Op-Ed: Book Review: "The Forgotten Memoirs"
How are we to comprehend Akiva, the young man who asks the rabbi if he is allowed to take the place of his friend, selected to die, because the friend is a much greater scholar than he can ever be?
"The Holy One, Blessed is He, dips a sky-blue garment in the blood of each and every Jew killed by [the descendants of] Esau until the garment is completely colored red. When the Day of Judgment arrives and He sits in judgment, He will wear this mantle and show Esau the bloodstain of each and every one of these righteous ones, as it says 'He will judge the nations whose lands are filled with corpses ' (Psalms, 110:5)…At that time He will take double revenge, as it says 'O God of vengeance, Hashem; O God of vengeance, appear'" (Yalkut Shimoni, Tehillim 869)
These awe-inspiring words, written close to a thousand years ago, are quoted by Rav Tzvi Guttman zts"l at the beginning of the book he published containing the writings of his two brilliant sons Yaakov and Yosef Hy"d (May G-d avenge their blood), both murdered before his eyes during the Bucharest pogrom of 1941.
They are perhaps the most telling expression of the underlying theme of absolute faith and trust in G-d in "The Forgotten Memoirs: Moving Personal Accounts from Rabbis who Survived the Holocaust", selected and prepared for publication by Esther Farbstein, Holocaust historian, lecturer and author, and the team of scholars who worked under her direction, published in English by Shaar Press (2011).
The rabbis' personal experiences of horrifying suffering and loss, as recounted in their writings, did not become the central pivot of their lives after the Holocaust, nor did they withdraw from public responsibilities for what would have been understandable mourning, depression or self pity over their personal tragedies.
Instead, upon liberation, with unmatchable strength, they first formed rabbinic courts to deal with the burning halakhic questions that affected the survivors (agunot, for example), then saw to the continuation of Torah study, Jewish communal life, the founding of yeshivas and the authorship of holy works.
It is, perhaps, in the merit of their unflagging spiritual leadership that the sounds of Torah study are heard in Israel and the Diaspora in numbers that are the Jewish people's true victory over the accursed Nazis.
And the rabbis' activities at the end of the war are in direct continuation to their leadership roles during those terrible years.
The memoirs attest to their ability to rise above the struggle for basic survival to strengthen those around them by maintaining a spiritual dimension in the prisoners' wretched lives, by their adherence to halakha at great personal danger and sacrifice – whether in the palpable joy described at obtaining a pair of tzitzit cut from a tallit found during clothes sorting in the camps, putting branches over a foxhole for a sukkah, analyzing the solutions for shaatnez in a prisoner's cap, dancing on Simkhat Torah although death hung heavy in the air.
The miracle that occurs when 50 young boys decide to dance as well is one of the most moving incidents in the book.
The halakhic questions posed to the rabbis are heart-wrenching as much as they are proof of the undying loyalty to Torah that was such a source of courage: "May I ransom my only son, as I have enough money to do so, if I know that another boy will take his place?" asks a desperate father. Is that question not the very essence of Torah-true ethics?
And how are we to comprehend Akiva, the young man who asks the rabbi if he is allowed to take the place of his friend, selected to die, because the friend is a much greater scholar than he can ever be?
Rabbi Tzvi Hirsh Meisels zts"l, who hears these questions, writes simply how despite threats to his safety, he manages to blow shofar on Rosh Hashana for every barracks, but also to blow the shofar for these 1400 young boys who had been selected from the camp inmates for certain death and kept in unspeakable conditions. He describes the boy who exhorts them all to recite the Shma Yisrael (prayer attesting to belief in G-d) at that holy moment for fear that they will not have the opportunity to do so when led to their deaths.
Students and congregants, of their own volition, made every effort to keep their rabbis alive with selfless generosity, in gratitude for the spiritual succor bestowed on them. This, too, is detailed sorrowfully and with love by the rabbis who sometimes survived those who supported them physically while they could, but were murdered later on.
The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Akiva's students cried "Is this Torah and is this the reward for keeping its commandments?" as their teacher was tortured to death by the Romans. His answer, before reciting the Shema prayer, was simply: "All my life I wished for the opportunity to keep the commandment to love G-d with all one's being – and now, I am privileged to do so."
The rabbis in this book do not ask that question, although they live the answer. They also do not ask "Where was G-d?" as so many post-Holocaust writers have done. It is clear to them that the evil is the work of man and the free choice of the barbarians who perpetrated it. The Nazis are the incarnation of evil and will receive their punishment from G-d. It is also clear who has the spiritual upper hand.
They do not ask why, although some do posit the idea that the Jews should have left Europe for Eretz Yisrael when they could - some do establish Torah centers there after the war - and quote Biblical verses and Talmudic references that prophesied the horrors of what is happening to the Jewish people, but also what lies in store for their enemies.
In fact, they are on such a high plane, that their every word is bound up in Torah, adding a dimension of respect and humility to the reader's experience:
When in their starved state they were grateful for devouring the weeds in the fields upon alighting from the train of death, Rabbi Meisels writes that this was when he clearly understood the verse in Genesis "Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you and you shall eat the grass of the field", and that Adam's tears at hearing G-d say those words may have been for future generations that would be forced to do so.
Rabbi Baruch Rabinovitz zts"l writes that since G-d uttered the words: "The voice of your brother's blood cries out to Me from the ground" (Genesis), there has not been a spot on the globe that has not received its share of spilled Jewish blood. Society was divided into Cains and Abels from then on, the murderers and those whose blood cries to the Heavens.
"What happened to Yaakov also happened to Yossef", laments Rabbi Guttman,applying the well-known midrashic statement to the tragic context of his son's deaths .
The survivors, whose trials Rabbi Chaim Zaichyk zts"l says can serve to uplift and ennoble them with a longing for the Divine – as David wrote in Psalm 119: "I shall never forget your chastisements, for through them you have sustained me" - are also representatives of the holy ones who were not saved.
That is the challenge, he says, that is the way to view the past and build the future, with faith in the words of Isaiah: "In stormy wrath have I concealed My countenance from you for a moment, but with eternal kindness shall I show you mercy, said your Redeemer, Hashem."
Whence these riveting and uplifting stories? One is hard pressed to find stories of rabbis among the numerous accounts of Holocaust survivors. However, Esther Farbstein realized that biographical information is often found in the prefaces to Torah works and set a team of scholars to examine every sefer (Judaic work) published after 1940 that could possibly contain such references. The result is that over 150 such prefaces were found, 15 of which appear in this unique and unforgettable volume that is a written enactment of "You are One and Your Name is One and who is like Your people Israel, unique among the nations."
And in these difficult days of Holocaust denial and rising anti-Semitism, the nations of the world might do well to read the excerpt from Yalkut Shimoni that appears at the start of this review.
This article is dedicated to my esteemed brother-in-law, the Halleiner Rav, Dayan Aharon Tzvi Taub, Shlita, who, since he had been ordained at a young age before the war, was appointed by Rav Eliezer Silver zts"l to be rabbi of the DP camp for survivors of Ebensee and then in the town of Hallein in order to aid in their spiritual revival and tend to their halakhic needs – britot, agunot, marriages, gittin. Rav Taub's parents and two brothers did not survive the war. He later established a congregation and Beis Medrash in Boro Park, Brooklyn.