For me, a survivor of the Holocaust, the Siyum HaShas, the celebration of the completion of learning the Talmud, at MetLife Stadium and large venues around the world, is above all a day of great victory, a day of historical triumph. For me, a graduate of the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, Oranienburg, Sachsenhausen, Ohrdruf, and Buchenwald, it is a day that testifies loudly and clearly that we Jews are an eternal people, indestructible and everlasting.
As the winds of war were gathering over Europe, and Hitler’s propaganda machine was spewing vicious hatred against the Jews, I remember as a child and then a teen how a great deal of space in Nazi newspapers and magazines, like the infamous Der Sturmer, was devoted to raving tirades directed against the “Jewish Talmud.”
Their philosophy declared that the Talmud was the source of evil of the world. One publication wrote that the Talmud was “der blutkval des Veltjudentum [the blood-font of world Jewry],” embodying, in the Nazi view, the diabolical Jewish essence that threatens the world. The horrible caricatures of the ugly, hook-nosed Talmud Juden increased hatred of the Jews a thousand-fold in those terrible years preceding World War II.
One incident remains eternally etched in my memory, and none of the terrible suffering that I underwent later could erase it.
It was November 1939, at the beginning of the war and just after the Nazis had occupied Poland. Two Nazi officers burst into our home to loot it. I was home with my mother at the time and she gave them money, hoping that they would leave and let us be.
As they were about to make their arrogant exit, one of the Nazis noticed my father’s tall bookcase full of seforim, holy Jewish books. His eye fell on the beautifully bound Vilna Shas prominently displayed in our bookcase. Apparently, he had never seen such large volumes, so he asked me what books they were. I innocently replied, “It is the Talmud.”
Both Nazis threw the volumes on the floor and began grinding them with their heavy boots.
I will never forget the Nazi’s reaction. As if a cauldron of boiling water had fallen on his bare skin, he jumped up, his face contorted in rage. “The Talmud!” he bellowed as he bounded over to the bookcase and ripped one of the volumes of that Talmud from the shelf. Then, with a diabolical hatred and brutality that I had never before witnessed, both Nazis threw the volumes on the floor and began grinding them with their heavy boots. Those books, however, were well-bound and not easily destroyed. So they began ripping the pages and trashing the beautiful set, volume by volume, eventually throwing them out of the window of our apartment into the street below.
I recall watching from a corner of the room in horror, as the Nazi beasts behaved as if they had encountered Satan. It took them time but they did not tire, expending enormous energy to destroy my father’s set of Talmud and other holy books.
That pogrom against my father’s holy books remains eternally seared into my mind. It was my first encounter with the inexplicably demonic, rabid hatred of the Nazi beast.
There was, though, indeed a reason for the Nazis’ extreme reaction when they heard the word “Talmud.” An integral component of the anti-Jewish Nazi philosophy was its hatred of the Talmud. In fact, when the Nazis took over Poland, one of the first decrees their chief office of security instituted was that applications for exit visas by Orthodox Jews — Talmud-Lehrers, as they called them — would not be accepted. “The learners and teachers of Talmud have the power to rebuild the Judaism that we seek to destroy,” they said.
They were right, of course, and they also understood that the Talmud embodied all that is holy in this world, including things like humility, service to others and the importance of fighting temptation. Because their world was built on arrogance, self-indulgence, and hedonism, they perceived that as long as the Talmud existed, they would not succeed in mastering the world.
The Nazis also understood that the secret of the eternal survival of the Jewish nation was its attachment to the Talmud, and they thus sought to annihilate Poland’s Jews, who to them symbolized Jews devoted to the Talmud.
I recall celebrating the third Siyum HaShas in November 1946, in the Displaced Persons camp in Feldafing, Germany. We were a tiny group of broken survivors, remnants of a Polish Jewry that had been all but wiped out. At the time, all we had were two volumes of Talmud — symbolic of the pitiful condition of Jewry at the time. At the previous Siyum in Lublin there had been thousands of volumes, and now we were only a few broken Jews with two books.
As we celebrate the 12th Siyum HaShas together with more than 150,000 Jews across North America, and with many tens of thousands more around the world, the feeling that wells up within me is difficult to describe on paper.
Yes, the Nazis indeed understood the secret of Jewish survival. They tried to destroy my father’s holy books, the Talmud that has preserved the Jews throughout the ages. But they failed. For the Jews are an eternal people, and the Talmud is eternal.
From the ashes of the greatest tragedy in modern history, the greatest rejuvenation in modern history has happened before our eyes.
We may be persecuted, demonized, and murdered, but as long as we hold onto our tradition that has been passed from generation to generation, we cannot be extinguished!
Just look at the miraculous rejuvenation of Torah Judaism not even 70 years after the Holocaust. Back then, no one, including ourselves, ever believed that hundreds of thousands would gather together for no other reason than to celebrate the study of Talmud.
Not only is the Talmud still alive, but from those two forlorn volumes of Gemara that remained after the conflagration, from the ashes of the greatest tragedy in modern history, the greatest rejuvenation in modern history has happened before our eyes. The day of the Siyum HaShas is my day of victory, the day of victory for all survivors and the day of victory of every “Talmud Jew.”
Reprinted with permission from Agudath Israel of America. This article appeared in the Hasiyum book distributed at the 12th Siyum HaShas.