The last rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto – Zionist?

Commemorating Menachem Ziemba, a leader in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, during 70th anniversary of the resistance.

70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The name of Mordechai Anielewicz is inscribed in the annals of the Jewish people’s greatest heroes.
Anielewicz led the desperate revolt against the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto in April 1943.
Seventy years ago, young men and women chose to die fighting rather than face mass murder in Treblinka. Anielewicz and his fighters faced death in the flames of the ghetto. They fought and died to preserve their honor as Jews.
Yet, Warsaw’s Jewish resistance did not only manifest itself in the taking up of arms against the Nazis. Jews in the ghetto also defied the Germans by never giving up their faith in God and by continuing to study Torah and perform commandments despite the great danger in doing so.
The Holocaust was a war against Jews – and a war against Judaism. By gathering in clandestine synagogues and houses of study, Jews defied the Nazis in the only way they knew. This form of religious resistance has been forgotten. Few Jews survived to tell its story.
Hillel Seidman, a Jew affiliated with the ultra-Orthodox Agudas Yisroel organization and a member of the ghetto’s Jewish Council, kept a diary after the mass deportation of Jews from Warsaw to Treblinka in the summer of 1942. Seidman tells of Menachem Ziemba’s attempt to build a succah in the ghetto before Succot after the deportations.
Rabbi Ziemba broke open the roof of his apartment to construct a primitive booth for the holiday. Those yeshiva students who remained alive streamed into Ziemba’s apartment to fulfill the mitzva of sitting in the succah. Jewish policemen in the rabbi’s building betrayed Ziemba to the Jewish Council authorities.
Ziemba was forced to move to new living quarters.
This defiance embodied the heroism of Rabbi Ziemba.
Menachem Ziemba was one of the last rabbis to survive in the Warsaw Ghetto up until the rebellion. His heroism in the face of Nazi mass murder has not yet been acknowledged in the proper manner.
Born in 1883 to a poor Hasidic family, Ziemba struggled most of his life to make a living. In 1935, as an important figure in the Agudas Yisroel organization in Poland, he came to prominence as a member of the Warsaw rabbinical council. Ziemba never carried a rifle, but his spirit inspired the Jews of the ghetto to fight back.
In a meeting of the Warsaw Jewish leadership in January 1943, Rabbi Ziemba declared that traditional martyrdom in the face of persecution was no longer a viable response. He argued that “sanctification of the Divine Name” must manifest itself in resistance to the enemy. “In the present,” Ziemba told the ghetto leaders, “we are faced by an arch foe, whose unparalleled ruthlessness and total annihilation purposes know no bounds.
Halachah [Jewish law] demands that we fight and resist to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sake of Sanctification of the Divine Name.”
Ziemba was not only performing mitzvot in the ghetto at the risk of his own life. He was doing something even more daring – Ziemba recalibrated the contours of Jewish law in the face of the terrifying reality of the Shoah. The rabbi cited halachah to respond to a new situation in the history of the Jewish people.
His understanding of Jewish law in the case of martyrdom was molded by the terrible world of death, suffering and murder. Martyrdom was an inadequate response in the face of Nazi genocide. God demanded a new response.
Ziemba daringly transformed the nature of Jewish response to persecution.
Ziemba was a leader in the anti-Zionist Agudas Yisroel – but his acknowledgement of resistance as a sanctification of God’s name and his willingness to cooperate and encourage secular Zionists places him in the same theological plane as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. Was Ziemba, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi, actually confirming the truths of religious Zionism? We will never know. But we do know that the brutal reality of the ghetto forced him to defy thousands of years of Jewish martyrdom.
Years of starvation and disease in the ghetto did not blunt Menachem Ziemba’s love of Torah and Judaism.
His story is an inspiring one.
Although the Polish underground gave Ziemba a chance to escape the ghetto before the revolt, he chose to remain with his people and died as the ghetto went up in flames.
As we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, let us not forget Rabbi Ziemba. His theology of resistance recognized that the German genocide of the Jewish people demanded a new halachic mandate to resist the enemy until the end. This theology inspires us today. Rabbi Ziemba’s Zionist legacy will continue to inspire our people.
The writer is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.