Spiritual Heroism and the Holocaust

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Despite the post-Yom Kippur, pre-Sukkos euphoria which I hope is enveloping all our readers, last week’s thread on the Holocaust weighs heavily.

I have often wondered whether our own community’s playing fast and loose with historical accuracy (in Gedolim biographies, and in sanitizing history that doesn’t fit current expectation) would backfire some day. Would some of the more skeptical in our ranks come to doubt everything they saw in print, resulting in our own form of revisionism?

Last week’s responses to MK Tzivia Greenfield’s reaction to the Shofar at Auschwitz story left me with a feeling of deja-vu. To be sure, our readers rejected her outright dismissal of the Rabbi Meisels story. I found disappointing, however, that perhaps without realizing it, some of them seemed prepared to meet her halfway. They would not go so far to dismiss, as Dr. Greenfield did, the likelihood of people crying over the loss of a final mitzvah, rather than their very lives. But they entertained a good deal of skepticism themselves, and proposed a continuum of ways to deal with it.

Far be it for me, a dyed in the wool skeptic myself, to criticize skepticism qua skepticism. But in this case, it is misplaced – if not a downright slap in the face to survivors among us who are still living witnesses to so many corroborated stories of exceptional mesiras nefesh – in the true sense of the word – for HKBH, for halacha, for a final mitzvah or davening or d’var Torah. Most of us need not go much further than our own relatives and the relatives of friends to reassure ourselves of the frequency of such events.

I am still shivering from reading the brief biography of R Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, appended to his Aish Kodesh, which I took to shul on Yom Kippur. In the days before Sukkos of 1939, the Rebbe’s son was mortally wounded. His daughter-in-law, keeping vigil outside the Warsaw hospital to which he was brought, was killed outright by a shell the next day, along with her aunt. Sukkos fell on Thursday and Friday that year, as it does this year. The Rebbe insisted on celebrating with full enthusiasm on Yom Tov, and on the Shabbos that followed. Only at the end of Shabbos (his son succumbed on the second day of Yom Tov) did he allow himself to pour out his grief, and uttered a line that stretches our imagination of devotion to HKBH: “I’ve already triumphed in this war; Hashem should help that the Jewish people should also triumph.”

The good that can come from this exchange between Dr. Greenfield and Esther Farbstein is that the skeptics should be silenced, definitively and effectively. I won’t blame them for not listening to me. So I apprised an old friend, Dr Alex Grobman, of what was happening. Dr. Grobman earned his PhD from Hebrew U.’s Institute of Contemporary Jewry, which may very well be the best Shoah program anywhere. He is the author of: Denying History: Who Says The Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (University of Calif. Press); Battling For Souls: The Vaad Hatzala in Post-War-Europe and American Jewish Chaplains and the Survivors of European Jewry-1944-1948. In terms of academic credentials and hands-on knowledge of Holocaust material, he has the upper hand over Dr. Greenfield, to say the least. I reproduce all of his letter, except for an opening half-sentence of a personal nature. May his words help still the anguish this exchange must be causing the Kedoshim.

We need to respond to people who attempt to distort history-ours or anyone else’s.

The person who wrote this appears to have little or no understanding of what transpired in the camps. Her dismissive and mocking tone and the absence of proof to buttress her assertions, raises the question as to whether she has profound problems with her own emunah and projects these doubts on to those who went through the Holocaust.

There is no question that people were focusing on how to survive from moment to moment. And it is also true that many religious people lost their faith during the Shoah. Some became observant again after the war; others abandoned Judaism altogether. Still others retained some level of observance. Scholars have the responsibility to question the veracity of statements made by survivors about their behavior and motivation.

Understanding the depths of religious belief these people had is not easy. Their emunah was tested in ways that only Job could appreciate. Their accounts raise questions in our minds about the level of our own commitment. That they could maintain such beliefs does not seem possible. My initial reaction to Yaffa Eliach’s book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust was: “You have to be kidding.”

Yet we know that some people–how many we do not know–did risk their lives to observe Judaism even for a fleeting moment at various times. Our friend Dr. Alfred Pasternak from LA tells how his father bartered food for a Haggadah to use on Peseach. Ziggy Halbreich of LA tells how he and many others lined up to make a bracha on Tefilin just before roll call.

I heard these stories and many others from survivors whom I know and respect. Yad Vashem, The Shoah Foundation, Yale University and Holocaust centers throughout the world have survivor testimony that document these experiences. Ask Menachem Daum, a film maker, to see some of his testimonies about religious response. They are riveting. Ask Mordecai Paldiel from Yad Vashem about the story of the Shofar.

At the hidden synagogue in Terezin, the inmates chose to write on one of the walls: Uvechol zot, shimcha lo shachacnu…

We need to keep these testimonies in perspective. At times, there is a tendency to focus on these examples as if they were the norm. They were not. That they happened at all is important, but we must not exaggerate.

Alex Grobman, Ph.D. from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

G’mar Chatima Tova.

All my best,

Alex

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Avi Stewart
7 years 10 months ago

The story with r’ Laizer Silver and the Tefilin comes to mind.

One Christian's perspective
7 years 11 months ago

We need to respond to people who attempt to distort history-ours or anyone else’s.

There is no question that people were focusing on how to survive from moment to moment.

Understanding the depths of religious belief these people had is not easy. – Alex Grobman, Ph.D. from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Please forgive my intrusion into an area of grave sensitivity. Ever since I learned about the shoah – not in school but from people who came into the bank where I worked years ago many with numbers on their arms – I have had a keen interest in these wonderful survivors. As I grew older and more interested in G-d, I have sought to learn about these folks from their own words. What I have discovered is a wonderful thread that weaves itself through-out mankind – both Jew and gentile: survivors of shoah. And that is a wonderment of faith that is childlike in its purity and trust in HaShem. These were ordinary individuals not well known until their stories were told, years later. From their own experience, one sees G-d glorified by their unselfish caring for others and even themselves in order to care for others. Their stories are but snippets of a bigger tapestry but they are a thread of gold that shines from heaven. I am amazed that G-d is so very often glorified in the ordinary.

Chaim Wolfson
7 years 11 months ago

Rabbi Adlerstein, you can’t blame this one on Artscroll. My mother (born in America) was intensely interested in the war. She taught Holocaust studies for several years in seminaries, and she read whatever she could about it. Whenever she met survivors, she would question them about their expereiences. Many told her that anyone who said he did not eat “treif” in the camps, or kept Shabbos, is lying! Of course, that’s not the case; we have enough firsthand testimony to know that many people were, in fact, “moser nefesh” for mitzvos in those unhuman conditions, and that stories like the one involving Rav Meisels are true. But the point is, such “mesirus nefesh” is almost beyond comprehension. Many survivors who experienced that “geihinnom” can’t comprehend it, and certainly we, who are rarely called upon to demonstrate more “mesirus nefesh” than to forego a meal on a flight to Israel because the travel agent forgot to order a kosher meal, can’t even begin to relate to it. So if some people betray a bit of skepticism when they hear such stories, it’s at least a little understandable. The stories, after all, boggle the mind.

In any case, I doubt this exchange is causing the “Kedoshim” any anguish. In their exalted perch near the “Kissei HaKavod”, I imagine they care little about any lack of recognizition of their heroism. However, every incident of spiritual heroism exhibited during the war is a lesson to US in the greatness of the Jewish “neshamah” and the heights it is capable of reaching. If our natural skepticism does not allow us to be fully inspired by the actions of the “kedoshim”, THAT would be a tragedy.

Loberstein
7 years 11 months ago

“I have often wondered whether our own community’s playing fast and loose with historical accuracy (in Gedolim biographies, and in sanitizing history that doesn’t fit current expectation) would backfire some day”. Rabbi Berel Wein has just come out with a DVD series on modern Jewish History. I wonder if it will be accepted in the yeshivos and bais yaakov schools. It is orthodox but inclusive. Maybe any history that tells the broad picture is too threatening to some.

At my Shabbos table years ago, a nephew asked me why his ancestors came to America in the 1880’s. I started to describe life there. He said incredulously ” I thought that in Europe everybody just sat and learned and then there was the Holocaust”. How does someone go to day school for 12 years and say such a thing?

dr. william gewirtz
7 years 11 months ago

“I have often wondered whether our own community’s playing fast and loose with historical accuracy (in Gedolim biographies, and in sanitizing history that doesn’t fit current expectation) would backfire some day.”

Baruch relative to your suggestions – let me use three cases that I think will get very different treatment. 1) X met his wife when he saw her at the library and they struck up a conversation. 2) X made an embarrassingly basic error in a written tshuvah. 3) X relied on an opinion in halacha that is currently not followed in a particular community. Vary X to include gedolim of the current and past generations. My guess is that 1) AND 3) is easy in MO circles, hard for the charedi press, AND 2) is hard for everyone unless of course X is not your revered Gadol. What often compounds any of these issues is the historical context that is either absent or misrepresented.

My suggested first step is to disallow, unbalanced “attack” articles. Second, at least prefer silence to misstatements. Those steps would be a welcome role for an ombudsman. Getting to the step of allowing or promoting the “truth” is harder. It often conflicts with other values that some argue are more important. Not all truths” must be told and often the desire to tell them reflects an agenda. Clearly there are limits and minimally your suggestions have to allow for some level of respect for at least a person’s privacy.

Perhaps the hardest issue is how far does respect for diverse opinions extend? IMHO 3) and 2) should be encouraged and 1) legitimately needs limits. Those limits are not easy; debating them abstractly should be encouraged as you have argued, debating them in a specific context is more difficult and often seen as self-defeating.