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In Death's Shadow

May 9, 2009 | by

Heroism and sanctification of God's Name in the Holocaust.

Each and every victim of the Holocaust, regardless of his personal level of observance or righteousness, was beloved, heroic, and sanctified. However, Kiddush Hashem – sanctifying God's Name -- in the usual sense of the word -- giving up one's life for the sake of Torah and mitzvoth (commandments) -- is the Jew's most sublime sacrifice. Through such sacrifice, thousands of European Jews etched their names into the fabric of eternity. It is our duty to attempt to absorb within us at least a fraction of their legacy's precious light.

Professor Lucy Dawidowicz writes:

The refinements of cruelty were reserved for pious Jews and rabbis, whose traditional Jewish garb -- hat and long coat -- and whose beard and sidelocks identified them as quintessentially Jewish ... the Germans deliberately chose observant Jews to force them to desecrate and destroy the sacred articles of Judaism, even to set fire to synagogues. In some places the Germans piled the Torah scrolls in the marketplace, compelling the Jews to set fire to the pile, and dance around it, singing, "We rejoice that ... is burning." Another German pleasure was "feeding" pork to pious Jews, usually in the presence of an invited audience. The most popular German game, played in countless variations, was "beards." In its simpler versions Germans seized bearded Jews and beat them. A more sophisticated entertainment involved plucking beards, hair by hair on in clumps. Sometimes Germans herded bearded Jews into barber shops, ordering them to be shaved and making them pay for the service. Sometimes the Germans themselves hacked off Jewish beards with bayonets, often along with parts of cheeks, chins, faces. In some places, Jews were assembled in the town square and shorn in a ceremony of mass mockery; elsewhere, beards were set afire (The War Against the Jews 1933-1945, pp. 201-202).

The Germans, denying that Jews were a religious group, had rendered the entire public existence of the observant community illegal. Not only were observant Jews singled out for German sport and persecution, not only were most synagogues destroyed or desecrated, but all functions pertaining to the observance of Judaism were outlawed: public and/or private worship, religious study and religious teaching, shechitah [kosher slaughtering].

Like kashrus, the Sabbath was nearly impossible to observe. In Lodz, Warsaw, Vilna and Kovno, the Sabbath was a permitted day of rest for brief periods or in certain communal institutions, but for the most part the Germans, with deliberate sadism, forced the Jews to work on Saturdays and the High Holy Days ... the Germans had forbidden ritual bath [mikvaot] (Ibid., pp. 248, 250, 251).

* * *

How did the great majority of the Jewish public react to these decrees? Clearly, they were obligated by Jewish law to desecrate the Shabbat, or eat non-kosher food, if there was any threat to life. But beyond what people were required to do to preserve their lives, there were incidents of unparalleled mesirut nefesh, self-sacrifice.

All through Poland, Jews prayed in secret. On August 12, 1940, on the eve of Tisha B'Av, the fast-day commemorating the destruction of the Temple, Chaim Kaplan noted: "Public prayer in these dangerous times is a forbidden act. Anyone caught in this crime is doomed to severe punishment. If you will, it is even sabotage and anyone engaging in sabotage is subject to execution." But Jews prayed in thousands of secret minyanim, some six hundred in Warsaw alone. They prayed in cellars, atticks, back rooms, behind drawn blinds, with men on guard...

With deliberate intent, the enemy aimed to sow discord among ghetto residents. Using the strategy of "divide and conquer," the Germans attempted to ensure that Jews would direct their little remaining strength against one another. Even in the death camps themselves, the Germans consistently created situations in which one man's life would depend on another's death. With unsurpassed sadism, they forced Jewish mothers to decide which of their children would be left alive. There is no doubt that beyond the Germans' basic intent to destroy, there lay another motive. Systematically, the Nazis sought to destroy the essence of the Jews' Divine image, turning him into a creature whose only interest is self-preservation.

The Nazis sought to destroy the essence of the Jews' Divine image, turning him into a creature whose only interest is self-preservation.

One stands amazed at the spiritual fortitude revealed by the Jewish public as a whole. Certainly there were those who failed, and it is not for us to judge them. But if one weighs the actions of the public, as a whole, we will find a monumental revelation of mesirut nefesh, self-sacrifice. There is no doubt that herein lies a genuine Kiddush Hashem. The Admor of Piastchene writes:

One who sanctifies his life for the Jewish People is greater than one who does so for God alone. This is like one who sacrifices his life for the king's son. From this, people see that his love for the king is so great that he not only sacrifices his life for the king himself, but even for his son (Esh Kodesh, p. 23, in the name of the author's father).

Even before the Jews were sent to death camps, they were imprisoned in ghettos, where they faced virtual starvation. The daily food ration allotted by Germans consisted mainly of black bread, frequently mixed with sawdust, and potatoes. Even this portion was distributed irregularly. Under these conditions, it was impossible to stay alive without smuggling food, an activity which itself involved imminent risk of life. There was an appalling lack of space. In the ghetto's crowded, deprived conditions, epidemics of typhus and dysentery spread with lightning speed. Mutual aid organizations in the ghettos cared for orphans and the sick under unimaginably difficult circumstances.

One source states:

Never has there been the possibility of examining so many acts of selflessness and sacrifices as during this time. Innumerable Jews hurry to answer every appeal from the Jewish community or from the Jewish Self-Help Organization [Haezrah Ha'atzmit HaYehudit].

Under the auspices of the Jewish Self-Help Organization, a special division of social aid has been organized, comprising the following departments: money; collection of clothing; urgent help; sanitation and housing for the homeless... (Hashoah Beti'ud, p. 165, citing a newspaper which appeared in the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of the ghettos).

Acts of awesome self-sacrifice were performed by individuals trapped in the most extreme conditions. It is not within the scope of this work to cite all the extant accounts; entire books have already been written to chronicle them (Ani Ma'amin, by M. Eliav; Bikedushah Uvigevurah, by Y. Eibeschitz; and others). All the same, we shall cite a number of incidents:

  • It had been a bad day. On parade, an announcement had been made about the many actions that would, from then on, be regarded as sabotage and therefore punishable by immediate death by hanging. Among these were crimes such as cutting small strips from our old blankets (in order to improvise ankle supports) and very minor "thefts." A few days previously a semi-starved prisoner had broken into the potato store to steal a few pounds of potatoes. The theft had been discovered and some prisoners had recognized the "burglar." When the camp authorities heard about it they ordered that the guilty man be given up to them or the whole camp would starve for a day. Naturally, the 2,500 men preferred to fast (Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning, p. 128).

  • Buchnia, Galicia, the month of Av, 5703 (1943). This is the last ghetto in Galicia, but it, too, is being dismantled. The Jews already know the meaning of being shipped out. They hide in cellars, in bunkers, and among the gentiles. Approximately 200 Jews went into hiding this evening. About ten Jews work in the German factory and are legally permitted to reside in Buchnia. One of these is a respected householder from Cracow, Hirschel Zimmer, with his son. They volunteer to bake bread for the factory workers and supply bread to the hiding Jews. Without this, those in hiding would starve to death.

    In this way, weeks go by, and they do their part. But suddenly, an S.S. man caught them carrying bread, and realized that the bread was intended for those in hiding. They caught them, tortured them horribly, and threatened them with death unless they revealed the Jews' hiding-place. The father and son encouraged each other not to reveal it, and went joyfully to their death.

    These were the last words of Hirschel Zimmer as he was taken out to be executed in the presence of all the assembled "legal Jews": "Fortunate are you, my son; we are going to our death for saving Jews from starvation" (Yoman Ghetto Varsha, pp. 269-70).

  • One day I was lying in my cot in the children's hut in Auschwitz, and I saw the assistant commander of the hut walking with a thick rubber hose to beat someone. I jumped up and ran to see whom they were going to beat. They would give beatings for everything, and the number of blows was in accordance with the severity of the offense. On that day, the rubber hose came into use. Usually they would use a stick, which many times broke in the middle of the beating, and therefore they began to use a rubber hose, and I wanted to see how it worked. I might have to meet up with it myself someday.

    The assistant commander of the hut went up to one of the cots. The boy there already knew, and was waiting for him. "Get down," the assistant commander told him. The boy bent over, and they began to beat him. We, as a group of young men who were standing around, watched, each one counting the blows individually. The boy didn't cry or yell; he didn't even sigh. We were very amazed... There had already been more than twenty-five blows. Usually they would give twenty-five blows, and now it was already more than thirty. When the attacker passed forty blows, he turned the boy over and began to beat him on the legs and head. The boy didn't sigh, didn't cry -- nothing! A boy of 14, and he didn't cry!

    The soldier got very angry, finished the 50 blows, and left him. We picked him up. I remember one large red mark that he had on his forehead from one of the smashes of the rubber hose. We asked him why they had beat him. Then he answered: "It was worth it. I brought my friends a few siddurim (prayer books)." He added nothing more; he got up, climbed onto his cot, and sat there. (From the testimony of Zalman Kleinman in the Eichmann trial, cited in Ani Ma'amin, pp. 114-5).

  • One evening [in Buna-Auschwitz] everyone living in our room was ordered to be disinfected... After finishing our "bath," we had to wait to receive our clothes. That evening, apparently there was some problem with the disinfection of the clothes, for we waited there a long time. In the end we were told that they would come later, and for the time being we should return to our room without clothes. Wearing only shoes and belts, we walked naked through the camp yard, which was covered with snow on that winter night. Every limb trembling, we entered our room... On the cot next to mine lay that Hungarian Jew. Like me, his whole body was shaking.

    He called to me and asked me to come and lie down next to him. It was very cold, and if we lay next to each other we might be somewhat warmer. I did as he asked, and after a few minutes he told me that he remembered Tractate Beitzah [from the Talmud]. I don't remember whether he knew the whole tractate, or only some passages, but when he lay down on his cot he would set fixed times for Torah study by reviewing, word by word, the passages he knew by heart. Now, too, he did not wish to miss his fixed time, and asked me to listen. With the melody of Talmud study, he began reciting the page of Talmud, word for word.

    It is of people like him that it is said: "Fortunate are you, O Israel. Who is like you?" (Sinai Adler, Begei Tzalmavet, pp. 36-8).


When all the evidence has been gathered, we are led to conclude that the Jews of the Holocaust died, for the most part, not like "cowards," and not like "heroes"; not like sheep and not like lions -- but as human beings. They were mortals who found themselves in a situation utterly beyond their control. A few broke under the strain, and cooperated with their murderers -- at first under compulsion, later, sometimes willingly. Others -- also a few -- took up armed resistance. For the most part, such armed struggle was motivated more by the despairing hope of vengeance than considerations of survival. The activities of each of these groups represent the fringe, not the essence, of Jewish reaction to the Holocaust.

Can one doubt the bravery of those who, in spite of everything, never surrendered their will to live?

Indeed, most of those who died cannot be described as "heroes" in the popular sense. Yet there is such a thing as inner heroism as well. Can one question the valor of those Jews who put the safety of their community before their longing for revenge? Can one doubt the bravery of those who, in spite of everything, never surrendered their will to live? The multitude of Jews who gave their lives to save their brothers – the scores who fulfilled the mitzvot of the Torah with love and self-sacrifice -- these were heroes too.

"Who is strong? One who controls his desires." The essence of heroism is the ability to maintain one's inner freedom in the face of external pressure. It is the ability to, despite everything, act in accordance with what one considers correct and desirable. We are repelled by the submissiveness of the term "like sheep to the slaughter" only because it implies behavior completely dictated by external circumstances. But quite actions can come from strength too. Dr. Viktor Frankl, himself a concentration camp survivor, writes:

But what about human liberty? Is there no spiritual freedom in regard to behavior and reaction to any given surroundings? Is that theory true which would have us believe that man is no more than a product of many conditional and environmental factors – be they of a biological, psychological or sociological nature? Is man but an accidental product of these? Most important, do the prisoners' reactions to the singular world of the concentration camp prove that man cannot escape the influences of his surroundings? Does man have no choice of action in the face of such circumstances?

We can answer these questions from experience as well as on principle. The experiences of camp life show that man does have choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way (Man's Search for Meaning, pp. 103-104)


As a "kingdom of priests and a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6), the Jewish people are historically unique only through their sanctity. The Holocaust once again underscored this uniqueness. Consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or through the very events they experienced, the Jewish nation succeeded in sanctifying the name of their Creator. The holiness which their actions displayed both transcends and encompasses heroism.

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


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