Gustav Karl Friedrich Revisited

About a month and a half ago, we referenced the widespread rumors that in Rav Shlomo Wolbe’s youth he had been known as Gustav Karl Friedrich Wolbe, and had attended the University of Berlin. Two weeks ago, Rabbi Pinchos Lipschutz told the story thus:

Let me share a story I read about Gustav, a student who became frum on a college campus. Gustav attended shiurim on his campus given by frum university alumni, baalei batim and rabbonim of the local community. As a result of the regular shiurim, Torah discussions and guidance, Gustav went on to embrace observant Yiddishkeit. He went to learn in yeshiva, giving back to Klal Yisroel far more than we ever gave him.

This is not a contemporary kiruv story. It happened in the 1930’s, in Germany. The campus kiruv organization was called the V.A.D. (Verein Judische Academiker), which was led by talmidim of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch. The group operated in Berlin, Germany, and dedicated itself to teaching Torah to students whose neshomos cried out, “Anachnu rotzim lilmod Torah!”

We know Gustav Karl Friedrich Wolbe as Rav Shlomo Wolbe, whose light of Torah continues to radiate over Klal Yisroel through his seforim and talmidim. That is thanks to the talmidim of Avrohom Avinu who cared about Yiddishe neshomos and made an effort to reach him and others like him and bring them tachas kanfei haShechinah.1

This past week, R. Lipschutz published a tantalizingly evasive quasi-retraction:

Last week, in my column, I wrote about the story of Gustav. The tale is often repeated and was cross-referenced for accuracy. However, subsequent to publication, I spoke with a talmid of Rav Shlomo Wolbe, Rav Ben Zion Kokis, who dispelled much of the legend.

Based on personal conversations with the mashgiach on several occasions, he informed me that the mashgiach was born in Berlin in 1914 to an educated family. His given name was not Gustav Karl Friedrich. In a conversation with Rav Kokis during the summer of 1976, Rav Wolbe described some details of his childhood. He rarely spoke about himself, but the discussion concerned various systems of chinuch, and these biographical nuggets were mentioned in that context.

He attended public school (“gymnasium“), which also held classes on Shabbos. The Jewish children were required to attend, but, in his words, “they didn’t write.” In other words, the observant children were able to maintain shemiras Shabbos.

On Shabbos, after school, a minyan was held for Krias HaTorah and Mussaf, and the boys would take turns saying divrei Torah. The mashgiach said that his first drasha was delivered at the age of nine or ten, and by the time of his bar mitzvah, he was the “darshan kovuah.” (Perhaps the kiruv organization V.A.D. mentioned in the story last week, was responsible for this minyan.)

So apparently, there was a strong sense of tradition in the Wolbe home, presumably largely due to the influence of his mother, who came from a choshuveh Litvishe background. In fact, his mother arranged private shiurim for her seven-year old son with Rav Chaim Cohen, the rov of their shul in Berlin. (Many years later, the mashgiach referred to Rav Cohen as “rabi hamuvhak, the chossid shebekehunah“).

At the age of 17 or 18 – in 1931 or 1932 – Rav Wolbe was urged by Rav Cohen to travel to Frankfurt to study in the yeshiva of Rav Yosef Breuer. From there he went to learn in Montreux, Switzerland, and due to his father’s urging, he also attended some university classes. By the year 1934, he was in the Mir Yeshiva in Poland.

So the legend that he studied in Berlin University during the years 1930-1933 and was first exposed to Torah through dedicated mekarvim is just that: a legend and not the truth.2

R. Lipschutz is מגלה טפח ומכסה טפחיים:

  • R. Wolbe was born to “an educated family” – was it “an observant family”?
  • “His given name was not Gustav Karl Friedrich.” – what was his given name? Was he ever known as Gustav Karl Friedrich?
  • R. Wolbe asserts of the Jewish children in the gymnasium that “they didn’t write”, and R. Lipschutz infers from this that “In other words, the observant children were able to maintain shemiras Shabbos.” Did R. Wolbe really mean that they kept Shabbas fully, or merely that they maintained at least some level of observance?
  • R. Lipschutz concludes: “So apparently, there was a strong sense of tradition in the Wolbe home”. Is this a tacit concession that the family was not actually observant?
  • R. Lipschutz suggests that the sense of tradition was “presumably largely due to the influence of his mother, who came from a choshuveh Litvishe background”. The clear implication is that R. Wolbe’s father was considerably less connected to Judaism.
  • R. Lipschutz states: “From there he went to learn in Montreux, Switzerland, and due to his father’s urging, he also attended some university classes. … So the legend that he studied in Berlin University during the years 1930-1933 and was first exposed to Torah through dedicated mekarvim is just that: a legend and not the truth.” So regardless of whether he studied at the University of Berlin, it is acknowledged that he did, in fact, study in some university.

Here’s another fascinating passage by Rav Wolbe, from another הפרדס essay of his, referencing “U Thant the Budhist”, Einstein, “[the latter’s] friend, Max Planck, the creator of the Quantum Theory“, and someone whom I cannot identity, “מאלק the atheist”:

שאלו פעם את שר החוץ, למה הוא נמנע להזכיר שם שמים מעל במת האו”ם, והלה השיב: אין זה נהוג באו”ם להזכיר שם שמים. כלומר: מה שאינו ראוי לאו-טאנט הבודיסט ולמאלק האתאיסט – אינו ראוי גם לבן היהודי …

מחוץ לזירה הפוליטית אפשר היום לשמוע הזכרת שם שמים בפי גדולי-עולם: מדענים בעלי שם אינם מתביישים לדבר על בורא העולם. ידוע ה”אני מאמין” של איינשטיין, חברו מקס פלנק יוצר תיאוריית הקוונטים מתבטא: “האלקים העומד בראשית הדת עומד בתכלית המדע”. המשוררים, ולאו דוקא דתיים, מרבים להזכיר אלקים בשיריהם.3

Einstein’s somewhat murky and incoherent religious beliefs are well documented. While he did reject dogmatic atheism, he also repeatedly explicitly dismissed and ridiculed the traditional notion of a personal God, and was quite scathing toward traditional religion, including Judaism, and its dogmas.

I have discussed another passage of this essay here.

Update: Regarding Rav Wolbe’s antecedents, my father draws our attention to (Dr) Anne Ruth Cohn’s letter to the London Jewish Tribune, which paints a portrait of Rav Wolbe closer to R. Lipschutz’s original one:

Dear Sir,

While Jonathan Rosenblum (JT 5th May) has written a beautiful and masterly appreciation of the life, educational work and greatness of Rav Wolbe Zl, I think it is most important not to be guilty of re-writing history, albeit by omission. Everything written about this giant’s Torah education, loyalties and student of Gedolim is absolutely correct yet….. Although I was not yet born at the time, I have reliable information from both my Father Dayan Grunfeld Zl and separately from my Mother OH, Fraulein Dr. Judit Rosenbaum at the time. Rav Wolbe Zl was an amazing product of a very powerful and significant Hashpo’oh during the early part of the twentieth century namely the V.A.D. (Verein Judische Academiker). This openly orthodox Students’ Union, unlike the type of thing in British Institutions had a powerful influence in the Kiruv of many initially unorthodox students. People of the stature of Rav Yechiel Weinberg, Rabbis Elie Munk, Rabbi Dr. H. Cohn, Dr. Med. Wallach (Founder of Sha’arei Tzedek Hospital) Dr. Med. Schlesinger, Dr. Jud. I. Grunfeld, and many others had a great influence on students in various different Faculties. These were all frum senior students deeply rooted in the Torah Im Derech Eretz style, which is so unpopular today. There was just a special student called, Gustav Karl Friedrich Wolbe, who attended University between the years of 1930-1933, and who, as a result of the regular Shiurim, Torah discussion and guidance of such Alumni in German university institutions, was among the very first to embrace full, observant Yiddishkeit, as well as setting aside regular Ittim LeTorah. They were all introduced to the contents of our revered Mussar Seforim under the guidance of Yekkische mentors whose Hashkofoh was faithfully modeled on the Samson Refoel Hirsch Zl religious pattern of combining secular and Lehavdil Elef Peomim, Torah knowledge.

(Dr) Anne Ruth Cohn

The letter is a response to this Tribune article by Jonathan Rosenblum. My father notes Prof. Marc Shapiro’s comment to the letter:


In response to your questions, I checked out the blog, and I see you have posted more interesting stuff. Re. R. Wolbe, see the obit. in Yated which states:

“As a child he studied in his home city and at a young age was sent to Yeshivas Frankfurt, where he studied under HaRav Shlomo Breuer. After transferring to Yeshivas Montreux in Switzerland one day he heard a mussar talk given by a talmid of Maran Hamashgiach HaRav Yeruchom Levovitz of Mir Yeshiva. After the talk when he inquired about the origins of its contents the talmid told him and suggested that he try studying at Yeshivas Mir in Lithuania.”

I am no expert on R. Wolbe so I can’t comment on the biographical particulars, but let me just note that the information in this obit. is impossible if the information given by Ms. Cohn is correct.

And now let me tell you what I do know. R. Wolbe came from a completely non-religious family. He was a baal teshuvah. None of this is mentioned in the frum obits. But if he was a baal teshuvah (his father was a non-religious intellectual of sorts), then how is it possible that he was sent as a youth to a yeshiva? Ms. Cohn’s story seems much more likely, since the Haredi version doesn’t tell when he became religious, and presumably they don’t want people to know he was ever non-religious.

Now here is something that no one seems to know. He studied at the Rabbinical Seminary of Berlin, and after that he went to Mir where he fell under the influence of R. Yerucham.

In the next comment, Bob Jackson notes that in another article (this one for the Jerusalem Post), Rosenblum does actually acknowledge that Rav Wolbe was “the product of an assimilated German Jewish home” whose father, “a German academic”, apparently only allowed him to study in the Mir “after completing his first university degree”:

And when a spirit of spiritual awakening was felt in the wake of the miraculous deliverance of 1967, he did not hesitate to go out to secular kibbutzim. Himself the product of an assimilated German Jewish home, he had a special affinity for those turning towards religious observance. Every ba’al teshuva, he believed, had experienced a special level of being taken by the hand by G-d. He felt strongly that was the case in his own life, beginning when his father, a German academic, permitted him to go study, after completing his first university degree, in the Mirrer Yeshiva in Poland. He tirelessly encouraged his students to reach out to every Jew.

  1. Yated Ne’eman, Wed. Oct. 13, 2010, Editor’s View – link, link. []
  2. ibid. Oct. 22, 2010, [print edition] p. 30. []
  3. הפרדס, שנה מו, כסלו תשל”ב (חוברת ג’), עמוד 22 – קשר []