Month: January 2012

The Last Ghetto Fighter

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Leon Weinstein, the last surviving Warsaw Ghetto fighter

On Physical And Spiritual Resistance

The story of Leon Weinstein, last surviving Warsaw ghetto fighter, has a little bit of everything: drama, history, heroism, escape, discovery, life, death, etc.

Be that as it may, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising itself became a controversial topic almost immediately after the war when many anti-religious Jews hijacked it to promote their values. We address the controversy in a sidebar (“Spiritual Resistance”).

I got a taste of the controversy last summer when I visited Warsaw and saw the large monument that the Communists dedicated to the uprising. It was disturbing to see that whereas the west side of the monument boasts a raised sculpture of young, physically strong, heroic-looking Jewish fighters, the east side displays caricatures of old, weak, long-suffering religious Jews.

The message was clearly meant to promote the ideal of the “New Jew,” the term Zionist-Socialists/Communists used to contrast with what they believed to be its polar opposite: the old ghetto Jew. Whereas the latter was downtrodden, stooped and weak, the “New Jew” was strong, aggressive and free; he was not beholden to halachah, the rabbis or even G-d. In short, he was the epitome of kochi v’otzem yadi (Devarim 8:17).

In the Post-Zionism world, culture clashes like this have simmered somewhat. Nevertheless, it still needs to be hammered home that while not denying bravery in a physical sense we do not glorify it at the expense of spiritual bravery and resistance, which the Holocaust produced in quantities and with a quality arguably unmatched in history.

Let me share just one small sample of spiritual resistance, from the Holocaust book, Sisters In The Storm (CIS), whose author lived through the horrors of the Lodz ghetto:

I remember one time when my mother prepared seudah shelishis for the entire group [of her brother’s friends]…. They sang Shabbos zemiros to the haunting chassidishe melodies. Their enthusiasm kindled a spiritual light in our house. For a moment, as I listened to their voices sweeping upwards and praising Hashem for all His good works, I forgot my own hunger….

The bachurim lifted themselves out of the ghetto darkness. They spontaneously jumped up from the benches to dance around the table…. They were in a transcendent, spiritual realm, much closer to heaven than to earth. That seudah shelishis will forever be one of the few bright spots in the memory of my life in the ghetto.

After Binyamin and his friends left the apartment to go to Maariv, I realized that their gathering had actually been an act of rebellion. They had completely defied the Nazis. The suffering, the fear, the pain and hunger that we all felt did not drive them to despair…. Instead of following the orders of the Germans, they followed the orders of the Torah. They were able to find strength, meaning and light in the darkness that enveloped us….

Similarly, Leon Weinstein’s story is remarkable not only for its feats of incredible physical bravery, but for the spiritual bravery that ultimately led Leon to become a baal teshuvah, making his story combination of the best of all worlds.