Life, Death, and Spiritual Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto

February 17, 2017
Life, Death, and Spiritual Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto


On February 8th, CSWR resident Danny Kraft gave a presentation titled “Life, Death, and Spiritual Resistance in the Warsaw Ghetto.” Danny framed his talk with an introduction to scholarly and popular perceptions about Jewish resistance during the Holocaust.  For many decades, the prevailing assumption was that Jews did not resist their persecution, and that any instances of resistance, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, must be seen as exceptional.

Danny showed the development of scholarship on Jewish resistance to Nazi Germany, and argued for a more expansive understanding of resistance. How would we think about the Holocaust differently, he asked, if we understood Jewish activities of prayer, study, and social welfare as acts of resistance?

With this framework in mind, Danny used a variety of primary historical sources, especially entries from the diaries of Jewish Holocaust victims and survivors, to paint a portrait of daily life in the Warsaw ghetto, encouraging residents to consider even the seemingly mundane act of diary-writing an act of resistance against Nazi oppression. Despite their day-to-day experiences of unimaginable degradation, including starvation and constant violence, many Jews created communities and institutions which allowed them to retain a sense of dignity. At a time when most educational activities were banned for Jews, underground high schools, rabbinical seminaries, and even a secret, full-fledged medical school existed in the ghetto. Though the administration of these educational institutions was totally nonviolent, Danny presented them as instances of Jewish resistance against the dehumanization of Nazi genocide.

Having summarized the experiences of Jews in the Warsaw ghetto, and described some of the educational and social welfare institutions they created, Danny gave particular attention to Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe, an influential Hasidic Rabbi who was incaracerated in the Warsaw ghetto. Shapira led an underground synagogue there, and recorded the homilies he gave his followers each week. In January of 1943, Shapira compiled these homilies into a manuscript and buried them in a milk jug, which was discovered by a Polish construction worker in the aftermath of World War II. Though Shapira was murdered in November, 1943, his homilies from the ghetto are a wealth of theological creativity, and a case study in the use of religious thought to make meaning out of extreme suffering.

After presenting Shapira’s biography, Danny asked the attendees at his presentation to form groups of three and discuss excerpts he provided from Shapira’s homilies. These excerpts introduced some of the major themes of Shapira’s wartime thought, and lively discussion ensued. Many attendees were particularly struck by Shapira’s anthropomorphic language, and his descriptions of a God who weeps in empathy with human suffering.

Through Shapira’s teachings, and through an exploration of primary sources from the Warsaw ghetto, Danny’s presentation showed the diversity and prevalence of Jewish resistance to Nazi persecution, and showed the vitality and creativity of Jewish theological thought as it grapples with unimaginable catastrophe.