Stand Proud and Tall

by David Wilder


Almost exactly sixty five years ago, Nazi forces conquered and occupied the second largest city in Poland, Lodz. Less than a week after the occupation, Rosh HaShana 1939, the Germans ordered that all businesses remain open and that synagogues be closed. This was only the beginning of the havoc to be wreaked on Lodz’s two hundred and thirty thousand Jews.


In November Jews were ordered to wear a yellow arm-band, easily identifying them as enemies of the Third Reich. A month later the arm-bands were replaced by the infamous yellow badge in the shape of a star of David.


In February, 1940 the Nazis officially announced the creation of the Lodz Ghetto. On May first the fenced-off ghetto was closed. Two hundred and thirty thousand people were squeezed into less than five square kilometers. The ghetto was sealed, and so was the fate of its inhabitants.


Two years later the Germans transported another twenty thousand Jews to the Lodz ghetto, together with five thousand gypsies.


In early January 1942, the Germans began a transport of all Jews under the age of 10 and over the age of 65 to the first Nazi extermination camp, Chelmno, only about 65 kilometers from Lodz. A Nazi-appointed Jew, Mordechai Haim Rumkowski, head of the Lodz ghetto Judenrat, or council, made a famous speech:


"A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess - the children and the elderly. I was unworthy of having a child of my own, so I gave the best years of my life to children. I've lived and breathed with children, I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg: Brothers and sisters! Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children…I must perform this difficult and bloody operation - I must cut off limbs in order to save the body itself. I must take children because, if not, others may be taken as well - God forbid…I must tell you a secret: they requested 24,000 victims, 3000 a day for eight days. I succeeded in reducing the number to 20,000, but only on the condition that these be children under the age of 10. Children 10 and older are safe! Since the children and the aged together equals only some 13,000 souls, the gap will have tobe filled with the sick.


I can barely speak. I am exhausted; I only want to tell you what I am asking of you: Help me carry out this action! I am trembling. I am afraid that others, God forbid, will do it themselves.


A broken Jew stands before you. Do not envy me. This is the most difficult of all orders I have ever had to carry out at any time. I reach out to you with my broken, trembling hands and beg: Give into my hands the victims! So that we can avoid having further victims, and a population of 100,000 Jews can be preserved! So, they promised me: If we deliver our victims by ourselves, there will be peace!!!


The parents dressed the children in their holiday best, as if they were about to attend a party. The children were then separated from their parents and transported to Chelmno. As the train pulled out of the station, filled with babies and the elderly, the cry “Mama’ could be heard from inside the cars. In less than two weeks, over 20,000 Jews were sent to their deaths at Chelmno.


Regarding Rumkowski, who was killed at Auschwitz in 1944, according to the Simon Wiesenthal Center:  Within the ghetto, Rumkowski had gradually overcome opposition with the aid of German intervention and by introducing an evenhanded system of food distribution. Ultimately, he ruled with an iron hand. The few who dared to oppose him, ran the risk of his taking revenge, which in some extreme instances meant being included on the lists of candidates for deportation. His figure more than that of any other Jewish leader, has attracted the attention of historians and writers.


In the view of some, Rumkowski was a traitor and a collaborator. Others believe that his policies helped extend the life span of the Lodz ghetto, which remained in existence when all the other ghettos in Poland had been liquidated. Those who hold the latter opinion point out that the five thousand to seven thousand survivors of the Lodz ghetto  constituted, in relative terms, the largest among all the groups of Holocaust survivors in Poland.


The Lodz ghetto was liquidated in August, 1944 and the Soviets liberated the area in January of 1945. Of the over 250,000 Jews living in the ghetto, less than 900 remained.


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That’s the way it was then.


Yesterday, Jews and gentiles gathered in Lodz to mark the 60th anniversary of the ghetto’s destruction. Among those there: Israeli science and technology minister Ilan Shalgi, Polish prime minister Marek Belka and Lodz mayor Jerzy Kropiwnicki. The ceremony, at the Lodz cemetery, was followed by a march to the Lodz train station, infamous site of Jewish transports to concentration camps.


It’s very important to remember what happened sixty years ago – in Lodz, in Auschwitz, and throughout Europe. The other night, while attending a wedding ceremony in Jerusalem, I had the honor and privilege to meet a man, who in my eyes, is a giant. In truth, I know very little about Rabbi Haim Menachem Teichtel. My guess is that he is over 80 years old – he was born in Hungary, and was fortunate to escape the flames of the holocaust. So, not knowing him, how can I call him a giant? Simply, because I know of his father. And with a father like his, he too has to be a Jew of gigantic proportions.


Rabbi Haim Menachem’s father was named Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtel. A supremely talented scholar, the very pious Rabbi Teichtel believed, along with other religious Hungarian Jews in the pre-1940s, that Zionism was an evil disease, to be kept at a distance.


As World War Two progressed, Hungary’s Jews witnessed what was happening to their Jewish brethren throughout Europe. However, they thought it couldn’t happen to them. Rabbi Teichtel, with his brilliant mind and his unbelievable spirituality, realized otherwise. Analyzing the situation at hand, Rabbi Teichel came to an unavoidable conclusion: had Jews seen the handwriting on the wall and moved to Israel, in keeping with the goals of Zionism, the calamitous events plaguing them would not have occurred. He rejected his previous life’s philosophy which stated that Jews should not move to Eretz Yisrael and decided to repent, for what he viewed as a terrible sin.


Rabbi Teichtel, being trapped in Budapest, decided that his repentance would take the form of a book, which he titled “Em Habanim Smacha,” which literally means, the Mother of the Sons is Happy. The entire work, quoting hundreds of Jewish texts and scholars from memory, is dedicated to an appreciation of Eretz Yisrael, including the many reasons why Jews should live in their land, the Land of Israel. The book is a tremendous source of praise for the land, and bears witness to its author’s humility – a giant Torah scholar who rejected his earlier beliefs, announced his change of heart publicly and wrote a classic Torah volume to convince others of the rightness of his ways.


Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtel’s family escaped the horrors of Aushwitz, but the Rabbi was not so fortunate. He survived the camps only to be killed days before the liberation by a Ukrainian while attempting to prevent the barbarian from stealing a piece of bread from a woman.


So, where does this all lead? If we are to learn from the past, we should recognize, for the nth time, that appeasement does not work. I cannot evaluate the deeds of Mordechai Haim Rumkowski – I certainly do not know if, when reaching the next world, he was judged as a traitor or a hero. But his premise, saving the many by sacrificing the few, was already tried, only a few years earlier, by then British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. So why try again?


>From Rabbi Teichtel we can learn many things – but first of all, not to ignore the obvious, the events taking place around you. Putting on blinds, saying, “it won’t happen to me,” is a sure recipe for defeat. That’s what happened to Hungarian Judaism, at the cost of more than a half a million killed, over 60 percent of the Hungarian Jewish population, obliterated in the course of one year.


One last example that I feel obligated to mention. Last night the IDF again destroyed the Hazon David synagogue, as well as the small, makeshift camp at the site of the Hebron Heroes neighborhood, between Hebron and Kiryat Arba. How paradoxical that these two quintessential sites, one a place of worship in memory of two murdered men, and the other, the seeds of a neighborhood in memory of 9 soldiers and officers and three civilians, all killed by Arab terrorists, should be again destroyed on orders of the Israeli government at the same time that Israel, the Jewish people, and even Polish leaders, thousands of kilometers away, commemorate the slaughter of Jews sixty years ago. What would the martyred victims of Ghetto Lodz say if they knew that the Jewish people, with their own hands, were destroying synagogues in Eretz Yisrael, in Hebron, built in memory of murdered Jews?


It is so imperative that we learn from the past, but too many times we seem to either forget or ignore, and it is such a blunder. Appeasement is fatal mistake, and blinders do not change reality, they just screen out what you do not want to see. If Israel really wants to honor those Jews who lived and died in Lodz, it is not enough to attend ceremonies and make speeches.


We must collectively reject and then correct the erroneous ways of the past, adopting the right means of action – standing tall and proud for what is legitimately, rightfully ours, never acquiesce, when necessary take the offensive rather than hide behind a good defense,  and never, ever, despair.


With blessings from Hebron.

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