After two weeks of warfare, most of Poland's territory had been overrun; only Warsaw was still holding out in hopeless resistance. In a final, futile burst of patriotism, the defenders of the Polish capital desperately attempted to continue the war they knew was lost. Meanwhile, Warsaw's Jewish population had swelled to several times its original number, because all the Jewish refugees from the countryside, in a hopeless attempt to escape the advancing enemy, had flocked to Warsaw as a last refuge.
Heavy German artillery pounded the encircled city from all sides with cruel precision. The heavy guns were aimed especially at the civilian population of Warsaw's Jewish neighborhoods. At the same time, German planes flew unhindered at rooftop height, releasing their bombs, with the Jewish homes of Warsaw as their prime targets.
Huddled in the shelters and cellars of Nalevki, Tvarda, and Gyzbovska Streets, those who survived felt each earthshaking explosion as if the bomb had hit the house next door – even when, in fact, the planes had dropped their deadly loads a mile or two away.
Finally, the Polish commander realized that he had no choice but to surrender and end his suicidal resistance. The cease-fire was set for noontime on Wednesday, September 27, 1939, the eve of the Sukkos holiday. The Germans were punctual in holding their fire, and the ear-shattering noise of exploding bombs stopped abruptly. The sudden silence was a strange contrast to the days and weeks of uninterrupted shelling from the ground and bombing from the air.
Among those Jewish refugees caught in the siege of Warsaw was Rabbi Yitzchok Ze'ev Soloveitchik, the venerable rabbi of the city of Brest-Litovsk (Brisk). He had been vacationing in the summer resort of Otvotsk, a suburb of Warsaw, and was among the hundreds of thousands who had fled to the capital when war broke out. Years later he still spoke of his impressions of the first night following the cease-fire in Warsaw.
As the armistice went into effect, people began to dig themselves out of their shelters. Hundreds of Warsaw's Jewish survivors leaped from the cellars and rubble, grabbed broken doors and window frames, and pulled them together for the construction of Sukkos. By the arrival of sunset – 5:40 pm of that day – numerous Sukkos greeted the holiday of the Tabernacles (even though others had been destroyed by roving banks of German soldiers and their Polish helpers).
What a perplexing phenomenon of Jewish faith revealed itself in these moments of Jewish suffering! There was barely a person among those who came forth from the ruins and shelters who had not lost close family during the continual, two-week bombardment that preceded the surrender. Who, in those moments, was in full control of himself after paralyzing weeks of constant fear and terror, with inadequate sleep and food?
"How could anyone think, in those moments, of any mitzvos?" admiringly asked the venerable Rabbi of Brisk, popularly called Reb Velvele. "How can I compare myself at all to these ordinary Jews who were such great men of faith, to those Jews of Warsaw!"
…Night fell upon Warsaw, the first night under the German occupation. A dawn-to-dusk curfew had been announced to that no one was in the street except the soldiers of the conqueror.
The Mitzvah of the Esrog
The rear of the house that the Rabbi of Brisk shared with another Jewish survivor had been destroyed in the bombardment. The rabbi's roommate sat on the ground in stunned silence. In those fateful days, who was not despondent over the losses in his life? Who was not heartbroken when everything one had lived for had vanished in a matter of a few weeks? The Rabbi of Brisk attempted to comfort him.
"Reb Yid," he said, "don't give in to mournful thoughts. Remember it is Yom Tov now. Our holiday of Sukkos has begun within a tzoras rabbim, when a Jewish community is in dire distress with the losses we all have suffered. But if we share our common grief, perhaps we will find the strength to rise above our personal losses."
"Rebbe," the man replied with some agitation, "that is not what upsets me. What is worrying me is how I will be able to fulfill the mitzvah of reciting a blessing over an esrog this year – tomorrow morning!"
"If that's what depresses you, my dear friend," the rabbi comforted him, "I have help for you! I have an esrog right here with me."
"Really, Rebbe? Can it be true?" A complete change came over this man. He leaped to his feet with new life. The cloud that had darkened the face of this survivor of Warsaw's bombardment disappeared in a matter of seconds.
At last, he succumbed to his exhaustion, and the blessing of sleep fell upon him. Before long, Reb Velvele too fell asleep.
It was still dark when the Rabbi of Brisk was awakened by the noise of a crowd. He cautiously stepped to the door of his gutted chamber. To his amazement, he faced the front of a long line of Jews stretching for several blocks. Turing to his roommate for an explanation, he heard the story of the Warsaw Jews' religious faith and devotion.
"This year," explained his roommate, "there are only four sets of lulovim and esrogim in all of Warsaw, because the Germans bombed all of the trains and moving stock before Rosh Hashanah, and no esrogim could reach the capital. The other three esrogim were secured, like yours, far in advance through the special effort of alert observers of the mitzvah. These other three were the only esrogim available to this large community of Jews, swelled to many times its original size by the endless influx of refugees. When you comforted me by revealing your valuable possession of an esrog, I passed the word along and soon the news spread all over Warsaw of another esrog in town. These people have been waiting in line since last evening. They have stood all night long in this endless column for the mitzvah of holding your esrog, braving the German curfew and overcoming their own despair…
The rabbi (responded), "These Jews, displaying so much self-denial for a mitzvah, should be allowed to perform it before me! How can I compare myself to these wonderful Jews in their quest for mitzvos?
As dawn approached, the sound of sirens was suddenly heard. Truckloads of German troopers drove up. The soldiers jumped off the trucks and attacked the line of Jews with their wooden rifle butts, clubbing mercilessly left and right, and shouting with murderous anger, "Don't you Jews know that we proclaimed a curfew! We smashed your Polish armies; how dare you defy us!"
The screams of the many beaten civilians and the moans of the injured, who lay on the ground, filled the air. Having dispersed the long line, the Germans hurried on to other places.
Five minutes later, the same line had formed again, waiting in anxious yearning for daybreak, the time to begin performing the precious mitzvah of esrog and lulov.
Torah Rescue by Yecheskel Letiner, Feldheim publishers, 1987