In December 1950, a Polish construction worker clearing the rubble from the ruined Warsaw Ghetto unearthed a tin milk container containing a trove of Hebrew and Yiddish-language manuscripts. The papers proved to be one of the three caches buried in the last months of the war by Oneg Shabbat, the secret society of amateur historians working under the direction of Dr. Emmanuel Ringelblum, dedicated to the task of documenting the life and death of Warsaw Jewry under the Nazi occupation. Included among the documents were the wartime writings of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, a noted Hasidic leader. His Saturday afternoon sermons, delivered between September 1939 and July 1942 and with annotations through January 1943, were published in 1960 under the Hebrew title Aish Kodesh: Holy Fire.
The sermons, which the author called Torah from the Years of Wrath, are virtually unparalleled as a source for the spiritual life of religious Jews during the Holocaust. Taken together, they constitute perhaps the most sustained discussion of theodicy since the biblical Book of Job. Pious Hasidim and secular academics alike have studied these writings for Rabbi Shapira’s profound theological insights.
The sermons seem inscrutably disconnected from history. Nowhere in the book do the terms “Nazi” or “German” appear, and indeed if it were not for a few scattered annotations, it would be possible to read the entire work without realizing that it was anything other than an unusually dark work of Hasidic thought from the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Scholars therefore tended to dismiss the possibility of mining his writings for historical information. The prevailing wisdom among students of Rabbi Shapira’s wartime writings argued that the principal value of the Rebbe’s thought was accessible with a cursory familiarity with the history of Warsaw Jewry during the Holocaust.
The following chapters will demonstrate precisely the opposite: a full appreciation of the Rebbe’s wartime work is only possible with a thorough grounding in the specific events in the daily life in the Ghetto. This is because the sermons should be understood as public documents, shared widely in real time, and not as solitary meditations written in private and stored away in a desk drawer. Week after week the followers of the Rebbe gathered to hear his wisdom, the wisdom of the Torah and Hasidism, to help them understand the traumatic experiences they shared since the previous Sabbath. The veiled nature of the Rebbe’s words was a literary and theological device, opaque to post-war readers but easily penetrated by his audience. Each and every sermon was nothing less than a Hasidic response to the micro-history of the Ghetto, placing the quotidian events in the cosmic meta-history of the the weekly Torah reading.
Reading the sermons in the light of historical data reveals the hidden meaning of the Rebbe’s words. It also exposes a spiritual and intellectual heroism of incredible proportions. Refusing offers to escape the Ghetto, the Rebbe insisted on remaining with his Hasidim to the bitter end, enduring tragedies both communal and personal. He drew deeply from his immense reservoirs of faith and Torah learning to provide hizuk, encouragement, to his fellow Jews, right up to his own martyrdom in November 1943. This book illustrates the Rebbe’s method of providing hope and meaning to Jews suffering in the hellish environment of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Chapter One will provide a biographical introduction to Rabbi Shapira, placing him in his religious, literary, and cultural environment. Chapters Two, Three and Four will look at the Hebrew years 5700, 5701 and 5702 respectively, covering the secular dates September 1939 through July 1942, when the great deportation of Warsaw’s Jewish population to Treblinka took place. Chapter Five will discuss the Rebbe’s final textual annotations, his last days in a labor camp, and the spiritual legacy he left for his followers. This final chapter will also place the Rebbe’s work in the larger context of Holocaust theology.
As part of his literary will, Rabbi Shapira requested that any publication of his works include a memorial to his family members, including his wife Hanah Berakhah who passed away in 1937. He also asked that the names of his father and father-in-law should appear on the title page. Not included was his only daughter Rekhil Yehudis, whose fate was unknown when the Rebbe composed the memorial. Instead, in a cover letter he expressed his heartfelt prayer for the safety of his “precious daughter, the gentle and modest Rekhil Yehudis.” She was taken by the Nazis in an Aktion on the second day of Rosh Hodesh Elul, 5702 (August 14, 1942) and deported to the Treblinka death camp, where she was murdered.
The following memorial represents the last written testimony to the centuries of Hasidic civilization that once flourished in Poland.
In Eternal Memory
of my holy, righteous and honored mother and teacher, the woman of valor Hanah Berakhah of noble lineage, daughter of the holy and righteous Rabbi Hayim Shmuel ha-Levi of Hantshin. She served God with all her might, heart and soul, and with great effort raised her children to Torah. Her holy and pure soul rose on high on the Sabbath eve of the 7th of Marheshvan 5700 [October 20 1939].
My honored wife, the righteous, modest, pious woman of noble lineage Rahel Hayah Miriam, the daughter of the righteous and holy Rabbi Yerahmiel Moshe, Head of the court of Kozienice. She had an exceptionally fine character and even learned Torah every day. She was like a merciful mother to every embittered soul, and especially to Torah students and Hasidim. In the bloom of youth her holy and pure soul rose on high, on the holy Sabbath of the week and Miriam died there, the tenth of Tammuz, 5697 [June 19, 1937].
My honored only son, cherished heart and soul, the holy and pious Rabbi of noble lineage Elimelekh Ben Tsion. A man of truth, of fine and good character, steeped in Torah, wise, a lover of Israel, who left behind Torah insights on tractate Shabbat and the first volume of Yoreh Deah. Gravely wounded at a time of suffering for Yaakov, on Monday the 12th of Tishrei 5700, after great and bitter suffering his holy and pure soul rose on high on the 16th, the second day of Sukkot [September 29, 1939].
His honored wife, my daughter-in-law, the holy, pure and modest woman of noble lineage Gitl, daughter of the righteous Rabbi Shlomo Hayim of Balakhov. With great personal sacrifice she remained by the hospital where her husband, my holy son, lay wounded, and she was killed on Tuesday the 13th of Tishrei [September 26, 1939].
May the Merciful One shelter them forever and bind their souls in the bonds of life. God is their inheritance, and may they rest in peace, amen.
Reviews and Praise
Dr. Abramson has written a book which is destined to lead to an increase of study of the rebbe’s Torah and thought in both the academic and Jewish world. His is a work which while maintaining high academic standards and containing ideas which will advance the field, is at once accessible to the non-scholar, and written in an engaging and compelling manner.
Especially for the reader who is looking for a work which contains both Torah and Avodas HaShem, along with serious scholarship, I can not recommend this incredible book strongly enough.
Rabbi Pesach Sommer, The Jewish Star
The haunting world of the Aish Kodesh comes to life in this gripping book. Through Professor Abramson’s work, we see how the Rebbe lived the educational program which he taught.
I’m loving the book–so powerful.
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, Boca Raton Synagogue