The Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy

НазваниеThe Second World War and Jewish Education in America: The Fall and Rise of Orthodoxy
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Apparently they consider us tzaddikim in Heaven, for we were chosen to atone for Klal Yisroel with our lives. If so, we must repent completely here and now . . . We must realize that our sacrifices will be more pleasing if accompanied by repentance, and we shall thereby save the lives of our brothers and sisters in America.

Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman before execution by Nazi forces,July 6, 1941.



Topics of Interest

Kiddush Ha-shem: Sanctification of God's Name


Kiddush Ha-shem: Sanctification of God's Name

Judaism guides its adherents not only how to live according to halachah, but also how to take leave of this world. Martyrdom has its place in the Torah universe and observant Jews have always known of its significance. Every year on the Day of Atonement, Jews recite in their prayers the martyrdom of ten of their greatest sages. These ten were selected by the Romans because they were great spiritual leaders at a time when Rome sought to suppress observance of Judaism in Palestine. The foremost among these was Rebbi Akiva. He said: "Just as a fish cannot live outside water, so the Jewish people cannot live outside of Torah", and defiantly taught Torah to thousands. For this he was condemned to be flayed alive. 1

In The Holocaust and Halakhah (1976), Rosenbaum states that the Holocaust added a new dimension to the concept of the mitzvah of kiddush ha-shem- the sanctification of God's name--through martyrdom if necessary. Whereas in past persecutions the Jew had most often had the option of abandoning Judaism to escape execution, the victim of the Holocaust had no such option. For those who had sought refuge from anti-Semitism through assimilation, it was a most ironic denouement. The halachic implications were no less ironic, for it was the universal rabbinic opinion, as formulated by Rabbi Shimon Huberband of Warsaw that "a Jew who is killed, though this be for reasons other than conversion, but simply because he is a Jew, is called Kadosh" (holy) and has fulfilled the mitzvah of kiddush ha-shem. 2

The notion of "sanctification" unites both victims and survivors. Those leaders and scholars who survived, and rebuilt bastions of Jewish education in America were imbued with the same selfless zeal that characterized many of their martyred contemporaries. The spirit of those who succumbed and those who survived was the same: all sacrifice is not in vain for it is the essence of survival. In order to appreciate the successes of, for example, the Satmar, Lubavitch, and Bobov leaders in rebuilding Jewish life based on Hasidic educational philosophies after the war, we must know of the furnace they survived. In that furnace, there perished the elite of Jewry's leaders and educational guides.

Rosenbaum records that Rabbi Nehemya Alter, at a rabbinic meeting in Lodz, Poland, emphasized the importance of kiddush ha-shem, which may assume various forms. Central to this mitzvah is "not to degrade ourselves before the goyim [gentiles]." There are eyewitness accounts of the preparation for kiddush ha-shem of such Hasidic leaders as the Brezner, Grodzisker, and Zaloshizer rebbes. They reflect their "calming influence upon terrified Jews as they themselves faced death with dignity". Some confronted death with the "ecstasy appropriate to the fulfillment of the . . . ultimate mitzvah". The Grodzisker rebbe, prior to entering the gas chambers in Treblinka, urged Jews "to accept kiddush ha-shem with joy and led them in the singing of Ani Ma'amin ('I Believe')." The Spinker rebbe "danced and sang in the death wagons to Auschwitz, especially the prayer, Vetaher libenu . . .--('Purify our hearts so that we may serve you in truth')". The Piazesner rebbe observed:

He who is slaughtered in kiddush ha-shem does not suffer at all . . since in achieving a high degree of ecstasy, stimulated in anticipation of being killed for the sanctifying of His Name, blessed be He, he elevates all his senses to the realm of thought until the entire process is one of thought. He nullifies his senses and feelings, and his sense of the material dissolves of itself. Therefore he feels not pain but rather only joy of fulfilling the mitzvah. 3

Rosenbaum concludes this segment by saying that to achieve the heights of kavanah (proper intention) for the mitzvah of kiddush ha-shem as described by the Piazesner rebbe was perhaps beyond the power of most Jews. But many were able to die with dignity in the confident belief that theirs was the privilege of fulfilling this great commandment.

The meaning of these events for American Jewry is touched upon by Marshall Sklare in America's Jews (1971). He notes the difference in immigration of East European Jews after World War II. Some of the immigrants were concentration camp survivors, and they had very strong convictions about their Jewishness. The "Orthodox sectarians"' impact has been the most noticeable, and their example has created controversy within the minority community. "Frequently, they considered themselves to be brands plucked from the fire, miraculously saved so that the way of life hallowed by tradition might be preserved." 4

Sklare points out that these survivors were disinclined to expose their children to any substantial amount of secular education, much less to enroll them in public institutions. They thus proceeded to establish a network of yeshivahs, stimulated day school education, and profoundly influenced the Orthodoxy of the older East European group. American Jews were suddenly confronted with the fervour of the war's survivors, not quite clear what caused such "fanaticism." It was the fervour of a flame that refused to be quelled.

At a later point in his work, Sklare asks how the rise of the Jewish day schools in America can be explained. The reply is that one significant influence was the character of Jewish immigration during and after the Second World War. The Orthodox Jews who arrived in America during this period were refugees rather than settlers because they came out of necessity rather than choice. "Their version of the American dream was that they should have the freedom to re-establish the way of life they had enjoyed before the Holocaust. Thus, without hesitation they proceeded to organize their own schools." Such that would "give primacy to Jewish culture and shield their children and others from the influence of the secularism of the public schools." 5

The killing in Europe shaped Jewish life in America. For example, prior to the war, Hasidic life was never established on American shores. The courts of the rebbes, the Hasidic leaders, remained in eastern Europe. The emergence of Hasidism during the Second World War and shortly thereafter in America, was made possible by the arrival of a number of Hasidic leaders together with small circles of their followers. 6 Thus, a new era of intense Judaism was ushered in to America. Like the biblical burning bush, the Jewish people endured in spite of the hellish flames that enveloped them in Europe. What was burnt there, would arise almost phoenix-like from the ashes, finding refuge and nestling in America.

In The Destruction of the European Jews (1973), Raul Hilberg states that the destruction process resulted in something more: It changed the lives of many who were not its victims. "It was felt throughout the world." He outlines crucial changes, showing that for the Jews, the destruction process engendered both physical and psychic upheavals.

Significantly, Jewry's physical dimensions and distributions underwent a permanent change:

1. World Jewry lost one-third of its number, losing six million of an all-time high of more than 16,000,000 before the war.

2. Before the rise of the Nazi regime, the bulk of Jewish population, wealth, and power was centred in Europe. When Germany was smashed, nearly half the world's Jews were living in the United States, and most of the Jewish wealth was located there. In America, too, were henceforth to be found many of the decisive voices in world Jewish affairs. 7


The task of surviving was no easy one. The Jews of Europe were the victims of Nazi genocide, Allied indifference, Arab machinations, and betrayal by elements inside and outside their own ranks. Those who escaped the brutality, the silence, and the treachery were literal cinders plucked from the flames of annihilation. For, as Hilberg states, the German annihilation, of the European Jews was the "world's first completed destruction process. For the first time in the history of Western Civilization the perpetrators had overcome all administrative and moral obstacles to a killing operation." 8

The process whereby the Germans killed millions of Jews did not come out of a void. An administrative undertaking of such dimensions must have had meaning to its perpetrators. "To Adolf Hitler and his followers the destruction of the Jews had meaning. To these men the act was worthwhile in itself. It could not be questioned. It had to be done." So much so, that the German destruction of the Jews was not interrupted: "That is its crucial, decisive characteristic." 9

The reaction pattern of the Jews was characterized by "almost complete lack of resistance". In marked contrast to German propaganda, the documentary evidence of Jewish resistance, overt or submerged, is very light. The Jews were not oriented toward resistance, and the fact remains that the Jewish resistance effort could not, and did not, seriously impede or retard the destructive operations. Another reaction of the Jews, was the attempt to avert the final force of the German destructive measures. One such method was the petition, or appeal, whereby Jews sought to transfer the struggle from a physical to an intellectual and moral plane. But, "everywhere the Jews pitted words against rifles, dialectics against force, and everywhere they lost." 10

A major fault in Hilberg's work is that there is a "blindness" to the concept of kiddush ha-shem. This is evident when examining the domain of Jewish education in Europe during the war. Multitudes of Jews continued to strengthen themselves, within the framework of traditional Jewish education, in observing the mitzvahs, which included the need for kiddush ha-shem. In a short illustrated work, The Unconquerable Spirit: Vignettes of the Jewish Religious Spirit The Nazis Could Not Destroy (1980), compiled by S. Zuker and edited by G. Hirschler, there is a chapter dedicated to "Study As a Way of Survival". Introducing the first vignette on "Study as a Life Preserver", the editor writes that before the war, Torah study had been a way of life for hundreds of thousands of Jews in Eastern Europe:

During the Holocaust years, it was to serve many of them as a way of survival. Skeptics have labeled this constant preoccupation with Talmudic studies as an attempt to escape from the harsh realities of life in the ghettoes and concentration camps. But they cannot deny that the unceasing study of Torah enabled countless Jews in the camps and ghettoes to go on living worthily until the end, and in some cases even to survive physically and spiritually until the day of liberation. 11

In the vignette "The Nazis and the Scholars", the editor reminds us that very early in the war, the Nazis realized that Torah study, and the scholars who taught the Torah, played a crucial role in the spiritual survival of their Jewish victims. "No wonder that they developed an almost fanatical hatred for scholars and students of the Law." There are many proven and documented examples of Nazi antipathy to the slightest trace of Jewish learning. "The Nazis regarded rabbis and Hasidic rebbes as potential ringleaders of ghetto revolts." Thus, in the Lodz ghetto, rabbis were among the first to be arrested and murdered. Illustrious rabbinic scholars toiled as simple labourers in an attempt to elude death. "After working all day at the most menial tasks imaginable, they would spend the evening hours teaching Torah and strengthening the morale of the other ghetto inmates. 12

In "Study as a Weapon", Zuker states that during the Holocaust, many Orthodox Jews believed that the evil in this world could not be defeated by physical warfare, because "the struggle between good and evil would eventually be decided not by human force but by Divine Providence." Most rabbis and scholars of the law were convinced that self-refinement through prayer and study was the only weapon which Jews could wield against the arch-enemy. It was in this spirit that Jews of all ages and walks of life sat together in ghetto basements and attics, immersing themselves in the study of the Law. Large and small Jewish communities saw Jews devoted to Torah study in the face of ever present dangers:

In Makow-Mazowiecki, where, according to an eyewitness report, "the situation in the ghetto was such that no one could be sure whether he would be dead a few moments hence", twenty boys hid out in a tiny, dark attic and devoted all their waking hours to the study of the Law. In Demblin Modzitz, Moshe Lichtenstein, one of the leaders of the Jewish community, a man of about 50, sat day and night over his holy books.

In Kotzk, as a survivor reports, "men--old men in particular--sat and studied the Torah, which they searched for allegories and numerological hints to show that the end of Hitler and his cohorts was at hand. They sought to hasten deliverance by tears, by study and by prayer. " 13

The tears, studies, and prayers of those Jews might very well have produced the results they longed for were it not for the indifference of the Allies to the plight of European Jewry and the misguided policies of secular Jewish leaders. Herbert Druks in The Failure To Rescue (1977), concludes after thorough research that "Roosevelt and the British acted in such a manner as to prevent the rescue of European Jewry. Their policies enabled the Nazi Germans and their European collaborators to slaughter six million Jewish men, women and children." 14

Another interest group that wished to see the Jews of Europe annihilated were certain Arab leaders. On the Allied side, for example, King Saud met with President Roosevelt on February 14, 1945, not long before the latter's death. Roosevelt asked Saud for advice regarding the Jews. Saud is reported to have told Roosevelt that the Jews should be granted "living space" in the Axis countries which had oppressed them. Roosevelt agreed: "The Germans appear to have killed three million Polish Jews, by which count there should be space in Poland for the resettlement of many homeless Jews." Furthermore, he reassured Saud that " he would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs and would make no move hostile to the Arab people." When Saud proposed to send an Arab mission to America to present the case of the Arabs and Palestine, Roosevelt said it would be "a very good idea because he thought many people in America and England are misinformed." 15

On the Axis side, various works have documented the significant influence of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin el Hussein, in urging the Nazis to exterminate more Jews. For example, Hilberg records that Marshal Antonescu of Romania wanted to allow 75,000 to 80,000 Jews to emigrate to Palestine in return for payment of 200,000 lei, equivalent to $1336, for each emigrant. ". . . Although the Jews could not buy their way out, any possibility of mass emigration was frustrated by two major obstacles: the lack of shipping and the lack of a destination. Neither Axis nor Allied shipping was available for the transport of the Jews." When the Grand Mufti discovered that 4000 Jewish children accompanied by 500 adults had somehow managed to reach Palestine he wrote to the German Foreign Office on May 13, 1943 asking the German Foreign Minister "to do his utmost (das Ausserste zu tun) to prevent further emigrations from Bulgaria, Roumania, and Hungary." 16

In "'Holocaust'-A Study of the Term, and the Epoch it is Meant to Describe" (1977), Rabbi Isaac Hutner states that the Mufti was serving his own "perverted fears, which were the influx of millions of Jews into Palestine, and the destruction-of the Mufti's personal empire". Yet, there can be no doubt, based on historical research of the facts, that Hitler and the Mufti each helped the other accomplish his own evil goal. The Nazis, represented by Eichman, simply wanted to kill Jews; the Mufti wanted to make sure that they never reached Palestine:

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