On February 27, 1943, Rabbi Avraham Dov-Ber Kahana-Shapiro, the last chief rabbi of Kovno (today Kaunas), Lithuania, died at age 69. Shapiro is remembered not only for his rabbinical prowess, which is on display in the three-volume anthology of responsa – answers to questions of Jewish law – he left behind, but also for his insistence on returning to the city to be with, and die with, his community even though he was outside the country when World War II began.
Avraham Dov-Ber (also called “Dober”) Kahana-Shapiro was born on October 1, 1873 in Kobryn, in what is today Belarus. His father, Shlomo Zalman Sender Kahana-Shapiro, was the great-grandson of Rabbi Chaim Volozhin, founder of the famed yeshiva that bore his name. His mother was Esther Gittel Kahana-Shapiro.
As a young man, Shapiro studied at the Volozhin Yeshiva, where he was known as the “ilui” (prodigy) from Kobryn. After a succession of rabbinical positions, he became chief rabbi of Kovno in 1923.
A year before the start of World War II, Shapiro traveled to Switzerland for medical care. He was still there when war broke out in September 1939, and his son Yerucham Yehuda Leib Shapiro, a lawyer living in New York, sent him a telegram urging him and his mother to join him there until the danger had passed.
But as the son recounted, in the introduction he wrote after the war for the newly published “Devar Avraham,” his father’s book of responsa, Shapiro responded, “The captain is the last to abandon his sinking ship, not the first. At this time of danger, my place is with the people of my city. I am going to Kovno.” And he did.
The German occupation of Kovno was brutal. The Germans’ arrival in June 1941 was accompanied by a wave of massacres. That autumn, the surviving Jews were concentrated in a ghetto set up in an outlying district called Slabodka.
Because of his poor health, Shapiro was only marginally involved in the day-to-day affairs of his public. But the ghetto’s Judenrat, or Jewish council, would consult him on difficult ethical and religious matters, and his answers revealed considerable clear-headedness and a sense of responsibility for all of Kovno’s Jews, not only the Orthodox. He was, for example, a supporter of religious Zionism, and he believed in cooperating with the secular Zionists who were then working to build the Jewish homeland.
‘No blessing, no false hopes’
Shapiro had no illusions about the Germans’ intentions. After the Aktion of October 28, 1941, when 10,000 Jews were deported from the ghetto, Shapiro was asked if those who remained should recite Birkat Hagomel, the blessing said by one who has been saved from mortal danger. He was emphatic in his negative response. Saying the blessing would only serve “to confuse the Jews,” he wrote, “to crush them and destroy them by means of false hopes and deception,” something that would only “help the miserable murderers [in the] work of exterminating our brothers and sisters.”
In his diary from the Kovno Ghetto, Avraham Tory, secretary of the Judenrat, recalled a visit to Shapiro’s ghetto home, where he found him sitting on his bed writing. When he asked what the rabbi was working on, Shapiro responded, according to Tory: “My son, thousands of women in the ghetto are agunot [women “chained” to marriages in which their husbands are absent but there is no proof they are dead] and thousands more will be agunot when the war ends. According to the existing religious laws, those women will be condemned to remain widows until the end of their days. This is why I am writing a paper on how to free those women ”
Tory adds, in a footnote to the published version of his diary (published in English as “Surviving the Holocaust: The Kovno Ghetto Diary”), that Shapiro’s treatise was some 300 pages long, but that it did not survive the war.
When Shapiro died, it was from natural causes. Shortly after his death, his widow and his eldest son and his family were taken to the Lithuanian Ninth Fort and murdered.
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