Rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto
Menachem Ziemba (1883-1943) was born in a Warsaw suburb in Poland, and raised by his grandfather, a Hasidic rabbi. As a young man, Ziemba quickly proved himself as a genius Torah scholar and Hasidic master. By 18, he was already married, and for the next few decades was wholly dedicated to Jewish studies, writing over 10,000 pages of his Torah-related thoughts, and teaching at the Mesivta Yeshiva. Out of both humility and devotion to Torah, he refused to take on more prestigious roles of rabbinic leadership, including an offer at being Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. However, in 1935, at the request of his own rabbi, Ziemba started taking on community roles and obligations. He soon became world-renowned for his wisdom and took up a key position with Agudas Yisroel, the central organization of Ashkenazi-Orthodox Jews. Following the Nazi invasion of Poland, Ziemba was quarantined in the Warsaw Ghetto along with 400,000 Jews, in an area less than one and a half square miles. Despite the fact that he lost his wife in the Ghetto, Rabbi Ziemba constantly worked towards inspiring hope and optimism among the Jews. He laboured tirelessly to ensure that Jews could continue observing Torah law in the Ghetto, smuggling in provisions (including Kosher for Passover goods) and religious articles, secretly setting up areas of Torah study, and continuing to teach Judaism quietly. He even broke through his own apartment roof so that he could build a proper sukkah for the community. Rabbi Ziemba was given multiple opportunities to leave the Ghetto (including one by the Catholic Church) but refused to abandon his people. Though initially favouring passive resistance, after the 1942 deportations that killed hundreds of thousands of Jews, Rabbi Ziemba was convinced that the Jews had to fight back. He was an important supporter of the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and was himself the first to donate funds in order to purchase weapons. To quell the uprising, the Nazis began destroying the Ghetto and burning it down. Rabbi Ziemba was caught in one of these fires, and shot by SS troops while trying to escape. To great shock and sadness, he was killed on the 19th of Nisan, 72 years ago today. Following the uprising, the rest of his family was rounded up and taken to Treblinka, where they were also killed. The vast majority of his writings and teachings were burned in the Warsaw Ghetto, though three books survived, and are still studied today. In 1958, Rabbi Ziemba’s body was exhumed and brought to Israel, where he was finally laid to rest.
Words of the Week
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 with an arch-enemy whose unparalleled ruthlessness and program of total annihilation know no bounds, Halakha [Jewish law] demands that we fight and resist to the very end with unequaled determination and valor for the sake of Sanctification of the Divine Name.
– Rabbi Menachem Ziemba