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A Window into the Chareidi World

27 Adar I 5774 - February 27, 2014 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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The Rov of Yerushalayim HaRav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, zt"l

In honor of his yahrtzeit, 19 Adar, 5692 (1932)

His cherished acquisition — the privilege of living in Eretz Yisroel — was gained by Reb Yosef Chaim with great travail in true fulfillment of the mishna in Ovos: "Eretz Yisroel nikneis beyissurim."

He suffered unusual trials (eight of his children were niftar during his lifetime) yet accepted them with fortitude and love of Hashem.

Upon being told that the mekubal Rabbi Naftali Hertz, zt"l of Yaffo once said that for the sake of fulfilling the mitzvah of living in Eretz Yisroel he was prepared to go begging from door to door to earn his livelihood, Reb Yosef Chaim remarked, "I would be ready to suffer much worse for the sake of this exalted mitzvah," as indeed he did.

When the Gaon, the rov of Teplik zt"l came to Eretz Yisroel he found the conditions extremely harsh. With no one to turn to, he came to Reb Yosef Chaim. As talmidei chachomim are wont to do, they immediately began talking in learning, but behind the shmuess, Reb Yosef Chaim's finely honed sensitivity sensed the Rov's distress. He led the conversation to his earlier days when R' Yosef Chaim himself had been a newcomer to Eretz Yisroel.

At length he described how difficult it was, how his wife was terribly unhappy, how their first three nights in Yerushalayim were spent sleeping in an open yard until they found a small, dingy basement to call home; how he knew nobody and no one knew him; the misery of being an isolated family far from anything familiar. He then continued, that slowly over the time they began feeling more comfortable as Yerushalayim became their home and its residents their neighbors and acquaintances, teachers and pupils. "For you too, Rov of Teplik," concluded R' Yosef Chaim comfortingly, "the beginning is harsh, but with the time it will become easier."

Later the Rav of Teplik would say, "R' Yosef Chaim saw into the recesses of my thoughts and feelings and saved me with his comforting words. I walked out of his home a different person." Indeed a short while later he became widely acclaimed as one of the gedolei hador.


The dignity with which Reb Yosef Chaim bore his trouble was unparalleled.

When his son HaRav Yaakov Meir zt"l passed away on an erev Shabbos, Rabbeinu kept the tragic news from his family throughout Shabbos so as not to cause mourning on the holy day. With superhuman strength, he went to shul and led the seudas as usual. Only after ma'ariv on motzei Shabbos did R' Yosef Chaim allow his facade to drop and he fell in a faint.

Throughout the levaya Reb Yosef Chaim, by then an elderly rov, insisted on standing, despite the requests of the Chevra Kadisha that he rest a little. He stayed standing until after the kevurah, and then explained, 'I have just sacrificed a korbon to Hashem. In Hilchos Korbonos we know that the one who brings the korbon must stand throughout the entire procedure."

During the levaya, a particularly antagonistic Zionist leader with whom R' Yosef Chaim had fought bitterly, arrogantly faced the venerable Rav. "You see," he sneered, "Hashem is punishing you for opposing us."

The mourning crowd was ready to pounce on the wicked fellow and attack him.

"You're right," replied R' Yosef Chaim calmly, to the surprise of everyone. "HaKodosh Boruch Hu is punishing me because of my battle against you," then adding, "because I haven't fought enough! I hereby take upon myself to rally all the strength I have and to fight you until Zionism has no power in Jerusalem."


R' Yosef Chaim fought secular Zionism with all the strength and resources he could muster, "What do they think?" he would say. "We were exiled from our land due to our sins — to which the antidote is surely teshuva and ma'asim tovim. Without these we have absolutely no right with which to return to Eretz Yisroel."

He would further explain the folly of Zionist policy with an enlightening moshol.

An experienced matchmaker had just successfully completed a match between two affluent families. Both sides were delighted with the shidduch and came to pay the shadchan. However, the latter refused the sum they offered. Even as they raised the amount, he continued resolutely to refuse. Finally, they asked him what he wanted in payment.

"Instead of shadchonus money," replied the foolish man, "I'd like to have the kallah herself as a reward!"

"This is exactly what the Zionists are doing," explained R' Yosef Chaim. "They come to Eretz Yisroel, begin to build it up and do beautiful work here, but then in exchange they want to take away the Kallah, the Torah itself. Such a policy can have no continuity."


One of Rabbeinu's strategic tactics against the Zionists was to encourage as many Torah-observant Jews as he could to settle in Eretz Yisroel so that perhaps in the end by their sheer numbers they would persevere. To this end he would support them morally and financially — anything to keep another chareidi Jew in Eretz Hakodesh.

Of late, an amazing tale came to light, of how Reb Yosef Chaim, with his love of Eretz Yisroel and advice to a Jew, helped a whole family to escape annihilation at the hands of the Nazis.

The Zionists were spreading vile false rumors concerning the Yidden of Yerushalayim. Confused, Rabbeinu Yaakov Rosenheim zt"l decided to send an emissary to personally appraise the situation and give him a full report.

The shaliach, R' Chaim Noach Kruskal of Frankfurt, set out for Yerushalayim. Upon his arrival there, he contacted R' Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld and stayed with the Rov a short while. So impressed and overcome was he with the spiritual quality of life in the Holy City that he prepared a glowing report to be sent to Rabbeinu Yaakov Rosenheim. In addition, he included a letter to his parents back in Frankfurt, informing them of his decision to remain in the Holy Land under the wing of R' Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.

In Frankfurt, the Kruskals were taken aback by their son's step. Furthermore, they disagreed with his decision, fearing that a boy on his own so far away could easily be drawn into the clutches of the secular forces prevalent. Together, they crossed the ocean to fetch their son and escort him home.

They were unprepared for the magnetic pull of Reb Yosef Chaim who tried stubbornly to convince the parents also to leave European shores forever and settle here in Eretz Yisroel.

However, R' Yehuda Leib Kruskal's mind was made up and nothing would keep him from returning to Frankfurt. Seeing his case was lost, R' Yosef Chaim gave the family his brochoh, but as a last resort begged the father to at least buy burial plots in the holy soil. "In this zchus, you'll merit to have your final resting place in the Holy Land and you'll be saved from tragedy," were R' Yosef Chaim's parting words.

R' Yehuda Leib Kruskal bought three burial plots, one in his name, one his wife's and the third in the name of his son. Since Eretz Yisroel was at the time under British rule, the official documents were sent to London for safekeeping with relatives of the family.

September 1939 brought with it the devastating hurricane of World War II.

Being British citizens in Frankfurt, Family Kruskal were interned in the Vitelle camp in France together with other British and American Jews. As is now known, there were various prisoner exchanges between the Germans and the Allies. The Kruskal family, together with their fellow prisoners, were transported to Bergen Belsen, where they were made to wait while the painfully slow negotiations between the Nazis and the Allied Armies were carried out.

Those who had visas to Palestine or America had an infinitely better chance of being chosen in an exchange.

One day, R' Chaim Noach was summoned to the Red Cross office. There, he was informed that since he has no visa to Palestine, he and his family were being deleted from the list of those to be exchanged. R' Chaim's knees weakened. Deletion from the list meant certain transportation to Auschwitz and sure death al Kiddush Hashem. Suddenly, the brocho of R' Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld ran in his ears, " . . . and you will be saved from tragedy."

With a flash of inspiration, he began to explain to the officer that their records were mistaken.

"We are citizens of Palestine, which is under British rule," he claimed.

"Without documents to prove your claim, I can do nothing for you," answered the man coldly.

It was then that R' Chaim Noach recalled the purchase of the burial plots his father had made all those years before.

"Listen," he told the officer confidently. "At my relative, Mr. so and so of London, on this and this street, are the documents verifying my possession of land in Palestine. This is proof enough that I am a citizen and landowner of that country."

Notorious for being meticulous and methodical, the Germans indeed checked out the details. When they were verified, R' Chaim Noach was returned to the list of prisoners set up for exchange. Eventually he was included in a prisoner swap and was thereby saved from certain death.


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