Was the Holocaust Sui Generis?
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.”