Spiritual Heroism and the Holocaust

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,


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13 Responses

  1. joel rich says:

    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?

    R’ YA – I’d be interested in your thoughts on this topic as well as on R’AG’s comment on the need for perspective.


  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “Would some of the more skeptical in our ranks come to doubt everything they saw in print”

    – I think this is exactly the risk of the posturing, selctive reporting or even whitewashing that goes on. our only hope for the continance of our mesorah – which is the basis for the very surviival of our people – is our system that ensures full trust in our fathers abd teachers. who gave anyone a heter to play around with this trust under the rationale of ends justifying the means?

  3. Bob Miller says:

    Blog readers all know by now that any expression of the Jewish view (or views) of an issue, event, or person will attract comments from skeptics or semi-skeptics. That’s the risk blog authors take with eyes open in the hope of exposing readers to the truth.

    Here is another example of spiritual heroism found in http://chareidi.shemayisrael.com/archives5762/rosh_yk/RYKfeatures2.htm
    The name “Rebbe” in this excerpt refers to HaRav Shmuel Halevi Shechter:

    “The March to Slaughter through Kelm

    Based on reliable sources, Rebbe carefully recorded the last moments of Kelm in the preface of his edition to Orchos Chaim LeHoRosh: “From what we know, when the accursed Germans entered Kelm on the twenty-seventh of Sivan, 5701 (1941), all the people of the Beis HaTalmud left the home in Kelm and found refuge in a small village that was three kilometers from Kelm. It was on the estate of Reb Shimon Asher. The routine of the home continued there until Yom Shelishi of parshas Chazon, which was the fifth of Av, 5701. On the morning of that day Rav Doniel related that he had a dream that they are required to give themselves over al kiddush Hashem. Almost as he was still speaking, the Germans . . . entered the estate of Reb Shimon Asher and seized all of them. The accursed Germans immediately led all the people of the Beis HaTalmud . . . by way of the town to a pit outside of town. They carried Moras Nechomoh Leibah [the oldest daughter of the Alter of Kelm zt”l] in a chair on their shoulders and marched while singing Oleinu Leshabei’ach and Adon Olom. The non-Jews lined the sides of the town’s road and stared at the scene — bursting with hatred.”

    Rav Simcha Zissel, the Alter of Kelm, once remarked about the main road of Kelm, “How is it possible that people can walk peacefully in this place, [knowing] that people suffered so much and expended their blood and sweat here?”

    Prisoners of the Czar, who had been sentenced to hard labor, paved the main road of Kelm with cobblestones. The Alter of Kelm felt for their suffering.

    Rebbe told over another incident. Once the Alter was walking with some of the talmidim along the road. A funeral for a local peasant passed by and at that point the Alter stopped and became deeply engrossed in his thoughts.

    After the funeral moved down the road, the talmidim asked the Alter why he stopped and what was he thinking about. The Alter told them that he could not continue nor stand idle over the thought of the shock and pain that this peasant’s neshomoh was now going through. A whole lifetime it lived with false beliefs and ideas and it was now entering the World of Truth — a person cannot ignore such suffering.

    One of the hallmarks of what Kelm stood for was nosei be’ol im chaveiro, that is to feel the suffering of other people and therefore and thereby to help them and to lighten their burden. Perhaps, on that very road where the Alter felt for the suffering of criminals, his talmidim and family were led to their slaughter.

    Rebbe’s preface continues with the following quote from other reliable sources: “At the time that the Jews of the town were already standing at gun point by the side of the pits, HaRav Doniel Mowshovitz asked of the German who was in command of the work, that he be permitted to say some words to his congregation for a few moments. The wicked German told him to be brief. The Rov began to speak quietly and calmly on the subject of kiddush Hashem — as if he were lecturing on any normal day before his talmidim. When he took too long, the German shouted at him to finish. Then the Rov faced the Jews who were standing at the edge of the pits and said, `We are now faced with the situation that I have just spoken about, that is, kiddush Hashem. Therefore, do not panic. It is necessary to accept serenely the gezar din.’ Then he faced the German and said, `I have concluded. You can begin.’ ”

    And with that, bullets put an end to the light and truth of Kelm.

    Each year, on the yahrtzeit of Kelm, the fifth of Av, Rebbe would make sure to be the shaliach tzibbur in order to say Kaddish on behalf of Kelm. He would explain, “Because the life in Kelm was devoted to kiddush Hashem, they were privileged that in the end they were able to die al kiddush Hashem. Kiddush Hashem means to live your life with love for your Creator at all times, whatever the situation. It does not have to only happen once, at the end of your life.”

    For Rebbe, Kelm was more than a place of learning and a place of mussar — it was always his home and his family.

    The second chapter of the sefer Ma’alas HaMiddos discusses the subject of ahavas Hashem. There, the gemara in Brochos (61b) is cited that tells of the tortured death of Rabbi Akiva, who was a giant in Torah and leader of his generation: “At the hour that Rabbi Akiva was taken out for execution, it was time to recite the Shema. As they were raking his skin with combs of iron, he accepted upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven . . . prolonging the pronunciation of the word `Echod’ until his soul left him.” Upon seeing what was happening, the ministering angels cried out to Hashem, “This is Torah and this is its reward?” Rabbi Akiva died a horrible martyr’s death. The angels could not understand how this could be fitting for one who embodied Torah and love for Hashem.

    Rebbe explained that it was said about Rav Doniel that at the time that he and those of Kelm who were about to die al kiddush Hashem, this gemora was what he spoke about. Rav Doniel explained that Hashem replied to the angels to be quiet, for if not the world would revert to chaos and void, for there are times when the world does not deserve to exist. However, since there is the covenant which Hakodosh Boruch Hu made with Noach that the world would not be destroyed, the world remains. Nonetheless, an atonement must be made and this is achieved through the deaths of tzadikim. The world can slip to such depths of brutality and depravity that the lives of the tzadikim are the only recourse and the only acceptable korbon.

    Rav Dessler zt”l, who also learned in Kelm, writes (Michtav MeEliahu 3, p. 347) about the demise of Kelm. ‘Not all deaths are the same. There is dying and there is dying. There is the death of one who is dead — already dead — the one who is megushom, physical. His soul is entombed within his body. . . . This is not so with the passing of anshei emes . . . All that contains truth does not die.’…”

  4. yikes says:

    Since when is she an MK?

  5. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    A minor correction: Tzvia Greenfield is not an MK. She ran on the Meretz list but was not elected. It is mystifying to me what is bugging her that leads her to take the contrarian leftist anti-emuna position that she takes. It may be the money that she is getting from various sources including the EU. It may be something in her personal background. What is weird for me is how people can take fundamentally anti-Torah positions in their lives and still remain nominally frum. People like Gen. Elazar Stern also come to mind. Perhaps we need to daven for their tortured souls.

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    I hate to sound cynical right after Yom HaKippurim, but IMO, Dr Greenfield’s perspective on anything relating to the Torah observant world has to be strongly considered and factored in evaluating her perspective on this issue. I think that an objective person and scholar is entitled to be given the benefit of the doubt, as opposed to someone who has a long track record of political activism and academic opinions against the Torah community.

  7. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “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.”

    I have a suggestion.

    Although this atmosphere should not be exaggerated, to whatever extent it in fact exists, it is not healthy and conducive to cultivating an ability to trust. When there were rumors about changing a previously approved book(not the Slifkin or MOAG books), I was going to rush out to buy that book, as well as a list of other books which I felt might now be in danger of new changes. A Charedi rav told me, however, not to be concerned–emes meretz titzmach– Truth is resilient, and can not be suppressed indefinitely. But such an atmosphere is not healthy to creating an atmosphere of trust, certainly not trust in the community’s “system”.

    If at times, some of our community is not able to be fully open, *can we at least be open about discussing that lack of openness?* Is there any benefit to such discussion or would it make things worse? If there is benefit, what should be the forum? Should both Charedi and modern-Orthodox newspapers, periodicals, and journals have independent ombudsmen, just like secular papers, who have to deal with the public’s legitimate questions of journalistic and editorial integrity? After all, Charedi and MO books and publications are read by people from either group, particularly by those on the fringes of each group, so it is of interest to all of Orthodoxy. While it is not a solution to have two versions of every book or publication to be published by the same or competing publisher, creating an online appendix or discussion forum discussing the decisions, or one available upon request, might be a partial solution.

  8. Baruch Horowitz says:

    The issue of lashon hara(gossip)in Gedolim biographies is a valid issue(there was a back and forth in the Jewish Action about that point following R. Emanuel Feldman’s article). But an additional issue which needs to be explored is the question of ideological issues which don’t involve possible lashon hara.

    I think that those who engage in ideologically-motivated editing/censorship(each case is different) should be given a chance to openly dialogue with their critics. I don’t for a minute think that those involved have anything less than noble intentions, even if I strongly disagree and feel that such techniques are harmful to many people’s cultivation of trust in the “system”. But perhaps something positive can come out of a discussion and dialogue (instead of say, a new one-sided newspaper editorial or a speech “explaining” why we censor things).

    Let one side explain why they felt it necessary to take down a discussion of a previously approved article from a news website(e.g., because of new behind- the- scenes pressures), and perhaps people will respect that decision somewhat more instead of it being a mysterious process. Perhaps discussion might bring out that people would rather not see a picture included in a biography at all, rather than having one of the figures edited out. Perhaps the give and take will generate new ideas, solutions and even mutual respect. One should note that many of the cases are different and involve decisions by different people and organizations.

    I can see the negatives, in that the hypothetical open discussion will just engender further negativity, and that the editors and decision-makers might be just digging themselves a bigger hole. On the other hand, if the correct medium could be found and all involved make an effort to be mature and open-minded, maybe such a discussion with decison-makers needn’t be negative.

  9. dr. william gewirtz says:

    “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.

  10. Loberstein says:

    “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?

  11. Chaim Wolfson says:

    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.

  12. One Christian's perspective says:

    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.

  13. Avi Stewart says:

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

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