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This day in Jewish history / The Warsaw Ghetto uprising begins, in the mind

Haaretz, January 14, 2013, By David B. Green

We are facing an arch-foe with ruthlessness that knows no bounds, explained Rabbi Menachem Ziemba: ‘We must resist.’

In this 1943 file photo, a group of Polish Jews are led away for deportation by German SS soldiers during the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto by German troops after the uprising. Photo by AP

On January 14, 1943, at a meeting of the surviving leadership of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Menachem Ziemba called for armed resistance to the German occupiers.

Ziemba was a member of the ultra-Orthodox Ger Hasidic sect, and his statement is a rare recorded example of a leader of religious Judaism endorsing such a line of aggressive action during the Holocaust.

Born in 1883 in the Warsaw suburb of Praga, Ziemba was raised within the Ger community. It was at the request of the Gerrer rebbe that he took a place in the Kehila, the prewar leadership council of Warsaw Jewry. He also taught at the Mesivta Yeshiva, where one of the students who received ordination from him was Abraham Joshua Heschel, who later fled Poland and became a major post-war Jewish philosopher in the United States.

In the 1930s, Rabbi Ziemba was offered the position of chief rabbi of Jerusalem, but turned it down. He chose to remain in Warsaw, where he was a member of the rabbinical council of the Agudat Yisrael movement, and an important rabbinic decisor.

Initially, after the formation of the Warsaw Ghetto, in late 1940, Ziemba was opposed to the idea of resistance. But after he witnessed the first wave of transports from the ghetto in July 1942 (in which more than 250,000 Jews were sent to the Treblinka death camp), he changed his mind.

One of the chroniclers of religious life in the Warsaw Ghetto was Hillel Seidman, the official archivist of the Judenrat. It is his record of the January 14 meeting that provides the text of Rabbi Ziemba’s comments.

“Of necessity, we must resist the enemy on all fronts,” stated Ziemba, adding defiantly, “We shall no longer heed his instructions.”

Comparing the situation to the one that faced French and German Jews during the First Crusade, when the Halakha “determined one way of reacting to the distress,” now, in the middle of the 20th century, “during the liquidation of the Jews of Poland,” he suggested, “it prompts us to react in an entirely different manner. In the past, during religious persecution, we were required by the law ‘to give up our lives even for the least essential practice.’ In the present, however, when we are faced by an arch-foe, whose unparalleled ruthlessness and program of total annihilation know no bounds,” said Ziemba, “the Halakha demands, “that we fight and resist to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sake of Sanctification of the Divine Name.”

Though not personally involved in the physical fighting that he endorsed, Rabbi Ziemba was defiant in other ways. He dared to build a sukkah on the roof of his apartment building in the ghetto, and he continued to teach yeshiva students in underground bunkers beneath the streets. And when he and two other surviving ghetto rabbis, Shimshon Stzokhamer and David Shapiro, were offered refuge by the Catholic Church, they chose to remain in the ghetto.

The final battle of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on Passover eve, April 19, 1943.

That night, Rabbi Ziemba held a seder at his home, despite the fact that fighting had been raging around him during the day. Several days later, as the Germans were systematically setting fire to the houses of the ghetto, he emerged from his home and was shot dead in the street.

A monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising fighters, across from the nearly finished Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, Poland. Photo by AP

A beit din (rabbinical court) decided to bury him temporarily in the courtyard of number 4 Kupiecka Street. The rest of his family was deported to Treblinka, where they perished.

In 1958, when it became known that the Polish government was going to rebuild part of the ghetto, including the section where Rabbi Ziemba was buried, two of his nephews, who had survived the Holocaust, were given permission to search for his remains. After extensive research and work, they found the grave. Its contents were transferred to Israel, for reburial on Har Hamenuhot, in Jerusalem.

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