She survived the Holocaust to become the matriarch of a Chassidic dynasty
By: Mendel Super
The revered Rebbetzin Chaya Nechama Halberstam, a Nazi death-camp survivor and wife of 47 years of the Sanz-Klausenburger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Yehudah Halberstam, passed away on April 4 after being in ill health in recent years. She was 96 years old.
A refined woman of dignity and grace, she arrived in the United States after World War II, her parents and seven of her siblings having been murdered in Europe.
It was her brother-in-law, Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl, himself a Holocaust survivor and underground Jewish leader in occupied Slovakia, who suggested a match for the 24-year-old with a fellow survivor: the 42-year-old Sanz-Klausenburger Rebbe. Rabbi Halberstam, who prior to the war had been one of the youngest Chassidic rebbes in Europe, had lost his wife and 11 children to the Nazis—the eldest dying shortly after liberation—himself surviving Auschwitz, Dachau and a death march. The young woman was initially hesitant; he was nearly 20 years her senior. Rabbi Halberstam allayed her concerns, promising that they would live to marry off all their children together.
Indeed, his words came to pass.
Rebbetzin Chaya Nechama Halberstam was born in 1923 to Rabbi Shmuel Dovid and Miriam Leah Ungar, in the city of Trnava (Tarnow), Slovakia, in 1923.
Rebbetzin Halberstam’s father, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid, was a revered Hungarian rabbi and teacher who accepted the rabbinic leadership of the small Slovakian city of Nitra in 1931, where he expanded its small yeshivah, making it famous throughout Europe, and became known as the Nitra Rav.
Prior to accepting the position, a student of his tried to dissuade him from moving to what was a relatively small Jewish community. In a sadly prophetic vision, Rabbi Shmuel Dovid responded to the young man, Rabbi Weissmandl, who would later become his son-in-law, “My heart tells me that there will come a time when the only remaining yeshivah on the continent will be in Nitra. That is where I wish to be … .”
Indeed, even as World War II began and conditions for the Jews of Slovakia worsened, Rebbetzin Halberstam’s father insisted on keeping his yeshivah’s doors open.
In 1942, Slovakia’s Nazi puppet dictator, the Catholic priest Jozef Tiso, began deporting the country’s Jews to Auschwitz. By the first Shabbat after Passover of 1942, the Jews of Nitra were beginning to be deported.
Rabbi Ungar, working closely with his son-in-law and student Rabbi Weissmandl and in conjunction with other underground Jewish activists, attempted to save Slovakian Jewry. With the aid of a hefty bribe paid to Nazi and Slovak officials, they managed to stave off some deportations until 1944. They also obtained permission from the Slovak government to keep their yeshivah open during those two years; the last surviving one in Slovakia. They constructed hiding places under the bimah (the Torah-reading lectern)and above the bookcases in the study hall in the event of Nazi raids. Often, the warning would come so suddenly that the students and faculty would bolt, leaving their Talmuds still open on the tables. Through this all, Halberstam’s father continued to teach.
After crushing a Slovak partisan revolt in 1944, the Germans occupied the country, ramping up the deportations to Auschwitz. The Nitra yeshivah was liquidated by the Nazis on Sept. 5, 1944. By October, every remaining Jew in Nitra had been deported.
Halberstam’s father, and her brother, Sholom Moshe, had been out of town when the Nazis liquidated the yeshivah. They fled to the forests, spending the winter hiding in mountain caves, subsisting on meager rations. During this time, Rabbi Ungar made sure to observe every iota of Jewish law, not even eating bread if he couldn’t find water to ritually wash his hands. When Rosh Hashanah approached, his primary concern was how they would hear the shofar. His student Meir Eisler, who also accompanied him in hiding, recalled that when kindly gentile farmers would offer them fruit and vegetables, Rabbi Ungar would never accept the life-sustaining offer without first paying them.
Just a month before liberation, on Feb. 9, 1945, Rabbi Ungar succumbed to starvation. In his last moments, he instructed his son on where and how to bury him, and recited his final prayers.
Young Chaya Nechama was deported to the Sereď concentration camp after the Nazis uncovered their bunker and from there to Auschwitz.
“When we got there, I was separated from my younger sister, Hilde Channale, who was sent to the gas chambers,” she recalled in an interview with Ami Magazine. “Four weeks later, there was a selection and I was among a group of women who were dispatched as slave labor to a munitions factory in Bad Kudova, on the Czechoslovakia-Poland border. The women in Bad Kudova were interned at the Gross-Rosen concentration camp. At first we had a foreman who was terribly cruel, but he was later replaced by a woman supervisor who was tolerable.
“One of the girls had a siddur and we took turns using it. But there wasn’t very much time for that. If we weren’t working there were lineups and roll calls, or else we were sleeping from exhaustion.”
They were a diverse group of 23 girls at the camp, many of whom didn’t come from religious families, and Chaya Nechama tried to set an example. She would express certainty that they would be liberated, and go on to marry and establish families, something that was a faraway dream in those bleak times. Her optimism was contagious and helped many of the girls pull through. One young woman, at Chaya Nechama’s urging, would pluck a few strands from her clothing and save a smidgen of margarine each day so she would have an improvised Shabbat candle.