All the Trees of the Forest

September, 1946. Buried beneath the rubble of the Warsaw Ghetto after the failed uprising of Jewish partisans against Nazi forces nearly three years earlier, excavators and survivors and historians found rusted milk cans, the contents of which comprised a kind of modern Dead Sea Scrolls of the Holocaust.  

The telling of this story is most cogently and elaborately conveyed by Samuel D. Kassow, whose monumental work, Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive, is an essential documentary on this darkest chapter in Jewish history.

Ringelblum and a small circle of intellectual Jewish leaders understood well the impossible predicament of Jews in the face of the onslaught of genocide. Ringelblum, Rachel Auerbach and others had the desperate prescience to record for posterity this moment in history, bequeathing to the future this unparalleled testimony.

Rachel Auerbach

Other works bear witness as well to the varied forms of resistance against the Nazis. David Fishman’s The Book Smugglers, chronicles the Vilna Ghetto partisans who saved tens of thousands of Yiddish and Hebrew books from destruction; Nechama Tec’s Defiance, is the stirring account of Tuvia, Asael and Zus Bielsky, partisans from Belarus, whose bravery and daring are nearly impossible to imagine. The child psychologist Janusz Korczak, who ran an orphanage in the Warsaw Ghetto, is among many intellectuals who kept a diary before he was deported to his death in Treblinka with more than 200 children from his orphanage.  

I recently read Janusz Korczak’s Ghetto Diary, a brief walk on the razor’s edge of madness as the evil of the Holocaust closes around him: like the “narrow place” of slavery that the rabbis of the Talmud used to describe our slavery in Egypt. In a moment of reprieve from caring for his orphaned children, Korczak would “rage, rage against the dying of the light” by writing until dawn before stealing a few moments of rest and getting on with the preservation of life. He saw his orphanage as a laboratory for clinical observation, according to his biographer Betty Jean Lifton. He believed we needed a “grammar of ethics,” to understand children because, as Korczak put it, “the unknown person inside each child is the hope for the future.”  Even inside the ghetto, as Korczak tried to instill a sense of normalcy among his children, he had a court system set up to teach children how to manage and adjudicate their own affairs. Deliberations should always strive toward forgiveness, he taught them, but ultimately decisions had to be made and responsibility to be taken when fights or conflicts occurred. “The court is not justice,” he taught them, “but it should strive for justice.”

Imagine that line for a moment. In the midst of the Holocaust, with death and destruction all around, with a seemingly absent God powerless to stop the bloodshed, with no plagues or Red Seas parting to save the Jews this time, Korczak and countless others persisted and resisted their own dehumanization by continuing to erect the eternal teachings of Judaism and the law. Striving for justice in the absence of justice is a form of resistance in a world where justice, and even God, are distant. It is Abraham accusing God at Sodom and Gomorrah: “Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put to death the innocent with the guilty! Far be it from You! Will not the Judge of all the earth do justice?”

Passover night this year is ushered in on April 19, which is the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It is particularly moving to consider for a number of reasons. First, there is the profound and humbling reality of the resistance itself; impossible odds met with the jarring and reorienting refusal to relinquish human dignity by fighting back. Second, there is the ever more humbling fact that a generation of survivors is passing away, making our own telling of their telling that much more essential to our shared definition of what it means to testify as a Jew in history. “Troubles overcome are good to tell,” Primo Levi once said, quoting the Yiddish proverb. And isn’t that what the Seder is about? Is not the Hagadah the telling of the ultimate overcoming, with food and song, and therefore a model of how we Jews have survived, by resisting our dissolution for more than three thousand years? We have fought, to be sure, but we have resisted more prevalently in other ways, too.

The Passover Seder is built upon fours. Four children, four cups, four questions. And so we can imagine, when thinking of resistance throughout history, but especially during the Holocaust, that resistance took on four manifestations as well: spiritual, intellectual, artistic and military.

There was spiritual resistance: Even under the harshest circumstances, many Jews clung to their religious customs and rituals as a way to preserve a sense of normalcy and dignity during the war. Whether it was clandestine observance of rituals and holidays or the secretive singing of Jewish songs in Hebrew and Yiddish, Jews were able to maintain a sense of self in the face of unimaginable destruction.

There was intellectual resistance: Jews risked their lives to document the Nazi crimes and preserve Jewish culture from destruction.

In the Warsaw ghetto Emanuel Ringelblum worked with a team of colleagues to create an underground archive called the Oyneg Shabes which documented the crimes of the Holocaust as well as Jewish life during the war. Rachel Auerbach, who was among those working on the Oyneg Shabes archive, survived the war and went on to found and direct the Department for the Collection of Witness Testimony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

In Vilna, the Nazis created a forced labor brigade to sort, catalog, and pack rare Jewish cultural treasures the Nazis were looting for shipment to Germany. A group of these forced laborers, including poets Avram Sutzkever and Shmerke Kaczerginski, smuggled material back with them into the ghetto where they hid and buried thousands of books, documents, and works of art in hopes of returning after the war to retrieve them. Much of this material is now at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in NYC where it is being digitized and united with other material that exists in Vilnius on an online platform.

Schmerke Kaczerginski & Avram Sutzkever

There was artistic resistance: Many Jews resisted the Nazis by writing diaries, stories, poetry, and songs documenting and reflecting on their wartime experiences. These activities helped keep spirits up during the war, and remain today as a lasting testament to the creativity and resilience of the Jewish people.

One particularly moving example is a poem by Yiddish poet Avram Sutzkever in which the lead plates of Vilna’s Romm Printing Press, famous for its edition of the Talmud, are imagined as having to be smelted down, its lead used for bullets.

מיר האָבן װי פֿינגער געשטרעקטע דורך גראַטן
צו פֿאַנגען די ליכטיקע לופֿט פֿון דער פֿרײַ ־־
דורך נאַכט זיך געזויגן, צו נעמען די פּלאַטן,
די בלײַענע פּלאַטן פֿון ראָמס דרוקערײַ.
מיר, טרוימער, באַדאַרפֿן איצט װערן סאָלדאַטן
און שמעלצן אויף קוילן דעם גײַסט פֿונעם בלײַ.

Like fingers stretched out through the bars of a prison
to capture the bright air of freedom —
so we ran through the night, to capture the plates,
the lead plates of Romm’s printing house.
We dreamers must now become soldiers, and melt
into bullets the soul of the lead.

September 12, 1943

And particularly on April 19, we remember military resistance: Contrary to the oft-quoted assertion that Jews went like lambs to their slaughter during the war, many Jews—young and old, men and women alike—fought back in armed resistance. The most notable example was the Warsaw Ghetto uprising which took place on April 19, 1943—the first night of Passover. 220 Jews staged an historic uprising, holding the Nazis at bay until May 16th. It was the biggest organized rebellion in a Jewish ghetto during the war. Greatly outnumbered and out armed, Jews fought so that they would not die in silence. In Vilna, Jews who escaped from the ghetto formed a commando unit of partisan fighters. Shmerke Kaczerginski reflected in his song, “Jew, You Partisan”:

פֿון די געטאָס תּפֿיסה־װענט,
אין די װעלדער פֿרײַע,
אַנשטאָט קייטן אויף די הענט,
כ′האָב אַ ביקס אַ נײַע.

דער פֿאַשיסט, ער ציסערט, הערט,
װײסט ניט װוּ פֿון װאַנען,
שטורעמען װי פֿון אונטער דר′ערד ־־
ייִדן פּאַרטיזאַנען.

From these ghetto prison walls,
Into the freedom of the forests.
Instead of chains on my hands,
I carry a new rifle.

The fascists will tremble,
And won’t know who from where
Is storming up from hell —
Jewish partisans.

Students of the Hagadah often ask, “Why the number four?” And it’s a good question. The rabbis had a ready answer which I have always found rather compelling. In explaining the dialogue between God and Moses in Egypt, when God tells Moses that God has heard the suffering of the Israelites and is now promising action, God says, “I am the Eternal. I will take you out from under the burdens of Egypt, and I will rescue you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great retributions, and I will take you to be My people and I will be your God and you shall know that I am the Eternal your God Who takes you out from under the burdens of Egypt.” That’s four. But then God adds, “And I will bring you to the land that I raised My hand in pledge to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob, and I will give it to you as an inheritance, I am the Eternal.” This is national redemption, our entering into and being in charge of our own history and destiny in our land. This is the fifth cup, the cup of redemption, which on our Seder tables for generations is the Cup of Elijah.

It is the cup of “we are not there yet” and it is why, still to this day, even with a state of Israel in existence, we still close our Seders by singing “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Our sages long recognized that until there is peace and justice and harmony for all, our world is unredeemed. This means that the telling of stories, of heroism, of resistance—ever-weaving the fabric of memory which comprises our enduring peoplehood—is essential to the Passover ritual.

One peculiarity of the Seder is that we tell the story of Passover from the perspective of victors, leaning at our tables, drinking wine, laughing, and singing; and yet, we end our meal with “next year in Jerusalem,” with the stunning admission that we are not there yet.

Poverty and hunger and homelessness persist; ethnic, national and religious conflicts continue; the stains of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and xenophobia remain for us to eradicate. Our planet is in peril. Remembering our own suffering, telling the story of our overcoming and building bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood with others in order to continue that climb, is core to our understanding that we are to “be kind to the stranger because we were strangers in a strange land.”

One of my favorite rabbis from history was also in the Warsaw Ghetto. His name was Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaczezner Rebbe. A Hasidic teacher with an expansive heart, mind and soul, the Piaczezner Rebbe’s writings were also discovered buried in the ghetto rubble after the war.  Their survival is a literary and spiritual gift to future generations.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira

In one of his Passover sermons, the Piaczezner Rebbe said that one unique aspect of Passover is that it creates for us a moment of history and redemption that we remember and reenact with song and that this is significant because the human voice in song is a glimpse into divinity, into our angelic selves, into an otherworldly existence, into paradise. To imagine writing this sermon in the Warsaw ghetto is as shattering as it is thrilling, and how fortunate we are to be able to read Rabbi Shapira’s words still to this day.  

We all have our favorite Passover songs—the Four Questions, Avadim Hayinu, Dayenu, Who Knows One?, Had Gadya, Eliyahu HaNavi.  Whatever it is, we are invited by Rabbi Shapira to see ourselves as being lifted up into a higher state merely by remembering and by singing, by conveying, through song, a mode of human communication made manifest in the most sublime occasions.

He writes of the Seder, “He sits down to the seder, makes Kiddush, recites the Hagadah and sets the table for the feast, which is like the feast of the world-to-come…Even the table, the candles, the walls, gather with us into one unit, together we bow and sob and in ecstasy, praise God’s splendor and beauty. It is really like the world-to-come, when ‘the fields and everything in them will rejoice, and all the trees of the forest.’”

All the trees of the forest. All Jews. People of all faiths. Believers and non-believers. Democrats and Republicans. Israelis and Palestinians.  Immigrants and native born. All people. To know suffering is to be empathic toward the unredeemed reality of the other, which, according to Emanuel Levinas, is to know the Other, the face of God.

May your lives be deepened and enriched in this Passover season. May you and those you love be blessed with good health and peace. And may we all, together, build a world of tolerance and hope and justice and peace.

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