Reb Yitzchak Gvirzman

Reb Yitzchak Gvirzman, fondly known as “Reb Itzikel”, came into the world on Tevet 12, 5642 (1882) in a tiny village near Gerlitz. He was the son of Rabbi Naphtali Elimelech Gvirzman and his wife, Rebbetzin Hannah Brendel. On his father’s side he descended from an impressive line of rabbanim. They tell that his grandfather, Rabbi Avraham Gvirzman of Gerlitz, was a Tsaddik Nistar (a hidden Tzaddik). Even with his most insignificant remarks (for example, when he was bringing cheer to young newlyweds), a careful observer could notice that by his words he implied something much more, and in this way he went about his Divine service. Rabbi Chaim of Tsanz said of his student, Rabbi Avraham Gvirzman, that he didn’t know what it meant to sin, and that he was as innocent as a one-year-old child.

The day of his Brit Milah, his father gave him the name Yitzchak in memory of the Tzaddik of Lublin. His uncle, the Shinover Rebbe, added to him the name of Moshe (in memory of Moshe Rabbeinu, who risked being drowned in the Nile) because his mother had difficulty during labor, and only the prayers of the Tsaddik of Shinov saved him. The child thereby received the name of Moshe Yitzchak.

Still very young, he distinguished himself by his exceptional behavior and his kiddusha. They tell that Rav Avraham Chaim Horovitz, who noticed the child when he was 8 years old, asked, “Who is this child? The Shechinah illuminates his face!”

A little afterwards, his family left Gerlitz to go live in Shinov. The child lived almost constantly at the residence of his uncle, the Shinover Rebbe. One day, as he was playing in the Beit Midrash (as young children do), he went to hide under the Tallit of his uncle. This happened during the Mincha service before Shabbat, and the Shinover Rebbe began the repetition of the Amidah. When the child heard the voice of the Rebbe trembling and seeming to shoot out flames, he was overcome with such fright that he ran away and didn’t dare approach his uncle for days.

In the year 5654 (1894), at the age of 12, his uncle sent him to study in Tama with Rabbi Moshe Apter. On the 12th of Tevet 1895, the child celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. However his Tefillin weren’t quite ready, and he put on those of his uncle. Years later, Reb Itzikel recounted just how much he was moved by this, and affirmed that he would never again have the courage to thoughtlessly put on the Tefillin of the Rebbe. On that same day he was engaged to Rachel, the daughter of Rav Issachar Dov Hacohen Glanz from the city of Shinov, who himself descended from an illustrious family of Rabbanim. On the 6th of Tevet 5659 (1899), the Shinover Rebbe left this world. Reb Itzikel was then 17 years old, and he spoke of his uncle until his dying day.

On Rosh Chodesh Nissan 1899, a few months after the passing of his uncle, the marriage of Reb Itzikel and Rachel his betrothed was celebrated. During that period of time, he didn’t stop elevating himself in purity and holiness, fasting several days in a row and studying Torah day and night.

On the 9th of Av 5674 (1914), the WWI broke out. Cities in Poland and Galicia were turned into battlefields. Russian soldiers chased the Austrian army before them, attacking Jews everywhere as they went. The Cossacks were renown for their cruelty. The city of Shinov suffered terribly from the invasion and was almost completely destroyed.

One day, while Reb Itzikel was reciting the Amidah in his basement (which had a door granting access to the street), his daughter Bilah came down to see him. Suddenly she saw a Cossack yelling and demanding something from her father, who then calmly pursued his prayers. The Cossack, engaged with anger, prepared to stab the Rebbe from behind. She let out such a scream that the Cossack himself got scared and bolted as fast as he could to save himself. During this period, Reb Itzikel decided to leave Shinov and settle in Pshevorsk. There he began to keep an open house during Shabbat and holidays. The Chassidim flocked to him.

Unfortunately, in 1930, while Reb Itzikel was away on a trip, a terrible fire destroyed more than 50 Jewish homes in Pshevorsk, including the home of Reb Itzikel, the Beit Midrash of the Chassidim, and the only printing house in the town.

On the 16th of Elul 5699 (1939), WWII broke out. On Rosh Hashanah 5700 (1939), the Nazis seized Pshevorsk and put the splendid synagogue there to the torch, but not before profaning the Sifrei Torah found within. That same year, on the day after Yom Kippur, the Jews were chased from the town and forced to escape to Russian territory. They managed to do so on the eve of Sukkoth, arriving in the Russian village of Ulshitza (which had a Jewish majority population). Reb Itzikel lived there for about seven months, until his exile to Siberia.

During the winter of 1940, the Russians proposed to all the inhabitants of Galicia, as well as to all the refugees fleeing the German advance, that they receive Soviet citizenship. Of course, everyone asked what the best thing to do was. Reb Itzikel ordered his Chassidim to in no way sign up.

One Shabbat evening in June 1940, Russian government agents raided all the Jewish homes in Galicia and, equipped with their list, made everyone who had refused Soviet citizenship leave their homes in the middle of the night. They were all brought to the closest railway station, where trains awaited to bring them to Siberia. These exiled people realized just what an enormous calamity had fallen upon them because of the decree. Despite all this, Reb Itzikel maintained that such a day could only bring good, since it was that day, long ago, that the decree of Haman had been annulled and that the Jews had escaped his clutches. Nobody understood Reb Itzikel. However one year later, in 1941, the Germans invaded all of Galicia and sent all those who had escaped exile in Siberia to a certain death.

As for them, the Jews exiled in Siberia suffered terribly from hunger, cold, and all sorts of imposed labor. However most of them ended up escaping. Thus they understood what Reb Itzikel had told them: “The 23rd of Sivan is a favorable day for Israel!” After the war, the Polish government requested that Russia liberate all the Polish citizens that it had retained on its territory.

During the month of Iyar 1946, Reb Itzikel began his voyage home. The train ride lasted several weeks, and upon his return in Poland he settled in Breslau (in Silesia). Yet there was no mikveh there, nor Beit Midrash, and Reb Itzikel oftentimes spent several weeks in Krakow, where he finally settled in Elul 1947.

It was in Krakow that something extraordinary happened. Often he would stay up for the entire night studying in the “Ezrat Nashim” of the Beit Hamidrash. During the night of the 8th of Nissan, he stayed up and began to study, as was his habit. Then, in the middle of the night, he decided to take a look at the Gemara about which he was about to do the Siyum (conclusion) in the morning for the memory of his father z’’l. He sat down, and at that exact moment a bullet passed just over his head. Reb Itzikel had barely escaped death. After an investigation, it later turned out that that a non-Jewish neighbor living in front of the Beit Hamidrash couldn’t stand to see this Jew studying all night, and his vehement anti-Semitic hatred was so great that he decided to kill him.

Reb Itzikel stayed in Poland until 1949. He later settled in Paris and lived there until 1957, then in Antwerp, where he stayed and spent the last years of his life. He left this world on Yom Kippur 5737 (1976). Reb Itzikel had three daughters and one son-in-law.

At the funeral of Reb Itzikel, tens of thousands of people from around the world hastily arrived and squeezed together to attend the service. Each had in his heart memories of the piety and saintliness of this extraordinary being, a man whose miracles, wonders, and exceptional manner – a manner that allowed him to serve the Holy One, blessed be He, by constantly being attentive to the least detail – would require several books to recount.




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