Diane Ackerman on the ancient tradition of meditation and mysticism that sustained two heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto.
Most people know that six million Jews were killed during World War II, but most don’t know that nearly all of the Orthodox community perished. Among them were many who had kept alive an ancient tradition of meditation and mysticism reaching back to the Old Testament world of the prophets. “In my youth,” Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote of his childhood in Warsaw, “there was one thing we did not have to look for, and that was exaltation. Every moment is great, we were taught, every moment is unique.”
Heschel was fortunate enough to get out of Warsaw a few months before the war began and escape to the United States, where he became a charismatic teacher, writer, and social activist, renowned for his unflagging sense of wonder. He was among tens of thousands of Jews, aided by friends on “the Aryan side,” who managed to escape from the Warsaw ghetto. But some famously chose to stay, including Henryk Goldzmit, a pediatrician and author, and Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the ghetto’s Hasidic rabbi.
Where can one find exaltation in a mutilated world? Shapira’s hidden sermons and diary, unearthed after the war, reveal a tigerish struggle with faith, a man wedged between his religious teachings and history. How could anyone reconcile the agony of the holocaust with Hasidism, a dancing religion that teaches love, joy, and celebration? Yet one of his religious duties was to help heal the suffering of his community—not an easy task given the magnitude of the suffering, and with all the trappings of piety outlawed.
Shapira’s Hasidism included transcendent meditation—training the imagination and channeling the emotions to achieve mystical visions. The ideal way, Shapira taught, was to “witness one’s thoughts to correct negative habits and character traits.” A thought observed will start to weaken, he explained, especially negative thoughts, which he advised students not to enter into but to examine dispassionately. If they sat on the bank watching their stream of thoughts flow by, without being swept away by them, they might achieve a form of meditation called hashkatah, silencing the conscious mind. He also preached “sensitization to holiness,” a process of discovering the holiness within oneself and the natural world. This included mindfully attending to everyday life, as the eighteenth-century teacher Alexander Susskind had taught: “When you eat and drink, you experience enjoyment and pleasure from the food and drink. Arouse yourself every moment to ask in wonder, ‘What is this enjoyment and pleasure? What is it that I am tasting?’”
The etymology of the Hebrew word for prophet, navi, combines three processes: navach, “to cry out”; nava, “to gush or flow”; and navuv, “to be hollow.” The task of this meditation was to open the heart, to unclog the channel between the infinite and the mortal, and to rise into a state of rapture known as “Great Mind.”
“There is only one God,” Hassidic teacher Avram Davis writes, “by which we mean the Oneness that subsumes all categories. We might call this Oneness the ocean of reality and everything that swims in it [which abides by] the first teaching of the Ten Commandments, ‘there is only one zot, thisness.’ Zot is a feminine word for ‘this.’ The word zot is itself one of the names of God—the thisness of what is.”
The weak, sick, exhausted, hungry, tortured, and insane all came to Rabbi Shapira for spiritual nourishment, which he combined with leadership and soup kitchens. How did he manage such feats of compassion while staying sane and creative? By stilling the mind and communing with nature. He gathered this teaching “from the world as a whole, from the chirping of the birds, the mooing of the cows, from the voices and tumult of human beings; from all these one hears the voice of God…”
All our senses feed the brain, and if it dieted mainly on cruelty and suffering, how could it remain healthy? Rabbi Shapira’s message was that even in the ghetto, common people, not just ascetics or rabbis, could temper their suffering through meditation.
It’s especially poignant that he chose for meditative practice the beauty of nature, because for most people in the ghetto nature lived only in memory—no parks, birds, or greenery existed in the ghetto—and they suffered the loss of nature like a phantom limb pain, an amputation that scrambled the body’s rhythms, starved the senses, and made basic ideas about the world impossible for children to fathom. As one ghetto inhabitant wrote:
In the ghetto, a mother is trying to explain to her child the concept of distance. Distance, she says, “is more than our Lezno Street. It is an open field, and a field is a large area where the grass grows, or ears of corn, and when one is standing in its midst, one does not see its beginning or its end. Distance is so large and open and empty that the sky and the earth meet there…[Distance is] a continuous journey for many hours and sometimes for days and nights, in a train or a car, and perhaps aboard an airplane… The railway train breathes and puffs and swallows lots of coal, like the ones pictured in your book, but is real, and the sea is a huge and real bath where the waves rise and fall in an endless game. And these forests are trees, trees like those in Karmelicka Street and Nowolipie, so many trees one cannot count them. They are strong and upright, with crowns of green leaves, and the forest is full of such trees, trees as far as the eye can see and full of leaves and bushes and the song of birds.
Before annihilation comes an exile from nature, and then it is only through wonder and transcendence, the ghetto rabbi taught, that one could combat the psychic disintegration of everyday life.
Somewhere along the line, Shapira acquired medical training, and people from all over Poland made pilgrimages to him for physical and spiritual healing. During the war, he suffered the same torment, fear, pain, and loss as other residents of the ghetto, and came to know the agony of howitzers bombarding friends and loved ones with shrapnel—in one week, he lost his mother, only son, daughter-in-law, and sister-in-law. His beloved wife of many years, whom he regarded as a soulmate (he delighted in telling people how, on at least one occasion, she finished writing his sermon), fell ill and died.
Finding scope for the mind while the body remained enslaved, that was the challenge. Nowhere in his writings does one read the factual reality of life for Jews in occupied Poland, nor even the words “Nazi” or “German.” Instead, his mission was compassion—”to project the supernatural powers of kindness into the realm of speech, so that they might take on concrete, specific form.”
Today most of us, though not all, have the luxury of experiencing merely mild chronic stress, an ensemble of real and imaginary worries that spike the road of everyday life with tiny aggravating tacks. But for four years, people in the Warsaw ghetto endured both acute and chronic stress, with its suite of body-killers from diabetes and heart disease to the erosion of neurons from sheer overfiring. Typically, high stress saps energy, slows thinking, depresses the psyche, and rachets up one’s base level of fear and anxiety. Common antidotes are numbing one’s ability to feel, selective forgetting, or imaginative escapes (sometimes to the striped mesas of psychosis). Another antidote is stilling the mind.
Even when saturated by more suffering than we bipeds were ever meant to feel, by paying deep attention the brain enters a state of vigorous calm, especially if one can meditate on joy, compassion, or gratitude. In the ghetto, meditation helped by tugging the mind from its sorrow and limiting rumination, and by giving practitioners a sense of agency that was scarce, allowing them to take charge of their own well-being and to create moments of tranquility, wonder, and occasionally something even rarer: pleasure. This cloud ride through suffering resonates strikingly with the Buddhist dictum of accepting life just as it is, without grasping at elsewheres or else-whens, without judgment, viewing moment to moment as a changing flux of sensations.
Another man who, like Rabbi Shapira, chose to stay when offered escape, was pediatrician Henryk Goldzmit (pen name: Janusz Korczak), who wrote autobiographical novels, and books for parents and teachers with such titles as How to Love a Child and The Child’s Right to Respect. To the amazement of his fans and disciples, Korczak abandoned both his literary and medical careers in 1912 to found a progressive orphanage for one hundred boys and girls, ages seven to fourteen, at 92 Krochmalna Street in Warsaw. There, with wit, imagination, and self-deprecating humor, he devoted himself to a “children’s republic,” complete with its own parliament, newspaper, and court system. Instead of punching one another, children learned to yell, “I’ll sue you!” And every Saturday morning, court cases were judged by five children who weren’t being sued that week. All rulings rested on Korczak’s “Code of Laws,” the first one hundred of which parsed forgiveness. He once confided to a friend, “I am a doctor by training, a pedagogue by chance, a writer by passion, and a psychologist by necessity.”
In 1940, when Jews were ordered into the ghetto, the orphanage moved to an abandoned businessman’s club in the “district of the damned,” as he described it in a diary written on blue rice-paper pages that he filled with details of daily life in the orphanage, imaginative forays, philosophical contemplations, and soul searching. It’s the reliquary of an impossible predicament, revealing “how a spiritual and moral man struggled to shield innocent children from the atrocities of the adult world during one of history’s darkest times.” Reportedly shy and awkward with adults, he created an ideal republic with the orphans who called him “Pan Doctor.”
At night, lying on his infirmary cot, with remnants of vodka and black bread tucked under his bed, he’d escape to his own private planet, Ro, where an imaginary astronomer friend, Zi, had finally succeeded in building a machine to convert radiant sunlight into moral strength. Using it to waft peace throughout the universe, Zi complained that it worked everywhere except on “that restless spark, Planet Earth,” and they debated whether Zi should destroy bloody war-mongering Earth, with Doctor Pan pleading for compassion given the planet’s youth.
His blue pages stitched together sensations, fancies, and marauding ideas alike, but he didn’t relate sinister ghetto events, for example the deportations to the death camps that began on July 22, 1942, his sixty-fourth birthday. Instead of all the clangor and mayhem on that day, he wrote only of “a marvellous big moon” shining above the destitute in that unfortunate, insane quarter.
By then, as photographs show, his goatee and moustache had grayed, bags terraced beneath intense, dark eyes, and though he often endured “adhesions, aches, ruptures, scars,” he refused to escape from the ghetto, despite many offers of help from disciples on the Aryan side. It creased him to hear the starving and suffering children compare their ills “like old people in a sanitarium,” he wrote in his diary. They needed ways to transcend pain, and so he encouraged prayers like this one: “Thank you, Merciful Lord, for having arranged to provide flowers with fragrance, glow worms with their glow, and make the stars in the sky sparkle.” By example, he taught them the mental salve of mindful chores, like the slow, attentive picking up of bowls, spoons, and plates after a meal:
When I collect the dishes myself, I can see the cracked plates, the bent spoons, the scratches on the bowls… I can see how the careless diners throw about, partly in a quasi-aristocratic and partly in a churlish manner, the spoons, knives, the salt shakers and cups… Sometimes I watch how the extras are distributed and who sits next to whom. And I get some ideas. For if I do something, I never do it thoughtlessly. The waiter’s job is of great use to me, it’s pleasant and interesting.
Anticipating their calamity and fright when deportation day came, on August 6, 1942, he joined the children aboard the train bound for Treblinka, because, he said simply, he knew his presence would calm them. A photograph taken at the Umschlagplatz shows him marching, hatless, in military boots, hand-in-hand with several children, while 192 other children and ten staff members follow, four abreast, escorted by German soldiers. Silently, Korczak and the children boarded red boxcars not much larger than chicken coops, usually stuffed with seventy-five vertical adults, though all the children easily fit.
In 1971, the Russians named a newly discovered asteroid after him, 2163 Korczak, but maybe they should have named it Ro, the planet he dreamed of. The Poles claim Korczak as a martyr, and the Israelis revere him as one of the Thirty-Six Just Men, whose pure souls make possible the world’s salvation. According to legend, these few alone, through their good hearts and good deeds, keep the too-wicked world from being destroyed. For their sake, all of humanity is spared. The legend says that they are ordinary people, not flawless or magical, and that most of them remain unrecognized throughout their lives, while they choose to perpetuate goodness, even in the midst of inferno.