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15 September 1883|
|Died||24 April 1943
Warsaw, General Government, Germany
Rabbi Ziemba was born in Praga, a suburb of Warsaw, in 1883. His father, Elazar, died while Menachem was still a young boy and the orphan was brought up by his grandfather Rabbi Avraham Ziemba. Rabbi Avraham had been a chassid of the Kotzker Rebbe and a student of the Chiddushei Harim, and was now a follower of the Sfas Emes of Gur.
Rabbi Ziemba was brought up in the Gerrer chasidus by his grandfather and remained a loyal chasid his entire life. Even years later when he was world-renowned as a Torah scholar, Posek and master of Hasidic thought, he still considered himself a simple Chasid of the rebbe of Ger. When he visited Ger, he was called by his first name and refused to sit at the Rebbe's top table, an honour reserved for visitors of note.
As Rabbi Ziemba grew up in Warsaw, he gained a reputation as a formidable Talmid Chacham (scholar) and dazzling genius. He maintained a unique correspondence with the Gaon of Rogatchov, a fiery individual not known for his tolerance of mediocrity, nor tolerance of younger students.
At the age of eighteen, Rabbi Ziemba married the daughter of a wealthy local merchant. He was thus able to learn Torah unhindered for the next twenty years, a time remembered by him as the happiest years of his life. His fame spread further afield, attracting the attention of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk and others. He once confided that he authored more than 10,000 pages of Torah novellae during this golden period.
When his father-in-law died, Rabbi Ziemba found it necessary to help out in the former's store in order to continue supporting his family. He rejected numerous offers to serve as rabbi in many towns and cities, saying that he had more time to study while working than as a communal rabbi.
However, at the request of his beloved Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Ziemba entered communal affairs. He was appointed the representative of Praga to the Kehilla Council in Warsaw. Between 1930 and 1935, the world economic depression affected Rabbi Ziemba. His store was forced to close. He was offered the prestigious position of Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, but turned it down. After the untimely death of Rabbi Meir Shapiro, Rabbi Ziemba was offered the position as his successor as both Rabbi of Lublin and rosh yeshiva of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. For unknown reasons, this never came to pass.
In 1935 he, together with Rabbi Yaakov Myer Biderman, brother-in-law of the Gerrer Rebbe, and Rabbi Avraham Weinberg, was appointed to the Warsaw Rabbinate, becoming one of the foremost spokesmen for Orthodox Jewry in Poland. Aside from his newfound political prominence, Rabbi Ziemba became a Halachic decisor of great importance, answering questions from around the world, as well as from Poland.
Rabbi Ziemba also took an active role in the Agudas Yisroel at an early stage. At its first Knessia Gedola (great gathering), he was not yet forty when chosen to serve as honorary secretary in the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah. At the second Knessia Gedola, Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzenski agreed to serve as chairman of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah only if Rabbi Ziemba would continue in his position, while the forty-five-year-old Rabbi Ziemba felt himself to be too young and sought to stay in the background. At the third Knessiah Gedolah in 1937 in Marienbad, Austria, which played witness to the last massive gathering of European Orthodoxy before the Holocaust, Rabbi Ziemba was at the height of his fame. He spoke twice to the full assemblage and each time was greeted with hushed silence and awe.
World War II
With the outbreak of World War II and the German invasion of Poland, Rabbi Ziemba became the single most important force in the Warsaw Ghetto. In the darkest days of despair, he was a source of hope, optimism and inspiration. He set up secret locations for the study of Torah, and at great personal risk, constantly visited these clandestine places to strengthen those who studied there. His wife died in the ghetto.
Rabbi Ziemba was given two opportunities to escape from the ghetto. Through the efforts of Chaim Israel and the Sternbuch family of Switzerland, he was sent a Costa Rican passport and citizenship papers. His last name, however, was misspelled—Ziember instead of Ziemba. This was enough excuse for his papers to be declared void.
In another incident, Rabbi Ziemba, along with the other two surviving members of the Warsaw Rabbinate, Rabbi Shimshon Sztokhamer and Rabbi David Shapiro, were suddenly summoned to the Judenrat. They were told that the Catholic Church was willing to rescue them. The three refused to go, saying that the existence of the Rabbinate gave Jews strength to carry on, although such a formality was no longer needed.
Rabbi Ziemba established a committee to provide Pesach supplies for the Ghetto inhabitants. He was under constant surveillance by the authorities, and as such, could not become personally involved with the Ghetto underground. However, when money was needed to obtain ammunition, he was the first to donate, and added personal blessings to this resistance movement.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began soon before Pesach. While the battle raged around him, Rabbi Ziemba prepared himself for the coming holiday as if nothing was happening. In the evening, the fighting stopped and Ziemba conducted the Seder as though the times were normal.
The next few days were spent in hideouts watching the ghetto being burned. The Nazis were methodically destroying the ghetto, house by house, in order to break the resistance. Among those burning were the houses around Kupiecka 7, including the building where Ziemba was holed up.
With the air thick with smoke and nearly impossible to breathe, Ziemba and the people with him decided to try to run across the street, past SS men manning machine guns, to the building where the "Volia Rav", Rabbi Ber, was hiding.
During a momentary lull in the shooting, when it seemed safe, Ziemba's daughter Rosa managed to run across first and then motioned to the others with her arm. Her signal was misunderstood. Believing it to be safe, Ziemba, holding his five-year-old grandson Yankele Ber by the hand, tried to make a run for dear life. Wild screams and gunfire ensued. Ziemba fell to the floor; the others retreated under the ferocious assault.
The news of the Rabbi's death quickly spread to all neighboring hideouts. In spite of the great danger, a number of minyanim gathered. A Beth Din was set up, which decided to bury the Rabbi temporarily in a grave in the courtyard of Kupiecka 4. When the ghetto was finally liquidated, his entire immediate family was taken to Treblinka where they all perished.
In 1958, upon learning that the Polish Government was planning to rebuild the area of the ghetto that included Rabbi Ziemba's grave, his nephews Rabbi Avraham and Rabbi Yitzchok Meir Ziemba (who were with him to the very end) and others expended great efforts to exhume his body and bring it to Israel. After weeks of work by surveyors and others, his grave was finally located—all landmarks remembered by the survivors had been destroyed in the interim. His body was flown to Israel and after a funeral attended by all the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and tens of thousands of people, he was finally laid to rest on Har HaMenuchot.
- Totzos Chaim, a work on the laws pertaining to carrying on Shabbos, written in honour of Rabbi Ziemba's father-in-law who died in 1920
- Zera Avraham (seed of Abraham), a correspondence between Rabbi Ziemba and Rabbi Avraham Luftbier of Warsaw, who died at a very young age
- Gur Arye Yehuda, a book of novellae by Moshe Yehuda Arye, Rabbi Ziemba's prodigious son, who died at the age of 19 in 1924. It also contained some correspondence between father and son.
Tens of thousands of pages of works authored by Rabbi Ziemba were destroyed in the burning of the Warsaw Ghetto. Among these was a treatise on the entire Rambam called Machaze Hamelech, another on the Talmud Yerushalmi called Menachem Yerushalaim, as well as hundreds of responsa and novellae on Bavli, Shulchan Aruch, Midrash and many other parts of the Torah. These works were lost for posterity.
Media related to Menachem Ziemba at Wikimedia Commons