Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno was born on 19 Iyar 5649 in Grodzhisk Mazowiecki, Poland to his father, the Imrei Elimelech of Grodzhisk. Named after his maternal great-grandfather, the renowned Ma’or VaShemesh, he was a scion of a distinguished family, which included Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk, the Chozeh of Lublin, and the Maggid of Kozhnitz.
When he was three years old, his father passed away. In 1905 he married Rachel Chaya Miriam, daughter of his nephew Grand Rabbi Yerachmiel Moshe of Kozhnitz. She helped him prepare his lectures and books, even adding pertinent insights of her own. The couple had two children: a son, Elimelech Ben Zion, and a daughter, Rechil Yehudis. They all perished in the Holocaust. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman was famous for his books, “Chovat HaTalmidim” and “Eish Kodesh,” and for his illuminating personality and educational acumen. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman was murdered in the Holocaust on the 4th of Cheshvan 5703 (1943).
When he was young, Rabbi Yisrael Kihan used to go to Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman for Shabbat. Seventy years later, he would still reminisce about the prayers and chasidic melodies in Rabbi Kalonymus’ court and the Rebbe’s loving, illuminated countenance. As a true chasid, Rabbi Yisrael absorbed the image of his rebbe in his soul, and it became his internal motor throughout his life. “The image of Rebbe Kalonymus was before my eyes throughout the war. Without him, I would not have survived,” he said. The following are two stories told by Rabbi Yisrael about his beloved Rebbe.
Immersion in Fire
The festival of Shavu’ot in the Warsaw Ghetto. Jews, broken and dispirited are hiding in the cellars and under the ruins of houses. The word goes out that in a particular cellar, the Rebbe is holding a farbrengen. The Jews gather, and after a few melodies, the Rebbe speaks with great emotion about the giving of the Torah that is renewed every year—including this year—as if the world outside has not been destroyed. The Rebbe is focused on preparing himself for the new revelation of the Torah.
Before sunrise, the Rebbe begins speaking about immersion in a mikveh on Shavu’ot, in preparation for the new Torah. To the surprise and consternation of the chassidim, the Rebbe turns to leave the cellar and to go immerse in the mikveh. The mikveh is locked and is quite a distance away. To get there, it is necessary to walk through the streets, and that is completely life-threatening. The Nazis forbade walking with another person during the day. At night, it was completely forbidden.
The chassidim begged the Rebbe not to go, but the Rebbe was adamant. He was determined to immerse in the mikveh. It was impossible to dissuade him. The Rebbe, burning with the fervor of the mitzvah, stepped fearlessly outside. The chassidim saw his great trust in God and his burning faith and joined their Rebbe.
They walked quickly, in silence, and reached the mikveh. The Rebbe opened the door, entered quickly, immersed, and ascended back to the entrance. Another chassid managed to immerse in the water when suddenly the group heard a motorcycle approaching. Clearly, death was at their door. It would be only a few seconds before they would receive the Torah…in Heaven. The Rebbe managed to exit and lock the door. A German officer got off his motorcycle and shouting, pointed his gun at the group. Everyone stood close to the Rebbe. The officer understood who was the leader of the group and ran toward the group with his gun pointed at the Rebbe. But the closer he got, the more he lost his confidence. Finally, he lowered his gun and shouted, “What are the Jews doing here in the middle of the night?” The group scattered quickly.
Where is the Rebbe?
The Germans used the Jews as slaves in their factories, until their strength would be spent. Then they would transfer them to death camps. Rebbe Kalonymus was taken from the ghetto to a shoe factory serving the German army. The Rebbe’s light even penetrated the hearts of the non-Jews and the factory supervisor understood that there was a “good Jew” among his slaves. He decided to protect him and his group. Every few days the Nazis would come to take a group to its death. The supervisor, however, would protect the Rebbe and his group, saying that they were good workers. For a few months, the group worked and would also serve God, led by Rebbe Kalonymus.
One day, the supervisor was not at work. The Germans came and took the Rebbe and his group to a death camp near Lublin. The next day, the supervisor came to check up on the “good Jew” and discovered that the Rebbe and his group had been taken away. He decided to endanger himself to try to save the Rebbe. As a worker in the service of the Reich, he was able to use his travel permit to reach the death camp. He found Jews, who were already without clothing, on their way to their death. He identified “his” group, but did not see the Rebbe among them. “Where is the good Jew?” he asked them. The chassidim were stricken with fear to see that the Rebbe was not with them. “He was just here,” they said in amazement. At that moment, the order came and the group advanced to its death, without the Rebbe…
When Rabbi Yisrael finished telling this story, he said, “Every person can think what he wants.”
“What do you think?” asked one of his listeners.
Rabbi Yisrael had a hard time answering and then his eyes filled with tears. In a trembling voice, he said, “Those who knew the Rebbe know that the wicked ones could not harm his holy body. He surely ascended to Heaven in a storm…”