Yet close to seven decades after the letter was written and Tzvi Elimelech Talmud of Lublin, Poland died in the gas chambers at Majdanek, his letter was read to an audience of thousands, as the emotional highlight of Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb’s annual Orthodox Union Tisha B’Av webcast on www.ou.org, and now archived on the site for future Tisha B’Avs or any other time.
“He never thought the letter would reach anyone. Now it has reached all of the Jewish people. He prayed the letter would survive and that memory of him would survive,” Rabbi Weinreb said, his voice choked with feeling.
Tzvi Elimelech Talmud was one of the “Forgotten Souls,” beginning with the Prophet Jeremiah (his name is well known but his life is not well understood), brought back to modern consciousness by Rabbi Weinreb in his 20th annual Tisha B’Av program, the last seven of which have been under OU auspices and webcast worldwide. As usual, the audience was not only large – numbering in the thousands – but widespread, encompassing 33 states and 16 countries -- including Israel, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Brazil, Germany, France, Chile, the Netherlands, Belgium, Argentina, Peru and Hungary, and various Canadian provinces.
As Rabbi Weinreb reported, the webcast was viewed by many groups – at synagogues, schools and camps – thus greatly expanding his audience.
His objective in this year’s presentation was to restore to memory Jews who made their mark as leaders of their people; or individuals such as Tzvi Elimelech, who lived as Jews and died as Jews and who left behind no particular reasons to remember them.
“One of the worst curses of all curses is to be forgotten,” Rabbi Weinreb explained. “Judaism is built on memory. Memory is a component of our holy days and our days of mourning. But we tend to repress our memories or to forget. One of the things we do on Tisha B’Av is to see that we don’t forget.”
It was through a remarkable archive, “Shem Olam” in Israel, that Tzvi Elimelech’s letter was made available to Rabbi Weinreb in a visit this summer. “Shem Olam has helped me reach a deeper understanding of the Holocaust from a religious point of view than I ever had before,” he said. Shem Olam provides “a religious perspective of the Holocaust, including non-traditional Jewish perspectives,” written during the Holocaust by the victims themselves, Rabbi Weinreb explained.
Sometimes the writing was in the form of the hairs of a beard, shown by Rabbi Weinreb in a photograph of a page of a Chumash, The Five Books of Moses, in which Aryeh Leib Suchaczewski deposited the beard after it was determined by the Rabbinat, the rabbis of wartime Lodz, that beards should be shaved to help keep Jews alive. Shem Olam’s archives also include the minutes of debates of the Rabbinat, the rabbis of wartime Lodz, a treasure trove to Shem Olam.
Forgotten souls, Rabbi Weinreb declared, include Rabbi David Zinzheim, buried in Pere Lachaise, a Christian cemetery in Paris, who was the head of Napoleon’s Sanhedrin and worked to assure that Napoleon’s civil law would not supercede Torah law in the lives of French Jews. They also include “young boys and girls who have fallen off the derech,” the proper path of life.
The souls include Yaakov ibn Haviv, a rabbi expelled from Spain in 1492, as well as Rabbi Menachem Ziemba, the Gaon of Poland, who provided vital advice to the rabbis of Lodz.
As in past years, Rabbi Weinreb mourned recent deaths – the boys of Yeshiva Mercaz HaRav; Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev (with prayers for Gilad Shalit); and Mrs. Bat-Sheva Unterman, killed by bulldozer in Jerusalem, among others.
As always, the congratulations to Rabbi Weinreb arrived by email during and immediately after the webcast. “This historical and analytical account of the events of mourning and those who directly endured such suffering led me closer to the meaning of ‘forgotten soul’ and the hope of redemption,” wrote one correspondent. “Although I do not speak Hebrew, energy and harmony in the songs of Rabbi Weinreb caused me deep spiritual inspiration.”
“I cannot tell you how meaningful your shiur was for me,” wrote another. “Your heartfelt words were truly impactful and made me think about the churban (destruction) in ways I never considered.”
A Florida congregation which viewed the webcast as a group wrote, “Many of the participants had not planned to stay for the whole broadcast, but found it to be so informative and inspirational they remained for the entire program.
“Outstanding. Extremely moving and appropriate, as usual,” said another viewer. More than four hours was not enough for one correspondent who emailed, “I think the Tisha B’Av webcast is too short. Perhaps there should be a Part II, later in the day.”
“We have just listened to your excellent live webcast,” wrote a group in Israel. “We were able to sit, and not move for the entire broadcast. The delivery and knowledge of Rabbi Weinreb is astounding. He is one of the few rabbis able to link such an occasion with up-to-date happenings, especially of Mercaz HaRav and Bat-Sheva Unterman.”
Those who viewed the presentation could only agree with this: “May Hashem bless the sponsors, the OU,” wrote one, “for its tireless work to awaken the conscience of the world, and especially to Rabbi Weinreb for the energy and wisdom he shared with us.”