Gerrer Chassidim consider the burial place of Rebbe Avraham Mordechai Alter and his son, Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter, a holy site in Jerusalem. (photo by Gil Zohar)
Among the many events this spring marking 70 years of Israel’s independence is the yahrzeit of Rebbe Avraham Mordechai Alter, known as the Imrei Emes, who served as the fourth admor (rabbinic sage) of the Gerrer Chassidim from 1905 until his death in Jerusalem on June 3, 1948, during Shavuot.
Since the capital of the nascent Jewish state was under siege during the War of Independence, the rebbe’s disciples were unable to bury their sage in Mount of Olives Cemetery, where the pious have been laid to rest since biblical times. Unwilling to bury their master in the city’s improvised graveyard in the abandoned Palestinian village of Sheikh Bader (today Givat Ram), they instead turned his shtibl (small house of prayer) on Yehosef Shwartz Street near the Machane Yehuda food market into a mausoleum.
The Sfas Emes Yeshiva, which Alter founded in 1925 during a visit to Palestine, and where he lived from 1940 – after escaping Nazi-occupied Poland when his followers paid an enormous bribe to gain his release – has today evolved into one of the most unusual shrines in Jerusalem. His son, Rabbi Pinchas Menachem Alter, the seventh Gerrer Rebbe, also resided in the yeshivah complex and was buried alongside his father in 1996. On the yahrzeits of the two rebbes, thousands of Gerrer Chassidim – who distinguish themselves from other Chassidic groups by placing their peyot (sidelocks) into their skullcaps and tucking their pants into their socks, called hoyzn-zokn – flock to the pilgrimage site.
The decision to entomb Pinchas Alter, known as the Pnei Menachem, beside his father sparked opposition from the Jerusalem municipality, but the funeral went ahead. A red-brick ohel (tent) was erected over their twin graves, turning the courtyard into a holy site for the Gerrer Chassidim, who constitute the largest such ultra-Orthodox group in the country, numbering more than 100,000 members, who are concentrated in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Ashdod.
The ohel includes separate men’s and women’s sections. A garden lies to the side of the ohel, and the façade of the adjoining building recalls the original Ger yeshivah in Góra Kalwaria, Poland – a small town on the Vistula River, 25 kilometres southeast of Warsaw. A partially open roof above the ohel permits ritual impurity from the dead to exit so that kohanim (Jews of the priestly caste) may visit the gravesite.
Toronto businessman and philanthropist Daniel Goldberg wants to build on the fame of Jerusalem’s Gerrer shrine to secure and restore the sect’s historic home in Góra Kalwaria. The name means Mount Calvary or Skull Hill in Polish, explained Goldberg, whose mother’s family came from the area. But the town, called Ger or Gur in Yiddish, was also called Nowa Jerozolima (New Jerusalem), reflecting its holiness for both Jews and Christians.
Goldberg, who together with other Canadian donors has supported the preservation of several historic synagogues in Hungary, views the restoration of Jewish landmarks in Góra Kalwaria as critical to combating antisemitism and acknowledging Poland’s complex role in the Holocaust.
“I am visiting Poland after Pesach and will be meeting with various people from our Jewish community there,” he said. “I have been in contact with the different leaderships, including in Gur. So many communities were wiped out during the war. It is vital that we support our history in such places.”
In 1802, Góra Kalwaria’s “de non tolerandis Judaeis” law prohibiting Jewish settlement was annulled, and Jews became the predominant ethnic group in the town, Goldberg noted. Between 1852 and 1939, the Jewish population tripled, from 1,161 (half of the town’s population) to around 3,600, as Góra Kalwaria became an important Chassidic centre.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939, they immediately targeted Góra Kalwaria’s Jews. The town’s ethnic German mayor Ewald Jauke banned Jewish residents from engaging in trade, crafts and pigeon breeding. Jews were also forbidden from listening to radio broadcasts. A group of 100 Jews was conscripted daily in front of the town hall for forced labour.
In the spring of 1940, some 400 Jews from Lodz, Pabianice, Aleksandrow, Sierpc, Wloclawek and Kalisz were deported to Góra Kalwaria. That June, a ghetto was established with 3,500 residents. The ghetto was liquidated Feb. 25-26, 1941. About 3,000 Jews were deported to the Warsaw Ghetto, and ultimately murdered in the summer of 1942 in the Treblinka death camp. Only 35 of Góra Kalwaria’s residents survived the war. The Jewish community was never reconstituted after liberation.
For Goldberg, the coming 70th yahrzeit of the Imrei Emes and the controversial amendment to Poland’s 1998 Act on the Institute of National Remembrance by the country’s ruling Law and Justice party, criminalizing the words “Polish Holocaust,” offer an opportunity to celebrate Jews’ deep roots in the country.
Goldberg wants to preserve the physical remains of Góra Kalwaria’s Jewish community. These include the 1903 synagogue building at ulica Pijarskiejj, now used as a shop. Across the street is a metal gate at the yard that marks the home and house of prayer of Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Alter (1798-1866), the founder of the Gerrer dynasty, known as the Chiddushei HaRim, after his primary rabbinic tome by that title. Above the entrance, one can still see the Magen David rosette window depicted in the Gerrer Jerusalem mausoleum.
“I am continuing my efforts [in Góra Kalwaria and elsewhere] despite the discomfort it always causes politically with the local municipalities. No town or city likes to admit to antisemitism,” said Goldberg.
Gil Zohar is a journalist based in Jerusalem.