Sarah Zuckerman

Spiritual Life in the Ghetto

Religion in the ghettos was possible only when Jews could venture to see themselves within a context of community and spirituality. Despite the strong commitment to religious ideals on the part of large sections of the Jewish population, ghetto life-disease, poverty, hard labor, and the ever present fear of deportation or murder-proved destructive to spirituality.

The Sabbath was an early casualty. In many ghettos, the Germans ordered that stores be open on that day. The work battalions also did not allow for Sabbath rest. As conditions worsened, even very observant Jews could be seen begging on the streets on the Sabbath. Special food was not available with which to celebrate the day. Many religious women, not being able to differentiate between the profane week and the holy Sabbath, did not light Sabbath candles on Friday night. For others, candles were a luxury they could not afford.

Poverty caused other changes. Taliyot (prayer shawls) minus their ritual fringes were dyed and sold as dresses to Gentile women. Torah scrolls, formerly valued heirlooms, were sold far below their value along with prized sets of the Talmud.

The breakdown in religious life extended to all areas of life. Fear of deportation forced the religious Polish Jew to give up his distinctive kappata (caftan) and streimel (fur hat), as well as his beard. The Polish woman was deprived of her sheitel (marriage wig). The advanced yeshivot (talmudic academies) and Hasidic shtiblekh (prayer and learning centers) were closed, with many students deported in the early days of the ghettos' establishment. Synagogues were closed, although in some ghettos, a few were reopened for a short period. One observer also noticed a decline in public morality brought about by the uncertainty of life.

Jewish spiritual response to the Holocaust can best be understood by the term "kiddush ha-Shem"-sanctification of the Name of God. In crises it meant that one should be willing to even forfeit his life for basic religious principles. Kiddush ha-Shem, expressed both as martyrdom and as a service to God within life, was in evidence during the Holocaust. A new definition of kiddush ha-Shem, that of the struggle to preserve life in the face of destruction, was also introduced during this period.

The limited self-rule allowed Jews in many ghettos also had an effect upon spiritual responses. Some concessions, such as rest on Saturday or permission for public worship, were sometimes obtained from the Germans. Even the Judenrat (the Jewish Council), with an assimilated leadership that was hostile or indifferent to religious practices, as in Warsaw and Lodz, was often able to provide for certain religious needs, such as the baking of matzah for Passover.

In addition, the ghetto was well served by its spiritual leadership. The rabbis exerted an important influence. In the Hasidic community, the rabbi (known as rebbe, the Hasidic master) has a fatherly role and is considered a special intercessor to God. These functions were desperately needed by the religious Jew in the ghetto, who sought out the remaining rabbis for guidance and comfort. The rabbis of the ghettos were often men of unusual scholarship, piety, and communal experience.

Despite the numerous, deleterious effects of ghetto life, many remained faithful to Judaism, continuing to learn Torah and observe its ritual and moral precepts. There are many examples of Jews recreating their Torah academies. In a Warsaw shoe repair shop sat the remaining elite of Polish scholars, who spoke Torah as they hammered nails into leather. Similarly, in the Kovno ghetto, the intellectual elite of Lithuanian Jews devoted days and nights to the study and teaching of the Torah. A young woman known as the "Preacher" of the Vilna ghetto organized fellow teachers and students of the Beth Jacob schools (a network of religious schools for girls) for study, prayer, and the saying of the psalms.

Many Jews were also adamant about continuing the tradition of holiday and a wider population was able to share through the Shabes (Yiddish for the Sabbath), holidays, and prayer in glimpses of transcendence. Rivkah Cooper, in her testimony at the Adolf Eichmann trial, concluded, after listing the punishments meted out for observing the Jewish religion in the Cracow ghetto: "With all this we observed Shabes, the holidays, prayer, the lighting of the Hannukah menorah and the reading of the Megillah on Purim. We did not pass over any holiday. Quite the opposite-we had the aspiration to guard it as one guards his last glowing coal." (Grobman 206).

Rabbi Menahem Zemba reminded the religious leadership of Warsaw on Hannukah, 1941, that "even a small cruse of oil, if sufficiently pure, can light the entire world." (Grobman 206). At the same time, scholars wrote new works and buried their manuscripts for future students. Although the texture of religious life changed in many ways in the ghetto, Jews continued to believe that it was not futile to strive for holiness, purity, and moral sensitivity. Religion in the ghettos never died.