Shavuot in the Warsaw Ghetto (1940)

Shimon Huberband was a student of the Rebbe and an amateur historian working for Emanuel Ringelblum’s underground Oneg Shabbat archive (Rabbi Huberband, who was killed along with Ringelblum and most of the archivists, was probably instrumental in convincing the Rebbe to entrust his manuscript to Ringelblum for burial). Rabbi Huberband  visited the court of Piaseczno on the holiday of Shavuot and provided a brief but evocative first-hand report.

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At the time (June 13-14, 1940) rumors circulated throughout the Warsaw Ghetto to the effect that France’s fall to the Nazis was imminent.

I went off to the Piaseczno Rebbe to his Hasidic gathering. There was a crowd of about 150 people, but the traditional dairy meal wasn’t served as it was in earlier years. The Rebbe said words of Torah, including many words of strengthening and encouragement. Various zmiros were sung. When the gathering concluded, the traditional dance—-with one person standing behind the other—began. During the dance the Rebbe wept profusely.

Huberband’s comment that the Rebbe wept profusely during the traditional dance is puzzling. Were these tears of anguish, tears of joy, or something else? The Rebbe’s sermon that day should provide insight, but it is unusually complex, relating to the question of how God, an infinite Being, could communicate with a finite human being. For the Rebbe, the holiday of Shavuot represented a direct and immediate transportation over this philosophical divide, an unmediated communication from God to the Jewish people. The Rebbe described this as nothing less than an intimate and mystical sharing of God’s very Self. Based on the content of the sermon, it is tempting to think that the the Rebbe’s tears were expressions of overwhelming gratitude at the immensity of this Divine communication. 

Sometimes the prosecutors overpower the Jewish people, Heaven forbid, and it is difficult for the Jewish people to be saved. Then the Holy One who is Blessed is revealed, which silences all the accusers, as in Egypt when the Almighty said I am God. Consequently Shavuot, the time of the receiving of the Torah—and any time when Torah is studied—is a moment of salvation, and no accuser has power over the Jewish people, Heaven forbid.  This is because God is speaking with us, and the essence of “I” is revealed. This is the sense of the verse, may Your kindness comfort me as You spoke to Your servant, not as one who speaks to one’s self, rather as You said to Your servant: When You spoke to mefor Torah is my delight and You speak to me.

The Rebbe was ever-cognizant of the material woes of his congregation, however, so he translated his mystical emotion into an appeal on their behalf by returning to a discussion of Psalms:

A song of ascents. I will raise my eyes to the mountains, where will my help come from? My help is from God, who creates Heaven and earth. We must understand the meaning of the question, where will my help come from? Don’t we know that God is the Savior?  Furthermore, what is the relevance of the reference to the creation of heaven and earth?

It is obvious that when the Jewish people are endangered, Heaven forbid, seeing no possibility of salvation, and they ask from where [me-ayin], then the response must be my help is from God, who creates Heaven and earth, for God also created them from nothingness [me-ayin], for there was no prior basis or possibility for their creation, so too he will save us now ex nihilo [me-ayin].

The fall of Paris was confirmed by the afternoon the day after Shavuot, ruining the immediate post-holiday atmosphere by casting an additional layer of gloom over the city. Warsaw Jews, however, would not be discouraged by the worsening military situation. Shimon Huberband recorded an example of the black humor typical of the Ghetto circulating at that time:

Jews are now very pious.  They observe all the ritual laws:  they are stabbed and punched with holes like matzahs, and have as much bread as on Passover; they are beaten like hoshanas, rattled like Haman; they are green as esrogim and thin as lulavim; they fast as if it were Yom Kippur; they are burnt as if it were Hanukah, and their moods are as if it were the Ninth of Av.

Adapted from

Torah from the Years of Wrath 1939-1943: The Historical Context of the Aish Kodesh

277 pages

Hardcover: $29.71

Softcover: $24.95

Kindle: $9.99 (free for Kindle Unlimited readers)

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