Rabbi Naftali Hertz Frankel passed away this past Shabbos at the age of 88. In addition to serving as principal of Bais Rochel of Satmar for many years, he was an outstanding askan who achieved many things for the Jewish community.
In his Ami series “The Principal” (which ran from Issue 1, December 1, 2010, through Issue 76, June 27, 2012), Rabbi Frankel recounted his time in these roles and the many interactions he had with gedolei Yisrael, most notably the Satmar Rebbe. The popular column was later published as a book by Menucha Publishers.
As we mourn his passing, we’re sharing, with the encouragement of his family, Rabbi Frankel’s never-before-published memoirs, describing his youth, his family’s escape from the Nazis, their time in Siberia, and their eventual immigration to America and his eventual connection to Satmar.
In addition, we’re including Rabbi Frankel’s own words, in an excerpt from “The Principal” that describes what Rabbi Frankel called the “crowning achievement” of his life, a secret summit between the Satmar Rebbe and four of the major Litvish roshei yeshivah of the time: Rav Moshe Feinstein, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky, Rav Yitzchok Hutner and Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman.
Rabbi Hertz Frankel’s serial in Ami Magazine, “The Principal,” which recounted in riveting detail his interactions with the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Yoel Teitelbaum, zt”l, and was subsequently published in book form, was undoubtedly one of our most popular columns ever. That an outsider—an Agudist (and for many years a beardless one)—became a member of the Satmar Rebbe’s inner circle was fascinating in and of itself. Whether promoting chinuch or fighting an evil decree, Rabbi Frankel was trusted by the Satmar Rebbe as few others were.
In the course of meeting with Rabbi Frankel on an almost weekly basis as he was composing his column and sharing his recollections, I increasingly appreciated what the Satmar Rebbe saw in him: his moral compass, which was always firm and unyielding. This ethical clarity, to advance what is right and defeat what is wrong, is a quality that any great Jewish leader would demand of one in whom he put his faith, and as Rabbi Frankel’s recollections confirmed, the Satmar Rebbe was one of the greatest and most influential Jewish leaders in many a generation.
Rabbi Frankel’s reminiscences were not merely mesmerizing, but each one had the stamp of authenticity. In faithfully conveying what he heard and witnessed, especially how the Satmar Rebbe guided and shaped Jewish life after the European churban with his singular wit and wisdom, Rabbi Frankel become one of the most important chroniclers of that venerable gadol’s life—something that the Satmar Rebbe, Rav Aharon Teitelbaum, in fact once confirmed in public.
That is no minor accomplishment, even when compared to Rabbi Frankel’s other phenomenal achievements—including, first and foremost, playing a role in the education of thousands of Jewish women in the Satmar community, something in which he took great pride. To be sure, Rabbi Frankel dedicated most of his adult years to the Jewish community, not only in the field of education and pioneering services to children with disabilities, but saving Jewish cemeteries from desecration. Still, the power of good storytelling is irreplaceable, especially about tzaddikei emes.
He will be sorely missed.
From the Shtetl of Lizhensk to the Metropolis of New York
The Unforgettable memories of Rabbi Hertz Frankel
I was once a young man, and young people are so busy with life that often, to their detriment, they don’t pay attention to the details of their family history, or recognize the pivotal role that their past plays in the building of their future. Nevertheless, there are several important memories from my youth that left an indelible impression on me that I would like to transmit.
Life in Lizhensk
Of course, my childhood memories begin with my outstanding parents. My father, Rav Menashe Frankel, spent his life in rabbanus. He was born in 1903 in Yadlova, a tiny town in Galicia located between the larger cities of Dembitz and Tarnow, where his father, Rav Shlomo Zalman Frankel, served as the rav.
As a bachur, my father spent six years learning in the Reishe Kloiz. In addition to his great hasmadah, another aspect of his personality that became known during those years was his deep devotion to chesed and the tremendous compassion he had for the downtrodden and destitute. In Reisha, he organized a group of bachurim to go around collecting money every Thursday for those in the community who couldn’t afford food for Shabbos. Then on Friday, he would organize visits to the local hospital and to the sick who were bedridden at home.
By the time he returned to his father’s house, he had gained renown as someone who was destined for greatness in both Torah and chesed. During those years, his father had left Yadlova and settled in nearby Dembitz, where he opened a Viyelepoler beis midrash for the many chasidim of Viyelepol who lived in the town.
Given my father’s illustrious yichus and outstanding reputation, when he was in his early 20s he married my mother, Rebbetzin Miriam, the only daughter of Rav Yechezkel Halevi Landau, the well-respected rav of Lizhensk and its environs. After his chasunah, my father moved to Lizhensk, where he ate kest [was supported in learning] at the table of his father-in-law for many years. He became extremely close with his shver, spending most of the day either learning with him or participating in dinei Torah and acquiring practical shimush in rabbanus. His father-in-law also gave him a very enthusiastic semichah, and he had him obtain semichah from some of the most prominent rabbanim in Galicia.
During those years, my father became a baal horaah muvhak. Any time an interesting shailah or din Torah came to my zeide’s attention, he called my father to come over, discuss it and voice his opinion. His relationship with his father-in-law was such that his father-in-law loved him like his own child.
My zaide also had a daily morning seder with my father that began at 5:00 a.m. They would discuss all aspects of the rabbinate as well as the administration of the city, the cheder and the other public institutions. In this way, my father became involved in all facets of the rabbanus while his father-in-law was still alive. As the years progressed, my zeide put my father in charge of most of the city’s institutions, as well as dealing with issues of shalom bayis. Eventually, my father was appointed as an official dayan of the community.
As a child, I recall spending a lot of time in my zeide’s house, which made a profound impression on me. My grandfather—who traced his rabbinical lineage back to the famed Noda BiYehudah, Rav Yechezkel Halevi Landau—was rav in Lizhensk for 29 years. That says a lot about how beloved and indispensable he was to his kehilllah. As a youngster, I would often go to his shtiebel to watch him conduct dinei Torah. My father was always by his side and served as one of the dayanim. I also remember the beis din taking care of the mechiras chametz, which served as one of the ways for the rav and dayanim to have parnasah.
My grandfather also knew how to keep the peace. Although there were certainly Yidden in town who didn’t keep Shabbos, in public all Yidden were shomer Shabbos and all businesses were closed. Nevertheless, there was one particular incident involving chillul Shabbos that I recall from when I was around five years old. There was a brewery in town owned by a shomer Shabbos family that was affiliated with the Mizrachi movement. Before the non-Jewish holidays there was a great demand for beer, and the Lizhensker beer was known for its superior quality. There were rumors in town that during the busy season, the brewery was producing beer on Shabbos.
When these rumors reached my zeide, he conducted an investigation and found out that, indeed, a non-Jewish employee was working on behalf of the Jews on Shabbos. The next Shabbos in shul, my grandfather went over to the bimah before leining and gave it a big klop. “We will not begin leining until we all go down to the brewery to see what’s happening there,” he announced. I remember how the entire shul, everyone still wrapped in his tallis, started walking down the street towards the brewery. Meanwhile, the owner zipped through the side streets, taking an alternate route to the brewery to make sure it was shut down before the rav and kehillah showed up. No one ever tried to open his business on Shabbos again.
Another vivid memory I have of that time is when the Belzer Rebbetzin came to Lizhensk. We are Belzer einiklach, so she stayed in our house. I remember she gathered a group of around ten or 15 women in my zeide’s kitchen, and then she sat at the head of the table and delivered words of chizzuk to them. My zeide and a few of the distinguished balebatim were sitting in the dining room listening intently to her words. As for us children, we were very happy when the Rebbetzin gave us a zloty to buy candies. She gave a zloty to any Belzer einikel.
Sadly, my zeide didn’t merit arichus yomim. In the summer of 1938, when he was only 61 years old, he was called to be a borer in a major din Torah held in the city of Lemberg [Lvov]. It was a difficult, complex case, and he passed away suddenly right after returning home.
After my grandfather’s sudden petirah, it was no chiddush that my father was appointed by the kehillah as his successor. That is how my father came to occupy one of the most distinguished rabbinical posts in all of Galicia at the relatively young age of 35—a post that had been occupied by gedolei harabbanim for generations.
My father conducted the rabbanus with great wisdom combined with uncompromising integrity when it came to halachah and hashkafah. Although Lizhensk wasn’t a very large city—there were some 500 to 600 residents, aside from the many villages that dotted its environs that were also subject to the jurisdiction of the rav of Lizhensk—the population was by no means uniform in its observance. The spirit of the Haskalah and other questionable movements had unfortunately infiltrated Lizhensk as well, and my father had to somehow bridge the gap. There were Zionists and secularists, chasidim and misnagdim, Mizrachi and Agudah, as well as a number of education networks representing the various factions.
In a way, the cheder that I attended was characteristic of the changing times. The kehillah had set aside a special building for the cheder, and there were melamdim for the various grades, but even in the holy city of Lizhensk foreign ideologies had crept in. A symbol of those tragic times was my melamed for alef-beis. A Yid with a small white beard, he was a dyed-in-the-wool Communist. I remember him preaching about how the gevirim were exploiting the simple people, and that it was time for a revolution of the proletariat against the wealthy. He had been a melamed for so many years that no one could get rid of him.
Sadly, my father’s leadership of Lizhensk didn’t last long. Soon after he assumed the rabbanus, the winds of war began to blow, culminating in Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
A week before the war broke out, my father learned that when the Nazis entered a town, the first thing they would do was target the rabbanim for ridicule, beating and sometimes killing them in order to inflict maximum terror on the Jewish populace. Therefore, as soon as the Nazis started to bomb Lizhensk, my father fled to the nearby larger town of Bilgoray. While he was there, the Nazis invaded Lizhensk and took control of the city. This was just before Rosh Hashanah, in mid-September of 1939. My father remained in Bilgoray for Selichos and also stayed for Rosh Hashanah.