The Atzei Chaim was named after two of his grandfathers, the Divrei Chaim of Sanz — who had promised his father the Kedushas Yom Tov that he would have a child — and the Chacham Zvi.
His grandfather, the Yitav Lev, revealed that the original intention had been to name him after the Chacham Zvi only. But prior to his birth, the Divrei Chaim had appeared to his mother in a dream reassuring her that everything would be fine and she would give birth to a healthy child. They therefore decided to call the baby after him too.
The Atzei Chaim kept very much to himself, preferring to hide his greatness and good deeds as much as possible.
He never kept money overnight, dividing among the poor whatever he had left at the end of each day — on condition that nobody find out that he was behind the donations.
As a nine-year-old boy, he was asked by his father the Kedushas Yom Tov, "Why is it that I often see boys your age sitting and saying Tehillim, yet I never see you doing so?"
"Tatte can test me," answered the boy quietly, "and you will see that I know the whole sefer Tehillim by heart. It's just that I don't want people to see me saying Tehillim, so I do so in secret or by heart.
His younger brother, the Admor Reb Yoelish of Satmar zt"l would say of his brother that the concept of forgetting did not exist by him. Everything and anything that was seen, heard or learned by the Rebbe of Sighet remained indelibly imprinted in his mind, forever.
The Minchas Elozor of Munkacz once met the Sigheter and posed to him a difficult kushya. On the spot, the Atzei Chaim answered with a detailed beautiful answer that he said lay in a certain sefer. Duly impressed with the terutz, the Minchas Elozor asked if he perhaps was in possession of this sefer since he knew it was hard to come by.
To his surprise, the Atzei Chaim replied that he had seen the sefer many years previously, and then only `by chance.' He had been a young man, staying at the home of his father-in-law Reb Sholom Eliezer'l of Ratzferd. "At the entrance of the beis hamedrash in Ratzferd, where I spent my time, there was a mocher seforim. Once as I was going to learn I picked this sefer off the shelf and browsed through it a little, and it was there that I saw this wonderful kushya and terutz."
The Gaon Rabbi Nesanel Hacohen Fried zt"l, author of Pnei Meivin was, in his old age, sitting at an important meeting of rabbonim to discuss various pirtzos that had been seen of late among Jewry of the time. Despite his young years, the Sigheter too, had been called to attend this gathering. When the Gaon Rabbi Nesanel asked him who he was, he replied that he was the son of the Kedushas Yom Tov, "and I remember that when I was a little boy, my father took me to a pidyon haben where the Gaon presided as Cohen and at the seudah gave a drosho of chidushei Torah." He then proceeded to repeat the entire drosho that the Pnei Meivin had given all those years ago. Rabbi Nesanel was amazed at his phenomenal memory that could recall details that he himself had almost forgotten.
The other side of the coin though, was heard from the Atzei Chaim himself. His talmid HaRav Reb Mordechai Williger zt"l related that the Rebbe once remarked to his talmidim. "You think that I have an excellent memory, but that is not the truth. I toil over each thing that I learn, reviewing many times in order to commit it to memory."
Indeed his yegiah baTorah was constant and intense. The above talmid told that often the Rebbe would interrupt a conversation he was having with a person or people and apologize that he must leave the room for a few minutes. In one such instance, he was followed and it was discovered that the Rebbe went into his room to quickly write down chidushim that had occurred to him while speaking to others.
A talmid once came to the Atzei Chaim after his wedding and poured out his disappointment. He had thought that when he would get married he would turn over a new leaf completely and the yetzer hora would leave him. Now he had come to the realization that the yetzer hora was still there giving him no respite.
Rabbeinu sat deep in thought and then jumped up, his face aflame. "My dear son," he exclaimed in urgency, "we have no eitzah other than to be busy learning Torah day and night. This is the only way we can be rescued from the clutches of the yetzer hora."
The yeshiva dining room was full of bochurim eating their midday meal. Walking among the tables, the Rebbe noticed a bochur reading a sefer as he was eating. In his ever-pleasant manner the Atzei Chaim asked him, "Are you learning while eating, or eating while learning?"
A distraught girl once came into the Rebbe's home in Sighet to present her shailoh. She had gone shopping and bought herself an outfit in the latest style that had begun to appear on the streets of the city. Her father, an upstanding Yid, had refused to let her wear it, saying he would not allow his daughter to dress in the latest fashion.
"But so many people are wearing it," the girl had countered. "Even Mr. Ploni and Almoni, of the most distinguished Yidden in town, allow their daughters to dress in this way." Her father had remained adamant, and she had come to ask the Rebbe his opinion and advice.
Smiling warmly, the Rebbe replied, "I have no policemen patrolling the streets of the city to keep an eye on the activities of all the people. Everyone is aware of my opinion, which is daas Torah, that it is forbidden to dress according to the latest fashions and styles. We have one Torah and it will never be changed or modified. However, this I promise you: that if you continue in the ways and traditions of our righteous mothers and grandmothers, you will merit to live a long life, have a husband who is a talmid chochom and your children and grandchildren will be talmidei chachomim."
Visibly moved, the girl took upon herself to follow the Rebbe's words and his brochos were later fulfilled. She lived to the ripe old age of ninety-five, reaping nachas from her generations of tzadikim and talmidei chachomim.
In his sweet gentle manner, the Rebbe would say to those who wanted to `dance at two weddings' when it came to issues of Yiddishkeit: "If you go from both directions — right to left and up and down — you end up creating a tzeilem, a cross, which is the symbol of the goyim."
The Klausenburger Rebbe, Reb Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam zt"l, who was a son-in-law of the Atzei Chaim by his first marriage (before the war), related that at the age of forty-five his father-in-law told him that in his youth he had once seen a piece of paper on the floor. It was a piece of a newspaper, and as he bent down to pick it up, he began reading it.
"I only read one paragraph as I was picking it up, but what should I tell you?" sighed the Atzei Chaim, "To this day I feel that those few words that I read from a newspaper disturb me in my avodas Hashem."
Seeing that Reb Efraim was about to leave, Reb Isser Zalman asked rhetorically, "So you have not been yotzei with the hakofos in Eitz Chaim? You are sitting here learning! They want to go? Let them go. But you? Fun dir vet noch epes oisvaksen. Bleib doh. (From you something more will grow. Stay here.)"
In later years, Reb Efraim in his humility would always say, "I sincerely hope that his brochoh will still be fulfilled."
It is told that the Brisker Rov said to Reb Efraim that someone who learns with such iyun and hasmodoh as he does should not take time off from his learning to search for a set of arba minim for Succos.
A talmid of Reb Efraim's noticed that the Rosh Yeshiva came to deliver the shiur with bleeding wounds on his face. No sooner had the scratches healed, than new ones would appear. The talmid was deeply distressed and asked Reb Efraim's son to find out how this happened.
It turned out that at night Reb Efraim would not retire to bed but would fall asleep over his sefer. His head had fallen onto the old glass-covered table and cracked the glass, causing the unsightly cuts. This happened regularly until his son placed a tablecloth on the table, so Reb Efraim's skin could heal.
It was common knowledge among chavrusas and talmidim of Reb Efraim that he was never the one to terminate the learning session, come what may.
His close yedid, yibodel lechaim tovim, HaRav Avrohom Gurwicz, relates an anecdote that took place during the period when they both learned under the Grid, HaRav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik zt"l. On one occasion when they were learning together at night, Reb Avrohom decided that he would not be the one to stop the learning that night. They ended up learning straight through the night.
Rabbeinu took upon himself not to speak to anyone from when he rose in the morning until after davening and several hours of learning.
During the Six Day War, it happened that his wife was stuck in an area under enemy fire. For one and a half days, fear gripped the entire household. When she miraculously and finally walked into the house safe and sound, she was welcomed with jubilant cries of relief and joy. Reb Efraim, however, was in his room as usual learning his morning routine — the time when he was never mafsik. She entered his room and Reb Efraim looked up in relief, but did not speak until he had finished his seder halimud.
He was once zoche to a visit by HaRav Yechiel Michel Feinstein zt"l, but since it was during the time that he refrained from speaking, Reb Efraim only gestured with his hands. Reb Michel, who knew of his practice, understood and, cutting his visit short, he left.
After having finished his learning, Reb Efraim turned apologetically to a talmid. "Of course it really befits a godol of Reb Michel's stature that I should forgo my minhag. But what should I do? I know my weakness and lowliness. If I start to break my gedorim who knows to which depths I'll sink, choliloh. Knowing this, I simply could not speak."
His yiras Shomayim and dikduk hamitzvos were of a rare standard for our generation.
Once, when talking divrei Torah to a talmid as they walked along the street, Reb Efraim stopped short in mid-sentence. The talmid looked around for the reason for the Rosh Yeshiva's sudden silence, when he noticed that they were within four amos of a garbage bin from which there might emanate a bad odor — in which case it would be forbidden for them to say divrei Torah.
A talmid discovered a picture of Rabbi Yehoshua Leib Diskin zt"l between the pages of Reb Efraim's gemora. Further investigation revealed that a copy of the same picture lay in the page of each masechta that they were learning in yeshiva at the time.
Reb Efraim told him that whenever he felt that his yiras Shomayim has cooled down somewhat, he looked at this photograph. The talmid kept a lookout to see this taking place, and indeed on several occasions he saw Reb Efraim looking at the picture intently, his facial muscles tightened in fear — the fear of Heaven.
Reb Efraim used to attend to Reb Isser Zalman Meltzer in the latter's later years. One Shabbos he noticed that Rav Isser Zalman used electricity, as the rabbonim of Yerushalayim permitted. Humbly, Reb Efraim asked his rebbi if he was of the opinion that it was permitted to use electricity. Seeing that it so bothered his talmid, the elderly rov ordered a Shabbos battery the following day.
Reb Efraim took extreme care not to witness chilul Shabbos. At one point, the landlord of the apartment he was renting wished to move Reb Efraim to another place. Legally this is permitted if the owner finds a new apartment that is fully comparable to the old one, such as on the same story, same light and air, and so on. The landlord thought he had found an appropriate apartment. There was one problem: the new apartment looked out onto a road that was open to traffic on Shabbos, whereas the former one did not. The owner asked a beis din if he could still do the transfer but the psak was in favor of Reb Efraim, that he could not. Since he was always so careful to avoid seeing chilul Shabbos it was a crucial factor in the location of his house.
One Shabbos Mevorchim Reb Efraim was seen running from one shtiebel to the next in Zichron Moshe, announcing loudly in each one the time of the molad. Breathlessly, he explained that a month earlier, on the previous Shabbos Mevorchim, he had davened in a minyan where nobody knew the time of the molad. Reb Efraim had told the chazon to go ahead without announcing it.
"From my instructions it may have sounded as though I was showing a zilzul to this accepted inyan of calling out the molad before saying bircas hachodesh. So I took upon myself to correct this false assumption that someone may have made."
He continued carrying out this tikkun for a whole year.
Reb Efraim once commented that he was suffering immense distress over the wicks of his Chanukah candles. Somehow they never seemed to burn nice and straight. He then added with a sigh, "I've already fasted numerous times over this but to no avail."
Any incident that occurred to him was immediately followed by a cheshbon hanefesh, "Why did Hashem see fit to do this?"
Reb Efraim had learned this worthy practice from Reb Isser Zalman who would search for the reason and cause behind every occurrence and set about amending whatever was necessary.
Once, Reb Efraim stood before his talmidim, and his mind turned blank. He simply could not recall the shiur he had prepared to give over that day. In his mind, Reb Efraim recalled the events of the morning until he remembered that during davening he had been approached for a donation. The man had claimed to be collecting for a blind orphan who was to marry an orphaned girl.
"I did not believe him," said Reb Efraim, "and gave a donation in line with my doubts. I am sure that this is my retribution for showing skepticism at the words of a Jew."
His conscience gave him no rest until the end of the week found Reb Efraim going around collecting for an orphaned chosson and kallah.
Reb Efraim would often repeat the words of the Shem MiShmuel who said on the first Yom Tov following his father the Avnei Nezer's passing, that nowadays the only way to reach hasogos is through Torah learning, unlike the previous generations who could also do so through mesirus nefesh.
He would then recall a story that he had heard from an American, who heard it firsthand.
A Jew in America heard that far away in a small village called Radin, lived a holy Yid, the Chofetz Chaim. The man decided to save up and travel to Radin to ask for the blessing of the Chofetz Chaim that he have yiras Shomayim.
He put aside penny by penny from his meager earnings, until the dollars added up and he was finally able to make the trip. With what trepidation and excitement did he enter the room of the venerable godol hador and humbly state his request that the Chofetz Chaim give him a brochoh for yiras Shomayim!
He was sorely disappointed however, when the Chofetz Chaim blessed him that he merit to learn Torah behasmodoh. For this he had saved up months on end, depriving himself, and then travelling the perilous journey from America to Radin? And now not to receive the brochoh he had requested?
As he dejectedly exited the small house, he met the son-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim and, poured out his story to him, describing his bitter disappointment.
Knowing that his father-in-law was slightly deaf in his old age, the son-in-law went in and shouted into his ear that the man's request for a brochoh had been for yiras Shomayim, not hasmodoh.
Replied the Chofetz Chaim firmly, "He should be zocheh to learn with hasmodoh, and in this blessing lies everything else too — for without it he has nothing!"