The story of Rabbi Mordechai Meir Bryski is one of miraculous survival and triumph. At the age of 16, while studying in a Yeshiva in Otwock, Mordechai heard of the German invasion of Poland. Wanting to be with his family during these troubled times he waited on line for days at the Warsaw train station only to have the ticket window shut before his eyes. This would be the first of many miraculous events that allowed Mordechai to be the lone survivor of his family and devote his life to the rebuilding of his family and the Jewish world.
With over 100 descendants, Rabbi Bryski’s story of survival and triumph continues to illuminate the hearts and souls of many until the coming of Moshiach – may it be speedily in our days.
Communities throughout the World Remember Beloved Chosid, “Shanghai Alumnus” and Family Patriarch
Rabbi Mordechai Meir Hakohen Bryski, z”l
“If I had to encapsulate the life of my father in one sentence, it would probably be that he exemplified the traits of his forebear, Aaron HaKohen, as a man who loved and pursued peace. Indeed, he synthesized the ideals of Tov LaMakom – endearing to G-d’ and ‘Tov Labriyos – endearing to man’ in almost prototypical fashion.”
So stated one of the nine surviving children of the venerated Chabad Chosid, educator and community activist Rabbi Mordechai Meir HaKohen Bryski, who passed away at the age of 88 on Sunday evening, Yud-Daled Teves, January 8, 2012, after a brief illness punctuated by astounding displays of will and determination.
The news of Rabbi Bryski’s passing reverberated in Jewish communities throughout the world where hundreds of Rabbi Bryski’s former students from his 20-plus-year tenure as a Rebbe in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva now reside. It profoundly impacted the community of Crown Heights where Rabbi Bryski lived for the past forty-three years and was commissioned by the Lubavitcher Rebbe to help revive and strengthen the neighborhood; the community of Boro Park where he lived for some two decades prior to his relocation to Crown Heights; and communities in California, where his children and grandchildren serve as Chabad Shluchim and where he was highly regarded for his erudition and piety, as recognized during his many visits to the west coast.
Mordechai Meir (affectionately known as “Mottel”) Bryski was born in the shtetl of Chmielnik, Poland, in 1923, as one of six children born to Reb Chaim Elazar Hakohen, a widely respected “Chassidishe Yid” with ties to the Trisker and Aleksander dynasties, and Rochel Tzilka, daughter of the famed Rosh Yeshiva, Horav Yechiel Aaron Weinreb, also known as the Dalashitzer Rov.
When Mottel was a young child, his uncle Reb Kalman, a celebrated Talmudic scholar who had developed ties with the Chassidus of Chabad, and another Chabad Chosid, Reb Yosef Goldstein, were delegated by the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson z”l, to establish a Chabad Cheder in Chmielnik called Toras Emes. It was at that Cheder that Mottel learned until his early teens.
When the time came for Mottel to move on to more advanced studies, various Yeshivas were given consideration until the final vote was rendered by his maternal grandmother, Rebbetzin Chave Sarah, who declared that he should follow in the path forged by his uncle Kalman by attending Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch in Otwock, Poland. The point was also made that Mottel should opt for Lubavitch because it was known as a place where studies were pursued “b‘simcha”, in a spirit of joy.)
Although young Mordechai would travel home periodically for the Yomim Tovim, the Yeshiva in Otwock became his new home, and the Chassidus of Chabad and his allegiance to its Rebbe his driving passion. Indeed, the teachings, stories and personalities that emerged during the Otwock years would go on to become the stuff of legend; woven into the fabric of Chabad-Lubavitch lore.
In September of 1939, German tanks rolled into Poland, swiftly crushing the ill-prepared Polish army and sending the country into chaos. The yeshiva disbanded as students fled Otwock for safer places. Although Mottel’s initial plan was to head back home to Chmielnik to be with his family, this was thwarted when, after waiting on line for days at the Warsaw train station, the ticket window was abruptly closed and all trains headed in that direction ceased running – a fortuitous twist of fate, as he would later learn that the Polish trains had been bombed by the Luftwaffe, the German air force.
All alone with nothing but a few zlotys, a pair of Tefilin and a small bag with meager possessions in hand, 16 year old Mordechai tearfully wandered about until a stranger approached him and instructed him that, come what may, he must make his way to Bialystok. Mordechai would later become convinced that this “stranger” was a malach, an angel, inexplicably sent from heaven to save his life.
Notwithstanding the terror and chaos erupting all around him as thousands were fleeing in different directions, Mordechai was consumed by this singular focus – to get to Bialystok. Another guiding inclination was to always move away from the Germans and toward the Russians. Even as bombs were being dropped along his escape route, prompting others to reverse course and flee back the way they came, Mottel vigilantly – perhaps counter-intuitively – stayed his course and kept Bialystok as his targeted destination. Tragically, almost all those who did turn back did not survive.
Once in Bialystok, Mordechai hooked up with a local Yeshiva where he spent his days immersed in Torah study, even under those very physically and emotionally trying circumstances. In the months to follow, he would make his way from one Yeshiva to the next, including a very memorable extended stay at the Yeshiva of Horav Elchonon Wasserman, z”l, in Baranovich. Eventually, Mottel arrived in Vilna, then under control of Lithuania, where thousands of Yeshiva bochurim had found their way, including many of his fellow alumni from Otwock with whom he was reunited in the Vilna branch of Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch.
While in Vilna, the young Yeshiva boys were shocked and anguished by the often conflicting and terrifying reports they were hearing of what was happening to Polish Jewry back home. On rare occasion, they would receive messages of guidance and inspiration from the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, which served as salve for their broken hearts. When no such contact or guidance was available to them, the young Lubavitchers would often seek out the counsel of the saintly Amshinover Rebbe, who lived in Vilna at the time and who had always enjoyed a very close, mutually-respectful relationship with the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
As the dark clouds of Nazi barbarism and extermination continued to spread over Europe, it became clear to most that Lithuania was not likely to remain a safe haven much longer. While escaping into Russia was not all too appealing an option either as it was likely to result in incarceration in Siberia, the students learned that if they could secure a sponsoring country willing to issue them special visas, this would enable them to use Russia as a transit stop while en route to that country. But what country or consulate would issue such visas? It was then that another rescuing angel emerged to save Mordechai Meir’s life, along with thousands of others.
Chiune Sugihara, the Vice-Consul for the Japanese Empire in Lithuania, a Righteous Gentile of the highest order, agreed to issue legal visas to the endangered Jewish refugees and residents of Lithuania, granting them passage to Japan on condition that they choose a different ultimate destination point. While many were reluctant to take these visas and utilize this convoluted escape route, the more than 6,000 Jews who did take them – including students of the Chachmei Lublin, Mirrer and Lubavitcher Yeshivas – were spared the tragic fate of those who stayed behind, hy”d. Among the documents issued by the Japanese Consul was “Visa #1778” granted to one “Mordka Brzyski”.
The details of Mordechai’s and his fellow refugees’ subsequent travels and travails could easily fill several volumes in and of themselves, and indeed, many books and films documenting the journeys of the so-called “Sugihara Survivors” have been published and produced over the years. After an exhausting series of trips across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway – including encounters marked by grueling searches and interrogations – Mordechai and his schoolmates eventually made it to the port of Vladivostok where they boarded a ship headed for Kobe, Japan. The stay-over in Kobe, Japan – though short in duration – turned out to be a memorable and eventful one for young Mottel.
While in Kobe, he managed to obtain some American dollars through the “Joint”. Knowing that his parents back home were still alive at the time, he would purchase boxes of tea to ship to his parents and hide the cash in a special tube included in the tea-box to ensure it got past the censors. He then wrote a cover note making abstruse reference to a section of the Talmud that discusses an instance of money concealed in a tube, knowing that his father would grasp the meaning of his little code. In subsequent correspondence he received back from his father, he learned that the message and support had indeed been received and had served to ward off terrible pangs of hunger and deprivation for his family back home.
In the months to follow, Mordechai would continue sending such letters and packages until the dreaded day he learned that the pipeline had been shut down completely. No more mail – received or sent. The city of Chmielnik had been made Judenrein, hy”d.
During one of his roaming walks in the city of Kobe, young Mordechai was stopped by an officer and arrested on suspicion of espionage. It took hours of interrogation and translation to convince the authorities that the innocent Polish lad in front of them represented no threat whatsoever to the empire.
When their stay in Japan ran out its welcome, Mordechai and the other 38 members of his group of Chabad students made their way to Shanghai, China, where thousands of Jews had taken up refuge and did what they could to establish Jewish community life in that far-flung corner of the earth. While nine of the original 39 Chabad students would soon obtain passage to Canada, and one student would eventually pass away from malnutrition, the remaining 29 students would remain in Shanghai for some five long years – until the end of the war.
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the Japanese marched into Shanghai and took control of the city, stripping it of its international status and making it, in effect, a Japanese city. One of the first initiatives to result from this change (most likely as a result of Japan’s alliance with Germany) was to turn the Jewish neighborhood into a confining ghetto. This made already excruciating conditions that much more agonizing and uncomfortable.
What happened with these young men during those five years – spiritually perhaps more so than physically – would go on to impact their lives in a deeply profound and everlasting way. They would be known ever thereafter as the “Shanchainiks”.
Unlike, for example, the Mir Yeshiva that had strong numbers and a full hierarchy of Yeshiva leadership in Shanghai, the young Lubavitchers were essentially on their own – at least physically so. Still, these young men banded together and formed a vibrant branch of Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch.
The memories of those five awesome years – as recounted by Rabbi Mordechai Bryski and the other members of the group – are replete with intense studies of nigleh, the revealed teachings of Torah, and Chassidus, the esoteric teachings of Torah. They are highlighted by a sense of longing to be reunited with their families and their beloved Rebbe, as expressed at Farbrengens (intimate Chassidic gatherings) and in an entire collection of uplifting and heartwarming songs composed by members of the group – most notably, Reb Yisroel Dovid Rosenberg – which were repeatedly sung by the group as anthems of hope and yearning.
Many of the Shanchainiks would forever cherish those songs – none more so than Rabbi Mordechai Meir HaKohen Bryski, who never missed an opportunity at a family simcha or other milestone gathering to stand up and share the songs of Shanghai with his family and the greater community. He would also make recordings of these powerful songs so that they may be learned by his future descendents or by anyone ready to open his soul to their profound sweetness and depth of faith.
A trait he inherited from his father Chaim Elazar, Mottel Bryski was a man who always had a song on his lips – especially during his davening and learning. With his own creative patching of various melodies to the various parts of davening, those within earshot would often find themselves deeply moved and inspired as they eavesdropped on his prayers.
The memories of the Shanghai experience for the students of Tomchei Tmimim was nothing less than a testimonial to the faith and devotion that is the hallmark of the Jewish nation. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was known to often comment on how beloved his Talmidim in Shanghai were to him and was constantly working to arrange for provisions to be sent to them and to try to secure their emigration to the United States.
In spite of the emotional stresses of the war and the not knowing the plight of their loved ones back home; in spite of the hunger, heat exhaustion and debilitating illnesses they would often suffer; the morale and faith of this saintly group remain among the proudest legacies of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of the last century. It comes as no surprise that each of the Shanghai alumni would go on to lead lives of exemplary accomplishment – be it in the arena of education, leadership or philanthropy. Rabbi Mordechai Meir HaKohen Bryski was certainly no exception.
As the war was winding down, arrangements went into full gear by the Rebbe’s office in New York to secure safe passage for the students from Shanghai. Due to health considerations, Mordechai Bryski was among the first to depart. He boarded a plane to San Francisco where he was met by members of the local Jewish community and stayed for a short period of time.
On Shabbos, he was asked to speak in the local shul. His topic of choice was the importance of the observance of Shabbos. So impressed were the listeners by his passion and conviction that one member of the audience informed him that, as a direct result of his talk, he had resolved to begin fully observing Shabbos properly from that point onward.
After a stop in Chicago, Rabbi Bryski arrived in Brooklyn New York, at the age of 23. As the only surviving member of his family, he was physically orphaned and alone, but certainly not spiritually so. He was set up with room and board near 770 Eastern Parkway and soon picked up where he left off as a student of Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch in New York.
At his first audience with the previous Rebbe in New York – an awe-inspiring encounter he had played over in his mind countless times over the years – he immediately recited the blessing “shehecheeyonu” – to which the Rebbe responded “Omain”. After years of terrible suffering and anguish that would leave lasting scars, he had at last reunited with his Rebbe, whom he regarded as a caring and loving father.
In 1946, Rabbi Mordechai Bryski was introduced to Ethel Eckhaus – daughter of the highly upstanding and G-d fearing Reb Yisroel Yosef and Baila Eckhaus o”h, operators of the Boro Park Mikvah on 52nd Street – as a partner in marriage. After spending his first year after marriage continuing to study Torah, and following the birth of their first son, Eliezer, Rabbi Bryski was dispatched by the previous Rebbe to serve as a spiritual guidance counselor at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Montreal, Canada.
In 1948, he returned to New York to serve as a melamed at the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Bedford Stuyvesant (aka “Bedford and Dean”). Switching off at various points between 5th, 6th and 7th grades over the course of a teaching career that spanned 23 years, Rabbi Bryski was deeply beloved and respected by his students. Many are those who speak to this day about the unique warmth, wisdom and sensitivity he displayed as a truly caring and devoted educator.
Throughout this period, while residing in Boro Park, Rabbi Mordechai and Ethel Bryski continued to build their family. With the birth of each new child, the destiny and purpose of his miraculous survival of the Holocaust was realized anew.
By 1969, as the Bryski Family grew to eleven children, Rabbi Bryski sought the blessings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to relocate to Crown Heights and to pursue a full time career in real estate, as his earnings as a melamed were not nearly sufficient to meet the large family’s needs. The Rebbe granted his blessings on both counts – on the condition that Rabbi Bryski would always remain involved in Jewish education in one form or another – which he did.
In his career as a real estate broker expediting the sale of homes in Boro Park, Rabbi Bryski developed a reputation for conducting transactions with the utmost of patience, honesty and integrity. As he continued to hone his skills, he was offered a position by the Board of Education for the City of New York to negotiate leases on its school buildings. In order to support his family, he worked at the Board of Education during the day and at the Boro Park real estate office at night. His very presence in the city offices served as a Kiddush Hashem. In 1987, Rabbi Bryski was formally recognized and commended by the city of New York for his exemplary dedication and conscientiousness as an outstanding civil servant.
In the 1970s, as more and more Jewish families began leaving Crown Heights in large numbers in favor of safer, more homogenous, neighborhoods, the Lubavitcher Rebbe launched a campaign encouraging families to stay – and moreover, to recruit families living outside of Crown Heights to move into the neighborhood. Central to this campaign was his call for programs to make home ownership in Crown Heights as accessible as possible to Jewish families.
With his reputation in this arena well established, Rabbi Bryski was asked to play an integral role in this effort. With an uncanny ability to seek out gentile homeowners willing to sell and to negotiate favorable prices for Jewish buyers, Rabbi Bryski facilitated scores upon scores of home sales to new Jewish owners.
Those familiar with the inner workings of those days can well appreciate how Rabbi Bryski’s actions in response to the Rebbe’s mandate during that critical transitional period was absolutely instrumental to saving the social fabric of Crown Heights, ultimately leading to its reemergence as a flourishing and highly desirable Jewish neighborhood. Those who acquired homes through his efforts would go on to see their investments multiply in value literally twenty to thirty times over!
For all of these achievements, however, Rabbi Bryski’s truest legacy of all is that he was a truly “Ehrlicher Yid” and a “Chasiddishe Yid” – a sweet, down-to-earth, practical and approachable man with eyes of wisdom, a smile of warmth and a heart of gold. Despite living a life of great hardship, he never faltered in his love for G-d and his acceptance with equanimity of His grand designs, nor in his love and respect for his fellow man.
Right up there with those legacies is his unstinting devotion to his family. Each of his children speak glowingly of how they felt as though they were the center of his universe and that there was nothing he would not do to better their lots – be it realm of gashmius, physical needs, or ruchnius, spiritual needs.
One son recalls how when he was a young teenager struggling with his studies while staying in a Yeshiva dormitory in Boro Park, his father would come to the Yeshiva after finishing his work at the office at nine or ten o’clock in the evening to tutor him in Chumash or Gemoroh. He gave and he sacrificed everything of himself for his family.
In the latter years of his life – and perhaps even more so in the final days of his life – the true piousness of Rabbi Mordechai Meir HaKohen Bryski became all the more readily apparent to those around him. Even as his health was failing him, and his feet could barely carry him, he doggedly continued to make his way to shul every morning – singing his nigunim and opening his heart to the Almighty. The “eavesdroppers” continued to derive spiritual bliss from his continued attendance at the Agudah Shul on Crown Street. He continued to go to the office to remain active and productive, continued to do the shopping for his wife and continued to be a source of encouragement and inspiration to others.
In his final weeks, as his condition forced him to finally surrender his car and remain at home, he took the time to meet with each of his children and grandchildren and to convey his wishes and blessings to them.
On Shabbos Parshas Vayigash, Reb Mordechai was informed that his newest great grandson had been born. The baby’s father, grandson Yossi Bryski, expressed to his Zaidy that he would like him to be the sandek at his son’s Bris taking place the following Shabbos. Though very weak and barely able to speak, Reb Mordechai insisted that he would be there. Each day of the following week – Parshas Vayechi – saw a rapid deterioration in his medical condition. His children from California flew in to be at his side.
Toward the end of the week he lost his power of speech completely, but would motion for negel vasser to be brought to his bed, for his Tallis and Tefellin to be wrapped around him, for certain Tefilos to be recited aloud for him and for help in writing out checks to charity and to certain individuals to whom he wished to show his gratitude. He would also constantly inquire as to the day of the week and time of the day, and about the status of the upcoming Bris.
During this time, the recordings Rabbi Bryski had made of the songs composed in Shanghai, as well as other nigunim, were constantly played. He would nod his head, move his eyes and lift his hands to and fro to the motion of the songs.
When the doctor came to see Rabbi Bryski one night that week, he advised the family that it may not be possible for him to attend the Bris. The following Friday night, the family held Shabbos services at the house during which Rabbi Bryski mouthed the prayers and motioned along with the singing. Later that same night, the doctor – a Chabad Chosid and resident of Crown Heights – paid another visit. Once again, the family inquired about the Bris to be held the next day. The doctor said that if, by some miracle, he rallies and regains some strength, then, by all means, let the gentile attendant wheel him to the Bris.
That night, Reb Mordechai slept more peacefully than he had on any night in prior weeks. When he awoke in the morning, he looked well rested and was dressed in his Shabbos best in anticipation of the morning minyan being held at the house. With the minyan being made up mostly of Kohanim, he was able to receive the “Chazak” aliyah, describing how Yosef lived to hold his great grandchildren on his lap, and upon which the commentaries extrapolate the great spiritual merit of being sandek at a great-grandson’s Bris.
When asked whether he wished to be wheeled to the Bris, Reb Mordechai nodded vehemently and enthusiastically in the affirmative. A doctor on hand confirmed that he should be allowed to go.
Positioned in a wheelchair complete with oxygen and an IV hookup, Reb Mordechai was wheeled to the home where the Bris was to be held several blocks away. Along the way, his grandchildren marched alongside and sang. Upon arriving at the Bris, Rabbi Bryski looked at each guest and nodded a Good Shabbos. He held the child on his lap as sandek. After the baby was given the name Menachem Mendel, the room erupted in euphoric singing and dancing. Rabbi Mordechai vigorously nodded his head to the singing and motioned with his arms for the joy to continue with even greater intensity. Beckoning toward his children and grandchildren, he was clearly in full and lucid recognition of all that was going on around him.
Rabbi Mordechai was wheeled back home. The next morning he fell into unconsciousness and, hours later, with his wife and children at his side, the saintly soul of Reb Mordechai Meir Ben Reb Chaim Elazar HaKohen ascended on high.
Rabbi Mordechai Meir Hakohen Bryski is survived by his wife, Rebbetzin Etel Nechama, and his children: Eliezer Uri, Rabbi Sholom Dov Ber, Yitzchok, Rabbi Aaron Yaakov, Mrs. Rochel Tzilka Kohn, Rebbetzin Chave Sarah Einbinder, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, Rabbi Moshe Dovid and Rebbetzin Rivkah Leah Katz, yibadel l’chaim tovim aruchim. With more than 100 descendants, Rabbi Bryski’s miracles of survival will continue to illuminate the hearts and souls of many until the coming of Moshiach – may it be speedily in our days.
To listen to Nigunim sung by Rabbi Mordechai Bryski ob’m and/or to participate in the writing of a Sefer Torah in his memory, please visit: www.ZaidyBryski.com. The Shloshim Memorial Service will take place on Tuesday, the 14th of Shevat, February 7th, at 7:30 p.m., at the Bais Menachem Chabad House, 18181 Burbank Blvd., Tarzana California.
Audio: 30 unique Niggunim sung by Rabbi Bryski