Souls On Fire

The horror of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre last week, with its timing so close to the anniversary of Kristallnacht, recalls the infamous pogrom of November 9, 1938, that marked the outbreak of violent Nazism 80 years ago.

The Night of Broken Glass spelled the doom of hundreds of synagogues in Germany, founded over the course of centuries, as Nazis torched shuls and Jewish schools, and attacked and murdered Jews indiscriminately.

Countless sifrei Torah, a wealth of tashmishei kedusha, seforim and community records all went up in smoke during the Nazis’ rampages across Germany. Kristallnacht was the prologue to the Final Solution; as bloody and violent as it was, it was a mild preview of the horrors to come.

With the outbreak of war and the Nazi juggernaut sweeping across Eastern Europe, the Night of Broken Glass was re-enacted in thousands of communities. The first Jewish target to be attacked as the Nazis occupied a town was almost always the main shul.

 

Cutting Off the Oxygen Supply

The Nazis’ relentless assaults on one of Judaism’s most potent symbols—houses of prayer—makes it clear that their target was Jewish prayer itself. In taking aim at the community’s most vital “arteries,” its intent was to cut off the people’s oxygen supply.

In Poland alone more than a thousand shuls and batei midrash were set on fire or torn down. The Germans in many places forced the Jews to throw sifrei Torah and tefillin into the fire and sometimes to dance around them as well.

“These devastating scenes left deep scars on the hearts of Jews who witnessed them,” writes Esther Farbstein in Hidden in Thunder, Perspectives on Faith, Halacha and Leadership during the Holocaust. The book cites numerous survivor accounts attesting to the orchestrated violence wreaked against local shuls in city after city, village after village.

Chief among these accounts is the Emmanuel Ringelblum Archive, a meticulous collection of reports, documents and evidence from all over Eastern Europe about the unfolding Holocaust, penned during 1940-1943 in the Warsaw ghetto.

Ringleblum, a dedicated historian, secretly compiled his journal based on his own research and the eyewitness testimony of thousands of refugees who fled to Warsaw. Although the author did not survive the war, most of his archive, buried underground in what had been the “Aryan” side of Warsaw, was retrieved in the 1950s.

The Ringelblum papers describe how the Nazis ordered the closure of all shuls in Warsaw in January 1940, after which Judenrat head Adam Czierniakow issued warnings to the public against “illegal prayer services,” and promised severe reprisals.

All minyonim were thus outlawed. Shuls, batei midrash and chadorim were locked.

But as persecutions and atrocities escalated, Jews found they needed the lifeline of prayer more than ever. In scores of cities and towns, the closure of the shuls and schools, and the banning of communal prayer only intensified the yearning to daven. Despite imprisonment, sickness, starvation, terror and grief, Jews gathered in secrecy to pour out their hearts.

 

Faith in Terrible Times

“The story of tefilla during the Holocasut is the story of faith in terrible times,” writes Farbstein, citing surviving fragments of documentation about individual prayer and tefilla b’tzibur.

Nightmarish ordeals robbed many of the ability to even think straight, let alone pray. Family members were seized and deported to an unknown destination, leaving people shocked, bereaved and frantic with worry. Cold, hunger, sickness, misery, constant fear and uncertainty took an enormous psychological toll.

Under these conditions, it took superhuman strength for a person to focus any attention on words of prayer. In addition, broken with grief and suffering, many were simply unable to daven. Feeling that one’s prayers went unanswered and that suffering actually increased, thrust people into despair.

“People forgot prayers they knew by heart. Some could no longer express themselves in words. The gates of speech were locked,” notes Farbstein.

 

The author cites the memoir of Avraham Sdeur who was a young boy in Auschwitz.

“…My father pulled me into the group of people who were praying but I suddenly discovered that I had forgotten how; the words of Shema Yisrael had vanished. I had known all the prayers by heart since I was a little boy, including Shabbos davening, but suddenly I couldn’t remember a word. It was a terrible feeling.

Tatteh, I want to daven but I can’t. I don’t remember the words!” I whispered to my father. He tried to recite them with me but it didn’t work. “Daven however you can, yingaleh, say a tefilla in your heart,” he encouraged me. I tried but could not. (Korot Shdeur, cited in Hidden in Thunder)

There were others who managed to break through the inner desolation and paralysis. Though crushed into the dust, their prayers swept them upwards to spiritual realms and imbued them with the will to go on. They clung to their minyanim at the risk of their lives, relocating in hiding places and davening secretly.

Hidden in Thunder cites a document by Yerachmiel Bierman of the Lodz ghetto entitled, Eifo veEich Mispallelim baGeto, (Where and How People Prayed in the Ghetto) that draws an astonishing picture of a vibrant world of underground prayer, where people regularly took their lives in their hands in order to daven with a minyan.

 Bierman reproduced notices that had been posted in rooms set aside for tefilla. One of them asks sick people not to attend the minyan so as to prevent the spread of disease. Between the lines, one can see how insistent Jews were about davening b’tzibur even when sick.

Yisrael Dov Itzinger, a teacher, writer and editor of the underground newspaper Min haMetzar in the Lodz ghetto wrote that “minyanim formed in buildings and courtyards, especially for mincha and maariv. Between the services “there is a class in Daf Yomi. Sentries were posted outside to alert the mispallelim of the approach of Germans.” (Hidden in Thunder)

According to Bierman, “many minyanim disbanded or went further underground after Rosh Hashana 1942, during the massive deportation in which many of the rabbonim were sent to their deaths in the Chelmno death camp. Nevertheless, numerous minyanim met at dawn [for selichos], and some even dared to sound a shofar blast afterward.”

In Warsaw, despite Gestapo threats and severe reprisals when offenders were caught, there were more than 600 secret minyanim in courtyards and some 1500 minyanim altogether, according to Ringelblum. They met in private homes, factories and the homes of rabbonim, with lookouts posted constantly to watch for SS and Polish guards.

Minyanim gathered in the homes of Piaseczner Rebbe (Rabbi Klonymous Kalman Shapira, who composed his extraordinary sefer, Eish Kodesh, in the Warsaw ghetto), the Sochatzover Rebbe (Rabbi Dovid Borenstein) and Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, as well as many other places that were kept secret from all but the mispallelim.

 Although in terms of sheer numbers, those who davened b’tzibur in the ghetto were a minority, the sound of prayer never ceased. For multitudes of Jews, private prayer, communal prayer and family prayer remained a lifeline to sanity, a refuge for the soul where one could draw precious strength from Above to withstand the terrible ordeals.

 

‘Prayer On The Brink of An Abyss’

A handwritten journal by Reuven Felshuh of Warsaw, quoted by Farbstein, gives a poignant description of a minyan he stumbled into that remained deeply etched in his memory.

It was February, 1941; Reuven had just escaped after being seized for forced labor. Still on the run, hungry, cold and fearful, he found himself on Zamenhof Street in Warsaw.

“The kloyz is almost full…The chazzan prays melodiously,” he marveled afterward. “You would never know from him and those davening here that the world is on the brink of an abyss. If you closed your eyes so that you couldn’t see the gaunt, hungry faces but just listened to the hum of prayer, you’d think you had fallen into a beautiful shul at a time of peace and tranquility.

“… I was suddenly suffused with a warmth I hadn’t felt since before the war. How did I get here? Someone… something picked me up, carried me through time and deposited me in the midst of this congregation of Yidden….Was this the Middle Ages, where Jews were fighting and dying for their religion? There too, murder, violence, robbery reigned…Then as now, icy streets, and in one’s heart, much anguish and pain.

“But above all this hovered a higher force, supreme and eternal. The force and flow of generations, past and future…”

There are many similar testimonies about underground minyanim in cities and towns in Lithuania where the Nazis targeted communal prayer. Secret services were held in many different locations. When Germans appeared, the ark was swiftly camouflaged, the candles extinguished. Taleisim and siddurim were concealed as mispallelim dashed into prepared hiding places. When the Germans left, everything was rearranged and davening resumed.

These improvised shuls sustained the soul, imbuing it with the strength to survive. Incredibly, the minyanim continued to function, even during deportations and pogroms.

“In some homes, Shabbos zemiros were sung during the worst deportations,” writes Farbstein. She cites the moving testimony of Rabbi Zimel Rothstein who recounted to her that when his only sister was seized for deportation, “his father told him, in a strangled voice, to sing Lecha Dodi as usual, since ‘it is Shabbos today.’”

 

Rediscovering the Wellsprings of Tefilla

An incident recorded in The Long Night by survivor Dr. Israel Bornstein tells of an extraordinary phenomenon he experienced in Markstadt, one of the most brutal slave labor camps, where despairing Jews rediscovered in themselves the wellsprings of tefilla.

Yom Kippur 1943 was approaching and a few religious Jews made plans to fast,” writes Bornstein who was a teenager at the time. “These people were prepared to undertake their regular workload without a bite of food or drink. Our group elder, Vogel, somehow arranged for these men to remain in the hut during this day. They huddled together and prayed, fearful of being discovered, of being beaten to death. Some had the tattered remnants of a prayer book from which one of them led the prayers in a quiet, haunting tone.

“A heavy storm arose, flinging torrents of rain that forced us all to stop work. With a few friends, I took shelter in the darkened hut where the religious prisoners stood deep in prayer. Shrouded in the shadows, they swayed back and forth as the chazzan chanted. When they reached neilah, they turned towards us, silently gesturing for us to join them. They were less than ten people and wanted us to make a minyan.

“We were so torn…drawn by how fervently these Jews were praying, but overwhelmed by bitter disillusionment. Our hearts were frozen with grief. We couldn’t daven. We could only mourn the terrible tragedies that had destroyed our families and thrust us into this darkest most perverted place.

“The rain drummed on the roof like a thousand tiny hammers. Slowly, we inched closer together to those praying and our resistance started to melt. After a bit, we let our quivering voices join theirs. “Hashem!” we were suddenly crying out together, “please open the gates of heaven for our prayers!”

“Hunger and tiredness suddenly evaporated. And the heartrending sounds of our prayers and sobs merged with the battering of the rain and the howling of storm winds.

Hayom yifneh, hashemesh yovoh veyifneh…The day is ending, the sun is setting! Please let us come to Your gates! Onoh Hashem, we beseech You, please forgive, pardon us! Be compassionate, have pity, spare us, have mercy on us!”

“Outside night fell and the storm gradually subsided. We finished neilah in lowered voices, drenched from the rain and our tears. Vogel opened the door and motioned it was time to return to the barracks. Hearts uplifted, we filed out, our tears and prayers still echoing in the hut.”

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The next installment of Souls on Fire will continue exploring the role of faith and prayer, and the spiritual grandeur of individual Jews, both leaders and laymen, in the ghettos and camps.