A number of years ago, in honor of Purim, the Shem Olam Institute for Holocaust Education and Research in Israel unveiled rare holy items which were in Polish possession for dozens of years, before being located and brought to Israel.
Among these items was a Megillas Esther in its metal cylinder and two other Books of Esther, each about a hundred years old. They were part of a collection that included Pesach Hagaddos, siddurim and other sifrei kodesh.
For decades these holy books had lain in the dust and ashes of an old attic of a building that was once part of the Warsaw Ghetto. That name itself conjures up harrowing scenes of ghetto survivors lined up against a brick wall, their backs a target for SS killers, and others being marched toward the trains to Auschwitz. Who has not seen the iconic picture of a terrified little Jewish boy with his hands in the air?
The building where the Books of Esther were found was one of the only structures to survive the war, and much of it was later torn down and renovated. Oddly, an upper section remained intact, a left over from the war years. Several years ago, the attic of this section collapsed, hurling into the rubble the holy treasures concealed there.
In addition, a small concealed shul with many ritual objects was discovered on the premises, reported Israel Hayom.
At first the items were handed over to the Polish police, but Shem Olam officials operating in the country heard about the discoveries from their Polish contacts and managed to spirit them away to Israel.
“During the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Nazis used flamethrowers to set fire to buildings and razed most of them to the ground,” Shem Olam Director Rabbi Avraham Krieger told Israel Hayom. “This building was torched too, and so was part of the attic. But it somehow was left standing.”
“The more we investigate the life of the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, we discover their courage and mental strength, the determination to cling to faith despite the grief, horror, and constant threat of death,” Rabbi Krieger said.
Purim’s Message Infused Hope in the Ghetto
Another collection of Books of Esther obtained by the Shem Olam Institute was found several years ago in the Lodz Ghetto, in a building used during the war as a conference hall. The hall’s wooden floor broke about a year ago, and the treasure was found underneath, Rabbi Krieger related.
Purim’s message infused hope in Jews languishing in the ghettos and death camps, survivors say. Although the contrast between the Jews’ sweeping victory over Haman and Hitler’s mass murder of European Jewry must have been unbearable, the Jews never despaired of witnessing Hitler’s defeat. This is reflected in survivor accounts of the celebration of Purim in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Historian Emanuel Ringleblum, renowned for chronicling every element of Warsaw Ghetto life and death in his voluminous “Oneg Shabbos” archive, penned the following entry for March 10, 1941:
“There were many assemblies in celebration of Purim this year. People long for a new Purim—to celebrate the downfall of the modern Haman, Hitler—that will be commemorated as long as the Jewish people exist. The new Purim would surpass all previous Purims in Jewish history.”
Rabbi Shimon Huberbrand, who worked with Ringleblum on the archive, wrote that the mood of Jews during the first Purim in the Warsaw Ghetto “was terrible; the predominant spirit wasn’t of Purim but of Tisha B’av.”
Perhaps to shake off the crushing heaviness, Huberbrand tells of having visited the revered Rav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira—the Piaseczner Rebbe—seeking comfort from his message to his chasidim.
Rav Shapira “was a model of spiritual leadership in the Warsaw Ghetto,” writes historian Esther Farbstein in her encyclopedic Hidden in Thunder. “He refused to abandon his followers by fleeing the country when advised that he was being hunted by the Nazis, and continued to boost people’s morale, reinforce their faith and see to their religious needs.”
According to Hubberband, Rav Shapira in his Purim drosha stated that “the obligation to rejoice is for every Jew without exception. Even if a person feels lonely and brokenhearted, with mind and spirit crushed, he must inject at least a spark of joy into his heart.”
Just as Yom Hakippurim—to which Purim is often linked in a play on words—bestows forgiveness on a Jew even if his repentance is not wholly sincere, so too, Rav Shapira said, “the Divine salvation and joy which Purim bestows upon the Jewish people exerts its power even now, in our sad, downtrodden state. That itself is reason to be joyous,” the Rebbe urged his followers.
Hubberband returned home, heartened by this message.
A Parcel of Gingerbread Cookies
In another glimpse into Purim in the Warsaw Ghetto, a Polish man contacted Shem Olam about a note attached to an empty basket his father had stumbled across after the war. For some reason, the father had held on to the note and basket, on which “Purim 1942” was printed. His son now wanted to return the items to the Jews in case they were significant (or valuable).
The basket and note offer a moving glimpse into the tragic Warsaw Ghetto days in which starvation was rampant. This was due to the Nazis forbidding a ghetto Jew to consume more than a few hundred calories per day—inadequate to support life.
The Purim note exposes this appalling situation with its message on the envelope instructing the recipient to “check the weight” of the small 100g parcel of ginger cookies within. This was a clear reminder that the package was not to exceed the daily limit of calories that the Nazis allowed each Jew in the ghetto—shocking evidence of the Nazi-legislated starvation intended to ravage the ghetto.
Rabbi Krieger calls the discovery unique as it “reflects a willingness by the Jews in the ghetto to observe their traditions despite the chaos and hunger that was a part of their everyday life, and despite the risk of dying for observing a holiday tradition.”
“The amount of cookies was small but it was about so much more than quantity. It had a spiritual meaning. It was a symbol of the Jews’ battle to preserve their spirituality and their faith, as well as to preserve a social framework to reinforce their humanity and identity.”
In addition, Purim carried strong meaning for the Jews in the ghetto, “because they saw Hitler as the Haman of their time, and prayed for his defeat.”
Purim in A Soup Kitchen
In yet another glimpse into Purim, 1941 in the Warsaw Ghetto, the following account was penned by an unknown author in a journal found after the war.
“We celebrated Purim, 5701 which was officially in violation of the rules. The Book of Esther was not read in the darkened shul, because all public worship is prohibited. We still rejoiced over the defeat of the Persian Haman, and prayed for the downfall of the German one.
We celebrated Purim in the soup kitchen at 13 Zamenhof Street. This year we read the Megillah in the Sephardic pronunciation; then we sang the holiday songs accompanied by a piano, and between one number and the other we even had a bite—three pieces of bread spread with butter, a taste of the traditional poppy-seed hamantasch, and a glass of sweetened coffee.
Credit for this heroic achievement goes to Dr. I. Schipper, M. Kirszenbaum, Bloch, and Kaminar. We came sad and left sad, but we had some pleasant moments in between. May Hashem remember these men for their good deeds.
20 Pairs of Tefillin Tell Astounding Story
Two years ago, Shem Olam acquired another priceless find: 20 sets of tefillin discovered along with taleisim and siddurim in a hidden bunker in an old Warsaw building on the very edge of the former ghetto. The bunker and scores like it all over Warsaw were dug in preparation for the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising, historians attest.
The tefillin were hidden beside weapons and the equipment that served the Warsaw Ghetto fighters,” Shem Olam’s director said.
In recent years, Polish authorities have begun to demolish buildings inside the Warsaw Ghetto to turn them into residential buildings in a process of urban renewal. When one of the workers descended into the bunker to clear it out, he discovered a pile of tefillin hidden in a corner behind books and other objects.
Emissaries of the Shem Olam Institute, who operate throughout Europe, heard of the discovery from local contacts “who know the kind of material we’re interested in and that we’ll pay well to acquire,” Rabbi Krieger told Yated.
The emissaries turned clandestinely to the construction workers, requesting that they turn over the Warsaw Ghetto tefillin. After lengthy negotiations and a promise to keep their cooperation secret from Polish authorities, the workers passed the tefillin to Shem Olam’s emissaries. The tefillin soon arrived in Israel and underwent cleaning and preservation at Shem Olam Institute in Kfar Haroeh.
“The discovery of dozens of pairs of tefillin concentrated in one place offers us a glimpse into the lifestyle the Jews of the ghetto carefully upheld, under the Nazis’ noses,” Rabbi Krieger remarked. “The large number of tefillin points to the underground minyanim they had inside the bunker. Despite the horrors and the brutal reality they lived in, these Jews clung to their faith.”
Meeting Place for Ghetto Fighters
The bunkers, which were built to hide their occupants from deportation, were found under a building at the edge of the ghetto which had an escape route to the “Aryan” side of the city. Several bunkers were connected to each other, suggesting that they served as a passageway that connected the Warsaw ghetto with the Aryan side.
“Our historians posit that this is a place that fighters and those who interfaced with the Polish-Aryan side used as some kind of station or meeting point,” Rabbi Krieger said. “One can imagine the fervent prayers of these Jews as they readied themselves for armed struggle against the Nazis who would be coming for them any day.”
“We have people on the ground who are always looking for items like these which can shed light on the Jewish spirit of resistance during the war. The way Jews responded to crisis demonstrates their great fortitude; learning about a nation from its most difficult moments shines a light on who they are. What was found in this bunker certainly attests to the spirit of the Jews who were living in it.”
“For these Jews, wearing tefillin while starving, weak and facing immediate execution if caught in prayer showed a sublime courage and a connection to their Creator that gave them the strength to endure.”
Polish Officials Protest “Smuggling” of Tefillin
Polish government officials in Warsaw have accused Shem Olam of illegally smuggling the tefillin to Israel. The allegations do not faze Rabbi Krieger.
“On a walk around antique stores in Warsaw, you will see sifrei Torah and all kinds of Jewish artifacts for sale. Locals who find such items eagerly sell them for a few dollars,” he told Yated. “It’s painful to see these precious items being violated. And it’s unreasonable for the Polish government to criticize the acquisition of artifacts like these while doing little to stop locals from pilfering them.”
“There has also been an effort to destroy and hide artifacts that can testify to the horrors that befell the Jews in Warsaw,” Rabbi Krieger added. “So we don’t get too rattled about their accusations.”
Now in Israel, the Warsaw Ghetto tefillin are being housed at Shem Olam’s archive near Netanya, but Rabbi Krieger says he wants to harness their inspiration for future generations.
“We have a project called From Childhood to Adulthood, in which we invite young Israeli schoolchildren to learn about the lives of Jews their own age during the Holocaust. We would like to give young Israelis a chance to wear these tefillin even just for a few seconds – to connect them to this symbol of powerful inspiration and strength.”
Asked if he is afraid the Holocaust will be forgotten, Rabbi Krieger admits it is a very valid concern. “Among today’s youth, you find a great deal of ignorance. In Israeli society, every single person knows what the Holocaust was, but there is no longer any in-depth knowledge. And that is precisely where we enter the picture.”
One Resisted with His Gun, The Other with His Soul
During a phone interview with Yated, Rabbi Avraham Krieger of Shem Olam Institute stressed that the story of the valor and spiritual tenacity of European Jewry has not been sufficiently told. Holocaust studies, he noted, focuses for the most part on the brave acts of physical resistance: the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the destruction of a crematorium at Auschwitz, the sabotage work of partisans.
“These were indeed acts of unfathomable courage. But what about spiritual resistance? What about Jews who, despite living in the most brutal, inhuman conditions, baked matzot, laid tefillin, davened, observed the chagim and circumcised their sons?”
“In the most desperate circumstances, we find Jews who showed superhuman strength in defying the killers in order to preserve their religious beliefs,” Rabbi Krieger said. “To quote a wise person, “One resisted with a gun, another with his soul.’ To pray and teach in secret, to observe the mitzvot at the risk of one’s life, to help others in need—all of these actions attest to a heroism of the soul.”
Uncovering evidence of the perseverance of the Jewish soul during humanity’s darkest moments and sharing it with others is the mission of Shem Olam, he said.
The Institute was founded in 1996 and has amassed more than 800,000 documents and special exhibits. Its workshops and programs illuminate Jewish faith in the crucible of the Holocaust, and shine a light on how individuals and communities coped.
The son of Polish survivors who endured ghettos, slave labor camps and Auschwitz, Rabbi Krieger founded Shem Olam to document the nobility of the Jewish spirit during the Holocaust.
“I absorbed a lot of Holocaust history from my parents, who were both imprisoned in the Lodz Ghetto,” he told Yated.
“My mother was there until 1944 and was then taken to Auschwitz. She survived a death march, practically crawling to Germany, and was liberated at Bergen-Belsen. My father went through the labor camps, was sent to Auschwitz, then to other slave labor camps. He too was liberated at Bergen-Belsen.”
“The strange thing is that the story I absorbed from my home was different from the narrative you learn from most histories of the period, which focus on Jewish helplessness and submission. My father’s story was one of strength, of mustering the means to cope against overwhelming odds. I can barely remember my parents telling us stories of suffering and humiliation. Not that these things weren’t mentioned. But they were on the sidelines. It wasn’t the central story.”
Rabbi Krieger spoke of a story his father shared with him when he was growing up that has accompanied him throughout his life. The elder Rabbi Krieger had the custom from the time he was a lad to fast on Fridays, not eating until the Friday night seudah when he came home from shul. From the moment he fell into Nazi hands and suffered the brutal assault on anything Jewish, he wondered how he could possibly preserve himself and remain true to his faith.
“He decided that he would not eat his ration of bread on Friday, but would save it for Kiddush on Shabbat,’ Shem Olam’s director recounted to Yated. “And so, regardless of the traumatic events of the time, regardless of how hungry he was, when he had a slice of bread, he hid it in his armpit for Shabbat.”
“Looking back,” he would tell us, “it is clear to me that it was not I who kept the Shabbat. It was Shabbat that preserved me.'”
Warsaw Ghetto Death Trap
Shortly after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, more than 400,000 Jews in Warsaw, Poland’s largest city, were forcibly confined to an area of the city that was little more than 1 square mile. Seven to eight people, sometimes more, were crammed into each room.
In November 1940, this overcrowded Jewish ghetto with inadequate water, food and hygiene facilities was sealed off by brick walls, barbed wire and armed guards. Anyone caught leaving was shot on sight.
The Nazis rigidly controlled the amount of food that was brought into the ghetto, making it illegal to consume more than starvation rations. Rampant hunger and disease killed thousands each month.
Over 1000 Jewish ghettos were established in cities throughout Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. The Warsaw ghetto was the largest in Poland. Lodz was next in size, followed by Krakow.
In July 1942, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the Nazi SS, ordered that Jews be “resettled” to extermination camps. The Jews were fed the lie that they were being transported to work camps and for a while believed it. Word soon reached the ghetto that “resettlement” meant being shipped to death camps.
Two months later, some 265,000 Jews had been deported from the Warsaw ghetto to the Treblinka extermination camp where they were murdered. 20,000 others were sent to a forced-labor camp or killed during the deportation process.
An estimated 60,000 Jews remained in the Warsaw ghetto, and small groups of these survivors formed underground self-defense units such as the Jewish Combat Organization, or ZOB, which managed to smuggle in a limited supply of weapons from anti-Nazi Poles. The Polish underground on the whole refused to sell the Jews weapons or help them in any way.
On January 18, 1943, when the Nazis entered the ghetto to seize thousands of Jews for deportation, a ZOB unit ambushed them. Fighting lasted for several days before the Germans withdrew. Afterward, the Nazis suspended deportations from the Warsaw ghetto for the next few months as they panned a new strategy to demolish the ghetto.
On April 19, 1943, Himmler sent in SS forces with tanks and heavy artillery to liquidate the Warsaw ghetto. For nearly a month, several hundred resistance fighters, armed with a small cache of weapons, held off the Nazis who vastly outnumbered them in manpower and weapons.
However, during that time, the Germans systematically razed the ghetto buildings, block by block, destroying the bunkers were many residents had been hiding and smoking out the survivors. In the process, the Germans killed or captured thousands of Jews.
By May 16, the Germans had captured the Ghetto command headquarters and crushed the uprising, killing about 7000 Jews. In the following days, they deported about 42,000 thousand ghetto residents to concentration camps and killing centers.
Handfuls of Jews escaped through the sewers. For months after the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto, survivors continued to hide in the ruins. Others who had smuggled themselves out to the Aryan side continued to hide there. Out of the original 400,000 Jews confined in the ghetto, less than 20,000 survived.