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Rabbi Chaim Menachem Teichtel

28 July 2022

I was born in the town of Piestany, Czechoslovakia, where the local rabbi was my father, Rabbi Yissachar Shlomo. In 1938, after Slovakia broke away as an autonomous state – with the support of the Nazis – and began enacting anti-Semitic measures, my father decided to send me off. Sixteen years old at the time, I spent a year at the Eitz Chaim yeshivah outside Antwerp, and then had to escape again when the Germans invaded Belgium. Eventually, I found refuge in Vichy, France, with Rabbi Shneur Zalman Schneerson, a cousin of the Rebbe. I was part of a group of twenty boys, whom he cared for, materially as well as spiritually, throughout those terrible war years.

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During that time, I also got to know Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Rubinstein, a prominent Paris rabbi who had gotten to know the Rebbe while he lived there. It was from him that I heard the following story:

Before Sukkot of 1940, the Rebbe had turned to Rabbi Rubinstein with a question: How much is a Jew allowed to place his life in danger in order to fulfill a commandment b’hiddur, in a special and enhanced manner? The two discussed the various Halachic considerations for a while, and shortly after the Rebbe disappeared for several days.

When Rabbi Rubinstein saw the Rebbe next, his face was beaming. He was holding two beautiful Calabrian etrogim, one of which he gave to Rabbi Rubinstein. Despite the war, the Rebbe had managed to travel into fascist Italy, and secured two citrons from the Calabria region, which are preferred by Chabad custom. The roads, and especially the border crossings, were quite dangerous, especially for someone who wasn’t hiding his Jewish appearance, but the Rebbe risked his life for those etrogim.

That Sukkot, there was a long line of local Jews wishing to make their blessing using that etrog, and the Rebbe was happy to oblige.

Hearing about the Rebbe’s self-sacrifice from Rabbi Rubinstein made an impression on our group, and when Pesach came around, we were determined not to go without proper shmurah matzah. At the time, wheat was subject to strict rationing, but one young man set off in search of the precious commodity. After wandering all the way to a remote village in the French Alps, he was able to acquire the wheat we needed to secretly bake the matzah.

Over the next few years, Rabbi Zalman Schneerson led us from one hiding place to another, and we survived the Holocaust by the grace of G-d. Afterwards, we helped him rescue Jewish children who had been cloistered in monasteries and with Christian families during the war. I was later charged with running one of the institutions he founded, a home for girls ages three to nineteen, on the outskirts of Paris; it was named Bais Rivkah. A year after the war ended, I married my wife, and we continued running the institution together.

In 1947, when the Rebbe arrived in Paris to meet his mother and escort her back to America – she had just fled Soviet Russia along with a large contingent of chasidim – we had the great honor of receiving him for a visit. The girls in our school had just endured all the horrors of the war; some were devastated after losing a parent or other family members. The Rebbe spoke to them for a long time, in French, to each girl on her level. With tremendous sensitivity, he encouraged them, bolstered their spirits, and succeeded in breathing joy and light into the place.

The Rebbe’s visit to Paris was the first time I had ever seen him, and the feeling of excitement that gripped me was simply indescribable, even though he was not yet Rebbe. He dressed in the European style, with a short jacket and a light-colored hat, but it was immediately apparent that here was a man who stood head and shoulders above the rest of us.

One of the things that made an impression on me was seeing how precious time was to the Rebbe. I remember the day that he went to greet his mother: Having been separated for over twenty years, during which they had both endured so much, his excitement was self-evident. Nevertheless, he was utterly immersed in a Torah text up until the moment he was informed that it was time to go to the airport. It was a vivid illustration of the chasidic adage, “The mind rules the heart.”

During his time in Paris, the local chasidim requested that the Rebbe lead a farbrengen, which he agreed to do. At one point in a gathering that lasted the entire night, he asked the names of each of the participants, and offered a long explanation of the inner, mystical meaning of each one. It was the first time any of us had witnessed the Rebbe’s greatness as a Torah scholar, and we were all beside ourselves in amazement. It still pains me that I didn’t have the foresight to take notes at the time.

Two years later, we moved to Israel and in 1967, I traveled to the Rebbe for my first private audience. My appointment was close to dawn. I had been feeling down at the time, so I recited Psalms with a broken heart while waiting in the lobby outside the Rebbe’s office. But, as soon as I was ushered in, he welcomed me with a look on his face that was so radiant; it was as if I were an only son he had been waiting to see. This immediately lifted my spirits, and I felt like a new man.

Among other things, I shared with the Rebbe that the events of Israel’s recent war had been having an impact on my mood, and had even been affecting my work. The Rebbe advised me to “try and not get caught up in a quarrel” with my evil inclination. Instead, I should try to distract myself from those negative thoughts by reviewing a chapter of Tanya I had committed to memory.

That audience was in the beginning of the month of Tishrei, and just a few weeks later, I was in 770 for the hakafot service on the night of Shemini Atzeret, watching the Rebbe hold a Torah scroll and dance with ecstasy. Standing on one of the bleachers that had been stacked up around the cavernous synagogue, I became so emotional from the scene that a tear ran down my cheek. As I wiped it away, out of the corner of my eye, I thought I saw the Rebbe give me an encouraging wave of his hand. Of course, I couldn’t be sure it was really directed towards me since there were hundreds of other chasidim all around me.

Before traveling home, I returned to the Rebbe for a second audience. “On Shemini Atzeret,” he commented, “I noticed that the look on your face was not as it should be.” I explained that the tears he had seen were tears of joy. This seemed to put him at ease. He gave me a Tanya, and told me to learn by heart the chapters of the book that speak about happiness. And then he showered me with blessings that helped me continue to be active for many years thereafter.

Rabbi Chaim Menachem Teichtel was an educator who also authored several books for children on Torah topics. He was interviewed in his home in Jerusalem in February of 2007.