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A Ninth of Av meditation: Rabbi Ziemba and the theology of defiance.

Should Jews commemorate the Holocaust on the Ninth of Av? The Israeli Knesset mandates a memorial day for the Nazi genocide of the Jews--Yom haShoah. But that commemoration is the creation of a parliament of a modern Jewish democracy. Yom ha-Shoah does not confront the theological ramifications of the Holocaust. Within Judaism's ultra-Orthodox camp, traditional fast days like the Ninth of Av have also been days to commemorate Jewish martyrdom during the Shoah. But can we truly include the Nazi war against the Jews within the framework of traditional Jewish fast days? Is the Holocaust similar to previous tragedies in Jewish history? Is there not something about the Holocaust that is essentially unique, that in no way can be compared to the destructions of the Temples in Jerusalem commemorated on the Ninth of Av? Are traditional categories of catastrophe being God's punishment for Jewish sin relevant to the Shoah?

The thesis of this essay is that even Jews living during the Holocaust hell realized that a new response was required to evil that had not been broached in tradition before the 20th century. The most important defender of this new theology was Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, one of the last rabbis to lead his followers in the Warsaw Ghetto.

We will never know the extent of Jewish religious belief and ritual practice in the Warsaw Ghetto. Many of the Jews in Warsaw murdered by the Nazis were religious, swearing allegiance to a particular Hasidic rebbe. But their voices remain mute. Religious Jews and their rabbinic leadership in the ghetto did not survive the war and did not live to tell us about the nature of religious life in the Warsaw Ghetto. As well, the Zionist narrative in Israel in the years leading up to the Eichmann Trial in the early 1960's was one that painted the religious Jews as being passive victims who accepted their death as the will of God. Before the Holocaust, most Jews--many of them Orthodox--rejected the Zionist movement for violating a principle in the Jewish religion by not waiting for messianic redemption to restore Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel. From an ideological standpoint, secular Zionism--Labor Zionism in particular--ignored the role of their ideological foes in the religious world and, therefore, had little interest in their story. But as we shall see, the role of religious Jews in the war saw Ghetto--and in the Shoah, as a whole--is far more complex than either the Orthodox theology that opposed Zionism or the Zionist political ideology that opposed the Orthodox could imagine. With the decline of Labor Zionism in Israel and the rise in prominence of both religious Zionists and the ultra-Orthodox, the time has come to bring the narrative of religious Jews to the fore in our understanding of the events of 1939-1945.

The first valuable resource in investigating the situation of religious Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto is the "Oneg Shabbos" archive of Emanuel Ringelblum (1900-1944). Before World War II, Ringelblum worked for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Many individuals in the ghetto joined historian Ringelblum in chronicling the persecution and ultimate destruction of Warsaw Jewry. Ringelblum and his associates collected newspapers, underground publications, letters, diaries, and German documents relating to Jewish deportations and murders, and recorded the testimony of the Jews coming to Warsaw from other ghettos) In detailing Jewish life in the ghetto, Ringelblum devotes little of the archive to religious life. He concentrates on the role of the Jewish Council and on institutional life, the day-to--day struggle for survival in the ghetto, and the murderous German agenda to deport Jews to their death in Treblinka. But what he does chronicle concerning Jewish religious observance in the ghetto is illuminating.

Ringelblum's archive, in an entry from October 1940--a time when the Germans forced Jews into the ghetto--mentions that "the finest public institutions in Warsaw have been ruined" and "eight hundred Torah scrolls desecrated." (2) In an entry for the month that followed, Ringelblum devotes a few lines to the persecution of Orthodox Jews in the ghetto:
 I marvel at the pious Jews who sacrifice themselves by
 wearing beards and the traditional frock coats. They
 are subjected to physical abuse. (3)

Obviously, there were still Jews in the ghetto who did not abandon their traditional Hasidic dress despite being tormented by the Germans. The Oneg Shabbos archive in December 1940 chronicles that "the rabbi of Praga was badly beaten because, though he did take his hat off, he left the skullcap on underneath it." (4) The Nazi tormenting of religious Jews was a common occurrence, even in the early period of the ghetto's formation. By maintaining their traditional dress, religious Jews defied the Nazis and declared their continuing faith in God.

As the situation in the Warsaw Ghetto became more desperate for the Jews, Ringelblum's archive still records the defiance of religious Jews in the face of Nazi terror. On February 19, 1941, the Oneg Shabbos records the following:
 In the prayer house of the Pietists from Braclow on
 Nowolipie Street there is a large sign: 'Jews, Never Despair!"
 The Pietists dance there with the same religious fervor as
 they did before the war. After prayers one day, a Jew danced
 there whose daughter had died the day before. (5)

A month later, Ringelblum's archive records the celebration of Purim in the ghetto. The entry for March 10, 1941 records the following:
 There were assemblies in celebration of Purim this year.
 People hope for a new Purim--to celebrate the downfall
 of the modern Haman, Hitler--that will be commemorated
 as long as the Jewish people exist. The new Purirn
 would surpass all previous Purims in Jewish history. (6)

Ringelblum records that before Passover of 1941, "there were fearful scenes in the office of the refugee organization" as Jews waited for holiday matzah and packages. (7) Even in the face of Nazi terror, Jews still prepared for the Passover holiday, ate the unleavened "bread of affliction" and hoped for better times and redemption. The Oneg Shabbos archive, however, is critical of the rabbis of the ghetto for not resisting the Nazi tormentors in some way. Out of fear of the Nazis murdering masses of Jews because of the defiant act of one Jew, Ringelblum records that the rabbis show "no evidences of a martyr's spirit" but, instead, stamp on Torah scrolls with their feet because the Nazi threatened them and all Jews if they would not participate in the desecration, (8) Whether Ringelblum's condemnation is a fair analysis of the situation is an issue that can be debated. Rabbis in the ghetto did call for armed resistance to German oppression. But the traditional Jewish way of dealing with non-Jewish authority through the centuries had been one of compliance and negotiation. This strategy worked for almost two thousand years. During the Shoah, the Jews were facing a new, far more menacing enemy, and the traditional responses no longer worked. The religious Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, like all the Jews of the ghetto, were dealing with the situation of Nazi tyranny in the only way they knew how. Can we, looking back almost 70 years later, condemn them for not rebelling before the mass deportations to death in the summer of 1942?

I would like to cite another item from the Ringelblum archive regarding religious Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto. In October of 1941, the chronicle notes the following:
 This Rosh ha-Shana, people were seized for forced
 labor. Jewish informers took soldiers with them to
 the prayer quorums during services, and there--in
 the prayer room--people were able to buy their way
 out of forced labor service. (9)

While Ringelblum is obviously critical of Jews paying off the Germans at a synagogue during the High Holy Days to avoid slave labor, I find it quite amazing that only months before the mass deportations to Treblinka, after a year of suffering from disease and starvation in the ghetto, there would still be Jews praying to God in a synagogue for the Jewish New Year. It is quite remarkable.

Finally, here is a most poignant account from the archive of the celebration of the minor Jewish holiday of Lag ba-Omer in the Warsaw Ghetto in May of 1942:
 The children's Lag ba-Omer celebrations were very
 impressive this year. A large children's program was presented
 in the big Femina Theater hall. Children from all
 the schools performed. They were rewarded with sweets.
 Procession after procession of school children marched
 through the streets toward the Femina. (10)

The armed rebellion in Warsaw should always be remembered in our collective consciousness as a people. Yet, we must never forget Jewish spiritual and cultural resistance. We can glean enough material from Emanuel Ringelbum's Oneg Shabbos archive to understand the importance of Judaism and the Jewish calendar in the life of hell Jews lived in the Warsaw Ghetto.

Another important set of resources that can tell us about the religious life of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto is the diary and memoirs of Hillel Seidman. (11) Seidman, an Orthodox Jew affiliated with ultra-Orthodox Agudas Yisroel organization, served as the Director of Archives of the Warsaw Jewish community (the Kehillah). During the ghetto period, the Kehillah became part of the ghetto's Jewish Council. Seidman knew many of the leaders of Warsaw Jewish life both before and during the war. Especially important for the investigation of this essay is the fact that the community archivist befriended many of the rabbis who led the Warsaw commtmity. Seidman survived the Shoah. His diaries and his memoirs should be studied in more depth since they reveal much more information concerning Jewish religious life in the ghetto than does the Ringelblum archive.

In the diaries--Seidman started his chronicle at the height of the deportations of Jews to Treblinka in July of 1942--he describes the existence in the ghetto of underground yeshivas where young men studied the holy texts of Judaism. Suffering from the pangs of starvation, these students emerged in the earliest hours of the morning to forage for food in order to stay alive. Seidman encounters the yeshiva students and is moved by their dedication to Torah in the face of the Nazi onslaught. (19)

Seidmam describes in a September 21 entry how the religious Jews were able to pray on the Yom Kippur holiday despite the Nazi demand that the Jews work. In a tightly packed room, Seidman sets the following scene:
 The Germans have decreed that work must continue through Yom Kippur
 but the Jews seek strategies to circumvent this. All the factories
 and the workshops organize their own communal prayers, where they
 daven with broken hearts and great kavannah. In one workshop the
 famous chazzan, Gershon Sirota, led the prayers. Even in the years
 preceding the War, his voice had become weak and lost its previous
 resonance. Now, in his old age and under the most oppressive
 conditions, his voice amazingly returned with all its former vigor
 and charm. His congregation listened in surprise and wonder as the
 talented but aged chazzan, surpassed all his previous performances,
 and many an eye ran with tears. (13)

Seidman continues describing in his moving diary entry how the Jews chanted with the cantor the solemn words of the prayer Avinu Malkeinu. How Jews found the fortitude after the mass deportations of only a few weeks before to praise God--this is an amazing chapter in the spiritual and religious life and resistance of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.

In a diary entry during the holiday of Sukkot, Seidman describes how, in one workshop in the ghetto, Rabbi Avraham Hendel was able to sneak in rabbis and yeshiva students. As they worked, they recited the prayers-including the Hoshanot--and afterwards reviewed their Talmudic lessons of texts that they knew from memory. They do so despite the danger of being caught by the German overseers in the workshop. Seidman writes of these pious men:
 Who worries about the German overseers or the SS? Rapidly, they
 forget the continual hunger, the ongoing persecution and
 oppression, the ever-present threat of death. They are no longer in
 a factory at 46 Nowolipie Street, but inside the Temple's Hewn
 Chamber at a sitring of the Sanhedrin. While some succumb to their
 maltreatment, these gedolim rise to new spiritual heights. (14)

In his post-war memoirs, Seidman recounts the tragic fate of the renmant of the Warsaw Jews celebrating the holiday of Simchat Torah in 1942. He tells the story of one of Warsaw's great rabbis--Rabbi Yehudah Leib Orlean--who defied the Nazi murderers in his celebration of what was suppose to be a holiday of thorough joy:
 By Simchas Torah 1942, out of half a million souls, only a small
 remnant--approximately 30,000 Jews-remained alive in the former
 capital of Polish Jewry. About fifteen men assembled in Rav
 Menachem Ziemba's apartment at 37 Nalewki Street to pray and
 conduct the hakofos. They held the sifrei Torah and walked solemnly
 round the table. All of them were broken men, bereft of family and
 relatives, their hearts overflowing with despondency. R. Yehudah
 Leib was totally heartbroken on discovering that his wife and five
 children, whom he had personally educated in Torah and piety, had
 been brutally murdered. The traditional verses of Simchas Torah,
 usually sung with such gusto, were instead intoned with sadness.

 Suddenly, a young twelve-year-old boy entered the room and picked
 up a siddur to pray. This was most unusual. Hardly any children
 still survived in the Ghetto; generally they were the first victims
 of the barbaric Germans. As the congregants stepped heavily around
 the room, R. Yehudah Leib suddenly sprang from the circle. He
 grabbed the young boy and, clasping him to the sefer Torah in his
 arms, he began to dance wildly while loudly chanting, "A yunger Yid
 mit die heilige Torah--a young Jew with the Holy Torah!" A shudder
 went through the small congregation at the strange sight; grown men
 began to weep quietly. Then they joined in with the improvised
 niggun and formed a dancing circle around R. Yehudah Leib and the
 boy. R. Yehudah Leib danced with unnatural energy, continually
 roaring out the words, "A yunger Yid mit die heilige Torah.
 "Despite his own profound personal tragedy--his great love for the
 Torah coupled with a great educator's empathy for an unknown Jewish
 child found voice in that superhuman dance. That was the final
 dance on the ultimate Simchas Torah of the last Jews in Warsaw.

Seidman's account of Rabbi Yehudah Leib Orlean is one of tragedy--yet also one of spiritual defiance. This defiance was embodied in the life and death of another great Warsaw rabbi, Menachem Ziemba. The heartbreaking story of the last Simchas Torah in the ghetto took place in Ziemba's apartment. During the Sukkot holiday of 1942, Seidman recounts how, despite the danger, Rabbi Ziemba broke open the roof of his apartment to construct a primitive sukkah! Hundreds of Chasidim and yeshiva students streamed into Ziemba's apartment to fulfill the mitzvah of sitting in the makeshift booth. A number of Jewish policemen lived in the rabbi's building. They betrayed Ziemba to the Jewish Council authorities. Ziemba escaped punishment but was then forced to move to new living quarters. (16)

Menachem Ziemba was one of the last rabbis to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto up until the April 1943 rebellion.

Rabbi Ziemba's heroism in the face of the Nazis is inspiring, remarkable, and has not yet been acknowledged in the proper manner. Born in 1883 to a poor Hasidic family, Ziemba struggled most of his life to make a living. In 1935, as an important figure in the Agudas Yisroel in Poland, he came to prominence as a member of the Warsaw rabbinical council. As the Nazis murdered more authoritative and well-known rabbis in the ghetto, Ziemba's stature rose. Ziemba was the conscience of the ghetto. He never carried a rifle or a grenade but his spirit inspired the Jews of the ghetto to fight back against the Nazi oppressor. (17) For Ziemba, the traditional pious Jewish response of martyrdom in the face of the enemy was no longer valid. The Nazi genocide demanded a new response, that of armed resistance. Ziemba defended this transformation as grounded in halakhah, Jewish law.iS At a meeting of the remnant of the leadership of Warsaw Jewry on January 14, 1943--only months before the rebellion--Ziemba spoke out as a staunch advocate of armed resistance. His words transfixed the Warsaw Jewish leadership:
 Of necessity, we must resist the enemy on all fronts ... We shall
 no longer heed his instructions. Henceforth, we must refuse to wend
 our way to the Umschlag-platz, which is but a blind and a snare--a
 veritable stepping-stone on the road to mass annihilation ... Had
 we lived up to our presumed status of a "people endowed with wisdom
 and understanding," we would have discerned ab initio the enemy's
 plot to destroy us as a whole, root and branch, and would have put
 into operation all media of information in order to arouse the
 conscience of the world. As it is now, we have no choice but to
 resist. We are prohibited by Jewish law from betraying others, nor
 may we deliver ourselves into the hands of the arch-enemy ... Our
 much vaunted prudence--not to be identified with genuine wisdom and
 true understanding--blurred our vision and turned out to be more
 devastating than folly and stupidity. To paraphrase the words of
 our Sages, "Korah of old accentuated his innate aptitude for
 prudence to such an extent, that it blurred his vision and, in the
 end, it was his folly that brought about his ultimate doom." (19)

The discussion continued after Ziemba spoke. Fearing that the Jewish leadership would not support resistance, Ziemba spoke again more emphatically about the need for Jews to adopt a new strategy--not traditional martyrdom--m the face of an overwhelming oppression and murder they had not faced before in their long history:
 Sanctification of the Divine Name manifests itself in varied ways.
 Indeed, its special form is a product of the times we live in.
 Under the sway of the First Crusade, at the end of the eleventh
 century, Halakhah--as an echo of political events of the times--had
 determined one way of reacting to the distress of Franco-German
 Jews, whereas in the middle of the twentieth century, during the
 onrushing liquidation of the Jews in Poland, Halakhah prompts us to
 react in an entirely different manner. In the past, during
 religions persecution, we were required by the law "to give up our
 lives even for the least essential practice." In the present,
 however, we are faced by an arch foe, whose unparalleled
 ruthlessness and total annihilation purposes know no bounds.
 Halakhah demands that we fight and resist to the very end with
 unequaled determination and valor for the sake of Sanctification of
 the Divine Name. (20)

The meeting ended with those words of "the Gaon of Praga," Rabbi Ziemba. I find Ziemba's January 1943 proclamation fascinating for two reasons. First, that Ziemba was not only performing mitzvot in the ghetto--such as building a Sukkah at the risk of his own life. He was also doing something even more daring--Ziemba recalibrated the contours of Jewish law in the face of the terrifying reality of the Shoah. The rabbi cited halakhah to respond to a totally new situation in the history of the Jewish people. His understanding of Jewish law in the case of martyrdom was molded by the terrible world and experience around him. The traditional understanding of martyrdom and sanctifying the Divine Name was an inadequate response in the face of Nazi genocide. God and Jewish law demanded a new response. Although Ziemba cited halakhah, he daringly transformed the nature of Jewish response to disaster in history. This, in my mind, is remarkable and heroic.

The second element of Ziemba's words in January 1943 was the fact that he based resistance to the Nazis on halakhah. Why did he need to do so? Was not the fact of mass murder in Treblinka enough of a justification for Jewish armed rebellion? Indeed, it was--but for Ziemba as a religious Jew, even in the face of extreme oppression and cruelty, all actions that were done had to be performed based on Jewish law. Years of starvation and disease in the ghetto did not blunt Menachem Ziemba's love of Torah and Judaism. His story is an inspiring one that should never be forgotten.

In April of 1943, before the ghetto uprising, Menachem Ziemba, David Szapiro, and Samson Stockhammer-Warsaw's last surviving rabbis--were offered sanctuary in the "Aryan" section of the city of Warsaw. They refused. They could not abandon the Jews of the ghetto. The Germans shot Ziemba a few days later in the streets of the ghetto. Szapiro was the sole survivor among the three rabbis. Their refusal to leave the Warsaw Ghetto was an example of spiritual resistance at its most inspiring. While we should always remember with pride the armed resistance of the Labor Zionists, Bundists and Revisionists, the heroism of Menachem Ziemba and his colleagues should also be forefront in our minds. Rabbi Ziemba understood that the Nazi genocide of the Jews demanded a response grounded in tradition, but a new and revolutionary response nevertheless. The time has arrived for Jews to confront the Holocaust as a new and terrifying chapter in the history of our people. Martyrdom is no longer the proper response to persecution--nor is the theology of Jewish catastrophe being a punishment for sin. Rabbi Ziemba's theology of defiance, formulated and expressed in our darkest days, should inspire us to move forward in history and live for God and for our 3000-year-old faith.


(1.) Walter Laqueur, editor, The Holocaust Encyclopedia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001, p. 457.

(2.) Emmanuel Ringelblum, Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, New York: McGraw Hill, 1958, p. 80.

(3.) Ibid,. p. 83.

(4.) Ibid., p. 111.

(5.) Ibid., p. 125.

(6.) Ibid., p. 139.

(7.) Ibid., p. 154.

(8.) Ibid., p. 174.

(9.) Ibid., p. 224

(10.) Ibid., p. 287.

(11.) Hillel Seidman, The Warsaw Ghetto Diaries, trans. Yosef Israel, Southfield, Michigan: Targum Press, 1997.

(12.) Ibid., pp. 97-100.

(13.) Ibid., p. 128.

(14.) Ibid., 145-6.

(15.) Ibid., pp. 368-9. From "Personalities I Knew in the Ghetto" from The Warsaw Ghetto Diaries.

(16.) Ibid., pp. 347-8.

(17.) "Menahem Zemba" in The Encyclopaedia Judaica, First Ed., Jerusalem: Keter, 1972, Vol. 16, p. 986.

(18.) Ehud Luz, Wrestling with an Angel: Power, Morality, and Jewish Identity, translated by Michael Swirsky, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998, p. 59.

(19.) "Menahem Ziemba of Praga" by Rabbi Israel Elfenbein in Guardians of Our Heritage (1724-1953), edited be Leo Jung, New York: Bloch Publishing, 1958, p. 611.

(20.) Ibid., pp. 611-12.

ELI KAVON is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida. He received his ordination from The Rabbinical Academy in Woodmere, New York. Rabbi Kavon studied Comparative Religion and History at Columbia University and earned a Master's degree in Jewish Studies in 2009 from the Spertus Institute in Chicago. He is on the faculty of The Lifelong Learning Institute in Davie, Florida and he is a regular contributor of essays to Midstream. He last appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Midstream, with an article about Yom Ha'Shoah.
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Title Annotation:Judaism: Theology
Author:Kavon, Eli
Date:Jun 22, 2012
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