Gravestone of Warsaw Ghetto’s oldest Rabbi found after nearly 80 years proves Jews resisted deportations
The gravestone of the oldest Rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto who was said to have chosen death by a German bullet at Umschlagplatz rather than the gas chamber at Treblinka has been found in the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw.
The headstone belonging to Icchak Meir Kanał was found by chance when Remigiusz Sosnowski, the founder of the Foundation for the Documentation of Jewish Cemeteries, and director of the Jewish cemetery in Bródno on Warsaw’s right bank, was carrying out indexing work on headstones in Warsaw’s main Jewish cemetery on Okopowa street.
Discovered under a light layer of topsoil with a painted inscription, although faded there was enough left to reveal the last few words saying “son of Moshe Aharon Kanal, rabbi and rabbinical judge in Warsaw. Died 28 av 5702 [11 August 1942]”.
Being found next to the grave of Mosze Aharon Kanał, Sosnowski and Witold Wrzosiński, director of the Jewish cemetery in Warsaw, concluded that it was in fact the headstone of the son Icchak Meir Kanał.
Wrzosiński said: “We had to first check that the father didn’t have any other sons who were rabbis. He didn’t, so we are sure that it is Icchak Meir.”
He added that the find was of enormous significance as it proves that religious Jews not only resisted the deportations in 1942 but also shows that religious practice among observant Jews continued in the ghetto.
A prominent Rabbi in the Warsaw Ghetto, Icchak Meir Kanał was a leader in the religious community and founder of Agudat Yisrael, a religious political movement, which has members in the Israeli Knesset today.
The find now adds light to speculation about the circumstances of the rabbi’s death.
In 1942, the Germans carried out Gross Aktion, an operation to deport the majority of the ghetto’s inhabitants to Treblinka.
In early August it was the turn of Icchak Meir Kanał to be ordered to go to the departure point Umschlagplatz.
There are three accounts of what happened next. In the first, Rabbi Kanał refused to leave his apartment building and was thus dragged out into the yard and murdered.
Another account is contained in the diary of ghetto resident Abraham Lewin: “They say that Rabbi Kanał from Warsaw decided to die because he wanted to be buried according to the ritual.
“When they caught him, he refused to enter the wagon; a gendarme shot him. His wish was granted and he was buried in the Jewish cemetery”.
A final version places Kanał in Bergen Belsen concentration camp.
According to Wrzosiński, this version can be eliminated as we know Kanał’s body is in Warsaw.
Wrzosiński told TFN: “Jews who died or who were murdered during Gross Aktion were buried in a mass grave by the cemetery. A religious burial was very unusual in the Warsaw Ghetto especially during the deportations in 1942.
“It would have been organised in the strictest secrecy, even in secret from the Jewish Police and the Judenrat.”
He added that finding the matzeva was very important because it is proof that religious Jews also resisted the Germans and the implementation of the Final Solution.
He said: “We know about the Jewish Combat Organization who fought in the Jewish Ghetto Uprising, which was a left-wing group. However, up to now we have had little evidence that religious Jews resisted because they all died.”
Icchak Meir Kanał was the oldest rabbi in the Warsaw ghetto, being 82 years old when he died. He served as rabbi and chairman of the rabbinical court in Inowłodz until 1908, then in Błaszki and then in Warsaw.
He was one of the leaders of the Agudas Yisroel party, vice-president of the Union of Rabbis in Poland and a member of the committee of the Mesywta Jewish Religious Seminary.
It is known that in the Warsaw Ghetto in the face of a typhus epidemic, together with other rabbis he organised a wedding in the cemetery. This was an old folk custom to protect against the plague.
Memoirs from the ghetto contain records of numerous other weddings in the rabbi's office at 6 Twarda Street by people threatened with transportation to Treblinka.
It is believed that the matzeva was dislodged during fighting during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 and then fell to the earth face down where it remained until last Thursday.
Wrzosiński said: “That probably saved it from destruction as it is unlikely it would have survived so long exposed to the elements.”
He added that the grave will not be dug up as that would go against Jewish religious custom but said that the Jewish cemetery will give the grave a worthy commemoration.