Rabbi Moshe Elye Gerlitzky, who fled from the advancing Nazi armies of war-torn Europe to find refuge in Canada and establish a Jewish educational network on the country’s Atlantic coast, passed away April 4 at the age of 94. One of the thousands of Holocaust survivors saved by the selfless acts of Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara, Gerlitzky was the city of Montreal’s first full-time Jewish day-school teacher and, later in life, the oldest Chabad-Lubavitch emissary.

Born in 1916 in the Polish city of Lodz to Avraham Yitzchak and Leah Gerlitzky, he became accustomed to travel at an early age. His family moved to Kintzk, and as a 10-year-old boy, he made his first “Blessing of the Sun,” a special springtime liturgy that takes place just once every 28 years. More than eight decades later, he made the same blessing in a pre-Passover ceremony last year, making him one of the few people to have taken part in the tradition four times.

In Poland, he spent his childhood studying with local teachers, as well as travelling to several Jewish schools across the country. At the age of 15, a cousin, Moshe Pinchus Katz, told him about a relatively new school in Lodz, the Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch yeshiva. Intrigued by its focus on both the revealed and esoteric components of Torah study, he enrolled, delving into Talmudic arguments under the famed scholar Rabbi Yehudah Eber.

In Lodz, he began to appreciate the unique manner of the Chabad-Lubavitch way of life, devoting time not only to Torah study, but also to deepening personal prayers by meditating on the nature of G‑dliness according to the teachings of Chasidic thought. He earned a reputation as a diligent student, and became known by his bright smile and charitable manner. Classmates recalled a young man who was always willing to give a helping hand to those in need.

When he was 17, he transferred to the central Lubavitch yeshiva in Warsaw, and spent the High Holidays with the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory, in the suburb of Otwock. The experience – which included studiously observing the hours-long prayers of the great scholars and pious Chasidim of the day – had a profound effect on the young Gerlitzky. Years later, he could repeat by memory the Sixth Rebbe’s Chasidic discourses he heard while in Otwock.

A Historic Event

Throughout his life, Gerlitzky nurtured an inborn power of observation, concentrating on rabbinic leaders’ mannerisms and study habits, as well as the unique details of Chasidic life. During his teenage years, he inquired about the Sixth Rebbe’s quiet son-in-law, who would succeed his father-in-law as Rebbe.

At the time, the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, was known simply as the Ramash, an acrostic formed by the letters of his name.

“The Ramash kept to himself,” Gerlitzky once reminisced. “Initially, we had few ideas of who he was, besides that he was the son-in-law of the Rebbe, and of course we gave due respect just for that reason.

“During the time when the Ramash was in Poland with us for the High Holidays, he would seldom show his erudition,” he continued. “He would sit and listen to one of the students repeat the Chasidic discourse of the Sixth Rebbe, almost as if he was one of the students in the school. Only when asked by the students to [explain] the discourse, would he” speak.

In recent years, Gerlitzky was the last living person to recall the details of an historic event in the annals of Chabad-Lubavitch, a rare address by the future Rebbe at a Chasidic gathering during the holiday of Sukkot.

“It was brilliant,” recalled Gerlitzky. “It lasted from 8:00 at night to 7:00 in the morning. The Ramash brilliantly spoke about a selection from Ethics of Our Fathers, explaining it according to its Talmudic application, and then continuing to explain it according to its Kabalistic understanding. [He did] all this while quoting dozens of disparate sources from across the entire spectrum of Jewish teachings.”

On one occasion, Eber had Gerlitzky deliver a Talmudic volume to the future Rebbe’s temporary residence. Entering the apartment, Gerlitzky saw three tables assembled at right angles, each one stacked with dozens of books and manuscripts. Standing in the middle of the arrangement was the future Rebbe, who pored over all of the volumes at once.

From its first days, Montreal’s Jewish day school attracted a wide selection of boys from the community. Gerlitzky, standing, was the institution’s first Talmudic studies instructor.
From its first days, Montreal’s Jewish day school attracted a wide selection of boys from the community. Gerlitzky, standing, was the institution’s first Talmudic studies instructor.

Escaping Europe

At the age of 22, Gerlitzky was ordained by several prominent rabbis and a year later, returned to Lodz to teach at his old yeshiva. But the rising tide of war, and the beginnings of the Holocaust, brought life in Europe crashing down around Gerlitzky, his colleagues and fellow students.

As part of the Sixth Rebbe’s campaign at the outset of the war for all who were able to escape eastward to Russia and Lithuania, Gerlitzky and two friends made their way from Lodz to Warsaw. There, the Rebbe gave them American money pay for someone to smuggle them across the border to Russia.

Once in Russia, they made their way to Vilnius in Lithuania, and joined the Lubavitch yeshiva there while they scoured foreign diplomatic offices for transit visas. Along with thousands of others, they came to the Japanese consulate, where Sugihara issued them visas to travel through Japan and on to North America.

According to Rabbi Volf Greenglass, a colleague of Gerlitzky’s and one of the founders of Chabad-Lubavitch in Montreal, his friend never lost his positive outlook on life, even as the prospects of surviving World War II seemed grim.

“We lost everything,” said Greenglass. “We lost our families, our belongings, and the roof over our heads. It was his lively spirit that maintained us and kept us going during our long and difficult journey until we came to Montreal.”

Gerlitzky explores a Talmudic text with a participant in a 1942 summer camp run by the Montreal school.
Gerlitzky explores a Talmudic text with a participant in a 1942 summer camp run by the Montreal school.

Educator in Montreal Day School

Travelling across Russia via the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Gerlitzky made it through Japan and on to Shanghai, China. From there, he joined eight other students in eventually heading to Montreal, where they arrived in 1941. Upon their arrival, hundreds of local Jews greeted the group at the train station, and the following Shabbat, thousands more came to celebrate in their honor.

But not all were pleased with the sudden appearance of nine bearded Chasidim on the shores of a city where Jewish practice and Torah study and experienced a major decline. The powerful philanthropist Samuel Bronfman, president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, even offered the students $50,000 – a huge sum in those days – to move on to another city. The students refused.

Instead, they stunned those who had gathered to celebrate their arrival and announced that on the following morning, they would open the first Jewish day school in Montreal.

Contemporary accounts suggest that enthusiastic parents arrived on schedule at a local synagogue that served as the new school’s temporary location. Gerlitzky, having won a raffle among his colleagues, had the honor of being the school’s first Talmudic studies teacher.

From such a humble beginning sprang programs for Jewish education and literature catering to the Montreal community and beyond, and a sizable Jewish infrastructure that today includes more than 100 centers across Canada.

A little more than a year after arriving in Montreal, Gerlitzky married Chana Rosenblum. Before their marriage, the bride’s family inquired about Gerlitzky’s background, asking the Sixth Rebbe about who would look out for their future son-in-law, given that his parents were murdered by the Nazis. The Rebbe replied that they should consider Gerlitzky his child. In effect, the Rebbe said, he would be their machatonim, a Yiddish expression for the relationship between a couple’s parents.

As he and his wife built their home and family, they also devoted their efforts to the day school. But while the school offered opportunities to Jewish boys, girls had no choice but to learn in local public schools and take part in a Chabad-run after-school program.

Gerlitzky addresses a crowd of Montreal Jewish community members.
Gerlitzky addresses a crowd of Montreal Jewish community members.

In the mid-1940s, “I got a call from the Ramash,” recalled Gerlitzky. “He told me, ‘The Rebbe says that there needs to be a Jewish girls’ school in Montreal.’ ”

But “we had no school building, no teachers and no girls,” continued Gerlitzky. “My wife told me, ‘Let’s start a class in our home with our kids now.’ On the bottom floor in our home, we opened the Beth Rivkah Academy of Montreal. A teacher [came] from New York and student after student began enrolling in the school.”

Soon, they had 50 girls enrolled at the academy, and they moved the school to a larger apartment. The student body continued to grow, each time forcing the school to move once more. Today, it serves more than 900 students.

After the Sixth Rebbe’s passing in 1950, Gerlitzky continued sending constant institutional updates to his successor. He also began looking to the Rebbe for answers to his spiritual questions.

The Roving Rabbi

With the Rebbe’s guidance and the encouragement of his wife, Gerlitzky started visiting cities across Atlantic Canada, bolstering Jewish life in towns large and small, and raising funds for Jewish education in Montreal. The campaigns set the stage for Chabad Houses to sprout across the country in the ensuing years.

“He traveled by bus, by train and foot,” said Harold Medjuck, a native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, where Gerlitzky visited at least once a year. “He traveled a long distance, he had a lot of miles to cover, a lot of people to see.”

Medjuck was fascinated and energized by the visits.

Rabbi Moshe Elye and Chana Gerlitzky married a year after his arrival in Montreal.
Rabbi Moshe Elye and Chana Gerlitzky married a year after his arrival in Montreal.

“His smile, his appearance, his sparkling eyes, his magnetic personality: We were drawn to him as to a fireplace on a cold winter day,” remembered Medjuck.

“He came to our small Jewish community,” echoed Edmundston, New Brunswick, native Manuel Sand. “From him, I learned that our mission in life is not all about ourselves. It’s about giving to another.”

Sand recalled that Gerlitzky once entered his store, and after the storekeeper wrote a check as a donation in support of Jewish education in Montreal, the rabbi turned to him with a question.

“When was the last time you opened a Jewish book?” asked Gerlitzky.

Sand responded that he hadn’t done so in years. Gerlitzky stayed, and the two embarked on a lesson together.

“We sat and learned from after I closed the store until the wee hours of the next morning,” said Sand.

Sometimes, Gerlitzky, who had memorized huge sections of Talmudic discussions, didn’t even use a book.

“I was once travelling with him from Montreal to New York,” said Avrumie Newirth, “when he, with no books, started teaching me Mishnaic studies for two hours straight, without stopping for a moment.”

Looking back on his life, Gerlitzky told one of his children just days before his passing that it had been a tremendous journey.

“I crossed the ocean with nothing besides the clothing on my back,” he said. “I have to thank G‑d for the hundreds of grandchildren and great grandchildren that G‑d has blessed me with.”

Many of those descendents today serve as Jewish educators and Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries across the globe.

Gerlitzky “was a collector of souls,” said Medjuck. “After all these years, I could tell you that he gave much more than he ever received.”