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16 Tammuz 5766 - July 12, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
The Nazi Pogrom on My Father's Seforim Library

by R' Yosef Friedensohn

On a recent Rosh Hashonoh, for some strange reason, my memory was stirred of a rather incidental episode that took place sixty-six years ago (1940/5700), something that happened during one of the first few weeks of the German invasion of Poland. Perhaps my memory was nudged because I prayed in a shteibel which was graced by a large number of beautiful bookcases containing specially bound volumes.

I have an admitted weakness for seforim, and my admiration of those volumes must have prodded my memory of one of my confrontations with the accursed people, that was directly connected with seforim.

Actually, that one was not my first run-in with the representatives of the `master race.' The first time had taken place several days before, when they had seized me on the street and conscripted me, together with other Jews, for forced labor. I had been brutally beaten, one of many treated savagely in this manner. I can hardly remember details of that incident, but what I do recall in particular is the other event previously mentioned which is completely connected with seforim, an incident which has much to convey to readers.


It was during November, 1939. I recall the date since it was a few days before we fled from Lodz to Warsaw. We were the object of a `visit' from savage Nazi officers, a visit which was routine and widespread and usually paid just to pillage and plunder.

All signs pointed to the fact that it was the German commanders who instructed their officers and soldiers, and especially their policemen, to raid Jewish homes. These, like their owners, were considered fair play, free-for-all, and legitimate prey — and their property, there for the taking. The Nazis paid their calls day after day, and did not stop at mere appropriation but left many a victim bruised and beaten, wallowing in blood.

Two German policemen stormed into our home without waiting for us to open the door. They bashed it in with their hobnail boots and demanded money. My father Hy'd, R' Eliezer Gershon Friedensohn one of the heads of the Bais Yaakov movement in Poland and a prolific, gifted writer and renowned educator was, fortunately, out having joined a clandestine minchah minyan which was taking place by neighbors on the fifth floor of our building. My mother had, apparently, prepared herself for such a call, for she immediately proffered them a purse containing one hundred German marks.

At first, the officers were not overly brutal and, remembering their `manners,' they removed all the money except for ten marks which they handed back to my mother together with the purse. But then they began searching the breakfront and silver closets, an event for which my mother had likewise been prepared. A few days earlier, she had removed all the silver valuables — the Shabbos candlesticks, Chanukah menorah, goblets — and hidden them somewhere. Disappointed, the Germans were about to leave empty-handed when their gaze fell upon our two huge bookcases.

There was nothing there that should have interested them, and I was surprised to see them eye them with interest studying the Hebrew lettering on the backs of the seforim which they surely could not read. A few moments passed before one of them fixed his sight upon my father's new Vilna Shas which he had bought that summer. The outsized volumes must have aroused their curiosity, for suddenly, one of them removed one and shouted at me, "Come here, you!"

Terrified, I approached. "Can you read this?" he asked me.

I nodded affirmatively, stuttering the information that it was the Talmud.

At the sound of these words, both officers leaped back, as if they had been scalded with boiling water. The first one began screaming at the top of his lungs, his face crimson, his feet stomping the ground. He threw the volume to the ground, trampling it in rage. The two began removing all the volumes and throwing them violently to the ground and stamping on them with their hobnailed boots, attempting to rip them apart.

This activity did not satisfy their blood lust for when they saw that they could not tear them with their feet, they slung their bayonets off their shoulders and began puncturing them. The points and blades were very sharp and succeeded in ripping most of the volumes. But this did not yet assuage their rage for they took the remaining ones and flung them out the window down to the courtyard.

I don't recall how long this terrible scene played itself out, perhaps during the space of half-an-hour. When they finally tired of the exertion of piercing the texts and trampling them underfoot, they turned their attention to the smaller volumes in the bookcase. They selected the ones with the more ornate bindings which my father had purchased together with the Shas, a few weeks before the outbreak of the war.

To this day, I am baffled by the fact that they did not force me, a young lad standing by, to help them in their destructive project. Perhaps they wanted to reserve the pleasure all for themselves. At any rate, after having succeeded in emptying half of the bookcase of its contents, one of them shouted, "Enough for today."

They took a few volumes along with them, perhaps to boast to their friends and, with a vociferous promise of, "We'll be back!" they finally left.


Even now, I can still feel chills when I remember how pale my father's face turned when he descended from the neighbor's apartment after minchah and saw the desecration of his bookcase and its holy contents. Ima apparently did not grasp the extent of this tragedy. She was only grateful to Hashem that he had not been at home when the travesty had taken place and that the Nazis had not been able to vent their hatred upon him. That is what I felt, as well.

I couldn't understand why they had let me be and had poured out their hatred upon the holy volumes. It had not been that way in other homes where they had preferred to beat the inhabitants, to torture, if not kill, them. In my mother's eyes, this was a miracle.

But when Abba saw the devastation, he began trembling all over. It took the whole night for him to calm down somewhat, and this only after we had gathered up the torn and trodden seforim and put them in a genizah bag, and placed the ones that could still serve back in the bookcase. But even after this, he was unable to shut an eye all night. It was probably during that horrendous night that he began thinking about leaving Lodz and fleeing to Warsaw.

For the next few days, no one spoke about the destruction of those seforim. Abba was transformed, all of a sudden, into a taciturn man. Something inside had taken place during that long sleepless night, perhaps evoking a reaction like that of Aharon to the death of his two sons: Vayidom Aharon — he was silent. He mourned his Shas, of which only four or five volumes remained intact. The loss was like that of a child, G-d forbid . . .


The situation in Lodz worsened until it became unbearable. My father z'l consulted the Rebbe of Zichlin zt'l and they reached the decision that he should take his family and move to Warsaw. He told my father that he, too, was planning to do so since all indications showed that Lodz was going to be more dangerous a place than Warsaw, where there were fewer Germans.

A few weeks later we arrived in Warsaw. Needless to say, we left our half-empty bookcase behind. At this point, even the contents did not really belong to us any more . . . We were refugees in Warsaw, and so long as we could escape being mobilized for forced labor by the Germans, we were determined to do so. There was plenty of time to talk in Warsaw. The atmosphere was somewhat calmer and I was able to discuss the matter of the seforim with Abba at length.

I asked Abba if he could fathom what had happened when the Germans had stormed into our home. They had, to be sure, robbed Ima of her hundred marks, but they must not have been the worst of the lot compared to other gendarmes who, when breaking into a Jewish home acted much more brutally and savagely. By us they were relatively calm. They had returned ten of the marks and not even beaten anyone.

In the light of this behavior how, I asked, could he explain their fiendish treatment of the seforim? The very sight of the Hebrew letters seemed to have triggered a demonic reaction which had erupted volcano-like at the mention of `Talmud.' They had gone berserk, shouting, cursing, kicking, stomping and trampling. What was the explanation?

"I, in fact, do understand their behavior," said Abba. "I understand it well. Our Jewish bookcase and its holy contents are like thorns in their eyes and bones in their gullets. This is because we Jews are the antithesis of them, and it is our holy works that make it so.

"What is the highest ideal by Jews?" Abba continued his monologue. "What is our most hidden secret desire? Peace! At every turn a Jew makes, the first word he utters is `Sholom.' He encounters another Jew, even an unfamiliar one, and he greets him with `Peace.' He likewise welcomes the angels which accompany him from shul on Friday night with a `Sholom aleichem.'

"Kohanim bless the people with peace, as do fathers their sons. If you examine our prayers, you will find the same theme repeated three times a day. The Kaddish also concludes with a wish for peace. One of the ultimate praises which we give to the A-mighty is, `He makes peace . . . ' and `He blesses His people Yisroel with peace.'

"All this is their very antithesis. Whereas we pray for peace, yearn for it, exalt it — they praise war, whet their weapons and sharpen their military skills. They sing songs of battle, think about it, write poetry about it and march to that tempo in all they do.

"Blood is disgusting to us, abhorrent and repulsive. It is forbidden. We salt our meat to drain it of the last drop of blood.

"Even more, blood is connected to impurity. One of the cardinal sins is bloodshed, whereas by them, it is praiseworthy. The very color is beautiful to them. Blood does not frighten them. They have a thirst for it and some even revel in eating animal flesh alive.

"Jews excel in many attributes and traits. They despise those very values. Jews love chessed. It is one of our identifying traits: Merciful, bashful, and kindhearted. These very qualities are faults and shortcomings, signs of weakness and fearfulness. The greatest insult in the German language is the epithet `coward.' We Jews, however, declare, `Fortunate is the one who is forever fearful [spiritually speaking].' We praise the one who is ever apprehensive. The most laudable trait in Judaism is humility, while their hallmark is pride, arrogance, self importance and personal or national honor."

Abba continued and said to me, "Why are you so surprised about the pogrom which they perpetrated on our seforim? You read newspapers I know, and you must be aware that the Nazis began their political career by burning books. Not only our seforim, but also those that downgrade war and praise peace. They despise them and torched them all, including their own revered classics. They cast them into huge bonfires and removed them all from their libraries.

"In my eyes, there is nothing new in their anger against our holy works. The Germans know that all of our laudable characteristics, our yearning for peace, our love of chessed and truth — all these originate in and are propagated by our holy books. Everything refined, beautiful, praiseworthy, exalted by the intelligentsia of the outside world is based on our holy writings and philosophy, and they are aware that all this is blatantly, diametrically opposed to everything which they consider praiseworthy, good and enlightened."


I am not sure that I absorbed and understood the full significance of my father's words at the time he uttered them. It appears to me that I only began to comprehend and appreciate them many years later, after I came into closer contact with the Nazis and learned about their true temperament, and of their wickedness and murderous nature. I received my `education' while in Buchenwald, where I was also exposed to Nazi literature which is permeated with their philosophy of evil.

This took place in my last weeks in Buchenwald, at a time which the Block Elder of our barracks, a German communist prisoner, lent me several books from the library which was under his care. After I made my acquaintance with him and surprised and impressed him with my educated Schleswig high- German, he revealed to me that the S.S. appointed over the prisoners in our block had brought several dozen German propaganda books to distribute among the anti-Nazi German prisoners in our midst. He, however, had no intention of doing so.

"If you like," he offered, "I can bring you some," and forthwith, brought me a pile of Nazi literature. "You are a Jew. I am not afraid of your becoming a Nazi . . . " he said with a bitter smile.

Understandably enough, from the space of sixty years, there is not much that I can recall from what I read. But I do remember how impressed I had been by my father's wisdom and insight. After several years under the German boot, after the chapter of the Warsaw ghetto and internment in several camps, and in addition to my reading Nazi literature which philosophically and ideologically condoned all of their murderous, savage ambitions and all of the vile acts which they perpetrated — I was able to understand very well why they had so despised our seforim . . .

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