The story of Polish Jewry begins with the legend of Esterke, the beautiful Jewish mistress of Poland’s King Casimir in the 1300s, who convinced the king to invite her people to live in Poland, under his protection, out of his love for her. And in 1334 he did. Some say she embroidered the curtains, with fire-breathing guardians, that covered the ark in a Crakow shul. She now rests forever in Lublin.
What followed in Poland is a legend all its own, six centuries of the mystical and the muddy, shtetls and pogroms; yeshivas and restrictive political edicts; by the 20th century as many as three million “Yiddn” were about to vanish into night and fog.
Imagine that final summer of August 1939; Jewish children in Poland preparing for a school year that never happened.
By 1939, even before the war, writes Bernard Wasserstein in “On the Eve: The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War” (Simon & Schuster), European Jewry was already destroyed every which way but physically. With the anti-Semites across the continent stepping up their persecution, Jews, who famously married young, were putting off marriage or not getting married at all, for weddings are about optimism and the hesitancy to marry reflects pessimism. Those who could leave, mostly single men, did. By 1931, writes Wasserstein, the average age of marriage for Polish Jewish women was 27. In Eastern Europe overall, “for the first time in modern history,” he writes, there were “large numbers of never-married women. In Belarus in 1939, for example, for every 1,000 unmarried Jewish men in their 20s, there were 1,687 unmarried Jewish women.”
Wasserstein notes that in 1934 there were two main yeshiva systems in Poland with a combined 15,900 students in 167 yeshivas; a relatively meager total in a community of three million, but a community of diminishing resources with other things on its mind. To put the numbers in perspective, at the recent Siyum HaShas at Met Life Stadium in New Jersey, celebrating the completion of Daf Yomi page-a-day study of Talmud, the more than 90,000 Jews in that stadium were nearly six times greater than the entirety of Poland’s prewar yeshiva population.
It would have taken 65 stadiums of equal size to seat the Six Million.
Prewar Jewish life was withering. Wasserstein discovered data showing that “Most European Jewish children in the 1930s attended the cheder only part-time or abandoned it altogether in favor of secular state schools. … In Poland, at least 70 percent received their primary education in state schools. … In Rumania, Yiddish schools died out altogether by 1939, though there were 60 Hebrew schools affiliated with the Tarbut network,” a Zionist-Hebraist group, that by 1937 was already in “despair.”
Nevertheless, “The pride of Polish Orthodoxy,” writes Wasserstein, “was Rabbi Meir Shapiro’s Lublin yeshiva.” It opened in 1930, not far from Esterke's grave. Rav Shapiro was perhaps the most optimistic Jew in Poland. At a time when yeshiva attendance was declining, buildings were mostly shabby and hungry students were at the mercy of communal invitations to meals, Rav Shapiro opened a grand six-story 120-room yeshiva at the upscale address of 57 Lubitrovska, with a large dormitory, dining room and a 40,000-volume library.
Less than 10 years later those 40,000 books would be burned in a bonfire, while a German army band played to drown out the Jewish screams.
Rav Shapiro was only 36 years old in 1923 when he conceived of Daf Yomi. A yeshiva student’s day of normative Talmud study already extended into the night, but Rav Shapiro hoped to encourage the increasing number of Jews outside the yeshiva to believe that what once was unfathomable (reading the entire Talmud) was possible. But Rav Shapiro’s speech to the convention, preserved by Agudah, indicates he was not just interested in education but in escape.
It was a time when Orthodox Jews, as much as anyone, were desperate to leave Europe, only to be told by many rabbis that America was treif; Zionism was, too; so it was best to remain inside the cozy European volcano they called home. Rav Shapiro asked the convention, what if we knew that Jews in New York, or even Brazil or Tokyo, were learning the very same daf [page] we’re learning in Lublin? Then the “outside” wouldn’t seem threatening but welcoming.
“Imagine how marvelous it will be,” the young man told the Agudah convention. “A Jew is on a ship and under his arm he carries a Maseches [Tractate] Brachos. He is to sail on a two-week journey. … Each day, he opens the Gemara and studies the daf of that day, and when he arrives in New York he discovers, to his great delight, that many other Jews are studying the very same daf! Joyfully, he sits down with them and enters a lively Talmudic discussion. … And suppose [a Jew] migrates [to] Brazil, or far-off Japan.” He’ll find his way to a shul or study hall and, imagine, “a group of Jews learning the very same daf. … Can there be a better way of bringing Jewish hearts together?”
What other Polish rabbi was imagining Brazil or Japan? But by the first Siyum HaShas in 1930, Rav Shapiro didn’t see a welcoming world but a world closing in. “The last tractate,” before the Siyum, he said, is Tractate Nidda. The root of the word nidda is nad [to wander]. When,” he cried, “will this long galus [exile] end? When will we finally be finished with the mesechta (tractate) of wandering?”
He died in 1933, only 46. Hitler was already dictator, and by Aug. 1, 1936, Hitler was arguably at the peak of his international credibility with the opening of the Berlin Olympics.
In August 1939, the Zionist Congress was meeting in Geneva, when word came of the Hitler-Stalin pact. War seemed inevitable and imminent, days away. The congress adjourned early, notes Wasserstein, so delegates could get back to their homes before war would close the borders.
The future was beyond imagination, but Chaim Weizmann was already speaking to the survivors, telling the congress: The “she’earit ha-pleitah [the surviving remnant] will continue to work, to fight, to live until better days to come.”
The mood, adds Wasserstein, “was one of deep depression and anxiety.” A Hebraist, Weizmann closed the congress in Yiddish, as if a farewell to European Yiddishkeit. “I have no prayer but this,” said Weizmann, “that we shall meet again, alive.”
According to Wasserstein, many in the hall had tears in their eyes.
Nine years later, Weizmann was sworn-in as the first president of the State of Israel, and 76 years to the day after that Berlin Stadium roared for Hitler, on another Aug. 1 there were 90,000 Jews in an American stadium, celebrating Rav Shapiro’s Daf Yomi.