It was the fall of 1942, and for the remaining Jews in Warsaw, the future looked bleak.
In July of that year, the Germans had begun carrying out large-scale deportations from the ghetto, dispatching more than a quarter of a million Jews to the death camp at Treblinka.
Adam Czerniakow, who had served as chairman of the Warsaw Judenrat (Jewish council), had committed suicide on July 23, swallowing a cyanide pill in his office rather than comply with Nazi demands to collaborate in the effective liquidation of the ghetto. The final entry in Czerniakow’s diary stated simply, “I am powerless, my heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this.”
By the summer’s end, perhaps 60,000 Jews remained in the ghetto – out of the 400,000 who had lived there at its peak.
Any illusions that some may have once had about the intentions of the Germans, or even their presumed humanity, had been upended by their tormentors’ brutishness and savagery.
It was in this grim state of mind that the ghetto’s residents prepared for the High Holy Day season, when Jews traditionally affirm God’s sovereignty over the universe, and stand in judgment before the Creator.
Naturally, the arrival of the festivals brought with them painful memories, as people recalled a better time, when Jewish life in Poland was flourishing rather than flickering out.
But in an extraordinary show of spiritual fortitude, many Jews in the ghetto defied the Nazis and did their utmost to preserve the ways of their ancestors. Even amid the devastation, they found the inner strength and faith to keep the flame of Judaism alive.
Thanks to the diaries kept by Dr. Hillel Seidman, a religious Jew who served as the community’s archivist before the war, we are able to catch a glimpse of some of these heroic efforts.
Seidman subsequently escaped from the ghetto in January 1943, survived detention in a prison camp in Vichy France, and went on to raise four children in the US before he died in 1995. Written in Yiddish, his diaries were later translated and published in English, with his admiration for the efforts to sustain the ghetto’s religious life readily apparent.
Regarding Yom Kippur in the autumn of 1942, Seidman wrote, “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 pray with broken hearts and great concentration.”
He also wrote movingly about the covert yeshivot that operated in the Warsaw Ghetto, where young and old continued to study the Torah.
But it is perhaps Seidman’s account of the Simhat Torah celebration of 1942, which would prove to be the last ever held in the ghetto, that is especially heartrending, for this festival is so closely associated with singing, dancing and joy, it is difficult to imagine how Warsaw’s Jews found the spiritual stamina to commemorate it.
“About 15 men assembled in Rabbi Menachem Ziemba’s apartment at 37 Nalewki Street to pray and conduct the hakafot [ritual circling of the pulpit],” Seidman wrote. “They held the Torah scrolls and walked solemnly round the table. All of them were broken men, bereft of family and relatives, their hearts overflowing with despondency.”
Among them was Rabbi Yehuda Leib Orlean, a Gerrer Hassid who had been one of the founders of Poalei Agudat Yisrael and its first president, and a well-known Torah scholar, writer and orator.
Rabbi Orlean “was totally heartbroken on discovering that his wife and five children, whom he had personally educated in Torah and piety, had been brutally murdered.” Not surprisingly, Seidman related, “The traditional verses of Simhat Torah, usually sung with such gusto, were instead intoned with sadness.”
But then, something entirely unexpected happened.
A 12-year-old Jewish boy entered the makeshift synagogue, picked up a prayer book and began to participate.
“This was most unusual,” Seidman pointed out, because “hardly any children still survived in the ghetto; generally, they were the first victims of the barbaric Germans.”
At that point, Rabbi Orlean came to life. He grabbed hold of the young boy and pulled him close to the Torah scroll in his arms, dancing energetically while chanting over and over, “A yunger Yid mit di heilige Toyreh!” (A young Jew with the holy Torah!).
“A shudder went through the small congregation at the strange sight,” Seidman wrote, adding that “grown men began to weep quietly.” But then all joined in, forming a circle around the young boy and the rabbi, who continued to sing with all his might, “A yunger Yid mit di heilige Toyreh!” “That,” Seidman concluded, “was the final dance on the ultimate Simhat Torah of the last Jews in Warsaw.”
I have no doubt that Rabbi Orlean’s chant pierced the highest realms of Heaven, sending a tremble throughout the celestial hosts. Man or angel, who could possibly have witnessed such a scene without shedding a tear? No one knows what became of that child with whom Orlean danced so exuberantly. The rabbi was subsequently sent to Bergen-Belsen, where in 1943 on Simhat Torah he was deported to the Bergneu camp, where he is presumed to have been murdered.
It might seem odd to look back to the dark days of the Holocaust as we celebrate Simhat Torah. Why dredge up such memories on such a joyous day? The answer lies in learning the invaluable lesson that Rabbi Orlean taught us all that day in German-occupied Warsaw some 72 years ago.
In the midst of so much Jewish death and suffering, Rabbi Orlean knew that as long as there were still Jewish children celebrating the Torah, the people of Israel could never be vanquished.
He was able to cling to joy amid catastrophe, to grab hold of the Jewish future and refuse to surrender, confident in our people’s indestructibility and destiny.
Were he alive today, when synagogues throughout Israel bustle with Jewish families on Simhat Torah, Rabbi Orlean would surely take pride in the fact that the sight of a Jewish child with the Holy Torah is no longer something out of the ordinary. All the more reason, he would assuredly add, for us to celebrate.