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The greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favour

In honour of the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto - Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s Yartzeit – 4th Mar Chesvan

THE HOLY HUNCHBACK by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach

In the Warsaw ghetto there was a Rebbe, the heiliger Reb Klonymus Kalman. He wrote a book and knowing prophetically that he would not survive, he put the manuscript under one of the stones in the ghetto where it was found after the war.

He had a yeshiva not of young people but of children. He was accustomed to say, "My followers eat on Yom Kippur. You know why--they are not bar mitzvah yet." A great Rabbi would come to him, or an old man and a little boy or girl of four or five. He would say to the older man, "You'll make it without me. This child needs me." With older people he would spend five minutes; with children all night. He had thousands of kids. He was their father, their mother, their best friend. After the war, there was nobody left.

My whole life I was hoping and dreaming to see one of these people. A few years ago I was walking on the Yarkon in Tel Aviv and I saw a hunchback--a street cleaner. Do you know that sometimes we are all little prophets? Our heart tells us something. I had a feeling this person was special. He was a real hunchback. His face was very handsome, but every part of his body was disfigured. And I said to him, "Hey, shalom aleichem my friend." And he answered me in a very heavy Polish-Yiddish Hebrew, "Aleichem shoolum." I said to him in Yiddish, "Mein zeisse yid, my sweet yiddele, where are you from?" He said, "I'm from Piaseczno." I said "Piaseczno. Gevalt! Did you ever see Reb Klonymus Kalman?"

"What do you mean, did I ever see him? I was a student in his yeshiva from the age of five to eleven. I was in Auschwitz for five years. I was eleven when I got there. They thought I was seventeen; I was so strong. They beat me up so much I never healed. That's why I look this way. I have nobody in the whole world, really nobody."

I said to him, "You know something--my whole life I have been waiting to meet one of the students of Reb Klonymus Kalman. Would you be so kind to give me over one of his teachings?"

He kept on sweeping the street, "You really think that after five years in Auschwitz, I remember the teachings?"

I said, "Yes--the words of the heileger Rebbe penetrate you forever."

He stopped sweeping. He looked at me and said, "Do you really want to know?"

He touched me so deeply and although you shouldn't swear, I said to him, "I swear to you, and I mean it with all my heart, that whatever you tell me I shall tell all over the world."

You know he was a real chasidishe Yid, so he put the broom against a wall and went to wash his hands. And this is what he said: "There will never be a Shabbos as by my holy master, my heiliger Rebbe. Can you imagine--hundreds, sometimes thousands of young people dancing with the holy rebbe in the middle. What a sight! Not until Moshiach is coming. Can you imagine the Rebbe making kiddush sitting with hundreds of children with so much holiness? He gave over teachings between the fish and the soup, between the soup and the meat, between the meat and the dessert and after every teaching, he would always say, "Kinderlach, taire kinderlach, my most precious children, gedenkst shon, remember, di greste zach in di velt ist, zu tun mit emetzin a tova. Children, precious children, just remember the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor. "

When I came to Auschwitz, 1 knew my whole family had been killed and I wanted to kill myself. Each time I was about to, I suddenly heard the Rebbe's voice saying to me, "Gedenkst shon, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor." Do you know how many favors you do in Auschwitz late at night? People dying, people crying; nobody had the strength even to listen to their stories anymore. I would be up all night. A few weeks later I wanted to kill myself again but always at the last moment I'd hear my Rebbe's voice. Now I'm here in Tel Aviv, but believe me, I'm all alone, there are moments when I decide to commit suicide. I go into the sea until the water reaches my nose. Then suddenly I hear my Rebbe's voice again and I just can't permit myself to do it and I run back to the streets. Do you know how many favors you can do on the street?"

My friends, this was before Rosh Hashana. After Succos I came back to Israel and the first morning I went to the Yarkon and I asked the people on that street corner where the hunchback was. They said he died on the second day of Succos.

Listen to me, my beautiful friends, when the Moshiach comes, when all the holy people will come back to the world and the holy hunchback, the holy street cleaner will come back. He will clean the streets of the world. Do you know how he will clean the world? He will go from one corner of the world to the other and he will say, "Yiddelach, gedenkst shon, the greatest thing in the world is to do somebody else a favor."

The Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto

How Kalonymous Kalman Shapira’s ‘Holy Fire’ spread out of the Holocaust and into the non-Hasidic world


“The greatest thing in the world,” said the Holy Hunchback, quoting his rebbe, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (Szapiro) of Piasczeno, to Shlomo Carlebach on the Yarkon in Tel Aviv, “is to do someone else a favor.” The story of the Holy Hunchback is one of Shlomo Carlebach’s most oft-cited stories about meeting an elderly Jew, a street cleaner in Tel Aviv who reveals himself as one of Shapira’s students in his yeshiva for children. The story served as one of the ways Shapira’s work Esh Kodesh became popular among non-Hasidic Jews worldwide. It appears on numerous Carlebach recordings, including his collection of stories, and online here. “The greatest thing in the world is to do someone else a favor.” It is with these words, and with the story of the Holy Hunchback, that R. Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943)—also known as the rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto— became known to the non-Hasidic world.

Shapira called his collection of ghetto sermons simply Hiddushei Torah auf Sedros, Torah Novella from the Weekly Parsha, but they were later published as Esh Kodesh (Holy Fire). The fact that these heart-wrenching sermons were dated to the years of the ghetto gives us a startling view into one man’s struggle with faith, as the world—and, ultimately, his faith—collapsed around, and inside, him. Nechemia Polen in his The Holy Fire (1999) calls this book “a testament of fidelity to Torah and tradition, in the face of the enemy’s efforts to destroy both.” Others who have written about Esh Kodesh include Mendel Piekarz in his Polish Hasidism: Between the Wars (1978), Pesach Schindler in Hasidic Responses to the Holocaust in Light of Hasidic Thought (1990), Don Seeman’s “Ritual Efficacy, Hasidic Mysticism and ‘Useless Suffering’ in the Warsaw Ghetto” (2008), James A. Diamond, “The Warsaw Rebbe: Diverting God’s Gaze From a Utopian End to an Anguished Now” (2010), and most recently Daniel Reiser’s new two-volume Hebrew work on the manuscript edition of Esh Kodeh (2017). Polen adeptly traces the trajectory of Shapira’s struggle with the incongruence between tradition and destruction as life in the ghetto became unbearable, and ultimately, unlivable. While he acknowledges that Shapira’s last sermons in the spring and summer of 1942 indicate a shift in his theological orientation, Polen claims that to the end Shapira remained committed to faith in a God that could not, or would not, save him. My assessment moves in another direction. I would like to revisit these sermons from a wider lens and speculate what they might convey beyond the walls of the ghetto. I suggest that in his last sermons, and particularly in a note he added to a sermon in the summer of 1942, Shapira set the stage for what would become post-Holocaust theology a few decades later. Shapira never lived to further articulate some of his most radical notions in some of his sermons in 1942. At the end of the ghetto revolt in May 1943 Shapira, with many other Jews who remained in the ghetto, was deported to the Trawniki labor camp, where he was murdered Nov. 3 in what was known as “the Harvest Festival” (Aktion Erntefest) in response to violent uprisings in other camps.

Shapira’s sermons almost did not survive. As things worsened in the Warsaw ghetto, a young secular Jew named Emmanuel Ringelblum, working with a small cadre of courageous assistants, began to collect as much documentation as they could. The plan was to hide this material in metal milk crates and bury them so that the world would know first-hand the plight of the Jews of Warsaw. Much of what we know of life in the ghetto is from this group, known as the Oyneg Shabbos Archive, superbly documented in Sam Kassow’s 2007 book Who Will Write our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive. But the ghetto was in many ways quite segregated according to religious and ideological lines, and Ringelbum and his group did not know about Shapira. Ringelblum worked with a young Orthodox rabbi named Shimon (Szymon) Huberband (1909-1942), who served as Ringelbaum’s connection to the religious communities in the ghetto. Huberband knew Shapira—he was actually his first cousin—and heard some of Shapria’s sermons. He told Ringelblum that Shapira had transcribed his weekly sermons in the ghetto. Interested in any documentation, Ringelblum asked if he could get the manuscript to include in his archive. Luckily for us, Shapira complied, and the manuscript, buried separately from other archive materials, survived the Holocaust and is now housed in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Before the war, Shapira was widely known as an innovative Hasidic rebbe, writing a trilogy on Jewish education, including educating young men for prophecy. Two of those volumes, A Student’s Obligation: Advice from the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto (Hovot Ha-Talmidim) for young children, and very recently, Jewish-Spiritual Growth: A Step-by-Step Guide by a Hasidic Master (Hakhsharat Ha-Avreikhim) for adolescents, have appeared in English. Another slim volume on building community, B’nei Makhshava Tova (Conscious Community), appeared in translation in 1996 and has become popular in Jewish Renewal circles. A collection of earlier sermons from his time in Piasczeno, Derkeh ha-Melekh (The Way of the King), is widely viewed as a Hasidic classic of the period. But it is his Warsaw Ghetto sermons, published as Esh Kodesh (appearing in English in 2000 as Sacred Fire: Torah from the Years of Fury 1939-1942) that has become the most popular.

Considering their historical import, it is surprising that the collection of Shapira’s sermons in the ghetto was not published until 1960. Even after its publication, Esh Kodesh remained very much within Hasidic circles until Shlomo Carlebach and a few others discovered the work and began conveying its teachings in non-Hasidic communities. Carlebach captured this work in his story “The Holy Hunchback,” the story of a broken, elderly street cleaner Carlebach encountered in Tel Aviv who, as a child, was one of Shapira’s students in his yeshiva in Piasczeno.

My observations below are reflections on a short and very potent note Shapira inserted into his last sermon in the summer of 1942. A footnote was inserted in 1943 to the entry on November 27, 1942 (Kislev 18):

Only such torment as was endured until the middle of 1942 [the Great Deportation was July of that year] has ever transpired previously in history. The bizarre tortures and the freakish, brutal murders that have been invented for us by the depraved, perverted murderers, solely for the suffering of Israel. Since the middle of 1942, are, according to knowledge of the words of our sages of blessed memory, and the chronicles of the Jewish people in general, unprecedented and unparalleled. May God have mercy upon us, and save us from their hands, in the blink of an eye.

What is not widely known is that this passage, along with numerous others from Esh Kodesh were read publically by Baruch Duvdevani, who found the manuscripts in postwar Warsaw, at Session 26 of the Eichmann Trial on May 3, 1961. The transcript of his testimony is published in The Trial of Adolf Eichmann: Record of Proceedings in the District Court of Jerusalem, and a video recording of his testimony is online here. Duvdevani was asked by the attorney general to read this precise passage from Esh Kodesh to give testimony to life in the ghetto in the early 1940, directly facing Adolf Eichmann.

The suggestion that the tragedy unfolding was both unprecedented and unparalleled may seem ordinary, even obvious, to many contemporary readers. But for a Hasidic Jew in 1942 who lived deep within the orbit of the covenantal theology of Judaism, it was almost unprecedented; it gestured to what would become a few decades later a radical reassessment of the Holocaust as a full-blown theological crisis and a serious challenge to the Jewish tradition. A full-blown theological crisis, in this case, emerges only when two conditions are met simultaneously: first, the belief that the Holocaust was an unprecedented event in Jewish history; and second, that this unprecedented event must irrevocably rupture the covenantal framework established in the Hebrew Bible. Shapira’s comment certainly adopts the first condition and, I would argue, also gestures toward the second.

The enterprise known as “post-Holocaust theology,” which encapsulated this theological crisis, began in earnest in 1966 with the publication of Richard Rubenstein’s After Auschwitz, a book that argued that the Holocaust made traditional belief in God’s covenant with Israel untenable. This initiated a veritable cottage industry of Jewish reflections on the Holocaust and the Jewish tradition by scholars, theologians, and historians such as Emil Fackenheim, Eliezer Berkowitz, Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, Steven T. Katz, Gershon Greenberg, Zachary J. Braiterman, and Eliezer Schweid among many others. In general, it has been argued that the notion of a rupture of Jewish faith after the Holocaust was viewed not solely through the horror of the event, but by the combination of the tragedy and secular and historicist notions common to modernity. That is, the Holocaust was what it was because it was viewed and processed through modern lenses. To quote Emmanuel Levinas about a related matter, “Biblical criticism can only damage a faith that has already been weakened.”

Few traditionalists wrote about the Holocaust in any systematic way. The traditional, and ultra-traditional, mind-set, it has been argued, lives in what Jacob Neusner called “paradigmatic thinking”—a belief that all events correspond to a predetermined notion of covenant, even if that correspondence may be veiled from view. Neusner believed that “paradigmatic thinking,” and thus the traditional model of the covenant, became impossible with the introduction of historicism. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi sums up “paradigmatic thinking” quite nicely in his seminal book Zakhor:, “What has occurred now is similar to the persecutions of old, and all that happened to the forefather has happened to their descendants. Upon the former already the earlier generations composed selihot and narrated the events. It is all one.” This is, of course, a play on a popular rabbinic dictum “the acts of the fathers are signs for their children.” (Midrash Tanhuma, 9). We live in a world of reward and punishment not totally of our own making. “It is all one.”

For post-Holocaust theologians, the Holocaust could not fit into this paradigm. More strongly, the belief that it could, for some, might itself be blasphemous. Jewish historian Amos Funkenstein notes in his essay about the Holocaust, “To the most courageous among recent theologians, the very meaningless of the Holocaust is itself, they say, a manner of faith, a positive religious act.” Believing in a covenantal God after the Holocaust was, for many, an act of “bad faith.” This notion of rupture was not solely the product of