Destruction Of European Jewry
At the turn of the century, Europe, especially Eastern Europe, is the heart and soul of Jewish life. It is the center of Torah knowledge. Eastern Europe is the dominant Jewish culture and it is our population center of mass.
We in a later generation can look back and see that it was decreed in Heaven that this glorious pillar of Jewish history was to end. For those who question why, there are no answers. Those who do not question need no answers.
The survivors will be shaken to the core. Some will increase their grip on Judaism, some will lose it.
Some will blame the catastrophe on an unprecedented defection from traditional Jewish practice, pointing to the Jewish reformers, secularists, communists, revolutionists, and evolutionists. It is hard to ignore the fact that Germany was the source of both change and destruction. Some people will refuse to consider this link.
As great as the loss, it is even greater if we can not appreciate the majesty of Jewish Eastern Europe.
Captain Franz Rosensweig was a soldier in the German army during the First World War. He was Jewish but without Jewish background or identity. He was engaged to marry a fine Gentile woman and the wedding was scheduled for Christmas. His fiancees family preferred that he convert to their faith and after some hesitation he agreed.
His unit penetrated Russia and the tour of duty brought him to a Jewish community. He entered an Eastern European synagogue out of curiosity, to observe what they do there. It happened to be Yom Kippur. He didnt even know the significance of this most holy day of the Jewish calendar. From whatever he saw, heard, and felt, he was overcome by the experience. Captain Rosensweig returned to the Jewish people.
Here is a Jew who considered himself to be almost a Christian. He walked into an Eastern European synagogue and had no idea of what they are saying or doing. Yet, he became so touched by the truth of the experience that it changed his life.
This is the power and depth of Eastern Europe, which took centuries to build and will be destroyed within a handful of years.
The destruction will be thorough and it will be in two stages. Events surrounding the First World War and the Russian Revolution will decimate the infrastructures of spiritual and cultural life. The Second World War will bring the physical destruction.
In many parts of Eastern Europe today, the memory of Jewish life is being erased. The twenty-second century anthropologist may be unable to confirm its former existence in some of the regions.
The Czars strategy of using civil disobedience against the Jews become his undoing, as it turns much of the youth towards revolution. As much as thirty-percent of Russian Jewish youth rebel against the ways of their parents and join radical political movements. A disproportionate number within the revolutionary movements are Jewish.
The Czar is assassinated. A youth named Lenin sees his brother tried for the crime and executed. He becomes an atheist and like many of his age he dedicates the rest of his life to destroy the Czarist regime. He will succeed.
The Balkan War of 1910 is fought in an area that is home to eighty-percent of the Jewish population. It destroys many communities and institutions. Many Jews no longer have their schools, synagogues, ritual pools. Families become disoriented, torn apart from the chaos.
Germanys Kaiser Wilhelm is an arrogant madman who wants it all. He starts the Great War, later renamed the First World War.
The Old City of Jerusalem is surrounded by a grand and historic wall. The wall has a number of openings, called gates, through which one can enter the city. The Gate of Yaffo is the only opening which extends to the top of the wall. It wasn't always that way.
Wilhelm wanted to visit Jerusalem. He had a spiked helmet and rode on a tall horse. They figured out that he would have to duck down in order enter the city. He didn't want to do that. So he demanded that the Turkish government demolish the gate.
Extensive conflict within the Jewish regions intensifies the destruction of communal and family infrastructures.
The backward Russian army is decimated, a third of the soldiers are dead. Russian cities have no food but the food piles up on the farms. In typical form, the Czar launches a hate campaign against the Jews to cover up his bungles.
The Kaiser secretly backs the Russian Revolutionary movement and it finally succeeds in overthrowing the Czar. However, it subsequently brings the country into a bitter civil war. The Communists emerge victorious. Within their ranks are a disproportionate number of Jews. They are flushed with a hatred against the religious establishments, including their own. They ruthlessly set out to destroy whatever is left of Jewish life. They make it almost impossible in Russia to be a practicing Jew. The Russian political upheavals continue and the Jewish Communists are themselves purged out of power.
The Great War ends with the Treaty of Versailles. Germany must pay heavily for damages, even though it is bankrupt from war expenses.
The Communists try to export their worker liberation movement throughout the world.
Jews throughout the countries of Europe are caught in the middle. To nationalists they are Communists, to the local Communists they are nationalists.
Poland legislates against Kosher meat, under the guise of cruelty to animals. They also outlaw building Succas. The Baltics, Lithuania, Hungary are hotbeds of anti-Semitism. France remains unfriendly.
The rate of Jewish unemployment in Eastern Europe reaches forty-percent. A photograph taken during the 1930s portrays a barefoot and undernourished child in tattered clothing making his way to school. Many are kept alive by Jewish philanthropic organizations such as the Joint Distribution Committee.
Eastern European Jews are innocent victims of circumstance. They are on the brink of economic ruin and social devastation. They are isolated and distrusted.
World attention turns to political events in Germany.
The Germans are defeated and humiliated. They are paying dearly for the Kaisers exploitation, they are deeply in debt, and their currency is almost worthless. Unemployment is high. The culture craves for social order but the country is in political disorder, with factional street fighting and violent labor strikes.
Red Rose heads Germanys Communist party. She is Jewish. The Jewish population in Germany is accused of supporting a Communist take-over.
Germany desperately needs a savior and a scapegoat.
Hitler is a gifted orator and he tells his people exactly what they need and want to hear.
Germany will not go Communist. Law and order must and will reign. A war-machine economy will bring the country to full employment.
He gets arrested for anti-government activity, he survives assassination, he comes to power, and he delivers. He is assisted by his brown-shirted goon squads. Millions march, stretch out their arm, and shout Heil to Hitler who restores pride and dignity to the country. They unite and mobilize.
Hitler correctly assesses that no one is going to enforce the Versailles Treaty and it can be ignored. As his military power swells he becomes increasingly aggressive and invades Poland. He divides it up with Russia, his secret ally. He goes on to take most of France within a week. He invades Russia, too. He aligns with Italy and Japan. World War Two is on.
Hitler is obsessed with a deeply rooted racism and anti-Semitism. He preaches that Germans are a supreme race and that Jews are sub-human. Germany lost the Great War because they were betrayed by the Jews. Jews are the source of all conscience and must be exterminated. New ethics and laws are quickly adopted.
Hitler tests the limits and capabilities of popular moral constraint. The world is silent as he begins to commit atrocities. He realizes that there is nothing to stop him in his beastial path. Killing Jews becomes top priority, even at expense of the war effort. Jews are marked, concentrated, and then cruelly and sadistically killed. Every day, tens of thousands are herded into the death camps. Jewish populations of entire cities are marched to fields where they dig mass graves, strip from their clothing, and then shot. After the war, the allies find a stockpile of six-hundred-thousand pairs of childrens shoes.
The annihilation increases with his military victories. Most of the conquered people offer no resistance to the plan and many local populations even cooperate willingly. Denmark is the only exception.
Japan bombs Pearl Harbor and the United States of America enters the conflict, providing vitally needed reinforcement. As the war starts to turn against Germany, Hitler consoles himself and his cohorts by intensifying the Holocaust.
The world focuses on the multi-fronted war. Reports of Hitlers atrocities trickle out but are not dealt with. Pleas are made with the allies to bomb the railroad lines that bring the trains to the concentration camps. They are squashed. Those who make them are criticized for suggesting a diversion of war resources. The world is silent and whoever knows what is going on is deafened by that silence.
Hitler is finally stopped. Before they can capture him he ends his life in this world by taking perfumed poison. He can expect a warm reception in the next world.
American soldiers reach the kill camps and cant believe the horror that is before their eyes. The condition of thirty-five thousand people is so hopeless, they are so close to death, that despite the rescue effort they are dead within two months.
A quarter-million Jews in Europe are homeless. They are gathered together for support and recovery into Displaced Persons Camps.
Some Jews try to return home, but they are unwanted. Twenty-five-thousand who return to Poland are met with a pogrom. Stalin ships his Jewish returnees to Siberia, claiming that they are contaminated by Western culture. For the same reason he also exiles his own soldiers who return from the German front. He is crazy.
The Nazi Holocaust was not our first misfortune. Many non-Jewish people were lost from this tragedy and from others throughout this century. The repetitive nature of the misfortunes which befell the Jewish people prior to this Holocaust, the intensity of the Holocaust, and its nearness to our time all contribute to give it a great focus in our day.
The Jewish people struggle with how to deal with this astonishing tragedy. Germany was a highly advanced country, an apex of civility, culture, education, and values. The Germans were a noble people. How could they do this? Such a question may bring a secularist to question whether morality and ethics are intrinsic qualities of humanity. To the secularist, the Holocaust can appear to be an accident of history and of evolution, demonstrating that life is meaningless.
Judaism provides meaning to life but at this time there is no answer for why G-d let this misfortune happen to the Jewish people.
We are taught that they did not die in vain, that their suffering contributed to bring society closer to perfection. We can't explain how. With humility and submission we can only accept.
We must try to derive knowledge and strength from the experience.
The following Medrash (Toldos) comes to mind.
Yokim of Zroros was the nephew of Rabbi Yosi Ben Yoezer. Yokim was an apostate and he was riding a horse on the Jewish Sabbath, showing open disregard for its sanctity. He passed before the stake that the Romans were going to hang Rabbi Yosi on.
Said Yokim to Rabbi Yosi, "Look at the horse that my master (Rome) gives me to ride on and look at the horse that your Master (G-d) gives you to ride."
Rabbi Yosi responded, "If G-d gives greatness for one who seeks to make Him angry, how much greatness is there in store for those do His will?"
Asked Yokim, "Is there anyone who tried to do His will more than you?"
Responded Rabbi Yosi, "If the suffering that you see happening to me occurs to a person who does His will, how much suffering is in store for one who seeks to make Him angry?"
The words and the experience drove Yokim to return to G-d.
The Holocaust must be viewed within the context of a higher, eternal existence.
During the decades following the pogroms and Holocaust we find large portions of Europe imprisoned within the Communist iron curtain. Many of the gray-faced inhabitants are severely exploited and economically stunted by their leaders. During this time we also find a period of prosperity and advancement within the countries that were involved with the rescue. The mapping is not a perfect fit, but if this is meant to convey a message from Above, it does not need to.
Judaism teaches that there are times when people are singled out by G-d to become inclined to do good things. Their selection is based upon previous good deeds that they chose to do of their own accord. They can therefore be rewarded for the good that comes out from the second set of good acts.
Conversely, there are times when people are singled out by G-d to become inclined to do evil. Their selection is based upon previous evil deeds that they chose to do of their own accord. They are punished for the damage that comes from the second set of evil acts. They are not absolved from responsibility even though G-d made them inclined to do it. This is how we understand the destruction of Pharaoh during the time of the Exodus.
It is natural for the Holocaust victims to wonder whether they did anything to deserve the tragedy. As has been stated all along, the Jewish people bear the responsibility and consequence of bringing the world towards completion, which is at times a painful process. It is therefore possible to view the Jewish people's Holocaust experience non-judgmentally.
However, given the above principle, the perpetrators of the Holocaust must suspect that they were deserving to cause it. Suspicion of guilt points towards the Nazis, not towards their victims.
During the war trials many perpetrators tried to absolve themselves from responsibility by claiming that they were compelled to follow orders from higher commands. Judaism does not acknowledge the excuse of coercion when it comes to committing murder. Following the orders of a human being is no defense when it conflicts with G-d's order not to murder. G-d is the highest level of command.
Within Judaism, people who are killed because they are Jewish are given the after-life of a martyr, even if they were given no choice to demonstrate martyrdom. Painful but nevertheless a benefit, the Holocaust provided eternal salvation for its victims, some of which were estranged from Torah practice.
The Holocaust destroyed Jews who practice Torah observation together with those who did not. Assimilation offered no protection or advantage. Both achieved eternal greatness by dying as Jews. Those who were observant and remained so to the end achieved much greatness, besides the benefits that come from living as Jews. The latter were linked to significance and Jewish destiny both in life and in death.
The murderers were tested both by whether to kill and how to kill. Sadistic behavior is gruesomely documented within the Holocaust literature.
People were tested with how they were to die. Many marched to their deaths with the song of 'Ani Ma-amin,' I believe. There are countless stories of astonishing heroism.
It was the first night of Chanukah when a small group of new inmates was herded into a dismal room. Its windows overlooked the crematorium. They were frightened, cold, and starving. Guards eventually came with a plate of margarine and made sport out of distributing small pats. One of the victims fell upon a piece but unlike his fellows, he did not devour it.
He spoke as the demons left. "Fellow Jews, see how my prayers were answered. By melting this margarine I now have oil with which I can light the Chanukah candle. Can anyone help me with something to put it in?"
From the dark someone shouted, "Shut up!"
A woman stepped forward and tore off a large button from her fur coat. Someone else pulled thread out of his jacket and made a wick. A third person had a pack of matches. The group gathered by the window and sang Chanukah songs as he lit the tiny menorah.
The door swung open and a Nazi furiously screamed, "Filthy Jews. Tomorrow you will pay dearly for this."
Somehow, that small flame prevailed over the bellowing smokestacks of the crematorium.
The Holocaust brought not only the worst out of Mankind, but also the best. A good number of non-Jews rose to the call of humanity and decency, heroically risking life and fortune to save their fellow from destruction.
A number children were taken in and saved by non-Jewish families and organizations, some for humanitarian reasons and others for converting them to another faith. There are numerous stories of people who in later life discovered their Jewish ancestry.
Some forms of anti-Semitism still exists but for now, in general, pogroms seem to be a thing of the past. Has Mankind become refined? Only G-d knows.
The United States of America provides refuge for a large number of survivors. Shortly after the war, America has the largest Jewish population. The mantle of Torah leadership passes to scholars in the United States, tragically by process of elimination.
We now look back into history and see the center of Torah, given on Mount Sinai, moving to Israel, then on to Babylon/Israel, then moving through countries in Europe, then going across the Atlantic to America. Today we see tremendous Torah scholarship in Israel. Are we going full circle?
As world Jewry became aware of the Holocaust after the fact, the shock caused guilt and communal recrimination. In reaction to the horror, some people focused on supporting Yeshivas, Torah institutions. Others focused on supporting the State of Israel. Some rallied to build Holocaust memorials. Many felt an obligation to raise large families.
In remembering the six-million martyrs who perished during the Holocaust, we hope and pray that Mankind becomes inspired with an appreciation for the contribution and significance of Judaism and the Jewish people.
Since the establishment of the State Of Israel in 1948, the population in the Holy Land has increased seven-fold. May G-d continue to bestow His blessings of growth and prosperity. Sadly, due to assimilation and lack of Jewish consciousness, during this same period world the Jewish population remains flat at twelve million, when it should have at least doubled. In physical terms alone, this loss is twice that of the Holocaust.
Is it happening to us, today? Will our grandchildren be Jewish? Will we have grandchildren?
We hope and pray that more people within the Jewish community will become inspired with an appreciation for their Torah, tradition, ancestors, and continuity.
Prior to the most solemn prayer of the year, Yom Kippur's Ne'ilah, Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz, of blessed memory, jolted those assembled before him by saying that if a person has not lost one night's sleep this past year because of the millions of our estranged brethren, then how can he stand before G-d on this most holy day of Yom Kippur and seek forgiveness.
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