Stories of spiritual heroism during the Holocaust have long been told. But rarely have they been seen. This changed in 2012, when stunning photographs surfaced of Jews wrapped in taleisim davening fervently with lulav and esrog in the Lodz Ghetto—a virtual death trap.
In the darkest of times, Jews throughout millennia found ways to maintain religious observance at the risk of their lives. Despite their terror of being caught and killed, Jews during the Holocaust put on tefillin, baked matzos for Pesach, carved potato menorahs for Chanukah, fashioned primitive sukkahs, printed tefillos by hand and took tremendous risks to daven b’tzibbur.
During those bleak times, with death lurking at every corner, the struggle to stay alive encompassed one’s entire existence. For someone to expend effort and emotion into preserving the spirit of Jewish law and to maintain even a token observance of the mitzvos took enormous fortitude.
In 2011, an Israeli Holocaust education organization, the Shem Olam Institute founded by Avraham Krieger in 1996, launched a project to collect photographs of Jews from the Holocaust period. The aim was to highlight the spiritual heroism of Jews who clung to their humanity and faith during in the face of intense suffering and persecution.
The initiative targeted an unlikely population: the families of former Nazi soldiers who might possess war-time photographs of Jews engaged in ritual observance, and would turn these pictures over for cash.
Many of these German families were eager to get rid of incriminating evidence of a dark past when humiliating Jews was not only government policy but in many places, a favorite pastime. The promised payment for the photographs galvanized the handover of thousands of rare pictures to Shem Olam.
Among the photos were several taken by the Nazis during Sukkos, 1941 in the Lodz ghetto, in Poland. As survivors recount, the Jews of the ghetto found themselves in dire straits as the festival approached. Food was running scarce, and the lack of a sewage system and running water had caused rampant illness. For ghetto residents, hunger, loss, violence and fear of death became the staples of day to day existence.
Despite this depressing situation, a group of Jews found the strength to implement a daring plan to celebrate the festival of Sukkos with the arba minim, notwithstanding the staggering price.
Taking advantage of the permission granted by ghetto leader Chaim Rumkowski, the group smuggled a handful of emissaries out the ghetto before Sukkos in order to gather the arba minim. It was a mission fraught with danger and the near certainty of failure as esrogim were practically non-existent in Eastern Europe at the time.
Miraculously, an esrog was found and smuggled into the ghetto. (According to Rabbi Krieger, esrogim may have been obtained on the black market after a long journey from Israel or Greece.)
A letter of thanks to Rumkowski sent from the Gur Hassidim of the ghetto – dated September 1941 – that was recovered after the war, expressed the residents’ appreciation for being able to make the brocha on the daled minim, and the joy this brought them.
Building a sukkah posed enormous difficulties as well, explained Rabbi Krieger in an interview. “The ghetto was in a constant state of crisis for materials to keep the people warm. Every piece of wood for fire was needed, including doors and window frames. Therefore in order to build a sukkah, the people needed special permission from Rumkowski to retain the wood for this purpose.”
The Jews must have used all their wits and all resources at their disposal to elicit this authorization because as the pictures released by Shem Olam indicate, the sukkah was indeed built. Additional confirmation comes from a second letter thanking Rumkowski for permission to build the sukkah, found in the Chronicle, a running history of the ghetto recorded by the Lodz Ghetto Department of Archives.
Jews from all parts of the religious spectrum came to stand inside it and make a brocha, survivors testify. For a few days of that fateful year, the crowds forming lines and standing for hours were not trying to obtain food for their families. They were waiting to perform a sacred mitzvah that had been written off by the pessimists and realists of the day as “impossible.”
The Voice of Rivka Lipschutz
One of the inhabitants of the Lodz ghetto was a young woman named Rivka Lipschutz from an Orthodox Jewish family. Born in Lodz in 1929 to Miriam and Yankel Lipschutz, she was the descendant of a prominent Polish Rabbinic line.
She was only 14 at the time she began her diary in 1944. A sensitive Jewish girl with great emotional depth, trapped in one of the worst crucibles of the Holocaust, Rivka suffered starvation, fear of violence and exhausting forced labor. Refusing to succumb to despair, the young girl found salvation in her diary.
Orphaned, starving, deeply religious and clinging to her faith, Rivka filled over a hundred diary pages with the poignant outpouring of her soul. It took almost seven decades for her passionate story, found near the crematoria at Auschwitz by a Soviet doctor who arrived at the camp with the liberating Red Army, to come to light.
The diary was written in Polish which the doctor did not understand. But, inexplicably, she decided to hold on to it and stashed it in a drawer where it lay undisturbed until 1983 when she died. When the doctor’s belongings were transferred to her son, he too kept it hidden away in a drawer until his death ten years later.
His daughter, Anastasia, in San Francisco, going through her father’s effects, found the diary and was deeply intrigued. She wrote to the Holocaust Center of Northern California that she had a World War II artifact that they might find valuable. That sparked a series of meetings that led to a research team being tasked with unraveling the mystery surrounding the diary’s authorship and what became of Rivka Lipschutz from Lodz. Was she dead or alive? How had her diary ended up in Auschwitz?
Although they never achieved full closure on these questions, several breakthroughs led to the diary being published in 2014 by the JFCS Holocaust Center, and eventually translated into many languages.
Emerging From the Shadows
The research brought to light a great deal of personal information about Rivka, most significantly identifying her cousins in Israel who had lived with her in the ghetto and had survived the war.
After the death of her parents, Rivka and her younger sisters had gone to live with these cousins, under the guardianship of her uncle, Rav Yochanon Lipschutz and his wife, Hadassa. Tragically, her uncle and two younger siblings were murdered in the infamous “Sperre” of September 1942. Her aunt Haddasa succumbed to starvation and illness in July 1943, leaving behind five young girls, between the ages of 10 and 20, who were forced to struggle on their own.
Esther was the oldest of the cousins, who took on the responsibility for raising the younger girls after her parents’ death. It was a few months after her aunt’s death that Rivka’s diary begins, on October 3, 1943. Her entries recount the life of a deeply spiritual young woman whose faith in G-d is a core element of her identity, and enables her to survive trauma and destitution.
She describes the day-to-day struggle in the appalling conditions of the Lodz Ghetto, pouring out her grief over loved ones who have been ripped from her, and lamenting the maladies and diseases that have struck down so many neighbors, friends and acquaintances.
Throughout the traumatic times she has lived through, she remains deeply immersed in religious tradition and practice, expressing her faith and addressing the Creator with striking eloquence.
“Hashem and the Torah—they are our parents now…omnipotent, eternal. It’s so powerful,” she writes. “Before them, I’m just a speck that can hardly be seen through the microscope. Oh, I’m laughing at the entire world—I, a poor Jewish girl from the ghetto—I, who don’t know what will happen to me tomorrow … I’m laughing at the entire world because I have a great support: my faith. I believe. Hashem, I’m so grateful to you!”
In her writings, Rivka seems to live from one Shabbos to another. The prospect of bentching licht on Friday night helps her to overcome the most difficult moments.
“Friday! … Every week I wait impatiently for Friday evening and Shabbos,” she writes. “I can’t imagine at all what would happen if we didn’t have this one day, Shabbos. I feel so good. I can think and dream…there is time for myself. Oh, to dream, dream and forget the sadness. I’ll light the candles in a few hours –I can’t wait.”
Rivka writes about the “agony of going to the workshops on Shabbos,” and mourns the Shabbos desecration she witnesses. (Whoever did not work was considered a useless drain by the Nazis and deported).
“Oh my G-d, it was so awful to get up so early on Shabbos—I was choking. When I was crossing the intersection of Jerozolimska Street and Franciszkańska Street, I saw a soldier near the wire looking at the ghetto. It seemed to me that he was looking only at me and was gloating that I, too, was on my way to work. Oh Hashem, I’ll never forget this feeling, I felt like crying.”
“This day, this holy, sacred day is for [those at the workshop] an ordinary and normal weekday. Hashem, am I now among them? Am I like them? It’s a terrible agony for me but if I have to keep it up, will I get used to it? Oh, Hashem, it seemed to me that everybody was laughing at me. That they were laughing because I came when they know I’m religious. I kept saying ‘Shabbos! Shabbos!’ to myself the whole day, so that I won’t ever become used to it, it will always shock my mind and heart.”
She reassures herself that Hashem can come to her rescue at any moment. “Oh, Hashem is so omnipotent, all-powerful and kind. It’s good that I believe in Him. I can always and everywhere rely on Him, but I need a little help since faith doesn’t happen by itself. But I do know that Hashem will take care of me. It’s good that I’m a Jewish girl, that I was taught to love my Father in Heaven … I’m grateful for all this! Thank you, Hashem.”
The Trail Goes Cold
Along with her two cousins Esther and Minna, Rivka was sent to Auschwitz in August 1944. According to the Jewish News of Northern California who interviewed Esther, the three miraculously survived a death march to Bergen Belsen, were liberated there by the British army, and were then moved, deathly ill, to a hospital in Germany to recover.
Rivka was separated from Minna and Esther when the two sisters were sent on to Sweden for further convalescence, but Rivka was deemed too sick to be moved. That was the last Esther (Borstein) and Minna (Boyer) had seen of their younger cousin.
After considerable research over many months, a team of investigators including JFCS researchers working with the International Tracing Service, a German-based agency that researches lost Holocaust victims, together with the researchers at Yad Vashem, picked up a paper trail. It started with records of the Lodz Ghetto archives, which included mention of the Lipschutz family.
It was discovered that Rivka had in fact survived the war, based on an application she had made for a visa to Palestine while convalescing in Germany. A gifted writer, she had written down some thoughts on her visa application that opens a window fifty years later into the mind of this extraordinary young girl.
15 years old at the time, she expressed her gratitude for surviving the war so she could “bear witness,” but more than anything she remarked on what a blessing it was to be a Jew. “Can you imagine any other people, so beaten down?” she wrote. “I’ve witnessed such miracles!”
She felt life was a tremendous gift, and that the thing she learned most from her terrible experience was “the importance of love.” She felt that her Jewish soul gave her the ability to love and to experience hope, and to appreciate and make something of life on behalf of those who didn’t survive.
At this juncture, Rivka Lipschutz seems to have vanished from history. All trails went cold. Was she able to recover her strength and make her way to Israel as she hoped? Did she succumb to illness and die alone? As with countless Holocaust victims, her ultimate fate will probably never be known.
The Bitter Saga of the Lodz Ghetto
After invading Poland in September 1939, the German army swiftly entered Lodz, Poland’s second largest city, and began an occupation that would eventually bring an end to more than 100 years of vibrant Jewish life.
Starting in February 1940, about 200,000 Jews from across the city of Lodz and a broad section of Poland had been forced to abandon their homes and cram into the ghetto. They packed up their belongings on their backs or into wagons and crowded into the slums in the northern part of the city, often 7 people or more to a small room.
The crowding worsened in late 1941 and 1942, when the Nazis deported another 20,000 Jews from Central Europe to Lodz.
Lodz was unlike any other ghetto. It was a totally enclosed world where the Nazis’ ability to deceive the Jews about their impending fate reached unparalleled heights. It was a tightly sealed enclosure with very little news either coming in or going out. There was no chance for escape, and none for armed resistance.
No contact was made with a mostly hostile Polish underground, and the Jews faced the additional threat on the “Aryan” side of 150,000 hostile Germans now living in Poland’s most Nazified and Germanized city. One ghetto resident called it a Nazi-made “fortress.”
The Lodz ghetto was the longest-lasting ghetto in Poland. Lodz was an industrial city, and the Nazis needed the textiles that it produced. Yet, Lodz Jews received rations that could not possibly sustain life. In addition to the starvation rations that greatly weakened the Jews, coal and other sources of heat were scarce in the winter. As a result, 20 per cent of ghetto inhabitants died of illness or starvation.
The Jews became increasingly suspicious of Rumkowski and his officials. The fact that ghetto residents continued to steadily lose weight, and became increasingly afflicted with dysentery, tuberculosis and typhus while Rumkowski and his officials remained robust-looking and healthy, drove suspicions. Searing anger against “the King of the Jews,” as Rumkowski referred to himself, infused the population.
Rumkowski retaliated harshly against his detractors. He made speeches labeling them traitors to the cause, penalized them and, convinced they were a threat to his “holy” work, had many of them deported. A predominant belief of religious survivors of Lodz, attests historian Esther Farbstein, is that Rumkowski had many of the city’s most prominent rabbonim who criticized his actions deported and killed in the notorious September 1942 aktion known as the “Sperre.”
During this action, the Nazis called for all children, sick and elderly people to gather at the transport area. Many parents refused to send their children to the site so the Gestapo entered the ghetto and viciously searched and removed the children. In a one-week period, these monsters rounded up and removed from the Lodz ghetto more than 15,000 children, the sick and elderly, and most of the rabbonim of Lodz. They were driven to Chelmno and suffocated in poison gas vans.
The seizure of the children and the elderly profoundly shocked the Jews of the ghetto. Although during the deportations of early 1942 there was an illusion that the people were being sent to labor camps, the brutal aktion of September exposed the Nazi ruse, and made it clear that deportation meant death.
Until this point in time, the Jews of the ghetto had a certain degree of internal “autonomy.” But after this mass deportation, the rules changed dramatically. The hospitals, schools, the rabbinate and other institutions were shuttered, and the ghetto became a giant labor camp.
After the September 1942 seizure of the children and elderly, deportations from Lodz nearly halted. The German armaments division urgently needed munitions and the Lodz ghetto now consisted purely of workers forced to manufacture armaments. For nearly two years, the residents of the Lodz ghetto worked, hungered, and mourned.
On June 10, 1944, knowing the war was lost, Heinrich Himmler ordered the liquidation of the Lodz ghetto. The Nazis peddled the lie that workers were needed in Germany to repair damage caused by Allied air raids. The first transport left on June 23, with many others following until July 15. All were sent to Chelmno, where the victims were murdered.