“I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent” – Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook. It is with this sentiment, that I share my thoughts as we approach Yom HaShoah v’HaGvurah, the Day of Remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism.
On December 31, 1941, after more than half the Jews of the Vilna Ghetto had been executed by the Germans in the nearby Ponary forest, Aba Kovner, leader of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement in the ghetto, told an assembly of Jewish youth: “Hitler plans to destroy all the Jews of Europe, and the Jews of Lithuania have been chosen as the first in line. We will not be led like sheep to the slaughter. The only reply to the murderer is a revolt! Better to fall as free fighters than to live by the mercy of the murderers.” In the end, there was no revolt in the Vilna Ghetto because the people there were opposed to resistance against the Germans. Vilna was not the only ghetto where the Jews wanted to believe they had a chance to survive, but the fear that resistance to the Germans would result in their destruction prevented the Jews of Europe from physical resistance against the Nazis. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out on April 19, 1943, after 270,000 Jews had been sent to their deaths in Treblinka during the summer and fall of 1942 without any resistance.
Could events in the areas occupied by the Germans have developed differently? Could the Jews in the free world have influenced the turn of events? Raul Hilberg, the great historian who wrote the monumental work The Destruction of the European Jews, criticized what he called the Jewish collapse under the German assault. For 50 years, Yad Vashem refused to publish his book in Hebrew because, in addition to detailing the crimes of the Germans, he ventured to criticize the victims. Though I think it’s absolutely unfair to criticize the reactions and inactions of those that suffered through the Shoah, I think it’s integral to point out the ways people today can fight antisemitism and make sure the Holocaust will never happen again.
German Jewry, the first victims of the Nazi regime, represented one of the oldest established Jewish communities in Europe. Until 1933, German Jews had been widely regarded as a virtual model instance of the success of emancipation, and of the creative interaction between the Jews and their non-Jewish environment. Most German Jews considered themselves no less German than any of their Christian countrymen. Some 12,000 Jews died for Germany on the battlefields of World War I. During the first days of the Nazi regime, it was difficult for them to grasp that anyone could strip them of their German rights and identity. After the initial shock, German Jewry began to reorganize in response to their new circumstances. Already in April 1933, the Central Committee for Help and Reconstruction was established, which coordinated the wide-ranging welfare activities of the Jewish community. On September 17, 1933, the National Representation of the German Jews came into being and assumed responsibility for overall political representation.
As a small minority living under a violent authoritarian regime, German Jewry could not mount a political opposition against the Nazis. Their hope was that through negotiations carried out between the Jewish leadership and the regime, the status of the Jews in Germany could be settled in a tolerable fashion. As the isolation of the Jews increased, the Jewish organizations focused on social work and aid to the needy. They established a Jewish educational system for children who had been ousted from the German educational system. They fostered adult education and founded theKulturbund, an organization in which Jewish artists of various types could find expression. By the mid-1930s, the Jewish organizations increasingly emphasized activities that fostered emigration. They disseminated information about various countries of destination, and they offered language and vocational classes. This wide range of activities continued until increased Nazi hostility in November 1938. As the “Final Solution” came closer to its goal, the German Jews knew that there was nothing they could do to save themselves physically.
The Jewish response to the Holocaust is twofold. Firstly, as a minority in all but one country, Israel, we are under constant threat of violence and annihilation. As such, we must be prepared to defend ourselves physically. I’m not advocating for every Jewish male to hide a gun under his kippah, or girls to hide knives under their skirts. I’m just saying that we need to always be vigilant, follow safety protocol, and ready ourselves should the need to defend ourselves arrive.
The second response is simply to live as a Jew. What does that actually mean? I think there is one all-encompassing line that defines what living as a Jew is all about. These are the opening words of the Shulchan Aruch, the standard code of Jewish law, יתגבר כארי לעמוד בבוקר לעבודת בוראו שיהא הוא מעורר השחר “One should strengthen himself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve his Creator.” Simply put, what does it mean to be a Jew? A Jew should not be lazy, but rather have an excited, upbeat attitude about life, and a will to serve Hashem.
Thoughts regarding the role of G-d in history, personal protection and the general question of the suffering righteous accompanied the faithful from the days of the Tanach, however, the systematic murder of European Jews and the near annihilation of Ashkenazi Jewry throughout the Holocaust served to intensify these theological and philosophical issues. Nevertheless, we must distinguish between the Jews dealing with issues of faith throughout the Holocaust era as opposed to the variety of theological issues raised by the Holocaust in the post-war era.
A major part of contemporary dialogue on “faith after the Holocaust” reflects the views and life of individual survivors approaching the subject of the Holocaust as being a traumatic event in one’s past, as opposed to the reality during the war period. Many Jews who had lived under the Nazi occupation, sought for a rationale for the horrifying events they had experienced, and those that adhered to Jewish law sought to find purpose in their suffering. The questioning in itself and demand for a rationale for the persecution reveals the state of bewilderment and confusion that had pervaded the whole Jewish community throughout the period.
Among the few rabbis who left behind written well-structured proofs which attempt to confront the questions of faith and protection was Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira ztkl, the Rav of Piaseczna, best known for his sefer Chovas HaTalmidim. His writings include a collection of messages given in the Warsaw Ghetto on Shabbasos and Chagim between the years 1940 and 1942. In his writings, Rabbi Shapiro hyd, develops the thought that Hashem is only revealed through pain, in the suffering within the ghetto and thus among the Jews themselves. By his reasoning, suffering facilitated the ability to catch “rays of G-d” by means of a particular attitude toward suffering or the whole of Israel. He held the view that drawing near to HaKadosh Baruch Hu required the pain of the individual to extend to the pain of all and unite with the suffering masses. Rav Shapiro depicted G-d as suffering with his people based on a Pasuk from Yeshayahu (63:9) “for in all their suffering He suffers”. The Rav from Piaseczna was apparently murdered by the Nazis towards the end of 1943 and his drashos were found after the war in the “Oneg Shabbat” archives.
Another response to the questions concerning faith can be found in the writings of Rabbi Shimon Huberband ztkl, a young Rabbi from Warsaw, imprisoned during the war in the Warsaw Ghetto. At the outbreak of the war, Rabbi Huberband hyd, lost his wife and his only son. In Warsaw, as a friend of Dr. Emanuel Ringelblums, the Rav took an active part in the aid services and functioned in a central role in the underground publishing, what later became the “Oneg Shabbat” archives. His compositions, characterized by his penetrating and non-compromising insights, have been compiled in the book Kiddush Hashem and deal with the issue of the Jewish faith during the war era. Rabbi Shimon Huberband was sent to Treblinka during the mass deportation of the Warsaw Ghetto in the summer of 1942, where he was murdered at the age of thirty-three.
In lieu of the awful reality, there were those who sought to justify the judgment never doubting the divine providence. Others viewed what was happening as a punishment for sins or for the modern secularization among the Jewish people. Then there were those who concluded that it was beyond their ability to comprehend or provide an explanation; parts of the Jewish community turned heretical in face of the reality of the cruelty and terrible violence, those who publically denounced all belief in Hashem. Surprisingly there were also examples of non-Jewish individuals who chose to convert to Judaism during this time.
A highly regarded as a scholar Rabbi Ephraim Oshry ztl, who served as the spiritual leader of the Kovno Ghetto during the Holocaust, was presented with many questions about Jewish law amidst the hardships of ghetto life. Rabbi Oshry wrote the questions and answers on scraps of paper torn from concrete sacks, placed these notes into tin cans, and then buried them. These questions reflect the dilemmas faced by Jews in the Holocaust and serve as a historical record of how the Jews in the Kovno Ghetto were determined to live by Jewish law despite the inhumane, horrifying conditions. Rabbi Oshry miraculously survived the war. However, his beloved wife and children were murdered in the concentration camps. He later remarried, to a woman who herself was a survivor of Auschwitz. After the liberation of Kovno in August 1944, Rabbi Oshry retrieved the hidden archive and published five volumes of responsa.
One such example of these questions from the depths of hell is as followed: On May 7, 1942, the Germans issued an edict that if a Jewish woman in the Kovno Ghetto was found pregnant, they would immediately kill her. The very day the edict was issued, a pregnant Jewish woman passed by the ghetto hospital. A German noticed her swollen belly and shot her for violating the German order against reproduction. His bullet penetrated her head, and she fell dead on the spot. A Passerby immediately carried her into the hospital, thinking there might be a chance to save her or the baby. Since she had clearly been in her final weeks of pregnancy, a Jewish obstetrician was rushed over. He said that if surgery was performed immediately, the baby could be saved. Since Rabbi Oshry had witnessed this shocking murder and was present in the hospital, he was asked if, according to Halachah, it was permissible to perform the Caesarian section. Since no one could be sure that the baby was still alive, was there a halachic concern with the desecration of the dead mother? In addition, in the remote possibility that the mother was still alive, cutting open her abdomen would surely kill her.
The Rav ztkl responded: “It was clear to me that when a doctor who knows his medicine rushes to operate minutes after a woman’s death, declaring that the baby can be saved, one must listen to him because the issue at that moment is saving the baby’s life. Where saving a life is involved, we are not concerned with the desecration of the dead. In this case, the mother would be overjoyed if desecration of her body meant that her baby’s life would be spared.” Rabbi Oshry, therefore, ruled that the operation proceed as quickly as possible. As it states in the Talmud: “Whoever saves a single Jewish life is credited with saving an entire world.”
The baby, miraculously, was born alive. However, to with great sorrow, any hope was instantly shattered. The Nazis, famously known for meticulously keeping records of the living and dead, soon entered the hospital to record the name of the murdered woman in their book of the dead. When they found the baby alive, their savage fury unleashed. One of the German soldiers grabbed the infant and cracked its skull against the wall of the hospital room, in the presence of the Rabbi and others.
From the depths of hell on earth, the Jews in the Kovno Ghetto did the absolute most that they could to adhere to Halachah and ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. Today, sadly, intermarriage has become the norm. In the 1980s and ’90s, high-profile demographic studies showed that the rate of Jews marrying non-Jews had escalated dramatically. In particular, the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, which studied those “identifying as Jewish”, reported that 52 percent of American Jews were intermarrying. Though a later analysis indicated that the number was actually around 43 percent, that number is still huge! What was once incomprehensible, is now mainstream. The same study done in 2001 showed the intermarriage rate for Jews in America at 47%. There is now some discussion about Jewish continuity and whether the majority of the Jewish population, particularly in North America, would vanish by assimilating into “Western society”. Six million people, men women, and children died for the sole reason that they were Jewish! Today, more Jews than ever are turning their backs on their people and their heritage.
A story was told by George Rohr, an American philanthropist, at a convention for the Shlichim of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in 1996. Mr. Rohr related how he had the privilege to meet the Rebbe on one occasion just after Rosh Hashanah. Mr. Rohr thought it appropriate to present the Rebbe with a “spiritual” gift. A short time before, he had set up a beginners service at his shul in Manhattan, and on Rosh Hashanah, 120 Jews attended this new service. Mr. Rohr decided to announce this to the Rebbe and was sure the Rebbe would receive much nachas from this good news. When his turn arrived, he confidently strode up to the Rebbe and said, “Thank G–d, this Rosh Hashanah we set up a beginners service in our shul and had 120 Jews with no Jewish background participate!” Until that point the Rebbe had a broad smile on his face, but when Mr. Rohr told him the news the Rebbe’s face dropped, and Mr. Rohr searched his words for anything he may have said that had upset the Rebbe. “What?!” said the Rebbe. Mr. Rohr repeated, “… 120 Jews with no Jewish background.” “No Jewish background?” asked the Rebbe. “Go and tell those Jews that they are all children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov.” Now Mr. Rohr understood. The Rebbe objected to these Jews being described as having no Jewish background. Every Jew has a very illustrious background – they are all sons of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, descendants of priests and kings, children of the people who heard g-d at the foot of Sinai!
With outreach organizations like Chabad, Aish HaTorah, and NCSY, just to name a few, there are no excuses anymore! Even with the Pittsburgh massacre, Poway Shooting, and other antisemitic incidents, it’s never been so easy to be a Jew and live as a Jew. To me, the message of the Holocaust is not simply “Never Again”. Yes, because of our persecution throughout the ages, we should be sensitive and work to end suffering and genocides, but that’s simply a matter of human morality. The message of the Shoah is “Never Again for us”. Simply put, that means that we have to live our lives as Jews and defend our people and our nations, no matter the “potential consequences”. In the words of the famous Russian author Leo Tolstoy, “The Jew is the symbol of eternity… He is the one who for so long had guarded the prophetic message and transmitted it to all mankind. A people such as this can never disappear.”