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"On the Danger of Forced Conversion"

On the danger of conversion
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw

The deportation of roughly 265,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to Treblinka between July and September of 1942 reduced the population of the ghetto to about 70,000 inhabitants. Realizing that their own deportation was likely inevitable, Warsaw's remaining Jewish leaders began to consider new strategies for resistance and survival.1 

Fresh anxiety surrounded the fate of the ghetto's few surviving children. Children were among the most vulnerable to the roundups, and their loss devastated the community. In August, Jewish historian and ghetto archivist Emanuel Ringelblum began discussing an offer from Polish clergy to shelter Jewish children in monasteries in exchange for payment. Distrustful of Catholic officials who had done little to help them, some ghetto leaders saw the plan as an attempt to profit from the Jews' desperate situation. There was also suspicion that Polish Catholics were only offering this assistance so that they could be on the right side of history after the war ended. Yet for Ringelblum and others, it was difficult to turn down a chance to save children's lives.

Matters of faith and tradition amplified what became a heated debate over the offer. Some parents worried that their young ones would grow up as Catholic converts, unaware of their Jewish heritage. Others believed that such conversions would be temporary. In this December 1942 memorandum—written in Hebrew and recovered from the Oyneg Shabes archive—an anonymous author warns Jewish people against conversion as a means of self-preservation.2 Invoking a history of Jewish martyrdom and resistance, "On the danger of forced conversion" notes that previous generations would never wish for "our children to pass through the heathen fire" and renounce their spiritual identity to survive. Signed only with initials, the text is dedicated to a daughter who was taken in the deportations. 

Jewish community leaders chose not to fund or collectively endorse the clergy's plan, but they acknowledged differences of opinion within the community. Individual families were left to decide whether to place their children in the Church's care. As many as several hundred Jewish children survived the Holocaust in Polish monasteries—many of them were raised as Catholics.3 "On the danger of forced conversion" reveals that some Jewish people considered children to be the hope for a common future—a future that reflected notions of a Jewish identity rooted in past traditions.

For a comprehensive history of daily life in the Warsaw ghetto, see Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009).

For a history of the Oyneg Shabes project, see Samuel D. Kassow, Who Will Write Our History? Emanuel Ringelblum, the Warsaw Ghetto, and the Oyneg Shabes Archive (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).

See Ewa Kurek, Your Life Is Worth Mine: How Polish Nuns Saved Hundreds of Jewish Children in German-occupied Poland, 1939-1945 (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1997).

This is a quote from the Talmud emphasizing the high value assigned to human life in Judaism. The version included here specifically refers to Jewish life ("one soul of Israel").

An apparent reference to Friedrich Nietzsche's conception of the "Blonde Bestie," this term was first introduced in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and later appeared in On the Genealogy of Morality: "At the centre of all these noble races we cannot fail to see the beast of prey, the magnificent blond beast avidly prowling round for spoil and victory." From Friedrich Nietzsche 'On the Genealogy of Morality' and Other Writings Student Edition (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 23. It can serve as an indication for the importance of the archetype of the "Blonde Beast" within racist discourse of the time that the author of the document associates it with the essence of Nazism. For further reading, see: Steven E. Aschheim's The Nietzsche Legacy in Germany, 1890-1990 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1992).

Refers to the stipulation in Jewish law (Halacha) that one give his life rather than transgress a law. Although ordinarily one is permitted to transgress Halacha when life is endangered, certain sins require one to give his or her life rather than transgress (idolatry, sexual misconduct, and murder).

"To sanctify the name of God": to choose death rather than transgress any of God’s three cardinal laws (see footnote 3). Hebrew: kiddush ha-shem. See also the item Passover Prayer from Bergen-Belsen.

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"There shall not be found among you anyone who passes his son or daughter through fire…" Devarim/Deuteronomy 18:10.

Dedicated to my beloved daughter Miriam Sarah that was taken from us on the day of September 5th, 1942

The Danger of Forced Conversion

With the entry of Hitler’s army into Poland and its subsequent occupation came the escalating calamity of the Jews of that state.The wave of harassment and abuse was an ever-rising one. The edicts and persecutions, the pogroms and thefts, the tortures and the slaughters worsen as the time passed. The Jews of Poland, having been helpless in the face of its Polish persecutors even before, were now in a state of despair and powerlessness. We have reached a time unparalleled in the history of our people, though experienced and drenched in blood were our brothers and sisters.

People began deserting. One by one they began taking their own lives or converting away from Judaism. If the first phenomenon was not so prevalent, many converted their religion. It is known that according to the Nuremberg Laws, a convert down to the third generation is still considered as a Jew, and cannot integrate with Germans. However, the deserters thought that by accepting a new religion they will be relieved to some degree under its protection, and that they will find some sort of refuge under its wings. If their hopes are realized or not is irrelevant. The main thing is that the wave of conversion has passed on as fast as it came without leaving any impression on our people.

We were sure that the issue of conversion had come to an end since we knew that this was a step taken for solely practical reasons, and once conversion proves impractical, no one would want to convert.  

Unfortunately, we miscalculated the peril. The said danger of conversion appeared before us once again, this time in a different form, and no doubt, a more severe one.

This danger reappeared with the deportations, referred to as "resettlement." As the edict of these deportations affected all the Jews—men, women, and children—certain individuals, out of worry and compassion towards their children, began to give them to be raised and educated by Polish families. So costly was this option, even the wealthy among the Jews could not afford to maintain the necessary connections outside the ghetto. As a result, some parents resorted to handing their children to monasteries and other religious establishments, saying "we only do this to save our Jewish children, as it is said: 'the one who sustains one soul of Israel, as if he sustained a whole world.'1 And anyway this measure we are taking now is only until the conditions get better, and we would have never thought about educating our children in the spirit of Christianity, that is foreign to us. What we do now is only a mean of sustaining our children, the end justifies the means." This idea and such thinking became prevalent in the hearts of many Jews, and many others agreed with it. Even the leaders of Jewish-national parties approved of saving Jewish children by placing them in monastery affiliated religious schools, believing that this way they will be able to save many of whom.

This raises the question: "the body or the soul—which is more important?" The one who gives his children to be educated in a monastery, he may be saving them from the talons of the yellow beast.2 However, at the same time, that person risks their Jewish souls, as it is well known that the education in a monastery has only one goal—to add souls to the church of Christ. It is inconceivable that when a young boy or girl is educated by priests, their soul will stay unharmed, and they will manage to maintain their Jewish identity. It is comparable to burning the soul while the body remains—who dares to say that it is a worthy thing? 

Our forefathers knew that conversion out of Judaism is considered a mortal offence for it is written: "Let him be killed rather than transgress."3 Therefore they willingly and happily ascended the stake. Killed and slaughtered as martyrs4—their bodies were exterminated, their souls remained unsullied, like burned parchments whose words flew away and were not desecrated. Here we wish to do the exact opposite: to desert the soul and save the body, to burn the letters but save the empty parchments, or worse—write on them other letters whose content is entirely foreign to us and to our spirit.

Whoever has the slightest knowledge about the nature, character, and ways of the clergy, understands that it is for a good reason that they accept pupils with such open arms; proselytizing has been always their way to acquire new souls; even if they now pretend that they want to educate the children in their institution out of mercy and compassion that, the main reason for that kindness is still visible: converting the students, or in other words fishing in troubled waters. They want to take advantage of the fear of the parents who worry for their beloved children, and accept the latter into their establishments with one clear goal: to convert them to Christianity.

It is clear that it is not commiseration, as it was preached and taught by that man from Nazareth, that drives the clergy to feel compassion for our children. Otherwise they would have helped not only children but also elderly people. We are yet to hear that the clergy helped those who escaped from within the ghettos, knocking on doors unanswered in their search for refuge. Likewise, we are yet to hear of clergy campaigning in favour of the Jews, calling to stop exploiting them or not to hand them to the enemy.

Generation upon generation our people fought against the influence of the foreign spirit and an entire literature was dedicated to this effort; from the days of the Maccabees to the Middle Ages, from the times of forced conversion in Russia and later, when a peril of assimilation into foreign society was present. 

Are we to destroy all of this at once? 

Are we to betray the eternity of Israel and sell our sons to the barren?

I am confident that if we could hold a referendum on this question, the unanimous result would be that we will not pass our sons and daughters through heathen fire.


Warsaw, Chanukah, 5703 [1942]

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
Courtesy of the Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw
RG Number 15.079M
Date Created
December 1942
Page(s) 5
Author / Creator
Warsaw, Poland
Document Type Religious Text
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