On the 3rd anniversary of the annihilation of the Krakow ghetto, March 13, 1943 - March 13, 1946
“The Life of the Religious Jews in Krakow During the Occupation”
by Rabbi Menashe Levertov
(Translated from the Polish by Rabbi Levertov’s wife, Rachel Kanner Levertov)
The religious life in the ghetto did
not change. Orthodox Jews in their deep
faith did not deviate one step from the centuries old Traditon. There were a few small synagogues in which
prayers were held three times daily.
Ritual was observed as in normal times and in the hardest moments the
religious Jews did not neglect the religious practices. In almost every home Kaddish was
said. In the hardest days, during
anniversaries of the tragic events, fast days were proclaimed. But, because fasts were officially forbidden
as the Germans considered them to be a symbol of rebellion and protest, the
days of fasts were announced in the small synagogues. Afterwards, the news was transmitted by word
of mouth and so the remaining (alive) honored the memory of the murdered until
they themselves fell victim to further murders.
Among the circles of Orthodox Jews of Krakow, there were a number of special figures, among them Lazar Panzer, aged about 50. Before the war he was the head of an Orthodox school, Yesodei Hatorah, in Krakow. In the ghetto, he conducted the secret teaching of Judaic subjects, organized work, taught and led the teaching which took place in groups in a conspiratorial way. A few hundred students aged 5-15 availed themselves of that teaching.
Alter Kurzman, an old social activist about 70 years old, who before the war belonged to the administration of the House of Orphans, who when the children of that orphanage went to their death during the "relocation" did not hide and declared that he was not going to abandon the children and he then went together with them.
Rabbi Sheim Klingberg, an outstanding expert in mysticism and Jewish writings, well- known in Orthodox circles, led for his execution in Plaszov to the place of execution near the camp, begged to be left with his Tzitzit. He recited "Veiduy"(confessions) aloud, and then Shma Yisrael, first in Hebrew, then in Yiddish, and he called, "I should be the last sacrifice for the Jewish nation." Following this, he went a few steps straight, with his head proudly raised and with a peremptory tone, he said to the Hangman Strajewsky "Nu".
Also worthy of mention is the posture of Krakow Rabbis. Seeing the hopelessness of the struggle of a civilian population, deprived of arms, against an enemy whose weapons were the expression of the newest military technique, they comforted the people doomed to a martyr's death while they themselves set an example of dignity with their own stance. Even though the Germans forbade interventions under the threat of a death penalty, a delegation of Rabbis went to the Archduke Sapiena with a request for intervention in reference to the threatened "relocation" of the Jews. The Germans did not wait long for their answer. All the participants of the delegation were afterwards immediately sent to Aushwitz.
With a special passion of religious feeling in the ghetto, in the vanguard, were the Jewish Orthodox youth, in the group of the so-called " Gerer Hasiddim". In cellars, in attics, and in corners of overcrowded homes, this youth was found studying Talmud in a moving disregard for the tragic reality. In the search for Divine truth, disregarding the persecution and the danger to life, they juxtaposed their deep faith to the bestial German mob to whom they were given as prey. They had a collective life helping each other, ready for the greatest sacrifices in the conviction that the blood sacrifice was for a purpose. They looked proudly into the eyes of death. They walked proudly in their long "bekeshas", in their different Hassidic clothes, defenseless against the armed German brigands, fanatical, unyielding in their observance of the most minute religious rules. Their youthful activism was completely consumed by their religiosity which kept growing commensurately with the tragedies befalling the Jewish community. They took up passive resistance, ignoring the German orders. In longing for God, who abandoned his people in their greatest pain, ready every minute for death, they treated it as an act of "Kiddush Hashem"(sanctifying God’s name), a sacrifice for the Jewish nation and the Faith. They were convinced that they were living a historical moment which demanded a sacrifice of life. They were 100 and when after the liquidation of the ghetto the Germans were leading them to death in Plaszow they walked courageously, in ecstasy, like real martyrs of faith. The Hangmen put them in rows and shot them one after another. People working in the camp at a certain distance heard a scream of "Shma Yisrael", one after another, and then a bang of a fallen body.