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The Rabbi Who Recorded the Holocaust as it Unfolded Before His Eyes

January 4, 2018

 

Dr. Henry Abramson‘s TORAH FROM THE YEARS OF WRATH 1939-1943 is one of the most moving and surreal holocaust books ever published. The work follows the life and writings of the remarkable Hasidic Rabbi, Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira of Piasezcno, Poland.

Shapira was a prolific writer who experienced upon his flesh the horrific Nazi occupation of the Warsaw Ghetto. He both lived and died to tell about it. His words are not merely a diary of happenings but events recounted couched in the language of the Jewish sages of old.

These writings would have been lost but for our people’s remarkable devotion and sacrifice toward preserving our history and our heritage.

In December of 1950, Abramson writes in the introduction, “a Polish construction worker clearing rubble from the ruined Warsaw Ghetto unearthed a tin milk container containing a trove of Hebrew and Yiddish language manuscripts. The papers proved to be one of the three caches buried in the last months of the war by “Oneg Shabbat”, a secret society of amateur historians working under the direction of Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, dedicated to the task of recording the life and death of Warsaw Jewry under the Nazi occupation. Included among the documents were the wartime writings of Rabbi Shapira. His Saturday afternoon sermons, delivered between September 1939 and July 1942 and with annotations through January 1943, were published in 1960 under the Hebrew title “Aish Kodesh”: Holy Fire”.

Because, as Abramson, points out, the writings lack a proper context; nowhere in the works do the words ‘nazi’ or ‘german’ appear, it was imperative to provide this classic Jewish work a historical context.

Who better to do this than the master historian Dr. Abramson.

One cannot help but be moved already at the outset as Abramson describes how an intrepid Israeli researcher and public figure discovered among the papers what amounts to Rabbi Shapira’s final will and testament.

Written in Yiddish with the heading “Attention!!!”, the letter goes on to implore the individual(s) who would come across the collection of writings to send them to Rabbi Yeshaya Shapira, a brother of Rabbi Kalonymous who resided in Tel Aviv. One cannot help but shudder when reading the concluding lines, “When the blessed one will show mercy, and I and the remaining Jews survive the war, please return all materials to me..may God have mercy upon us, the remnant of Israel in every place, and rescue us, and sustain us, and save us in the blink of an eye”.

What follows is a personal message to his brother, written in Hebrew. The missive goes on to implore “every Jew to study my books, and the merit of my holy ancestors will stand by every student and his family, now and forever”.

Now a brief glance into some of the writings as translated and annotated by Abramson.

Rabbi Shapira, though penning sermons in his inimitable Rabbinic style was not averse to the problems affecting his kinsmen of all stripes.

He was very much aware of the lowered spiritual state of large sections of Eastern European Jewry. Assimilation and the lure of various anti-religious movements were taking a toll on Jewish youth.

He was not averse in his earlier published works (two of which predated the Holocaust) to call out the Jewish leadership for what he deemed their failure to inspire Jewish youth.

Abramson aptly describes the Rabbis passage in his (Shapira’s) “Obligation of the Students” (published before the war), as the words of “a kindly grandfather bending down and smiling as he explained how a child should slowly incorporate the spiritual wealth of Judaism into his or her being”

Shapira:

“You love to play with friends, to be wild and mischievous sometimes. Along we come and approach you with the intent of depriving you of your childhood, making you silent, sedentary, and old before your time. This is absolutely not so. You will remain young. You will go on playing with your friends. And you will reach the spiritual goal we’ve portrayed. You just have to know how to play and how to be wild, and to realize and have faith at the same time that God’s kingship extends everywhere…no matter how spiritually developed a human being may become, he must still continue to eat and drink and attend to his physical needs. Similarly, a child must play.”

In another work called “Bnei Machshava Tova” Rabbi Shapira outlines the goals of a Hasidic fellowship that he envisioned creating. Aside from the expected Torah and Kabbalah study, “from time to time it is good to have a drink together-not to grow drunk and rowdy, heaven forbid, but in the Hasidic manner: in order to bond more closely and also to awaken your spirit. This is followed by a resolution that calls for sing and dance-all in moderation”.

Back to the war-time writings.

In 1939, the Rebbe ran a small study house and Synagogue at 5 Dzielna in the Warsaw Ghetto. There he would deliver his sermons usually during the third meal of the Sabbath (“Seudah Shlishit”) which Hasidim (and other adherents of Kabbalah) consider a special time time of divine favor. These sermons would be recorded on paper after the Sabbath by either Rabbi Shapira or one of his faithful students.

Abramson calls attention to the striking originality and the uniqueness of these writings. Only one other Rabbi under Nazi occupation penned writings of a theological nature. It is almost as if the Rabbi is “live tweeting” to use modern parlance, but his words are layered and couched in Talmudic and Kabbalistic terms.

Abramson:

“It is important to recall that Torah from the Years of Wrath cannot be approached as a scholarly monograph on suffering, which merely happens to have been written during the Holocaust. It is more like a transcript of a live discussion, marred by large and uneven gaps, conducted over three years of intense persecution”

On September 25, 1939 during the Luftwaffe’s merciless bombardment of Warsaw, the Rebbe’s only son was grievously wounded and eventually died. Shortly thereafter another German payload killed the Rabbi’s sister-in-law as well as his daughter-in-law. These horrific tragedies would have been enough to silence the strongest of people. Abramson cites an excerpt from the American Yiddish “Forverts” newspaper, which described the Rebbe’s reaction at time:

“For a time, the Hasidim who were with the Rebbe thought he would collapse, though this lasted only a moment. The Rebbe composed himself, recited the verse, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away”, and directed that the deceased be taken to the cemetery for eulogy and burial”.

The papers are silent but not for long. On November 4, he continued to give his sermons which contained allusions to his personal tragedy and the lessons that can be learned from them.

The passage in the book (cited from the writings of Rabbi Shimon Huberband-a close confidante of Rabbi Shapira) which describes how shortly thereafter the Rebbe and his Hasidim risked their lives to immerse in a Mikveh (ritual bath) before the holiday of Rosh Hashanah (an important custom) makes for some edge of the seat reading.

As the historical recounting transitions to the years 1941 and 1942, the narrative sometimes becomes unbearable. Children starving to death, widesperead hunger, disease, unbelievable cruelty, and millions seemingly resigned to their fate.

Abramson provides a great discussion (with numerous citations) regarding the Rebbe’s theodic and/or anti-theodic approach to human suffering.

Equally fascinating is the Rebbe’s historical sense.

In one passage, Shapira:

“It is true that trials such as we are enduring now come only once every few centuries. In any case, how can they help us understand the current acts of God? Historical knowledge has the potential to cause damage, Heaven forbid, if we do not understand history…How can out historical awareness help our minds to understand that which the Blessed and Exalted One knows and understands? Why people are hurt under our current tribulations, more than the trials the Jews endured in the past? When one learns a verse, Talmud, or Midrash, and hears of the suffering of Jews from earlier times, how did faith remain intact, yet nowadays faith is weakened? Those people who say that trials such as these never existed in Jewish history are in error-what of the destruction of the Temple, and the fall of Beitar?”.

In 1942, the Warsaw Ghetto was ablaze with the arrival of a Jewish escapee from the Chelmno death camp who described the horrors that awaited them. As dejection and despair spread, the Rebbe, initially shaken, rebounded in a powerful sermon that expressed confidence that the Germans would be defeated and that the Jews will ultimately emerge victorious.

His final sermon was delivered on July 18 of that year. As always it is filled with messages of hope and strength. Eyewitnesses recount how he continued to devote himself to public service and religious tradition to the very end

Following the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943, he was apparently among the survivors who were deported to a labor camp where he probably died.

The book ends with a powerful affirmation of faith penned by the Rebbe himself, “Even in the depths of hell I shall not fear, for You are with me”.

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