Was the Holocaust Sui Generis?

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10th of Tevet

“Those who say that suffering such as this has never befallen the Jewish people are mistaken. There was torture comparable to ours at the destruction of the Temple and at Beitar….”

As we approached the fast of the Tenth of Tevet, I reread some of the writings of Rabbi Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, the Piaseczner Rebbe (pronounced Pia-sech-ner) who made the above observation in 1942 in Warsaw.

How many of us are able to rethink and reevaluate our positions? The Piaseczer did. The historian Esther Farbstein devotes a full chapter to the Rebbe in her comprehensive book Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah, and Leadership During the Holocaust.

She details “a gradual change” in the Rebbe’s views by examining the collection of sermons he left behind. “The Rebbe stopped seeing the events as merely another chapter in the saga of suffering, but as something comparable to the worst catastrophe in Jewish history: the destruction of the Temple.”

In November 1942, “witnessing the brutal deportations and the emptying ghetto, he added a note stating unequivocally that what his generation was experiencing was unprecedented”:

“Only such torment as was endured until the middle of 1942 has ever transpired previously in history. The bizarre tortures and the freakish, brutal murders that have been invented for us by the depraved, perverted murderers solely for the suffering of Israel since mid-1942 are….unprecedented and unparalleled.”

In Hidden in Thunder you can see the rebbe’s neatly handwritten sermons in 1939 juxtaposed with the frantic scrawl two years later in the midst of the war, with notes scribbled in the margins. We are lucky that he hid all his sermons in a jug, and that they were found in the ruins of Warsaw in 1956. After being published in Hebrew as Esh Kodesh, they were translated by Nehemia Polen as Holy Fire

In a note added to an earlier sermon the Rebbe wrote,

“Now at the end of 1942, when the kehilot hakedoshot have been annihilated in a radical excision, those individuals who survive, pitiful and few, are…downtrodden and terrified….”

Esther Farbstein takes up the cudgels and shows that far from losing faith, as some researchers claimed, the Piaseczner instilled faith in his followers and remained a great leader, even in the worst of times.

What difference does it make if the Churban of European Jewry is one of a kind? Many rabbinical leaders have called for the increased use of the tern Churban rather than Shoah. Two of several reasons are: (a) By referring to “Churban Europe” we place the catastrophe on a time line of Jewish history that connects us with the past, in the same way that by observing the Yom Hakaddish Haklali for the six million on the fast of the Tenth of Tevet,
we connect with the siege of Jerusalem that led to the destruction of the First Temple. (b) Secondly, the term Shoah appears over a dozen times in the Bible, but always in connection with the destruction of evil or evil people, hardly appropriate to describe European Jewry. “Holocaust” is also a problematic term (wholly burnt sacrifice). I myself try to use the term Churban of Europe, as in this posting (except for the title); but I am not fanatic and I won’t tilt at windmills, since the terms Shoah and Holocaust have become so widely used.

Another area where the question of the uniqueness comes into play is in the post-war problem of agunot and weighing the evidence of whether a woman’s husband had died or not. Esther Farbstein points out that in the course of the halachic investigations, there were ramifications to the question of how the Churban was perceived. The question about the chances for survival “reflects two different conceptions of the plans for the Final Solution and the classification of the various stages. It is very similar to the debate that developed over the years between the functionalist school and the intentionalist school, regarding when the Nazis decided on the Final Solution and what role each stage of the war played in the implementation of this plan.”

[The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust explains the functionalists claimed the Churban was due to bureaucracy run amok, with neither pre-planning nor an initial murderous intent; the intentionalists see a straight line from 1933 to Auschwitz]

In an exhaustive chapter detailing the fine points involved in the hundreds of post-Churban aguna cases, the dayyanim then, as today, agonized over the agunot and dealt with them sensitively and compassionately. In those cases where evidence for the death of a husband was lacking and the aguna could not remarry, the agunot were often saved from additional tragedy when, sometime later, it was found that their husbands had survived. In a chapter titled “What is Sobibor?” Esther Farbstein demonstrates that

“the surviving rabbis took on a weighty task and did all they could to pave the way from destruction to construction [of families] within the framework of halachah.”

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She is on the board of the Charedi College of Jerusalem. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survved the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She s available to lecture in Israel and in the US.

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3 Responses

  1. lev midaber says:

    While “Churban” does place the Destruction of European Jewry in the broader context of our experience in Galus, it appears that Hashem has made the use of Shoah and Holocaust more prevalent, and perhaps they are not entirely inappropriate.

    According to Malbim, “Shoah” refers to a sudden darkness for which one cannot prepare, i.e. we never saw it coming.

    As for “Holocaust” (wholly burnt sacrifice), I don’t know if the Warsaw Ghetto exhibit at Yad V’Shem has changed much since I visited many years ago, but, for me, it had one powerful message at the end. Unfortunately, many places (Holocaust themed and otherwise) have seen fit to place Torah scrolls on display in recent years, perhaps not realizing the lack of Kavod this really entails (dan l’kaf z’chus).

    This exhibit had an open Sefer Torah with a section burnt out during the Churban, just a hole in its place. I was drawn to this sight, and reconstructed the missing section in my mind. I do not believe the curators were aware of what I saw – they certainly would have put a blurb underneath if they did.

    If memory serves, the section was at the beginning of Vayikra, second paragraph – the “sheep to the slaughter” of the Korban Olah, the wholly burnt offering.

    May Hashem require no further Korbanos…

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Regarding function vs. intention in this Churban:

    The evil Nazi intentions existed from the start but their implementation could only come about as the necessary conditions arose (e.g., craven reaction of Western Europe in the mid-to-late 1930’s, development of new military and death camp organizations and technologies, military victories).

    If the West had pursued the proper policies from the start, in its own interest, implementation would have been impossible. As late as 1938 before Munich, the West, even without cooperation from Russia, still had the military and economic power (sadly, not the will) to stop German expansion in its tracks.

    The Jews’ options for flight from danger before and during the war were greatly limited by the West’s immigration policies. A large part of the problem was the anti-semitism infecting the nations facing Germany. Some nations were much too civilized to murder Jews themselves but not too unhappy when others did it. The Germans realized this very quickly, which encouraged them to push ahead with their extermination program.

  3. kar says:

    Rabbi Hirschprung zt”l used to say that people compare the Holocaust to the churban beis hamikdosh, but they are mistaken, and there has been nothing to compare to the Holocaust in all Jewish history.