Today, 2 Av, is the fourth Yartzeit of the Chassid R’ Gershon Chanowitz, one of the ziknei ha’chassidim of New York. R’ Gershon learned in Yeshivos Tomchei T’mimim in Poland and America and was saved from the clutches of the Nazis. He established a beautiful Chassidic home and was an example of a Chassid, Yerei Shamayim, and Lamdan in his community.
The Chassid R’ Gershon Chanowitz was born in Glubokoe in the Vitebsk region around Chanuka 5681/1920. R’ Gershon’s parents were Bentzion and Elka. R’ Bentzion was a distinguished shochet. In those days, the position of shochet was honorable and influential like the position of a rav. R’ Bentzion was also known as a representative of the Rebbe Rayatz in the town.
Their home was known among the Chassidim who smuggled over the border as a place of refuge. There were Lubavitcher communities in Disna and Dokshitz that were closer to the border, but refugees were afraid to hide there because of their proximity to the border and opted instead to continue to Glubokoe which was considered safer.
Elka was the youngest child of Shmuel Avrohom Hellman. Her brother, R’ Chaim Meir, is known as the author of Beis Rebbi. Her other brother, R’ Moshe, was a well-known rav. Elka was also a wise woman. R’ Itche der Masmid would talk to her in learning and R’ Yosef Wineberg said she was considered a lamdanis.
The couple wrote to the Rebbe often, albeit not always for themselves. At that time, most Jewish women and even many men could not read and write. When they wanted to write a letter to the Rebbe, they asked R’ Bentzion or his wife to write for them.
R’ Gershon was one of ten children. He studied with the famous melamed, Yosse Tishes (who passed away when R’ Gershon was 12). The Nach that he learned by R’ Yosse remained with him forever.
IN TOMCHEI TMIMIM IN OTVOTZK
A few months after his bar mitzva, he went home and after Pesach he left for Vilna to learn in the Lubavitcher yeshiva there. His name appears in the list of students in the second class on 25 Sivan 5696/1936. His teachers were R’ Gustman, R’ Ushpal, and R’ Yehuda Eber.
A year later, before Tishrei 5698/1937, he went to Warsaw and from there to Otvotzk in order to learn in Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim near the Rebbe’s court. The Rebbe lived a half kilometer from the yeshiva.
R’ Gershon learned with much chayus both in Nigleh and Chassidus and developed a close relationship with the teachers and mashpiim. Throughout the entire time that he learned in Vilna and Otvotzk he did not go home. Aside from the fact that he did not have the money to pay for the trip, he had another good reason to stay – his uncle, R’ Moshe Leib Rodstein, was the Rebbe’s secretary and lived near him. When the Rebbe would eat the Yom Tov meals with a minyan of Chassidim, young Gershon was allowed in, thanks to his uncle. Pesach night he would repeat the divrei Torah that he heard from the Rebbe in those years. He would repeat them word for word with the special niggun that the Rebbe used.
R’ Yechezkel (Chatshe) Feigin also allowed him to attend the Rebbe’s minyanim more readily because he was related to R’ Rodstein. R’ Chatshe’s son was one of his very good friends in those days. R’ Gershon also spent time with Chassidim like R’ Itche der Masmid (who was a relative) and heard their farbrengens.
Erev Sukkos, R’ Itche asked him to help him bind the four minim in the sukka since he found it hard to do it himself. To repay him for his help, he learned with him the maamer, “U’shavtem Mayim” in Likkutei Torah. Until the end of his life R’ Gershon had a special chayus in this maamer.
In those days, he loved to learn Ketzos, Nesivos, and the Avnei Nezer on Friday night. One time, the mashgiach, R’ Berel Kurenitzer passed by and noticed that he was learning Nigleh. After a few minutes he came back and told R’ Gershon to review a maamer on Shabbos. This was very short notice, for usually they told a bachur way earlier.
The way it was in yeshiva was that there were a number of bachurim who would review a maamer and each of them would have a group to whom they said the maamer. Among those who listened to R’ Gershon was R’ Berel Kurenitzer who came to ascertain that he knew the maamer despite the short notice.
WHAT TO DO WITH ONE CUP OF WATER
Toward the end of 5699, the peaceful atmosphere in yeshiva was disturbed by the bombing of German planes. The yeshiva immediately disbanded. Many of the Polish bachurim returned home. The five American bachurim who had just arrived returned home as soon as possible. Gershon walked alongside the horse and wagon that carried the Rebbe’s belongings to Warsaw where the Rebbe told the bachurim to go north.
The Germans had already conquered Poland and began imposing their tyranny. On one of his journeys, R’ Gershon was locked up along with many other Jews in a church for two days, without food and water. In the end, the cursed Germans gave each person one cup of water. R’ Gershon took the cup and used half of it for netilas yadayim.
R’ Gershon tried to avoid the German soldiers. He managed to get to Druya where his uncle was the rav. His uncle found someone to smuggle him across the Dvina River.
After a short pause at his parents’ house, he continued his travels and arrived in Vilna where refugees from Lubavitch had gathered and restarted the yeshiva in the shul where it had been located before the war.
Since he came from a family of shochtim and was familiar with the profession, he began learning the laws of sh’chita in his free time with an older man in Vilna, together with R’ Yosef Wineberg. When R’ Yehoshua Isaac, the Rosh Yeshiva, reported this to the Rebbe, the Rebbe answered: Yosef and Gershon’s study of sh’chita is most proper.
The situation in Vilna deteriorated for the Jews in 1941. R’ Gershon miraculously found out that in Kona it was possible to get a transit visa to Japan even though Japan was an ally of the Nazis. The Japanese consul in Kovna, Mr. Sugihara, was a righteous gentile. He issued thousands of these transit visas which enabled numerous Jews to escape to Japan. The numbers show the miracle that R’ Gershon had: Transit visa #1785 was for himself, #1836 was for his sister Fruma, #1841 was for his brother Shmuel Avrohom, and #2027 was for his brother Yisroel. The last transit visa was #2139.
Over 2000 transit visas were produced but about 6000 (possibly 10,000) Jews left. The method was to turn every transit visa into a family visa. R’ Gershon managed to make his way home to his parents and suggested that they join the trip to Kobe, Japan, but they were too fearful to join in this journey. He took the Pischei T’shuva from his parents’ house and that is what he learned. He also took a Torah scroll (which was later confiscated at the Russian border) and an old typewriter which was used to print the Rebbe’s maamarim. The typewriter survived and arrived with him in New York.
On 2 Shevat 5701 he arrived by train in Vladivostok and from there took a ship to Kobe, Japan where he joined Yeshivas Tomchei T’mimim which had opened there. After a few months, the talmidim of the yeshiva were expelled and R’ Gershon moved with the yeshiva to Shanghai. There he continued learning diligently despite the physical hardships that plagued the talmidim. He excelled in his learning and R’ Meir Ashkenazi, who was the rav of the k’hilla in Shanghai, tested him and gave him smicha.
While in Shanghai, the young Gershon served as father and mother to his brothers who remained without their parents and without any other relatives. His uncles had received transit visas to Japan and then received visas for the US and had sailed to S Francisco. Chabad was given nine visas at that time, but these visas were given to bachurim who were there longer and they were sent, by the Rebbe’s instruction, to start Tomchei T’mimim in Montreal.
When his brother was stricken with an eye disease, R’ Gershon worked very hard to deal with the doctors and hospitals to have him cured. He was helped by some of the Jewish leaders there like the Amshinover Rebbe who walked the long distance with him to make sure the patient ate on Yom Kippur, and Rebbetzin Kotler (engaged to and later the wife of R’ Shneur) translated for them what the doctors said. R’ Gershon paid her back later on when she was seasick on the ship to America and he made sure she had the right food and medication. She was forever grateful to him for that.
Since he wasn’t in yeshiva during his illness, R’ Gershon’s brother did not receive his small food allotment. Gershon obtained money for him so he could buy food and subsist. He did this for his sister too, who was not yet married.
His help to Fruma was not just with money. He helped her find a shidduch. Since Lubavitcher bachurim were relatively young and the Mirrer bachurim were older, the shidduch was made with R’ Michel Berenbaum, a Mirrer talmid and later the mashgiach in Mesivta Tiferes Yerushalayim. The wedding meal was in the home of the mashgiach of the Mirrer yeshiva, R’ Yechezkel Levenstein, and Gershon was given the honor of saying divrei Torah at the Sheva brachos meal. In general, during those bleak times, the relationship between the bachurim of the two yeshivos was very friendly.
During the war, the news they received in Shanghai was meager. After the war, Gershon wrote to friends and family and asked them repeatedly for information about his parents. He finally realized that they had been murdered around 19 Av 1942 by the cursed Germans.
EXEMPTING THE REBBE
After the war, R’ Gershon went to America without most of his family and began a new life on his own. Although for years he was unable to deal with memories of the suffering of the Holocaust, he succeeded in tapping into tremendous inner powers. He lived his life without excuses, trying to attain whatever he could. He had a sort of inner drive, perhaps to compensate for the tremendous loss of the previous generation.
The Rebbe Rayatz sent R’ Wineberg to welcome those arriving in S Francisco. There was also a large delegation which welcomed them at the train station in New York. Among them was R’ Yochanan Gordon who was a friend of the family from Dokshitz. When R’ Yochanan saw his friend he ran to hug him but R’ Gershon, in his humility, did not understand what the big deal was about.
Immediately upon arriving in New York he joined the yeshiva in 770. In his first years there, he went many times to fundraise for the yeshiva. He had the gift of oratory which he used when he spoke in shuls about the importance of a Jewish chinuch and Jewish life. He then began working in sh’chita in Rock Island, Illinois and other places.
Some years later he began devoting time to shidduchim. In America after the war he was a rare specimen. There weren’t many religious bachurim at that time with full beards.
His wedding took place on 11 Kislev 5711. Since it was in the middle of the year of mourning for the Rebbe Rayatz, the Rebbe did not take part in his wedding, but at the farbrengen on the Shabbos of the oifruf, the Rebbe said an entire sicha about the aliya l’Torah of the chassan.
The morning after the wedding, R’ Gershon went into 770 for Shacharis and did not know whether to say the SheHechiyanu blessing on his new tallis. He asked R’ Shmuel Levitin who suggested that he ask the Rebbe who would be coming soon. When the Rebbe arrived and heard the question, he said, “Since you ask, that shows that it is precious to you. You can make a SheHechiyanu on something that is precious. At my wedding I did not say it because the Rebbe did not tell me to. Say a SheHechiyanu and exempt me too.”
TORAH, AVODA, GEMILUS CHASADIM
Some years after he was married, R’ Gershon bought his first house on President Street near Franklin Avenue. He helped his uncle build a mikva in the nearby shul and worked as a shochet.
Gershon and Leah opened their home to guests. He was also involved in one of the first gemachs in Lubavitch together with his friend Yochanan Gordon and later with Shimon Goldman.
R’ Gershon rose very early every morning. Before leaving the house and going to sh’chita (around 5:00) he would review the laws of sh’chita. Even on his days off, he would get up early to learn other things, a practice he continued even after he retired. The early morning hours were the best time for him to learn.
R’ Gershon learned all his life. Since he had an “eishes chayil” who pushed him to learn, he had a chavrusa for Gemara in the middle of the day and another shiur in the evening. He went through Shas a number of times. He learned Torah Ohr and Likkutei Torah regularly. He remembered a lot of Tanach by heart from his youth and always enjoyed a good svara or deep, learned chiddush. He was very close with distinguished rabbanim including the rav of Crown Heights, R’ Zalman Shimon Dworkin, R’ Berel Rivkin, R’ Teitz, and the Admurim of Tzeilim, Bobov, and Novominsk.
He particularly enjoyed testing his children and grandchildren and talking to them in learning. He always tried to add to their geshmak and chayus in learning and would closely follow their progress in learning.
He stayed far away from disputes. If an argument began relating to community politics, he stayed out of the discussion. He was respected by his friends and peers and was known as a straight person, simple, goodhearted, someone who cared, and a yerei Shamayim. These characteristics and the respect he gave everyone enabled him to make connections with Jews from other religious groups. He was even asked to review Chassidus in shuls of other groups.
He was very responsible financially and never took anything from anyone. He taught his family to live simply and to live within their means. At a certain point in his life he was involved for a number of years in selling insurance and mutual funds. Some of his customers lost money from their investment so R’ Gershon took on extra jobs in order to repay his customers.
R’ Gershon often used his oratorical abilities to strengthen people’s yiras Shamayim. He would describe the Jewish home of old and tell tales of tzaddikim that he heard from Chassidim of previous generations. In his speeches he drew his audience into another world, into a world that no longer exists. Many Jews were inspired by his talks. He made no demands of people but the stories that he told were like lanterns that illuminated the way.
One time, he was invited to speak at a big campus in Boulder, Colorado where his daughter, Mrs. Scheiner, is a shlucha. 800 people were present when he thanked the son of Mr. Sugihara who had saved him and his family. He emotionally told about what European Jewry went through. He made such a powerful impression on the audience that for many of them this was the turning point that led to their return to Judaism.
Yiras Shamayim was an inseparable part of him even in the hardest moments. One of his neighbors who was the first to discover him after he had his stroke saw him lying on the floor with his hand holding his yarmulke so that it wouldn’t fall off.
R’ Gershon Chanowitz passed away on 2 Av 5773/2013 at the age of 91. His children are: Mrs. Elki Elbaum of Boro Park, R’ Moshe of Montreal, Mrs. Shifi Kohl of Boro Park, R’ Bentzion, shliach in Monticello, Mrs. Esti Fishman of Boro Park, Mrs. Simi Schtroks, shlucha in Surrey, BC, R’ Sruli Chanowitz of Monsey, and Mrs. Chani Scheiner, shlucha in Boulder, Colorado.