Rabbi Moshe Eliyahu Gerlitzky, who fled Nazi occupied Poland and continued to help found and run the first Chabad yeshivah in Montreal, Canada, passed away on April 4. He was 94.
Born in 1915 in the Polish industrial city of Lodz, Moshe Eliyahu was raised by his parents Avraham Yitzchok and Leah Gerlitzky in a home imbued with Chasidic warmth and a spirit of loving kindness towards others.
As a child, Gerlitzky moved with his family to the smaller city of Końskie, Poland, where he studied in the local Jewish schools. While a student in the town of Ostrowsko in 1927, during an early summer day, Gerlitzky found the city’s streets to be oddly empty and its stores closed. Only upon entering the synagogue did Gerlitzky see many of the local Jews gathered in prayer. Curious as to what sudden tragedy could serve to bring those gathered to tears, Gerlitzky learned that the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, had been arrested by the Communist authorities in neighboring Soviet Russia for his Jewish activism.
The sight of so many people who felt a deep bond with Rabbi Schneerson, arrested in a foreign country, became Gerlitzky’s introduction to Chabad-Lubavitch.
At the age of 15, Gerlitzky was persuaded by his second cousin, Moshe Pinchas Katz, to attend the newly opened branch of the Lubavitcher network of yeshivos, Tomchei Temimim, in Lodz. There, Gerlitzky spent hours in the study of Talmud and Chabad Chasidic philosophy, and in contemplative prayer.
Rabbi Menachem Zev Greenglass, later a friend of Gerlitzky’s and spiritual mentor at the Yeshivah they would help found in Montreal, recalled his awe at seeing Gerlitzky engrossed in prayer in a local synagogue. The intensity of his devotional service was remarkable, inspiring Greenglass to enroll in the same school.
After finishing his studies in the Chabad yeshivah of Otwock, a suburb of the Polish capital Warsaw, Gerlitzky was instructed by the Rebbe, who had moved to the to the small town in 1936, to return to Lodz and help run the Yeshivah there. At the time, however, attention in Poland was turned westward to the ever-growing Nazi regime in Germany.
On September 1, 1939 German tanks rolled into Poland, swiftly crushing the ill-prepared Polish army and sending the country into chaos. Fleeing the onslaught of Nazi forces, Gerlitzky joined thousands of other panic stricken Poles in flight to Warsaw. While there, he managed to make contact with the Rebbe, who had gone into hiding, and was instructed to join other yeshivah students fleeing to Vilna, Lithuania. At the time, the Soviets had reinstated Vilna as the capital of Lithuania, and there was hope that newly empowered Baltic republic would provide a safe haven. Joining with fellow Yeshivah students Moshe Feder and Menachem Zev Greenglass, the three made it into Vilna.
While life seemed to return to normal while studying in Vilna, the Polish refugees remained all too aware of the danger that loomed only next door in their homeland. Along with students of the Chachmei Lublin and Mirrer Yeshivas, Gerlitzky and 53 other students of the Chabad Yeshivah managed to secure transit visas from Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara in Kaunas, Lithuania. After securing a blessing from the Rebbe, who was still trapped in Poland, the students traveled on the Trans-Siberian railway across Russia and the vast Siberian Steppe to the Eastern port of Vladivostok and on to Kobe, Japan.
Once in Japan, they realized that the visas offered by Sugihara were only 10 day transit visas – but the thousands of Jewish refugees who poured through Japan’s borders had made no plans to travel further. Ultimately, they found refuge in Japanese annexed Shanghai, in China.
In 1941, Gerlitzky and eight of the other senior students were able to acquire visas to Canada. Crossing the Pacific, the nine world weary refugees hoped to travel to New York to visit their Rebbe. Upon arriving in Montreal, however, in the autumn of 1941, the Rebbe gave them a very different set of instructions; they were to establish a yeshivah in Montreal. Encouraged by the Rebbe to receive his new emissaries to the city, the Montreal community gave the nine yeshivah students a warm welcome.
But not all were happy with the idea of a school in Montreal based on the standards of the old country. Famed liquor baron Samuel Bronfman, owner of the Seagram Company and President of the Canadian Jewish Congress, offered to pay for the yeshivah students to relocate to Toronto.
But the students were faithful to their mission, and Gerlitzky merited to deliver the school’s first lecture to its tiny initial class of seven students. Word of the first full-time yeshivah spread quickly and by Chanukah of that year, the number of students had grown to 27.
Appointed as fundraiser for the school, Gerlitzky’s work became integral to the growing needs of the yeshivah. Always a humble person, he insisted on receiving the modest pay of a school teacher despite raising substantial sums of money for the school.
Shortly after settling in Montreal, Gerlitzky met and married Chana Rosenblum.
Gerlitzky would dedicate his life to kindness and charity. His grandson, Rabbi Yosef Eisenbach, now the Chabad representative to northwestern Connecticut, recalls traveling with his grandfather on Thursday nights to anonymously deliver charity to those in need.
“My grandfather always saw the good in other people.” Eisenbach relates.
After his passing, family members recounted that dozens of community members approached them to tell of how Gerlitzky’s charity proved critical to them during difficult times. So committed was Gerlitzky to helping others, that before the Passover holiday, only days before his passing, he worked to arrange charity and supplies for the seder to needy families.
Rabbi Moshe Eliyahu Gerlitzky passed away in Montreal during the week of Passover. He is survived by his eight children and over 300 descendants.