The following excerpts are from Witness to History, edited by Ruth Lichtenstein
These are the stories, passed down as a sacred oral tradition, from survivors to their children. These true stories portray the human side of Holocaust statistics; they commemorate six million souls who would otherwise be anonymous victims; they give a voice to their silenced stories. These are the anecdotes recorded on scraps of paper and in hidden diaries, the stories preserved in the memories of friends and witnesses who cheated death. Culled from documents and interviews, here are the words that tell us why the Jewish spirit remained alive long after so many Jews were murdered.
The Piaseczner Rebbe
Life had become a macabre nightmare. Hunger and terror ruled; people had been reduced to little more than physical existence, groveling for survival before a monstrous beast. Few people could imagine freedom; fewer still could focus on anything more than their next crust of bread.
Discovered buried in Warsaw, Esh Kodesh (Holy Fire) is a collection of Torah insights revealing a spiritual awareness that transcended the circumstances in which it was composed. This remarkable work was authored by the Piaseczner Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira. Leader of a chassidic court he had established in Piaseczno, Poland, at the age of twenty, Rabbi Shapira commanded a loyal following. His sharp intellect and personality established him as one of the great chassidic leaders of his time, and he founded and taught in the Da’as Moshe yeshivah. Rabbi Shapira authored several books, among them Chovos ha-Talmidim, a text of religious inspiration and ethics for yeshivah youth.
His notebooks of writings, later published as Esh Kodesh, were found with a letter from Rabbi Shapira, begging the finder to arrange for their publication. The book has since become a classic of inspirational religious thought.
World War II broke out shortly before the High Holy Days of 1939. Rabbi Shapira immediately left Piaseczno for Warsaw, along with some of his followers. The early months of the war shattered Rabbi Shapira’s familiar world. His writings during those months, however, reflect a single line of thought: suffering must be used as a medium to perfect a relationship with God.
The prayers that year proceeded despite constant shelling, and Rabbi Shapira maintained his rigorous schedule, giving lectures every Sabbath and holiday to all who sought comfort and inspiration in those trying times. During the two days before Sukkos, incessant bombing ravaged Warsaw, killing thousands and injuring the rebbe’s only son, Rabbi Elimelech Benzion Shapira. He was transferred to the local hospital, and when his wife heard the news, she and her aunt (Rabbi Kalonymus’ sister-in-law) rushed there. As they arrived, a shell burst near the hospital, killing the two women only a few days before Rabbi Elimelech, too, died of his wounds, shortly before the Sabbath.
"There are no words to express our pain, there is no one to mourn, and there is no heart to awaken to worship of God and Torah…"
That entire Sabbath, the Piaseczner Rebbe’s serenity belied his inner anguish. Only at the end of the Sabbath did the rebbe allow his pain to flicker forth. “Ich hob shoin di milchomo farshpilt (I have already been defeated in this war),” he said to his followers. “May God help the Jewish people emerge victorious.”
His mother passed away only two weeks later. Shortly thereafter, he wrote:
We cannot go in the ways of God only when things are good for us. . . . When a person is steeped in good, it’s easy for him to serve God with joy, love, and excitement. When, God forbid, he experiences suffering, he should make use of that situation and serve God with a broken heart and an outpouring of his soul.
As the hunger and aktionen intensified in the ghetto and fear dominated the lives of its inhabitants, the Piaseczner Rebbe still urged his fellow Jews to study, to grow, and to love God despite—and even because of—all the horrors. “If we have more free time, we must establish more Torah lectures,” he instructed.
Among his many inspiring thoughts was one lecture he presented during the summer of 1941:
When a Jew contemplates the physical and spiritual holocaust, the destruction of Torah and religion . . . he is deeply saddened, but, because of his deep desire for Torah and for worship of God and his pain over its destruction, he can sweeten these terrible decrees and draw down salvation for Israel.
Rabbi Shapira admonished those who despaired, calling on them to use their time to study Torah. Yet in late 1942, he added a note to these comments in his writings, emphasizing that in early 1941 it had still been possible to consider the natural rebuilding of Jewish life. But now, he wrote,
“. . . the holy congregations have been almost entirely destroyed, and only a few remain, lost in hard labor, permeated by fear of death; there are no words to express our pain, there is no one to mourn, and there is no heart to awaken to worship of God and Torah . . . only God can take mercy and save us . . . only with a complete redemption.”
Rabbi Shapira continued his teachings until the deportations of 1942, when the ghetto ceased to function entirely.
The intensity of the Jews’ suffering aroused disturbing questions, questions that profoundly challenged religious faith. Many of those questions still resound today: Why did God do this? Why must the Jews suffer so? What is the purpose of suffering?
The Piaseczner Rebbe never attempted to diminish the suffering of the Jews, yet he tempered the pain with an abiding conviction in the redemptive power of faith:
But in truth, what place do such questions [such as examining why God is testing us in this way] have? . . . How can we attempt to understand these acts of God, and then suffer a blemish [in our faith] when we do not succeed? If we cannot grasp the real meaning of even one blade of grass which God created, if we cannot comprehend the soul—and even more so, an angel—then how could we ever attempt to know that which He alone understands?
In one illustration of his evolving thought, in 1941 Rabbi Shapira wrote that those who believe that the suffering of the Holocaust is unprecedented are mistaken, for the Jews suffered similarly in the destruction of the temples and other historical catastrophes. Yet Rabbi Shapira qualified this opinion in late 1942. With the horrors of the summer’s mass deportations still fresh, and barely a remnant of what was the largest Jewish community in Poland still alive, Rabbi Shapira wrote that his former statement applied
. . . only for the tribulation until the end of 5702 [summer of 1942], but after the unprecedented suffering and terrible deaths that the murderous evildoers invented for the Jews, according to my knowledge of [the words of] Chazal [the Sages] and the history of the Jews, there has never been anything like this. And may God have mercy on us.
In his later writings in 1942, when the end seemed near, Rabbi Shapira expressed his increasing pain at the horrors occurring around him:
Everything that a Jew says or does, the essence of his soul actually directs toward God, so it seems to a person that he is requesting a favor from a man, but his inner soul is really appealing to God . . . and when we hear the cries of pain of young and old, crying out, “Save us, save us,” we know that this is the cry of their soul, and of the soul of all of us, to God, our merciful Father—“Save us, save us”—so long as there is a breath of life within us.
And indeed, it is amazing that the world can still stand after so many such cries. In the [midrash of] the ten martyrs of Israel [ten sages whom the Romans tortured and murdered in the second century CE] it says [that] a heavenly voice declared, “If I hear one more cry, I will turn the world to water.” And now innocent children . . . and the holy great ones of Israel are killed and butchered just because they are Jewish . . . and the whole world fills with their screams. And the world is not turned to water, but stands as if nothing has happened.
"The whole world fills with their screams. And the world is not turned to water, but stands as if nothing has happened."
The closing lines of Rabbi Shapira’s Esh Kodesh convey both his sensitivity to Jewish suffering and his faith in God’s salvation:
On Shabbos Chazon , we read of the vision of Isaiah . . . because in heaven they see the afflictions of the Jews. . . . And through this pain, they bring the salvation. The reading begins with the most difficult of all visions and concludes with the salvation, “Zion [Israel] shall be redeemed with justice, and her captives with charity.”
Shortly before the Germans liquidated the ghetto, the Piaseczner Rebbe was assigned to work in the “Schultz shop,” the shoe factory managed by Avraham Hendel. During the Warsaw uprising, Rabbi Shapira was deported to the Poniatow labor camp near Lublin. He was murdered there on November 2, 1943. He stayed with his people until his death, offering comfort, inspiration, and a vision of a higher purpose amid the most unimaginable evil.
A Life’s Work
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, [father of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, Ashkenazic chief rabbi of Israel from 1993 – 2003] rabbi of Piotrkow, Poland, had spent years researching the Jewish laws of kiddush Hashem in preparation for a book on the subject. Few understood his passion for a seemingly impractical topic. He told them, “I foresee that hard times are coming, when every Jew will need to know these laws. We must study how to die, just as we now study how to live.”
When the Nazis invaded in 1940, his prediction came true. Rabbi Lau was appointed to the Judenrat, the Jewish city council, and his home became a haven for the needy of Piotrkow and the refugees passing through the town.
On October 14, the Nazis ordered the Jews of Piotrkow to report to the deportation area. A serene Rabbi Lau appeared in the square, dressed in his traditional clothing, his full beard intact. More concerned for his followers than for himself, he was afraid that if he hid, his absence would prompt the Nazis to launch an intensive search for him, which would ferret out other Jews from their hiding places.
Rabbi Lau remained in the deportation square throughout the aktion, a small Torah scroll in his arms, as the Nazis dragged the townspeople onto the trains. On the fourth day, the head Nazi roared at him, “The Jews need you there, too!” and so he joined the last transport to Treblinka.
In Treblinka, with the end imminent, he stood at the head of the crowd and cried out the final viduy, the confession before death, his words echoed by the voices of the Jews repeating it after him. His vision of a need for a work on Kiddush Hashem had tragically become a reality.
Warsaw Ghetto, 1942:
The aktion was raging. A group of Jews huddled in an attic, among them Rabbi Aharon Perlow. Rabbi Perlow was known as a scholar, a violinist, and the sensitive, self-effacing son of the Stoliner Rebbe, head of one of Lithuania’s chassidic groups. The cramped, dark attic in which the Jews were hiding had been arranged by Berele “Ganif” (thief in Yiddish), a local Jew known for his pilfering tendencies.
“Jews,” he screamed, “how can we sit by while a Jewish woman is in danger?”
A crack in the wall of the attic afforded them a view of both the lower level of the house in which they hid and the entrance area to the building. A few days into the aktion, Reb Aharon and the others noticed a terrified pregnant woman running into the building looking for a place to hide, with a Nazi just behind her. They watched as she fell, her body thudding to the ground. The Nazi cocked his rifle, aiming it directly at her. Rabbi Perlow leaped up and reached for the door. The others tried to stop him from leaving, pleading with him that he could do no good; the Nazi would simply kill them both, and possibly discover their hideout.
“Jews,” he screamed, “how can we sit by while a Jewish woman is in danger?”
The soft-spoken rabbi ran out of the attic, roaring at the Nazi: “Murderer, is your heart made of stone? Do you not have a mother of your own?”
The Nazi, shocked by the sight of the man in full chassidic garb shouting at him, initially turned to run from the building. But then he twisted back and began to fire his gun furiously, repeatedly, mechanically, mortally wounding both the woman and Rabbi Perlow.
Shuddering in agony from his wounds, Rabbi Perlow raised a clenched fist and whispered: “. . . say viduy. Bring my violin and play the niggun [melody]. . . .”
Berele Ganif raced to get the violin as Rabbi Perlow lay in a growing pool of his own blood.
Berele Ganif played the melody. He cried and played, the music mingling with the screams of Rabbi Perlow’s wife. . . He played until the rabbi’s eyes finally closed, and then Berele fell to the ground, clutching the holy man’s body: “Rebbe! I was a thief, but I have a Jewish heart. I swear, I swear on your body, on your holy soul, Rebbe, that I will continue this niggun!”
A Torah Court Case in Auschwitz
Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aronson recalls:
June 1944. I was one of the old-timers in the Buna-Auschwitz death camp when we were told of the arrival of the “Magyars.” . . . Much to my astonishment I found that the meaning [of this term] was the Jews of Hungary—our brothers, our flesh, pious Jews, Jews who trembled for the word of God (and among them many prolific Torah Sages). The most exceptional thing about the Hungarian Jews was their simplicity. . . . After five years in the seven levels of hell, their simplicity was strange to behold.
Upon the arrival of one prisoner at Auschwitz I could see that he was a great sage. This Jew had been sent to Auschwitz together with his two young sons . . . he was the rabbi of Veititzka and his family name was Roth. . . . Soon I spoke with the rabbi about Jewish law and Torah. I was very taken with his great knowledge and his attachment to learning. Still, I could not convince him of one thing: that Auschwitz was a death camp. The simple Rabbi of Veititzka believed like many of the Hungarian Jews that he was in some kind of “health camp”. . . . I tried to convince the Rabbi that these were falsehoods, German schemes and nothing more. I went to tell him the bitter truth. . . . The Rabbi did not put credence in my words. . . .
One night the Rabbi of Veititzka came to me, swollen, his entire body beaten and sore. He whispered to me that his strength was waning and that he would not survive much longer. . . . As we spoke, the kapo of the engineering squad entered our barrack. He was a young former chassid and yeshivah student . . . a thought bolted into my mind, as if it had been heaven-sent.
The engineering squad was one of Auschwitz’s “good” assignments. Eighteen men worked there, doing specialized work for the SS. Only intelligent men, knowledgeable in engineering, could work there. The members received additional food.
. . . I told the kapo of the terrible plight of Rabbi Roth, who was working in one of the hardest squads, breaking stones, and that he wouldn’t survive long at this—a day or two more at best. I asked the kapo, “Isn’t it possible that you only merited to be appointed to this position in order to help this Jew? And it is not just one soul you will save but three, since you will be saving his two sons.”
The kapo hesitated. A long moment passed before he said “Good, I can take the risk. Tomorrow the rabbi will join my engineering squad.”
Within a few days, the Rabbi of Veititzka began to recover. I took pleasure in seeing him as he became healthier with each passing day. . . . And not just this, his sons, sustained by the extra rations . . . recuperated as well. . . . But then, one evening as I returned from a day of grueling labor I was told that the kapo wanted to see me. . . .
In brief, he wanted a din Torah [a Torah court case] against Rabbi Roth!
"If he does not eat treyf he will soon die. So why did I take this great risk?!"
“For what purpose,” asked the kapo in great anger “did I assume on myself an enormous risk to move Rabbi Roth from the rock squad to my commando? Why did I put myself in such great danger? So that in the World to Come . . . I could come and say “I saved a soul in Israel! I saved a rabbi and a Torah giant! . . . And what did our rabbi do? From the time he joined the engineering squad, he avoided eating the SS soup because it was not kosher. He subsisted only on dry bread. He did not want to eat treyf. Yet if he does not eat treyf he will soon die. So why did I take this great risk?! I took a simple prisoner and masqueraded him as an engineer! I didn’t do this so that he might die of starvation! . . . I have come to a final decision. If the rabbi does not meet me at a din Torah then tomorrow morning I will return him to the stone quarry.”
I tried to convince the kapo to let the issue ride. A din Torah in the death factory of Auschwitz was absurd. But the kapo would not back down: a din Torah—or the quarry squad!
So early the next morning, I conducted a din Torah. The kapo presented his case: he risked his life to save a Torah giant, a living Jew—one with the ability to stay alive and disseminate Torah in Israel. . .
The words of the rabbi were short and to the point. He was no longer in danger and his health was good. The kosher food could suffice for him. He had a little bread (half a kilo a day) and so he had no need to eat treyf.
The debate raged, but I finally succeeded in convincing them to accept a compromise: the rabbi would eat the non-kosher soup at the first sign that his health was once again failing. The kapo wasn’t particularly happy, but he finally acquiesced.
Rabbi Roth survived Auschwitz, but he collapsed and died on the second day of the death march. His two sons survived.
Mala Zimetbaum was young, deeply religious, and fluent in ten languages, a rising star in the Jewish community of Antwerp, Belgium.
When the Germans entered Belgium, armed with guns, swastikas, and ominous new laws, Mala’s father knew that his only daughter, then in her twenties, must be hidden far away from this new danger. Posing as a non-Jewish private music tutor, Mala moved in with a kind non-Jewish family.
One day, in a moment of seeming solitude, she softly sang the Kol Nidrei, that most haunting Yom Kippur song, to herself. Abruptly, she grew aware of her hostess in the doorway, mouth agape. In the adjacent room was a visitor to her host family, a teacher in the gymnasium. Now he entered the room, smiling genially as the melody’s echo hung in the tense air.
“Ah, my daughter, don’t worry. I’m a good Christian, friend to all the downtrodden. That song, so terribly sad, so Jewish in its sadness. . . .” He paused. “I know your secret, my dear Jewish friend, but don’t fear, it is safe with me.”
The Gestapo arrived. They beat her violently until she bled, and then they sent her to Auschwitz.
That night, the Gestapo arrived. They beat her violently until she bled, and then they sent her to Auschwitz. In the camp, Mala’s language skills convinced the Nazis that her life was worth preserving. Appointed as a translator for the Germans at Auschwitz, she relayed their messages to kapos hailing from many different countries. It was a privileged job, but Mala shared her extra food and favors with those worse off than her. She smuggled food to prisoners who were wasting away, arranged for better working conditions for some, spirited medicine to those who were too weak to survive, and warned of upcoming selections in the sick ward.
There was another side to Mala: she was secretly working with the resistance, passing them arms and information.
February 25, (Rosh Chodesh Adar) 1944. Appel, as usual. But one person was missing from the women’s camp: Mala.
A search was organized and a note was found on Mala’s bed: “I cannot live among murderers. I must go out and tell the world what you are doing to my people.”
The Germans went wild. A massive hunt was launched. Two weeks later, the entire camp was summoned to an emergency appel. Mala had been found! Surrounded by armed Nazis, she was brought before the rows of Jews and accused of “crimes against the Reich.”
An officer, his well-fed form dwarfing the frail woman, said to her: “If you beg forgiveness, you will be forgiven.”
“Never,” said Mala. “I will never give up. I will never stop trying to escape, never stop trying to tell the world what you are doing.”
And then she turned, and cried out, her voice rising: “It is upon you to rebel . . . and not to be content with this situation. I know well the schemes of these evildoers. . . . [Yet] my father taught me: if one comes to kill you, strike first and kill him.”
As the hangman set up his noose, the Nazis tried to beat her into silence. The crowd erupted with pleadings for mercy, begging for Mala’s life. Mala looked out at her people. “Now I am going to die, but I will live on forever in the hearts of the women of Israel!”
And then, from nowhere, she pulled out a razorblade and cut her own wrists.
The Germans were furious. “She must be kept alive! She must be hung!"
“God will forgive me,” she cried, and she lifted her arms, blood spilling from the gaping slits. “And you, too, my friends, my people . . . you, too, must forgive me!” She fell, bleeding but still alive.
The Germans were furious. “She must be kept alive,” the chief officer yelled wildly. “She must be hung; she must be kept alive to be hung, alive.”
They raced her to the hospital, her life draining from her. What happened next is unclear. Some witnesses say she died immediately and was sent to the crematorium. Some say she was sent to the crematorium while still alive. The Sonderkommando, who staffed the crematorium, refused to burn her and only the harshest of German threats compelled them to that terrible task. But before she had died, Mala had begged for one last favor. That night, they dug a hole, and buried her ashes. Mala received a Jewish burial in Auschwitz’s soil, one of the very few who did. Even when dead, she broke the rules of Auschwitz.
Merging cutting-edge scholarship and vibrant visuals Witness to History is the fully sourced and religiously sensitive history of the Holocaust that provides both scholarly and lay readers a deeper understanding of the unique tragedy of the era. Now in its third printing, and featuring an accompanying interactive DVD, Witness to History, breaks new ground in the field by covering Jewish spiritual resistance and the underreported experiences of Orthodox and Sephardic Jewry during World War II.
Yet Witness to History is more than a history book. It is a story of the Jewish spirit, the human spirit, of incomprehensible loss, and finally, triumphantly, of rebirth. Visit projectwitness.org to order.