Thursday, May 23, 2024

Glimpses of the Last Rabbonim of the Warsaw Ghetto


The approach of Pesach prompts recollections of epic moments that unfolded during this season during the Holocaust years.

Some of these events revolve around the last rabbonim of Warsaw, revered leaders who survived the ruthless persecutions and the brutal crushing of the ghetto revolt, only to be captured by the Nazis.

From November 1940 when the Warsaw ghetto was sealed until the extinguishing of the uprising in April 1943, starvation, disease, random executions and deportations annihilated close to 460,000 souls.

The killing climaxed with the liquidation of the ghetto and the arrest of the last 56,000 Jews, seven thousand of whom were immediately shot.

Warsaw had once been home to hundreds of rabbonim; many of the most prominent spiritual leaders were the first to be targeted by the Nazis. Others went underground and continued to clandestinely lead the community until its final months, or until they too, were killed or deported.

Among these kedoshim were the revered Rav Menachem Ziemba, Rav Alexander Zusia Friedman, Rav Simcha Teistman, Rav Yehuda Leib Orlean, Rav Dovid Bornstein, Rav Klonymus Kalman Shapira, Rav Yitzchok Eliezer Meisels, and Rav Yitzchok Hirsch Eidelbaum, Hy”d.

Although they were being hunted by the Nazis and their rabbinic functions were severely limited, they continued to secretly organize religious life, raise welfare funds for the needy, and offer spiritual guidance and comfort.

When people’s spirits were crushed and their faith shaken by suffering, the rabbonim—despite their own anguish—tried to infuse their followers with hope and faith.

Chief among these giants of the spirit was Rav Klonymus Shapira (Piaseczner Rebbe) whom survivors recall as a bastion of spiritual leadership. The rebbe’s personal life was devastated at the very beginning of the war when he lost his mother, his beloved only son and a daughter in law.

“I sit in silence. The heartbreak is unbearable,” he wrote in a personal journal. “Av Harachamon, Merciful Father, who knows my heartbreak and the shattering of all my bones as You do?”

The rebbe nonetheless remained an overflowing fountain of faith and support for his people. He urged his followers to transcend personal suffering by connecting to the broader agony of Klal Yisroel, by clinging to faith and finding Hashem even in the darkness of hester ponim. (Farbstein, Hidden in Thunder)

Many of the rebbe’s most studied droshos today were forged in the crucible of the ghetto years. In January 1943, after most of the Jews of Warsaw had been sent to their deaths, and shortly before the rebbe himself was deported and killed, he buried his manifold writings in a jug.

In 1956, they were miraculously found in the ruins of Wasraw. They were brought to Israel and published under the title, Eish Kodesh, where they continue to uplift and impact new generations.

They Alone Survived 

Tragically, only two rabbonim survived the ghetto’s liquidation; Rav Dovid Shapiro   and Rav Shimshon Stochammer.

Survivor accounts throw a fascinating light on the legacies of these spiritual giants as they wrestled with absolute evil in the slave labor and death camps.

In one account, Dr. David Jakubowski who was imprisoned with the two surviving rabbonim in both the Warsaw ghetto and Budzyn (a branch of Majdanek), describes his captivating unforgettable interactions with Rav Dovid Shapiro, in the weeks leading up to Pesach and on Pesach itself.

Uncannily, in a second account, the late historian and survivor Dr. Hillel Seidman offers a stirring portrait of Rav Shimshon Stochammer in his Warsaw Ghetto Diaries during this same time frame. The historian knew the rov from their days in the ghetto, and the time they were inmates in the same concentration camp.

Dr. Seidman’s diary entries bring closure to a striking incident at Budzyn involving both Rav Stochammer and Rav Shapiro, recounted at the 1961 Eichmann trial testimony.

The testimony was given by Dr. Dovid Wdowinski, another survivor of Budzyn, an Irgun leader and one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

These three separate but interlacing narratives bring to life unforgettable scenes where Jewish courage and nobility, not only on the part of the two Warsaw rabbonim but of “ordinary” Jews, rose to extraordinary heights.

“The Rabbi is Dying….”

(As told by Dr. David Jakubowski, whose training as a doctor saved the lives of countless Jews during the Holocaust, in addition to his own. His oral memories of the war years were taped by the Shoah Foundation in 1990. Excerpts follow below.)

Jewish prisoners in the Budzyn labor camp came to me, begging me to help the Chief Rabbi of Warsaw. “He’s dying,” they said.  I told them to bring him to the hospital and I’d see what I could do for him. When I saw him, I was taken aback. It was Rabbi Dovid Shapiro, one of Warsaw ghetto’s most important rabbis. We knew each other as we were neighbors, living in the same building. From him I had learned how to live in a more Jewish way.

We had both survived the ghetto’s liquidation and were sent to the same slave labor camp. He was dying of extreme overwork and exhaustion. No one could survive more than a few weeks in those inhuman conditions. I was fortunate in having been selected to run the hospital where I was given comparatively decent treatment.

I admitted the rabbi to the hospital and kept him there for three months as he slowly recovered. I would see him constantly reading or praying from a small chumash … “Pray for me, too, Rabbi,” I would say.

After a while, the Polish workers started grumbling about the Jewish doctor keeping the rabbi in the hospital for such a long time, so I was forced to send him back to the barracks… At least there was no more slave labor then because the Americans were quickly approaching. The Germans were still deciding what to do with the thousands of prisoners in Budzyn.

Pesach in Budzyn Labor Camp

In the meanwhile, Pesach had arrived. The rabbi came to me the first seder night. (As the head physician of the POW hospital, I was given a small private room where it was safe to hold a seder.) From memory, the rabbi recited the entire Haggadah. But when it was time for the meal, there was nothing but a slice of bread which he refused.

“Rabbi, you’re so weak and ill. You could die if you don’t eat,” I told him.

“Don’t worry, Dovid,” he said. “Everything is in the hands of the Al-mighty.”

He wasn’t going to budge. I went to a friend of mine, a kapo. “What should I do with this rabbi? He won’t touch the bread.”

“Give me the bread and I’ll get him some potatoes.”

I went back to the rabbi with the potatoes. “This I can eat,” he said.

That is how we saved the rabbi’s life.

The following night after the second seder, the rabbi turned to me and said words I will never forget. “Dovid, veiter yohr, mir vellin zien frie.” Next year, we’ll be free. “Avu mir veln zein afilu bei di eck fun der erd, mir vellin trefin zich far der ershter seder,” Even if we’ll be at opposite ends of the world, we’ll meet for the Pesach seder.

How I longed to share his faith! But I shook my head. The rumors were that the entire camp was going to be liquidated before the Americans could get to it. (That is actually what happened. The Germans evacuated whoever could walk and killed the rest.)

The rabbi waved a finger at me. “Dovid, if I, Reb Dovid Shapiro, tell you we’ll survive with G-d’s help, believe it. We will survive.”

Those unforgettable words are planted in my heart to this day. He was right. We both survived. And incredibly, a year later on Pesach, I spent the first seder with him in a town near Furth in Germany.

A Surrogate Father to War Orphans

Rav Dovid was bereft of his family during the war, losing a wife and four children, but was eventually reunited with a brother.  After being liberated in Dachau and recovering somewhat, he settled in Furth where he studied Torah. There he became a magnet for Jewish orphans who were drawn to his warmth and caring. They found in him a surrogate father, as well as a rov and teacher.

“I’ll never forget the first time I met him. Right after the war, we were just wandering around. We had no one, no connections.  We didn’t know what to do with ourselves. We needed someone who cared, to whom we could pour out our hearts. When we entered his room the first time, it was winter and very cold outside. His apartment wasn’t heated but his face lit up with such pleasantness, it filled us with warmth.

Yidden, luz mir lernen ah bissel,” he invited us. ” He gave our dry bones vitality.” (Farbstein, citing survivor accounts in Me’orei Galitzia and Rabbah Shel Fiurda.)

Two Friends Reunite

After surviving the terrible persecutions in the Warsaw Ghetto and the crushing of the uprising, Rabbi Shimshon Stochammer was caught by the Nazis and spent the next two years in various slave labor camps.

In 1944, he was taken to Budzyn where, to his joy, he found himself with his friend and colleague, Rav Dovid Shapiro from Warsaw.

In the weeks leading up to Pesach, the two rabbonim began making secret plans to bake matzah using an oven at their place of work—a bathing and disinfection clinic. With the help of a few other Jews whom they took into their confidence, they succeeded in carrying out the scheme.  The freshly-baked matzahs were carefully hidden under their clothing as they set out for the return trip to the barracks.

Tragically, two of the people in the group were caught.

What happened next was revealed fifteen years later at the Eichmann Trial, when one of the group who survived, Dr. David Wdowinksi, related the details of the fiasco on the witness stand.

Attorney General Gideon Hausner:

Two final questions. When you were in Budzyn in 1944, on the eve of the Passover Festival, you baked matzot – is that correct?

  1. Correct.
  2. How did you manage to do that?
  3. A. As I have mentioned, we had two rabbis in our group from Warsaw, Rabbi Stochammer and another one. We baked the matzot in an oven where we were working. We carried the matzot back to the barracks on our persons. Two of us were caught, Rabbi Stochammer and a doctor. At this time, there was a new commandant in charge by the name of Leopold, an Obersturmfuehrer. He ordered the two who were caught to be beaten, and he himself beat them as well. Rabbi Stockhammer was beaten on his bare skin.

But on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, there was a barracks of German soldiers who had returned from the front. And they started–

  1. Soldiers of the Wehrmacht?
  2. Yes. When they saw the beatings going on, they called out to Leopold, taunting him, “Judenheld, gehen sie doch besser an die front.” (You big hero with the Jews, you ought to be fighting on the front lines!). The soldier’s mockery put an end to the beating.

He Ate Nothing All Pesach

There were no matzahs in Budzyn that year. But that is not the end of the story.

Before Pesach of 1945, recounts Dr. Hillel Seidman in Warsaw Ghetto Diaries (Eileh Ezkerah, Vol. V), Rav Stochammer decided that he would not eat chametz for all eight days.

Seidman, who was with him, recalled his words. “I’m aware of the halachah [that this is not required in the present situation],” the rov said. “However, there are 2,500 Jews in this camp. At least one among us should refrain from eating chometz. I have decided to do so. I have undertaken this responsibility with love and joy!”

Dr. Seidman later wrote that for “eight days Rav Stochammer ate nothing at all. He only drank a little water. It was incredible that he was able to persevere. He still performed his daily slave labor together with the others.”

As the Germans were being mowed down by the rapidly advancing Red Army, they began to evacuate the camps, sending prisoners westward on long death marches, or jamming them onto overcrowded trains that plowed ahead for days with no specific destination.

Just three days before liberation, Rav Stochammer was forced onto a train with hundreds of other prisoners. Along the route, the train was attacked with a hail of gunfire and struck by a bomb. Rav Stochammer was critically wounded, and his holy neshamah ascended heavenward.


Tearing Aside the Veil of Deception

One of the ways in which rabbonim continued to guide their  community even when they were no longer permitted to publicly officiate, teach religious subjects, or conduct regular prayer services, was by refusing to take refuge in denial about the Nazis’ true intentions.

The Nazis used lies, subterfuge and other tools of deception to keep their victims in the dark about their impending murder, so they would not resist until it was too late.

In some places, Judenrat members were complicit in these tactics, keeping a veil of ignorance and deception about where the deported Jews were being taken, and what they knew or strongly suspected would happen to them there.

Not so the majority of rabbonim, writes Farbstein. The home of the local rov was often the first address to which an escapee from the death trains or camps fled, making the rabbonim among the first to learn about the tightly guarded secrets of Chelmno, Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor.

Until 1942, most of Warsaw Jewry, including members of the Judenrat, were unaware of the ghastly destination of the packed cattle cars.

Following the escape of a handful of Jews from Chelmno and Treblinka, and their tales of horror, a majority of rabbonim grasped that Jews were not being “resettled” anywhere. They were being butchered in cold blood.

Whereas the fugitives’ shocking reports triggered widespread disbelief among rank and file Jews, writes Farbstein, most of the rabbonim believed them and sought to secretly warn their followers.

During the brutal deportations in Warsaw in the summer of 1942, reports from the first escapees from Treblinka reached the ghetto. One of the fugitives was Yaakov Rabinowicz, son of the Parczewer Rebbe and brother of the rebbe of Munkatch.

Holocaust survivor and historian Dr. Hillel Seidman, an Agudath Israel activist and author of the Warsaw Ghetto Diaries (Eilah Ezkera), wrote in his diary about his encounter with Rabinowicz and his shocking revelations.

“He entered my office…torn, bedraggled, weak and exhausted… a strange wild look in his eyes. I remembered him from a past encounter…Yaakov Rabinowicz, son of the Parczewer Rebbe! Hadn’t I heard that he’d been deported?

“Where have you been till now?” I wondered.

“From there….” His voice is ragged.

“From…from Treblinka?”


Seidman describes the young man’s chilling account…how the Jews were stuffed inhumanly into railroad cars… the terrible thirst, suffocating from lack of air… the children’s frantic screaming, arrival at Treblinka..the order to undress…the gas vans…

The Piaseczno Rebbe: ‘Transports Mean Death’

Another fugitive made his way to the home of the Sachaczewer Rebbe (Rabbi Dovid Bornstein) with his tale of horror.  The rebbe immediately called a meeting with leading rabbonim. They gathered in Rav Shimshon Stochammer’s home on Muranowska Street to hear the terrifying news firsthand, relates Farbstein.

The escapee’s account of the mass murders at Treblinka sounded like the ravings of a disturbed person, but it was impossible to dismiss the similarities to the secret reports coming from survivors in other Polish cities such as Grabow, Lodz, Kolo, Izbica…

Although not everyone present accepted what they heard as fact, many believed the fugitive and took steps to pass on the information, despite knowing it would trigger massive alarm.

“Rabbi Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno told his followers to get their daughters out of the ghetto because the transports meant death,” writes Farbstein.  And in a passionate letter to friends and followers in Lodz, the well-known Rav Yakov Silman of Grabow wrote the following:

Dear relatives and loved ones,

We can now tell you of the dreadful occurrences near our town which were a heavily guarded secret until today. Four weeks ago, all the Jews without exception were deported from the town of Kolo, taken by trucks to an unknown destination. The same happened in the towns of Dabie, Klodowa, Izbica and others in that district. Despite intense efforts, we could learn nothing about what happened to them.

This week, however, some Jewish refugees who had fled from that place came and told us that they are all being killed, down to the last one. They are asphyxiated with gas, after which about 50-60 peoe are forced to bury them en masse in a single grave. New victims are being brought incessantly every day… the same fate hovers over everyone’s head. This horrific news caused us terrible panic

We declared a taanis, the 3rd of Shevat (5702) and gave tzedaka for the release of the deported.

We cannot stress enough that whatever was kept secret until today must from on be publicized everywhere. Raise an outcry. Do not sit with folded arms. Take counsel and devise stratagems to save those who are still alive, thousands of Jews! Every moment counts. You constitute a certain force what used to be the largest community. Please reply immediately! (Farbstein, Hidden in Thunder)



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