Rabbi Yosef Alexander Zemelman, Przedecz and Warsaw, Poland
A rabbi and leader of the Agudath Israel youth in Poland. He was one of the rabbis who supported and participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
Born: at the beginning of the 20th century (date of birth is unknown) in Drobin, Poland.
Perished: 1943 during the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
After his marriage to Bilha, he devoted two years to Torah study until he was appointed as rabbi of the town of Przedecz when he was only about 20-years-old.
His community held a unique welcome ceremony for him. He was led to the synagogue under a canopy accompanied by the heads of the community. On both sides of the canopy, an honor guard was mounted on horses. The rabbi delivered his speech in three languages: Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish – in honor of the Polish government officials present at the ceremony.
Rabbi Zemelman strengthened the Torah institutions for boys, and established a Beit Yaakov school for girls. He taught Torah to adults. He was concerned with youth who did not attend the synagogue, listening to them and finding a way to their heart. The rabbi sent his Torah commentaries to the great Torah scholars of Poland. A close acquaintance of the Gerrer Rebbe, he would visit him twice a year. He was aware of and sensitive to the needs of the vulnerable. For example, he worked intensely to find leniencies on questions of Kashrut.
Rabbi Zemelman was a master of homiletics. He was esteemed by all sectors of society including the non-Jewish mayors and clergy.
The rabbi wrote articles which were published in Moment and Tagblatt under the pseudonym “Yossele.” His last article before the Shoah was about treating animals fairly.
In his public activities he stood out as one of the leaders of the Agudath Israel youth and participated in the party’s congresses. He would not hesitate to express his opinion on controversial issues. On the one hand, he advocated the settlement of Eretz Israel (he donated money through the Rebbetzin to the Jewish National Fund). On the other hand, he fought against assimilated Jews and the secular Zionists.
Because of his good reputation, he received offers from large towns to serve as their rabbi, but he turned down these offers because of his fondness towards his community.
During the Shoah:
The Germans entered Przedecz in September 1939, and immediately started persecuting Jews. They did their utmost to humiliate their spiritual leader. On Yom Kippur they took him out of his synagogue when he wore a kittel and a tallit; they shaved his beard and gave him a wheelbarrow to clean the street in front of everyone. On the night of Shmini Atzeret 5700 (1939), the Germans set fire to the synagogue and then blamed the Jews for the fire. The rabbi was forced to sign that the Jews had set the synagogue on fire and not the Germans. In addition, he had to pay them a ransom. Some young people wanted to jump in the fire to save the Torah scrolls, but the rabbi prevented this. He greatly appreciated their messirut nefesh for the sake of the Torah, but stated that the letters will remain flying in the air even if the scrolls are burned. Yet it would be a shame that young Jews would be burned, so he forbade them to take risks. At the end of this discussion, Rabbi Yosef Alexander called to take revenge against the Nazi enemy.
According to his daughter’s testimony, the rabbi could not remain passive, and he published (probably in the Tzifira newspaper) an article against the Germans. He also spoke against Hitler. Some say that they informed on him to the Germans, and he was forced to flee the town, probably in the winter of 1941. Initially he stayed in a little Polish town and finally he fled to Warsaw.
There are some testimonies about his activities in the Warsaw Ghetto at the end of 1942, when he became active with the second Jewish underground in the ghetto – the Jewish Military Organization (ZZW). He often went to the Aryan side and smuggled into the ghetto guns and arms which he obtained from the Polish partisans.
Dr. Hillel Zeidman writes in his diary about hearing Rabbi Zemelman speaking at a secret meeting in one of the bunkers. In his speech Rabbi Zemelman describes the horrors of the annihilation of Jewish communities. He called for revenge: “Revenge is great which is given between two letters [names of G-d].” He suggested a detailed plan for an uprising, and immediately practiced what he preached when he gave 12 guns and arms to the defense committee.
According to Zeidman, young people were inspired by Rabbi Zemelman to fight, and at the same time he would confront the Bund people who advised waiting until they received approval from London. The rabbi did not want to wait. At another time he expressed another kind of resistance when he signed a proclamation with other rabbis calling for Jews to strongly resist deportation to Treblinka.
The Final Days:
The uprising started on the eve of Passover 5703 (1943). Rabbi Zemelman was stationed at the “north” standpoint. He celebrated Seder night in the main headquarters at 21 Zamenhoff St. with the uprising’s leaders, including Mordechai Anielewicz. On the 17th of Nissan, the first day of Chol Hamoed, when the fighting reached the bunker on 17 Mila St., thirty young men exited with arms. The rabbi joined them together with Rabbi Reuven Horowitz. When they saw that the Germans were setting fire to the houses, they entered the gate of the house on 44 Zamenhoff St. and from there lobbed grenades at the Germans. The Germans fired back and Rabbi Zemelman was probably killed in this crossfire. Other Jews, like Berish Ehrlich and Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Ziemba who survived the Shoah, confirmed these facts.
Rabbi Orlean (principal of the Beit Yaakov Seminary) spoke with enthusiasm about Rabbi Zemelman’s participation in the uprising.
Finally, Rabbi Zemelman also preached resistance to his family. He sent postcards where he insisted that his daughters resist and escape. These postcards were lost. In the only postcard that remained, the rabbi shows an interest in his family and informs them that he feels fine. To avoid risking his life, he did not sign his name, but signed: “Yosef the husband of Bilcha (Bilha).” Most of the rabbi’s family perished: His wife, Rebbetzin Bilha, their two daughters Adela and Chomdeh, their sons, Yehoshua Elimelech, Yoel Nechemia and their youngest child Yankele. Only two daughters, Esther Berg and Glilit (Leah) Pnini, survived.
Dr. Hillel Zeidman wrote specifically for the book Yizkor for the Martyrs of Przedecz about Rabbi Zemelman. On page 194 he criticizes the historians: “Another surprise for me was the fact that after the Shoah the writers of history did not emphasize the activities of Rabbi Zemelman, perhaps there was a growing tendency to undermine the part of a Charedi rabbi in these events… I also knew him well because we had similar opinions, especially regarding Eretz Israel and I admired his good nature, his noble qualities and his great courage and readiness to sacrifice for his people. May he always be remembered.”
Pinkas Kehilot, Poland, vol. 4, under Przedecz
Shalem, Chaim, Agudath Israel in Eretz Israel during the Shoah, 1942-1945, doctoral thesis, Bar Ilan University, 5764
Testimonies of Rabbi Zemelman’s daughters: Mrs. Esther Berg and Mrs. Glilit (Leah) Pnini)
Zeidman, Hillel, Warsaw Ghetto Diary
Zeidman, Hillel, Yizkor for the Martyrs of Przedecz