Hillel Zeitlin (1871-1942), the leading neo-Hasidic thinker in Eastern Europe before the Holocaust, was for Hebrew and Yiddish-reading Jews what Martin Buber was for their more westernized German-reading brethren: the person who rendered the passionate religious life of Hasidism accessible to non-Orthodox Jews. A prolific writer and well-known lecturer, teacher and journalist, Zeitlin was one of the best-known martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto. This Sunday, September 15, the eve of Rosh Hashanah, marks the 70th anniversary of his death.
Zeitlin, who was born in 1871, was already frail and elderly by the time the Ghetto was established because he and his family shared the widespread starvation and illnesses of Warsaw’s Jews. One of his sons died of typhus in the ghetto, and his remains are in one of the last graves in Warsaw’s huge Jewish cemetery. (Another son, the well-known poet Aaron Zeitlin, was on a lecture tour in the U.S. when the war broke out in 1939, and thus was saved.)
When Zeitlin’s block was called forth to the notorious Umschlagplatz (assembly-point for the forced march to Treblinka), Zeitlin came out wearing tallit and tefillin, a statement of defiance to the Nazis, who showed particular cruelty toward Jews dressed for prayer. He also carried a copy of the Zohar, the text sacred to Jewish mystics, in his hand. He joined the march in this way, but, according to the one survivor of the march, died along the road.