Berkeley scholar exalts father who archived life in the ghetto

Last Shabbat morning, Naomi Seidman stood in the women’s section of Warsaw’s Nozyk Synagogue and prayed. The setting moved her deeply. This was the same shul where her late father, Hillel Seidman, often davened prior to the Holocaust, when Jews made up 30 percent of the city’s population.

The Koret professor of Jewish culture and lecturer in Jewish studies at Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union was in Poland to give an April 21 lecture about her father on the 70th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Herded into the ghetto, Hillel Seidman kept a famous diary describing daily life there. It has been available in English but soon will be translated into Polish for the first time.

Naomi Seidman sports a memorial “daffodil.” photo/taube philanthropies

“My father was the archivist of the pre-war Warsaw Jewish community,” Seidman said in an interview. “He wrote in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish, and was a Ph.D. of Jewish history.”

Seidman’s ghetto archives often are overshadowed by the famous Emmanuel Ringelblum Archives — a treasure trove of diaries, memoirs, artwork and artifacts buried in 1943 in three caches, two of which were found a few years after the war. Those materials are now housed in the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw.

Ringelblum escaped the ghetto, but he was captured and executed a few weeks before the uprising. Today he is revered as a visionary sociologist, archivist and martyr.

Hillel Seidman’s life was quite different. Whereas Ringelblum was a secular Marxist, Seidman was a Hassidic Jew, though a bit of an iconoclast. He spoke French, was well read and highly educated. Before the war, he served his community as official archivist.

He took those skills with him to the ghetto. There, he found a job as archivist and secretary to the Judenrat, the Jewish council set up by the Nazis to maintain order in the ghetto. His diary, written in Yiddish, offers a fascinating glimpse into life in the ghetto, and scholars have studied it ever since.

Hillel Seidman avoided certain death by escaping the ghetto in January 1943, though he ended up in Vittel, a prison camp in Vichy France. He was saved when he obtained a false Paraguayan passport, becoming one of only 12 people to survive Vittel.

He worked as a translator after the war, spent two years in Israel, and in 1950 came to the United States, where he worked as a Yiddish journalist. The youngest of four children, Naomi Seidman said her father was passionate about the Jewish people and amazingly resourceful at survival.

She recounted the story of how her mother, then Hillel Seidman’s wife-to-be, was approached by a woman on the streets of Paris. “Your fiancee saved my life,” she recalls the woman saying.

Another ghetto survivor, Gutta Sternbuch, wrote in her memoir that Seidman “worked tirelessly “on behalf of others, even though he had no official responsibility to do so. Whoever needed a favor knew Seidman would help, especially the yeshiva boys, who felt so lost in the harsh world of the ghetto.

Naomi Seidman said her father didn’t talk much about his past while she was growing up in an Orthodox,Yiddish-speaking family in Brooklyn, and he struggled to live between the secular and Hassidic worlds, never fully at home in either. But his daughter is proud of the work he did.

“He believed in the uprising,” she said. Of her presence this week in Warsaw she said, “I’m realizing how hard it is to believe that the Holocaust happened, and that I’m here.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.