As the chasidic sect’s leader goes to jail, remembering his great-uncle and a remarkable Holocaust photo album.
This week, an undisclosed federal prison will become the new address of prisoner No. 46835-112, Naftali Tzvi Weisz, known to his thousands of followers as the Grand Rabbi of Spinka of Borough Park. Last December, Weisz, 61, was sentenced to two years in prison after pleading guilty to heading up a decade-long, $10 million money-laundering scheme in which donors to Spinka charitable institutions secretly received kickbacks of up to 95 percent of their donations. The rabbi’s gabbai, or assistant, Moshe Zigelman, also received a two-year sentence. Five others involved in the scheme received lesser sentences.
Rabbi Weisz is not the only Orthodox rabbi to recently find himself on the wrong side of the law. Last summer, three rabbis of the Syrian Orthodox community, including its chief rabbi, Saul Kassin, were arrested in New Jersey and New York on charges of money laundering. But the Spinka Rebbe of Borough Park is perhaps the first leader of a chasidic dynasty to become a jailbird. It has gone unnoticed, however, that his name carries a historic distinction invoking a singular artifact of the Holocaust known as the Auschwitz Album.
Found by chance in an abandoned German barrack by a young Auschwitz survivor in April 1945, as the Third Reich was in its death throes, the 56-page album contains the only known photos of Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau other than two photos taken secretly within a crematorium enclosure and smuggled out of the camp. Photography, except for “mug shots” of incoming non-Jewish prisoners, was normally forbidden even to the S.S., at the largest Nazi killing center. This tattered brown album, bound by a tasseled cord, was most likely ordered up as a private souvenir by a high SS camp official. In a deception that even the victims hoped to be true, it carries the hand-lettered title, “Umsiedlung der Juden aus Ungarn” (“Resettlement of Jews from Hungary”).
The album’s nearly 200 clear snapshots, organized as a pictorial narrative, first show the newly arrived victims in all their exhaustion, confusion and stoic dignity as they tumble out of the boxcars. It follows them as they line up before jack-booted SS inspectors for the infamous selection while their belongings are pillaged. Family members can be seen anxiously looking for one another as a minority is split off to be slave laborers while all others are led to the gas. No actual violence is seen, although in one photo, a group of older women and children are shown gazing calmly at the camera against a backdrop of what appears to be a red-brick administrative building. It is actually one of the four Birkenau crematoria, then working overtime. Beneath it are the undressing rooms and capacious gas chamber.
On the first page of the album is a photo of three chasidic men. The dominant figure, his gaze steady from under a soft-contoured, wide-brimmed black hat, is the 52-year-old grand rabbi of Bilke, a town nestled in a valley of the Carpathian mountains. His name is Naftali Tzvi Weisz, and he is the namesake and great-uncle of the current Spinka grand rabbi of Borough Park. Along with nearly half a million other Hungarian Jews, his community of about 1,500 Jews from Bilke was deported to Auschwitz in the spring of 1944.
Naftali was a son of Rabbi Isaac Weisz, whose own grandfather, Joseph Meir Weisz (1838-1909), founded the Spinka dynasty in the Romanian town of that name. His son, Isaac, moved the Spinka court to the chasidic stronghold of Mukachevo. Isaac’s piercing glance, it was said, was enough to send his dallying pupils scurrying back to study.
In 1929, one of Isaac’s sons, Naftali, accepted a call from Bilke’s Jews to become their grand rabbi. In the town’s memory book, Isidore Reisman recalled how he was among a crowd of students who trooped to the edge of town to welcome the charter bus bringing the new rabbi’s entourage. As the bus approached, Reisman saw “the bearded faces at the windows who were singing from the Psalms: ‘In joy they go forth and in peace they arrive.’” The first to step out was the aged Spinka Rebbe himself. His son, Naftali, a man with dark, aquiline features and piercing eyes like his father, was escorted to Bilke’s main synagogue in a festively decorated horse-drawn carriage.
“The arrival of the new rabbi marked a turning point in the history of our small town,” wrote Reisman in a two-volume memorial book to Jewish life in Bilke. “During his first year, dozens of students from many outlying villages in Carpathia and beyond flocked to join the Bilker Rabbi’s yeshiva.” On Thursday nights, Rabbi Weisz personally conducted gas-lit oral examinations, Reisman told me in a 1980 interview in Cleveland. On other nights, except for the Sabbath, the rabbi studied alone deep into the night. A disciple remembers once coming into his study and finding the rabbi engrossed in a text, his feet in a pail of ice water to keep himself awake.
As the Nazi shadow spread over Europe, Rabbi Weisz was invited by an American congregation to become its rabbi. He refused to forsake his own flock.
On the last day of Passover in April 1944, Bilke’s Jews, excepting a few men like Reisman who had been drafted into Hungarian forced labor brigades, were ghettoized in a nearby city. From there, they were packed into boxcars with only a single pail of water for the two-day passage to Auschwitz. Near the journey’s end, one of Weisz’s congregants asked, “Rabbi, what will happen to us?”
At that moment, the train curved off the main line onto the Birkenau spur. “Listen to the sound of the wheels screaming,” was the rabbi’s only answer, Reisman remembered.
On that train was 18-year-old, Bilke-born Lilly Jacob, who would survive. The end of the war found her enslaved at Dora, a small concentration camp near Nordhausen. As the Germans fled, Lilly, emaciated and typhus-ridden, entered an abandoned barrack and fell asleep on a cot. Upon awakening, she looked into a bedside cabinet and found the Auschwitz Album.
At least a million Jews had been deported to Auschwitz, only a handful of whom were from Bilke. Yet when Lilly opened the album to its first page, she recognized her rabbi, Naftali Tzvi Weisz. He’d been murdered, probably, on the same day his photo was taken.
Amazingly, Lilly also spotted herself in a photo of women selected for work, all them shorn of hair and wearing ill-fitting dresses taken from earlier deportees. Another photo, she believed, showed two of her younger brothers as they debarked from a boxcar. Considering it a family album, Lilly would not give it up after the war, even when the Jewish Museum in Prague offered to buy it in 1946. But she did allow the photos to be copied onto glass plates for a payment of 10,000 crowns, she told me in an interview.
That was enough to pay for passage to America for Lilly, her husband, Max Zelmonovic, and their infant daughter, in 1948. They settled in Miami, where Lilly worked as a waitress. In 1964, Lilly brought her album to Germany — at the request of the prosecutor — to testify at the trial of 22 former SS men who had been Auschwitz guards, some of whom could be identified in the photographs.
Then Lilly took her album home to Miami and kept it in the bottom drawer of her bedroom dresser until a morning in July 1980, when Serge Klarsfeld, the historian of the French Holocaust, arrived unannounced at her doorstep. He convinced her to donate the Auschwitz Album to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, even though she had promised the album to her grandchildren. Before the ceremony, Lilly was received by Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who looked long and hard at the photos.
The Auschwitz Album has been called the single most important document preserved in Yad Vashem’s underground vault because, while many survivors have given testimony, only its pages preserve a photographic record of Jews at Auschwitz in the days when the death factory was working at maximum capacity. The images add up to a heart-rending human panorama.
Naftali Tsvi Weisz’s dignified gaze, on the first page of the album, will be preserved long after the criminal ignominy of his great-nephew from Borough Park is forgotten.
Peter Hellman wrote the text for the Random House edition (1981) of “The Auschwitz Album.”
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