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.]

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8 Responses

  1. Shaul Robinson says:

    Excellent article – and what a contrast to an article in Yated Neman 2 years ago that dismissed the warsaw ghetto fighters as vain and proud –
    see quote below:

    These rebels were confronted by a mythos of “we will take our destiny in our own hands,” created by the Zionist movement. They feared that they would not measure up to the expectations of the arrogant Israeli pioneers of their day. Considerations of life and death were not the only issues they weighed, but also considerations of vain pride and empty self-glorification. These appear to have been the deciding factor. The rebels desired “three lines in history,” and for that they decided to sacrifice themselves, so as to sanctify the national myth.

  2. YM says:

    Who is the publisher? I couldn’t find this on amazon.com

  3. Shira Schmidt says:

    (1) Mathew Wagner wrote a fair and perceptive article in the J.Post. Kudos to him. Esther Farbstein’s book, Hidden in Thunder, is published by Mosad Harav Kook. There are 2 days left to their annual book fair Mon,Tures April 16,17 (Nisan 28,29). The sale price of Hidden in Thunder is 83 NIS (regular 150NIS. Phone orders 10 am-9pm daily Israel time. 011-972-2-651-5592. Mosad Harav Kook catalog is at

    You can also obtain the book by contacting Michael Rose [email protected]
    Judaica Book Centre, Jerusalem
    http://www.jbcbooks.com He can mail it to the US also.
    tel. 011-972-26223215; fax 011-072-29993239
    Rebbetzin Farbstein will be speaking in NY on
    12 bIyar (April 30). More details tomorrow.
    (2) Full disclosure – it is my privilege to be working on the translation of Esther Farbstein’s new project, Rabbinic Memoirs, which will be launched this Tuesday in Jerusalem. The public (men and women) are invited to the launching (in Hebrew) of the newly released
    computerized database
    “The Holocaust in Rabbinic Literature”. (Rabbanit Esther ferreted out over 100 prefaces by Holocaust survivors to scholarly religious books. The prefaces are a gold mine of new information about the Hurban.
    Her lecture is Tuesday, 29 bNissan,17 April 7:00 – 9:30pm
    at the Zalman Shazar Center, Beit Hatayelet(the Promenade) Rehov Beitar 2, Talpiyot Jerusalem

    On the program:R. Dr. Binyamin Lau (nephew of R. Israel Meir Lau),. Zvi Inbar Claims Conference; Dr. Nathan Cohen, Bar-Ilan; Dr. Hava Ben-Sasson, Hebrew University, Yad Vashem; and Presentation of the Database of Rabbinic Memoirs by
    Esther Farbstein,Jeru. Buses 7,8,12,21,30
    Free parking in the Beit Hatayelet parking lot.To get an idea of the innovative and useful aspects of this CD database see http://www.talsys.net/?d=p/34 or contact [email protected]

  4. easterner says:

    noticing that the 6 holocaust survivors participating in the israeli national ceremony are not frum, i wonder if this is at this point reflective of the State’s anti-haredism, or of the haredi community’s anti-yomhashoah-ism….

  5. Toby Katz says:

    Yaffa Eliach, author of the wonderful book of true stories of survival (all documented)called Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, is a wonderful speaker whose main theme for years has been the specifically *Jewish* heroism shown by so many in the camps and ghettos — smuggling in a shofar, baking matza with almost nothing and so on. http://www.amazon.com/Hasidic-Tales-Holocaust-Yaffa-Eliach/dp/067972043X

    This is not to gainsay that where possible and appropriate, physical resistance is not only permissible, it is IMO a positive mitzva. Even though I don’t agree with the premise of Yom Hashoah’s date that it was only the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that “saved our honor,” I do look upon the ghetto fighters as kedoshim, not less holy than those who offered spiritual resistance.

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    The original Hebrew version of Hidden in Thunderwas published by Mossad HaRav Kook. I spent many a Shabbos and Sunday afternoon over the course of a summer in slowly disgesting this excellent work in the original. It is especially important reading for the Three Weeks if one deems Tisha BAv the proper time for mourning the victims of the Shoah or Churban Europa. I urge anyone interested in these issues to run and buy either the original or the two volume English translation. I can state that my own views on this era were transformed by this book as I resolved never to accept the view that spiritual resistance was deemed superior to physical resistance or vice versa or that the Jews of Eastewrn Europe merely went like sheep to be slaughtered R”L. I do not believe that one can talk intelligently about the role of the Torah leadership during this period without having read this very important book.

  7. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Honor has many different meanings. One of them is related to the simple barbaric calculation of which victims to attack and which victims are not worth it. This honor depends primarily on the ability to fight and the willingness to fight.

    This was the one concept of honor the Nazis understood. When they reintroduced conscription in ’35 and sent their army into the Rhineland in ’36, both violations of the Versailles treaty ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitler#Rearmament_and_new_alliances ), they were probing the willingness of their major enemies, the French and the British, to fight.

    This is the Jewish honor that the Warsaw rebels fought for. It was too late to change the course of the Nazis, but it may have been relevant later on. In the fifties most Arab governments allowed their Jews to escape to Israel, rather than massacre them ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_exodus_from_Arab_lands ).

  8. Shira Schmidt says:

    See “Rabbi, Who should die first?” at https://www.haaretz.co.il/hasen/spages/848043.html
    This article is a very fair and respectful treatment of a new CD collection of HOlocaust reponsa. It was described by Shahar Ilan(who is usually very critical of the religious sector)in Haaretz (yes Haaretz!) in their Holocaust Memoiral Day edition. The CD is available from the same distributor who handles Esther Farbstein’s Holocaust Rabbinic Prefaces. http://www.talsys.net Tal systems, Tel Aviv.

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