No less than firing a gun

A haredi approach to heroism in the Holocaust.

spiritual resistance 88  (photo credit: FSJU)
spiritual resistance 88
(photo credit: FSJU)
On April 21, 1951, the Knesset set 27 Nisan as Holocaust Remembrance Day. The state chose the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the most famous example of armed Jewish resistance against the Nazis, to remember those murdered in the Holocaust. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was a refutation of the shameful claim, so antithetical to Zionist thought, that Jews had been led "like sheep to the slaughter." Mordechai Anielewicz, the Hashomer Hatza'ir leader who had commanded the revolt, and those who fought with him had protected the honor of Israel by fighting like men. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fit nicely with the Zionist ethos of military empowerment that rejected nearly two millennia of Diaspora Jewry's physical powerlessness against its many enemies. To this day haredi Israelis do not recognize 27 Nisan as Holocaust Remembrance Day. Instead, the Chief Rabbinate chose 10 Tevet as General Kaddish Day for those Holocaust victims whose date of death is unknown. The 10th of Tevet, a fast day that commemorates the beginning of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that preceded the destruction of the First Temple, symbolizes destruction and exile. Undoubtedly, the Zionist leaders' insistence on emphasizing the ethos of physical resistance is part of the reason for the haredi community's rejection of Israel's official Holocaust Remembrance Day (it also opposed it because in the month of Nisan certain outward expressions of sorrow are forbidden). Rabbi Moshe Blau, a leader of Agudat Yisrael in the 1940s, put it bluntly when he said that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising "is not a Jewish phenomenon." For Blau and other haredim, the Jewish people exists for the sake of fulfilling the Torah. All measures must be taken to save a Jew's life so that he or she can continue to live by the Torah's commandments. Traditional Judaism, according to Blau, opposed a suicidal public display of physical resistance against the Nazis designed to preserve Jewish honor. However, in Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership During the Holocaust, by Esther Farbstein, perhaps the most influential Holocaust scholar and educator in Israeli haredi society, a much more complex picture arises. The book, which was has just been released in an English translation in two volumes, uses for the first time sources from haredi archives, such as the Ginzach Kiddush Hashem in Bnei Brak and Agudath Israel Archives in New York and Jerusalem. Its primary focus is on the spiritual courage of devout Jews who experienced the Holocaust. Farbstein recounts how Jews risked their lives to keep Jewish customs, to save their beloved rabbis or to pray and to study Torah. There is an entire chapter on how Jews - Bundists and communists together with hassidim and mitnagdim - did everything in their power to save holy books. There is also a chapter on the halachic response to the Holocaust: Should a blessing be made on non-kosher foods? How can the Pessah Seder be kept without wine or matza? Are secular Jews considered to have sanctified God's name with their death even if they did not intend to? But Farbstein also provides a few examples of haredi rabbinic support for physical resistance to the Nazis. For instance, the Radzyner Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Shlomo Leiner, called on Jews to break out of the ghettos, flee to the forests and take up arms. Rabbi Shlomo David Yehoshua Weinberg, the Slonim Rebbe, allowed underground activists to use his basement as an arms cache. Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aronson, who was held in the Konim labor camp, supported a plan by the inmates to take revenge against German soldiers. "Let us at least defend Jewish honor and avenge our spilled blood," wrote Aronson. The plan was never carried out, however, and Aronson expressed sorrow at having missed the opportunity for vengeance and rebellion. Another East European rabbi who supported armed resistance, but who is not mentioned in this context in Farbstein's book, is Rabbi Menahem Zemba. His story appears in haredi biographer Shmuel Rothstein's 1948 book Toldot Rabbi Menahem Zemba and the recently-released Et La'asot Lehatzalat Yisrael (The Time to Rescue Israel), written by Dr. Haim Shalem, Farbstein's colleague at Bayit Vegan College. ZEMBA, A member of Agudat Yisrael's Council of Torah Sages and a central authority in the Polish haredi community, initially opposed an armed revolt against the Nazis, fearing it would needlessly endanger lives. But after a series of transports to Treblinka in July 1942 which reduced the Warsaw Ghetto population from some 450,000 to just 50,000, he realized that the Nazis planned complete annihilation and changed his mind. "If today Jews were being forced into apostasy," said Zemba, "and we could be saved by agreeing to it, as was done in Spain or after the decrees of [the First Crusade in] 1096, our death would be a kind of martyrdom. But today the only way of sanctifying God's name is by taking up arms." Faced with the Nazi program of subjugation, humiliation and annihilation of the Jewish people, he supported the ghetto fighters' choice to take up arms. Even if the uprising was suicidal, Zemba felt that death in defiance was preferable to death in surrender. According to Farbstein, rabbis were asked to condone physical resistance in three different situations: self-defense, revenge or a means of protecting Jewish honor. "In the few cases where Jews had the option of using force as self-defense, there was absolutely no doubt that this was permitted," said Farbstein in an interview with The Jerusalem Post. "But in most cases armed resistance was either a form of revenge or an expression of Jewish pride. Even then it was supported by rabbis such as Aronson and Zemba." However, for the most part, according to Farbstein, the rabbis invested most of their energies in calling for spiritual resistance. They encouraged their followers to continue to pray and learn Torah and perform acts of kindness. Part of the reason was because this was the only type of resistance possible. But, says Farbstein, spiritual resistance was also emphasized by the rabbis because the Nazi threat was perceived as spiritual, not just physical. The Nazis did not only desire to destroy the Jewish people's bodies, they strove to annihilate Jewish morality, sense of justice, compassion, faith. The best route of resistance, therefore, was spiritual: fostering Jewish ideals, customs and belief in God. Farbstein believes that haredi figures who criticized the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as "not a Jewish phenomenon" lacked a deep understanding of the situations that faced Warsaw's Jews. Many of these leaders, politically active during the 1940s and '50s, were also fighting the Zionist leadership's attempt to recast the Holocaust as a story of secular Jewish military heroism. But not all haredi political leaders attempted to present a Judaism that rejected armed resistance. For instance, in 1956, after the international community condemned Israel for invading Egypt and occupying the Sinai Peninsula, Yitzhak Itshe Meir Levin (Agudat Yisrael), speaking like a true Zionist, defended the act. "A million and a half young people and children were slaughtered in broad daylight, and the world's conscience was not moved," he said. "Now the Jews are gathered in the State of Israel. But still the outside world cannot give its consent. Perhaps it bothers [the gentiles] because the Jews refuse to go to the slaughter, but defend themselves courageously." In the 1970s and '80s as Israelis developed a more sophisticated understanding of the Holocaust, they recognized other types of resistance. Putting aside the conscious Zionist effort to emphasize only physical resistance, they were now more capable of appreciating spiritual resistance. In a long footnote to Hidden in Thunder that discusses different definitions of resistance, Farbstein retells the story of a group of Auschwitz prisoners who, during Hanukka 1941, set fire to eight pieces of cardboard and sang "Maoz Tzur" in full sight of German soldiers. Farbstein quotes historian Yehuda Bauer who, commenting on this story, states, "None of the people who did this were religious. But on the threshold of death, and in the hell of Auschwitz, they demonstrated. They asserted several principles: that contrary to Nazi lore they were human; that Jewish tradition, history and values had a meaning for them in the face of Auschwitz; and that they wanted to assert their humanity in a Jewish way." Bauer then asks, "Was their act less than firing a gun?" Hidden in Thunder provides additional examples of spiritual heroism that are also "no less than firing a gun."