Over 2008 and 2009, Rav Tamir Granot wrote a comprehensive analysis of the different approaches that various contemporary Torah scholars have taken to the Holocaust. You can read the series in its original Hebrew here, or in Kaeren Fish and Meshulam Gotlieb’s excellent English translation here.
One of the individuals who appears in the series is Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira. Known as the Piaseczno Rebbe, Rabbi Shapira lived in the Warsaw ghetto until its liquidation in 1943. The discourses that he delivered over that time were collected together and subsequently published under the title, אש קדוש. An English version exists, entitled Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942 (trans. J.H. Worch; ed. D. Miller; New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 2000).
A hallmark of Rabbi Shapira’s discourses is his emphasis on the ephemerality of suffering. Like a person who wanders barefoot through a field of thorns and briars, the tribulations that he endures are surely ameliorated if he but meditate upon the fact that they cannot continue any further than the field itself. All suffering, he insisted, is there to teach us a message, and it is a message best appreciated with an awareness of its ultimate brevity. In truth, as the suffering being endured by Rabbi Shapira and those around him reached heights beyond any reasonable expectation, the determination of that message became more and more difficult. At the close of Pesach in 1941 (Sacred Fire, 182-187), Rabbi Shapiro asks, “What can be learned from pain?” His answer, drawn on analogy with the fact that the Israelites were only redeemed from Egypt after various additional tribulations, is that one learns faith in God, and that even the little acts of piety yield a future reward commensurate with the suffering endured in this world. While it is a faith that I do not share, I find his closing words to be tremendously powerful:
Now at this time, when our troubles are bitter beyond belief, God should have mercy on us and save us in the blink of an eye, when we continue to believe. Our belief creates an image of God that is a revelation above and below, and in God we will find strength, and we will believe, and we will hope, and in a moment he will save us. Amen.
- Sacred Fire, 187.
No matter the dizzying and unprecedented heights of Nazi savagery, Rabbi Shapira clung to the notion that salvation would be immediate, that God had not hidden his face in any objective sense, and that there was a divine method that underscored the brutality of everyday existence in occupied Poland. That the Nazis were to claim almost 3,000,000 Jewish lives in Poland alone seems beyond human comprehension; by emphasising the necessity to remain Jewish and to maintain hope in salvation, Rabbi Shapira not only allowed himself to keep going but brought much comfort to those who were around him as well.
Rabbi Shapira was murdered in a field near Lublin during the “reaping festival” of 1943. Some of his disciples survived the Holocaust and moved to Israel.