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[Page 436]

The Lessons of “Auschwitz”

Rabbi Shlomo Goren

Chief Rabbi of Israel

Since the time of the Shoah, “Auschwitz” no longer represents a place somewhere in Poland, as it has become a synonym for the destruction of the Jewish People and the disintegration of the most sacred human values. In Auschwitz and the other extermination camps the sudden abysmal eruption of the hatred of many generations reached a climax, which hatred had accumulated for thousands of years against the Jewish People in the hearts of anti-Semitic haters of Israel. It poured down in volcanic wrath on millions of defenseless Jews in Europe, powerless to defend themselves.

All of the basest criminal energies of man, all the cultural and scientific achievements were exploited and employed in order to destroy the people that had since ancient times borne the burden of the sublime mission of the sanctity of man and the love of all that was created in the image of man. In Auschwitz and its affiliated camps of extermination, the darkest human passions of hate and murder were discharged in cruel dimensions unprecedented in history, and we could not believe the destructive powers that were unleashed there.

This was a most terrible and brutal decline – not only of the German people and its satellites, who planned and carried out the evil designs. The entire world cannot claim to be innocent and say, “Our hands did not spill these rivers of blood, and our eyes did not see the transportation of millions of innocent human beings for slaughter.” Almost all of the peoples of the globe stood by during the years of the war and saw or knew about the existence of the extermination camps, the crematoria and gas chambers, which operated under full steam. Six million Jews were brought there, among them millions of children, infants and pure and unblemished suckling babies, who had not yet experienced the joys of life – without any serious step having been taken by any country to save them.

The world after “Auschwitz” is not the same as it had been before. From time immemorial we thought the three means of control extant in the world that could contain man's poisonous inclinations and prevent the moral decay of human society were:

  1. faith and religion;
  2. science and culture;
  3. socialism grounded in the equality of peoples. Now it has been proven that all three of these kinds of control were not a barrier to these inclinations, in that the waves of hate and animosity against the Jewish People did not slow down the murder machines. On the contrary, during the period of the Shoah, all three of these factors became the means for expanding the killing, murder, and incitement and rage against those who were being led to the slaughter, and were exploited to greater efficiency and development of satanic modes of extermination. To our amazement it has become abundantly and indubitably clear, from the many documents that fell into the hands of the free world, that the Vatican not only stood by and was impassive to the annihilation of the Jewish People, but also supported the Nazis and their satellites in Italy and other Catholic nations and gave its blessing to the Nazi devils and their most fearful crimes.


Science and Culture. In the 1930s no people in the world stood above Germany in the development of science and the fostering of cultural values, art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and the other human sciences. It attained this superiority, even over the United States, in the years preceding the Shoah. In spite of this, and perhaps because of this, Germany reached the pinnacle of moral and social degeneration in the world. It used its scientific knowledge to carry out and expedite the means of extermination, killing, and asphyxiation against the Jewish People and against anyone in their defenselessness falling under their sway. Socialism was purported to protect the equality of peoples, to fight for and safeguard the rights of minorities, to improve and raise the standard of living of the workers, the oppressed and persecuted. In Soviet Russia itself, the cradle of world socialism, the first and foremost in carrying on the constant struggle for the brotherhood of peoples, the Jews who had fled there for their lives from the valleys of death were persecuted, tortured, and deported to Siberia and work camps, where all who arrived were meant not to return and could not achieve a modicum of normal life. These refugees from the sword, on arriving in Russia, fell from the frying pan into the fire. Many of them did not manage to return to their birthplace and country or live to see the defeat of the cruel enemy.

We can thus see that all of the means of containment that had been extant in the world and were designed to prevent the freeing of passions and perpetrating of unrestrained crimes against humanity not only failed, but turned into tools for carrying out the most brutal criminal acts.

This should not diminish the valorous deeds of the few of the nations of the world who risked their lives to save Jews from death and annihilation. We owe these Righteous of the Nations our admiration, for their shining example flickered in the darkness of the Shoah, and they should be given the highest acclaim at every opportunity. When, however, we speak of peoples and states, the deeds of these few individuals can never atone for the apathy and inaction of hundreds of millions. Against them the prophet cries out: “For the violence done to thy brother Jacob shame shall cover thee, and thou shalt be cut off forever. In the day that thou didst stand aloof, in the day that strangers carried away his substance” (Obad. 10). Even the very nations that fought the Nazis stood aside when it came to saving Jews and even delivered the remaining survivors in their time of distress.

There are three lessons that we can derive from the eruption of the volcano of hatred and enmity against the Jewish People:
  1. The world stands devoid of any means of containment and restraint of moral and social degeneration. The Jewish People, persecuted and surrounded by a wall of abysmal hate and having long experienced suffering, must boost its strength and power in order to be able to defend itself against all tyrants and enemies. It should not rely on the kindness of nations to come to our defense;
  2. Even the best Diaspora is fraught with constant dangers for the Jewish People, since there was not a country or state whose Jewish citizens were so loyal, so contented, as the Jews in Germany before the rise of Nazism – concluding that they had reached the best of all possible worlds. Regard then and see what transpired there all of a sudden, how its sixty million citizens turned into the worst beasts of prey;
  3. Eretz Yisrael remains the lifeline for those wishing to escape the killing fields. Immediately with the end of the Shoah, we achieved the establishment of the State and the People, to liberate the land and to restore Jewish sovereignty for a third time, and this in spite of the unique satanic plans of the mass-murderer to destroy the Jewish settlement in the Land. The words of the prophet Obadiah came true for us: “But in Mount Zion there shall be those that escape and it shall be holy, and the house of Jacob shall possess their possessions. And the house of Jacob shall be a fire and the house of Joseph a flame, and the house of Esau for a stubble and they shall kindle in them and devour them... And saviors shall come up on Mount Zion to judge the mount of Esau; and the kingdom shall be the Lord's.” This refers to the nations of the world, whose abiding hatred is directed against the Jewish People.



The Mitzvah of Sanctifying God
in the Sight of the Nations

With regard to the Jewish People, the Torah of Israel teaches us that the most sublime mitzvah of all the 613 mitzvot is the mitzvah of kiddush HaShem [The sanctification of God's Name], whose meaning is to give up one's life for the glorification of God, as determined by Maimonides in Chapter 5 of the Laws of the Foundations of Torah , Halakha 1: All members of the Jewish People are commanded to sanctify the great Name of God as it is written: “And I will be sanctified among my people Israel” and are admonished not to profane it, as it is written: “And thou shalt not profane my holy Name.” Maimonides explains in his Book of Commandments that the significance of the ninth positive mitzvah is: The meaning of this mitzvah is that we are commanded to publicize the true faith in the world, and not to fear any loss thereby, so that, even if there come a tyrant who calls on us to deny Him, the Exalted One, we are not to obey him, but be prepared to give up our very lives, and not to have him think that we have denied Him, although in our hearts we do believe in Him, the Exalted One. This, then, is the mitzvah of kiddush HaShem that each and every Jew is commanded. In the “Igeret HaShmad” [Letter on Apostasy], Maimonides writes that the performance of the mitzvah of kiddushHaShem was the objective of the exodus of the Children of Israel, as he notes there: Just as chilul HaShem [the profanation of God's Name] is such a great sin, so also kiddushHaShem is a great mitzvah . A very great reward is in store for him on its account. Every Jewish person is obligated by kiddushHaShem as was stated in the Sifra, “I am the Lord who has taken you out of Egypt to be your God” – in order that you shall sanctify my Name in public.

The stricture of this mitzvah of  kiddush HaShem can be understood in that every other mitzvah in the Torah does not overcome the principle of saving one's life, except for the mitzvah of  “And I will be sanctified among the People of Israel.” It is the only one that overshadows the saving of one's life. The principle of “And thou shalt live by them,” and not die for them, does not apply to the positive command of  kiddush HaShem. The above does not apply to the mitzvah of warfare in a commanded [by Torah] war, which also supersedes the saving of one's life. The reason there, however, is that anywhere that there is a choice between the saving of an individual life and that of saving the entire people, the individual's life is secondary to that of the people and state. Also, there is inherent in the mitzvah of warfare the warning of the negative command of  “Thou shalt not stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor.” The only positive mitzvah that is empowered to supersede the value of one's life, then, is the mitzvah of  kiddush HaShem.

Additional evidence of the uniqueness of this mitzvah of “And I will be sanctified among my people Israel” can be found in the fact that Maimonides in “Yad HaChazaka” included the mitzvah of kiddush HaShem in the laws of Foundations of Torah which deal with the fundamentals of faith, which are the mitzvot performed by thought. The principles set out here are not identical with those 13 Principles of the Faith as Maimonides proclaimed in his Commentary on the Mishna, in the chapter “Chelek” in the Tractate Sanhedrin, and are abridged by Maimonides in the Foundations of Torah. Nevertheless, he included the mitzvah of kiddush HaShem among the primary principles of the faith. Since according to Maimonides this mitzvah of kiddush HaShem is unique and foremost over and above all the other mitzvot, it is included with the foundations of the faith which underlie the Jewish religion.

There is, however, a halachic condition in performing this mitzvah, which in its highest form requires the presence of ten Jews when it is carried out: in any location the precondition for the obligation is “in public.” That means when the stricture of the transgression does not require the sacrifice of one's life, the like of all the mitzvot and transgressions excepting the three most strict: idolatry, illicit sexual relations, and murder, for which it is said, “Let him forfeit his life and not transgress” even “in private.” Rabbi Yochanan has already set down the Halacha (Sanhedrin 74b): “Public can only refer to at least ten people and Israelites are required as it is written “And I shall be sanctified among the People of Israel.” So also ruled Maimonides in Chapter 5 of the “Laws on the Foundations of the Torah”, Halacha 2 - 4.

Seemingly the reason for this condition of the presence of ten Israelites for the mitzvah of  kiddush HaShem to be in force, and not ten gentiles, is that when Jews see their fellow sacrifice his life for kiddushHaShem in order not to transgress any of the Torah laws, it arouses in them an intensification of faith. As it is written in relation to Nadav and Avihu, “Through them that are nigh unto me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified” (Lev.3:10) and our Sages explained it in Tractate Z'vachim (115b) and thus Rashi explained it in that location in the Pentateuch: When the Holy One Blessed Be He executes judgment upon the righteous, He is revered, exalted, and praised, and so also is it said: “Awful is God out of thy holy places” (Psalms 68:36), do not read it as thy holy places but as those who sanctify thee. This, however, is intended only for those Jews whose faith in the Holy One Blessed Be He and his Torah is steadfast and the act of kiddushHaShem reinforces in them the holy mission of Israel in the world, but in the presence of gentiles this might bring about a denial of God and a desecration of His Name by the Jew. This is in consonance with the verses “Wherefore should the nations say: Where is their God?” (Psalms 79:10) and “As with a crushing in my bones, mine adversaries taunt me; while they say unto me all the day: “Where is thy God?” (ibid 42:11). The purpose of the mitzvah cannot then be attained before gentiles, if a Jew sacrifices his life and no miracle to save him takes place.

We do, however, find an event in the Talmud that negates this differentiation. In the Tractate Avoda Zara (17b) in the case of R’ Chanina Ben Taradyon, one of the ten executed by the Romans, when he was sitting and occupied with Torah and assembling congregations publicly with a Torah scroll in his arms. They brought him, bound him together with the Torah scroll, surrounded him with bundles of firewood, set them alight, brought skeins of wool, dipped them in water and placed them on his heart so that his soul not depart speedily. The Talmud relates there: “The klotztoniri [king's executioner] said to him: Rabbi, if I increase the flames and remove the skeins of wool from your heart, will you assure me of everlasting life? He answered in the affirmative. Swear it. He did. Immediately he increased the pyre's flames and removed the woolen sponges from his heart. His soul departed in purity and he [the executioner] jumped onto and fell into the pyre. A heavenly voice announced: R’ Chanina Ben Taradyon and klotztoniri are vouchsafed eternal life. Rebbi wept and said there are those who acquire eternal life in but one hour.”

This legend is seemingly most puzzling. What was it that this gentile executioner realized, that the klotztoniri should suddenly come to thoughts of repentance and to sacrifice his life for them, to the point of self-immolation? Were miracles revealed there of the sort that occurred to Chanania, Mishael, and Azarya? He saw the complete opposite, how this great Tana, bound up with a Torah scroll pleaded with him to increase the flames and to remove the sponges of wool from his heart, and when he did so, R’ Chanania Ben Taradyon was consumed with the Torah scroll in his arms. However, we see from this that the very phenomenon of a Jew's self-sacrifice for the sanctification of the Name of the Holy One Blessed Be He is heartrending, arousing thoughts of repentance, and reinforcing the faith in one's heart, even that of a goy. Seemingly it was a heavenly decree that it should be thus, as it is written in the Tractate Z'vachim above: When the Holy One Blessed Be He executes judgment of his holy ones, he is feared, exalted, and praised. It was thus that even this gentile executioner was brought through this act of  kiddush HaShem of R’ Chanina Ben Taradyon to faith and immediate self-sacrifice. Yet, one cannot apparently derive from this act of klotztoniri a rule for other gentiles, because, in spite of it all, this executioner presumably had a great soul that had been lying dormant within him all of his life. When he saw this act of kiddush HaShem, his soul burst forth and was drawn to self-sacrifice as well, akin to the verse “We shall run towards my Tabernacle.”

Thus, this Halacha of  “I shall be sanctified through my people Israel” is eternally applicable, but only until the Messianic Era has it been decreed to perform this mitzvah and to sanctify the Name of Heaven by martyrdom of  “let him be killed and not transgress,” as it is said: “And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live” (Ezek.16:6). In the future, however, Ezekiel prophesied and said: “And I will be sanctified in you in the sight of the nations” (Ezek. 20:41). He then repeats and proclaims our third redemption “And I will be sanctified in them in the sight of the nations, and they will dwell on their own land which I gave to My servant Jacob” (Ezek. 28:25), and he prophesied again that at the time of the gathering of the exiles, “When I have brought them back from the peoples, and gathered them out of their enemies' lands, and am sanctified in them in the sight of many nations” (Ezek. 39:27). We thus learn that in the future the mitzvah of kiddush HaShem will be kept by us not “in the midst of Israel” but “in the sight of the nations.” This is because the kiddush HaShem of future times, at the time of the ingathering of the exiles, and the return to Zion will be performed not through “let him be killed and not transgress,” and not “in thy blood, live” but rather through the realization of the vision of redemption by the prophets of Israel, where the constellation of miracles and wonders, the victories and achievements, will bring about the sanctification of the Holy Name amongst the nations. This is a new type of kiddush HaShem, which will come about as we will prove that it is possible to live a good life, appropriately, and succeed in all our endeavors through Torah and prophecy. This is the type of kiddush HaShem that the nations of the world also understand, and they, too, will thereby recognize the hand of Providence over His people and His heritage. So it is written: “For then I will turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him in one consent” (Zeph.3:9). The prophet there concludes “At that time I will bring you in, and at that time will I gather you; for I will make you to be a name and a praise among all the peoples of the earth. When I turn your captivity before your eyes, saith the Lord”(Zeph. 3:20). This is the kiddush HaShem in the sight of the nations. Not through “let them be killed and not transgress” but through the realization of the vision of the holy life of the Torah of Israel by the people of Israel, as it is written: “And their seed shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples, all that see them shall acknowledge them, that they are the seed which the Lord hath blessed” (Isaiah 61:9).

This was the yearning of millions of martyrs, in the last moments of their lives, and this we must fulfill and bring about, to sanctify the name of heaven in the entire world, by the holiness of our lives. Let no innocent blood be shed anymore in our land. Thereby we will truly be a signpost and praiseworthy in all the lands of the earth. “And doth make expiation for the land of His people” (Deut. 32:43).

[Page 441]

A Nightmare

Rabbi Yitzchak Yedidia Frankel
Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffo


With a heavy heart, and a beleaguered soul, I journeyed to Poland in the company of an official Israeli delegation to the 20th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, in order to seek remains of the great tragic fire; remains of that large Jewish population; of the millions of sainted martyrs, young and old, women and children, Gaonim and Tzadikim, Rabbis and Admorim, Hasidim and prominent figures, scholars and simple Jews, workers and toilers, poets and innovators, humanists, heroes and visionaries, creators and fighters, all those who were burned, suffocated, gassed, and eliminated from the world by the Nazi criminals; all those that were consumed by the fearful hell.

I went to search, some thirty years after having left Poland, if not my living brothers, then at least their graves. This, too, the bloody beasts did not leave behind. Their ashes were spread and scattered on the fields of Auschwitz. The murderers dumped tens and hundreds of tons of ashes from the crematoria into the large water-basin which was in the center of the former Birkenau Camp. To this very day one can still see the sediment of the crematoria ashes. The Polish earth which is saturated with Jewish blood is once more under the plow. The synagogues and Botei Medrish are gone, some of them destroyed, and some serving as stables. The cemeteries of our parents vandalized, and the headstones which recounted the thousand-year history destroyed; a thousand years of creativity and spiritually prolific Jewry – too, are gone and serve as paving stones of Polish boulevards.

Yes, so wailed the prophet Jeremiah, the prophet of the destruction: “For thy breach is great like the sea; who can heal thee?” [Lamentations 2:13]. Yes, as great as the sea, and as deep and cruel as the sea. When a disaster occurs on dry land, a volcano, a conflagration, or an earthquake – there is something remaining testifying that something had existed there; something lived and breathed here once. A catastrophe on the seas is different. The misfortune is more tragic in many ways. Not so long ago there existed, lived, and breathed a ship with people aboard, full of aspirations, goals, and passions, each one an entire world in himself, and in a few minutes all went down, sank to the bottom of the sea – as if nothing happened. The sea flows on, its waves shimmer in the sun's rays, froth and roar, just as if nothing had happened, as if a terrible tragedy had not occurred, as if, just a few minutes past, mothers with little children had not struggled against the wave, gasped their last breaths in a choked cry of woe. The tragedy of the Jewish disaster is comparable to the cruelty of a stormy sea with its enormous depths. The Jewish ship of Polish Jewry was swallowed up in the depths of the extermination camps. For more than four years the locomotives pulled cattle-cars with thousands of people, day and night, in order to feed the gas chambers and crematoria of Auschwitz, and the world was silent! The world, how false it is! The sea of peoples streams on, plays with agreements, treaties, relations, United Nations, security conferences. How vulgar and tyrannical such concepts sound after Auschwitz! What kind of significance can the nice-sounding words have, such as: Conscience, justice, humanity – after Auschwitz:

[Two poetic pieces follow, in Yiddish and Hebrew, whose initial letters of each line spell in acrostic form: Auschwitz. The following is a free rendition.]

Auschwitz, that horrible hell with its moribund theories
How have you ingested so many millions in your crematoria
Black are your skies from burning your victims
You shall eternally remain the most fearful of catastrophes
Young and old, fathers and mothers, and everything precious
Joined together at the pyre, went into the inferno…

Oh where is the habitation of the lions [= kings of Torah] and the sages of the Yeshivot
And where is the justice due to the shattered infants
How horrible, bemoan the slaughtered openly in the streets
With what shall I testify against you and to what can I compare you, Poland
You toiled in “These are the burnt-offerings” and the chapter of “How does one roast”
As sheep to the slaughter were we driven by beasts of prey to death and destruction.
A Jeremiah has yet to be born who will be able to express the enormity of the tragedy and catastrophe. Human speech is too poor in words to describe the “lofty” acts of culture of the 20th Century. The unbelievable happened and the world did not tremble; the sun did not cease to shine; the earth did not quake, when beasts in the shape of men cruelly choked the very last cry of pain of hundreds of thousands writhing living beings.

“The heathen were all swarming around me like bees, but they were extinguished like a fire of thorns” [Psalm 118:12]. All the gentiles, even the good ones who mobilized all of their forces to extinguish the world conflagration – reacted to our Jewish conflagration as if to a petty fire of thorns and spiny growths. Not one of the military powers made the effort to at least bomb the railroad tracks which carried the Jewish victims to Auschwitz, in spite of the fact that the death transports moved over the roads and plains of Europe, day and night, for several years; not one of the battling peoples used gas against the Hitler hordes in their armed forces, when these wild hordes used gas to annihilate millions. Why? – because these millions were, after all, only – Jews! This is how the “kindness of the nations” was expressed – the justice of gentiles…

It was this same feeling that accompanied me the entire trip to Poland. I had the impression that millions of souls hovering in the air of Poland were accompanying me as well, until that tragic Tuesday, Nissan 29 [April 23, 1963] when I stepped on the grounds of that fearful hell, Auschwitz.

The chauffeur first brought us into Lager Birkenau, where there stand to this day the long barracks of the men's camp and the women's camp. We enter a block. Right at the entrance there is the Kapo's room, who guarded the victims like a bloodhound. Further on there were two long rows of wooden frames which looked like deep lairs. That was where our brothers and sisters lay, with shaven heads, waiting for the “Appell” [roll-call] which had to designate day after day: Who shall live and who shall die!… Frozen we stand there with our heads bent low and the nightmare of the afflicted still seems to hang in the air. We go on shaky legs and we find ourselves standing before the ruins of the crematoria, water pools full of ashes and burnt remains of the martyrs. The gigantic area is still fenced in with the electrified barbed wire and the warning signs saying: “HALT”, decorated with the symbol of a skull. Now we see the train ramps where the unfortunates arrived thinking that it was a work camp. Mengele appears with his destructive angels. He wields his wand: Right! Left! He decides who should be cremated immediately and who should yet live in pain and suffering. Hungry bloodhounds and S.S. men who are worse and crueler than the bloodhounds – herd naked people in the direction of the crematoria which operate day and night and are not sated.

From there we proceed to the Auschwitz-Lager. It is already evening and dark. Over the big entry gate the inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei” looks down at us. The gigantic area is surrounded with electrified barbed wire. Multistoried brick buildings extend a long way on the streets paved in asphalt where the blocks are situated. In block number ten, on the first and second floor, are the offices, and on the ground floor the rooms are hermetically sealed without windows or an entryway for air. A series of pipes lead in to supply steam. The rooms are packed with people and then waves of hot, choking steam are pumped in and the people are scalded and asphyxiated. A long corridor leads to the execution chambers. On the walls there still remain scratched names which the victims made with their fingernails, and they exhort: Revenge! Revenge! We see a high cement wall smeared with grease. This is the punishment wall. Hundreds of death sentences were carried out here every day. My heart is breaking with distress and pain. I stand at the wall and say a Kaddish. I think: Is there a holier prayer lectern anywhere in the whole world to say a Kaddish than this…

So we drag ourselves from place to place just as did the unfortunates then. We go from one block to the next; a block full of tons of hair, shorn from the heads and beards of our holy martyrs; of braids from little girls. A mountain of hair. The Germans are a practical people! Nothing goes to waste! The hair will be processed into merchandise… Right in the corner there are actually dozens of rolls of finished merchandise processed from the Jewish hair… Further on is a block with thousands of chamber pots which Jewish mothers had brought along for their little ones; a block full of children's clothing and toys, a block with apparatus which were used by sick children with orthopedic problems. The suffering sick children where cremated, but their appliances remain sorted and numbered with German exactitude and orderliness. There are also thousands of empty tin cans of Zyklon gas. Gewald, Ribbono Shel Olam! [For heaven's sake!]. This is unbearable! Where can you find the strength to bear it all! Yes, when I returned to Lydda [Israel's airport] my son said to me: Father, you left here a young man and came back an old man… I actually aged in just a few days… One can read reports, brochures, and hundreds of books about the catastrophe, but he who was never in Auschwitz – will never be able to understand or believe that such things could really have happened. Only one who was never in Auschwitz can think that one can demand justice from the world! Such a world which could have seen this and been silent – that world will be able to abide anything.

When Moses experienced that Jews could forget Amalek, he shouted out: “Remember what Amalek did to you, do not forget!” he heard the voice of providence; “Write it as a memorial in the book” – write it down for the coming generations who Amalek was! Don't allow him to fool you with his “Kultur” phraseologies. We, also, say it today: Let it be recorded, the tremendously bitter cry of those whose cries were choked off! Let the holy images of the splendid, pure, and Kosher Jews who with scalded lips, parched mouths, in the gas chambers, in the cattle-cars – never lost the hope of the “Ani Ma'amin” [I believe]. Ani Ma'amin, that the Jewish people will not perish! The Jewish people will live and exist with the power of its faith, and one more important thing – never forget and always remember Auschwitz!…

With these thoughts I came back from Auschwitz to Israel wrapped in a nightmare from which I will never be able to free myself…



[Page 446]

Have We Learned the Lesson of the Shoah?

Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Ahronson

Member of the Chief Rabbinate, Petach Tikva


“In vain have I smitten your children – they received no correction” (Jeremiah 2:30)


Indeed, more than thirty years have passed since I was prisoner # 144187 in Buna – Auschwitz, the lowest rung of hell in our world, a vale of terrible and awful death. I drank fully from the cup of poison in suffering and slavery. With my own eyes I saw the loss of my family and tens of thousands of fellow sufferers among the third of our exterminated people. I saw the corruption of the world in all its forms by the devouring Nazi beast, the monstrosity of humankind. I experienced the terrible darkness of the exile behind the barred portholes of Lager Buna in Auschwitz where man subjugated man in the worst way and saw the despoliation of man created in the image of God from the face of the earth. I felt the humiliating insult that depresses the spirit in seeing the degradation of Jewish honor ground in the dust, that God's people was dying in the gas chambers like sheep led to the slaughter, and that dignity of man had vanished. It was a terrible pain to regard the threatening disaster and the intensity of the cruel tortures of the victims of the Shoah and the suffering of those who were left to live a life of slave labor, where death was preferable to such a life. It was only the yearning for a true redemption that had since then provided us with hope, without which there would not have been any point in continuing to live in the Auschwitzian vale of death and the ability to resist within, in the remaining husk of manhood that had been trampled as dust in the camp.

Those who think that the belief in redemption weakened the will to fight and resist in the hope of a miracle are mistaken. One might make that assumption with regard to those who trusted in a natural redemption by the human intervention of the Allies, but it was those who nurtured a pure faith in the redemption of the entire Jewish people by the coming of the Messiah, who were contrarily infused with courage and spiritual strength. They did not despair in their horrible existence and did whatever they could in order to be enabled to survive to see the day of liberation which would come sooner or later. This was in the knowledge that the promise of redemption for the entire Jewish people had been made, in spite of the principle of the faith that one ought not to rely on a miracle. On the other hand, however, the Jewish faith assigns full collective responsibility to every Jew to save any Jewish life, and most certainly it is forbidden to endanger the Jewish community at large in those countries and places under occupation.

Consequently, it is an injustice to historical truth to regard as Ghetto fighters only those few who fought without regard to their lives at the very end of the Ghetto's existence. Most of the Jews behind the Ghetto walls, in the depths of the abyss of cruel tortures, in the work and death camps were imbued with the spirit of resistance and will to fight. The various forms in which their resistance was expressed, however, were different for each one according to his nature and being. There were those who went forth to rebel in order to kill and be killed to avenge the spilling of Jewish blood they had witnessed, and there were those who banded together in active and continued resistance of a different kind for the struggle to maintain morality and just behavior in spite of the lower impulses to eliminate each other in civil strife. They rebelled against the enemy's decrees and intentions with their inner courage by keeping Torah and Mitzvah in dangerous times, by safeguarding a moral existence and the image of God inherent in every Jew.

In the Buna – Auschwitz Lager. Here and there stand long lines of many prisoners, not to receive their portion of bread and coffee which is distributed once a day, but to keep the Mitzvah of donning T'filin, and everyone wants to be able to be among those who can perform it; in one of the blocks where we lit the Chanukkah candles, night after night, in the presence of many and silently sang “Ma'oz Tzur”, and this little light kindled a ray of hope which burst into a mighty flame calling to the depressed souls not to despair! Once we gathered green foliage to place over large, tall barrels between which there was enough space to make a large Sukkah and we clandestinely entered it on the first night of Sukkot in order to make Kiddush on a portion of bread which we had saved from the morning ration in order to perform the Mitzvah of Sukkah. There was the blowing of the Shofar on the large lot where we stood at attention to be counted in the daily assembly, surrounded by the Gestapo guard posts and we heard it in the company of hundreds of worshipers at sunrise on the last Rosh Hashono day in 5705 [1944]. In one of the corridors of the workshops of the D.A.W. [?] at Auschwitz, in one of the toolboxes a pair of T'filin was hidden. These deeds, hundreds in number, can be recorded with respect to the steadfast resistance to the pressures of the oppressors who usually directed their abuse at religious Jews, and the ways they resisted, their revolts and battles, not only to perform the ritual Mitzvot, but also those between fellowmen. In this manner they displayed the highest form of heroism just as was emphasized by the heroic fighters in their acts of revolt to avenge spilled Jewish blood.

When the hour of liberation and freedom arrived for the few who were left – in God's compassion for the surviving remnant – we thought that we would serve as an exemplar for the refashioning of life in a new world which would be rebuilt after the inundation and the Shoah, a life based on the foundations of refined faith, justice, and altruism. We thought that those in error would gain understanding, since our people are only a nation by virtue of the Torah in the Holy Land. We naively thought that from now on our Jewish brethren who are living peacefully and serenely in foreign lands – that their place would be in the Land of Israel which would be built by its best sons and builders on the criteria of truth, loving kindness, and Jewish solidarity as a tower of light for a normal and ordered life, and that would serve as a fortress in a world full of hate and contempt, bitterness and disappointment; we felt that we had absorbed the lesson that the individual had no security unless the people return to its land and territory, for the individual is nothing without a community, and the community can only consist of individuals. We knew then that it was for this reason that we had survived, in order to tell the coming generation about the events of the Shoah, which stems from exile, dispersion, the hate of wicked peoples, and from the abandonment of the Laws of the Torah and Tradition. Thus we would be in the vanguard and establish a pure state, more refined than all other states in the purity of its conduct, in the honesty of its ways, in the ingathering of its children in joy, and in rooting them firmly in its borders, living in peace and tranquility of love and brotherhood in the threefold blessing of the love for God, the Blessed Master of the Land, the love for the nation, and the love for the Land.

Maimonides, in his Letter to Yemen, writes: “This Torah cannot be escaped, nor can one be released from it, no one descended from Yakov, not he, not his children, or his progeny, willingly or not, and this the very basis of the foundation of the Torah and the Faith”. Consequently, it behooves us to inform all who were born as Jews, that it is impossible to escape from the Jewish people and to find deliverance from Jewish fate by assimilation, and it would be well for him and his descendants to be included and to participate from within to feel that each and every one of us is tied together and integrally inseparable from his people in an eternal bond. The Torah and the Land is our common heritage and there is no point to flee or leave, for the strong hand of the Holy One Blessed Be He will overtake us and return us to the place from whence we originated. That being so, why escape yourself? Are we permitted to forget what we ourselves have seen, that the stupid fulmination of one madman, Hitler, may his name and memory be blotted out, turned into a Messiah, the primary principle and thought process of a modern highly enlightened nation, which for the slightest misstep was accustomed to make a thousand apologies, and overnight all of them turned into beasts of prey slaughtering men, and transformed the European continent into a wasteland, and the entire world sank into chaos and the abysses of evil by its apathy and absolute silence at a time when human blood was spilled like water for many years? How much more so should one suspect wild peoples who have never seen the light and are liable, God forbid, to act criminally, and to trespass the bounds of morality! Let us not forget that the Shoah began on Kristallnacht with the burning of synagogues and decrees against the religion, and the profanation of the holy objects of Israel. This evildoer knew that, after the spiritual uprooting of faith and religion, it will not be difficult for him to carry out the total physical annihilation in the way of the first Amalek who waged war on two fronts: With the nation of Israel and the God of Israel, and this war continues from then on to this very day, “For the Lord is at war with Amalek from generation to generation” [Exodus 17:15].

For that reason our victory must be on both fronts at the same time, since otherwise there is no guarantee for true and lasting peace and the existence of the people on the land.

The memory of the Shoah and the study of its causes, implications, and lessons are the order of the day as long as there still live among us the few survivors of the Shoah who have not forgotten, nor will they forget the terrible past and as they yearn for a ray of consolation in the fullness of days.



[Page 449]

A Holy Community
and a Place of Martyrdom

Dr. Yosef Burg, Minister of the Interior


Oswiecim, a prominent Jewish city, was famous for its Rabbis and Jews in Austrian Galicia, and after the First World War – in Poland.

Oswiecim – Oshpitzin as it was called by Jews – turned into Auschwitz during the Second World War, a symbol of abysmal hate and wholesale premeditated murder; a city which had been subjugated by bloodthirsty murderers and a city of heroic martyrs. Auschwitz was not built in a day to turn into a city of death. The death wagons and extermination facilities of Auschwitz operated only after many years of prior propaganda and incitement. The theories of anti-Semitism of earlier periods created the reality and the support for the evil to come. The German historian, Treitschke, regarded anti-Semitism ninety years earlier as “the natural reaction of the feelings of the German Volk towards a foreign element which had encroached upon too great a scope in our lives”. Dühring wanted to assert that the Jews were the most inferior branch of the Semitic race, who are not creative in the spiritual sense, and all that they possessed on the spiritual plane, had been stolen from other peoples. According to him, Jewry's goal is to subjugate the entire world. In order to prevent this from happening, Jews should be expelled from the schools, from the press, and from economic life. In his book, “The Foundations of the 19th Century”, B. St. Chamberlin  [?] described the process of cultural history as the war between the superlative Aryans versus the worthless Semites.

No wonder that after preparing the groundwork there appeared the mottoes: Jews are a threat to Europe! Beware the Jewish danger! This poison seethed until the coming of that villain with his henchmen and transformed the destructive propaganda into practical terms, establishing infernal extermination camps equipped with the best modern equipment for mass murder.

As far back as one hundred and fifty years ago, Heinrich Heine wrote: “Where they burn books, they will end up also burning people alive”. Indeed, he was correct in his statement, as these things occurred as he had foreseen. They burned down synagogues, burned books, and out of enmity and hatred based on their ideology went on to murder and merciless killing. Out of 40,000 communities in Europe, the martyrs were deported, killed, burned alive by the millions. Communities that were magnificent [Hebrew Peh Aleph Resh] turned into ashes [Aleph Phe Resh]. Their memories were blotted out and no gravestones remained, only gloom and melancholy. Auschwitz is their marker – their symbol.

*

The concepts of our generation's Shoah are so distant from those appearing in the “Otzar Yisrael” [encyclopedia] which was published before the First World War:
Pogrom is a new term in the dictionaries originating in Russia and referring to the persecutions of Jews there in the last quarter of the 19th Century, and indicates the attack by a wild mob on Jews in order to destroy and pillage their property, to beat and murder them, thus the name is a translation of the term “riot”. There are occasional pogroms which arise suddenly in the wake of a libel or by public exhortation by some anti-Semite. There are also prearranged pogroms which are planned by society, and at times in connivance with local or government officials whose purposes are “to attain a certain goal”.
This excerpt illustrates and underscores the fact that the Shoah of our generation is of a different dimension than the pogroms in the Czarist era, different both in terms of quantity and “quality”.

*

The Shoah ended a tremendously tragic chapter in the history of the Jewish people in Europe, in both demographic and geographic terms.

Whoever reads the article entitled Russia in the “Otzar Yisrael” will find, “A great empire in Western Europe and North Asia ruled by the Czar of All the Russias, which includes Poland as well. All of its territories comprise one sixth of the entire world… In 1905 there were 5,215,800 Jews and 12,900 Karaites. At the end of the 19th Century the largest proportion of the worlds Jews lived in Russia”.

After the emigration to the United States subsequent to the Shoah, and after the establishment of the State of Israel and the absorption of the masses there, it is possible to affirm that half of the people now lives in the United States, more than a fifth in Israel, and about as many still living in Russia.

These statistics place a religious, cultural, and historic obligation on the Jews living in Israel. “For out of Zion shall come forth Torah” for both east and west, and a sevenfold greater obligation with respect to Jewish centrality when we keep in mind the legacy of the victims of Auschwitz and its sister camps, and the sanctity of the martyrs, in their laments and heroism.

There are 42 chapters in the Bible about just one Job. What will we learn from the fate of six million Jobs?!

 

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