THE PEOPLE & THE BOOK: Reading Esther after Auschwitz

After Auschwitz, the Purim story takes on a different feeling.

Illustration by Pepe Fainberg (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
Illustration by Pepe Fainberg
(photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)
ONCE AGAIN Jews throughout the world have listened to the reading of one of the most dramatic books of the Bible, which is also one of the most problematic – the Book of Esther. The book – known simply as the Megilla – the Scroll – is problematic for many reasons. Why does the Bible have a book that has no mention of God or commandments? Who wrote it and why? Is it historical or fiction? What are we supposed to learn from it? Is it a serious work or a satire? There are many different ways in which one may approach the understanding of any book. One is to try to discern what the author meant. Another is to take the position that once a book is written, the meaning lies not in what the writer intended but in what the reader understands. If we adopt the first approach, most current scholars would probably say that the writer intended to create a story that would explain why Persian Jews celebrated a carnival-like festival at a certain time of year. To justify their doing so, they adapted an ancient Persian myth about a struggle among the gods and made it an account of the triumph of Jews over their enemies. Of course that is not what Jewish tradition says. It understands the book as the account of a historical event and explains the absence of the Divine Name as portraying the role of God as a hidden force behind the triumph of the Jews.
If we take the second approach, there can be no one answer. Each person will have to give his/her own reply as to what he/she finds in the book and learns from it. Some might say that it teaches that we must take responsibility for continued Jewish existence, as Esther did. Or that Jews should always try to attain positions of power and maintain good contacts with the authorities when they live in Diaspora communities.
Others may think that there is a Zionist message hidden there: why live in places like that when you can live in a Jewish state? Perhaps the message is the opposite: life in the Diaspora is good and should be encouraged.
After all, the book takes place after some Jews had already returned to Zion, yet that option is never even mentioned. Or one might come to the conclusion that this is simply a melodramatic comedy fantasy and that things like this do not really happen.
Sometimes the way we understand a book is influenced by events that have occurred in our times that could not possibly have been known by the author of the book. We, however, can read it in the light of those events and our understanding is influenced by them. Our experiences may cause us to see things differently than the author saw them.
I believe that in the case of the Megilla, living in a post-Shoah era, i.e. after Auschwitz, the Purim story takes on a different feeling.
Prior to the Shoah it might have been possible to simply enjoy the story, knowing how it would end, and to delight in the triumph of the Jews. The verse “The Jews enjoyed light and gladness, happiness and honor” (Esther 8:16) could have been seen as summing up our feelings after reading that story.
We could easily have basked in the illusion that things would always turn out well for the Jews as it did in ancient Shushan.
True, in the past Jews did suffer and Jews were killed and were often persecuted or in danger, but they were never really threatened with total annihilation. I once studied with Prof. Salo Baron, the dean of Jewish historians, and he pointed out that we often exaggerate Jewish suffering as if all of Jewish history was one long tale of woe, a lachrymose tale, forgetting the times when Jews lived relatively comfortably and flourished in their exile. Muslim states, he reminded us, tolerated Jews as ‘the people of the book.’ The Church may have kept Jews in a lowly position, but wanted them alive to testify as to what happens to those who reject the true messiah. Furthermore their conversion is necessary to bring about the second coming. Spain expelled the Jews but did not execute them and the same was true of so many other countries. Russia had pogroms and put them all in the Pale of Settlement, but Jewish life flourished there as it did in pre-war Poland.
All of that changed with the Holocaust.
Only with the Shoah did Haman’s plan “to destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women” take on full reality. Those words could have been Hitler’s, not Haman’s. Was he familiar with them? For indeed Hitler spelled out the details of exactly how to accomplish what Haman desired and came all too close to doing so. The only difference is that Haman’s fiendish plan of extermination extended only to the 127 provinces of the Persian Empire, while Hitler’s extended to the entire world. Considering what that evil man succeeded in doing in the lands he conquered in Europe, I do not even want to contemplate what would have happened had he extended his rule to all of Russia, England and even the United States.
THE BOOK of Esther is the Holocaust with a happy ending. Reading it now after Auschwitz one can only feel that the story is a melodrama in which the last minute rescue is so unlikely that it could never have occurred in real life. Don’t believe it. The Jews are saved because a Jewish girl won a beauty contest? The Shoah has no happy end. We survived it as a people, but one third of all the Jews in the entire world were murdered and countless others suffered in ways we cannot begin to imagine. Whole communities of Jews were obliterated and will never be replaced. Great Jewish civilizations, Lithuania, Poland, were completely destroyed and never restored. We are here to tell the tale and for that we are thankful, but we cannot feel joy and light as if a catastrophe had never occurred.
Philip Roth wrote a fictional account of America in which Charles Lindbergh became president and imagined what that would have meant. There have been similar discussions of what England would have been had Churchill not been Prime Minister but some German sympathizer had instead come to peace terms with Hitler. In all those cases someone is imagining how much worse things could have been – and almost were. In the opposite way, one can almost read the Book of Esther as if it were written to tell us how much better things could have been if only…. Perhaps someone could write a fictional account of the Shoah using the Book of Esther as a pattern. Hitler would be Haman and Paul von Hindenburg would be Ahasuerus. But after appointing Hitler as Chancellor, von Hindenburg would somehow be influenced by an Esther-like character not to grant him full powers but to have him arrested and executed. That would have been a happy end for Jews and Germans alike. Would that such had been the case! Charlie Chaplin came close to such a narrative when he made “The Great Dictator,” but that was before Hitler’s plans had been carried out fully and before anyone knew the truth of what was happening.
I am certain that we will go on reading the Megilla year after year as we have always done. We will enjoy blotting out the name of Haman and cheering the triumph of Esther and Mordecai and have our Purim banquets in imitation of the “days of feasting and merrymaking” (Esther 9:22) of the Jews of Persia. As the book says, “And these days of Purim shall never cease among the Jews…” (Esther 9:28) mostly because we need the hope that it gives us for the continued existence of Jews and Judaism. But after Auschwitz the Megilla can never be read without feeling the darkness and the tragedy of the reality of the true story of a Haman who succeeded all too well. Auschwitz casts its dark shadow on the Book of Esther and embitters our laughter