The Owner Will Find Us: The Aish Kodesh on Toledot (Warsaw Ghetto, November 1939)

The Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, refused to dignify the Nazis by naming them in his wartime sermons in the Warsaw Ghetto. In a rare moment of transparency, perhaps motivated by anguish over the suffering of his Hasidim, the Rebbe briefly suspended his euphemistic terminology with a curt third-person reference in his drashah on Parashat Toledot (November 11, 1939): “they even cut off the beards of Jews.”  This is the closest he will come to naming them in all of his book, Torah from the Years of Wrath, or as it is widely known, Aish Kodesh: The Holy Fire. The historical antecedent of the sermon was the Nazi practice of humiliating Warsaw Jews by forcibly shaving their beards, a brutality that occurred with regularity after the city formally capitulated and German soldiers entered on October 1. Rabbi Shimon Huberband provides personal testimony to this widespread phenomenon in the initial weeks of the occupation. 

Two other Jews were seized along with us; one with a black beard, the other with a long yellowish beard. A moment later, they grabbed an elegantly dressed young lady and forced her to shear off my beard and Shtayer’s. The girl wept as she cut our hair, for the honor of the Jewish people which was being disgraced in public by the evil ones…These barbarities were done not only to grown men, but also to children with earlocks. In Praga, a group of German officers chanced upon the ten-year-old Avrom Igelnik, at the gate of 32 Brukowa Street. They took him away to their headquarters, where they set fire to his earlocks. The young boy was lucky to have been left alive.

The Rebbe’s sermon responded with a message that meditated on a verse in Isaiah (27:13):

And then they will come, those who are lost in the land of Assyria, and those who are dispersed in the land of Egypt. There are two distinct categories, the lost and the dispersed. The dispersed refers to one who is displaced to a distant locale, yet remains distinct and recognizable. This is in contradistinction to the lost—this person is lost, and is neither distinct nor recognizable. For when the hardships are presently so compounded that they even cut off the beards of Jews which make them outwardly unrecognizable—and due to unimaginable persecution and unbearable afflictions, they are no longer recognizable internally—such a person loses himself, he ceases to recognize himself. How did he feel a year ago, on the Sabbath, or on a weekday prior to prayers, or during prayers, etc.? Now he is trampled and crushed, such that he no longer senses if he is a Jew or not, or a human being or not, or an animal which has no capacity to feel. This is the nature of one who is lost, yet they will come, those who are lost.

One may imagine the impact of these words on his audience, which likely included individuals whose beards and side locks were shorn by the Nazis. Marshaling his keen psychological insight, the Rebbe empathized with the victims and affirmed the deep connection between the external markers of identity and one’s internal state: “he ceases to recognize himself.” The Rebbe concluded with a message of encouragement:

The Talmud states that the one who lost something seeks after his lost object. When he lost it, it was no longer perceptible nor recognizable, and thus the owner seeks to find it, to pick it up and bring it home. And is it not God who is the master of we who are lost? Are we not the lost possessions of God?…May the Owner of the lost return to find us…

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