“We were only a few broken Jews with two books, but…the day of the Siyum HaShas was my day of victory, the day of victory for all survivors, and the day of victory for every ‘Talmud Jew.’”
The brick crematoria of Dachau had barely cooled when the surviving remnants of European Jewry were called upon to mark the third Siyum HaShas in November, 1945. For most, it seemed unthinkable—in the wake of the most horrific genocide in human history, could the emaciated, traumatized survivors turn their attention to celebrating the third completion of the seven-year Daf Yomi cycle of Talmud study?
Outside the continent-sized graveyard that was Europe, subdued gatherings of Jews marked the occasion. In New York, where the black boots of the SS had never ground Jewish ashes into the soil, and of course in Jerusalem, students who cherished their daily study regimen came together to mark the transition from the end of the final tractate Nidah to the first page of the initial tractate Berakhot. In the Holy Land, British Mandate authorities were able to interfere with the Siyum HaShas by temporarily blocking one celebration in Tel Aviv, citing the potential for anti-British activity. If commemorations in lands that had not experienced the Holocaust firsthand were strained or cancelled—how would it be possible to hold the celebration in Germany, with ragged survivors whose daily existence during the war was more concerned with desperate survival than the intricacies of Talmudic law?
And yet it happened. In the words of a self-described “graduate of Auschwitz,” Joseph Friedenson, the Siyum HaShas in the Feldafing Displaced Person camp represented “the greatest rejuvenation in modern history to happen before our eyes.”
Feldafing, some thirty miles south of Dachau, was established as a Displaced Persons camp in the summer of 1945 when the Allies captured a train of cattle cars crammed with 3,000 Hungarian Jews on their way to execution. The grounds of an elite preparatory school originally designed for privileged Hitler Youth, the Americans commandeered the beautiful campus on the shores of Lake Starnberger to shelter instead these traumatized Jewish prisoners. Soon other survivors trickled into the DP camp—living skeletons emerging from the concentration camps, battle-hardened Jewish partisans marching out of the forests, terrorized children who spent the war living in hiding behind false walls or impersonating gentiles with non-Jewish protector families. Tens of thousands of Jewish refugees returned from Central Asia and Siberia, where many had fled the Nazi advance. Many were attracted by the magnetic presence of Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam (the Klausenberger Rebbe), whose heroic efforts to revive Jewish life in Feldafing reverberated throughout the region.
Feldafing rapidly gained a reputation as one of the most actively Jewish of the DP camps. A wide variety of Jewish educational and cultural enterprises were supported, including a remarkably strong network of religious schools. Both David Ben-Gurion and Dwight Eisenhower visited the camp to witness the feverish, determined efforts of these Holocaust survivors to rebuild Jewish lives after the war.
We have few historical records that document the Siyum HaShas in Feldafing. Friedenson’s brief account is among the most well-known, and it gives us some sense of what the atmosphere must have been like: a tiny gathering of Jews, strangers to each other just a few months earlier, despairing for the survival of their families and communities—yet committed to the proposition that a Jew must learn, no matter how formidable the challenge.
In my mind’s eye I see them: still frighteningly underweight, they barely filled the clothes given to them by the Americans, creased fedoras perched on their skulls, reflecting on how far they had fallen since they last studied a page of Gemara before the war. Perhaps they numbered no more than the minyan required to recite the formal kaddish. Perhaps, as they intoned the yehei shmei rabah they thought not only of the Daf Yomi, but also of their loved ones, swallowed alive in the convulsion of hatred that consumed Europe.
It is hard to imagine that any of the participants in that somber siyum had actually completed the massive Babylonian Talmud in the nightmare of the Holocaust: their learning was probably truncated and incomplete, like the fractional Shas shared by the Jews around that table in Feldafing. Yet they remained in steadfast solidarity with the worldwide fellowship of Daf Yomi students, committed to the Talmudic proposition that “all Jews are bound with one another:” whatever they were unable to learn was upheld by others until they could return, triumphant, to share in that fateful Siyum HaShas of 1945.