President Isaac Herzog addressed the Nożyk Synagogue in Warsaw today (Wednesday), as part of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 80th anniversary commemorations.
The following are President Herzog's full remarks:
In 1946, shortly after the end of the Second World War, my grandfather and namesake, the Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, Rabbi Dr. Yitzhak Isaac Halevi Herzog, born in Łomża, Poland, embarked on a search and rescue mission for our Jewish brothers and sisters, all across the rubble of a ravaged Europe. The soil was still covered in the ashes of the victims. When he looked around him, my grandfather stared into the void, into smoldering piles of silent stones: a testament to the terrible destruction. The lives of millions—men, women, and children, generations after generations of whole families—had come to an end. Entire family trees, uprooted, and chopped, and felled. In their stead were only dust and ashes. The chilling silence told the whole story.
In this synagogue, a survivor of a magnificent millennium-old Jewish history on Polish soil, the only one in Warsaw still standing, huddled a few dozen souls, “brands snatched from the fire” (Isaiah 7:4), at a tear-drenched occasion that was even filmed and documented. Here, in this place, a bloodstained Torah scroll was handed to my grandfather by the survivors, “seized by fear and trembling,” which he passed on to the man accompanying him, Rabbi Dr. David Kahane, who took it with him to Israel, for eternal memory. This Torah scroll was deposited in my neighborhood synagogue, the congregation founded by Rabbi Kahane, where it remains to this day.
On that moving occasion, the former cantor of the Great Synagogue of Warsaw, Moshe Koussevitzky, stood to recite the traditional Jewish prayer for the departed, “El Malei Rachamim,” “O God, who art full of compassion.” Only this time, the wording of the prayer was different from usual. It was different because my grandfather rewrote the traditional prayer recited here, so that it might express—if there were any way to express—the pain, the loss, and the grief. He rewrote it and appealed to God to grant perfect rest to our brothers and sisters, victims of the horrific Holocaust after the thousand cruel, painful, deathly blows they had suffered on this earth.
I stand before you today as the President of the State of Israel, the democratic nation-state of the Jewish People, the proud scion of a glorious Jewish family with roots all across Poland, in Łomża, Białystok, Zamość, and more. I stand here today, and in the name of my people, I recite the same prayer as my grandfather before me, in memory of our murdered brothers and sisters, the beloved and pleasant in their lives, and in their deaths never divided (Samuel II 1:23), who dared to believe, hope, and dream, even in the midst of devastation.
“O God, who art full of compassion, who dwellest on high, grant perfect rest on the wings of the Divine Presence, on the pinnacles of the holy and the pure, which shine like the radiance of the firmament, to the souls of the six million Jews, victims of the Holocaust, who were killed, suffocated, burned, and martyred by the German murderers and their accomplices from other nations. Therefore, may the compassionate one shelter them forever in the safety of His wings and bind their souls in the eternal bonds of life. God is their portion. May their resting place be in the Garden of Eden. And may they stand for their fate at the end of days. Let us say: Amen.”
Ladies and gentlemen, nearly three and a half million Jews lived in Poland on the eve of the Second World War. They were involved in all walks of life: in literature and the arts, in medicine and research, in Torah study and halakhic jurisprudence, in trade, in politics, in industry, in education, and in so much more. But when the Nazi monster of annihilation came to Poland, they were erased, eradicated, and with them—a magnificent generations-old history.
“Of all the Jewish concentrations in the world, the greatest was in Poland; and in Poland, the greatest was in Warsaw; and in Warsaw, on the corner of Nalevski and Gensha Street. This, of all places, is the center of the center of the Jewish world.” So wrote in his diary Hillel Zeidman, a Varsovian Jew. Here, on the soil of Warsaw, lived a Polish Jewish community—ornate, cohesive, faithful to their traditions, proud of their origins, and dedicated to their homeland.
This was home to Jews native to Poland for generations and others who came from nearby. At least five active Yiddish theaters operated in Warsaw alone; dozens of Jewish newspapers were published, and there were plentiful printing presses, hundreds of yeshivas and synagogues, youth movements, sports associations, libraries, clubs, and institutions of education, health, welfare, and culture. Charitable organizations. Hospitals. Orphanages.
From all over the world, Jews came to Warsaw and created a magnificent, bustling, vibrant community, bursting with life. Not a community of ghettoes and death. If we close our eyes for a moment, we can easily imagine this synagogue, on the holidays, during Shabbat prayers, at kiddush receptions, on communal days of joy—families upon families, parents, children, grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles. It was all obliterated. It was all erased.
There was, of course, a revolt: the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt. As you know, we have come here today, the Presidents of Poland, Germany, and Israel, from the historic and moving ceremony that upheld the heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto rebels eighty years ago. Those who against all odds, as death, no doubt, loomed above their heads, rose up and fought—not only for their dignity, but also for our dignity. For the dignity of the nation. For the dignity of man. For the dignity of all humankind.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was not the only revolt or form of resistance. Just as Jewish civilization, in Warsaw and beyond it, was rich and multifaceted before the Holocaust, so too was it intensely diverse during times of resistance and revolt. As the warrior of rebirth and Israeli poet Haim Gouri wrote: “Resistance was smuggling a loaf of bread; resistance was teaching in secret; resistance was writing and disseminating and warning, and shattering illusions. Resistance was rescuing a Torah scroll; resistance was forging papers; resistance was smuggling from land to land; resistance was chronicling events and concealing records.”
Ladies and gentlemen, our presence here, the three of us together, the Presidents of Poland, Germany, and Israel, carries immense, extraordinary meaning. It reflects a partnership between our nations and states, derived of course from a tragic history and a commitment to remember it, but confronting us all the time—all the time!—with the imperative to take responsibility for the present and future. To stand together against evil in all its forms, to delve together, openly and frankly, into disagreements and points of pain, and above all: to fight together against hatred, antisemitism, and racism, against any desecration of human dignity, and against anything that would menace us as a life-affirming, peace-loving human society. I pray that the deep commitment that the three of us express by coming here together today will underpin a powerful alliance that will bring value to our peoples and the whole of humanity.
I wish to take this opportunity to salute you and give you strength, dear leaders, parnassim, and members of the Jewish community in Poland, and to thank the president of the Jewish community of Poland, Mrs. Sylwia Kędzierska-Jasik, and of course also to you, dear Rabbi Michael Schudrich, for your work to preserve Jewish life in Poland, in its full richness and vitality. God will reward you. Success!
My dear Holocaust survivors, dear families, ladies and gentlemen. Avraham Lewin, a Hebrew teacher in the Warsaw Ghetto, wrote in his diary, and I quote: “Despite all the monstrous deeds, I still believe in humankind… A brighter future can come only after humanity understands the ancient, natural, self-evident truth that the highest form of sanctity on earth is life.” I too stand here before you today, fully believing that the prayer-soaked walls of this synagogue will continue to cry out to the gates of heaven and recall the power of the heroism of spirit and sanctity of life, echoing from one end of the earth to the other, the voice of the eternity of Israel.
As we read in the vision of the dry bones: “Thus said the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves and lift you out of the graves, O My people, and bring you to the land of Israel… I will put My breath into you and you shall live again, and I will set you upon your own soil” (Ezekiel 37:12-14).
May the memory of our brothers and sisters, victims of the terrible Holocaust, be bound in our nation’s hearts and in the hearts of all mankind, from generation to generation, forevermore.