Think Again: The spiritual response to the Holocaust

A key element of the Shoah narrative is now finally being told

0802-think (photo credit: Ghetto Fighters House)
(photo credit: Ghetto Fighters House)
Every society or nation writes history with an eye to inculcating a particular national ethos. Thus the historiography of the Holocaust in the nascent Jewish state tended to focus on acts of physical resistance - most notably the Warsaw Ghetto uprising - that were consonant with the image of the proud "new Jew" of outstanding bravery and belligerence. Spiritual responses to the Holocaust - mitzva observance in the ghettos and the death camps, attempts to preserve one's humanity amid unceasing degradation, the heart-wrenching halachic queries that were asked and answered - were either downplayed or ignored. Those who had gone to their deaths, in the words of partisan leader Abba Kovner "like sheep to the slaughter," seemed an embarrassment. (Toward the end of his life, Kovner would wonder whether his brother who refused to abandon their elderly mother in the Vilna Ghetto was perhaps the greater hero.) Evidence of that historiography can still be found in the new exhibition hall of Yad Vashem. Large photos of Jews lining up to purchase theater tickets in the Warsaw Ghetto are on display, but none of the six Bais Yaakov schools that continued to function, or of the celebration of holidays in the ghetto. One wall is dedicated to the great Jewish scientists and literary figures murdered in the Kovno Ghetto, but no picture is found of Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, who returned from America to rejoin his students and was murdered there, or of Rabbi Avraham Dovber Shapiro, the rav of Kovno and one of Europe's leading poskim. One can view the testimony of a survivor describing how he stole another prisoner's cap at night (after his had been similarly snatched), knowing that by doing so he consigned his victim to being shot the next morning. But there is no testimony of the almost superhuman acts of hesed done by one inmate for another, or of the starving prisoners who gave away their daily bread for the chance to pray from a siddur. The omissions are justified on the grounds that Yad Vashem is not a "sectoral museum," though between a third and a half of those murdered by the Nazis were believing Jews. TO REDRESS that balance, Esther Farbstein entered into the academic study of the Holocaust. She understood that people will naturally write about what they know best, so the history of spiritual responses to the Holocaust would have to be written by someone who inhabits the same spiritual universe. As a great-granddaughter of the Imrei Emes of Ger and wife of the rosh yeshiva of Hebron Yeshiva, she is eminently qualified to do so, immersed as she is in both the worlds of Hassidism and yeshiva learning. HER CLASSIC work B'seter Ra'am (see Psalms 81:8), recently translated into English in two-volumes as Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halacha and Leadership during the Holocaust, touches upon virtually every aspect of faith during and after the Holocaust - e.g., the role of rabbinic leadership, definitions of kiddush hashem when the choice whether to live or die had been taken away, and the efforts of the survivors to reconstruct their lives. Like the late Dr. David Kranzler, who opened up the whole study of the rescue work of Orthodox activists, Rebbetzin Farbstein is a fighting historian. She has appropriated the tools of academic historians and carried the battle to their own turf. Take her treatment of the famous speech given by Rabbi Mordechai of Bilgoraj on the eve of his departure together with his brother Rebbe Aharon of Belz from Budapest for Palestine. Rabbi Mordechai told his listeners that they had no reason to fear. That speech has been seized upon by secular historians as an example of a leading rebbe abandoning his flock. Yet even though Rabbi Mordechai spoke only three months before the German takeover of Hungary, no one, including communal leaders of all political stripes, anticipated the fate of Hungarian Jewry. There were no efforts to flee. As Polish refugees, however, the Belzer Rebbe and Rabbi Mordechai were subject to dangers - imprisonment and repatriation - that did not apply to Hungarian Jews at that time. If some official versions of the speech omit the 22 lines of reassurance, Farbstein argues, that is not because Belzer Hassidim are covering up Rebbe Aharon's abandonment, but out of embarrassment that the father of the present Belzer Rebbe proved so lacking in prophecy. Nor was the Belzer Rebbe a "model" of any pattern, as some historians have alleged. Of the 300 Lithuanian communal rabbis at the time of the Nazi invasion, no more than one or two survived. And the overwhelming majority of hassidic rebbes suffered the same fate as their hassidim. Farbstein documents how the Nazis sought not only to kill every Jew but to wage war against God and His Torah. She quotes the order of German high commander I.A. Eckhardt that no Eastern European Jews must be allowed to escape, for they constitute "a large proportion of the rabbis, Talmud teachers" and thus offer hope for the "spiritual renewal of United States Jewry." Elsewhere she cites the sadistic account of one German soldier of how the "Jews of Lublin gathered around the blazing books and wailed bitterly," as the Nazis made a bonfire of the huge library of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin. The belief that their torments were part of an ongoing cosmic struggle between Amalek and God gave comfort to Jews on the verge of death, and the strength to persevere to others. Religious thinkers struggled with the question of whether even those murdered without specific intent to sanctify God's name could be said to have fulfilled kiddush hashem. The hassidic emphasis on the idea of all Jews throughout history as part of one collective body provided one answer: When Isaac was bound on the altar, he had intent, but the action was not completed; during the Holocaust that original sacrifice of Isaac was completed, even by those who individually lacked intent. Esther Farbstein has shone light on previously hidden aspects of the Holocaust that cannot but enhance every Jew's identification with the collective Jewish people. Click here for more articles by Jonathan Rosenblum