Rav Gustman: “I Fulfilled the Mitzvah of Mechiyas Zecher Amalek With My Bare Hands”
On the eve of our reading Parshas Zachor, there are few Jews today who can say that they merited to fulfill the Mitzvah of Mechiyas Zecher Amalek even in a small way. Yet there are many alive today who knew such a person personally and who learned from him: Until twenty-five years ago, one of the greatest Torah scholars and Dayanim of his generation used to say that he himself had fulfilled that Mitzvah, even among the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe. The Torah scholar was Rav Yisrael Ze’ev Gustman, ZT”L, the last Dayan of pre-War Vilna and the great Rosh Yeshiva after the War.
Rav Gustman indeed had survived as the only pre-War Dayan of Rav Chaim Ozer Gradzhensky’s Beis Din in Vilna. The Nazis Y”S rounded up all the members of the Rabbinical Court when they marched into Lithuania on the 16th of Sivan, 5700, and then on the night of the 17th of Tammuz systematically rounded up and murdered all the prominent rabbinic figures and dayanim in Vilna. Among those on their target list was Rav Gustman. The Nazis took out the distinguished dayan, the star student of the great Rosh Yeshiva R’ Shimon Shkop ZT”L and the right-hand man of R’ Chaim Ozer Gradzhensky, into the courtyard in front of his home and beat him until his blood flowed, briefly leaving him for dead. But he was only unconscious, and he managed to pick himself up and hide in the tall vegetation growing near his home. He shaved off his beard so as not to be identified and passed as a simple Jew. Soon thereafter, he and his family were rounded up and forced into the Vilna Ghetto, where he helped countless of his fellow Jews via acts of kindness, including sharing his meager rations with the elderly widow of R’ Chaim Ozer and ruling on many questions of life and death as a dayan.
Rav Gustman escaped together with his wife and daughter to the forest outside Vilna. There he sought to join the Jewish Partisans fighting the Nazis. But the condition of joining was to bring one’s own weapon, so Rav Gustman, who was immensely physically strong (and until the War had used his strength to aid him in his Torah studies and rabbinical duties), ambushed and killed a Nazi soldier, and took his weapon. He used to look down at his hands and relate, “I fulfilled the Mitzvah of Mechiyas Zecher Amalek with my bare hands.” He once saw an Israeli soldier disassembling and reassembling his rifle and said, “I know how to do it faster.” With very little food, Rav Gustman and his fellow partisans fought on until the end of the War. At one point, he split a single pea he found in the forest with his wife and daughter, relating that he found out at that time on just how little a person could survive.
When he was asked immediately after the War by the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of the State of Israel, Rav Yitzchak HaLevy Herzog, ZT”L, to explain the miracles (nisim) of survival that occurred during the War, he replied that in the context of such immense tragedy and catastrophe, it was incorrect to speak of miracles, but rather of “decrees” (gezeiros) of “who shall live, and who shall die.”
Yet Rav Gustman’s contribution to the fight against Amalek was not only physical, but also spiritual, in Amalek’s manifestation as the Gematria of safek, doubting the rule of G-d in the world and His Torah. First, in the Ghetto, Rav Gustman strengthened the faith of his fellow Jews, even those facing imminent death. He testified about himself that at no point did he lose his own faith in the Ribono shel Olam. He encouraged desperate people to hope, not to despair, and not to end their own lives, telling them that the War would soon end with the survival of the Jewish people. He himself related that he often had to encourage himself as well, so difficult were those days. Among other unspeakable atrocities, Rav Gustman witnessed the murder of his own son, Meirke, whom the Nazis discovered in a makeshift hiding place. And after the War, Rav Gustman assisted in the rebuilding of the devastated Torah world, raising up a wealth of distinguished Talmidim and Dayanim both in America and Israel. He stressed the shlemus (integrated character development with Torah scholarship) of the person. He was infinitely patient, sitting with even the slowest students going over Sugyos in the Gemarra until they understood. Yet at the same time, he would recite from memory R’ Shimon Shkop’s shiurim and his own Kuntrasei Shiurim are a model of depth and clarity.
Yet R’ Gustman’s story is one that embodies hope for the Jewish people. He was not broken by his experiences, but deepened by them. He was a person of both deep Simcha and deep dedication to life in its fullest sense. In his approach, he provided a window into the pre-War Torah world for his students, both via his own learning and teaching and by relating stories of that world that inspired and challenged the students. One such story was that of his fellow Grodno student, R’ Moshe Zaretsky, ZT”L, subsequently the Rav of Karkur in Israel.
R’ Moshe, a powerfully built and tough-as-nails young man, came to Grodno at the age of 19. His parents were Jewish farmers and someone back home had told him that he would never become a Torah scholar. The young man had said, “Before you become a Torah scholar, hair will grow from your palms!” R’ Moshe was resolved to prove that assessment wrong. He asked the Steipler Gaon, R’ Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, who the best Rosh Yeshiva was, and the Steipler replied that R’ Shimon Shkop was the greatest Rosh Yeshiva in Lithuania. And so young Moshe traveled to Grodno to learn in the yeshiva there.
But when Moshe was tested, R’ Shimon felt that the boy was not sufficiently advanced in his studies and thus not yet prepared for the shiur in Grodno. R’ Shimon therefore did not admit the earnest young student; when that decision was transmitted to Moshe, the young man wept.
But young Moshe was not going to be deterred so easily. Even if he had not been accepted in the yeshiva, no one could deny him his right as a Jew to sit in the beis medrash. He resolved not to budge from that study hall and to learn without ceasing for one year. With the iron will of a powerful young man, it seemed as if he did not budge. He learned all day and all night, every day and every night, and in exhaustion he would fall asleep on his shtender in the wee hours of the morning.
Moshe had very little to eat since in Grodno — as in the rest of the Lithuanian yeshiva world at the time —even the registered students lived in relative poverty, often missing meals and going hungry. In Grodno, the students’ breakfast consisted of a slice of bread and a hot drink of some kind, nothing more. (There was a debate among the students as to whether this piece of bread should be eaten quickly so as to minimize enjoyment or whether it should be eaten very slowly to gain control over the innate animalistic appetite of a hungry person.)
But for Moshe, who had not yet been admitted as a student and had to make due with whatever scraps he managed to find around the study hall, the fare was even more meager. He had no hot beverages but instead drank from a barrel of water situated outside the study hall. That water was meant to be used for netilas yadayim, ritual hand-washing, but Moshe used the washing cup there as his drinking cup. The other students took pity on him, and although he could expect nothing from the yeshiva kitchen, they broke off portions of their own meager rations and gave them to him. This nutritional regimen fueled 18-20-hour days of study for Moshe, who came to be known by the nickname Moshe Masmid (Moshe the Diligent). When local physicians heard about his sleep and nutritional regimen, they opined that he could not survive for very long in that fashion.
But the Ribono shel Olam had different plans, and when the righteous women of Grodno heard about Moshe and his diet, they took great pity on the young man. They began to bring pots of hot food to the study hall for Moshe. In fact, he had the distinction of being one of the few students in all of the yeshiva world at that time to eat meat nearly every day. As the Rosh Yeshiva would relate with a smile, “He ate much better than we did.”
To the end of his life, Rav Gustman accorded R’ Moshe Zaretsky a privilege accorded to no one else other than himself: To say the weekly shiur in the Rav Gustman’s Yeshivas Netzach Yisrael.
Rav Gustman inspired his students to understand that the ultimate victory of the Jewish people was not to be deterred from achieving their potential to grow in closeness to Ribono shel Olam, via dedication to learning His Torah and by combining that dedication with attaining good traits of character (midos) and acts of kindness (gemilus chasadim).
In the merit of his example, may we merit to see the ultimate fulfillment of the Mitzvah of Mechiyas Zecher Amalek mi’Tachas HaShamayim and the establishment of G-d’s eternal rule in a rebuilt Jerusalem.
David Page is the author of Rav Gustman: The Youngest Dayan of Vilna and Illustrious Rosh Yeshiva in New York and Yerushalyim (Artscroll 5777). He lives with his wife and children in Jerusalem.