Iron and Irony

[This week’s posting is a shortened version of a piece I wrote a number of years ago. I thought it might merit recirculation. – AS]

A typical offering included a close-up of the deformed face of a Jewish man above the legend “The Scum of Humanity: This Jew says that he is a member of God’s chosen people.” Another displayed a cartoon of a vampire bat with a grotesquely exaggerated nose and a Jewish star on its chest. In yet another, a Jewish butcher was depicted snidely dropping a rat into his meat grinder and, elsewhere in the issue, the punctured necks of handsome German youths were shown bleeding into a bowl held by a Jew more gargoyle than human. At its peak in 1938, print runs of Hitler henchman Julius Streicher’s vile tabloid Der Sturmer ran as high as 2,000,000.

“All our struggles are in vain,” Streicher told a Nazi student organization in 1935, “if the battle against the Jews is not fought to the finish. It is not enough to get the Jews out of Germany. No, they must be destroyed throughout the entire world so that humanity will be free of them.”

We approach the Jewish holiday focused on the blessedly ill-fated plans of a Jew-hater of old, the Amalekite whose name we will greet with raucous noise each time it’s read from Megillas Esther on Purim. Even a passing familiarity with the Purim story is sufficient to know that its villain’s downfall is saturated with what seem to be chance ironies; Haman turns up at the wrong place at the wrong time, and all that he so carefully plans eventually comes to backfire on him in an almost comical way – a theme Megillas Esther characterizes with the words v’nahafoch hu, “ and it was turned upside down!”

Such “chance” happenings are the hallmark of the defeat of Amalek, the would-be nemesis of the Jewish People – a fact reflected in the “casting of lots” from which “Purim” takes its name. Chance, Esther teaches us, is an illusion; G-d is in charge. Amalek may fight with iron, but he is defeated with… irony.

As was Julius Streicher. In the days after Germany’s final defeat, an American major, Henry Plitt, received a tip about a high-ranking Nazi living in an Austrian town. He accosted a short, bearded artist, who he though might be SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, and asked him his name.

“Joseph Sailer,” came the reply from the man, who was painting a canvas on an easel.

Plitt later recounted: “I don’t know why I said [it, but] I said, ‘And what about Julius Streicher?’”

“Ya, der bin ich,” the man with the paintbrush responded. “Yes, that is me.”

When Major Plitt brought his serendipitous catch to Berchtesgaden, he later recounted, a reporter told him that he had “killed the greatest story of the war.” When he asked how, the reporter responded “Can you imagine if a guy named Cohen or Goldberg or Levy had captured this arch-anti-Semite, what a great story it would be?”

Major Plitt recalled telling the reporter “I’m Jewish” and how “that’s when the microphones came into my face and the cameras started clicking.”

Another happy irony in Streicher’s life involved the fate of his estate. As reported in Stars and Stripes in late 1945, his considerable possessions were converted to cash and used to create an agricultural training school for Jews intending to settle in Palestine. Just as Haman’s riches, as recorded in Megillas Esther, were bestowed upon his nemesis Mordechai.

There is a good deal more of interest in the life of Julius Streicher to associate him with Jewish traditions about Amalek. But one of the most shocking narratives about him concerns his death. Streicher was of one of the Nazis tried, convicted, and hanged at Nuremberg in 1946.

During the trial, Streicher remained true to ugly form. When the prosecution showed a film of the concentration camps, a spotlight was left on the defendants’ box for security reasons. Few of the defendants could bear to watch the film for long. Goering nervously wiped his sweaty palms. Schacht turned away; Ribbentrop buried his face in his hands. Keitel wiped his reddened eyes with a handkerchief. Only Streicher leaned forward throughout, looking anxiously at the film and excitedly nodding his head.

Although no proof was found that Streicher had ever killed a Jew by his own hand, the tribunal decided that his clear-cut incitement of others to the task constituted a war crime; and so he was sentenced, along with ten other defendants, to hang.

And hang he did. But not before taking the opportunity to share a few final words with the journalists present at the gallows. Just before the trap sprang open, he blurted out: “Purim Feast 1946!” – an odd thing to say in any event, but especially on an October morning.

The “Amalek-irony” of the Nuremberg executions doesn’t end there, either. The Book of Esther recounts how Haman’s ten sons were hanged in Shushan. An eleventh child, a daughter, committed suicide earlier, according to an account in the Talmud. At Nuremberg, while eleven men were condemned to execution by hanging, only ten were actually hanged. The eleventh, the foppish Goering, died in his cell hours before the execution; he ingested a cyanide capsule he had hidden on his person.

Even more striking is something reportedly noted by, among others, the late Belzer Rebbe, the Kedushas Aharon. In the Megilla, the names of Haman’s sons are written in two columns, an unusual configuration. Odder still, three letters in the list are written very small, and one very large. The large letter is the Hebrew character corresponding to the number six; the small letters yield the number 707. If the large letter is taken to refer to the millennium and 707 to the year in the millennium, something striking emerges. According to Jewish reckoning, the present year is 5773. The year 5707 – the 707th year in the sixth millennium – was the year we know as 1946, when ten sworn enemies of the Jewish people were hanged in Nuremberg, like ten others in Shushan more than two thousand years earlier.

What’s more, the Megilla inexplicably refers to the hanging of Haman’s sons in the future tense, as if to presage some hanging… yet to happen.

The Holocaust was the tip of an unimaginable iceberg of evil, stretching far and deep into the past. The evil, of course, persists today. But a time will come when Divine irony will end it forever.

© Am Echad Resources

“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.

This essay may be reproduced or republished, unedited,
with the above copyright and note included.

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