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Holocaust remembrance and Orthodox Jews

“That is what bothered me the most. I could even picture unaffiliated Jews leaving the museum and assuming that traditional Judaism no longer even exists."

February 23, 2015 21:50
Holocaust survivors

Holocaust survivors at Auschwitz.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Almost seventy years after the end of World War II, the Holocaust occupies a more prominent position today in our consciousness than ever before. Concomitantly, Holocaust remembrance -- in books, films and memorial museums – has become a burgeoning industry. And when it comes to producing these forms of Holocaust remembrance, Orthodox Jewry has, until recently, taken a back seat to other streams of Judaism.

How, then, do the Orthodox view Holocaust remembrance today, in general, and Holocaust memorials, in particular? Boro Park is an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn with one of the largest concentrations of Holocaust survivors and their children.

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On one cold, brisk Sunday in early December, I met there with Mrs. Feige Ferber in her well appointed, cozy home. Mrs. Ferber has been a resident of Boro Park, Brooklyn since 1958, when her parents, both Holocaust survivors, and siblings moved there from Mt. Kisco, New York.

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Mrs. Ferber, a grandmother many times over, has served for the past 18 years as the Executive Director of the Manhattan High School for Girls.

Feige’s father, Mordechai Szimonowitz, o.b.m., originally from Czechoslovakia, and her mother, Chaya Chana (nee Teller), o.b.m., originally from a small town in Hungary, came as a teenagers to Budapest during World War II to “hide” as gentiles with false papers.

Mordechai’s masquerade was so successful that he was hired as a doorman and translator at the Nazi headquarters in Budapest, a position which enabled him to save and help many Jews. Chaya Chana was once included in a group of Jews rounded up and forced onto a truck headed for the trains to Auschwitz.

While the truck was moving, she jumped off and ran into the woods. Then she managed to obtain another set of false papers and resumed working in Budapest.

While both of Feige’s parents escaped the concentration camps and survived the war, all four of her grandparents were murdered, together with most of her aunts and uncles. As a child growing up in Boro Park, she recalls having been jealous of the few friends who had any grandparents at all. “For us,” she laments, “grandparents were simply non-existent.”

Accompanying a Manhattan High School trip a few years ago, Feige visited the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. There she watched video clips and period film footage of the Holocaust. “I felt as if I was seeing my family being deported,” she shares with me. “It brought back all of those bitter memories of not having grandparents and of my parents having to struggle to survive.”

Shortly after Yad Vashem opened their New Wing in ’05, Feige and her husband, Yisroel Meir, were in Israel and went to see the new memorial.

What was the reaction of this Orthodox child of survivors to that state-of- the-art museum? “Gutt in Himmel (G-d in Heaven)!” Feige fumed to her husband. “This place has no Yiddische tam [Jewish flavor].”

And she was determined never to return. What bothered her so much about the New Wing?  “Too much was missing,” she explains.

“Where was the example of the Klauzenberg Rebbe giving blessings to dozens of orphaned girls in a D.P. camp on Erev Yom Kippur; or the Satmar Rebbe rebuilding his entire community; or, all of the Roshei Yeshivos who re-established their yeshivas?”

“The impression I had after leaving Yad Vashem was that there was no Orthodox Judaism left after the war,” Feige recalls today.
“That is what bothered me the most. I could even picture unaffiliated Jews leaving the museum and assuming that traditional Judaism no longer even exists. Look around today at the Orthodox communities all over the world. Look at what we’ve been able to rebuild from the ashes. It is truly miraculous and inspiring. And it represents the ultimate victory over Hitler.”

What gave Feige the impression that Yad Vashem’s message was that Orthodox Judaism was wiped out during the war? “For one thing,” she points out, “there was no mention of the successful rebuilding of Jewish life during the last seventy years. And, secondly, not one of the many survivors whose videotaped testimonies are played throughout the museum was recognizably frum [Orthodox].”

The objections of Feige Ferber and others like her in the Orthodox community have fallen on deaf ears at Yad Vashem. In August ’13, I conveyed these sentiments in person to a high ranking administrator at Yad Vashem. “After the chagim [Jewish holidays],” I was told, “We will get back to you.” As more than a year has passed since that “off the record” meeting, the prolonged silence from Yad Vashem is deafening.

The Orthodox community itself, however, has heard and responded to the unmet need for Holocaust remembrance catering to Orthodox Jewry. Mrs. Ruth Lichtenstein’s Project Witness, for example, has produced riveting video documentaries and published a groundbreaking Holocaust history text book, Witness to History, which not only records all of the decimated Orthodox communities but also showcases the countless acts of spiritual heroism in the ghettos and concentration camps where the flame of Torah study and observance was kept burning.

Furthermore, the Kleinman Family Holocaust Education Center is collecting artifacts and memorabilia to be included in the first American Holocaust museum under Orthodox auspices which is scheduled to be opened this year in Boro Park.

“I definitely plan to visit the Kleinman Holocaust museum as soon as it opens,” Feige emphasizes. “Hopefully they will be including a videotaped testimony of my late father-in-law, Shlomo Ferber, o.b.m., describing his experiences in Manheim, Germany during Kristalnacht, which my brother-in-law donated. Now, that museum should have a Yiddische tam [Jewish flavor].”

Dr. Meir Wikler is a psychotherapist and family counselor in full-time private practice with offices in Lakewood, N.J. and Brooklyn, N.Y.

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