Wife of the Klausenberg Rebbe passes away.
Chaya Nechama Ungar, the daughter of the Nitra Rav, became engaged to the Klausenberger Rebbe in the summer of 1947. Like the Rebbe, she also lost her whole family including her parents and seven of her siblings in the Holocaust. At 24 years old, (he was 42) that summer wedding marked the revival of the Sanz Hasidic movement that would spread to Israel and around the world.
Born in 1923 in the Slovakian city of Tarnow, she soon moved to the city of Nitra where her father had an opportunity to expand his yeshivah. In Nitra there was only one school with a conservative ideology for all the Jewish girls. If you were Orthodox you went if you were conservative you went. There was no secondary Jewish school in Nitra, so all the orthodox students were home schooled. When tested by government officials to ensure standards were adhered to, she being the only girl that year ended up taking the test with 25 boys which she always found amusing. In 1937, her sister married Rav Michael Dov Weissmandl, in 1937 who became known for his efforts to save the Jews of Slovakia from extermination at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust. As leader of the Bratislava Working Group, he managed to stop the transports to the death camps from 1942 to 1944 with bribes and ransom money that he raised. In 1942, Rav Weissmandl arranged that my father’s yeshivah would be ‘extra-territorial,’ just like the Vatican, which meant that the Nazis couldn’t invade it. He was the reason her father’s yeshiva became known as the “The Jewish Vatican”. By 1944, things had deteriorated, thousands of Slovakian Jews had been deported with many remaining hidden in underground bunkers under houses of non-Jewish neighbours. The Rebbetzin was found by the Nazis soon after and taken to the nearby Sered Concentration Camp, after which she was transported northward to Auschwitz. Her younger sister Hilde-Hannale was sent to the gas chambers and a few weeks later the Rebetzen was dispatched as slave labour to a munitions factory in Bad Kudova, on the border with Czechoslovakia. Numbers were not tattooed on her arm as she hadn’t been in Auschwitz very long. A daily ration would typically include one pint of mehlzupa (meal soup); three slices of bread that was sometimes stale; diluted soup made from rutabagas, beets, cabbage, kale or nettles; one pint of black ersatz “coffee”; and a spoonful of molasses. Prisoners also received a cup of Knorr soup per week. Occasionally, horsemeat sausage was added to make the meal more festive. The Rebbetzin successfully encouraged the girls to forego this addition to their diets due to the meat not being kosher. The Rebbetzin repeatedly expressed certainty that they would be liberated and go on to marry and raise families, which at the time was beyond the realm of the imagination. Her confidence was infectious and kept many girls from giving up.
Finally on May 8 the Rebbetzin was liberated. The female SS guards left the camp that night, and we were liberated by the Russians. Being fortunate enough to be near the border, she returned to Nitra. When she arrived home, she learned that only three of her ten siblings had survived along with Rav Weissmandel who had jumped from a moving cattle train. She soon moved to America and Rav Weissmandl made the connection with the Klausenberger Rebbe Rav Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam whom she remained married to for 47 years.
Only two years after the war ended, the upcoming wedding symbolized a new beginning for the or more accurately continuation of this religious community. Even after moving to America, the Rebbe had maintained his connection with the Jewish survivors in the Displaced Persons camps where many had turned to him for spiritual guidance, raising money for their religious and vocational needs. In honour of his wedding, he funded a number of festive meals to be held in the DP camps in southern Germany that were still populated. After the wedding they lived in a small, aging apartment in Williamsburg that was outfitted with second-hand furniture, while the Rebbe began building one Torah institution after another. Even though their status as leaders of their community grew within the religious world, the Rebbetzin’s demeanour gave no inkling of occupying a special status. She saw herself as an ordinary person.
The Journey to Netanya
The Rebbe always had a plan to relocate his family and kehillah to Israel and selected Netanya, a which had little religious life at that time. He, his family and a handful of chasidim arrived in 1959 and within a few years built a robust religious community full of religious Jews from many different sects. The Rebbe wanted a heterogeneous community. The 1975 opening of Laniado Hospital-Sanz Medical Centre, the only hospital in the region, was the apple of his eye. When the first baby was born in Laniado Hospital, the Rebbe was thrilled. Having witnessed so much death at the hands of the Nazis. This was the ultimate payback. The Rebbe was now journeying back and forward from Netanya to the USA, servicing both communities that he was the spiritual head. Often, the whole family would have to up and leave for months at a time. The Rebetzen would pack without complaint or hesitation.
16 years after the death of her husband, Rebbetzin Chaya Nechama Halberstam died on Shabbat Hagadol which is the shabbat immediately before Pesach. Although she did not have COVID-19, her funeral was affected because people could not come to pay their last respects. Her son, The Sanzer Rebbe spoke in a broken voice, recalled the funeral of his father 16 years earlier. “We were orphaned from our father, our leader, our patriarch. But at least we had our mother, who represented the Rebbe. But now that our mother is gone and we have nothing to cling to.”