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Hidden in Thunder

May 9, 2009 | by Liba Pearson

Those who took up arms weren't the only heroes in the Holocaust.

Memory occupies a place of sanctity in Judaism.

"For Jews," says Esther Farbstein, a Holocaust researcher and writer, "remembrance, zicharon, is an obligation. We are commanded to remember."

You called out to me in distress, and I delivered you. Hidden in thunder, I answered you... Psalm 81

After the daily morning prayers, we read the six remembrances: The exodus from Egypt, receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai, Amalek's attack on the Jewish people, the sin of the golden calf, Miriam, and the Sabbath day.

They're a strange combination: the first two are evidence of God's power and love for the Jewish people, and of the landmark events that formed us as a nation -- our most exalted moments.

The second two are painful, shameful -- the tribe of Amalek's attack on the nation's weakest as we made our way out of Egypt and, later, when the Jewish people betrayed God by worshipping the Golden Calf.

The fifth reminds us when God punished Miriam, our prophetess and leader, the source of water in the desert, for slanderous speech.

And the final is Shabbat, our calendar's holiest day, which our sages write is a taste of the world to come.

How is it that we are charged with the same word -- Remember! -- in connection with our lowest episodes and highest moments as a people?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik wrote of the multiple levels on which memory exists: Personal memories extend to familial, familial extends to national, and the national extends and spans generations. Jewish memory is the basis of identification: We left Egypt together. We fought Amalek. We stood together at Mt. Sinai. And we all stood together in the camps.

Jewish memory is thus an action: We remember not merely to mourn. "Jewish tradition sets out days and processes of mourning," Farbstein notes, "and those periods and processes have limits set out for them, and they end. But memory has no end. There is otzma, power, in memory."

A Spiritual Legacy

Farbstein, whose book Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust has just been published in English (Mossad HaRav Kook, 2007), grew up in a home steeped in memories of the Jewish world before the Holocaust

Raised in Jerusalem in Gerer Chassidic family, she is a great-granddaughter of Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Alter, the leader of Ger Chassidic dynasty, who had been a prime target of the Nazis prior to his escape to Israel in 1940.

Born in Israel after the war, as a young girl Farbstein was conscious of how many members of her own family had perished. She was named for her mother's murdered sister. Realizing that he'd likely be the last kid, her little brother was given four names -- Yitzhak Pinchas Aaron Ephraim-Fischel -- in a bid to give as many murdered relatives a legacy.

Throughout her childhood, Farbstein remembers that her family "always had beds for survivors." Like many religious leaders, the Gerer rebbes were sought out by survivors needing everything from spiritual solace to a place to sleep.

"People came to visit us because they had no one else," Farbstein recalls. "They were alone, so we made their weddings."

Farbstein's parents and grandparents did what they could to help survivors rebuild their lives and their places in the world. Today, Farbstein's academic research is rebuilding the spiritual legacy many survivors left behind.

History, including the history of the Holocaust, is dictated by the questions historians ask.

History, including the history of the Holocaust, is dictated by the questions historians ask as they research and write.

"If we ask 'What did the Germans do to us?', it's only pain and suffering," she says. "That pain and suffering is of course true and real, but it's a partial picture."

Hidden in Thunder asks another question: How did we survive?

Many Holocaust researchers have devoted themselves to studying Jewish physical resistance during the Holocaust, documenting Jewish bravery in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Hannah Senesh parachuting behind enemy lines, partisans fighting in the forests, or the escape from Sobibor. Farbstein's work focuses on Jewish spiritual resistance: From where did the millions get the strength to persevere, to preserve their humanity?

Utilizing archival research, diaries, letters, and other documents, Hidden in Thunder details the roles played by halachic and Chassidic leaders in the years leading up to the Holocaust, as well as in the midst of it.

Hidden in Thunder shows how some rabbinic figures were among the earliest leaders to comprehend the Nazi plans and documents their attempts at publicizing the danger -- calling for physical and spiritual responses in kind. One interesting document is a side by side comparison of Abba Kovner's famous January 1942 Vilna Proclamation, one of the first public recognitions of scope of Nazi plans, with A Kol in the Midber ("A voice in the wilderness"), a Yiddish-language religious proclamation published in an underground Jewish newspaper in Warsaw a few weeks after Kovner's proclamation. (In the pre-Internet age, a few weeks was not a significant gap in publication dates.) .

Interestingly, the later document perceives the Nazi threat as clearly as the better-known Vilna document. This is particularly notable since Kovner's call -- "Let us not go as sheep to the slaughter!" -- followed mass murders in Vilna, whereas neither murders nor even transports had yet taken place in Warsaw.

Challenging the common academic view that religious leaders didn't recognize or respond to the Nazi threat, Hidden in Thunder shows that, in the earliest years of the "final solution," local rabbis were often the first address sought by escapees from camps -- whether or not the escapees were religious.

Farbstein posits that this is both because, in pre-WWII Europe, rabbis had been the acknowledged leaders of communities and because escapees not only "needed someone to believe them," she says, "but they needed someone to give them belief."

Rabbinic leaders' worldview was also more able to comprehend the reality facing European Jewry. Not only did they have fewer connections to "sophisticated, professional, psychological reasons not to believe," she says, but rabbis "grew up on Jewish history." Their intimacy with two millennia of Jewish suffering gave them little faith in the outside world, and this put them in a very different stead than many of their co-religionists, who viewed themselves as fully German or Austrian and couldn't comprehend the reality that their own governments sought to kill them for being Jews. "There was a psychological roadblock for many people," she explains.

"Aunt Esther from 7 Megila Street, apt. 4, is coming."

The rabbis were thus more ready to spread the alarm. One example Farbstein documents in Hidden in Thunder are the attempts made by Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aronson, who was later interned in Auschwitz, of the Polish village Sanniki to disseminate the warning brought to him by an escapee from Chelmo. Mindful of snooping authorities, in a cable to the Sachaczewer Rebbe, Aronson wrote that "Aunt Esther from 7 Megila Street, apt. 4, is coming." -- an allusion to the Book of Esther 7:4: "For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, killed and annihilated. Had we merely been sold as slaves, male and female, I would have kept silent."

During the depths of the hell, rabbinic figures provided spiritual guidance and sustenance -- in the shtetls and cities, ghettoes and, ultimately, in the camps.

Hidden in Thunder documents that role, drawing heavily on the halachic responsae -- decisions in Jewish law -- produced during the period, including whether it was permitted to hide a Jewish child with Christian families, what limitations there were to hiding one's Jewishness or pretending to be a non-Jew, and what attempts were made to locate and reclaim those hidden children after the war.

Saving Rabbis

Over the years, much research and attention has been paid to efforts to rescue rabbinic leaders, with allegations being made that too much focus was placed on saving rabbis or, worse, that rabbis abandoned their communities while fleeing to the safety of Israel or the U.S.

Farbstein disputes this.

"Just go to Yad Vashem," she says. "Check the yizkor books and the lists of each city or village's dead. The vast majority say that the rabbi was there."

That fact is evident in the sections of Hidden Thunder that explore the rabbinic rulings handed down in the camps: Whether one could eat non-kosher food to survive; whether one can refuse to eat non-kosher food, if it means starving; how to bury bodies of the dead; whether one can hasten one's death; marriage and divorce in concentration camps; and "the hardest and most asked question," how to determine who lives and dies -- when drawing up lists to submit to Nazi authorities.

"The full picture is that rabbis stayed with their communities, giving them strength," Farbstein says.

In fact, according to Hidden Thunder, rabbis were singled out by Nazis. The book recounts the public humiliations meted out commonly to rabbis and men who "looked like" rabbis. "The Germans came for them first," Farbstein says. "In all of Poland, only a few survived."

So why do the misconceptions persist?

To begin with, she says, the stories of rabbinic rescues are dramatic and compelling, and have been told enough to seem like there were more rescues than there were. There's also a worldview not specific to the Holocaust that is skeptical or even hostile to rabbinic and other religious leaders.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she says, the religious community has not engaged in serious scholarship of the Holocaust. And that lack of engagement also goes a long way to explaining why the spiritual dimension of the Holocaust has been neglected to a great extent. "People study what they know," she explains.

It's for this reason that she founded the Holocaust Education Center of the Michlalah Women's College in 1994, the specific mission of which is to promote research and educational programs focused on the religious and spiritual dimensions of the Holocaust. Her current research project is collecting, translating and annotating the personal reminiscences of rabbinic figures -- rare histories she's been able to find in the forewords to books unrelated to the Holocaust.

Much laudable contemporary Holocaust research has explained how, exactly, the Nazis did what they did. Researchers have asked why and whether the Jews went, in Kovner's phrasing, "like sheep to the slaughter" and they've documented the Jewish heroes who stood up to evil against impossible odds.

We're beginning to understand the spiritual resistance.

But the picture is more complicated; it's not that the ghetto fighters and partisans did one thing and the rest of the six million acted in the opposite way.

"Now, we're beginning to understand the spiritual resistance," Farbstein says.

During the initial decades after the Holocaust, many religious survivors didn't speak about their experiences and participated at lower rates in Holocaust documentation projects such as the Steven Spielberg's Visual History Foundation, which took videotaped testimonies from survivors.

That's changed now, she says, positing that the differences in willingness to participate "didn't come from neglect, but from needing to recover."

In addition to needing time, religious survivors were skeptical of researchers whose worldview seemed antithetical to their own. That's slowly changing. The Michlalah's Holocaust Education Center has seen a steady rise in interest in the educational programming it produces, which targets religious schools and educators in Israel.

Though the time lag in communal interest in compiling testimonies meant that many survivors passed away before their stories could be documented, Farbstein has been able to reconstruct history drawing on original archival work; the resources of the Ganzach Kiddush Hashem Bnei Brak, a Holocaust archive in central Israel focused on the religious community; as well as a video documentation project she headed in conjunction with the Spielberg project.

All that is expounded upon in the second volume of Hidden Thunder, which catalogues the inner religious life of those in the camps: Their attempts to pray, the manifold ways they sanctified God's name, the commitment to the story of Torah, and their attempts after the war's end to return to normal life and remain people of faith -- "vital elements," Farbstein writes, "that preserved the DNA of the Jewish people, enabling the nation to come back to life as the Holocaust."

In their darkest moments, those survivors were able to remember. They remembered when they were redeemed from Egypt and when they stood at Sinai. And they remembered when Amalek set upon them without provocation, without mercy.

They remembered.

Click to order: Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust.

For information on the Holocaust Education Center of the Michlalah Women's College and Dr. Farbstein's other work.

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