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.

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 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 survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via www.cross-currents.com.

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12 Responses

  1. Jessica Setbon says:

    Tzvia’s comments on Rabbi Meisels’ description are indeed thought-provoking.

    But I would argue:

    She raises the problem of “accurate” historical reporting. But history is never objective. Every historian has his/her own version of events based on his/her own personal experience. Our duty as readers is to understand that lens, and to reach a comprehension of the reported historical event that takes that lens into account.

    Rabbi Meisels’ interpretation of the inmates cries for shofar and requests for bread through his lens of faith is justified as his own version of the events. It is his OWN faith that makes his writing powerful, NOT his assertion of the faith of others: his insistence on believing that others were holding fast to their faith in that terrible situation.

    Therefore as critical readers and historians of the Shoah, we need not address his writing as a betrayal of the others he describes, but rather as his own ani ma’amin.

  2. Yehoshua Mandelcorn says:

    6,000,000 Kedoshim (holy ones).
    When a Jew gives up his or her life because he or she is Jewish we consider them holy. For Dr. Tzvia Greenfield to question the religious motivation of Jews about to give up their lives is scary. The fact that she ran for Knesset on the far left Meretz ticket is revealing. This shows how divorced from the Jewish soul are the far left political parties.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    We can’t read minds, past or present, but I believe these Torah Jews would have viewed their personal situations as being an integral part of the Jewish nation’s situation, then and back through history. There, at that time in that place, the element of facing death at the hands of enemies and the element of facing the annual Day of Judgment by G-d, our King, could be viewed as parts of the same global picture. Dr. Greenfield has no concept of these Jews’ perspective.

  4. irhakodesh, Sima says:

    Thank you cross currents for bringing this issue to the forefront. HISTORY, the reporting and interpeting of events can & honestly should be investigated. I can hear Dr. Greenfelds questions, (& am acquainted with her from Rechov hakablan in HN), and I hear well the response of Mrs. Farbstein. Even when interviewing individuals who are part of a historical event, 10 people have 10 or more feelings and judgements on an occurences.

  5. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Yehoshua Mandelcorn, for somebody to willingly give up his or her life can be an act of Kidush Hashem. Is it still Kiddush Hashem if the life is taken away without the option to of saving it?

    Bob Miller, if we can’t read minds, past or present, how do you know that Dr. Greenfield isn’t basing her comments on something else, like her experiences with teenagers?

    Gmar Chatima Tova, Ori

  6. Rachelle Emanuel says:

    Ora Pomerantz raises a very valid question which is dealt with extensively in Esther Farbstein’s book HIDDEN IN THUNDER in the chapter dealing with Kiddush Hashem. She brings various sources discussing the idea whether Kiddush Hashem requires KAVANNAH. Well worth reading! The last part of the chapter brings the ideas of the Piascezner Rebbe and the Rebbe of Slonim which connect the Akeidah to present day Kiddush Hashem. It seems that it is generally accepted that being killed for the simple reason of being Jewish is recognized as Kiddush Hashem. Of course preparation and intention raises the quality of the Mitzva.

    May we all merit to bring Kiddush Hashem into the world through the way we LIVE!!!
    Gemar Hatima Tova
    Rachelle Emanuel

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Ori asked “how do you know?”

    I don’t know anything about Dr. Greenfield conclusively, only what I see from her writing.

  8. Garnel Ironheart says:

    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?

  9. lawrence kaplan says:

    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.

  10. Kayza says:

    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.

  11. Steve Brizel says:

    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.

  12. bag says:

    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.

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