It’s been almost 60 years since we sat together in the Bais Yaakov of Brighton Beach elementary school, but the face full of chein and the sparkle in her eyes were exactly as I’d remembered them. Today, Rebbetzin Feige Stein Twerski travels the world speaking to varied groups and doing her own special brand of outreach. When she isn’t traveling she’s at home in Milwaukee, serving as rebbetzin to her husband’s congregation.
Although we knew each other as young girls, I wasn’t really familiar with her family history and that is how we started this interview
“I was born in Romania, in the small town of Faltishen, during World War II,” she recounted. “My father, Rav Yisrael Avraham Stein, was the rabbi of our town. He had been a talmid in the famed Lublin Yeshiva learning under Rav Meir Shapiro, the founder of the Daf Yomi movement.
“One Erev Shabbos when the Nazis had taken over our city, they rounded up all the men and put them in cattle cars. My mother was pregnant with me at the time and she had one little boy. She was very frightened as she stood with the other Jewish women at the train tracks. Since it was now dusk and almost Shabbos, my father motioned her to go home. As the cattle car started moving my father began singing the opening prayers of Shabbos. A young man standing next to him who was not religiously observant turned to the man on his other side and said he thought the rabbi had lost his mind. They were all aware of Nazi atrocities and could only imagine what awaited them. The second man assured him the rabbi was fine, that it was the beginning of the holy Sabbath and the rabbi was starting his prayers.”
The cattle car took the men to a labor camp. Rabbi Stein was one of the few survivors. By the time he returned home the Russians had taken over the city. The commander of the town was a Russian Jew, a Communist. A short while later Rabbi Stein heard that the commander’s wife had given birth to a boy. He told his gabbai to accompany him on a visit to the commander; the baby was Jewish and would need a bris. Though the gabbai was terrified of the Communist commander, he had no choice but to go along with his rabbi.
Rabbi Stein told the commander they had come to congratulate him on the birth of a son. The commander thanked him. Rabbi Stein then said that since the baby was Jewish he had to have a bris, like all Jewish boys since the days of Abraham. The commander stared at him for a long time. Rabbi Stein stood his ground. Finally the commander said, “Rabbi, you don’t recognize me. I was the man standing next to you in the cattle car and when you started singing I thought you’d lost your mind.”
Sensing Rabbi Stein’s sincerity, the commander agreed to have his son circumcised. Everything was taken care of by Rabbi Stein.
As soon as the war was over Rabbi Stein moved his family out of Europe. They set sail for Palestine but when they docked the British wouldn’t allow anyone to disembark. Their boat sailed to Greece and ended up in Italy. One of Rebbetzin Feige’s brothers was actually born in the Vatican Hospital. The Stein family eventually arrived in the U.S. in 1949 and settled in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where Rabbi Stein became the rabbi of a shul and was known as the Faltishener Rebbe.
After 8th grade Feige continued in Bais Yaakov high school and seminary. She was introduced to her husband, Rav Michel Twerski, when she was barely 18. The young bride moved to Lakewood, New Jersey, where her husband was learning. From there it was on to Denver, Colorado, where her husband studied shechitah. They moved from there to Milwaukee to be part of her father-in-law’s shul.