Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung’s “The Vale of Tears” and the Warning Signs of War
Posted November 23, 2016by tmackay
It was a time consumed by uncertainty. Ominous signs of the division and upheaval that were on the horizon. Peace and security seemed to be teetering on the edge.
In his memoir, The Vale of Tears, Rabbi Pinchas Hirschprung deftly captures in the summer of 1939 the atmosphere of anxiety and impending doom that marked the months leading up to the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Hirschprung, a brilliant religious scholar, had a deep and wide-ranging grasp of national and international politics. In The Vale of Tears, Hirschprung documents the role of the media, the divisive and damaging government actions, and the larger social tensions that were intensified at this time to give us a detailed picture of the historical events that shaped this dark period.
But Hirschprung’s memoir also gives us a moving and insightful examination of how minority groups respond to heightened external threats. The Vale of Tears brings to life the perspectives of both a specific individual and the community as a whole whose entire world was under threat.
These passages provide valuable insights into the warning signs that preceded terrible war and genocide and into a minority group’s complex and tumultuous reactions to them. These insights can shape how we view current events and create a more empathetic connection to those communities threatened by war and persecution today.
...With the horror of the previous war still fresh in their minds, the threat of a second war sparked tremendous anxiety.
Dukla Jews found solace in telling themselves that there would be no war; that Hitler was conducting a war of nerves; that Hitler was in fact not prepared for war; that he was only making threats to win concessions; that he would end up getting trouble, not concessions! For months there had been rumours of war. Nonetheless, as long as the Jews held on to the hope that there would be no war, and as long as both the Yiddish and Polish press were filled with opinion pieces that minimized the military might of the Germans, they could breathe more easily.
Although rumours of war persisted, they did not have the same impact as earlier. And if, at times, a Jew entertained the thought that perhaps Hitler might actually carry out his threats, he would banish such a perverse thought. If he was unable to do so by himself, he enlisted the help of the Velt-shpigl (World Mirror), a weekly newspaper edited by the famous scholar Simcha Petrushka. A political commentator named Wajsbard who wrote for the Velt-shpigl, in addition to being a gifted journalist, turned out to be an “expert” on military matters. He frequently penned articles in which he used arguments based on “signs and wonders” to “prove” that the German military machine was in a wretched state: tanks made of wood, machine guns made of tin, bombs filled with oakum instead of explosives, and so on and so forth. An article such as this was like an amulet, and Jews read his articles with eagerness and attention because they were a remedy for outlandish thoughts.
Articles of this type had great mass appeal because they fulfilled a common wish and appeased a general fear. In 1939, however, after Hitler had occupied the Sudetenland and after Danzig had entered the arena, the “war experts” lost their influence and their articles became irrelevant. As early as July 1939, war was in the air. Dukla Jews were afraid that they would be ordered - God forbid - to evacuate the town. Many Christian “friends” came to Jews they knew to advise them to sell their houses quickly because they would eventually have to leave town.
A few days later, an army unit equipped with all the latest military equipment swept into Dukla. For the town’s inhabitants, this new army unit was a surprise. Jews began exhibiting signs of anxiety. To suppress their nervousness, they began to console one another. “There’s no reason to worry unnecessarily,” one said to the other. “It’s nothing more than military exercises.” “Military manoeuvres!” And they breathed more easily. The next day another army unit marched into town. Thus, day in and day out, the town was flooded with fresh army units, which spread fear among the inhabitants. Under no circumstances did the Jews want to accept the idea that war was imminent, although obvious indications began to penetrate their consciousness.
I remember how one Jew had the courage to say to a group of his fellow Jews, “This army did not come here just for manoeuvres.” The group looked at him as though he were a criminal. Although a few even agreed with his theory, they nevertheless maintained that “a Jew must never let words like that escape his mouth.”
“Jews, let’s not fool ourselves,” the courageous one implored the others. “We’re on the brink of war. War is in the air!”
“Don’t open your mouth to Satan!” another replied. “Bite your tongue!” a third shouted. “They came here as a precaution,” a fourth Jew interjected, explaining “precaution” as follows: “Chamberlain says that even on a fine day one still has to carry an umbrella.” The Jews breathed a little easier, although none of them were capable of regarding the armies as an umbrella in good weather because in recent days the weather had not been good for the Jews of Poland.
The Obrona Narodowa [ a "peoples militia"], the Polish university students, the attitude of the government, the general economic crisis and, above all, the fear of war - all these factors made many Jews desperate to emigrate, to run wherever they could. The government, for its part, had nothing against Jews wanting to leave the country; on the contrary, let the damned Jews leave the country. First of all, the government would be rid of an undesirable element. Second, that undesirable element would leave behind an “inheritance” for the country since, pursuant to the “currency law,” Jews would not be able to take their capital out of the country. The Zionist Revisionist Party was encouraging emigration to Eretz Yisroel, the Land of Israel. In the midst of the general Jewish misfortune, the Revisionist Party saw a political opening for itself. Indeed, almost everyone was in agreement when it came to emigration - the government, the Revisionist Party and the emigrants themselves. Emigration became hugely popular. Almost all of Polish Jewry had one great desire - to emigrate!
...exhausted, I decided to travel to Krinitza (Krynica), a famous spa in Galicia.
That summer of 1939, Jews did not go to Krinitza to indulge themselves. On the contrary, that summer the town was full of Jews with ailing hearts, frayed nerves and desperation in their eyes.
In my case, instead of soothing me, Krinitza only caused me more distress. It was only there that my heart began to bleed again over the destruction of my brothers in the diaspora, and more than once I found myself crying uncontrollably, nonstop. Every Jewish face I encountered in Krinitza frightened me; every Jewish face filled me with sadness and despair....
I was not the only one suffering from depression in Krinitza. There were many more like me, but the difference between me and the other depressed people was that I had rejected self-delusion. I did not try to tell myself that “there will be no war” or that “Poland is strong and Germany is weak.” Others simply gave in to self-deception; blinded by the absolute certainty of their delusions,
After the Nazi occupation of Poland on September 1, 1939, Rabbi Hirschprung’s peaceful shtetl of Dukla, in the eastern Polish region of Galicia, almost immediately changed into a town marked by fear, insecurity and uncertainty. Rabbi Hirschprung, as a leader of the community, was specifically targeted and persecuted by the Nazis, as was his grandfather Rabbi David Tsvi Sehmann, the esteemed rabbi of Dukla and one of the most prominent rabbis in Galicia at that time.