Part of the trip took me through part of the world that is infamous for its history of terror! We traveled through Transylvania, the legendary home of Count Dracula, and through the dreary and seemingly always cloudy Carpathian Mountains. A pale of evil hung heavy over both regions, especially over the Carpathian Mountains which were part of the area known decades past as Ruthenia.
The villages of the Carpathians under Communism were oppressed and terribly depressing! But they seemed to come right out of the travel books about the region. The houses had walls of white stucco, grass thatched roofs, and flocks of geese squawking down the muddy lanes. Nothing looked new; everything was old! One thing that was missing, which I went looking for, was the presence of any communities of Jews.
When I returned from the trip I did extensive reading on the area and found out that the Carpathians were the last outpost in Europe of the orthodox Jews. But almost to a man, woman, and child, they had been exterminated by Hitler and the Nazis as World War II began! By the end of the war almost all had been killed.
It is my editorial and biblical opinion that this is why judgment fell so heavily on the German people.
Roman Vishniac Documents The Jews
Jewish photographer Vishniac traveled to Eastern Europe during the ominous years 1935-1939. He did not know it but the faces he captured in his camera of the Jews of the Carpathians and of Poland would not be alive the next three or four years. Almost all of them would die in Nazi concentration camps and in the crematoriums of the Germans. One of the trips he made was in August 1938. I was just one month old! The editor of his picture book (To Give Them Light, Simon & Shuster) puts it this way: In his book
We meet Jews in those last minutes before they were torn from history by a tempest of fire and ashes; when their lives still coursed with energy and creativity. We encounter their towns and villages before they were consumed by flames. ... Did they know that the enemy had already marked them for suffering, exile, and fire, even before the War started? Roman understood this and therefore he loved them a thousand times more. The enemy (the Germans) would give them death; but you (Roman) would give them light.
While there were some Jews in this region at the turn of the century who were Reformed (liberal), the vast majority were Hasidic (the joyous, pious ones) who are easy to spot with their black cloths and black furry hats. Vishniac filmed them in their small villages (shtetls), and at their schools (yeshivas) for the young male Jewish youngsters. Throughout the Carpathians, and on into Poland, they were isolated and lived poorly in their enforced ghettos.
(As I traveled about in my car, I would see torn-down houses turned into rubble heaps. At the time I did not pay much attention, but later I realized these were the dwellings of the Jews who were taken from the region by the Germans some forty years earlier.)
How did the Jews get to this region of Europe and why would they be targeted when World War II began?
Bratislava was part of Hungary with its Jewish community going back to 1251. When Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918 it became the center of considerable Jewish national and Zionist activity. The "Zionist" and orthodox Jews were looking for the coming of the Messiah to lead them back to Zion and the Holy Land, as is literally prophesied in the Old Testament. Some of the Reformed Jews of this area tried to fit in with the Gentiles but with no success. The orthodox were kept apart by the government but also, for the most part, they wished to remain separate.
From the outset the Jews were persecuted. In 1360 they suffered constant pogroms up until around 1867 when they were to a small degree emancipated. From 1918 to 1938, they were basically left alone, but on November 11, 1938, another reign of anti-Semitism began with violence aimed at the Jewish community. This did not end until just before the defeat of Hitler. Few Bratislava Jews survived. When Vishniac was there in the spring of 1938 he found the Jews "were worried but did not dare to think that the disaster was so close" upon them. As Vishniac recalled, the Jews told him of "stories and legends dredged up from the dreadful past: pogroms, burnings, expulsions—whole Jewish communities massacred" even before the Germans got there.
The Carpathian Slaughter
The Carpathians adjoin to Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. As Vishniac wandered from village to village taking pictures during the 1930s, he heard stories of the desire to go to the Holy Land and await the coming of the Messiah. The old men talked of the Merkava, the mystical celestial chariot that would take them there. Interestingly, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) designed there own battle tank and named it the Markava.
The Carpathian Jews were the poorest in Eastern European communities. Before the outbreak of World War II, more than 100,000 Jews lived in this dark, gloomy region. In the spring of 1944, most Carpathian Jews had been deported to Auschwitz.
"Jewish Free" Mukachevo
Mukachevo was the "capital" of Carpathian Ruthenia and a center for the orthodox Hasidic Jews. They were Zionists who were looking for the Messiah and the return to the Holy Land. Jews first settled here in the last half of the seventeenth century. In 1741, the first synagogue was built and by the late 1930s, nearly half of its population of 27,000 was Jewish.
By April 1944, the Germans began massive deportation of the Jews, and by the end of May the city was deemed judenrein (Jewish free). Roman Vishniac said that his pictures were the last portraits taken of "all [the people] that vanished with the destruction of the shtetl (the villages)." Ironically, the deportations began just one month before the invasion of Europe by the allies, June 6, 1944!
Warsaw – Only Two Hundred Jews Left!
The city was the preeminent political, cultural, and spiritual capital of European Jewry between the World Wars. Jews began settling here in the fourteenth century, even though many were driven into exile in 1483. It was said that it was the privilege of the Gentiles of Warsaw "not to tolerate the Jews of the city." Persecution was driven by the Polish Catholic system. It was not until the sixteenth century that Jews began filtering back into the city. Official permission to settle was not given until 1788.
More Jews came into Warsaw in 1861 and in the 1880s. They were fleeing the Russian persecution and pogroms when Jews were being forced to reside in what was known as the Pale of Settlement. The Czar would not let the Jews trade with Gentiles, go to the universities, or leave the confinement of the city ghettos or the villages they were citizens of. Both the liberal Jews, the maskilim (followers of the Enlightenment), as well as the orthodox, flooded the city. Warsaw’s Jewish community became the largest in Europe. Culturally and socially, the Jewish movements ranged from those who tried to assimilate into the Gentile culture to the orthodox who were Zionists and looking for the coming of the Messiah.
Warsaw became a key Yiddish (pigeon German and Hebrew mixed together) publishing center. In 1939, some eighty Jewish periodicals were available.
By July 1942, the Germans began mass deportations of Jews. In the ghetto in the city, they were dying by the thousands, though originally, there were 500,000 Jews residing in disease ridden slums. After a mass deportation to the infamous Treblinka death camp, the Jews revolted. In April, 1943, the Jews rose up against the Nazi persecutors. Resistance was defeated, and the ghetto and its inhabitants were liquidated. When Warsaw was liberated in 1945, only two hundred Jewish survivors were found.
When Vishniac was in Warsaw before the war, the Jews were already suffering from their Polish neighbors. Many had been killed. Vishniac reported how many Jews had to work as porters, carrying heavy loads on their backs like horses.
This was the second largest city in Poland. It was an industrial center with textile mills in which many Jews worked. When Vishniac was there in the 1930s he noticed the sadness of the Jewish people. "There were gangs of Jewish children with yellow, wrinkled faces, looking aged. Very few were smiling. No one saw what was going to happen tomorrow ..."
In 1793, there were only eleven Jews in Lodz. By 1939, the population had grown to 250,000. When the Nazis entered the city as World War II began, many Jews had fled. By early 1940, some 160,000 Jews had been isolated in the ghetto, and by May 1 it was officially sealed off as an immense labor camp producing a wide variety of goods for the German army.
Deportations began to the infamous Chelmno death camp. The final liquidation began in mid 1944 with more sent to Chelmno and Auschwitz. When Lodz was liberated in January 1945, fewer than 900 Jews remained.
Founded in the thirteenth century, Lublin was the oldest city in Poland, and was, from the perspective of Polish Jewry, one of the most important. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Jews were restricted to a nearby village and were not allowed in the main part of the city. Many banishments came and went, but the Jewish community still grew and thrived to prominence. By the mid sixteenth century the Jews of the city prided themselves on having a printing press. Many noted Rabbis and famous Jewish physicians live here.
Lublin also played a role in the growth of the orthodox Hasidic movement. One of its most famous luminaries, the "Seer of Lublin," resided in the city.
On September 18, 1939, the Germans took Lublin and sealed off its ghetto, trapping some 35,000 Jews. Massive deportations began in March 1942, mostly to Belzec and then to Majdanek death camps. When Lublin was liberated on July 1944, there were no Jewish survivors left in the city.
The Burial of Orthodox Judaism
Slonim. Jews settled in Slonim Poland in the mid-sixteenth century and built the Great
Synagogue there in 1642. Outbursts of anti-Semitism broke out between the Polish Catholics and Jews that continued on into the nineteenth century. The orthodox Hasidic Zionists were prevalent in the city. Major Jewish unions were formed around various synagogues, such as the "Tailors’ Synagogue," and the "Shoemakers’ Synagogue."
German troops entered the city on June, 1941 massacring more than 10,000 Jews. The Germans then sealed off the ghetto with more than 15,000 Jews inside. On June 29, 1942, they set it on fire with few Jewish survivors left.
Galicia. The region of southern Poland called Galicia had a mixed ethnic population of Poles, Russians, and Jews. In the 1770s the Austrian Empress, Maria Theresa, heavily taxed the Jews. The Emperor Joseph II tried to "Germanize" the Jews and bring them into the enlightenment but this failed. Jews suffered bitterly here during World War I with rape, murder, and destruction rampant. When the Germans came in, in 1941, most Jews were taken to Belzec concentration camp where they were murdered.
Cracow. Jews lived in Cracow Poland since the thirteenth century. By 1900, there were more than 25,000 Jews in the city. By 1939, when the Germans invaded, the population had jumped to 65,000. That year the persecution began with many synagogues burned. In 1940 half of the Jews were driven from the city. By 1941, two prominent Rabbis were murdered and 20,000 were packed into the ghetto. From 1942 on, Jews were either shot or sent to the nearby Plaszow labor camp, or to Belzec or Auschwitz to die. The orthodox Jewish population was wiped out!
There has been an ongoing fulfillment of the prophecies of Deuteronomy 28 during the last two thousand years. It was foretold that the Jews would suffer terribly in their scattering among the Gentiles. As this prophecy is literal so is there return from the nations to be taken literally! Deuteronomy 28:63-67 reads:
And it shall come about that as the Lord delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the Lord will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you shall be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it.
Moreover, the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth
to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone, which you or your fathers have not known.
And among those nations you shall find no rest, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot;
but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul.
So you life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall be in dread might and day, and shall have no assurance of your life.
In the morning you shall say, "Would that it were evening!"
And at evening you shall say, "Would that it were morning!"
because of the dread of your heart which you dread and for the sight of your eyes which you shall see.
But there is hope! And that hope is filfilled when the Lord brings the Jews back home to the Holy Land! Moses writes in 30:7: "And the Lord your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall posses it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers."
Through the prophet Ezekiel (37:13-14) the Lord adds: ‘’Then you will know that I am the Lord, when I have opened your graves and caused you to come up out of your graves, My people. And I will put My Spirit within you, and you will come to life, and I will place you on your own land. Then you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken and done it,’ declares the Lord."
We are getting close to the final days when the eyes of the Jews will be opened and they will look for, and long for, the appearance of their own Savior and King, the Lord Jesus Christ!
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