Before the Second World War, the social and religious life of Hasidim was writ large on the Polish urban and rural landscape. With as many as 100 tzadikim active in interwar Poland, market squares, travel routes and political parties were influenced by the most dynamic rabbis and their followers.
In the late 19th century, the town of Gora Kalwaria (known in Yiddish as Ger), located south of Warsaw, was transformed by the arrival of followers of the Gerer Rebbe. A thriving inn-keeping industry surrounding the rebbe’s court, and a special narrow-gauge rail line dubbed “The Rabbi’s Train,” catered to travellers. Closer to Warsaw, on the margins of the royal castle in Wilanow, was the court of the Piaseczno Rebbe, who had ancestral links with tzadikim from Grodzisk, Kozhenitz and Kock. The interwar Rebbe of Piaseczno, like many of his counterparts, moved his major activities to Warsaw, where, in 1923, he founded one of the largest Hasidic yeshivot in the city.
In the years before the Second World War, the Piaseczno Rebbe’s activities were undertaken on Dzielna Street, not far from the city’s major Tlomackie Synagogue, and near to the heavily Jewish streets of central Warsaw. Not far from the rebbe’s study house on Dzielna was the Scala Yiddish theatre. There, one might have passed a colourful billboard advertising the stage version of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman.
During the war, the surrounding streets were enclosed in the Warsaw Ghetto. Neighbouring buildings housed a prison – the site of spectacular German cruelty and executions – and the orphanage run by Janusz Korczak – the site of great acts of human accomplishment and kindness.
From his outpost on Dzielna Street, the Rebbe of Piaseczno, born Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira, was a witness to the greatest calamities of European life and culture. Throughout his time in the ghetto, Shapira maintained his role as guide to a shrinking group of Hasidic students and followers, in part by offering sermons related to the weekly Torah portion. His chosen hour to deliver these was at shalosh seudos, the “third meal” near the end of Shabbat, which the rebbe’s Hasidim ate at their prayer house on Dzielna.
In the course of delivering his sermons, between September 1939 and July 1942, Shapira wrote them down, with the intention of having them published. After the deportation of most of the ghetto’s population in the summer of 1942, and before Shapira himself was transported to the labour camp at Trawniki where he was murdered, he gave his manuscript to Emmanuel Ringelblum. Ringelblum hid it along with the rest of the documentation he had gathered about the ghetto.
In 1950, the milk can in which the sermons were hidden was unearthed by excavators who were in the process of rebuilding the ruined city. And so we have this documented account of the Hasidic response to the events of the Holocaust, up to and beyond the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
In his book, Torah From the Years of Wrath 1939-1943, Henry Abramson acknowledges that Shapira’s wartime writings have gained important hearings in both religious and scholarly contexts. His goal is to read the sermons more closely, to find links to the historical events they were based on. In this, he aims to convey a new impression of religious life in the Warsaw Ghetto, in particular among its Hasidic inhabitants.
Szymon Huberband was a rabbi and amateur historian who focused on interviewing and describing the religious life of occupied Warsaw. Much of his work was also preserved by Ringelblum. Early in the war, he visited the rebbe’s court, where he found a crowd of 150 people. As Abramson writes: “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.”
Much later, after the Germans had transported the bulk of the ghetto’s population to be murdered at Treblinka, Huberband witnesses a much stranger, almost surreal sight in “Schultz’s factory,” one of the few remaining workshops where Jews continued to perform slave labour for the Germans. A factory overseer had managed to stock the labour force with religious and communal leaders who received permits, thus saving them from the transports.
“Here are gathered … the elite of the Orthodox community: Hasidic masters, rabbis, scholars, religious community organizers … the Koziglover Rav, Yehudah Aryeh Frimer, once the dean of Yeshivat Hakhmei Lublin. He is sitting here, but his spirit is sailing in other worlds,” writes Abramson. “From time to time he addresses a word to the Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira, the author of Hovat ha-Talmidim, who is sitting opposite him, and a subdued discussion on a Torah topic ensues.”
These are rare portraits of Shapira, whom Abramson conveys via lengthy excerpts from the ghetto sermons and through his own close reading of the links, often veiled by the rebbe’s notably oblique style, between the sermons’ biblical and talmudic references and wartime events.
Abramson points out that the rebbe’s favoured literary style made use of a “rhetorical method … sometimes called Aesopian language for its allegorical nature.” This allowed Shapira to approach the challenges associated with responding to the Holocaust – or the churban, as the rebbe likely called it – in conventional religious terms.
Traditional Jewish thought provides a framework for such efforts, relying on the notion that Jewish history is a pattern of churbanim, with each destruction demanding that a contemporary calamity be understood in light of those that came before it.
Abramson acknowledges that in Shapira’s later sermons, his outlook and frame of reference shifts, following a recognition that “the Holocaust could not be compared to any prior tribulation the Jews had ever endured in their long history.… The redemptive process, repeated so many times over the centuries of anti-Semitic persecution, was radically disrupted.”
The rebbe, having witnessed the ghetto uprising, as well as having received reports of mass killings at the Chelmno death camp, faced a “novum in the history of the cosmos, altering forever the theological laws of gravity.” Yet the rebbe retained, Abramson tells us, “even fortified, his unshakable faith in the Almighty.”
Torah from the Years of Wrath leaves the reader with this proposition of 20th century catastrophe, alongside the fierceness of Hasidic faith.