Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

28 Nissan 5763 - April 30, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Adventures of a Mirrer Bochur in Europe

by Rav Dov Eliach

Part II -- The Final Period

Pesach 5703 (1943). The rebels barricaded themselves on the rooftops. They had arsenals of weapons. Rumor had it that the morning following the first night of Pesach had been designated for the liquidation of the ghetto. The purpose: to give the Fuhrer a birthday gift. 19 Nisan, 5703. Sixty years ago.

Days of Awe

Elul 5702. The yomim noraim were on the threshold. For the ghetto people, these were tangible days of judgment when life literally hung in the balance. The enemy's sword was loosed upon the city. The howling of the bloodthirsty beasts of prey out for Jewish blood had become part of the daily existence of those remaining. No one knew what fresh terror the new day might bring and what would be on the morrow.

Their very moments were numbered. People lived under the constant dread of death. Everyone was in bereavement, orphaned from mother or father, for no house had escaped the sword of death. The universal mourning compounded the fear, and morale was at its lowest ebb. The dregs of the cup of hemlock were being downed to its last drop in Warsaw; whoever was still alive, could not help but drink his portion. No hour was free of its bad tidings, no minute in which a Jew could comfort himself of better times to come; death had become a constant reality, a leeching companion to every person, a permanent boarder in every house.

Nevertheless, the hope that the decree would still be mitigated and that Heaven would relent, still burned and did not dim for a moment. This is what gave the Jews of Warsaw the endurance to hang on. Emunah and bitochon are our power of endurance, of survival and people grasped on to these like lifebuoys. "If a person sees that trouble is overtaking him, he should examine his deeds (Brochos 5a)." "If one of the group dies, the entire group should be concerned [for itself] (Shabbos 106a)."

This was the atmosphere in which people prepared themselves for the Days of Awe. Oh, those selichos! Where is the mighty pen that could describe the cries that burst forth during those prayers, in their respective places? The waterfall of tears that cascaded at those wee hour sessions were but a small indication of the turmoil in people's hearts. Cries of misery and helplessness could be heard from all sides, all directions. From the women's section, the sighs of broken women, widows, bereaved women who had lost dear ones.

Their only hope -- Hashem's forgiveness -- was the common denominator that united them all. "They are terrified from all the troubles imposed upon them by their blasphemers and oppressors . . . Do not abandon them, Hashem, G-d of their fathers . . . For You are munificent of pardon and Master of mercy . . . (Selichos)" The words sounded different in this context. The hearts screamed, the very walls of the synagogues wept and shuddered as the chazzan led his flock and together they pleaded, "Do not forsake us, Father . . . Do not abandon us, Creator . . . Do not neglect us, You, Who formed us, and do not allow us to be annihilated for our sins . . ." Like beggars at the door, like doomed men standing before the judge, pleading for their very lives. With such emotional preparation did they arrive at Rosh Hashonoh.

On erev Rosh Hashonoh R' Menachem passed from one person to the next, encouraging, fortifying, upholding the tottering in faith lest they fall into despair, not letting them succumb. "There is still hope!" he would say in certain tones. "Do not despair of Heavenly mercy!" was his parting sentence to one and all.

And he would add with a piquant note: "It is very easy to prove that next year will be better than this one! Poland no longer has three-and-a-half million Jews to be destroyed. Next year must be better!"

The remnant community gathered on Rosh Hashonoh in R' Menachem's home on 4 Pravda St. R' Yitzchok Rosenstreich led the prayers but his mighty voice dissolved into tears. Sighs rent the air; R' Moshe was gone, R' Dovid was no longer, not a single one of R' Chaim's children were still alive. A single infant survived the entire clan of Family X and from the many- branched Family Y, not a soul. These pictures stood before the eyes of the surviving worshipers who poured out their broken hearts before their King, afraid of what the future might yet bring to their own ranks.

Had it not been for R' Menachem, their strength and guide, they would not have been able to continue. Still, both he and his flock found hidden reserves of endurance. So long as their soul still burned within them, they were still obligated to stand before their King and to crown Him with Malchuyos. The voice of the chazzan reverberated and ricocheted off the walls, "Ovinu Malkeinu k-r-a-a -- tear asunder the harshness of our decree." "Have mercy on us and our nurslings and young ones." " . . . For the sake of those who were killed sanctifying Your Name. Do unto us charity and kindness, and save us."

Immediately after Yom Kippur, R' Menachem was forced to leave his home. He moved to an apartment on the top floor of a building on Moranov St. He took the risk of creating a succa by removing some roof tiles. It was only a small succa, but the thousands of Warsaw Jews who heard about it, came and passed through.

The head of the Jewish archives brought him a kosher esrog on erev yom tov, one of the three that had been smuggled out of Switzerland at great risk. R' Menachem exulted over it like the great treasure it was and news of this esrog spread rapidly throughout the city. Hundreds of Jews made it somehow to R' Menachem's succa, performed the mitzva and returned home.

The massive traffic displeased the heads of the Jewish police who lived in that building and these assimilated, misguided Jews arrested R' Menachem. He was imprisoned in a Jewish jail and was only freed upon the intervention of the president of the community, R' Isaac Ber Ackerman. But his release was dependent upon his relocation. R' Menachem moved to 37 Nalbaki St., another way station in his long road of peregrination.

The organization "Ezras Torah" was founded here on the eighth day of Chanukah, 5703. Its purpose was to solidify the ranks of all the refugees from the cities whose Jewish population had been evacuated and to help support them. At the foundation gathering, R' Menachem spoke about the preciousness of the cruse of oil that had remained from the terrible destruction in the times of the Greeks. "So long as this single vessel remained pure," he said fervently, "it had the power to illuminate the entire world!"

R' Yosef Koenigsburg, former administrator of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin, organized the refugees into groups and actual yeshivos were established within the ghetto walls. R' Tzvi Arye Frommer Hy'd, the goan of Kozglov, began again to disseminate Torah in public and was joined by R' Arye Leib Landau Hy'd of Kolodail, who gave regular shiurim.

A new committee of the Ezras Torah organization was formed to support these yeshivos, headed by R' Menachem. They received their funds from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Thus, the flame of Torah resumed its burning in the cellars and attics of Warsaw and the sound of Torah did not cease as many dozens of youths studied at great risk to their lives. They would occasionally be rewarded by a visit from the living force, the merciful father-figure, R' Menachem Zemba. He encouraged, inspired and supported these shiurim; he learned with and taught the youths and strengthened them; "This is my comfort in my misery; from Your Torah I did not veer."

The Rotzachto Vegam Yorashto ("Shall You Murder and also Expropriate") gang, as they were called, tried to take over Nalbaki St. Those who learned of the plan in the middle of the night hastened to R' Menachem's house and, taking rooftop and subterranean routes, they came to spirit him away to safety. R' Menachem gathered up his possessions and, with his work Machaze Lamelech and his personally annotated copies of the Rambam tucked safely under his arm, he relocated to another refuge. This was several days after Chanukah.

A Saintly Death

"This proposal should be taken seriously," announced Stulzman the architect to the members of the Judenrat. This time, the Polish clergy was offering to remove the three main rabbis: R' Menachem, R' Dovid Shapira and R' Shimshon Stockhammer Hy'd, from the ghetto. "We are able to do this; it is up to you to decide to carry it out." This was the text of the offer presented to the board of the Judenrat.

The rabbis remained silent. The chairman suggested that the representatives enter into an adjacent room to take counsel. They unanimously decided that "the ghetto has no more need for its rabbis. We are unable to help anyone any more. But the very fact that we are here together with all the Jews lends them a modicum of moral support." This, then was their decision. They went out and informed the chairman of the Judenrat, "We are staying here! We will not abandon the community in these mad days. Hashem is ubiquitous, and if this be the Divine will, we will die alongside all the Jews of Warsaw!"

The End of the Ghetto

The 20th of April was designated as the day the Warsaw ghetto would be wiped out; this was the Fuhrer's birthday. Chief executioner Himmler ym'sh decided to give him this as a "birthday present" and to exterminate the last Jews from Warsaw. He issued an order which declared that Warsaw must be Judenrein by that date.

The Jews began organizing themselves. The youth decided to put up a fight. If the Germans continued to make selections and deportations, they would rebel. They amassed large amounts of arms and their intentions were noticeable from the feverish activity in the ghetto. The German tactic was to lie low for the meanwhile and give the impression that they were biding their time. They offered to transfer whoever wished to Lublin and even made plans to transfer the two major plants that had employed Jews in the ghetto, the Schultz and Tabnes works, to Lublin.

People continued to stream to R' Menachem's home, each one with the problems pressing upon his heart. If people had a chance to escape, he urged them to do so. If they didn't, they were told to go into hiding. Tragic scenes were taking place in R' Menachem's home. Couples came to get divorces. What was happening? A husband had found the opportunity to smuggle him and his wife out of the ghetto but the wife was fearful; she had a typically Jewish face. She was also reluctant to leave her parents, but on the other hand, she did not want to stand in the way of her husband's safety. And so they had decided, against their will, to divorce. R' Menachem arranged it for them, weeping along with them as he did so. The Mizbeiach also sheds tears in such situations.

A young man came to R' Menachem with his elderly mother. He told of a religious Christian who was prepared to hide them both, but with one stipulation: that they convert to Christianity! The Jewish mother wept, "I would rather die as a Jew than live as a Christian!"

R' Menachem turned to the young man and said, "Your mother insists that she is prepared to die as a Jew. Shall I tell her to go and convert? I cannot do that!"

And he added bitterly, "Cursed are the wicked ones, whose favors are worthless."

Doomsday was quickly approaching. At a gathering of rabbis it was decided to declare a public fast day on the Monday of erev rosh chodesh Nisan. This day was proclaimed for teshuva, tefilloh and tzedokoh. On that day there would also be a pidyon shvuyim fundraising campaign whose proceeds would go for kimcha dePischa. A special prayer was prepared and the fast was proclaimed.

Jews gathered in all their places of prayer. Everyone had heard of the proclamation, even though the word had only been spread secretly, by word of mouth. This day was kept throughout the ghetto as one wholly sanctified to its threefold purpose.

Many gathered in R' Menachem's home. The people wept and wailed and their tears rent the very heavens. R' Menachem called upon everyone to be staunch in their faith, for Hashem's succor could come in a twinkling. "Do not despair!" he urged. "`Hashem knows the ways of the righteous (Tehillim 1:6),'" he quoted, and proceeded to invert the verse: "The way of the righteous is to know Hashem. We must rest assured that Hashem knows what He is doing; and if so, we should trust in Him." "`And the ways of the wicked shall perish.' It is the rosho's tactic to sow despair and fear of perishing, to say that there is no hope. But one must not succumb to hopelessness!" he exhorted repeatedly.

Preparations for the coming Pesach were made regardless of the situation, as best as could be done under the circumstances. R' Menachem asked the askonim to prepare wine and matzos for the Jewish families. He, himself, distributed vouchers of kimcha dePischa and people left his home loaded with these commodities. There was no lack of `bitter herbs' that year.

Notwithstanding the situation, the holiday made itself felt. The Jews in Egypt had also been removed from bondage to freedom, from suffering to redemption, from darkness to light, in a twinkling. Their sorrow had also turned to festivity.

On the night of the fourteenth of Nisan, bedikas chometz night, the Polish police received orders to report to the Warsaw ghetto. The Jewish resistance prepared for action and were ready to lay down their lives in self defense. When the Nazi forces reached the ghetto gates, they were repulsed by a fusillade of shots. They were caught off guard. They were fired upon from all sides and had to retreat temporarily.

That evening, the Jews gathered for snatched yom tov prayers. R' Menachem did not forget to ask every person if he had at least the required kezayis measure of matzo. He had prepared pocket-sized matzos in advance for "who knows where we will be on the seder night . . . " Those who still did not have matzo were given some by R' Menachem.

The Seder was carried out in R' Menachem's house according to ritual, with intense fervor. He read from the Haggodoh feelingly and when he came to the words "Vehi she'omdoh," he raised his voice with holy awe. The words took on a very poignant significance: " . . . for not only did one [enemy] intend to annihilate us . . . But Hakodosh Boruch Hu rescues us from their hands." The Seder carried on in its usual routine until the very end.

On the morrow, the Germans again attempted to enter the ghetto and, despite heavy losses in their ranks, succeeded to penetrate it.

After three days of pitched, very bloody battles, the Germans began bombing the ghetto from the air. They set fire to large sections of the city. Houses collapsed, roofs caved in and from the burning windows one could see women leaping with their children in an attempt to save themselves. Those who had hid in bunkers were asphyxiated by the smoke. The rebels began weakening, their stores of ammunition depleted. The Germans opened the city gas mains and set them afire and soon the entire city had turned into a massive, hellish bonfire. House after house exploded.

The flames did not skip over the house on 7 Kupitchka St., where R' Menachem was now staying. Thick smoke penetrated the bunker and the people inside panicked to get out for air. R' Menachem remained calm and tried to extinguish the flames with buckets of water, but the smoke thickened; there was no escaping it.

The occupants decided to move to another bunker; the danger was too great. German soldiers were posted at all street corners to watch Jews emerging from their hiding places. They lay in ambush and waited to shoot at their victims. R' Menachem's daughter slipped out and when she made it to safety, others prepared to follow in her footsteps. R' Menachem headed the line, holding tightly to his five-year- old grandson, Yankel Ber.

Suddenly there came a fiendish shrieking, as a volley of shots rang out. R' Menachem lurched and fell. The shots forced the people back into their bunker. Only later, under cover of darkness, were they able to retrieve R' Menachem's saintly body, stretched out lifeless on the sidewalk.

The people were devastated by the tragedy. "How the mighty have fallen!" This blow was too much to bear; R' Menachem, last remnant of the glorious period of Warsaw, the last of its rabbis, lying ravaged, in his blood, on the ghetto ground.

The news spread rapidly. Several minyanim of Jews arrived and in the middle of the night, when everything in sight was a mass of flames, the glowing torch which had been extinguished was temporarily laid to rest. This pillar of fire had illuminated the way for Warsaw Jewry until his very last day.

R' Menachem Zemba: may Hashem avenge his death!

The Final Resting Place

On Rosh Chodesh Tammuz 5718 (1958) R' Menachem's bones were brought from Poland to Eretz Hakodesh. Following an enormous levaya in Tel Aviv he was laid to rest in Jerusalem. At his graveside he was mourned by the rov of Lutsk, Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah member Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, zt'l.

"`As mourning for an only child make a bitter eulogy (Yirmiyohu 6:26).' It is the way of the world that in wartime when many soldiers die on the battlefield the nation would like to accord them honor but cannot gather them together. Therefore the nation tries to obtain the corpse of one of the casualties and buries him at a choice gravesite in an effort to express the honor and esteem of all of the soldiers -- and this is our situation today.

"After the dreadful Holocaust here and there, the wicked have continued to torment [us] with suffering worse than death, and since this is the first time since the European Holocaust that holy bones have been brought [to Eretz Yisroel] from Poland, we must view them as the bones of all of the Jews of Poland and Europe that were incinerated and turned into fertilizer, spread across the face of the earth. And perhaps in this case [I] am not `mourning an only child,' for these bones which we are laying to eternal rest today do not belong to a normal individual, but to a unique individual among the gedolim of Poland, and therefore I am uncertain whether Rosh Chodesh has the power to delay delivering this hesped.

"Perhaps it is a great merit for him that his grave was carefully kept [there] for 15 years, as is written, `But surely His salvation is near for those who fear Him, that they may dwell in our Land in honor' (Tehillim 85:10). Hashem's salvation is near for those who fear Him even regarding `dwelling in our Land in honor.' And we say to you, `Happy is your lot, R' Menachem, that you merited this, happy is your lot, gaon and tzaddik, that you gave over your life to sanctify His Name.'

"His bones did not arrive alone, but the Torah he learned with such fabulous shekido preserved them and undoubtedly accompanied them to Jerusalem. And it is a great merit for us, too, for the multitudes will be able to come to pour out their hearts in prayer at the holy gravesite. I hereby beseech the holy gaon to pass on the nation's pleading to the Heavens. If you were unable to annul the terrible decree sealed in blood, tzadikim are greater in their death than during their lifetimes, so may he be a meilitz yosher for us, and may Hashem deliver us from our dire plight until those lying in dust exalt Him and sing His praise."

A massive gathering of Beis Yisroel participated in the levaya, led by the Brisker Rov, the Tchebiner Rov and the roshei yeshivos of Chevron, Mir and Ponevezh zt'l.

Yated Ne'eman would like to thank Machon Menachem Yerushalaim and Machon Gilad, Zecher Chachmei Polin and Ginzach Kiddush Hashem for their help in obtaining the material for this article. Also, use was made of the excellent source, Geonei Polin Ho'acharonim by R' Aharon Surasky.

The Uprising: For or Against?

by A. Ehrentreu

A sharp dispute rages over R' Menachem's opinion on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Some believed in a different type of heroism and constantly sought ways to justify their stance. For them it was important to prove that the uprising had many supporters and they were glad whenever famous rabbonim expressed support. They wanted to prove the course of action taken had been the correct one.

Upon the release of A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto, Dr. Hillel Zaidman became the first person to publish along those lines. He claims R' Menachem wrote a sefer on the halochos of kiddush Hashem (a book no library has ever uncovered) and that he saw a receipt for a donation by R' Menachem to the Resistance Committee set up in the ghetto.

Apparently there was constant activity in R' Menachem's home during the weeks leading to the Ghetto's liquidation, based on a sense that a major event was soon to take place.

According to testimonials, R' Menachem advised anyone who could leave to do so, but not to go to Lublin, which was tantamount to suicide. R' Menachem gathered together rabbonim and announced a taanis tsibur and a special tefilloh. Dr. Zaidman's book also recounts the proceedings at a meeting held in the communal building, reporting that R' Menachem said, "We did not have to go ourselves, but should have resisted; perhaps, we should have understood from the start that oso rosho wanted to wipe everything out and then we should have used every means at our disposal to alert the entire world."

Writing in Hatsofe one year after the book's publication, Y.L. Finegold claimed R' Menachem said, "We are like sheep being led to slaughter and this is the greatest calamity visited upon us from Heaven and we are set to revolt." In his book on R' Menachem Zemba, S. Rothschild also made similar remarks. Was there truth to their assertions?

On 15 Sivan 5744 (1984) Hamodiah published a scathing article written by one of R' Menachem's close associates: "The terrible distortion surrounding the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising continues to increase from year to year. Bold and astounding tales are fabricated and we are told new stories of how spiritual leaders were the ones behind the uprising, making the blood of the afflicted Jews seethe in their veins and stirring them to vengeance. I would like to know from whence they derived their information and on what source they are relying when they quote a speech by the famous gaon R' Menachem Zemba, zt'l. Who heard his speech and wrote it down with such fabulous precision?

"The secular Jewish world has a need to study the [Warsaw] Ghetto Uprising as a symbol of the height of heroics, but the Torah-faithful Jew displayed his heroism every moment of his life spent in the dismal ghetto by keeping a single Shabbos, by obtaining one kezayis of matzoh through mesirus nefesh; this is the untold heroism of the Jew carrying the historical tradition. What reason is there to drag our great luminaries into the ring of the Uprising?"

They will certainly not succeed in convincing this writer that R' Menachem Zemba zt'l called for a rebellion. Those who knew R' Menachem personally know that everything he stood for was diametrically opposed to what various figures try to attribute to him. His prodigious Torah personality cannot be described through hollow imagining. The very mention of his name should elicit trembling and deep awe, and he should certainly not be transformed into a rebel hero.

All his life R' Menachem was a hero of Torah and as such he will remain forever etched into the consciousness and memory of Am Yisroel. His holy name cannot be desecrated by attaching modern notions of rebellious of revolutionary heroics to it. R' Menachem was holy in life and holy in death. We must exercise greater caution when discussing or writing about someone who was among Poland's leading geonim.

Today it is difficult for us to pass judgment in this area, for most of the foundations of chareidi Jewry of those days went up in flames in the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto. A terrible injustice has been done to these Jews, Hy'd. Innumerable tomes on the Holocaust have been published, yet the role played by chareidi Jewry has received scant mention or has been deliberately ignored.

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is one of the areas in which terrible wrongs have been committed. An accusatory finger suggests they went like sheep to slaughter. Clearly R' Menachem Zemba need not be described as a rebel hero in order to magnify his honor. What took place there we will never know.


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