Originally published by Lani Lederer Berman Apr 6, 2015
Throughout history, the mikvah has stood at the very core of religious Jewish life and practice, and said to protect the Jewish people both physically and spiritually. It is therefore fitting on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, to explore some of the discourse surrounding mikvah during the Holocaust, when Jewish existence was threatened in both these realms. Though this piece is not an exhaustive examination of the topic, it is meant to join the conversation in an attempt to pay respect to those who endured the suffering and thereby fought for the physical and spiritual survival of our nation.
The Nazis understood the importance of the mikvah. Rabbinic responsa record that in many places, specifically in the ghettos,1 the Nazis banned the use of the mikvah and closed them down. They prevented Jews from immersing for any reason, and thereby largely prevented women from keeping the laws connected to family purity. This raised serious questions regarding the propriety of a halakhic marriage. In The Oneg Shabbat Archives,2 which chronicled the lives of Jewish people in the Warsaw Ghetto, Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aronson notes that after the Nazi invasion, the mikvaot were closed in the Warsaw Ghetto. This led him and others to worry that “the consecration of married life would be marred by impurity.”3
Likewise, in the Slobodka ghetto, Rabbi Avraham Dov-Ber Shapiro, the chief rabbi of Kovno, struggled over whether to allow marriages, because of the difficulty of observing the laws of family purity in the ghetto. However, when a rumor that single women could be selected for deportation from the ghetto began to circulate, many women sought civil marriages to prevent deportation. Rabbi Shapiro thus decided to perform halakhic weddings, even without mikvah, for pikuach nefesh reasons.
Another halakhic authority Rabbi Shimon Huberband, wrote in his responsa (preserved in the Oneg Shabbat Archives), “Jewish Warsaw was left without any mikvahs, and the problem of the purity of the daughters of Israel became as serious as it was in the days of the ancient Roman edicts against Judaism.”4 Anyone who used the mikvah would face the punishment of anywhere from ten years of imprisonment to death.
Evidence suggests that the Nazis understood the mikvah to be something that separated the Jews, elevated their sexuality, and set them apart from others. Much like they desecrated Sifrei Torah, using their sacred parchment to make shoes, they used the mikvah, and the purity it symbolized, to taunt and degrade the Jewish people. The Nazis even went so far as to desecrate and defile people in the mikvahitself, as a symbol for the undoing of the Jewish people’s sanctity and lauding their abasement. Chaim Kaplan, who lived in the Warsaw Ghetto, noted in his diary on May 14, 1942:
This week they have invented a new torture. Whoever hears of it doubts its veracity, yet this has happened— First they captured a few dozen young and beautiful women and transported them to a certain Jewish ritual bathhouse; afterward they captured some strong, powerful, virile men and brought them to the same bathhouse. Both sexes were forced by means of intimidation and whiplashes to remove their clothes and remain naked; afterward they were made to get into one bath together and were forced into lewd and obscene acts ”5
The Nazis explicitly overturned the symbolism of the mikvah, and turned it into a source for humiliation and degradation. Kaplan’s account continues with the Nazi’s stated aims: “Henceforward, all the world will know how low the Jews have fallen in their morals, that modesty between the sexes has ceased among them.” While the Nazis attempted to undermine or prevent use of the mikvah, it is interesting that many women, and even some communities, attempted to remain steadfast to its observance. Rabbi Huberband discusses how women in the Warsaw Ghetto risked their lives going to nearby towns to immerse in the river or to use secret ritual baths. This was all the more difficult (and heroic) since there was a restrictive curfew in effect, as well as restrictions on transportation. In the Lodz Ghetto, themikvah was left under the auspices of the rabbinical board of the Judenrat. They made the mikvah a priority, even working to supply coal to heat the water (see above the photocopy of Lodz Rabbinical Board papers, April 1941. From Esther Farbstein’s Hidden in Thunder, p. 334). Various other ghettos were able to rebuild their mikvaot after they were destroyed by the Nazis, and retained their mikvahuntil the communities were deported.
The incredible resilience of the Jewish people is made particularly eminent in the lengths they traveled to preserve the laws of family purity during the period of the Holocaust. On the 27th of Nisan, the Jewish people commemorate Yom Hazikaron L’Shoah U’le-Gevurah. The addition of “gevurah” to the name of the day is meant to emphasize the strength of the Jewish people during the Holocaust, to remember them not as victims but as heroes. The women willing to risk their lives to keep these laws should inspire us; they are reminders of the importance women of all generations placed in the mikvah, and how it continues to bind us to our roots, especially during the most challenging times.
1. The internal structure of every ghetto differed based on its location and the Nazi officials overseeing the ghetto. This being said, the Eastern European ghettos, as opposed to many of the Nazi camps, maintained more of a sense of daily life and routine. The mikvah was less relevant when Jews were deported to work camps, both because the sexes were separated and because, in most cases, the women were so malnourished that their menses ceased.
2. In October 1939, Emmanuel Ringelblum created the Oneg Shabbat Archives, a collection of over 1500 items documenting life in the Warsaw Ghetto, and the most important historical source from Nazi-occupied Poland. Ringelblum was caught hiding outside the Warsaw Ghetto with his family in 1944. They were taken back to the ruins of the ghetto and murdered.
3. From Aronson’s response, Alei Merorot, 230, as quoted by Farbstein, Thunder, 330.
4. From Huberband’s responsa, Kiddush Hashem, pp.194-195, as quoted by Farbstein, Thunder, 331.
5. Kaplan, Scroll of Agony, p. 331-332.
- Esther Farbstein. Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halacha and Leadership During the Holocaust. Trans. Deborah Stern. Jerusalem, 2002.
- Abraham I. Katsch. Scroll of Agony: The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan. Indiana University Press: Indiana. 1973.
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