Spiritual or physical hunger?


I was terribly saddened by the memoir of R.Tzvi Meisels, ztz”l describing his blowing shofar in Auschwitz in 1944. I have, however, questions which really bother me.

So began a challenge from Dr.Tzvia Greenfield, who lives in the HarNof haredi neighborhood of Jerusalem (and ran on the Meretz ticket in the last election). I translated the episode into English (it turns out there are other translations) from the hundred Rabbinic Memoirs edited by Esther Farbstein.

Tzvia Greenfield continues her questioning:

The description of the Shofar blowing of Rabbi Meisels is undoubtedly heartbreaking. But why do you, Esther Farbstein or even (if I may say so) Rabbi Meisels himself assume that the weeping, shouts and begging of the young prisoners on the block awaiting their imminent execution had anything to do at all with his shofar blowing or with Rosh-Hashana in general?
Don’t you think that their heartbreaking crying and yelling was the natural result of their horrible fear from their imminent demise rather than from the sound of the shofar? Did they even HEAR the shofar?? Why attribute their behavior to the shofar blowing rather than simply to their incredible anxiety from death? Isn’t Rabbi Meisels (together with Esther Farbstein) a bit too presumptuous here?
Likewise with the bread for these poor youngsters destined to death: why assume that they begged so bitterly for a piece of bread for the purpose of “mitzva of the holiday meal” when it is so clear that they were simply dying of starvation?
Why assume that they clung to Rabbi Meisels because of his holiness rather
than simply because he was an adult who could perhaps save their lives – so they deluded themselves in their utter desperation? In short – why assume that the whole terrible scene described so touchingly by Rabbi Meisels had anything to do with Rosh Hashana or with any Jewish value?
To me the whole terrible event seems like a natural reaction to the immense fear of death and it has absolutely nothing to do with Yirat Shamayim or kiddush Hashem . I find it rather annoying or at least very problematic (and certainly not professional historically speaking) to attribute this whole experience to Jewish reasons. The poor young people were about to die, and they did not want to. So they cried. This is all. Horrible in its simplicity.
To start talking here of Rosh-Hashana and Shofar blowing seems to me to be not only
misconstrued but actually complacent and even distasteful, if you know what I mean.
Unfortunately these young victims fretted not about Yiddishkeit, but about the loss of their lives. Understanding them now as part of a religious narrative amounts – so I feel – to a betrayal of them.
It’s hard to explain, but I hope you’ll understand.

Tzvia Greenfield sums up:

I can imagine that many readers of your blog would feel (or claim) that the very act of shofar blowing by R.Meisels,ztz”l, himself (certainly under terms of acute danger) was the act of kidush Hashem referred to in this story – But I happened to have reservations about such an nterpertation.
Shana Tova, Tzvia

I will summarize the response from Hidden in Thunder author, Esther Farbstein.

Certainly the fear of death was tremendous. But on a deeper level, because of the education these yeshiva boys had imbibed, their natural response was to mark what may be their last moments of life with teshuva and some spiritually uplifting act. There are many sources supporting this description of the boys and the shofar and of their deep religious feeling (as much as we can talk about others’ feelings). In the Eichmann trial, one of the surviving boys, who lived in Kiryat Moshe Jerusalem, testified and gave a similar description. Similar descriptions are in various memoirs which I have. I heard that someone named Landau in Petah Tikva (, I have his tel. though I haven’t yet met him) also witnessed the event R. Meisels describes and remembers the impression that the tekiat shofar left.
Remember that these boys had a month previously been sitting in Yeshiva in Hungary. For them, to keep this mitzva stirred strong emotions, similar to what we see ourselves: often,when people are faced with death they attain unanticipated spiritual heights. When you read some of the memoirs of religious survivors you can grasp something of the Jewish meaning of the Shoah (in addition or in contrast to the universality of suffering and resistance, such as cries from hunger or fear of death).
Some insinuate that Rabbi Meisels qua Rabbi, recorded the events subjectively. R. Meisels,ztz”l, was one of the most outstanding personalities in the post-war period. He was among the dayanim of the beit din that worked tirelessly for agunot. He wrote a great deal, and was known to weigh his words meticulously. Gmar tov, Esther

I (Shira speaking now) hope we can address the issues and questions above, and not the personalities and politics of my interlocutors.

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7 years 11 months ago

I do not agree that the story is primarily about R Meisl’s sense of faith. It is surely that too, but it is an account that we have reason to think factually occured, with little of it being amenable to different interpretation. I don’t think his account can be reduced to a matter of perspective and filters and lenses — if the story is true, as we have reason to think it is, then what occured *was* a demonstration of faith.

Steve Brizel
7 years 11 months ago

FWIW, in the Machzor Mesoras HaRav that is based upon the teachings of RYBS, RYBS relates a story of an atheist in a concentration camp who was moved by the sight of yeshiva students from Navardock who observed YK despite the deprivations therein. Survivor testimony of acts of Kiddush HaShem should never be discredited or viewed with a jauniced eye and mind unless and until there is proof that the incident never happened, which Rabbanit Farbstein demonstrates can be found in some cases-such as the story of the Cracow BY students who purportedly all committed suicide together. I think that it is relatively easy to reject Dr Greenfield’s critique without venturing into an all too tempting analysis of her political and intellectual views and concluding that the critique is an extension of the same.

7 years 11 months ago

To Garnel Ironheart:

Your second question is actually answered in the narrative itself – the Germans were not near the bunk house. He was let in by the Kapos (not Germans) who warned him that if the Germans did get near, that would be the end. If you read enough about the way the camps were run, that sounds very normal.

As for the issue of smuggling, you happen to be incorrect. It’s not just that more than one person can testify to the fact of Rabbi Meisel’s A”H blowing the Shofar. There are many stories, told by many different people, about people managing to smuggle in things of much greater size than coins – tefilin and siddurim most commonly.

lawrence kaplan
7 years 11 months ago

Why assume an either-or? Perhaps the spiritual and physical coexisted, the purely natural fear and the specifically religious sense of awe. Granted, the portrait painted by Rabbi Meisels may have over-idealized the students a bit. But I prefer his slight over-idealizing to the rather crude reductionism of Dr. Greenfeld. I also agree with Jessica Setbon that we should read this account primarily as a testimony to Rabbi Meisel’s own sense of faith.

Garnel Ironheart
7 years 11 months ago

I’m sorry, I’ve tried to avoid being a nudnik but I must ask a few questions before I can accept this story as is:

1) How did the shofar get into the camp? The Germans either searched or stripped everyone at the front gate. Yes, smuggling did happen but with small items like coins. A shofar of the necessary size would have been nearly impossible to conceal.
2) When the shofar was blown, where were the Germans? Had they heard it they would have come running and shot anyone they found until they got their hands on it and the blower, and then they would have shot him too! Were they asleep?