Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein is a great woman in many ways. She is not only one of the chareidi world’s leading public intellectuals, but also a model of refined middos. Michlala Seminary of Jerusalem sponsored an evening on campus two weeks ago in honor of the publication of her classic Hebrew work B’Seser Ra’am in English as Hidden in Thunder. to which almost 500 people showed up. (A closed circuit TV had to be set up for the overflow crowd.) The speakers included Rabbi Berel Wein, Mrs. Rose Stark, an Auschwitz survivor, who spoke on her experiences with Mengele, ym”sh, me, and Rebbetzin Farbstein. She acknowledged that her work is a major contribution, but added with characteristic modesty, “But it is not me. I do not feel that I wrote it.” She meant it. And it is true.
The Spiritual Response to the Holocaust
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 – mitzvah observance in the ghettos and the death camps, attempts to preserve one’s humanity amidst 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. (Towards 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 in the ghetto or of the celebration of yomim tovim. 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 chesed 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. People will naturally write about what they know best, she recognized, and so the history of spiritual responses to Holocaust would have to be written by those who inhabit the same spiritual universe. As a great-granddaughter of the Imrei Emes of Ger and wife of the Rosh Yeshiva of Chevron Yeshiva, she is eminently qualified to do so, immersed as she is in both the worlds of hasidut 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: Perpsectives on Faith, Halachah, 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 – i.e., 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 hasidim are covering up Rebbe Aharon’s abandonment, but out of embarrassment that the father of 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 Hasidic rebbes suffered the same fate as their hasidim.
Farbstein documents how the Nazis sought not only to kill every Jew but to wage war against G-d 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 G-d 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 Hasidic 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
This article appeared in Jerusalem Post on Febuary 8 2008
To Read and Ponder
What could be a greater chutzpah than telling someone else that they have a duty to read a particular book? Yet I’m going to do just that. The book is Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust by Esther Farbstein.
That obligation is twofold. It is first an obligation to Rebbetzin Farbstein, who has been the champion of every believing Jew in her nearly three decades of work in Holocaust studies. But much more important, it is an obligation to ourselves. I cannot imagine anyone studying this two-volume work without their own faith being deepened and their commitment to keeping the flame of Torah life burning intensified.
The youngest survivors of the Holocaust are already in their 70s, and the living link to the most cataclysmic event in Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple will soon be severed. It is that link that Rebbetzin Farbstein has sought to preserve with her encyclopedic knowledge of all the various forms of testimony recorded by those millions who perished and the few who survived.
Esther Farbstein deserves to be linked with the late Dr. David Kranzler as a fighting historian. He opened up the entire study of Orthodox rescue efforts during the Holocaust in a series of biographies of the leading activists – Recha and Isaac Sternbuch, Dr. Yaakov Griffels, George Mantello, Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, Renee Reichman. In Thy Brother’s Blood, Kranzler analyzed the difference in approach to rescue between the Orthodox and mainstream leaders like Stephen Wise and organizations like the Joint Distribution Committeee And she has opened up the entire area of academic studies of spiritual responses to the Holocaust.
Rather than lament that the impact of the Holocaust on religious Jews and their responses had largely been ignored by academic historians or been distorted by those with little feel for the world of believing Jews, Farbstein acquired the requisite academic training and pioneered these studies. She recognized that people will study what they know best, and that the history of spiritual responses to the Holocaust could only be done by those who inhabit the same spiritual universe.
She employs the methods of academics and asks some of the same questions – e.g., the comparative reliability of contemporaneous diaries vs. later memoirs – but there is nothing dry about her approach. Beneath the surface of her elegant, measured prose, beats the unmistakable passion of a great-granddaughter of the Imrei Emes of Ger. And the debt to her husband Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Farbstein, Rosh Yeshivas Chevron, is equally evident in her analysis of numerous complicated halachic topics.
Rebbetzin Farbstein’s ways are pleasantness: Her inevitable response to those who address her by her professional title or as Rebbetzin is, “Call me Esther.” But she has taken the fight to the academics on their own turf and using their own tools. Her dissection of those academic historians who have heaped scorn on Rebbe Mordechai of Bilgoraj’s speech delivered prior to his departure from Budapest for Eretz Yisrael, together with his brother Rebbe Aharon of Belz, is alone worth the price of the book. So too her analysis of the teachings of the Piaseczner Rebbe in the Warsaw Ghetto (printed as Aish Kodesh) against academics who have detected a wavering of faith.
Rebbetzin Farbstein knows every nook in cranny of the Yad Vashem Exhibition Hall, and has spent more than a decade alternately cajoling and demanding that the story of spiritual fortitude be told as well – the six Bais Yaakov schools in the Warsaw Ghetto, the mitzvah observance even in the death camps, the hundreds of rebbes, roshei yeshiva, and communal rabbonim who refused to abandon their flocks, even when the opportunity presented itself, the wretching halachic sheilos that were asked and answered in the ghettos and death camps. They do not yet find their place in the Yad Vashem Exhibition Hall; they are the subject of Hidden in Thunder.
Hidden in Thunder 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 after the war. Yet this work is not meant to be the definitive word on any of the subjects touched. Each chapter points the way towards new directions in research.
The Nazis, ym”sh, sought not only to exterminate the bodies of every Jew; they also waged war on Hashem and His Torah. Rebbetzin Farbstein quotes the order of German High Commander I.A. Eckhardt that no Eastern European Jews must be allowed to escape, for they “supply a large proportion of the rabbis, Talmud teachers” and thus offer hope for the “spiritual renewal of United States Jewry.” Niva v’lo yodea ma’she’niva. Elsewhere she cites the sadistic account of on one Nazi 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 knowledge that their torments were part of a cosmic struggle between Amalek and Hashem gave comfort to Jews on the verge of death and the strength to persevere to others. Their spiritual heroism in circumstances incapable of being fathomed by anyone who did not experience it cannot help but spur each of us to a greater commitment to do our part in the war against Amalek.
Many who had risked their lives to observe mitzvos in the death camps found it harder to do so after liberation. They had consoled themselves that the collective suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust must surely be the last stage before the coming of Mashiach. And they were astounded to emerge from the darkness to find, in the words of one survivor, “the world was proceeding as usual, G-d was hidden as before. . . . “
Equally painful was the apathy on the part of their fellow religious Jews in the West. Rivka Horowitz, a graduate of Sara Schenirer’s Cracow Seminary, penned a series of bitter, accusatory letters from the DP camps, in which she related the desperation of the survivors for Jewish books, periodicals, and, above all, for contact with their fellow religious Jews:
“Why did the greetings from the Jewish world come to us through the pipeline of secular Jews? Why don’t we see you and hear your voice? Will you stand silently aside and see the destruction of everything that was built and established with such devotion? Our youth must equip themselves with faith. . . . Has pioneering vanished from Orthodox Jewry, Heaven forbid? We want to see you here, to hear your encouraging and consoling voice. We are waiting for you. It is time to act for G-d.”
More than sixty years later, those words cannot be read without feeling the sting of her challenge and asking: In what ways am I also apathetic today? What great challenge facing Klal Yisrael am I leaving for others? How have I failed to utilize Hashem’s bounty for His people and His Torah?
This article appeared in Mishpacha on Febuary 6 2008