Remembering Warsaw; remembering Herzl

Remembering Warsaw; remembering Herzl

Seth Ward

University of Wyoming

This is based on a talk offered to the East Denver Orthodox Synagogue, Friday evening April 19 2013, 10 Iyyar, 5773.

Today, April 19, 2013, is the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and also the Tenth of Iyyar, marked in Israel as Yom Herzl. “Herzl Day.” I will talk briefly about the Uprising, then return to Herzl.

Passover was “early” this year—actually earlier than it ever was in the 20th century. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began on Passover, and we remember it on Yom HaZikkaron la-HaShoah vela-Gevurah, already a few weeks ago. The destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto was supposed to be a birthday present for Der Führer. The Germans who entered the Ghetto on April 19 1943 were surprised that the Jews had any arms at all, and found that their “birthday present” touched off the largest Jewish uprising of the war, and one of the largest uprisings of any city in the war.

This year, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the basis of the theme introduced into Israel observances: Yad Vashem interpreted the theme as “Defiance and Rebellion.” But the American remembrance of the Holocaust did not focus on the Uprising very much, and when they were mentioned at all typically it was to say something like the Ghetto fighters “wanted to determine their own death” or to kill Nazis. Hirsch Glick, who penned Zog nit Keinmol (Shir ha-partizanim) after hearing of the revolt, may have said it best: the revolt said Mir zeinen do Anahnu po in the well known Hebrew translation–but he also made sure we knew this was a song sung mit naganes in die hent – “with pistols in hand.”

(I should note that I have a modest family connection: my late father’s cousin, Yisrael Kanal, was the commander of the central Warsaw district in the revolt. Kanal escaped as the revolt was winding down, but was captured and died at Auschwitz. So I grew up with at least an awareness of the Revolt. I wrote about the Uprising in a previous posting: )

But today is also Yod Iyyar (10th day of the Hebrew month Iyyar), the day set aside as Yom Herzl. The Knesset established Yom Herzl in 2004 (the same year that saw the official adoption of Hatikvah as the national anthem, and many of us may remember the commitment to a “Jewish State” as well as a democratic one in the light of the Second Intifada). The date was the birthday, not the yahrtzeit (anniversary of the death) of Theodore Herzl (1860-1904).

I wonder whether Herzl would have imagined how important resistance, defiance, and “pistols in hand” would become. Many things he envisioned came to pass—including the theme of “We are Here!”—but he envisioned a peaceful coexistence that so far seems to have eluded realization.

The official observance in Israel is on Sunday, postponed because of the Sabbath, and, according to the statute, involves studying and remembering Herzl in schools, in the IDF, in a scholarly conference, and public observance. I cannot tell how widespread the observance actually is.

In preparation for this talk, on a whim, I typed Herzl into, and came across a fascinating essay by the noted Posek (religious decisor) Rabbi Yehiel Yaakov Weinberg (1884-1966), often known as the Seride Esh after an important collection of religious response. He had come to Germany from the Tzarist empire, earning a Doctorate with his studies on the Masoretic Text, and teaching at the Hildesheimer Rabbinic Seminary—Wikipedia notes that among his students were Eliezer Berkovits and the Rebbe (Zal) Menahem Mendel Schneerson. He was in Warsaw during the Nazi period; his Russian citizenship sent him to a Prisoner of War camp rather than to Treblinka. After the War he lived in Switzerland.

The essay was entitled Herzl Ish Hadat “Herzl, Man of Religion.”and was first published in 1935, and printed several times in Hebrew and in Yiddish. In the essay, he cites one of his teachers anonomously, who said “Herzl Baal teshuvah Hu “Herzl was a Baal Teshuva,” –a returnee to Jewish practice—although he had not yet found his proper way. He says of the Haredim (“ultra-orthodox”) who fought so hard against his worldview Hem gam lo yakhlu lehishtahrer mehevlei hakesem bahem nimshekhu acharaiv “They too were not able to free themselves from the magical bonds through which they were drawn after him.” And the Seride Esh ends his article with a ringing appreciation of Herzl, which he further developed when the piece was reprinted in HaTzofeh in 1952, a few years after the founding of the State.

One of Herzl’s skills (sorely needed by all Israeli politicians) was his ability to negotiate the difficult playing field of envies and jealousies—among Jewish groups and between international empires. In his diary, he described the experience as like “an eggdance with eggs invisible”—Within the Jewish world, the eggs referred to the orthodox, modernists, the Hovevei Tzion, and Rothchschild and those in Palestine dependent on his support. On the international scene, he referred to the Russian government (which could not be praised, due to its miserable record regarding Jews, but could not be offended either), to Turkey and the Sultan, and to the various Christian denominations who had such a great stake in Palestine.

Today we probably think most about Herzl’s coverage of the Dreyfus Trial, which changed the highly assimilated Herzl from an assimilated lawyer, journalist and dramatist to a proponent of a political solution to Antisemitism; and to his pamphlet The Jewish State in which he lays out his argument for a Jewish State, and some of the institutions he envisioned would be necessary to create it. But his utopian novel Altneuland “Old New Land” may indeed have been more influential. Herzl wrote it in 1902 and the novel depicts a projected Palestine, in place by 1922. Although The Jewish State emphasizes sovereignty, Altneuland does not stress this at all, rather envisions the new community as “Die Neue Gesellschaft”—the new society, based on communal and socialist principles, the dignity of labor, freedom and equality—but still under charter to the Turkish sovereign. His New Society included Christians and a Muslim notable, Rashid Bey, whose argument for the benefits of Zionism sounds just like the points made by Herzl in The Jewish State, and for that matter in the Israel Declaration of Independence, and indeed made to this very day by those who argue that the progress made by everyone in this enlightened society justifies the Jewish State.

What about Herzl as a “Baal Teshuva?” – in the novel, Fredreich Loewenberg, a totally assimilated Viennese Jew, is disheartened and at the end of his rope. He gives a large bit of his wealth to a poor Jew and leaves society for twenty years, traveling to a distant island, but stopping in Jaffa on the way. He returns 20 years later and finds a vibrant community in Haifa and northern Palestine. He is something of a Baal Teshuva himself, in that he attends a Passover Seder for the first time in years, and participates in other aspects of Jewish observance, and talks about going to the newly rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. But his Seder included participation of Rashid Bey, the indifferent Christian Kingscourt, and a few Christian clerics, which was probably more visionary and surprising in 1902 than it is today; and the highlight was not the fairly traditional service but the audio message—played on a wax cylinder towards the end of the evening—that extolled the socialist and economic goals of the New Society.

The young proponent of the utopian vision, Littwak, could be seen as religious, at least in a moderate way; certainly he was religious in Vienna. While the novel might be seen as reinvigorating some observance among secular Jews, the figure of Rabbi Geyer reflects the old ways. The German geyer apparently refers to a carrion-eating bird; the Rabbi is unwilling to adapt, and he is defeated in the elections for leadership of the New Society.

In a linguistic issue relevant today, Herzl refers to the Land as Palestine (this was well before the 1960s and 1970s when “Palestinians” came to be used only to refer to Arabs). But the crucially important translation into Hebrew by Nahum Sokoloff uses both Eretz Yisrael and Palestina. (Sokoloff’s translation is also available in full on line, as is the English translation and the original German,) In a quick check, it seems to me that Sokoloff has Littwak use Eretz Yisrael more often, whereas Lowenberg uses Palestina. I have not checked this very carefully, not have I looked for academic studies of this topic.

Sokoloff’s translation was not called Eretz Yeshana-hadasha but Tel Aviv. It appeared in 5662=1902—within a year after the German original.

Altneuland is peaceful in the extreme: no evidence of any need to defend the New Society by force of arms. There is a reference to the memory of the Jewish badge, but no hint of the World Wars or for that matter the Holocaust that would erupt before Herzl’s vision of a State was realized.

Herzl’s vision explicitly talked about the Jews now no longer saying “this is my last step” but proud to be where they were: the Mir Zeinen Do of Hirch Glick’s lyric—even if he never envisioned the imperative for mit naganes in die hent. “pistols in the hands.”

It’s worth a read today, and we’ll do well to consider Herzl’s take on the nature of the society he envisioned for Palestine, on relations between the faiths in Israel, on “A Jewish and Democractic State” and many other issues.

Herzl’s famous visit to Jerusalem is often described as unfortunate and unsuccessful: he certainly did not endear himself to the local Jews. They complained about his arrival on the Sabbath, and being gale risha (begiluy rosh) — (I looked at a number of responses on – this was from HaIsh al HaHoma), One of the critics of the new museum that celebrates his life, at the entrance to Har Herzl, notes that it avoids this chapter in its narrative—as it avoids the unfortunate history of his entire family, so many of whom met tragic ends, including a suicide from a bridge in Washington DC; except to mention a son who was sent to Treblinka.

Mordechai Kirschblum, at the time the leader of the American Mizrahi, said in his presidential address in 1955 “I believe with complete faith (ani ma’am­in be’emuna shelemah) that Zionism was a divine implement makhshir eloki), and that Dr. Benjamin Zeev Herzl was a Shaliah sent by providence, especially to people who had not been educated within traditional Judaism.” Had Zionism been largely a religious affair, the majority of the Jewish world would have opposed it, and labeled Zionists as batlanim uclericalim “timewasters and clericalists”). (another source viewed on!)

Herzl tried mightily to keep secular, modern orthodox, haredi, Zionist and even lukewarm -Zionists together, at least within the Zionist movement. I suspect that Kirschblum and the Seridei Esh were right: Herzl may have been only the most subtle of Baale teshuva, but his legacy strengthened Torah, indeed, despite their rejection of his worldview, even the Haredim were drawn along almost magically by his ideas, and influenced by them. Indeed, perhaps we can, with Rabbi Weiinberg, think about him not merely as an assimilated Jew, but one whose devotion to solving the Jewish problem, made him a religious figure as well.

It is an honor and duty to remember him on Yom Herzl.

Shabbat Shalom.

Seth Ward

Associate Lecturer in Islam and Judaism

Dept. of Religious Studies, University of Wyoming


  • Some references:

Altneuland in English:


בנימין זאב הרצל תרגם נחום סוקולובTel Aviv, translation by Nahum Sokolov  תרס”ב

German original, in “German” alphabet characters.

Table of contents for Marc Shapiro’s edition of Rabbi Y Y Weinberg’s writings is here:

 כתבי הגאון רבי יחיאל יעקב וויינברג – חלק ב – וויינברג, יחיאל יעקב – שפירא, מלך

The essay is called הרצל איש הדת

Herzl’s visit to Jerusalem: For this talk, I read about it in Ha-Ish al HaHoma, a three volume biography of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld (d. 1932). The description I read and referenced, albeit briefly and without much comment, was by Rabbi A. Shuraqi, published in Hayom, Erev Rosh Hashanah 5725. There are quite a few pages in this volume that talk about Herzl, but I looked at it only briefly. Most of the references are in the same vein. The section is called “Herzl’s first appearance in Jerusalem.” There does not seem to be anything in this section about R. Yosef Chaim or him interacting with Herzl (beyond Rabbi Sonnenberg’s belief in Torah and Mitzvot rather than Zionism). It is a good intro, however to the next section, which talks about R. Kook’s rather different attitude towards Zionism.

A quick internet search found this passage in English

Apparently the first footnote in an abridged English version of the book, in which Herzl writes about an idea in his diary about leading Jews to baptism, and recalls lighting a Christmas tree. This was in the 1890s when he had already begun to strive so actively against Antisemitism. And, Herzl says that he himself and the leaders of the movement will remain Jewish. This footnote is found in the Hebrew on vol. 3 p. 63 of HaIsh al HaHoma. I suppose that Herzl’s practice in the early and mid-1890s makes his pathway from 1897 (when he recited the Shelishi aliyah in Basel) to Altneuland in 1902, (when he has his characters attend a Seder and build a Temple in Jerusalem), something of the path of a Baal Teshuvah, as Rabbi Weinberg described.  

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