Visiting Poland is an overwhelming experience. It is a country in which a Jewish community flourished for a thousand years which now serves as a mass memorial to European Jewry. It is impossible to comprehend the enormity of millions of lives taken and thousands of Jewish communities destroyed, so instead one attempts to focus on individual stories.
A visit to the Jewish cemetery of Warsaw is a case in point, with hundreds of thousands of Jewish graves dating back hundreds of years, including those of some of the greatest rabbis of Jewish history. On a visit to Warsaw, we stopped in front of a large gravestone with the name Adam Czerniaków (pronounced Cherniack; Nov. 30, 1880 to 23 July 1942).
He was buried in 1942, when most of Warsaw’s Jews were being transported to Treblinka. Of the 450,000 Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto, few merited a Jewish burial, and certainly not with such an impressive headstone.
Czerniaków was head of the Judenrat, the ghetto’s Jewish council that interfaced with the Germans and sought to provide some semblance of order and direction for the ghetto’s desperate Jews. It was the Judenrat that attempted to allocate living space as tens of thousands of Jews poured in every week during 1939 and 1940. How do you find space for 450,000 Jews in a small section of blocks meant for 20,000 people? And it was the Judenrat that attempted to allocate the meager food rations and work assignments that meant life, however temporarily, for those who managed to receive them. To be the head of the Judenrat was a thankless miserable job that Czerniaków attempted to fill as best he could, until the day he was found dead at his desk, a suicide note beneath his hand.
As the German authorities began preparing for mass deportations of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in July 1942, the Judenrat was ordered to provide lists of Jews and maps of their residences. On July 22, 1942, the Judenrat received instructions from the SS that all Warsaw Jews were to be “resettled” to the East. (Exceptions were made for Jews working in Nazi German factories, Jewish hospital staff, members of the Council, and the Jewish Ghetto police.)
Over the course of the day, Czerniaków was able to obtain exemptions for a handful of individuals, including sanitation workers, husbands of women working in factories, and some vocational students. Despite all his pleading, however, he was unable to obtain an exemption for the children of Janusz Korczak’s orphanage and other ghetto orphanages. The orders further stated that the deportations would begin immediately at the rate of 6,000 people per day, to be supplied by the Jewish Council and rounded up by the Ghetto Police. Failure to comply would result in immediate execution of 100 hostages, including employees of the Council itself and Czerniaków’s own wife.
By this time it had become clear to him that these hapless Jews were not going to a better place where work would mean freedom. The empty trains returning, a few escapes, and stories from bribed SS guards made it clear that the Nazis were sending the Jews of Poland to mass extermination.
Realizing that deportation meant death, Czerniaków went to plead for the orphans. When he failed, he returned to his office and took a cyanide capsule he had been keeping for such an occasion. His suicide note read: “I can no longer bear all this. My act will prove to everyone what the right thing to do is…”
The last entry in the journal, found open on his desk, read: “I hope the world will learn from this.”
Czerniaków wanted the Jews, and even the world, to see they could resist. He was calling out from the grave not to collaborate.
This week we begin reading Vayikra, the third book of the Torah. “And he called to Moshe, and Hashem spoke to him.” (Vayikra 1:1)
The word vayikra, to call, is the first word in this week’s parsha and is the name of both the parsha and the entire book. What is significant in the word vayikra (and He called) that it signifies the essence of this third book?
The word vayikra is written in the Torah with a small letter aleph at the end. The Baal Haturim explains that this is because Moshe, in his modesty, wanted to use the same word that is used when Hashem interacted with Balaam (the wicked non-Jewish prophet who appears in Bamidbar, the fourth book of Torah).
Vayakar is vayikra without the letter aleph, but Hashem specifically asked Moshe to use the word vayikra. Moshe was uncomfortable being placed at center stage, perhaps wanting to appear that he was not special, that he just “happened” to be in the right place at the right time. To signify Moshe’s humility, the aleph is written smaller to indicate that it wasn’t his first choice for usage.
But this is not the first time Hashem uses the word vayikra to call Moshe; it was used a number of times in the previous book, Shemot. So why is it that here the word vayikra bothers Moshe?
The first time Hashem calls Moshe at the burning bush (Shemot 3:4), the Torah uses the word vayikra, because Moshe is not just being called; he is receiving his calling. The shepherd is about to become the leader of the Jewish people for all time.
The book of Vayikra introduces the concept of a korban, a sacrificial offering. Until now, the word used by Torah to denote a sacrifice is zevach, which seems to emanate from the root zav (to flow), perhaps implying that all things flow from Hashem’s goodness.
The Ramban suggests that the root of the word korban (sacrifice) is karov (to be close), with Torah introducing the idea that Hashem desires a closer relationship with us as human beings.
The idea that people could come close to G-d was foreign to the ancient pagans. In Egypt and Babylon, Canaan and Persia, people were in awe or fear of their deities. Judaism teaches that G-d loves us, and we can come close to Him. Indeed, Rashi (Vayikra 1:1) suggests that vayikra is a language of endearment.
How can we come close to G-d? By understanding what He wants of us and what is our “calling.”
As Rabban Gamliel (the son of Rebbe Yehuda haNassi) teaches: “Make His will like your will” (Avot 2:4).
On our trip to Poland our tour guide, Rav Yitzchak Rubenstein, shared with us a detail that I had never considered and continues to haunt me. When Jews arrived at the Treblinka station they were immediately robbed (all their remaining belongings were taken), stripped, gassed and burned. This was the end of the line.
When the Rav Meir Alter, son of the Gerrer rebbe (Rav Avraham Mordechai Alter) arrived in Treblinka and understood where they were headed, he walked over to a German officer and asked him for his canteen. The officer was so surprised, he actually handed him his canteen whereupon he promptly washed negelvasser (ritually washed his hands) and said: “Let us fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying G-d’s name) in purity.” Clearly, he felt it was not just about whether and when you died, it was about how you chose to die.
I have struggled with this story for many reasons, but on one level, perhaps Rav Meir Alter wanted to share with us that every moment is a gift, and even a calling; it is up to us to choose how we should respond.
We are living in incredible times. Hashem is calling us to be partners in making this world a better place so that one day our children and grandchildren can grow up to live in a better world. May we all be blessed to hear our calling and merit to make a difference in whatever we believe Hashem asks of us.