Have you ever picked up an old, oversized Gemara and found its title page emblazoned with barbed wire and palm trees instead of the traditional pillar-and-lion motif of the Vilna Shas? This is the survivors’ Gemara, printed shortly after World War II. There used to be hundreds of them in shuls and batei medrash all over the world. People carelessly turned the pages back and forth, tearing and fraying their fragile, low quality paper. Now they are collectors’ items.
A HUNGER FOR MY WORD
After World War II, tens-of- thousands of Jewish survivors in Western Europe’s DP (Displaced Persons) camps thirsted more for spirituality than for food and water. All Jewish artifacts were in short supply – tzitzis, tefillin, and particularly seforim.
As the DP rabbi, Rav Shmuel Rose said at the time, “How great was the yearning for seforim! The books from overseas did not arrive quickly and, if a book did come, hundreds of hands reached out for it.”
Since the 5690s/1930s, the Nazis had been systematically destroying all the Jewish seforim they could lay their hands on, with the exception of thousands of seforim and Judaica set aside for “Project Rosenberg.” This project was the brainchild of the scatterbrained Nazi “philosopher,” Alfred Rosenberg, (one of the ten top Nazis sentenced to hang at Nuremburg), who had hit on the idea of preserving Jewish culture in a special museum in Bavaria. This, the Nazis imagined, would be the last vestige of the Jews when the Jews had been obliterated.
Although Rosenberg’s stockpiles provided the JDC (Joint Distribution Committee) with 24,000 books to distribute to Jewish DPs throughout Europe, this was not nearly enough.
The Vaad Hatzalah, led by gedolim like Rav Avraham Kalmanowitz (Yeshivah of Mir in New York) and Rav Eliezer Silver, strove to fill the shortage; by the end of 5707/1947,
they had printed 24,000 seforim ranging from Siddurim to the Shaagas Aryeh, plus 10,000 pocketsized Gemaros, many of them used to study Daf Hayomi.
From among these seforim, one thousand copies of Pirkei Avos were sent to friends and supporters of the Vaad Hatzalah back in the US, with the following inscription:
“Dedicated to you and to all friends and supporters of Vaad Hatzalah who, in thick and thin, realized their great moral obligation and responsibility and gave wholeheartedly to rescue their brethren and to rebuild their lives. May the Almighty bless you.”
The Vaad Hatzalah and the JDC worked in unison with the American Army’s ICD (District Information Service’s Control Department), which had two major functions: on the one hand, stamping out Nazi publishing and literature and, on the other hand, encouraging the printing and dissemination of literature that had been oppressed during the Nazi regime. Of course, this included seforim that had been a prime target of German destruction.
THE SURVIVORS’ DREAM
During this time, two survivors of the Dachau Concentration Camp, Rav Shmuel Abba Snieg, and his assistant, Rav Shmuel Yaakov Rose (of Slabodka Yeshivah), were inspired with a dream of printing the entire Shas.
To newly typeset the entire Shas was obviously out of the question; they would have to photo-print it from existing copies. A few volumes of Gemara had been discovered in a Munich cemetery and they were hoping to find more. Eventually, Rav Shlomo Shapiro, religious director of the JDC in Germany, solved the problem in one shot by bringing in two sets of Gemaros from New York.
Meanwhile, Rav Snieg approached Philip S. Bernstein, a member of the Reform clergy from Rochester, who was serving as third special Jewish advisor to the staff of General Joseph McNarney, Commander-in-Chief of the US Forces of Occupation in Germany. Bernstein liked Rav Snieg’s idea. Together with a deputation of DP rabbis, he traveled to McNarney in Frankfurt and explained the centrality of the Talmud to Jewish life, telling him that “a 1947 edition… published in Germany under the auspices of the American Army of Occupation would be a historic work.”
McNarney instructed army officials to look into their plan of printing 3,000 sixteen-volume sets of the Talmud on 1,200 printing plates of eight pages each. Army administrators in Berlin argued that the idea was totally unfeasible, pointing out that the total amount of paper available to the US army in their zone of occupation was 1,400 tons. Dividing that among sixteen million foreign nationals in Germany, who included only 190,000 Jews, meant that the Jews’ share of the paper was a little over 16 tons, and not all the Jews were interested in studying Gemara. So what justification was there in requisitioning 115 tons of paper to print the Talmud?
Based upon this logic, the army agreed to print fifty sets, while paper for anything beyond that would need to be provided by the Jews themselves. At this juncture, the JDC came to the rescue, undertaking to finance, print and distribute an additional 1,000 sets.
FROM DARKNESS TO LIGHT
The complicated printing job began in November 5708/1948, under the supervision of Rav Rose. Gemaros began rolling off the printing presses, their title page bearing the legend: “Published by the Vaad Agudas Harabbanim in the American Zone of Germany, with the assistance of the US Army-Governor and the Joint in Germany. Munich-Heidelberg.”
A special graphic, designed for the frontispiece, included a depiction of two Jews burying a murdered Jew in a concentration camp, surrounded by a frieze of barbed wire. Below this tableau is the pasuk, written by Dovid Hamelech during his years of persecution, “I almost perished in the land but I did not leave Your statutes.” At the top of the title page are landscapes of Eretz Yisroel, replete with palm trees and the rising sun, culminating in the citation from the Haggadah, “From slavery to redemption, from darkness to great light.”
Inside every volume is the following dedication to the US Army:
“This edition of the Talmud is dedicated to the United States Army. The Army played a major role in the rescue of the Jewish people from total annihilation, and their defeat of Hitler bore the major burden of sustaining the DPs of the Jewish faith. This special edition of the Talmud, published in the very land where, but a short time ago, everything Jewish and of Jewish inspiration was an anathema, will remain a symbol of the indestructibility of the Torah. The Jewish DPs will never forget the generous impulses and the unprecedented humanitarianism of the American Forces, to whom they owe so much.”
Due to shortages of paper and other essentials, and the German economic crisis, the project lasted much longer than envisioned and was only completed in 5710/1950. By that time, hundreds of thousands of Jews were streaming out of occupied Europe. Roughly between 5707/1947 and 5711/1951, about 340,000 survivors left for Eretz Yisroel, while about 58,000 moved to the US. So few Jewish DPs were left in Germany that it was only by special order of the army that forty of the sets they had paid for remained behind.
The Gemaros were sent to the ends the earth. Of the first shipment, 45 sets went to New York, 300 to Israel, 22 to France and Algeria, 10 to Italy, 5 to Hungary, 5 to Morocco, 3 to Tunisia, and a set each to South Africa, Greece, Yugoslavia, Norway, and Sweden.
Initially plans were afoot to turn this milestone into a historical event. Rav Shapiro, the JDC’s Director of Religious Affairs, wrote at the time in Munich, “We are planning a worldwide presentation: In Germany to General L. Clay (the US military governor in Berlin), in the United States to President Truman and General Eisenhower, and in Israel to Dr. Weitzman and Rav I. Herzog.”
In the end, Rav Shapiro’s plans came to naught when the JDC discovered that staging history required more influence and resources than they had available.
On the symbolic level, however, there is no doubt that the printing of this Talmud had profound implications.
As Rav Snieg and Rav Rose wrote at the time:
“In 1946, we turned to the American Army Commander to assist us in publication of the Talmud. In all the years of exile, it has often happened that various governments and forces have burned Jewish books. Never did any publish them for us. This is the first time in Jewish history that a government has helped in the publishing of the Talmud, which is the source of our being and the length of our days. The army of the United States saved us from death, protects us in this land and, through their aid, does the Talmud appear in Germany.”
A couple of years later in 5714/1954, Rav Rose was planning to print more sets of Gemaros from the printing plates he had produced with such mesiras nefesh, when it was discovered that his plates were worn out and could not print more than perhaps two hundred sets. This was not economically viable. The printing of the Survivors’ Gemaros had reached its end and remains a lasting symbol of Klal Yisroel’s unbroken spiritual yearnings after the most terrible destruction.
(Source: 1) Grobman Alex Ph.D. “The U.S. Army and the Talmud Providing the Talmud and Other Religious Texts to the Survivors;” a chapter from “Out of the Depths of Despair, The Vaad Hatzala in PostWar Europe.” 2) Korman, Gerd, “Survivors’ Talmud and the US Army,” American Jewish History, Volume 73, American Jewish Historical Society, 1983/84.)