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Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, 89, religious scholar, dies
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Rabbi Ephraim Oshry
Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, 89, religious scholar, dies

By Albert Amateau

 

Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, leader for 50 years of the landmark synagogue Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on the Lower East Side and venerated among Orthodox Jews as a sage of the Torah and author of a five-volume religious response to the Holocaust, died on Sunday afternoon, Sept. 28 2003, the second day of the Jewish New Year, in Mt. Sinai Hospital at the age of 89.

He was revered for the influence of his character on succeeding generations of the congregation as much as for his scholarship. He was known as a Posek, a term bestowed on a man whom people can ask the difficult questions of life, said Victor B. Zybernagel, a member of Congregation Beth Hamedrash Hagadol at 16 Norfolk St. for 30 years.

Born in Kupishok, Lithuania, in 1914, Ephraim Oshry studied with the great rabbis of the day. He was interned in a concentration camp near Kovno, Lithuania, by the Nazi invaders during World War II. His first wife and their children died in the camps before the end of the war. In 1949, he married Frieda Greenzwieg, a survivor of Auschwitz, said his son-in-law, Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum.

The volumes on the religious response to the Holocaust were begun while he was in the camp, written in Hebrew on bits of paper, which were buried and retrieved after the war, according to Zybernagel. It was the rabbis life work. A one-volume version in English won a National Jewish Book Award several years ago, he said.

Rabbi Oshry and his wife left Lithuania and landed in Rome where the rabbi organized a yeshiva for orphaned refugee children. In 1950 he managed to bring all the yeshiva students with him when he moved with his family to Montreal. They came to New York in 1952 where he was invited to be the rabbi of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, a congregation founded in 1852. The family has long made its home in the Seward Park Co-op on E. Broadway.

For several years Rabbi Oshry ran two yeshivas, one for boys and the other for girls, in the East Bronx. He is also the patron of a yeshiva named after him in Monsey N.Y., Shaar Ephraim, run by a son-in-law, Zelig Greenberg.

Rabbi Oshry is survived by his wife, three daughters and six sons. He designated his son-in-law Rabbi Mendel Greenbaum, to succeed him at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol.

The funeral was at the synagogue on Mon. Sept. 29.


Albert@DowntownExpress

Oshry was a rabbinical scholar in Lithuania when the Nazis invaded in 1941. During the occupation, he held secret worship services for Jews and guarded a warehouse filled with books for a future exhibit of "artifacts of the extinct Jewish race."

After the war ended, Oshry used the knowledge he obtained from the exhibit to publish several volumes of religious analysis in which he interpreted Jewish law to answer questions of survival. For example, Oshry determined that even to save his own life, a Jew could not buy a Christian baptism certificate or commit suicide. Two of these volumes won National Jewish Book Awards.

Oshry also set up schools for religious instruction in Rome and Montreal. In 1952, he became rabbi at Beth Hamedrash Hagadol, one of the oldest synagogues in New York City.

 

Responsa by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry in the Kovno Ghetto

Question: May it be explained whether it is permissible to save oneself, and thereby cause another to be killed.

I was asked the following in the Kovno ghetto, on 23 Elul 5701 (September 15, 1941): Jordan, accursed be his name, Commander for Ghetto Affairs in Kovno, had given the Altestenrat (Council of Elders) 5,000 white cards ("Jordan permits"), which were to be distributed among the craftsmen and their families, and only those who had cards would remain. At that time there were almost 30,000 Jewish souls in the ghetto, and among them about 10,000 craftsmen and their families. There was a great tumult, and those who were strongest snatched the cards from the Altestenrat.

And now the first question is whether it is permissible for the Altestenrat to take the cards and distribute them among the craftsmen in accordance with the orders of Jordan, accursed be his name? The second question is whether it is permissible for the craftsmen to snatch these cards and to push away their comrades among the craftsmen who will remain over and above the number of 5,000 cards, and what will be with them?

[Answer:] ...It is possible to say that in this case all the craftsmen are in a sense partners in all the cards, for it is conceded that they were given for all of them, and therefore all have a share in them. And if so, then each one may snatch who has a share in them. And later, when I came to write, I was shown by my distinguished friend, our Rabbi and teacher Israel Gostman, may he live good days, Amen, the head of the Torah School at the Yeshiva of Lubavitch, that the commentary of Rabbi Eliezer Edels (Maharsha) on the Tractate Baba Metzia [of the Talmud] 62 states: "If a flask of water (which can sustain but one person) belongs to two (men), then Rabbi Akiva accepts the position of Ben Petora, that in this case both should die rather than one drink and witness the death of his friend. This, therefore, represents a position opposite to the one we proposed, for if we consider them partners then they may not snatch [the permits], for that would make them as one who takes a thing from his fellow and saves himself by means of a thing that belongs to the other.

But while all this must be considered, it may be said that in this case the ruling does not apply, for it is not a matter of a specific person; it had been the intention of the evil ones, may they be accursed, to destroy all, but now there is a way to save a few by means of the permits that have been issued, and thus acceptance of the cards and their distribution becomes a matter of saving [persons]. Later I heard from the revered and learned Rabbi A.D. Schapira, may he be remembered as a just man and blessed, the head of the Rabbinical Court of Kovno, that when the order went out on 6 Heshvan 5702 from the evil ones, accursed be their names, to the Altestenrat that it should post a notice on 8 Heshvan 5702 (October 26, 1941) that all the occupants of the ghetto -- men, women and children -- be assembled at the Demokraten Platz, the Altestenrat came to ask the head of the Rabbinical Court what they should do in accordance with the laws of the Torah, for it was known that a great part of those who assembled would be doomed to die. After he had considered the matter, the head of the Rabbinical Court ruled as follows: if the order was made that a community in Israel be destroyed, and if by some means it was possible to save a small part of the people, then the heads of the community must gather up courage in their souls, and it is their responsibility to act and to save who may be saved. And therefore in this case it appears that taking and distributing the permits is also a matter of rescue and it is not appropriate to rule in this case according to the law for an individual and therefore the Altestenrat is required to accept the permits and to distribute them.

* * *

Question: Are infants subject to the commandment to sanctify the Name of God by martyrdom?

I was asked on 3 and 4 Nisan 5704 [March 27-28, 1944] in the Kovno Ghetto, in the days of the killing and loss and terrible fate for the glory of our offspring, concerning our children and infants, the children of Israel.

In their desire to save their children, the parents devised a way: they bought birth certificates from the unbelievers and abandoned the children at the orphanage of the unbelievers in order that the unbelievers might think that the abandoned child was also an unbeliever. The parents also gave the children to priests and wrote to the priests that the children had been converted from their faith. Is this permissible?

2. Is it permissible to give the children to the unbelievers to hide until after the war and the fall of Hitler, may his name be accursed, where there is doubt that the parents will remain alive and therefore the children will be bound to remain among the unbelievers and live in their faith and their ways?

[Answer:] ...If the child is not given to the unbelievers it is certain that it will die, and if they are among the unbelievers they will live, and it is possible that the parents may remain alive and take the child back and return it to Judaism, and it is possible that the unbelievers themselves may return the child to a Jewish institution, and there are many possibilities in favor. And the Almighty in His goodness will have mercy on the remnants of His oppressed people and not add further to their suffering, and we shall witness the consolation of Zion and of Jerusalem.

E. Oshry, Sefer Divre Ephraim ("The Sayings of Ephraim"), New York, 1949, pp. 95-96, 101-102.

Very few responsa written during the Holocaust have survived. In this environment of brutal decrees, persecution, and annihilation, both the questioners and the respondents were seriously inhibited; often Jews were simply unable to present their questions and decisors could not remit the answers. The most comprehensive collection of Holocaust-era responsa was written by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry in the Kovno Ghetto, between June, 1941, when the Nazi occupation of Kovno began, and August, 1944.

Rabbi Oshry wrote his responsa on scraps of paper, which he buried in hopes of returning and reclaiming them after the war.

At some point, the Nazis placed Rabbi Oshry in charge of a warehouse of Jewish books that had been gathered in Kovno. By so doing, they inadvertently gave him the access to Jewish books and rabbinic literature that he needed to write his detailed responsa. In his book Mi-ma'amaqim (From the depths), Rabbi Oshry testifies that his Holocaust-period responsa were issued with virtually no amendments or additions.4

Mi-ma'amaqim (four volumes) was published in 1959 in New York, where Rabbi Oshry had taken up residence after the war. (His other works are listed in the bibliography at the end of this guide.) The responsa in this guide, culled from Mi-ma'amaqim, deal with several halakhic issues connected with Jewish survival in the Kovno Ghetto. Although the lessons of one ghetto are hard to apply to another, it is reasonable to assume that similar problems existed in other ghettos in Eastern Europe. Therefore, these questions, or at least some of them, presumably perturbed many Jews during the Holocaust.

From; http://www.chelseashul.org/Oshry/OshryBio.htm

 

In 1951, Rabbi Oshry wrote a famous book in Yiddish entitled Khurban Lite (Churban Lita, The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry). This book was replete with the demographics of, and genealogy of, families in various Lithuanian Shtetlach (towns). In an Appendix, the book also chronicled the experiences of the Rabbi and of some thirty-odd others who lay concealed in a "Ma-liy-ne" (underground bunker) in the Kovner ghetto -- until the ghetto was liberated by the Russians.

[The Rabbi once mentioned at one of the nightly Torah classes (shiurim) that he held at his synagogue that one of the people in that bunker was the former boxing champion of the Baltic Countries (boks-mayster fun di Baltishe Lender, in the Rabbi's excellent Yiddish).]

Rabbi Oshry once gave me a signed and inscribed copy of his book, Churban Lita. He suggested that I translate the book from the Yiddish into English.

This book, which is a virtual treasure-trove for genealogists, was translated into English in 1995 (not by me) as "The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry" (Oshry, Efroim. The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry. Translated by Y. Leiman from the Yiddish book "Churbin Lita". New York: Judaica Press, 1995. 312 pages). See http://www.judaicapress.com/218X.pdf and http://www.judaicapress.com/product_info.php?products_id=310.


Rabbi Oshry also wrote 5 volumes in Hebrew entitled Shaylos U'Tshuvos Mi-ma-a-ma-kim (Responsa from the Depths (or "from the Pits"). [On the website http://www.interlog.com/~mighty/valor/halakha.htm, the book is called She'elot Ut'shovot Mimaamakim. Incidentally the above site is well worth visiting!]

A recent Google search for "oshry rabbi responsa" returned about 71 "hits". The first of these was for the website: http://www.yad-vashem.org.il/about_holocaust/documents/part3/doc182.html.

By Jason Alpert;

Audio Cassette Tapes of Rabbi Oshry's Shi'urim
 

I personally was very close with Rabbi Oshry. In 1976, I began attending Rabbi Oshry's nightly shiurim (Torah classes) at his synagogue (Cong. Beth HaMedrash HaGodol), conducted entirely in Yiddish. I recorded dozens of these shiurim on audio cassettes. Unfortunately, all of these cassettes were lost -- except one. That one I loaned to the anthropologist and Yiddish scholar Shifra Epstein. This one tape was especially significant, because in it Rabbi Oshry described an ancient letter that lay preserved under a piece of glass covering a table-top in the Rabbi's home in pre-war Europe. This letter delineated the Oshry pedigree, going back many generations.

I remember hearing Rabbi Oshry say (and this was recorded in that tape) that if not for the Nazis (yi-makh sh'mom), that letter would still lie there safely preserved under that glass .....

 



I was, for a time, Rabbi Oshry's "personal chauffeur." The Rabbi was often an honored guest at weddings, and I would drive the Rabbi to these events in my VW Rabbit.

During one of these rides (I think we were crossing the Manhattan Bridge), I asked the Rabbi how come the Rabbi -- who was an ardent Litvak * and Misnaged **" - had married a woman from a Chassidic family, and that all of their children were being raised as Belzer Chassidim. Rabbi Oshry told me that he had done so because he'd wanted to make sure that his progeny would all be Yiddish speakers. (It seems that grand-children of other Misnagdishe rabbis, including the world-famous Rabbi Moshe Feinstein zt"l, were NOT raised as Yiddish speakers.) He recognized the fact that only among the Chassidim would Yiddish survive as a medium of daily expression.