> Holocaust Studies > Issues

Life and Death Choices

May 9, 2009 | by

Moral dilemmas in the face on Nazi terror.

In the history of the Holocaust, the ghastly reality of mass murder forcing Jews to decide excruciating moral dilemmas stands out. The harrowing issues they were made to confront were all but impossible to solve using human "conscience" alone. To this very day, there is unresolved public debate concerning the propriety of the actions of the Judenrats, or Jewish councils, which governed Jewish communities under Nazi rule. Even their most extreme critics, however, admit that many Judenrat leaders were of high moral and intellectual standing. The agonizing life-and-death choices which confronted these men were simply impossible to resolve through conventional logic.

Who among us could honorably pass such a trial?

The same applies to other situations which often arose during the Holocaust. Men were forced to choose between their own lives and those of others. A sadistic German officer forced a Jewish mother to choose which of her children would be allowed to survive. Who among us could honorably pass such a trial? How would we have reacted had we been hidden in that famous bunker where the occupants could remain alive only by smothering a crying infant to death? Is it possible at all to reach logical decisions on moral questions of this nature?

One whose moral foundations are in any case vague stands absolutely helpless when confronted with ethical decisions such as these. The Divine morality of Torah, however, provides fundamental and clear-cut criteria with which even the most difficult of questions can be approached. The Talmud is not silent on life and death issues: "What makes you think your blood is redder [more valuable] than his? Perhaps his blood is redder?" (Sanhedrin 74a). And: "All must die rather than turn over a single Jew [to the enemy]" (Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 5:5). The applications of these and other principles are both numerous and complex. As with all laws of this type, when it is possible, a qualified authority must be consulted for practical rulings; nevertheless, these questions come firmly within the realm of halachic decision. Judaism does not abandon the subtleties of life-and-death issues to the whims of individual moral uncertainty.

* * *

Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Meisels relates the following incident in his Introduction to Responsa Mekadshei Hashem:

On the eve of Rosh Hashana (5705/1944), they rounded up and took ... 1400 boys to an isolated, closed block (at Auschwitz). The next day, the first day of Rosh Hashana, the rumor spread through the whole camp that in the evening the youths would be taken to the furnace. Many people in the camp had an only son among these youths, the only child left to them ... and all that day they ran in confusion around the closed block, in the hope that perhaps they could catch some glimmer of light to save their precious son from there...

A simple Jew came and said to me: "Rabbi! My only son is in there among the boys condemned to the furnace, and it is within my power to purchase his release. Since it is known to us, without any doubt, that they will take someone else in his place, I present before you a halachic decision. Tell me what the law is according to the Torah. Am I allowed to redeem him? I shall act according to your decision."

When I heard this question, the thought of rendering a decision on the matter of life and death caused me to tremble. I replied: "My dear friend, how can I give a clear-cut ruling on a question like this? When the Temple was standing, a question like this would have been brought before the Sanhedrin. And I am here in Auschwitz, without a single book of halacha (Jewish law), without other rabbis, and without a calm and settled mind, due to the many disasters and troubles. If it were the practice of these wicked ones to first release the redeemed one, and afterwards to take another in his place, there would be some room to lean toward a permissive [ruling]..."

But the man wept greatly, and begged me very much. He said to me: "Rabbi, you must tell me the halacha now." I in turn pleaded with him: "Release me from this question, for I cannot tell you anything at all." But he continued to beg me, saying, "Rabbi, does that mean that you do not permit me to redeem my only son? If so -- I accept the ruling with love."

I pleaded with him and objected to his inference, but he went on begging me and trying to make me give him a clear answer. When he saw that I stood my ground and did not want to give a halachic ruling, he answered me with emotion and with tremendous inspiration:

"Rabbi, I have done my duty as the Torah requires me to do. I brought my question before the rabbi. There is no other rabbi here. If His Honor, the rabbi, cannot answer that it is permitted for me to redeem my child, that is a sign that he is not completely sure that the halacha permits [it]. If it were permissible without any doubts, certainly you would tell me so. To me this means that according to the halacha it is forbidden to me. I accept this with love and joy, and I shall not do anything to redeem him, because that is what the Torah commanded..."

All my pleadings to him not to put the responsibility on me were to no avail. He only repeated what he had said, with heartrending weeping. He fulfilled his words, and did not redeem his son. That whole day, Rosh Hashana, he walked and spoke to himself joyfully, saying that he merited to sacrifice his only son to God, since even though it was in his power to redeem him, he would not, seeing that the Torah did not permit him to do such a thing. This would be considered by the Holy One, Blessed is He, like the Binding of our Father Isaac, which also had taken place on Rosh Hashana. (Cited in Ani Ma'amin, pp. 63-64. Another eye-witness account of this incident is recorded in Zichron Kedoshim, p. 380.).

Little is known to us about halachic responsa of this type during the Holocaust. Those who asked the questions were murdered and burned along with those who answered. Of the written responsa, their letters flew heavenward as the sheets that contained them turned to ashes. Only a few remnants survive the flames, mainly collected in R. Efrayim Oshry's She'elos Uteshuvos Mimaamakim. The volume contains a number of responsa given by R' Oshry himself, who served as a member of the rabbinate in Kovna, Lithuania, during the Holocaust.

In one of these responsa, the author relates that the Nazis commanded the Judenrat of Kovna to publish notices calling upon the Jews to assemble in Democracy Square. The Jews would then be transported to the death camps. The Judenrat's refusal would endanger the lives of all the occupants of the ghetto. The heads of the Judenrat turned to R. Avraham Dov Kahana-Shapiro (author of Dvar Avraham) for a halachic ruling. When the aged rabbi first heard the question, he fainted. Then, after prolonged deliberation, he permitted the Judenrat to obey, so as to prevent the murder of all the Jews in the ghetto. (A similar account is given by a head of the Kovna Judenrat, Leib Garfunkel, who wrote Kovna HaYehudis Bechurbanah.)

In his book entitled "Judenrat," the historian of the Jewish councils of the ghettos, Dr. Isaiah Trunk, records several accounts of similar halachic questions put before rabbis. According to one, a group of four rabbis were sent to the chairman of the Vilna Judenrat, Yaakov Gans, to protest against the Judenrat's participation in one of the German "operations." The rabbis argued that it was halachically forbidden to turn a Jew over to the Germans, even if refusal endangered the entire ghetto. (Other correlating accounts are contained in the same book.)

At first glance, it would seem that disagreement on this issue existed among various rabbis. In fact, however, it is difficult to know the exact details of the various incidents, and this author does not consider himself qualified to make a definitive judgment on the issue. However, it would appear that there is a difference between the Vilna Jewish policemen's actual physical assistance in turning people over to the Germans, and the Judenrat's relatively passive action of publishing notices to assemble. Furthermore, the publishing of notices did not constitute actual aid in sending people to the camps, since everyone knew that the Judenrat was a Nazi instrument and its notices were not to be believed. Also, one must consider: Was it clearly known then, as it is now, that these people were being sent to certain death, or did an element of doubt exist? Different communities became aware of these realities gradually, and at different times.

The disagreement there concerns the correct interpretation of sources given at Sinai. Regarding such disputes the Talmud states: "Both these and those are the words of the living God." Even in cases of sharply differing views, all sides are based on the same Torah, the same basic principles of Divine morality. All aspire to the same goal: to do the will of the Creator, Who gives life and rules everything.

Excerpted from the book, Shoah: A Jewish Perspective on the Holocaust, by Rabbi Yoel Schwartz & Rabbi Yitzchak Goldstein [Artscroll Publications.]

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