illness from me.

Again in her old age she was house-bound for seven years. Nevertheless she always found a way to see the positive side and to make light of her situation. She always looked forward to guests and prepared for her many guests and family, each one according to his personal likes and dislikes. Later on she was paralyzed and bed-ridden yet she never complained and accepted her suffering with good will.

Greatness in deeds and kindness: She was outstanding in her mitzva of hachnosas kallah and raised money and help for many poor kallot. She personally cared for depressed and sick women who were her neighbors. She wouldn't allow heself to rest during the day: Perhaps a poor person would come to the door and find it locked. She always acted with forethought, weighing her options choosing the best alternative and carrying out her plan with grace and lightness. Gedolei Torah came to her door and sought her advice in family matters.

In 1913, I left home [Note: The author and his family were then living in Eretz Yisroel] alone to accept a rabbinical position in Lithuania. My children remained with my mother-in-law (in Palestine). In the summer of 1914 she traveled to Europe to bring my children to me with the intention of returning to Eretz Yisroel immediately. However a few weeks later the war broke out and she was stranded in Europe with me for over eight years until 1922. Notwithstanding her isolation from her own home and family, she ran my home and, even in the worst hours of food shortages and all the difficulties of the war, she managed to successfully run my home and educate my children.

Immediately when a boat was available to return to Eretz Yisroel, she booked her return and from then on refused to leave Yerushalayim in fear that she might pass away and not obtain a burial place on Har HaZeisim.

My father-in-law Rav Itsele treated her with greater honor than he treated himself. During Ellul it was his custom not to speak at all divrei chullin. On several occasions during those annual periods, people asked the Rebbetzin when did her husband become ill and suffer from becoming dumb. Others sympathized with her: a young woman married to an old man who could not speak.

Erev Yom Kippur it was his custom to ask her for forgiveness as he understood that there is no difference between the obligation to ask forgiveness from a friend or neighbor or from one's wife.

Before my father-in-law passed away he apologized to my mother-in-law for not leaving her any inheritance, but he blessed her that she would never lack anything and that she would live a long life. She often mentioned that indeed she lived a long life in the merit of her husband's blessing.

HaRav Chaim Ozer gave her great honor and treated her like one of the gedolei Torah (she was his shadchan). After Rav Itsele passed away gedolei Yerushalayim used to come to her before Yom Kippur to get her brochoh. These included not only her husband's students such as Rav Leib Chasman but also other gedolei Yerushalaim such as HaRav Ben Zion Yadler.

She was relatively young when Rav Itsele died (only 48) and full of life and several important rabbonim sought to marry her. However she was adamant that she did not want to allow the memory of her husband the great tzaddik to wane, and remained his widow for 37 years. In 1944 she became ill and was convinced that she would not survive her illness. She called me to her bedside and warned me that although I am known as an outstanding speaker that I should not eulogize her: "There is nothing to say about me."

In the end she recovered, but half-a-year ago she became paralyzed on one side of her body. When we spoke she reminded me of the words of Rav Yisroel Salanter who, when he lost the use of his hand, said jokingly of himself that, "a thief is caught by the hand." And indeed this was my mother-in-law — "and she laughed until her last day."

She passed away at a good old age of 86 leaving children and grandchildren, bnei Torah and talmidei chachomim.

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