Haredi Holocaust remembrance

New CD-ROM shatters misconceptions about haredi approach to the Holocaust.

haredi holocaust 224 AJ (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi holocaust 224 AJ
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A compilation of rabbinic literature written immediately after World War II that was recently released in CD-ROM form is breaking misconceptions about the haredi approach to the Holocaust. Called "History of the Shoah in Rabbinic Literature's Introductions," the CD-ROM contains prefaces and introductions to about 100 books written by rabbis who survived the Holocaust. The Conference on Jewish Claims Against Germany funded the project. "The common perception among researchers of the Holocaust has been that the haredi community as a whole, and rabbis in particular, remained silent about the Holocaust," said Esther Farbstein, an educator who teaches Holocaust studies and trains teachers at Jerusalem College (Michlala Yerushalayim) and is the author of Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust. "At first it was thought that rabbis who had gone through the Holocaust simply refrained from relating their experiences," she said. "They did not consider it appropriate for a rabbi, who is a public figure, to write a personal memoir." "But we soon began to discover a hidden treasure of memoirs that were not written as separate books," she added. "Rather, they were written as a preface or an introduction to legal treatises, exegesis or homiletics." Farbstein said some of the memoirs were surprising. For instance, Rabbi Ya'acov Avigdor, who eventually ended up in the US, reprinted his halachic treatise Helek Ya'acov in 1950 with a long introduction. A good portion of it is devoted to rebuffing claims of Jewish passivity during the Holocaust. He goes to great lengths to explain why physical resistance was impossible. "This was at a time when even secular Israelis were just beginning to talk about it," Farbstein said. Secular Zionists have made efforts to emphasize the isolated incidents of physical rebellion during the Holocaust, even setting Holocaust Remembrance Day on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. In contrast, haredim have tended to emphasize the spiritual courage of Holocaust victims. Avigdor also recounted the long discussions that took place in a rabbinic court in Drovitz, a town located in modern-day Ukraine, over whether it was permitted to pose as a Christian to save one's life. The rabbis debated whether Christianity was a form of idol worship, and therefore posing as a Christian was forbidden, even at the price of giving up one's life. The court ruled that not only was it permitted to pose as a Christian, it was also an act of bravery since the reason for doing so was to preserve the Jewish people. Avigdor's admission about posing as a Christian would be considered controversial in haredi circles. In another introduction, Rabbi Moshe Natan Lemberger of Hungary recounts how he risked his life to obtain oil to light a hanukkia. He later debated whether it was permitted to endanger his life for the oil. Dr. Havi Dreifuss (formerly Ben-Sasson), a Mandel scholar at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Scholion Institute, said study of the Holocaust in the haredi community had developed in recent years. "Yad Vashem has created a special department for the haredi community and textbooks dealing with the Shoah are being learned in haredi schools," he said. However, Dreifuss said, the haredi approach to history was fundamentally different from the secular approach. "In haredi society, history is used as an educational tool," he said. "As a result, historical truths that have negative messages are not taught. But unfounded or false stories that have positive pedagogical or religious meaning will be." Dreifuss said the introductions included in the compilation were written by rabbis immediately after the war, which gave them particular importance. "Testimonies recorded right after the war do not have the limitations of those recorded many years later, which are often influenced by a more distant historic perspective," he said. Religious Jews will commemorate on Wednesday, the Tenth of Tevet, the memory of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Relatives of Holocaust victims who do not know the exact date of death of their loved ones will recite Kaddish, the prayer for mourners. In the days leading up to the Tenth of Tevet, religious and haredi schools visited Yad Vashem and conducted memorial services or took part in special lectures and seminars on the Holocaust. The Chief Rabbinate set the Tenth of Tevet, the fast day commemorating the beginning of the Roman siege of Jerusalem, as a day for Holocaust remembrance, instead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which takes place during Nissan. According to tradition, outward signs of sorrow, such as fasts, are discouraged in Nissan.