For years, I have been thinking of ways to let people know more about the thousands of outstanding personalities who were wiped out by the Germans and largely ignored by history. The Rebbe of Kosson was one such individual. He was a uniquely heilige Yid who was completely dedicated to the needs of his family and talmidim.
The only piece of information I had uncovered was a photo of the Kosson yeshivah in 1939. It was posted online by Miklosz (Michael) Weiss, who wrote the simple caption: “in the photograph of my yeshivah class, I am in the top row, fourth from left. My entire class was taken to Auschwitz; I was the only one that survived.”
Recently, a friend told me the following story. He had lived in a small Jewish community in the Upper Midwest for several years, where he befriended an older man named Harry Lefton.
Mr. Lefton was delighted to hear of their shared Hungarian background, and asked him if he had ever heard of Rav Yisroel Tzvi Rottenberg, Hy”d, the Kossoner Rebbe. My friend replied, “Heard of him? My father is named after him!” Mr. Lefton turned very serious and said, “I was one of the few bachurim to whom the Rebbe gave his blessing. Many bachurim had begged the Rebbe for a blessing to survive the war and I was among the few who were granted a brachah. That is the only reason I survived the war.” Mr. Lefton invited my friend to his small apartment nearby, and asked if he would take a few sefarim authored by the Rebbe. It appeared that he did not have children who would want them, so he was happy to find someone who had an interest.
A while after returning home, my friend looked through the sefarim and found a very old and discolored Yiddish newspaper clipping about the life of the Kossoner Rebbe.
Rav Yisroel Tzvi was born on Sukkos of 5651 (1890) in the small town of Kosson, just south of the Hungarian border. His father, Rav Yehosef, was the first Rebbe of Kosson. When Rav Yisroel Tzvi’s oldest brother passed away in 1920, he was called upon to be the next Rebbe. Rav Yisroel Tzvi was very reluctant and went to discuss the matter with the Belzer Rebbe, Rav Yissachar Dov Rokeach, zt”l. With the Belzer Rebbe’s encouragement, he accepted the position.
Aside from his Torah knowledge, Rav Yisroel Tzvi’s tremendous diligence elevated him to great heights in kedushah and kabbalah. He would say that while the Torah commands us to protect our
bodies, “there is no mitzvah to love our bodies!”
Rav Yisroel Tzvi opened a yeshivah in Kosson, transforming the small town into a Torah center. After the Nazi invasion of Poland, he sheltered as many as 40 refugees in his own home, despite the great personal risk this posed.
On the last day of Pesach 5704 (1944), the Nazis, ym”s, deported all the Jews of Kosson to the Beregszasz Ghetto. They cruelly heaped blows on their Jewish captives as they ordered them onto the trains. Rav Yisroel Tzvi was concerned about keeping the time for davening, so he asked an SS officer for permission to keep his watch. For this, he was beaten severely.
From the ghetto, the Jews were taken to Auschwitz, where Rav Yisroel Tzvi went with his wife and children to their death. Mr. Lefton’s shul visits dwindled as his health began to fail. My friend visited him at home almost every Friday night, and then in the hospital as his condition deteriorated. When possible, he would help him put on tefillin, which would be the highlight of Mr. Lefton’s day. After a short while in the hospital, Mr. Lefton passed away, and the Jewish community bade him a last farewell as he was taken to his final resting place in Eretz Yisrael.
I don’t know if Mr. Lefton imagined that this tattered newspaper in back of his sefer would provide an important link to his rebbe, Rav Yisroel Tzvi of Kosson. However, I am certain that knowing that more people learned about this great man would have brought comfort to his heart and a smile to his face.