Wednesday, October 4, 2017
In the spirit of true non-violent resistance, the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto chose to celebrate in the face of loss, death, and violence. The leader of the ghetto, Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, had granted special permission for a handful of Jews to leave the ghetto shortly before Sukkot in order to obtain the four species. The mission was almost impossible, given that etrog (citron) was not only scarce, but practically non-existent in Eastern Europe at the time. However, as though it too intended to take its part in the resistance, the etrog appeared and was brought back into the ghetto.
Though attitudes were becoming grim due to recent violence and worsening conditions, Jews from all classes and levels of religious commitment came to stand under the makeshift sukkah. Despite the severe scarcity of firewood in the ghetto, wood was specially set aside to build the sukkah. A single act of celebration became a moment of courageous resistance, with residents of the Lodz Ghetto choosing not only to celebrate holidays against Nazi policy, and therefore endanger themselves, but also to use valuable resources especially for it.
This Sukkot, standing underneath your own sukkah with etrogim, think not only of a bountiful new year’s beginning, but of the atmosphere in the Lodz Ghetto in 1941: frigid, destitute, oft hopeless, and yet, under the sukkah, brave, defiant, and proudly Jewish.
Monday, October 10, 2016
Ruth Szabo Brand was born in 1928 near Sighet in Northern Transylvania (Hungary). Though she lost her father at the age of three, her maternal grandfather, Yisrael Szabo, raised her with strong religious convictions – ones that she held onto even in the darkest times of her life, at Auschwitz.
In 1944, 16-year-old Ruth arrived at Auschwitz with her mother, two younger siblings, and grandmother. Her relatives were immediately sent to the gas chambers, leaving Ruth the family’s sole survivor. She was assigned to a work detail with several other young women, and they bonded instantly. When Yom Kippur arrived, they were assigned to shovel ashes from the crematoria.
Despite their horrific assignment, the girls vowed to support each other and fast for the holiday. They refused the watery, barley-based coffee they were given for breakfast. The Nazis noticed and taunted them for their piety: “So you’re not hungry today? We’ll make sure you get an appetite!” Ruth and the rest of the girls worked tirelessly in the sweltering heat, and while most broke down and ate the watery soup served for lunch, Ruth continued to fast alongside her cousin. The two saved their soup for dinner, but by then it had spoiled, and they broke their fast with nothing more than two thin pieces of black bread.
The next day, Ruth was unexpectedly given a supervising role digging ditches with the rest of her detail, while her cousin was asked to cook a cabbage soup for the kapo. Seeing the exhausted faces of the 200 or so girls working in the heat, she told them to stop working. Only when a kapo came by did Ruth shout at the girls, as though they had been laboring the entire time. Witnessing her actions, and believing them to be authentic, the kapo rewarded Ruth and her cousin for their extra duties by giving them double servings of lunch. The two were convinced it was a reward from G-d for fasting throughout Yom Kippur.
Ruth Szabo Brand and her cousin chose to resist by continuing to fast on Yom Kippur, 1944. Their adherence to their faith, and belief in the importance of religious ritual, gave them something to hold onto, even in the darkest of times. This act of spiritual and religious resistance, carried out silently, was powerful. The courage of Jews to affirm their faith even during the most horrific circumstances, is a testament to the enormous willpower, strength, and perseverance of the defiant Jewish spirit.
Thursday, April 16, 2015
Yet it may surprise some to learn that, for many across the world, this day will be commemorated by the singing of a song.
The song is called Zog Nit Keynmol in Yiddish, and is known simply as the Hymn of the Partisans. From the ghettos and the camps it has journeyed across generations to become the official hymn of many Remembrance ceremonies in Israel and abroad. The words were originally written by Yiddish poet and resistance member Hirsh Glik, who was only 21 years old when he first recited it at a Yiddish literature event in the Vilna ghetto. Though Glik disappeared and was presumed to have died a year later, his song quickly spread beyond Vilna — the song's tone and mood perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the various resistance movements around Europe.
Four years after the fall of Hitler, the tune would be used as a form of resistance against another 20th century tyrant. Paul Robeson traveled to Moscow in June of 1949 to give a performance to an audience that included many Communist Party elites, as well as what little remained of the Jewish intelligentsia after Stalin's purges. At the end of the concert, Robeson stunned the audience with a surprise rendition of the Partisan Hymn. His introductory remarks contained references to the Yiddish language, the deep and enduring cultural ties between the US and Russian Jewish communities, as well as to leading Jewish intellectuals who had been "disappeared" by the regime.
The remarks, the spontaneous translation of the song to the shocked audience, and thunderous applause that followed were cut from the recording by Stalin's censors, but the chaos is evident in the mixture of applause and jeers that follows the actual performance. Lamentably, Robeson kept his criticisms of the Soviet Union to himself when he returned to the United States, not wishing to be used by right wing political groups to advance their causes. But the recording remains, as does the pain and fury in Robeson's voice.
- Listen to the song performed by Betty Segal in Munich, 1946. (Yad Vashem archives)
- The Paul Robeson recording - Moscow, 1949. (Youtube)
- Traditional rendition by baritone singer Boris Kletinich
- Israeli musician Chava Alberstein's rendition, from the album Yiddish Songs (Youtube)
- The Partisan Hymn sung in the Capitol Rotunda during the 2010 Days of Remembrance ceremony (Youtube)
- A 2011 rendition by the Israeli heavy metal band Gevolt. (Youtube)
“Zog Nit Keynmol” Hymn of the Jewish Partisans
Khotsh himlen blayene farsthtelen bloye teg.
Never say you are walking your final road,
Though leaden skies conceal the days of blue.
S'vet a poyk ton undzer trot mir zaynen do!
The hour that we have longed for will appear,
Our steps will beat out like drums: We are here!
Mir kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey.
From the green lands of palm trees to lands white with snow,
We are coming with all our pain and all our woe.
Shprotzen vet dort undzer gevurah, undzer mut.
Wherever a spurt of our blood has fallen to the ground,
There our might and our courage will sprout again.
Un der nekhten vet farshvinden miten faynd.
The morning sun will shine on us one day,
Our enemy will vanish and fade away.
Vi a parol zol geyn dos lid fun dor tsu dor.
But if the sun and dawn come too late for us,
From generation to generation let them be singing this song.
S'iz nit keyn lidel fun a foygel oyf der fray,
This song is written in blood not in pencil-lead.
It is not sung by the free-flying birds overhead,
Dos lid gezungen mit naganes in di hent!
But a people stood among collapsing walls,
And sang this song with pistols in their hands!