Purim in the Warsaw Ghetto

 Purim was likely one of the most difficult holidays for Jews who endured the Shoah to celebrate. The victory of Mordechai and Esther over Haman, the architect of the ancient genocide of the Jews, was not reflected in the reality of Nazi genocide that succeeded in destroying two thirds of European Jewry. The contrast between tradition and reality must have been painful. Nevertheless, Jews never gave up on the hope of destroying Hitler and this is reflected in the celebration of Purim in the Warsaw Ghetto.

The great archivist of life and death in the Warsaw Ghetto was historian Emanuel Ringelblum (1900-1944). Ringelblum’s “Oneg Shabbos” archive, most of which was discovered after World War II, recorded every element of ghetto life and death, from the workings of the Jewish Councils to the records of starvation and disease among those Jews confined to the Ghetto. He included as well, elements of religious life in his archive. His entry for March 10, 1941 records that “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 Purim would surpass all previous Purims in Jewish history.”

Historian Shimon Huberbrand wrote that the mood of Jews during the first Purim in the Warsaw Ghetto “was terrible; the predominant spirit wasn’t of Purim but of Tisha B’av.” As recorded by Nehemia Polen in his translation of the teachings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira—the Piaseczner Rebbe— Huberbrand visited the great Warsaw rabbi during this first Purim and the spiritual leader was struggling to rejoice with his Hasidic followers during this difficult celebration. In his sermon for Purim, Shapira stated that “The obligation to rejoice is not only for the person who is already happy, or merely for the individual who is in a potentially joyful situation. Rather, even if the person feels lonely and brokenhearted, with mind and spirit crushed, he must inject at least a spark of joy into his heart.” He continued that “the divine salvation and joy which Purim bestows upon us [as a gift of grace], are active and effective even now.”

By the end of the war, the modern Haman had been defeated by the Allied forces. As one of the Nazi leaders declared before he was hanged after the Nuremberg Trials, this was “Purim Fest 1946.” The hangings of these war criminals reflected the hangings of Haman and his ten sons as recorded in the Scroll of Esther. The Warsaw Jews, even in the depths of despair could believe that the Jews’ greatest enemy could be defeated. And the modern Haman was defeated. The tragedy is that most of those who hoped for this just retribution were murdered and did not live to see its fulfillment.