The last Simhat Torah in the Warsaw Ghetto

They were a small group – most Jews had lost their faith in a God who they believed abandoned them; yet these religious Jews were an important part of ghetto life, their story deserves to be told.

A MODEL of the Warsaw Ghetto in Yad Mordechai (photo credit: REUTERS)
A MODEL of the Warsaw Ghetto in Yad Mordechai
(photo credit: REUTERS)
They watched in horror as their children died in the streets of the ghetto from typhus and starvation. They tried to save their sons and daughters but were barely surviving themselves. They witnessed the deportation of most of Warsaw Jewry to the death camp of Treblinka in the summer of 1942. Yet they danced on Simhat Torah, a time of great joy eviscerated by the death of their families.
They were a small group – most Jews had lost their faith in a God who they believed abandoned them; yet these religious Jews were an important part of ghetto life, and their story deserves to be told.
The most important chronicle of daily life in the Warsaw Ghetto is Emanuel Ringelblum’s Oneg Shabbat Archives. What has been found from the archives from the rubble of Warsaw tells of Jewish life under German occupation in great detail. But because he was connected to the left-wing Jewish Fighting Organization in the ghetto, he tells us little about religious life and religious Jews. Fortunately, we have the diary of an insider in the Warsaw Orthodox community who reveals much information missing in the Oneg Shabbat Archives. This is the diary of Hillel Seidman.
Seidman, an Orthodox Jew affiliated with ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel organization, served as the director of archives of the Warsaw Jewish community (the Kehillah).
During the ghetto period, the Kehillah became part of the ghetto’s Jewish Council.
Seidman knew many of the leaders of Warsaw Jewish life both before and during the war. Especially important for this essay is the fact that the community archivist befriended many of the rabbis who led the Warsaw community. Seidman survived the Shoah. His diaries and memoirs should be studied in more depth since they reveal much more information concerning Jewish religious life in the ghetto than does the Ringelblum archive.
In the diaries – Seidman started his chronicle at the height of the deportations of Jews to Treblinka in July 1942 – he describes the existence in the ghetto of underground yeshivot where young men studied the holy texts of Judaism. Suffering from the pangs of starvation, these students emerged in the earliest hours of the morning to forage for food in order to stay alive. Seidman encounters the yeshiva students and is moved by their dedication to Torah in the hell of the ghetto.
Seidman describes in a September 21 entry how the Warsaw Jews were able to pray on Yom Kippur despite the Nazi demand that the Jews work. He sets the following scene: 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 daven with broken hearts and great kavana (intention).
In one workshop the famous cantor Gershon Sirota led the prayers. Even in the years preceding the war, his voice had become weak and lost its previous resonance.
Now, in his old age and under the most oppressive conditions, his voice amazingly returned with all its former vigor and charm. His congregation listened in surprise and wonder as the talented but aged cantor surpassed all his previous performances, and many an eye ran with tears.
Seidman continues describing in his moving diary entry how the Jews chanted with the cantor the solemn words of the prayer “Avinu Malkeinu.” How Jews found the fortitude, after the mass deportations of only a few weeks before, to praise God is an amazing chapter in the spiritual and religious life and resistance of Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto.
In a diary entry during the holiday of Sukkot, Seidman describes how, in one workshop in the ghetto, Rabbi Avraham Hendel was able to sneak in rabbis and yeshiva students. As they worked, they recited the prayers – including the “Hoshanot” – and afterward reviewed their Talmudic lessons of texts that they knew from memory. They did so despite the danger of being caught by the German overseers in the workshop.
Seidman writes of these pious men: “Who worries about the German overseers or the SS? Rapidly, they forget the continual hunger, the ongoing persecution and oppression, the ever-present threat of death. They are no longer in a factory at 46 Nowolipie Street but inside the Temple’s Hewn Chamber at a sitting of the Sanhedrin. While some succumb to their maltreatment, these gedolim [great Torah personalities] rise to new spiritual heights.”
In his postwar memoirs, Seidman recounts the tragic fate of the remnant of the Warsaw Jews celebrating Simhat Torah in 1942. He tells the story of one of Warsaw’s great rabbis, Rabbi Yehudah Leib Orlean, who defied the Nazi murderers in his celebration of what was supposed to be a holiday of thorough joy.
By Simhat Torah 1942, out of half-a-million souls, only a small remnant – approximately 30,000 Jews – remained alive in the former capital of Polish Jewry. About 15 men assembled in Rabbi Menachem Ziemba’s apartment at 37 Nalewki Street to pray and conduct hakafot. 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. 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. The traditional verses of Simhat Torah, usually sung with such gusto, were instead intoned with sadness.
Suddenly, a 12-year-old boy entered the room and picked up a prayer book to pray.
This was most unusual. Hardly any children still survived in the ghetto; generally they were the first victims of the barbaric Germans. As the congregants stepped heavily around the room, Orlean suddenly sprang from the circle. He grabbed the young boy and, clasping him to the Torah scroll in his arms, he began to dance wildly while loudly chanting, “A yunger Yid mit die heilige Torah – a young Jew with the holy Torah!” A shudder went through the small congregation at the strange sight; grown men began to weep quietly. Then they joined in with the improvised niggun and formed a dancing circle around Orlean and the boy.
Orlean danced with unnatural energy, continually roaring out the words “A yunger Yid mit die heilige Torah.” Despite his own profound personal tragedy, his great love for the Torah coupled with a great educator’s empathy for an unknown Jewish child found voice in that superhuman dance.
That was the final dance on the ultimate Simhat Torah of the last Jews in Warsaw.
Seidman’s account of Orlean is one of tragedy – yet also one of spiritual defiance.
Defiance was embodied in the life and death of another great Warsaw rabbi, Ziemba. In a meeting of ghetto leadership in January 1943, Ziemba called for kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) not through martyrdom but through armed struggle against an enemy that wanted to destroy every Jew in Europe.
Ziemba is rarely mentioned in the Jewish world. Haredim focus on his scholarship rather than his revolutionary reinterpretation of sanctifying God’s name. But Seidman preserved the story of the rabbis of the ghetto, and for that we should be grateful.
His writings shed light on an ignored chapter in Holocaust history.
The author is a former rabbi.