Piotrków Trybunalski before the Holocaust
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau was the chief rabbi of the Jewish community in Piotrków Trybunalski. He was born in 1892, and ordained as a rabbi at the age of 17. He established the Tiferet Bachurim association, which helped the poor and the sick, as well as Jewish prisoners, primarily on Saturdays and the holidays. He contributed to ultra-Orthodox journals, and was active in Agudat Yisrael, as the chairman of the committee. He gave Torah lessons, and at the same time earned a doctorate from the University of Vienna.
Rabbi Lau was the rabbi of the Suceava (Shotz) community in Bukovina, Romania, as well as the Prešov community in Slovakia. He orchestrated the establishment of the Chernowitz and Prešov Yeshivas (Talmudic colleges), advanced the Beit Yaakov Orthodox schooling network for girls, developed workplaces for ultra-Orthodox Jews, and appeared in Frankfurt as a representative of Agudat Yisrael. In 1935 Rabbi Lau was appointed as leader of the Jewish community in Piotrków Trybunalski; he served as the community’s chief rabbi from 1938.
In Piotrków Trybunalski, Rabbi Lau worked to advance religious education as well as employment for the city’s Jews. He promoted the interests of Jewish merchants, Jewish soldiers in the Polish army, and Jewish prisoners. At the same time, he was active in Agudat Yisrael, where he promoted immigrationto the Eretz Israel and the support of religious education there. Rabbi Lau was an active teacher; he wrote Jewish legal scholarly texts and edited a trilingual weekly on religious matters, which was published in Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish.
Following the German occupation, Rabbi Lau was ordered by the German authorities to represent the Jews of Piotrków Trybunalski and carry out the German’s commands; these included collecting large monetary sums which the Germans sought to coerce from the Jewish community as a ‘ransom’. During this period Rabbi Lau attempted to release Jews who had fallen into German captivity while serving in the Polish military. He also sought the release of Jews who had been sent away from Piotrków to distant forced labor camps, and was active in attempts to rescue Torah scrolls from synagogues which had been damaged by the Germans. Rabbi Lau participated in aid efforts on behalf of the refugees who arrived in Piotrków Trybunalski, and was active in burying the victims of the typhus epidemic. He also did his best to obtain the necessary material goods to celebrate the holidays according to religious custom – obtaining matzah for Passover, and specimens of the Four Species (arba'at ha-minim) for Sukkot.
On the 21st of October 1942, Rabbi Lau was deported to Treblinka with his community and murdered. His son Shmuel was also on this transport, he too was murdered.
Rabbi Lau’s son, Naphtali Lau Lavie, described the moment of separation from his father, as the latter was boarding the transport to Treblinka in October 1942:
“For the first time in many months my father approached me, and kissed me on my forehead as I was sitting on the couch. A warm tear fell from the corner of his eye, landing on my cheek. “Let us follow the example of our patriarch Jacob, who arranged his family in preparation for the conflict with his hostile brother Esau. Jacob divided his family into three camps, hopping that at least one would survive,” this is how my father explained his plan for survival. Mother and our youngest brother, Israel-Lulek, who was five, were sent to hide with a neighbor, to wait out the hell-storm of the deportation. Father decided to send me and Shmuel to the glass factory. He imposed on himself the same fate as that of his community, to stand together with them, to be deported, to partake of whatever fate would befall them. “Just as a shepherd does not abandon his flock to a pack of wolves, so I will not run to save myself, abandoning my flock.” This is what he said regarding his decision to report for the deportation.”
Naphtali Lau-Lavie, Am KeLavi, p. 81 [Hebrew]
Haya, Rabbi Lau’s wife, was ultimately apprehended and murdered in the Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany. Three of Rabbi Lau’s children – his son from his first marriage, Yehoshua-Yosef, and his sons Israel-Meir and Naphtali – survived and immigrated to Israel after the Holocaust.