The Days of Awe and the years of horror

Sept. 3, 2013A worker removes notes from the cracks of the Western Wall. Workers cleaned out the cracks Sunday and … Continued

Sept. 3, 2013A worker removes notes from the cracks of the Western Wall. Workers cleaned out the cracks Sunday and made room for more notes, which Jews believe are notes to God, ahead of Rosh Hashanah, which starts at sundown on Sept. 4.Baz Ratner / Reuters

Guest sermon delivered at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City on Shabbat Shuva, the Saturday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, September 7, 2013

Exactly 16 years ago, on Shabbat Shuva, the Saturday between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,I sat in this sanctuary together with our daughter Jodi. My mother had died the previous evening, only a few hours after the end of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. After being increasingly ill for months, she had finally succumbed to the hepatitis she had contracted at Auschwitz-Birkenau. We then met with Rabbi David Lincoln to discuss her funeral, which was going to take place two days later, on Monday.

In the hospital, my mother had been upset that she would not be able to go to the cemetery where my father is buried. He had died 22 years earlier midway between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We had gone to his graveside every year on the day after Shabbat Shuva. I had tried to reassure her that my wife Jeanie, Jodi and I would represent her. As it turned out, my mother was indeed with us at Mt. Carmel Cemetery that year -she was laid to rest beside my father on his Yahrzeit, the anniversary of his death.

For the past 38 years, I have been listening to the Torah reading for Shabbat Shuva while thinking first of my father and then of both my parents. It is a deeply unsettling text.

In his final substantive address to the Israelites, Moses prophesies a future of misery and despair for the people he has led for 40 years. Emphasizing in Deuteronomy 32:4 that God is “faithful . . . never false, true and upright,” Moses tells the Israelites that they and their descendants would be responsible for all the manifold misfortunes and disasters that would befall them over the course of generations, and describes in graphic detail how their God would wreak destruction on them for their apparently inevitable collective treachery and sins. “I will sweep misfortunes on them, use up My arrows on them: Wasting famine, ravaging plague, deadly pestilence, and fanged beasts will I let lose against them. . . . The sword shall deal death without, as shall the terror within.” (Deuteronomy 32:23-25)

And, as Moses takes great pains to make clear, this divine devastation would not be unleashed only on those who had committed transgressions, but on the entire people, young and old, women, children and infants alike, the innocent as well as the guilty.

Even more disturbing to me is God’s declaration that “I will hide My countenance” from the Israelites in the moments of their greatest distress, their greatest need. (Deuteronomy 32:20)

This is not a new image. “Then My anger will flare up against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them” we read in the previous week’s Torah reading, followed by “And I will keep My countenance hidden on that day because of all the evil they have committed by turning to other gods.” (Deuteronomy 31:17-18)

Both my parents survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen. My mother described her 15 months at Birkenau as “a time of humiliation, torture, starvation, disease, fear, hopelessness, and despair.” After managing to escape and being recaptured, my father was imprisoned and tortured for months at Auschwitz in Block 11, the so-called Death Block. What sins could they have committed to deserve such punishment?

My parents’ entire immediate families were murdered in the Shoah. My mother’s five-a-and-half-year-old son, my brother, was one of more than one million Jewish children who were killed by the Germans and their accomplices only and exclusively because they were Jewish. Again, what possible transgressions could any of them have committed to cause God to turn away from them?

Every year, I am forced to remember my parents in the context of a Torah reading that challenges my ability to relate to God. How, we ask ourselves, can we believe in God in the aftermath of the Shoah? Shouldn’t an omniscient God have had to know that the cataclysm was being perpetrated? And shouldn’t an omnipotent God have been able to prevent it?

But then again, isn’t any attempt on our part to want to understand the very essence of divinity presumptive in the extreme? Any exploration of this formidable if not utterly impenetrable topic must, in my opinion at least, be approached with tremendous reticence and humility. In the introduction to his book, Faith After the Holocaust, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovits observed that, “Those who were not there and, yet, readily accept the Holocaust as the will of God that must not be questioned, desecrate the holy disbelief of those whose faith was murdered. And those who were not there, and yet join with self-assurance the rank of the disbelievers, desecrate the holy faith of the believers.”

There are those who believe that the brutal annihilation of millions was God’s wish and had a divine purpose. Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox rabidly anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidim whose own life, incidentally, was saved by a Zionist blamed the Holocaust on Zionists who had refused to wait for the Messianic redemption and instead sought to implement a secular Jewish national agenda. Others went even further. Rabbi Eliezer Schach, a spiritual leader of the non-Hasidic Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox in Israel, declared that the Holocaust was God’s divine punishment for all the perceived heresies committed by Jews under the influence of Zionism, socialism and the Enlightenment.

My friend Rabbi David Ellenson, the President of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, has called my attention to a manuscript written after the Holocaust by Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg, the last head of the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin and a giant of pre-World War II modern Orthodoxy, in which Weinberg wrote that, “The Rabbinerseminar was destroyed on account of our many sins.” The troubling corollary that follows from this one simple sentence is that the Germans who were responsible for murdering the institutions’ teachers and students were somehow the instruments of a divine vengeance.

To his credit, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, categorically rejected this approach. “The destruction of six million Jews in such a horrific manner that surpassed the cruelty of all previous generations,” he declared, “could not possibly be because of a punishment for sins. Even the Satan himself could not possibly find a sufficient number of sins that would warrant such genocide!”

In a similar vein, the Talmudist David Weiss Halivni, who survived several Nazi death and concentration camps, has dismissed as “obscene” any suggestion that the Holocaust was “a divine response to the spread of the German culture of Haskalah [the Enlightenment], or secularism, among the Jews.” Any such rationalizations, he wrote in his memoirs, “are theologically offensive . . . . A justification, by definition, means: it should have happened, it’s justice, it’s the fitting course of events. People who make such statements suggest, in effect, that had it not happened, they would have worked to bring it about.”

Nevertheless, the Lubavitcher Rebbe insisted that the Holocaust had to have been part of a divine plan, even if human beings could not comprehend God’s reasons. Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer has quoted Schneerson as
writing that, “It is clear that ‘no evil descends from Above’ and buried within torment and suffering is a core of exalted spiritual good. . . . So it is not impossible for the physical destruction of the Holocaust to be spiritually beneficial.”

In mid-October 1943, during Sukkot, my father smuggled a tiny apple into the Birkenau barrack where the inmates had gathered to pray so that the highly respected Rabbi of the Polish city of Zawiercie, known as the Zawiercier Rov, could recite the Kiddush blessings. Throughout the prayers, my father recalled, the aged Rov stared at the apple, obviously conflicted. At the end of the clandestine service, he picked up the apple and said, in Yiddish, almost to himself, “Un iber dem zol ikh itzt zogn, ve-akhalta
ve-savata u-verakhta et Hashem Elohekha . . . .’” And over this, I should now say, “And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless your God . . . .” “Kh’vel nisht essen,” I will not eat, he said, “veil ikh vel nisht zat sein,” because I will not be satisfied, “un ikh vill nisht bentchn” and I refuse to bentch, to sanctify God. And with that, the Zawiercier Rov put down the apple and turned away.

The Zawiercier Rov never lost his faith in God. Like the Hasidic master, Levi Itzhak of Berditchev, however, he was profoundly, desperately angry with Him, and this anger caused him to confront God from the innermost depths of his being.

One evening around the same time, my father and a group of Jews from Zawiercie were sitting in their barrack when the Zawiercier Rov suddenly said, again in Yiddish, “You know, der Rebboine shel-oilem ken zein a ligner,” the Master of the Universe can be a liar. Asked how this could possibly be, the rabbi explained, “If God were to open His window now and look down and see us here, He would immediately look away and say, “Ikh hob dos nisht geton,” I did not do this—and that, the Zawiercier Rov said, would be the lie.

The following year, the Jewish kapo an inmate assigned supervisory tasks by the Germans in charge of Block 11, where my father had been an inmate for more than five months, wanted my father to conduct the Yom Kippur service. Emaciated, starved, my father chanted Kol Nidrefrom memory in the Death Block of Auschwitz, and then led the prayers there that evening and the following day for his fellow prisoners. As a reward, the kapo gave my father and the other inmates of Block 11 an extra bowl of soup to break the fast.

“You have screened Yourself off with a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through,” we read in the Book of Lamentations. And yet it is told that Reb Azriel David Fastag, a disciple of the Hasidic Rebbe of Modzhitz, spontaneously composed and began to sing what has become the best-known melody to Maimonides’ 12th Principle of Jewish Faith while in a cattle car from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nevertheless I will wait every day for him to come.”

A young Jew managed to escape from the Treblinka-bound train, taking with him the niggun, the melody of Reb Azriel David Fastag’s “Ani Ma’amin.” Eventually the melody reached the Modzhitzer Rebbe who is said to have exclaimed, “With this niggun the Jewish people went to the gas chambers, and with this niggun, the Jews will march to greet the Messiah.”

Very much in the spirit of the Shabbat Shuva Torah reading, Professor Weiss Halivni has written that, “There were two major theological events in Jewish history: Revelation at Sinai and revelation at Auschwitz. . . . At Sinai, God appeared before Israel, addressed us, and gave us instructions; at Auschwitz, God absented Himself from Israel, abandoned us, and handed us over to the enemy.”

Which raises a fundamental question: How can we pray to or have any relationship with God if we believe, in Weiss Halivni’s words, that He abandoned us, and handed us over to the enemy?

But maybe, just maybe, Professor David Weiss Halivni, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, and Rabbi Yechiel Yaakov Weinberg all looked for God’s presence and power in the wrong place. What if God was very much there during the Holocaust, but not with the killers, with the forces that inflicted the Holocaust on humankind? What if He was in fact alongside and within the victims, those who perished and those who survived?

Could it be that God, the true God, did not hide His face from Reb Azriel David Fastag in the cattle car to Treblinka but instead gave him the inspiration and strength to compose his niggun? And could it also be that God was praying alongside my father in Block 11 on Yom Kippur in 1943?

On the fa ade above the main entrance of our synagogue is a relief sculpture of the Polish-Jewish educator Janusz Korczak surrounded by children who are desperately holding on to him. Born Henryk Goldschmidt, Korczak, a secular Jew, founded and directed an orphanage in Warsaw. After the German occupation of Poland, Korczak declined numerous offers to save himself, refusing to leave his children behind in the Warsaw Ghetto. On August 5, 1942, Korczak led the children through the streets of the Ghetto to the Umschlagsplatz, the deportation square, from which they were taken by train to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Abandoned by the world, seemingly abandoned by God, Korczak did not want his children to feel that he, too, had abandoned them.

My mother was sent from Auschwitz-Birkenau to the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in November of 1944. By that time, her parents, her first husband, her child, her brother and her sister had all been murdered. She was utterly alone and by all rights should have succumbed to despair. Instead, she had used her medical skills at Birkenau to enable countless women to survive, more often than not at the risk of her own life. Assigned to that camp’s infirmary, she had performed rudimentary surgery, camouflaging women’s wounds, sending them out of the barrack on work detail in advance of selections and thus keeping many of them out of the gas chambers.

At Bergen-Belsen in late December of 1944, my mother and several other Jewish women inmates took a group of Dutch Jewish children into their barrack. My mother then proceeded to organize what became known as a Kinderheim, a children’s home, within the concentration camp. One of my mother’s fellow inmates subsequently recalled that my mother “walked from block to block, found the children, took them, lived with them, and took care of them. Most of them were orphans, and she was like a mother to them . . . .”Among them were children from Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere. Some had been brought to Bergen-Belsen from Buchenwald, others from Theresienstadt.

My mother wrote in her memoirs that she and the other women in her group “had been given the opportunity to take care of these abandoned Jewish children, and we gave them all our love and whatever strength was left within us.”

Despite the horrific conditions at Bergen-Belsen in the winter and spring of 1945, despite a raging typhus epidemic and other virulent diseases, despite the lack of food and medicine, my mother and her fellow prisoners kept 149 Jewish children alive until the day of their liberation on April 15, 1945.

If God was at Treblinka, I want to believe that He was within Janusz Korczak as he accompanied his children to their death. I feel certain that the mystical divine spark that characterizes Jewish faith, the Shekhina, was within my mother as she and the other women in her group rescued 149 Jewish children from almost certain death at Bergen-Belsen.

Perhaps God was also within every Jewish parent who comforted a child on the way to a gas chamber, and within every Jew who told a story or a joke or sang a melody in a death camp barrack to alleviate another Jew’s agony. Perhaps it was the Shekhina that enabled young Jews like Jeanie’s father to take up arms against the Germans in ghettos and forests. Perhaps God was within the Ukrainian farmer who hid Jeanie’s mother and grandparents, and within all the other non-Jews who defied the forces of evil by saving Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

And so it is, as I remember my parents on their Yahrzeit, that I have come to the conclusion that perhaps God did not hide His face from them after all during the years of the Shoah. Perhaps it was a divine spirit within them that enabled them to survive with their humanity intact. And perhaps it is to that God that we should be addressing our prayers during these Days of Awe and throughout the year.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft is general counsel of the World Jewish Congress, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants, and a past president of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City. He teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse Universities.

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