Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
The name Sanz resounds and reverberates in Jewish hearts throughout the world. Sanz earned that heartfelt distinction by being the home of Rabbi Chaim Halberstam, zt’l (1793–1876), revered Sanzer Rebbe and author of the Divrei Chaim, patriarch of the Chassidishe dynasties of Sanzer, Shiniva, Ratzferter, Bobover, Klausenberger, Gorelitzer, Zhmigrader, Gribover, Chokover, Kshanover, and more. The Divrei Chaim’s impact is tangibly felt to this very day.
The town of Belz, in southern Poland, was formally established in 1292. In 1772, Sanz was annexed by the Hapsburg Empire as part of Galicia, which it remained until November 1918. The Hapsburg rulers of that period and the years that they ruled were as follows: Maria Theresa (1740–1780), Joseph II (1780–1790), Leopold II (1790–1792), Francis II (1792–1835), Ferdinand I (1835–1848), Francis Joseph I (1848–1916), and Charles I (1916–1918). Francis Joseph (Franz Joseph) was greatly beloved and Charles I was the last Hapsburg ruler.
Sanz rose to local prominence early in the 1880s when Austrian authorities extended their railway, connecting Sanz directly with Vienna. It became the county seat and new buildings were built, and it developed as a railroad hub and business center. In 1894, central Sanz was destroyed by a fire, together with its town hall and ancient town records. Immediately prior to these town developments, the beginning of Sanzer Chassidus flourished, and it became one of the world capital cities of Chassidism.
During the German invasion of Poland in World War II, Sanz was occupied by the Nazis on September 6, 1939. Because of its immediate proximity to the Slovakian border, it lay on a major escape route used by retreating resistance fighters of the Polish Home Army. The Gestapo was intensely active in capturing those trying to cross over the border, brutally murdering them, including the murder of several Polish pilots. In June 1940, the resistance rescued Jan Karski from a hospital there, and 32 people were shot as retaliation for the escape. Karski joined the Polish resistance and revealed to the world the horrors and the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Sanz’s almost 25,000 Jews before World War II represented almost one-third of the town’s population. Ninety percent of them were murdered in the Holocaust. A ghetto of around 20,000 people was established near Sanz’s castle. The ghetto was liquidated over three days in August 1942 and its Jews were murdered in the Belzec extermination camp. At the same time, directly across the river in the Jewish cemetery, 500 gentiles who sheltered Jews were murdered. The Russian army fought its way into Sanz on January 20, 1945, and at war’s end, about 60% of the city had been destroyed.
The railroad link from Vienna to Sanz in the early 1880s enabled thousands of Chassidim to easily participate in the Sanzer Rebbe’s Shabbosos, yomim tovim, and tisches. They came for advice and blessings. Untold miracles resulted from his berachos: those sick were healed, those impoverished found livelihoods, those childless had children, and the hopeless became optimistic. Before, they had to walk or ride in wagons on back roads; now, with the railroad, they were able to travel quickly in relative comfort. This brought huge crowds, thousands upon thousands, to the doorsteps of the Sanzer Rebbe.
After the Sanzer Rebbe passed away on Wednesday, the 25th of Nissan, April 19, 1876, the impassioned flame in Sanz was not extinguished. Thousands of Chassidim continued to be magnetically pulled to his successors. Year after year, on the day of his yahrzeit, tens of thousands came to pour out their hearts in prayer at his gravesite. Being only days after the end of Pesach, the yahrzeit seemed to extend the yom tov. Chassidim came not only from immediate areas around Sanz, but from all of Europe, from America, and from then Palestine. To many, the end of Pesach was the beginning of a journey to Sanz, to the ohel of the Sanzer Rebbe, zt’l. During the week of the yahrzeit, Sanz seemed to be the world’s busiest center of Chassidishe vibrancy.
The Nazi invasion of Poland and the resulting Holocaust brought desolation to Sanz. Sadness was now in this place of former greatness. Sorrow was sown deep into the ground. Under Communist rule after the Holocaust, the devastated Sanz and the gravesite became almost impossible to visit. Nevertheless, a few dedicated individuals overcame great difficulties and set their feet momentarily at the gravesite, sometimes on the very yahrzeit. Notably, Rabbi Yaakov Halberstam, zt’l (1902–1967), Chokova Rebbe, visited Sanz in the early 1960s, as did Rabbi Feivel Halberstam, zt’l, Kshanover Rebbe. Rabbi Mendel Reichberg, zt’l, 1922–2011, pioneer activist for holy site restoration, led the way by bringing groups to holy sites in Eastern Europe and working to restore them physically as well as spiritually.
Presently, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, more and more groups visit and pray at holy sites in Eastern Europe and, in particular in Sanz, efforts are being expended in improving conditions. Cemeteries are being renovated and visitor amenities are being upgraded. These somewhat remote localities realize the value of tourist dollars and are seeking to capitalize on the opportunities presented.
Bonei Sanz, a group being led by Rabbi Zalman Halberstam, Chokova Rebbe, and his sons, together with Dovid Singer of Focus Electronics and master leader of group visits to holy sites in Eastern Europe, has been investing a great amount of time, effort, and money in improving conditions for those drawn to Sanz. They have been rebuilding the entire cemetery there, step by step. They are responsible for having the grass cut, bushes trimmed, tombstones restored, and the gate repaired. They have improved contacts and relationships with the local municipality and community leaders.
In particular, they have raised the level of services available to visitors. The custodian in charge of the Sanzer ohel is now in direct contact with Bonei Sanz and, together with the custodian’s assistants in Sanz, are available at all hours every day to open the ohel and to welcome visitors, pre-announced or unannounced. The ohel is continually meticulously cleaned, sefarim (Tehillim and Siddurim) restored to their places, candles always immediately available, as well as paper and pens to write kvitlech continuously restocked. This is overseen and underwritten by Bonei Sanz.
After WWII, the shul in Sanz had been renovated and used as a secular museum. The shul, used by the Divrei Chaim, has now been rededicated as a place of Jewish prayer. Praying in the very shul in which the Divrei Chaim led prayers, in which he delivered Shabbos HaGadol and Shabbos Shuvah derashos, and led hakafos on Simchas Torah, is supremely uplifting.
The most recent improvement by Bonei Sanz is the acquisition of a reception area for visitors to the ohel. The facility is directly across from the entrance to the cemetery and is adjacent to the ohel custodian’s residence. The facility has a continuously restocked kitchen with all appliances for fleishig, milchig, and pareve, refrigerators and microwave ovens, and plentiful plastic tableware and flatware. In addition, a partitioned area is reserved for prayer and meditation. The facility is cleaned several times a day and ready to receive guests 24/6.
Bonei Sanz is now embarking on having a mikveh built, so that visitors can approach and pray at the holy Sanzer Rebbe’s ohel in a state of purity. Those wishing to share in the privilege of partnering with Bonei Sanz can contact them at 1303 53rd Street, Suite 154, Brooklyn, NY 11219, or at 845-377-5199. v
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the Rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and Director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. Rabbi Tannenbaum can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.