The Navi Yechezkel writes about Noach, Iyov, and Daniel as three men who saw three worlds. Each saw a world in its glory, a world in its destruction, and a world rebuilt. Throughout the 106 years of Rav Mordechai Leib Glatstein’s illustrious life, he saw three worlds in many forms. There is hardly anyone alive who knew him during the early years of his scholarship in Warsaw when he received s’michah from the Ravad of Warsaw, or as he sat together with the Piezecna Rebbe, comforting broken Yidden. No one could have imagined that this quiet, humble man was in the room when Rav Menachem Ziemba, Rav Shamshon Stockhammer, and Rav Dovid Shapiro among others, were discussing whether or not to rise up against the Nazi beast that had tortured them in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Most people alive today knew Rabbi Glatstein as an iconic figure in the City of Pittsburgh. The longest serving rav, active for more than half a century, he was cherished by Yidden from every walk of life and every background. In addition to having a close relationship with the great tzadikim Rav Silberberg, the Pittsburgher Rebbe, and the legendary rabbanim of the Steel City, he, together with his Rebbetzin Tzina, developed relationships with doctors and psychologists and clergy of all kinds only for one reason: to lift the spirits of the brokenhearted.
Over the many decades, from the time he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1951 until he left Pittsburgh just a few years back to live with his son, Reb Yossi, a prominent attorney who is one of the premier lecturers for the Discovery kiruv organization, he was one of the most cherished figures in the Jewish community of Pittsburgh.
They all know him as the rabbi whose voice was as soft as velvet and whose soothing chizuk was available to anyone in need. For members of Pittsburgh’s Kollel Bais Yitzchok, they knew him as an elderly rav who, for the last 20 years or so, sat and learned in the kollel every day as if he was a yungerman. For members of Pittsburgh’s lay community, he was a prominent civic figure worthy of making an official “Rabbi Mordechai and Rebbetzin Tzina Glatstein Day” a public holiday to honor them upon his official retirement.
Doctors and therapists knew him as the Chief Chaplain of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, who, with superhuman strength, counseled and comforted.
His humility and simplicity were inversely proportional to his true self-worth.
Hardly anyone knew of his tremendous accomplishments, before the war, during the war, and after the war, in the efforts to mend the broken spirit of a shattered people. He never spoke about himself, but with his passing, it is worthy to talk about a giant of a Jew, who was considered a formidable talmid chacham in Europe before the war, was close to g’dolei olam during the War, and who together with famed askanim like Mike Tress and Reb Yitzchok Ziemba helped rebuild prominent organizations like Zeirei Agudath Israel, after the war.
His life defied all logic. He saw Mengele, Eichmann, and so many other r’sha’im who would have wanted to ensure the doom of all of klal Yisrael, but he lived a life that ensured that the plans of these evil men would not be realized.
As the most prominent survivor, he spent at least six years in the Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp as a representative of the United States Government to ensure that every survivor would have a new home to go to and sponsors to ensure that they received the proper Vuusa and immigration papers. It is no wonder, said his grandson Rav Daniel Glatstein, a noted rav and maggid shiur, that his l’vayah was filled with people from every walk of life, from chasidim to Jews barely clinging to their heritage. Each had a story of how Rav Glatstein helped resettle their parents.
Rav Mordechai Leib Glatstein was born on the sixth of Adar of 1916 – more than 100 years ago in the Polish city of Lipno. He was a descendant of a rabbinic family, his father was a rav as was his zeide, a dayan in Lunchitz.
As a tremendous talmid chacham, his father was chosen to marry the daughter of the rav in Lipno, a well-known tzadekes named Blima Michla Goldman. Together they had three children, Mordechai Leib, Henoch, and Shmuel. But when the oldest, Mordechai Leib, was only four years old, his father passed away suddenly from a brief illness.
Their mother was left to raise the y’somim, and with tremendous m’siras nefesh she did just that. Little would she know that despite the clouds of destruction that would wipe out her entire family, her three children would survive the war. Henoch would flee to Russia and eventually escape in the post-war years, while the oldest son Mordechai would take care of his brother Henoch, and miraculously the two would not only survive the Holocaust but would remain steadfast with their emunah.
Life was not easy for the young almanah. Her first task was to make sure that her oldest son would learn in cheder. She sent him as a child to learn in Lipno and, although other boys would come home to eat, she would bring the food to cheder so he would not have to leave yeshivah.
As he outgrew the cheder, she sent him to learn in other yeshivos, first in Plotzk, where he met Rav Meir Don of Plotzk, and later as he became bar mitzvah in Warsaw, where he forged a kesher with the rabbanim of the city, among them the Av Beis Din of Warsaw, Rav Shlomo Dovid Kahana, who bestowed s’michah upon him.
He grew in avodas Hashem tremendously and was known for his kavanah in t’filah. A survivor once told his family that Rav Mordechai was once caught davening in the concentration camps, and he was beaten until he passed out. When he came to, he opened his eyes and began davening again, from the exact spot where he had left off!
He turned 23 in Adar of 1939 and would have begun to look for a shidduch, but the winds of war darkened the skies of Polish Jewry and, by September, the Nazis had invaded. Together with his rebbeim, he was herded into the Ghetto where he became close with the rabbanim of the Ghetto and their families.
His memories of the Ghetto provided historians with some of the most graphic firsthand accounts. In Dos Yiddish Vort, some 25 years ago, he published an account of the death and disease that he experienced there. His mother was niftar in the Ghetto, and his brother and he searched desperately to make a minyan to say Kaddish. Unfortunately, right after the funeral, the deportations began transferring the Yidden from an almost certain death in the Ghetto to a certain death in Auschwitz.
His mother had given the boys some jewelry to use as bribes, but it was to hardly any avail. The uprising decimated what was left of the Ghetto, and Rav Mordechai served as a lookout in aiding the cause. After the Nazis burned the Ghetto to the ground, they were rounded up and brought as laborers in the brutal Bedzin camp. He forged a close relationship With Rav Yitzchok Meir and Avram Ziemba, nephews of the Gaon Rav Menachem Ziemba. It was through Rav Mordechai’s collaboration with Rav Yitzchok, Rav Avraham, and Mike Tress that Zeirei Agudath Israel rose from the ashes.
Throughout the years, they were in five different camps – each day a miracle of survival. His brother was once shot in the leg during a death march, and while the Ukrainian guards wanted him to stop so they could finish him off, Rav Mordechai pushed him to move forward and miraculously the bleeding stopped and they realized it was a flesh wound.
His stories include being pulled from a crematorium by a miraculous angel. He watched his brother stare down a Nazi who caught him wearing t’filin. The minute the Nazi saw the t’filin shel rosh, he shuddered and put the gun back in his holster, fulfilling the pasuk, “They shall see the name of Hashem on you and fear you.” That is t’filin shel rosh.
The stories of his post-war experience are equally amazing. All his life, Rav Glatstein worried for the honor of the Jewish dead. He would often come to the kollel to see if he could get yungerleit to help with a meis mitzvah. When asked where the passion came from, he replied humbly, after the liberation, no one wanted to help bury the dead in Dachau. After all, many died from typhus and other diseases. “But for some reason it did not faze me. I was always there for the meisim and will always be.”
Rav Glatstein’s tenure as a liaison for the Americans, both visitors and agencies, was prolific. He had taught himself English in Warsaw as a bachur and used his skills as an interpreter for the American troops, including for the Klausenberger Rebbe’s famed discussions with General Eisenhower. He met his eishes chayil, Tzina, whose father was Rav Yehuda Leib Vollman, the last rav in Sochatzov, set up a home in Feldafing, refusing to leave Europe until every one of the survivors had a place.
He became close with Lt. Meyer Birnbaum, who worked closely with him in the rebuilding efforts. When Lt. Birnbaum came to Pittsburgh to address the community at a kollel event, his reunion with Rav Glatstein was the highlight of the evening.
Rabbi and Rebbetzin Glatstein leave behind a family of b’nei Torah and marbitzei Torah. Their son, Reb Yosef, a practicing attorney, spent decades in the field of kiruv as a senior lecturer for Aish HaTorah’s Discovery Program. Their other son, Dr. Yitzchok Glatstein, is renowned as one of the top doctors in the field of fertility, and many poskim seek out his medical expertise. Reb Yosef and Reb Yitzchok are the parents of many children and grandchildren who are marbitzei Torah. Rabbi Daniel Glatstein, a noted rav and m’chabeir s’farim is a proud grandson.
Rav Mordechai Glatstein leaves an unparalleled legacy of emunah, Torah, scholarship, askanus, and ahavas Yisrael for all of us to cherish and learn from. Rav Glatstein will go down in the annals of Jewish history as one of the great builders of Torah and Yiddishkeit in the 20th Century.