Let the Light Shine on: Reassessing God’s role in the Holocaust

What was God’s role in the Holocaust? Was God a perpetrator, a bystander, or a savior?

Many of us have grappled with these questions: Where was God during the Holocaust? How could a God who loves us let such a thing happen? We question the role of everyone who seemed to be standing by and watching the Holocaust happen: the ordinary Germans, the Americans, the world. God is not immune.

There is an implication in these questions that God is somehow responsible, if not for the crime itself, then at least for not stepping in to prevent it. These questions paint God at best as an indifferent bystander, at worst as an actual perpetrator. In the story Elie Wiesel told about putting God on trial at Auschwitz, a group of rabbis actually declared God guilty of having broken the covenant made with the Jewish people.[1] Being good Jews, they then went to say their evening prayers. A guilty God is still God.

The view of God as guilty in the Holocaust may be changing, however. One step of that change can be seen in a 2017 video[2] by Israeli singer Gad Elbaz. The video shows Elbaz approaching Saul Dreier of the Holocaust Survivor Band. Gad offers to fulfill Saul’s dream of playing “Let the Light Shine On” in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the infamous location of some of Hitler’s most rabidly antisemitic speeches.

With the hand of God, we won

Dreier’s choice of this particular song is interesting.

“As the story of ancient miracles
Magically unfolds,
The light of eight candles
Revives the flame of hope.

“And the few fought the many,
The weak defied the strong,
The righteous dueled with evil,
With the hand of God, we won.”

Reading those lyrics, we can tell that “Let the Light Shine On” was originally written as a Chanukah song. The video, however, makes it clear that Elbaz and Dreier are using these lyrics in a Holocaust context. As they sing the words, “The righteous dueled with evil, with the hand of God, we won,” the Survivors in the band are shown walking down the tracks to Auschwitz, where they lay flowers on the gravestones. There can be no doubt that they are laying their survival at God’s feet.

In the context of Chanukah, that line fits right in with the standard narrative. In the context of the Holocaust, it reflects a major change in our thinking. No longer do we blame God for this terrible tragedy. Now, we give God the credit for our salvation.

Many Jewish holidays commemorate terrible tragedies our people endured. At some point, in the first generations after those tragedies, the people must have felt much as we have felt about the Holocaust. They must have been angry with God for letting such a horrible thing happen. We are, after all, the people of Israel, the people who wrestle with God.[3]

In every case, however, over time we have come to an understanding of God as responsible not for the tragedy but for our salvation from it. Although many individuals died, in the end we as a people survived. Eventually we came to recognize the hand of God in our survival, not in the death meted out to us by our fellow human beings.

Shifting the narrative

Three generations after the Holocaust, this story too is moving from immediate, traumatic memory to community history. In that transition, we are beginning to see this same narrative shift, from God as perpetrator to God as savior. The use of a Chanukah song for Holocaust remembrance is a sign of this shift. We are beginning to remember the Holocaust not only as a terrible tragedy but also as a story of our people’s strength and survival, like so many of our other holidays:

“Through the long and darkest times,
We found the strength to bear.
With the dawn past the raging storm,
The light appears once more.”

Gad Elbaz’ video does a beautiful job of both remembering those long, dark times and celebrating the new dawn. The Survivors in the band are shown standing on the steps of Auschwitz, telling their stories to a group of teary-eyed young men and women. Survivor and band-member Reuwen (Ruby) Sosnowiczin shares a hug with a red-eyed young man who has been listening to the stories. It’s okay, Ruby seems to be telling the young man. We survived this and life goes on. Survivors offering comfort to young people newly traumatized by their story is another aspect of this narrative shift. The strength and spirit of the Survivors is on full view here.

“And we faced a bitter enemy,
Rekindled by our faith,
And the spirit of our yesterday,
Strengthens our world today.”

Our world today is strengthened by their faith, their resilience, their strength, and their spirit. The members of the Holocaust Survivor Band stand in front of the Brandenburg Gate, tattooed arms raised high, and cry “Never Again.” Surrounded by a multi-national crowd, they sing “Let the light shine on,” and we believe that the light in all of us will continue to shine. With God on our side, not as perpetrator or bystander but as helper, we believe we can realize that promise of Never Again.

[1] Although many have considered this story apocryphal, in 2008 Elie Wiesel confirmed that it did occur and he witnessed it. Wiesel said, “At the end of the trial, they used the word chayav, rather than ‘guilty’. It means ‘He owes us something’. Then we went to pray.” This paints God as a bystander, but a culpable one. www.thejc.com/news/uk-news/wiesel-yes-we-really-did-put-god-on-trial-1.5056

[2] The video can be found at https://youtu.be/-9hY6SO6a1M

[3] “Israel” literally means “he who wrestles with God.” It is the name given Jacob after he wrestles with the angel: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have wrestled with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:28).

About the Author
Dr. Deborah Fripp is President of the Teach the Shoah Foundation and Holocaust Programs Coordinator at Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound, Texas. You can sign up to hear about her new blogs at www.teachtheshoah.org/#optin.
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