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The Rebuilding of Jewish Life After The Holocaust: The Rebbe's Legacy

Friday, 26 January, 2018 - 6:06 am

The Holocaust was the period from 1939 until 1944, during which the total physical and spiritual decimation of European Jewry that had existed for hundreds of years took place. The most affected place was Poland, the heart of world Jewry with 3,000,000 Jews. In Lodz, before the war there were 233,000 Jews, which was one third of the city population. There were synagogues, yeshivot(Rabbinical seminaries) trade and culture. The Jews were forced into a ghetto on 8 February 1940 and remained there until 1944. Even in the ghetto, Jewish life was vibrant with 45 primary schools, 2 high schools, one vocational school, 5 pharmacies, and 7 hospitals.

 

As the Germans exerted greater control over the ghetto, conditions deteriorated, to include forced labour and deportations. The final liquidation took place between June and August 1944. By September 1944 the ghetto population of 76,701 was deported to Auschwitz. By January 1945 there were 800 Jews remaining in the ghetto, joined by some survivors who were hiding in the area. The remaining group of 870 survivors was liberated by the Soviet troops when they entered Lodz on 19 January 1945.

 

By the end of 1946 over 50,000 Jews had settled back in Lodz with the overwhelming majority having survived the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. Between 1946 and 1950, over half of the city’s Jewish population left Poland for Israel. After the second wave of immigration to Israel during 1956-1957, only a few thousand Jews remained in Poland. In 1968-69 nearly all the remaining Jews left Poland for Israel.

 

The case in Warsaw was similar. Before the war, there were 350,000 Jews. In March 1941 the Jews were ordered into a ghetto, the largest in Europe. In the spring of 1943, the Germans planned to liquidate the ghetto in 3 days and by April of 1943 the last survivors of the ghetto were found in underground bunkers, after defending themselves for five weeks.

 

The book “Jewish religious and cultural life in Poland during the Holocaust” describes, from first hand testimony, the Germans entering one village after another, rounding up the Jews, men women and children, in the nearby forest and shooting them all. This is what happened to Czyzow, Zareby, Koscielne and Zambrow and many other villages (p. 381). In this way, entire villages, towns and cities were emptied of their Jewish population, some of which constituted more Jews than gentiles.

 

The richness of scholarship, culture and tradition was the accumulation of hundreds of years, not dissimilar to the golden age of Spanish Jewry, which followed five hundred years of Jewish growth and resulted in some of the greatest Jewish personalities, like Maimonides. Just as Spanish Jewry was never rebuilt, but rather relocated to Sefad and other places, so too, the destruction of Jewish life in Eastern Europe has not been rebuilt, and it is unlikely that it ever will be.  Instead it relocated to Israel, America and Western Europe.

 

Indeed, the new centres of world Jewry have been termed the New World, as opposed to pre-war Europe which was called the Old World or the Shtetel. This reflected the desire of the Jews to shed the image of the Jew who was different and distinct in religion, speech, dress and culture and project a Jew who can integrate with society. Upon immigrating to America, for example, Jews would change their names and dress; Judaism became something exclusively for the home and distinctiveness was something of the past.

 

Thus, the old Jewish life of Europe was not only extinct physically but also spiritually. It represented an outmoded and outdated representation of Judaism that failed and had to be replaced. This was in addition to the low morale and lack of Jewish pride after the destruction of Eastern European Jewry.

 

When the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, grand Rabbi Josef Isaac Schneersohn came to America, escaping the war in 1941, he made a dramatic and profound statement: America is not different. This declaration began the process of the rebuilding of Jewish life after the Holocaust, albeit in its new location, and moreover, it set out the work and task of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement for future generations. His son law, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, who took his place at the helm of the Lubavitch movement after his passing in 1950, brought this concept into reality and the 44 years of his leadership impacted on world Jewry on an unparalleled scale, until his passing in 1994.

 

Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, the Rebbe, was born in Yeketrinislav in 1902, to the Chief Rabbi of the city and known Kabbalist, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok and his wife Chana Schneersohn.

 

In 1917, at 15 years old, under the Communist regime, he was forced to leave his studies to work. He naturally became his father’s assistant in communal affairs. In 1923, at 21, he met his future father-in-law, the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok, for the first time in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. When Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok moved to Leningrad in 1924, the Rebbe’s mother, Chana, visited her son’s future wife Chaya  Mushka and future in-laws in Leningrad.

 

It was during one visit of the Rebbe to Leningrad that he met the genius scholar Rabbi Yosef Rosen of Rogetchov, after a number of years of correspondence. The Rebbe later commented that Rabbi Rosen had a distinct style of Jewish scholarship unparalleled for 150 years before him. Although in his day many knew the entire Talmud fluently from memory, he was able to create an interdisciplinary approach to the Talmud unifying concepts and arguments throughout many of its tractates.

 

In 1927, the Rebbe moved to Berlin, Germany, to study at the University of Berlin. During this period, he preferred to live his life as an introverted recluse, shunning communal life and limiting his interaction with people. He studied the esoteric and revealed parts of the Torah day and night. During this period, he remained in contact with his future father-in-law by correspondence. In 1928, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok left Russia for Riga, Latvia, after a terrible imprisonment for his work of behalf of Russian Jewry, which was perceived as counterrevolutionary.

 

In the winter of 1929, the engagement of the Rebbe and Chaya Mushka took place and they subsequently got married in Warsaw, Poland, in the Warsaw Lubavitch Rabbinical academy, Tomchei Temimim, established by Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok. Warsaw was then the centre of the Chassidic world and many hundreds of Chasidim and great Chassidic and non-Chassidic masters attended the wedding. At the wedding, the true greatness of the Rebbe was revealed. His father-in-law insisted that great Torah scholars, like Rabbi Menachem Zemba, who was killed in the Holocaust, engage in conversation with his son-in-law. In these brief encounters, the Rebbe’s knowledge and brilliant mind was revealed.

 

After the wedding the Rebbe and his wife, Chaya Mushka, moved back to Berlin where the Rebbe continued his secular university studies in seclusion and in very small living conditions, supported by his father-in-law. This was a sacrifice on the part of his newly wed wife, who was used to the glamour of public life in her father’s court surrounded by the warmth and vibrancy of Jewish-Chassidic life. This, however, did not deter her from staunchly supporting her husband’s lifestyle, realising that he was not a regular person but a distinguished, righteous man and great scholar who would be the next leader of world Jewry. During that period the Rebbe and his wife would visit his father-in-law in Riga for the holiday festivals of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot and the Rebbe would also visit them in Berlin.

 

Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, one of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century, attended the same course at the University of Berlin as the Rebbe and lived nearby to his apartment. Rabbi Soloveitchik would say that whenever he had a question, whether academic or in Torah study, he would always go to the Rebbe’s apartment and discuss it with him. This occurred on a regular basis. He later commented that he was amazed how he never once saw the Rebbe with an academic book. The Rebbe was always found deep in the study of Torah. This was despite the many hours of necessary homework that were needed for the university course, with which he and everyone else were burdened.

 

When Hitler and the Nazi regime came to power in 1933, the Rebbe and his wife were compelled to leave Berlin for France, due to the wind of anti-Semitism that was blowing in Germany. The Rebbe continued his studies of mathematics and physics in the University of Sorbonne, in Paris. During this period too, the Rebbe and his wife would visit his father-in-law in Riga for the festivals, and his father-in-law would visit his son-in-law and daughter in Paris. When the Rebbe visited Riga for festivals, some curious Chassidim would ask about his studies at university, as it was not a custom for Chassidim to study at European academic institutions. The Rebbe would respond that it was necessary to study these studies in order to be a fulsome Jew and know what to respond to people who question the authenticity and logic of the Torah. Fellow Chassidim perceived the Rebbe studying in Berlin and Sorbonne as similar to the Sanhedrin, the judicial court during the Temple period, who needed to have knowledge of every discipline, language and science in the world, including the art of necromancy. This was a prerequisite before being accepted to the Sanhedrin which had to be knowledgeable about subjects that are inconsistent with the views of Judaism.

 

Rabbi Shochetman, who knew the Rebbe during that period, says that the Rebbe had a thirst for knowledge and would visit Museums and read widely, though his main interest was in physics. Rabbi Shochetman testifies that Jews and non-Jews in his course were aware that the Rebbe was not an ordinary person but a very holy man.

 

In 1940 as the threat of a German invasion of France was looming the Rebbe was forced to sign up to the French army, though he was never actually drafted. In June 1940 the Germans invaded France and the Rebbe remained in the country for one year under Nazi occupation.

 

An interesting episode occurred when the Rebbe was still living in Paris. The Nazis demanded that everyone register with the authorities and state their religion. When an official visited the Rebbe’s apartment building, requesting registration, the Rebbe was absent. As a favour, to spare the Rebbe of the danger of being registered as Jewish under Nazi occupation, his neighbour wrote ‘Orthodox (Church)’. Upon his return, when the Rebbe heard of this, he went to the registration office and corrected his identification to Jewish. Although this would have potentially saved his life, he would not compromise his Jewish identity even on paper.

 

When the Nazis tightened their grip on Paris, the Rebbe fled to Vichy, southern France. Before he left, a neighbour, who was also a senior general in the French army, offered to hide the Rebbe and his wife in their home. However, the Rebbe rejected the offer and left for Vichy. As the Rebbe was leaving Paris there was heavy artillery fire and Chaya Mushka commented many years later that although she feared for her life, her husband was remarkably calm. They caught one of the last trains leaving Paris, taking with them one suitcase of clothing and the Rebbe’s religious articles of Tallit and Tefilin.

 

The Rebbe remained in Vichy until May 1941. When the Nazis gained control of Vichy, the Rebbe moved to Nice. During that period few people walked on the streets which were highly dangerous. The risk for Jews living in Nazi occupied France was evident and the Rebbe invested all his time trying to help as many Jews as possible escape the country.

 

In May the Rebbe finally escaped France and crossed the border to Portugal. From Portugal the Rebbe went to Barcelona, Spain, with the intention to catch a boat to the United States. The voyage from Barcelona to New York was extremely perilous. The Rebbe and his wife managed to obtain tickets for the trip; however, at the last minute, a telegram from his father-in-law arrived stating that he should delay the trip. Despite the dangers involved, the Rebbe followed the advice and managed to take the following boat, which was actually the last boat that travelled from Europe to the United States, before the total blockage of sea travel from Europe. Afterwards the tragic news came through that the Nazis had captured the previous boat and all the Jews were detained and returned. The fate of these Jews joined the fate of the millions of others caught in Nazi occupied Europe. The Rebbe and his wife miraculously arrived in safety to New York in the summer, 28 Sivan, June 1941.

 

Immediately, upon his arrival the Rebbe was appointed head of the main Chabad institutions in the United States by his father-in-law. This was the beginning of a new era. In 1950, the previous Rebbe passed away and a year later the Rebbe accepted the leadership of the Chabad movement.

 

The Rebbe, whose brother had perished in Treblinka, and who himself had closely escaped, understood very well the tragedy that had occurred

and viewed himself as a Holocaust survivor. In a letter he writes about the unique responsibility of the “sheirit hapleitah”, the survivors, to rebuild Judaism and disseminate the former enthusiasm for Jewish life and education of all Jews, especially those with a limited Jewish upbringing.

 

The Rebbe acutely appreciated the necessity to rebuild morale, and reinstate the Jewish pride that existed before the Holocaust in order to preserve Jewish continuity after such destruction and tragedy. He saw the necessity of rebuilding in the New World that which was in the Old World. Over the next forty years, the Rebbe called for the establishment of Jewish day schools, Jewish summer camps and synagogues in far flung communities and sent Rabbis to every corner of the world offering Jewish education and tradition.

 

Where other Jewish leaders were concerned about their particular religious community, the Rebbe’s broad knowledge in all fields of Torah and the sciences made him an address for all types of Jews from all backgrounds. With the building of a Jewish infrastructure in almost every state in the United States, two hundred Jewish centres in Israel, and Chabad Houses in over seventy countries, from Australia to Bangkok, the Rebbe re-ignited the spark of Jewish pride in the Jewish nation throughout the world. Whereas after the Holocaust Jews felt that their Judaism should be internalised, rather than paraded, the Rebbe instituted public Menorah lightings throughout the world, public Passover Seders and outdoor Lag B’omer parades for thousand of Jewish children on the streets of New York and worldwide.

 

This diffusion of pride and enthusiasm for Judaism transplanted from the Old World into the newly found freedom of the New World constitutes the unique contribution of Chabad in rebuilding Jewish life after the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust.

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