A Portrait of Piety & Heroısm // How the Skulener Rebbe, zt”l, saved thousands of Romania’s Jews

By Dovid Zaklikowski

One of the great chasidic Rebbes who immigrated to the United States from the Socialist Republic of Romania was Rav Eliezer Zusia Portugal, zt”l, the Skulener Rebbe. Revered throughout the Jewish world for his indescribable piety, as well as for having cared for hundreds of Jewish youth and orphans, he passed away on 29 Av 5742 (August 18, 1982).

egan adopting war orphans when their parents were deported to German concentration camps. When he was able to move from the Bessarabian town of Sculeni to Bucharest, Romania, he smuggled his “family” into the city and proceeded to adopt even more children, establishing an orphanage for their care. He later wrote in his will that they should show their appreciation to him by remaining loyal to Yiddishkeit and learning Torah as much as possible.

In February 1959, the Skulener Rebbe was imprisoned together with his only son, the present Skulener Rebbe, Rav Yisroel Avrohom Portugal, on trumped-up charges of spying for Israel and the United States. This was not the Skulener Rebbe’s first incarceration under the Communists. His first confinement occurred in 1949, for which the authorities offered no explanation. Two months later he was released. In 1953 he was again imprisoned and released.

In 1959, however, the news of the Skulener Rebbe’s latest arrest made waves in Jewish communities around the world. As the London Jewish Chronicle reported, “The arrest by the Romanian authorities of Rabbi Zissu Purtogal [sic] of Bucharest, the Skulener Rebbe, has been confirmed here by Orthodox Jewish sources.” The article went on to describe the efforts being made to obtain his release. “Mr. Harry Goodman [vice president of the Agudas Israel World Organization and editor of the London Jewish Post] has expressed to the Romanian Minister in London the deep concern felt by religious Jews all over the world.”

Reports trickled out concerning the grave situation. “Rabbi Portugal, the Sage of Romania who is highly respected there, and his son were arrested by the authorities on charges of high treason,” reads a confidential JDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) memorandum from April 1959. “Everybody who knows Rabbi Portugal feels certain that he was never involved in anything illegal. He is a pure and clean gentleman, close to 70 years of age. He is an extremely sick man. He cannot take any food in prison.”

To read more, subscribe to Ami