Parashat Matot in the Warsaw Ghetto (July 11, 1942)

The Piaseczno Rebbe’s final sermons in the Warsaw Ghetto were addressed to a population terrified after the release of the Grojanowski Report, authored by the resistance based on the testimony of an escapee from the Chełmno Death Camp. News continued to filter into the Ghetto confirming the horrific details of the Nazi extermination facilities, including a report in mid-June from Biala Podloska that described sixty wagonloads of children under the age of ten and adults over the age of sixty who were selected and deported for mass murder. The murder of children is overwhelming for any human being, how much more so must it have been awful for the Rebbe, who devoted his life and literary efforts to the development of Jewish youth. His long sermon of June 27, 1942, discussed the importance of children to the Jewish people, and meditated on the cruelties meted out to this most helpless of populations:

The first antisemite, Pharaoh, pounced upon Jewish children: every male child born [shall be thrown into the Nile]. So too, the cruelty of the antisemite is always directed primarily against Jewish children, whether to murder them, Heaven forbid, or to force them into apostasy, as is well known from the evil decrees of previous centuries, may the Merciful One preserve us. This is, to our great anguish, apparent in our own days, for of all the horrific, murderous cruelty which is poured upon us, the Jewish people,  the murderous cruelty directed against young boys and girls is by far the worst. Woe, what has befallen us! More than this —when they seek, Heaven forbid, to murder the children of the Jewish people, it is not exclusively the children that are lost, Heaven forbid. The effect extends to their parents and grandparents who are in Garden of Eden, since the continued existence of the ancestors in this world is accomplished solely through their progeny, and when, Heaven forbid, they are wiped out, then the continued existence of the ancestors is severed, may the Merciful One preserve us. Regarding this we pray, “our Father, our King, take pity on us and on our infants and children,” for they are not merely our children, they are us…

The Rebbe expressed his bewilderment that the pain of the children was powerless to move God to act on their behalf:

In truth, it is astonishing that the universe continues to exist after so many screams such as these.  With regard the Ten Martyrs of the State it is taught that when the angels cried out, “this is Torah, and this is its reward?” A Heavenly Voice responded, “if I hear one more word, I will cause the universe to revert to primordial waters!” In our time, innocent children, pure angels, as well as great and holy ones of the Jewish people, are murdered and slaughtered simply because they are Jews…their screams suffuse the entire universe, and yet the universe does not revert to primordial waters. It continues to exist as if completely unaffected, Heaven forbid.

The Rebbe spoke on Parashat Matot, July 11, 1942, and then a final sermon was recorded on the Sabbath immediately preceding the day of national Jewish mourning, Tisha B’Av, on July 18, 1942. Both sermons focus on a theme prominent in the Rebbe’s early writings: the development of contemporary prophecy.

The Rebbe wrote often that the faculty of prophecy was accessible to individuals of spiritual sensitivity, and described a series of visualization exercises to encourage the development of this skill. To be sure, he distinguished contemporary prophecy from Biblical prophecy in quality but not necessarily in kind, arguing that elevated souls could access more direct communications with the Divine in a manner broadly similar to the inspiration of prophecy.  Problematic, however, was the Rabbinic teaching that prophecy may only be accessed while in a state of joy.

Prophecy is impossible amidst sadness. The Talmud states that this is also true for the study of Jewish law. Not only the investigation of a point of law, but even to comment on the suffering, is impossible with a broken heart and a crushed spirit. At times it is even impossible to force one’s self to speak at all, due to the enormity of the calamity, may the Merciful One rescue us. How is it possible to strengthen one’s self, if only a little, as long as the salvation has not yet arrived? How is it possible to elevate the spirit, if only a little, at a time of crushing oppression such as this? First and foremost, we must pray and have trust in God, the Merciful One, that it is impossible that God will so utterly cast out children from God’s presence. It is also impossible that God would abandon us in such danger as we experience now for the sake of the Blessed Name. Certainly, God will have mercy and will immediately save us in the blink of an eye.

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Adam Czerniakow, President of the Warsaw Judenrat (Jewish Council)

On July 18, 1942. On that day, Adam Czerniaków recorded an ominous note in his diary:

A day full of foreboding. Rumors that the deportations will start on Monday evening (All?!) I asked the Kommissar whether he knew anything about it. He replied that he did not and that he did not believe the rumors. In the meantime panic in the Quarter; some speak of deportations, others of a pogrom.

The rumors, of course, would be proven true: beginning at 4:00 pm on July 22, the eve of Tisha B’Av, the Jewish community would be forced to provide the first daily quota of 6,000 deportees. Czerniaków refused to sign the order. The next day, when the Nazis specifically informed him that children were not exempted from deportation, he wrote a note to his wife that read,

I am powerless, my heart trembles in sorrow and compassion. I can no longer bear all this. My act will show everyone the right thing to do.

Retrieving a potassium cyanide tablet that he had secreted away with the intent of utilizing it when he could no longer reconcile his cooperation with the Nazi authorities with faithful service to the Jewish community, the President placed his diary on the desk before him, swallowed the pill, and ended his suffering.

The Rebbe, despite his personal agony over the suffering of his Hasidim, would deliver one final sermon on Shabbat Hazon.

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