Kiddush HaChaim

Respectable Virtues, Timeless Truth Off 63

The seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuos are a time to prepare for Kabbalas HaTorah, but it is also a time of national mourning. Rav Yechiel Michel Epstein, the Aruch Hashulchan, writes that ever since the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students, this period has been marked by tragedy. He notes that most of the decrees against the Jews in France and Spain were enacted during this time.
I am writing this on the 28th day of the Omer, 13 Iyar. Today is the yahrzeit of Rav Shimshon Stockhammer, one of the last rabbanim of Warsaw. From the start of the war, Rav Stockhammer was a valuable source of inspiration and guidance.
In the summer of 1942, the people of the Warsaw Ghetto first learned of the extermination camps. Reb Yaakov Rabinowitz—brother of the Munkaczer Rebbe, Rav Baruch—managed to escape from Treblinka and make his way back to the ghetto. There he told his tale of horror to a group of rabbanim and others gathered in Rav Stockhammer’s home on Muranowska Street. Although there were a few people who did not believe him, the rabbanim who were there urged Jews to hide their children and do whatever they could to get them out of the ghetto, especially their daughters.
Conditions quickly deteriorated, and thousands were deported to concentration camps. By the next year, only three rabbanim remained in the ghetto—Rav Stockhammer, Rav Menachem Ziemba, and Rav Dovid Shapiro. On April 19, 1943, the three rabbanim received a message through the Judenrat from the Catholic Church of Warsaw, telling them that if they left the ghetto within 24 hours, the Church would ensure their safety.
They were given one hour to decide. After a brief discussion, Rav Shapiro declared, “I am the youngest among you, so my words are not binding upon you. We already know that we cannot help our people, but by staying with them and not abandoning them, we encourage them and strengthen their hopes. This is the only encouragement we are able to give these remaining Jews.”
Rav Menachem Ziemba spoke for the group when he told the Church officials that there was nothing to discuss.
Rav Ziemba was killed during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, and Rav Stockhammer spent the next two years in different concentration camps. Before Pesach of 1945, Rav Stockhammer decided that he would not eat chametz for all eight days. Dr. Hillel Seidman, who was with him, remembered his words: “I know the halachah. However, there are 2,500 Jews in this camp. At least one among us should refrain from eating chametz. I have decided to do so. I have undertaken this responsibility with love and joy!”
Dr. Seidman later wrote that for “eight days Rav Stockhammer ate nothing at all. He only drank a little water. It was almost incredible that he was able to persevere in his determination to do so. He performed his daily slave labor together with the others” (Eileh Ezkerah, Vol. V).
As the Germans were crushed by the rapidly advancing Red Army from the east, they began to evacuate the camps, sending prisoners on long death marches or packing them onto overcrowded trains headed toward the west. Just three days before liberation, Rav Stockhammer was forced onto a train with hundreds of other prisoners. Along the route, the train was attacked and struck by a bomb. Rav Stockhammer was critically wounded, and his holy neshamah left his body.
Of the three last rabbanim of Warsaw, only Rav Dovid Shapiro survived. Not much more is known about Rav Stockhammer, so I consider it a privilege to share this with you on his yahrzeit. Sadly, we know even less about the millions of other Yidden who were killed, leaving no trace.
In 1958, Rav Menachem Ziemba’s grave in Warsaw was exhumed and he was brought to Yerushalayim for burial. At the graveside, Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, the Lutzker Rav, shared the following thought: “Since this is the first time since the European Holocaust that holy bones have been brought [to Eretz Yisrael] from Poland, we must view them as the bones of all of the Jews of Poland and Europe.”
If the saintly body of Rav Menachem Ziemba represents the millions of Holocaust victims, I think we may also compare those whose stories of kiddush Hashem are well known to millions of others who were also mekadesh shem Shamayim, albeit in anonymity.

About the author / 

Rabbi Sholom Friedmann

Rabbi Sholom Friedmann is a Talmid of Rabbi Leib Bakst זצ"ל, of Yeshivas Ateres Mordechai, Detroit, Michigan. After learning in the yeshivah and kollel, Rabbi Friedmann moved to the British colony of Gibraltar and studied in the Gateshead Kollel for three more years, at which time he received rabbinical ordination. From there, Rabbi Friedmann moved to London, England. In London, Rabbi Friedmann taught in the Menorah Grammar School, and was appointed the communal Rov of Kehilas Kol Yaakov, Edgware, London. Rabbi Friedmann was awarded Qualified Teaching Status by the British Board of Education in 2002, and a diploma in educational psychology by the Tavistock clinic (London) in 2006. In 2005, Rabbi Friedmann was accepted as a Fellow in Holocaust Education by the prestigious Imperial War Museum, London. Rabbi Friedmann relocated to New York in 2008 to become the Director of Zechor Yemos Olam, the Holocaust education division of Torah Umesorah. While occupying that position, Rabbi Friedmann created teaching materials, videos, and teacher training programs, including the ZYO Holocaust education fellowship program. In April 2012, Rabbi Friedmann was appointed as the director of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum. The museum founded by Elly Kleinman will carry on the legacy of holocaust history. For more info about when it is expected to open read this article.

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