The Murdered Piaseczno Rebbe Had No Dynasty. How Did He Build A Huge Modern Following?

This article appeared, in slightly abbreviated form, in today’s Forward. So many colleagues and friends–fellow students of the Rebbe–contributed moving quotations on the Facebook page dedicated to the Rebbe.

Laura Adkins’ editorship at the Forward is really great, and the final version is certainly more appropriate for the wider audience. If you would like to read the full version, however, I’ve pasted my original below.

May the memory of the Rebbe be a blessing.


Seventy-Five Years after his Murder, Rabbi Shapira’s Holy Fire Burns Still Brighter

This month, thousands of unlikely Hasidim will commemorate the martyrdom of one of a lesser-known thinker sometimes called “The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto.” Since the discovery of his buried Holocaust manuscripts in December 1950, fascination with the creative genius and theological heroism of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalmish Shapira has swelled into a rising tide of interest in unexpected circles.

Many Americans first encountered the Rebbe of Piaseczno (pronounced Pee-ah-SECH-no) through Shlomo Carlebach’s iconic 1981 “The Holy Hunchback” story. Apocryphal and inaccurate, Carlebach’s story nevertheless captured the essential spirit of Rabbi Shapira and some key biographical elements.

Born in 1889, Rabbi Shapira was the gifted scion of the Grodzisk Hasidic dynasty. He led a large Yeshiva in Warsaw and authored a remarkable introduction to Jewish spirituality for children entitled The Obligation of Students (1932). Trapped in the Warsaw Ghetto with the Nazi invasion of 1939, the Rebbe refused offers from the Jewish underground to spirit him to safety, insisting on remaining with the expanding group of followers—Hasidim, mitnagdim and freethinkers—who gathered in his Bet Midrash every Shabbat, hoping to hear words of consolation to help them through the increasingly horrific conditions of the German occupation.

After the massive deportation of Warsaw Jews to their deaths in Treblinka, the Rebbe was impressed into slave labor, first in the Ghetto and then later in the Trawniki labor camp. Before his expulsion, however, he entrusted his notes from those weekly gatherings—as well as his personal spiritual journal and two unpublished sequels to The Obligation of Students—to Dr. Emmanuel Ringelblum’s clandestine Oneg Shabbat archive. The precious manuscripts were sealed in a tin milk container and remained entombed under a building at 68 Nowolipki Street until they were accidentally uncovered by a Polish construction worker clearing rubble from the destroyed ghetto. The Holocaust sermons were published in Israel ten years later under the title “Holy Fire”—Aish Kodesh—the name by which Rabbi Shapira is now most widely known.

Survivors from Trawniki recall that the Rebbe maintained his solidarity with other Jews in the labor camp right to the very end, refusing to participate in an escape attempt if it did not include all prisoners. In the fall of 1943, however, the Nazis implemented a vicious plan called “Operation Harvest Festival” in response to the growing wave of Jewish revolts. The Rebbe was murdered on the fourth or fifth of Heshvan, 5704. The Nazi responsible for overseeing the mass shootings survived the war went into hiding and eventually immigrated to the United States, living peacefully in Queens, New York, until his deportation to stand trial earlier this year.

The Rebbe left behind no surviving children and no Hasidic dynasty, yet his strange mix of followers continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Of course, a Hasidic congregation in Israel thrives around the grandson of the Rebbe’s brother, and in the heart of Hasidic Williamsburg, Rabbi Yoel Rubin’s remarkable chaburah studies the Rebbe’s Torah in The Shtiebl, even though they wear the traditional garb of other Hasidic groups. Manchester, UK has a congregation dedicated to the Rebbe as well. 

More surprisingly, in tony Woodmere New York, a synagogue named Aish Kodesh flourishes under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Weinberger, serving a largely modern Orthodox community otherwise more likely to identify with the Manhattan’s upper west side than with Hasidic Meah She’arim. On the political right, An Israeli settlement in Israel carries the name as well, taken from a murdered Israeli security guard who was in turn named for the Rebbe’s Warsaw Ghetto writings. On the more left wing end of the spectrum, Yeshivat Maharat, more widely known for their training and ordination of female clergy, has Dr. Erin Lieb Smokler as their Director of Spiritual Development—Dr. Smokler’s 2014 dissertation at the University of Chicago was on the Piaseczno Rebbe.

The scholarly world has also matched popular demand with a steady stream of translations and publications since Dr. Nehemia Polen published his PhD dissertation on the Aish Kodesh in 1991. Dr. Daniel Reiser published a remarkable two-volume critical edition that analyzes, in painstaking detail, the numerous strikeouts, additions and emendations the Rebbe added to his manuscript on the Holocaust—a virtual Rosetta Stone to his thought. I have also added my own small contribution in print and video, and forthcoming works include the collected papers of a scholarly conference in Poland and a biography by Shalom Matan Shalom. Dr. Shaul Magid frequently writes on the Rebbe’s Torah in various fora as well.

What accounts for the remarkable popularity of the Rebbe’s works, and why does his thought resonate over such a broad and diverse audience?

Rabbi Shapira was, by all accounts, an exceptional individual with a unique sensitivity to the challenges of every Jew. Many, like Dr. Michael Chigel of Jerusalem, see his spirituality as a form of heroism: he was “a Jew who could not be rattled by time into even that most forgivable form of levity, namely distrust of the Aiberishter [God] on account of personal suffering.” Joshua Rosenfeld testified that “the Rebbe taught us the irreducible nature of faith. Even in the heart of darkness , he uncovered the potency of faith that rests specifically there. In a world that has lost its way, the path of the Rebbe remains the impossible hope at the core of hopelessness itself.”

Many other followers identify with the Rebbe’s searing honesty and authenticity, reflected most clearly in his personal spiritual journal, Tsav Ve-Zeruz, in which he remarkably lays bare all his doubts and fears, without sacrificing his awesome faith in God.

I think most of us, however, see in the Rebbe a warm and understanding guide for personal spiritual development despite adversity, as Nate Fein put it in a recent discussion in Pesach Sommer’s  Facebook page dedicated to the Rebbe : “I feel like he’s leading me down a path that not only can I achieve, but one that he himself walked.” Rabbi Yoel Rubin echoed the feeling of many of us when he wrote, “The Rebbe has built a Bridge between the heart and mind, opening up new vistas and horizons. Upon learning his Seforim one can get the feeling of a father taking his little son by the hand, on a roadtrip together to teach him about life and the universe around us…His ideas are like a very deep wellspring which is brought up to the surface, giving it the notion of simplicity and the encouragement of ‘I Believe In You. You can do it.’”

The Rebbe’s Torah from the Holocaust is indeed a remarkable legacy of his genius. For those of us who know his writings well, however, it is his prewar work that gives us the true measure of his stature. I am, for example, not a Hasid—my family background is Lithuanian via Canada, and I prefer the standard Ashkenazi prayer book. Yet when an older man in shul the other day asked me “which kind of Hasid I was”—I immediately, and instinctively, answered “Piaseczno.”

May his memory be a blessing.


One thought on “The Murdered Piaseczno Rebbe Had No Dynasty. How Did He Build A Huge Modern Following?

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  1. The Piaseczno Rabbi speaks to an audience even beyond Judaism, at least to me. I am reading through the Polen work right now, and I have to take it in careful pieces, so that I am not able to best internalize the powerful teachings Rabbi Shapira provides. There is a deep, eternal truth in what he put to paper, and my life is made richer for even just one of his lessons.

    As a historian, I developed an attitude that history needs to take a break from cataloging the activities of tyrants, conquerors, and ruthless rulers and instead focus on the true heroes of humanity. This holy fire arising from the dust of the earth is exactly what I would have my students read about, his work penetrates my heart so.

    As I see suffering around me, I find time and again how the wisdom and compassion and insight of Rabbi Shapira can offer peace and hope to the people I talk with. There is a deep, eternal truth in what he put to paper, and my life is made richer for sharing even just one of his lessons with another.

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