In May of 1942, Warsaw Ghetto archivist and historian Emanuel Ringelblum recorded the celebration of Lag Ba’Omer in the dark days preceding the mass deportation of Jews to death in Treblinka. “The children’s Lag B’Omer celebrations were very impressive this year” chronicled Ringelblum. “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.” Although the historian’s “Oneg Shabbes” archive did not often touch on religious life in the ghetto, this entry is illuminating.

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The fact that children and the community celebrated this minor holiday in the Jewish calendar after intense years of suffering, the fact that religious and cultural life continued despite disease, persecution and starvation, are a testament to the power of Judaism, Jewish faith, Jewish will, and Jewish identity. It is the epitome of Jewish spiritual resistance to the Nazis that must be recognized.

Ringelblum’s archive itself was a heroic achievement of memory and resistance. Before World War II, Ringelblum worked for the American Joint Distribution Committee. Many individuals in the ghetto joined historian Ringelblum in chronicling the persecution and ultimate destruction of Warsaw Jewry in the ghetto.

Ringelblum and his associates collected newspapers, underground publications, letters, diaries, and German documents relating to Jewish deportations and murders, and to record the testimony of the Jews coming to Warsaw from other ghettos and labor camps. In detailing Jewish life in the ghetto, Ringelblum does not devote much of the archive to religious life for Jews in the vise of the Nazis.

He concentrates, for the most part, on the role of the Jewish Council and on institutional life, the day-to-day struggle for survival in the ghetto, as well as the German agenda to deport Jews to their death in Treblinka. But what he does chronicle concerning religious life in the ghetto is important. The historian did not survive the war but the “Oneg Shabbes” archive was discovered after the conflict’s end in the rubble of the ghetto.

We have more information on religious life in the ghetto from a second source: Hillel Seidman, an Orthodox Jew affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox Agudas Israel organization. He served as Director of Archives of the Kehilah, Warsaw’s Jewish communal leadership.

During the ghetto period, the Kehillah became part of the ghetto’s Jewish Council. Seidman knew many of the leaders of Warsaw Jewish life before and during the war. Seidman’s diary begins at the height of the deportations of Jews to Treblinka in July of 1942. He describes the existence of underground yeshivas in the ghetto, clandestine prayer services in slave labor shops, and focuses on the heroism of Rabbi Menachem Ziemba.

Rabbi Ziemba advocated resistance rather than martyrdom. He inspired the young fighters of the ghetto to pick up weapons and fight back. Rabbi Ziemba spoke at a meeting of the remnant of Warsaw Jewry’s leadership in January 1943: “Halachah demands that we fight to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sake of Sanctification of the Divine Name.”

Jews often look back at history and believe that religion inculcated passivity and a “lamb to the slaughter” mentality that led to disaster. Instead, they focus on military resistance and rebellion. We should always admire and remember revolts in Warsaw and Sobibor. But there is no doubt that practice of Jewish religion by the Jews of Europe during the war also was a form of resistance.

The Nazis were not only out to destroy Jews but to eradicate Judaism from the face of the planet. Survival from day to day was resistance. As we count the Omer and approach the celebration of its thirty-third day, let us remember Jews who kept the flame of Jewish faith and identity alive at the risk of their life and in the face of insurmountable odds.
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