Spiritual and Physical Resistance to the Nazis
Finally, a treatment with some balance. The Jerusalem Post, just in time for Yom HaShoah, provides an important review of the new translation of Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership During the Holocaust by Esther Farbstein, a haredi Holocaust scholar and educator who has been enormously important in setting the course for contemporary Holocaust education in the haredi world.
Farbstein’s work, says the reviewer, focuses primarily on the acts of spiritual heroism – remaining steadfast in Torah practice under the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Drawing from haredi archives, however, she also shows that there was a more nuanced approach to physical resistance than is acknowledged in some circles today. While some Torah personalities denied any value to taking up arms not to extend the possibility of living, but to defend Jewish honor or exact revenge,
The Radzyner Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Shlomo Leiner, called on Jews to break out of the ghettos, flee to the forests and take up arms. Rabbi Shlomo David Yehoshua Weinberg, the Slonim Rebbe, allowed underground activists to use his basement as an arms cache. Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aronson, who was held in the Konim labor camp, supported a plan by the inmates to take revenge against German soldiers.
“Let us at least defend Jewish honor and avenge our spilled blood,” wrote Aronson. The plan was never carried out, however, and Aronson expressed sorrow at having missed the opportunity for vengeance and rebellion.
I was happy to see that the reviewer cited several treatments of the famous speech of R. Menachem Zemba, one of the giants of the pre-war generation. As of late, some revisionists among us have labored to extirpate his view from the record.
“If today Jews were being forced into apostasy,” said Zemba, “and we could be saved by agreeing to it, as was done in Spain or after the decrees of [the First Crusade in] 1096, our death would be a kind of martyrdom. But today the only way of sanctifying God’s name is by taking up arms.”
Faced with the Nazi program of subjugation, humiliation and annihilation of the Jewish people, he supported the ghetto fighters’ choice to take up arms. Even if the uprising was suicidal, Zemba felt that death in defiance was preferable to death in surrender.
Farbstein’s own position regarding resistance is clear:
Haredi figures who criticized the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising as “not a Jewish phenomenon” lacked a deep understanding of the situations that faced Warsaw’s Jews. Many of these leaders, politically active during the 1940s and ’50s, were also fighting the Zionist leadership’s attempt to recast the Holocaust as a story of secular Jewish military heroism.
On the other hand, the bottom line seems to be that
the rabbis invested most of their energies in calling for spiritual resistance. They encouraged their followers to continue to pray and learn Torah and perform acts of kindness. Part of the reason was because this was the only type of resistance possible.
[Thanks to Aaron Breitbart and Steve Brizel.]