Memory Lane: Rav Yoel Halpern, Yaslo Rov, zt”l, From Bergen Belsen to Boro Park
A Scion of Rabbinic Royalty
Rav Yoel was born in Krakow in the year 1900. His father was Rav Matisyahu Chaim Halpern, who was known as the Dobshitzer Rov. The Halpern family traces their linage directly to the Sfas Emes of Brezan, to Rabbeinu Elchonon, one of the baalei Tosafos. His mother was the daughter of Rav Shimon Alter Frenkel-Tumim, who was the rov of Podgourz-Krakow. He was named Yoel, for his ancestor, Rav Yoel of Shotz, a direct descendant of Rebbe Mechel of Zlochiv.
During his youth he absorbed much Torah and yiras Shomayim from his paternal grandfather, Rav Yehuda Leibish of Brezan, author of Imrei Yehuda—and to the end of his life, he would recount his greatness in Torah and tefillah, the memories carried him through the worst of times.
As a young bachur, he followed his grandfather to Belz, and remained close to the Belzer rebbeim to the end of his life—when he joined the flagship Belzer shtiebel in Boro Park, which was located near his home.
Rescue Under Fire
The Rebbetzin and his two children, Hy”d, would be taken in the churban, while Rav Yoel would be left to bear the scars. He escaped , and was imprisoned by the Russians when he crossed the border. When he was released, he made his way east, to Bukhara.
Here he threw himself into helping the refugees who found themselves there. He worked tirelessly, under dangerous conditions, under the watchful eyes of the Communists, to improve their lot, and to seek emigration for them. One of those whom he was successfully able to assist was the Tchebiner Rov, who harbored tremendous gratitude to Rav Halpern for all his life.
Rabbi of the British Zone
On April 15, 1945, at 3:05 P.M., the liberating British forces reached the gates of the Bergen-Belsen camp. It had originally been established as a detainment camp for Russian prisoners of war and later became a concentration camp for Jews.
But unlike Auschwitz and many of the other sites of the terrible atrocities, Bergen Belsen served as a DP camp following the war. There were thousands of Yidden who made their way there, and Rav Yoel came following the war and practically carried the entire community upon his shoulders.
Along with Rav Yisroel Aryeh Zelmanowitz, and Rab Yisroel Moshe Olewski, he founded a beis din, which was matir hundreds of agnunos. The records of many of these she’eilos—which involved numerous eyewitnesses and testimonials—were published in sefer. The beis din kept meticulous records of each of the cases, and the deliberations that they entailed. One anguished story is the case of the wife of a Yid who had a permit to employ 4500 Jews in his factory, and stood up to the Gestapo when they challenged him on this. The SS man did not take this well. A while later, he threatened another person, “do you want to meet an end like Graiver? By now, grass is growing over him.”
But much of Rav Halpern’s work was joyful. He presided over 1,800 weddings, and made 1,500 brissim. In addition, he was responsible for the spiritual and emotional well-being of all the survivors in Bergen Belsen, and did not cease working on their behalf, day and night. He oversaw the shechitah for residents, and is seen in numerous photographs of Bergen Belsen administering to the community.
He would daven in the Belzer Shtiebel where he was looked up to for his wisdom, his piety, his Torah knowledge and his kind ways. His avodas hatefillah was a thing for wonder, and is remembered by the Belzer chassidim to this day. Although he did not merit to have more children, he was surrounded by numerous members of the Berzaner family, his cousins and nephews (including the famed Rav Chuna Halpern of London) who saw him as the family’s patriarch.
The Yaslo rov was niftar forty years ago, in the fall of 1983.