Pesach Freedom, Even When We Weren’t: A Passover Sermon from the Warsaw Ghetto

Dr. Henry Abramson

Clearing the rubble of the devastated Warsaw Ghetto in December 1950, a Polish construction worker made a remarkable discovery: a large tin milk container filled with hundreds of pages of Hebrew and Yiddish manuscripts. The Warsaw Jewish Historical Institute soon determined that the papers constituted the second of three caches hidden by the secret Oneg Shabbat society, which was led by murdered historian Emanuel Ringelblum. The papers documented the life and death of Warsaw Jewry during the Nazi occupation (the first cache was unearthed in 1946 by survivors, but the documents were irretrievably water-damaged; the location of the third cache remains unknown to this day).

The precious artifacts, collected by a band of courageous amateur historians, record the Jews’ struggle to survive the unimaginable conditions of the Ghetto. Included are the wartime sermons of a major Hasidic leader, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapiro (1889–1943), which were eventually published in Israel under the title ”Aish Kodesh” (Holy Fire).

Known to his followers as the Piaseczno Rebbe (pronounced Pee-ah-SECH-no), Rabbi Shapiro lived through three Passovers in the Ghetto before he was deported and then shot in during a camp uprising in November 1943. His sermons demonstrate remarkable spiritual heroism as he attempted, week after week, to give his followers strength to endure unfathomable challenges as hunger, typhus, and the random violence that contributed to a widespread sense of despair and hopelessness among Warsaw Jewry. It is challenging to imagine the tribulations face by the Jews laboring under Egyptian servitude, but a glimpse into the twisted world of the Warsaw Ghetto sheds some light on our ancient experience, viewed through a 20th-century lens, and throws into bold relief the incredible courage and compassion of the Piaseczno Rebbe.

Passover 5700 (1940) The first Passover in the ghetto coincided with the initial construction of the walls that imprisoned the Jews. Frightened by the implications of this German decree, the Rebbe validated their concerns but left room for a ray of hope in a sermon dated April 13, 1940:

We know and believe that all that God does for us — even, God forbid, when God strikes us — is all for our benefit. At the present time we see, however, that we are not solely smitten with physical afflictions but also, Heaven forbid, with those that distance us from the Blessed One. There is neither primary Torah school, nor yeshiva, neither beit midrash in which to pray as a congregation, nor mikveh, and so on. Consequently, a glimmer of doubt, Heaven forbid, arises within us: is it possible that even now God’s intent is for our benefit? If it is for our benefit, God should have chastised us with those things which would have drawn us closer, not with the cessation of Torah study and prayer and, Heaven forbid, the fulfillment of the entire Torah.

The Rebbe found the answer to this troubling question, as always, in a discussion of the weekly parashah. The Torah describes that a kohen is the only person qualified to declare that a particular blemish is tamei or tahor — a scholar, no matter how learned, may only express an opinion: [A scholar] is incapable of saying if it is in truth a plague or affliction. It is a matter of perception, such that one must say “it resembles a plague,” whereas in truth it is an act of benevolence for the Jewish people by means through which God does good for us.

In other words, the Rebbe maintained that a positive outlook is essential, even when the empirical evidence suggested a more ominous interpretation. His courageous optimism was especially notable because the Rebbe was no stranger to loss. Widowed two years before the war, he witnessed the grievous wounds of his only son, hit by shrapnel from the punishing aerial bombardment by the Luftwaffe in late September 1940. His daughter-in-law, who was standing outside the hospital reciting tehillim for her husband’s recovery, was killed in a subsequent wave of bombings later that same night, and his son ultimately succumbed to his wounds days later. His only daughter was seized by the Nazis in 1941 and likely gassed at Treblinka; the Rebbe never learned what happened to her.

The Rebbe’s Torah is challenging, even awesome in the traditional sense of the word: inspiring awe. Yet in his last will, a January 1943 cover letter addressed to anyone who found his buried writings, he left a blessing for us all:

Please print in every work that I urge every single Jew to study my books, and the merit of my holy ancestors will stand by every student and his family, now and forever.

The suffering of the Rebbe and the innocent Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, and the remarkable heroism of Jewish children, serves as a reminder this Passover season of the extremity of Egyptian servitude. Yet in the very center of the maelstrom we see the heroic, selfless service of courageous, visionary leaders who remind us of the eternal promise of Redemption made to our ancestors. May we recall the Torah of their experience, and in so doing, may all judgements be sweetened, and the hiding of the Face finally come to an end with the final Redemption.

Dr. Henry Abramson
Henry Abramson, PhD, serves as a Dean of Touro College. He is the author of several books, including Torah from the Years of Wrath, 1939-1943: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh and the Jewish History in Daf Yomi podcast on the OU AllDaf app.

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