The Holocaust: Where Was God? Some Thoughts on Yom HaShoah
“I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to Him for that reason.”
– Elie Wiesel
The number is 391111. It is the number from the page of testimony in the central database of Shoah victims listed in Yad Vashem’s Holocaust memorial representing a murdered person. Thankfully, someone took time and care to recognize this person once belonged, loved, breathed, and lived. To help keep the memory of number 391111 alive, I keep an old, worn photograph of him and his family on my desk. According to the database, 391111 perished in Trostenets, Belorussia, when the Nazi killing machine spread like ravenous wolves through the city in the early 1940s. On Yom HaShoah I remember my father’s uncle Schlomo Boxermann (number 391111) his wife, Sima (number 374566), and their murdered family.
The Shoah creates a moral dilemma for me. If God commissions me with a moral mandate to show empathy to the afflicted, should not the One who set the standard, at the bare minimum, be present and accounted for when people suffer, especially His chosen people? For me, the deep question of the Holocaust is, where was God, and why did He allow it? The Shoah is the single most catastrophic event in modern times, and yet the God I believe in did not intercede. This raises several questions: Is God indifferent to human suffering? Is He powerless to interfere in the face of such horror? Was there divine providence involved that we cannot understand?
Historians say there was not one Jew who survived the death camps with their faith unaltered. When you experience such terrible human suffering, it’s little wonder many survivors and relatives of the victims have asked the question, “Where was God?”
Elie Wiesel survived both the Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps. His book, Night, is a record of the atrocities of the camps, the memory of the loss of his family, and the theft of his childhood innocence. In it, he recalls the day the Nazis hung three Jewish prisoners from the gallows. One of them was a young child.
“To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows…the boy was silent. ‘Where is merciful God, where is He?’ Someone from behind me was asking. At the signal the three chairs are tipped over. Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting. ‘Caps off!’ Screamed the Lageralteste. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping. ‘Cover your heads!’ Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…And so he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished. Behind me, I heard the same man asking, ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallows.’”
Many have debated these words of Elie Wiesel. How is it that God was hanging from the gallows in a death camp? By painting this picture of God on the gallows, I think Wiesel challenges the justification of resenting God because of suffering. There is something about the character and capacity of God that requires him to suffer with us. Isaiah 63:9 affirms this: “In all their (Israel’s) afflictions, He (God) was afflicted.” Because God abounds in steadfast love, to view Him as unfeeling and uncaring would erase His very essence. If God does not suffer with us in our afflictions, then God does not abound in love and therefore ceases to exist.
Jewish actor Geza Rohrig starred in a movie about the Holocaust, Son of Saul, and he has something to say about the suffering of God: “But it wasn’t God who rounded up the Jews and the Gypsies and the Soviet POW’s and the gays and the perfectly German mental patients and the perfectly German midgets and slaughtered them. We did it. The human family did it….He could and should have stopped it at a much earlier stage. But I would not be able to get up from my bed in the morning, let alone pray, if I didn’t fully believe that God somehow was there holding the hands of each and every Jew in the gas chamber. I think there is room for me to believe, as irrational as it sounds, that since God is all-capable, in some mysterious way, He suffered along and was there. If I wasn’t able to believe this, I don’t know why I’d take my next breath.”
There are reports that people often heard singing as Jewish men, women, and children were being led to the gas chambers. One of the songs they sang as they awaited the diesel engines to cough and spurt out dizzying and stomach-turning fumes, pumping Ziklon B gas into innocent lungs was inspired by Deuteronomy 6, and is known as the Shema:
“Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
And as for you, you shall love the Lord your God
with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.”
Remarkably, these Jewish martyrs, systematically hunted down by the Nazis in every fissure and crack in Europe, their gaunt and dehydrated bodies crammed and pressed by strong Aryan backs into cattle cars with no ventilation or light, carried to torture and death solely because they were God’s chosen people, whisper out their final breaths lauding this same God as worthy of their total love and devotion. This is heart-wrenching. You would think their voices would have been lifted in defiance toward the God of heaven. Instead, they sing Him an anthem of praise.
The same phenomenon of devotion amid great suffering is found in the Gestapo prison in Cologne, Germany. The cells in the belly of this behemoth were built to house two inmates, but the German high command was fixated on a frenetic killing spree and required more victims waiting in the wings. So, the Germans forced thirty people into a nine-by-nine space. On the bitter-cold stone walls of these cells, over 1,800 graffiti scrawls were left behind. One of the most poignant is this poem:
“I believe in the sun.
Even when it is not shining.
And I believe in love,
Even when there’s no one there.
And I believe in God,
Even when he is silent.”
The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks recalled the first time he went to Auschwitz, he broke down and wept and asked himself, “God where were you?” He then describes what happened next:
“And words came into my mind. I’m not claiming they were any kind of revelation, but this is what they said: ‘I was in the words, You shall not murder. I was in the words, You shall not oppress the stranger. I was in the words that were said to Cain when he killed Abel, Your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.’” And suddenly I knew that when God speaks and human beings refuse to listen, even God is helpless in that situation. He knew that Cain was about to kill Abel, but He didn’t stop him, He knew Pharaoh was about to kill Israelite children. He didn’t stop it. God gives us freedom and never takes it back. But He tells us how to use that freedom. And when human beings refuse to listen, even God is powerless.”
As I gaze at the picture of Schlomo and Sima and their family on my desk and mourn their loss and the loss of generations of their future descendants, I wonder, during Yom HaShoah what redemptive message God desires to bring from their sacrifice? Maybe the greatest redemption is found in memory itself. By remembering the victims, we become what Elie Wiesel once called the “messengers’ messengers.” If we can find God in the midst of the tragedy and suffering of the Holocaust, then maybe we can become the messengers of His words Rabbi Sacks spoke of to a world filled with malevolence, intolerance, and hatred on the one hand and on the other a world despairing without hope.