Spiritual Resistance: Insights and Stories

This letter describes how a growing number of Jews in the Land of Zion are discovering the ways in which their brethren engaged in spiritual resistance during the Holocaust. This letter also contains references to the Chareidi communities in the Land that have had a major role in this positive development. (An alternative English spelling is “Haredi.”) The Chareidi communities include Chassidim, member of the Lithuanian yeshiva world, followers of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, Sephardim, and Yemenite Jews.


Dear Friends,


The Holocaust Remembrance Day which was established by the State of Israel also commemorates the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. The official name for this day of commemoration is: Yom HaShoah V’HaGevurah – the Day of the Holocaust and Heroism. The Israeli government officials who chose this title wanted to honor Jews who physically resisted the Germans.
The Chareidi communities pointed out that secular Israeli society was ignoring the spiritual resistance which took place during the Holocaust. For example, they pointed out that the government-sponsored Holocaust memorial center, Yad Vashem, did not provide information on the Jewish men and women in the ghettos and camps who tried to keep the mitzvos of the Torah as best as they could, even though this observance was outlawed by the Germans. 


When I lived in the States, I served as the director of the Martin Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress – a center for Jewish artists in the performing, visual, and literary arts. The Center attracted unaffiliated Jews, as well as Jews from diverse Jewish communities. Many of the Center’s participants were interested in stories about spiritual and cultural resistance during the Holocaust. Their interest was an expression of their soulful desire to gain a deeper understanding of their Jewish identity.
One of the most popular books on the Holocaust in that period was “Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust” by Professor Yaffa Eliach. This well-researched book has stories about spiritual resistance during the Holocaust, and it was read by people of diverse beliefs and backgrounds; in fact, the late Cardinal O’Connor, the Archbishop of New York, would cite stories from this book.


In recent years, a growing number of Israeli Jews with a secular background have begun to develop a more respectful attitude to those courageous Jewish men and women who spiritually resisted our oppressors. An article about this positive development titled, “Yad Vashem Broadens Holocaust Story by Reaching Out to Haredim,” appeared in the Forward on Nov 26, 2008, and the article opened with the following statement:
“The Holocaust memorial Yad Vashem was designed as a place for Jews to come together and though it has been the one definite stop for every foreign head of state, until very recently, it has been a recurring source of divisions within the Jewish world.”


The article mentions that Yad Vashem previously ignored the spiritual heroism of Haredi men and women during the Holocaust, and it discusses some steps towards reconciliation between Haredi Jews and Yad Vashem. The following are excerpts from this article:




The occasion was the launch of a four-book series released by Yad Vashem that documents the Holocaust from a Haredi perspective. In the series, “Years Wherein We Have Seen Evil,” religious victims are presented as heroes for holding on to their faith, or embodying what is termed “spiritual resistance.”


 …On November 9, in another move that is likely to improve relations between Yad Vashem and the Haredim, the government appointed former Ashkenazic chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor, as chairman of Yad Vashem. [Rabbi Lau is a popular and respected Haredi educator.]


 …The rapprochement between the two sides has been a slow development that, according to many, began when Avner Shalev became chairman of Yad Vashem 15 years ago. Shalev, former director general of the government’s culture authority, is widely credited with having ushered in a new approach to commemoration where less of a traditional Zionist interpretation is imposed on events. Almost as soon as he came into office, there was a development: Yad Vashem’s educators began to move away from the old ideological message and toward teaching the Holocaust with reference to the experiences of individual victims and survivors from diverse backgrounds. According to Edrei (a scholar at Tel Aviv University), secular Israelis, encouraged by such people as Shalev, are becoming increasingly interested in learning about what life and religious identity were like before the Holocaust.


.…One of the biggest steps in the developing relationship was the opening of a new museum at Yad Vashem in 2005. The old museum focused on the scale of the Holocaust but did not include a single personal testimony. In the new museum, there are 90 personal stories. They focus on the experiences of a diverse group of people, some of whom are religious survivors who talk about such issues as the challenge of religious observance during the Holocaust.


  …Talks are under way between Yad Vashem curators and Haredi leaders about the possibility of changing displays on the Warsaw Ghetto uprising — viewed in Zionist ideology as the pinnacle of resistance. The Haredim have suggested including such people as the Piaseczno rebbe, Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, who ran a secret synagogue, solemnized marriages and gave inspirational speeches until 1943 when he was deported to and killed in the Trawniki work camp.


According to Hebrew University sociologist Vered Vinitzky-Seroussi, an expert on collective memory in Israel, the changes going on at Yad Vashem are an echo of changes going on in Israeli society at large.


 “There is a process of changing collective memory where the narrative people carry of the Holocaust is today much wider than it was,” Vinitzky-Seroussi said. “It’s no longer about having one narrative, the narrative of the Warsaw Ghetto heroism, but about something much deeper where there’s a place for heroism — now different kinds of heroism — and victimhood. In many ways, Yad Vashem is not leading that shift, but following.”




The following stories serve as examples of spiritual strength and faith during the Holocaust. The sources for these stories appear in the “Related Insights and Comments” section which follows this letter:


1. Sarah Schenirer was a great Torah educator who founded the Beis Yaacov movement – a network of Torah schools for girls. Holocaust survivor Joseph Friedenson relates his own memories of how the students of Sarah Schenirer gave life and hope to others in the ghettoes and death camps:
 “In the ghettoes of Lodz and Warsaw they secretly maintained schools and kitchens for children and youth groups. I saw how they starved, yet carried food to Jews who were ill...In Birkenau, they were the only ones who remembered when it was Shabbos and Yom Tov (the Festivals), when others forgot the sequence of days. Several candles were somehow lit every Friday evening and they whispered a prayer.” 


Joseph Friedenson also tells the following story of one Chanukah which was commemorated in the Auschwitz women’s camp: The Beis Yaacov students managed to get a few candles, and soon hundreds of Jewish women, in defiance of their oppressors, gathered to sing the traditional Chanukah hymn, Maoz Tzur – a song of our nation’s faith and hope in the midst of persecution and exile.


2. Rebbitzen Nechama Liba was a respected teacher of mussar – Torah teachings regarding ethics and personality refinement. Her father was Rav Simcha Zissel Ziv – the Alter of Kelm – who headed the Lithuanian mussar yeshiva known as “the Talmud Torah of Kelm.” Noted mussar teachers such as Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, Rabbi Elya Lopian, and Rabbi Moshe Rosenstein visited her regularly once a week to hear her insights. During World War Two, the revered Nechama Liba was already old in years, and the following story concerning the last day of her life is told by a student of the Talmud Torah of Kelm who survived the Holocaust:
When the Germans invaded Lithuania, they asked the Lithuanians to assist them in rounding up the Jews. The majority of Lithuanians responded with enthusiasm, and they also volunteered to help with the slaughter of the local Jewish population. Kelm was no exception. When the Lithuanians came to the place where most of the Jews – including the students of the Talmud Torah – had been gathered, they had already savagely murdered a number of Jews in Kelm. The Jews were ordered to march to the town square. From the looks on the faces of the Lithuanians that morning, their victims had few doubts as to what lay in store for them. But as they marched at gunpoint, the men of the Talmud Torah sang and danced as if it were “Simchas Torah” – the Festival of Rejoicing for the Torah. Although they knew that their physical lives would soon end, they also knew that the life-affirming teachings of Torah would endure. They were therefore enraptured in the songs they had sung so often – Vetaher libeinu l'ovdecha b'emes (Purify our hearts to serve you in truth), and Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu (How fortunate are we, how good is our lot). Held high on a chair was the Alter’s daughter, Rebbetzin Nechama Liba, whom they carried just as if she were a “sefer Torah” – Torah Scroll. They were murdered on the Fifth of Av, during the nine days of mourning for the Temple. The story of these martyrs can remind us of the words of the following Shabbos prayer regarding martyrs throughout our history who were dedicated to the path of the Divine Teaching:


“They were quicker than eagles and stronger than lions to do their Creator’s will and their Rock’s desire. May our God remember them for good with the other righteous of the world.” (Pre-Musaf prayer, “Av HaRachimim”) 



Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


Related Insights and Comments:


1. During the Holocaust, six million Jewish men, women, and children were murdered “because” they were Jews. My Torah teachers from Chareidi communities taught me that these Jews, regardless of their level of belief and observance, were holy martyrs who sanctified the Divine Name. This is because the very existence of our people is to represent the Divine Name; thus, Moshe, our teacher, told our people: “The Name of Hashem is proclaimed over you” (Deuteronomy 28:10).


The Nazis, who represented the epitome of evil, sought to conquer the world; yet, they felt that our small, scattered, and unarmed people were their greatest threat. They understood that our people represent the Divine ideals which they hated. As a result of this hatred, they burned synagogues, Torahs, and all Jewish books. In their view, each Jewish man, woman, and child was a living representative of the “dangerous” ideals which needed to be eliminated from the new Aryan society which would be based on the worship of physical strength and power. My teachers therefore emphasized that the Jews who perished in the Holocaust were holy martyrs. 


2. Rav Mordechai Gifter, the head of the Telshe Yeshiva who passed away about ten years ago, told over the following story which he heard from the children of the Rav of Telshe – a city in Lithuania:


When the Nazis beat the Telshe Rav, they taunted him, saying, “Where is your God, Herr Rabbiner?” The Telshe Rav replied:
 “He is not only my God, He is your God; and the world will yet see this.”


The story from Rav Gifter about the Rav of Telshe appears in the book “Pirkei Torah” (page 254) . This ArtScroll book contains insights and discourses on the weekly Torah portion by Rav Mordechai Gifter. It also contains a transcript of a talk that Rav Gifter gave to Jewish educators on the Holocaust, and in his talk, he referred to the six million Jews who perished as “kedoshim” – holy martyrs.


3. The stories about the Bais Yaakov students appear in the book, “Rebbitzen Grunfeld” – the life of Judith Grunfeld, courageous pioneer of the Bais Yaacov movement and Jewish rebirth, by Miram Dansky. It is published byArtScroll: www.artscroll.com


4. The story about Rebbitzen Nechama Liba is taken from “Rav Dessler” – a well-written and inspiring biography of Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler. He was a great mussar teacher of the previous generation who studied in the Talmud Torah of Kelm. The author of this biography is Jonathan Rosenblum, and the publisher is ArtScroll. 


5. Rabbanis Esther Farbstein, a noted Chareidi teacher in Jerusalem, has written the following well-researched book which has gotten much public attention: “Hidden in Thunder” – Perspectives on Faith, Halacha and Leadership during the Holocaust. Originally published in Hebrew as Beseiser Ra’am, it was translated into English by Devorah Stern (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, Feldheim). For information, visit: www.feldheim.com


6. For further information on the Chareidi communities, you can review the letter – “A Chareidi Critique of Secular Zionism” – at the following link, or you can request from me an e-mail copy:
http://www.shemayisrael.com/publicat/hazon/tzedaka/critique.htm  . The magazine mentioned in the letter, the Jewish Observer, is no longer being published; however, there is a new journal of Torah thought which provides a Torah outlook on contemporary issues. It is published in North America by my rebbe, Rav Aharon Feldman, who is head of the Ner Yisrael Yeshiva in Baltimore and a member of the Council of Leading Sages of Agudath Israel of America. I will soon have information on how one can subscribe to this new journal.  

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