“We were only a few broken Jews with two books, but…the day of the Siyum HaShas was my day of victory, the day of victory for all survivors, and the day of victory for every ‘Talmud Jew.’”
The brick crematoria of Dachau had barely cooled when the surviving remnants of European Jewry were called upon to mark the third Siyum HaShas in November, 1945. For most, it seemed unthinkable—in the wake of the most horrific genocide in human history, could the emaciated, traumatized survivors turn their attention to celebrating the third completion of the seven-year Daf Yomi cycle of Talmud study?
Outside the continent-sized graveyard that was Europe, subdued gatherings of Jews marked the occasion. In New York, where the black boots of the SS had never ground Jewish ashes into the soil, and of course in Jerusalem, students who cherished their daily study regimen came together to mark the transition from the end of the final tractate Nidah to the first page of the initial tractate Berakhot. In the Holy Land, British Mandate authorities were able to interfere with the Siyum HaShas by temporarily blocking one celebration in Tel Aviv, citing the potential for anti-British activity. If commemorations in lands that had not experienced the Holocaust firsthand were strained or cancelled—how would it be possible to hold the celebration in Germany, with ragged survivors whose daily existence during the war was more concerned with desperate survival than the intricacies of Talmudic law?
And yet it happened. In the words of a self-described “graduate of Auschwitz,” Joseph Friedenson, the Siyum HaShas in the Feldafing Displaced Person camp represented “the greatest rejuvenation in modern history to happen before our eyes.”