May 16 is the symbolic date of the end of the Warsaw ghetto uprising and the ghetto’s annihilation.
Rabbi Menachem Ziemba was born in the Warsaw suburb of Praga on the 13th of Elul 5643 (1883), He was known from an early age as a genius in Torah. Orphaned from his father at the age of nine, he was raised by his Grandfather who encouraged him to travel to the Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Arye Leib Alter author of the Sfas Emes, and for the rest of his life remained a Gerrer chasid. He spent many years writing original Torah thoughts and by 1939 had written about 10000 pages of manuscripts. He eventually became known as one of the greatest Torah scholars, and was in regular correspondence with the leading Rabbis and scholars throughout Europe.
After his marriage he lived in his Father-in-law’s house at 34 Brukowa St. in Praga. In 1935 he was appointed Chief Rabbi of Warsaw.
After the German occupation of Warsaw, Rabbi Ziemba volunteered to join the “council of elders” but other leading Rabbis were opposed to this. Instead, R’ Shimshon Stockhammer and R’ Dovid Shapiro were nominated. They were in contact with, and advised by, the Rabbis’ committee headed by R’ Menachem.
When a plan was devised to rescue the Gerrer Rebbe and his family, Rabbi Ziemba was to be included but due to complications was unable to leave Warsaw.
In the winter of 1940, he was detained by the Germans who tortured him in order to force him to reveal details of wealthy Jews. He refused to reveal any details and was badly beaten. The Germans then went to his house where a number of Jews had gathered in order to collect a ransom in order to free R’ Menachem. The Germans took the ransom money and freed Rabbi Ziemba.
He subsequently moved from one location to another until the ghetto was created. As it was impossible for him to take his thousands of pages of manuscript from house to house, he hid most of them in an attic at 15 Karmelicka street.
With the closing of the ghetto, the committee ceased to function. Rabbi Ziemba was the only prominent Rabbi to maintain his position in Warsaw. He worked to help destitute and starving inhabitants of the ghetto and advised on many other activities, such as an underground network of religious education. Matters of halacha were placed before him to decide, and at one point he decreed that people may be forced to give charity. Even during the deportations of 1942, he never ceased his continual Torah study.
During the deportations, his wife and daughters were sent to Treblinka. Broken by the capture of his family, he immersed himself in study. In order to avoid deportation, he was officially registered as a clerk in the archives department of the Judenrat. While working there he wrote a book on Kiddush Hashem according to the commentaries of the Rambam and the Raavad.
On Rosh Hashana of 1942 prayers were arranged in the apartment of R’ Menachem at Pawia 4. Rabbi Shimon Stockhammer, R’ Dovid Shapiro and R’ Yehuda Leib Orlean were in attendance.
R’ Menachem was forced to relocate yet again, and moved to an apartment on Muranowska street. He managed to build a small Sukka for the holiday which “thousands” of Jews passed through in order to fulfil the mitzva. On the eve of the holiday Dr Hillel Seidman sent him one of the three esrogim that had been smuggled to Warsaw from Switzerland. Holiday prayers were held in his apartment and hundreds of Jews came during the holiday to say the blessing of the four species (Arba Minim). This angered some of the neighbours who were members of the Jewish police, and R’ Menachem was imprisoned. Through the effort of R’ Issac Ber Akerman, was he released on condition that he move immediately. He then moved to 37 Nalewki street.
During a meeting at his apartment during the on the last day of the Chanuka holiday of 1942-43, the Ezras Torah Society was established to aid Rabbis and yeshiva students who had arrived from the villages surrounding Warsaw in the winter of 1942. Rabbi Yosef Koenigsberg of the Lublin yeshiva had organised them into groups and established yeshiva in a cellar in Mila street. R’ Tzvi Aryeh Frumer and R’ Aryeh Leib Landau gave lectures. Rabbi Menachem Ziemba was chosen as the head of the society. Other figures included R’ Shimshon Stockhammer, R’ Zisha Freidman and R’ Yaakov Trokenheim. Money was raised from the Joint Distribution Committee and individuals in order to provide for those learning Torah. Many Jews, including non-religious, responded generously to the appeal.
According to survivors’ testimony, R’ Menachem visited these illegal yeshivas on Nalewki, Nowolipie and Mila streets, testing and encouraging the students.
After Chanuka, R’ Avraham and R’ Yitzhak Meir Ziemba received information that there would be an “aktion” in the houses on Nalewki street. They hurried to move Rabbi Menachem and his sons to their own apartment at 7 Kupiecka street, where he stayed until the final liquidation.
A visa for Paraguay was sent to R’ Menachem from Switzerland but he declined to use it. On one occasion R’ Menachem, R’ David Shapiro and R’ Shimshon Stockhammer were offered the chance to escape. With the help of the Catholic clergy, the remaining three Rabbis of Warsaw could be saved. They unanimously refused to abandon the Jews of the ghetto.
In the final period of the ghetto, many people sought the wisdom of R’ Menachem. He advised those who could escape and hide outside the ghetto to do so, those who could not should hide in bunkers. When the Germans ordered the workshops to be transferred to the Lublin area, R’ Menachem, together with other Rabbis, warned not to obey the order.
Shortly before Pesach of 1943 Rabbi Ziemba met with a group of Rabbis that included R’ Goldshlag, R’ Aryeh Leib Landau, R’ Eliezer Itche Meisel and R’ David Ber. They decreed a public fast for the eve of Rosh Chodesh Nisan, and declared that money should be collected to buy food for the needy for the upcoming holiday. A special prayer was composed, and on the day, Jews gathered to pray, fast and give charity.
With Pesach approaching, he established a committee to procure wine, matza and other necessities. Leading the committee were R’ Yaakov Trokenheim, R’ Yosef Konigsberg and R’ Eliezer Gershon Freidenson. The food was stored at the home of the Novominsker Rebbe at number 4 Kupiecka street. R’ Menachem organised the distribution of the wine and matza etc.
On the eve of Pesach, the ghetto was surrounded in preparation for the final action. The Germans entered and were met by resistance from the Jewish fighting groups. R’ Menachem, together with approximately one hundred people hid in a “bunker” in the attic. That evening, the first night of Pesach, Rabbi Ziemba left the hideout and conducted the traditional Seder meal in his apartment. Each person had a previously prepared small piece of matza, in order to fulfil the mitzva.
On Shabbes the 19th of Nisan (24th April), as the Germans proceeded to destroy and systematically burn the ghetto, the flames reached Kupiecka. As the fire neared the bunker in which they were hiding, R’ Menachem and his family were forced to flee. They decided to try and run across the street to number 4 to where R’ Dov Ber of Ozrakow and others were hiding. While crossing, R’ Menachem was shot by Germans waiting in the ruins of Nalewki 39. Those present were not immediately sure if he had been killed or not.
That evening, under the cover of darkness, the body of Rabbi Menachem Ziemba was retrieved and buried in the courtyard of Kupiecka 4. A small funeral service was held, with the intention to transfer the body to a cemetery at a later date. A few of those who attended survived the war.
An aerial photograph of Warsaw from 1935 shows Kupiecka street. The yellow point is number 7 where Rabbi Menachem Ziemba lived at the time of the ghetto uprising. The red point is where he was buried, in the courtyard of number 4.In 1958 relatives of R’ Menachem learned that the Polish government was beginning to build in the area where the ghetto once stood. The persuaded the government to conduct a search in order to recover the remains of R’ Menachem. Ultimately, the grave was discovered, and the body reinterred in Jerusalem in the Har Hamenuchot cemetery.
David Berman – Talmudic scholar, researcher of Jewish texts. Born in Sydney, Australia. Studied in Gateshead Yeshiva in the United Kingdom where he obtained his rabbinical ordination. After relocating to Israel, he lectured and continued his studies of Jewish law and classical Hebrew works in various institutions specialising in in-depth analysis of halacha, among them the Tzanz Talmudic Academy. He resides in Warsaw.
Ahron Sorsky, Toldos Rabenu (printed in the end of Chidushei HaGarmaz)
R’ Avraham Ziemba, HaSeder Haachron (printed in the end of Chidushei HaGarmaz)
Hillel Seidman, The Warsaw Ghetto Diaries
Photo: Kupiecka St. as seen from Zamenhofa St. On the left – residential building at 42, Zamenhofa St. /18, Kupiecka St. (Stroop’s Report)