Reincarnation and the Holocaust
Why some Jews suspect they've returned.
Finding an article about reincarnation in Scientific American is as unlikely as finding a recipe for pork chops in a kosher cookbook. How surprised I was, therefore, to read “Ian Stevenson’s Case for the Afterlife: Are We ‘Skeptics’ Really Just Cynics?” in Scientific American’s online issue of November 2, 2013.
Its author, Jesse Bering, a former professor of psychology, is a self-proclaimed skeptic. “If you’re anything like me, with eyes that roll over to the back of your head whenever you hear words like ‘reincarnation’ or ‘parapsychology’ …” he writes. And his article is a wrestling match between his own inveterate skepticism and his intellectual honesty in daring to examine the research done by the late Prof. Ian Stevenson, who held the Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia.
Prof. Stevenson meticulously studied the memories of previous lives of some 3,000 children. For example, a toddler in Sri Lanka heard her mother mention the distant town of Kataragama and proceeded to tell her mother that she had drowned there when her “dumb” brother pushed her into the river. She went on to mention 30 details of her previous home, family, and neighborhood. Prof. Stevenson went to Kataragama and found a family that perfectly fit the child’s description. Their two-year-old daughter had indeed drowned in the river while playing with her mentally challenged brother. Prof. Stevenson verified 27 of the 30 statements made by the child.
“I must say… many are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means.”
After reading Stevenson’s research reports, Jesse Bering grudgingly admits: “I must say, when you actually read them firsthand, many are exceedingly difficult to explain away by rational, non-paranormal means.”
Bering then declares: “Towards the end of her own storied life, the physicist Doris Kuhlmann-Wilsdorf – whose groundbreaking theories on surface physics earned her the prestigious Heyn Medal from the German Society for Material Sciences, surmised that Stevenson’s work had established that ‘the statistical probability that reincarnation does in fact occur is so overwhelming … that cumulatively the evidence is not inferior to that for most if not all branches of science.’”
The Jewish View
We Jews certainly never learned about reincarnation in Hebrew School. But if we dig, we discover that there are hints to reincarnation in the Bible and early commentaries 1, while in Kabbalah, Judaism’s mystical tradition, overt references to reincarnation abound. The Zohar, the basic text of Jewish mysticism (attributed to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 1st century sage) assumes gilgul neshamot [the recycling of souls] as a given, and the Ari, the greatest of all Kabbalists, whose 16th teachings are recorded in, Shaar HaGilgulim, traced the reincarnations of many Biblical figures. While some authorities, such as Saadia Gaon (10th century) denied reincarnation as a Jewish concept, from the 17th century onward, leading rabbis of normative Judaism, such as the Gaon of Vilna and the Chafetz Chaim 2, referred to gilgul neshamot as a fact.
The Ramchal, the universally-admired 18th century scholar, explained in his classic The Way of God: “God arranged matters so that man’s chances of achieving ultimate salvation should be maximized. A single soul can be reincarnated a number of times in different bodies, and in this manner, it can rectify the damage done in previous incarnations. Similarly, it can also achieve perfection that was not attained in its previous incarnations.” [3:10]
Still, many Jews feel that believing in reincarnation is like believing in Santa Claus. It violates two taboos: It’s irrational and it smacks of other religions.
My Holocaust-Obsessed Childhood
Born in 1948 in suburban New Jersey to second-generation American parents with no family connection to the Holocaust, my own disbelief in reincarnation marred my growing-up years in two ways: It left me devoid of any logical explanation for my obsession with the Holocaust and my seething hatred of everything German. And it filled me with anger against God at the suffering of innocent Jews whose final chapter ended in the gas chambers of Auschwitz or the pits of Babi Yar.
I well remember the day in third grade of Hebrew school, at the age of 11, when I realized that I was not “normal.” During recess I was sitting, legs dangling, on the desk of my favorite Hebrew school teacher, Mr. Feinstein. I told him how my father had just purchased a German camera, and of course I refused to let him take my picture with it. I myself refused to buy German products and never accepted a ride in a Volkswagen. Mr. Feinstein asked me if any members of my extended family had been killed in the Holocaust. “No,” I replied.
“Do your parents hate Germans?” he probed.
“I guess not. They never talk about the Holocaust,” I answered, clueless as to what he was getting at.
“Then why do you hate Germans so much?”
I stared at him as if he had asked me why I like chocolate milkshakes. “All Jewish kids hate Germans,” I replied, stating the obvious.
The bell announced the end of recess. My classmates filed in and took their seats, with me still sitting on the teacher’s desk. Mr. Feinstein threw out a question: “How many of you hate Germans?”
My hand shot up. Harry Davidov tentatively half-lifted his hand. No one else in the class moved.
Mr. Feinstein gazed at me without saying a word. I slithered down from his desk, feeling weird, estranged from my friends, a different species, an ugly duckling.
How could it be that my inner passions were not what all Jewish kids felt? Where did they come from? Who had given birth to them? I felt like I had just learned that I was adopted. My assumptions were false, the genealogy of my innermost passions shrouded in haze.
At the beginning of ninth grade, I had a dream that left me even more bewildered. Everyone in my ninth grade glass was required to select a language to study for the next three years. Our choices were: French, Spanish, German, and Latin. All my friends chose French or Spanish. I chose German. When my surprised friends asked me why, I replied with steely eyes, “’Know thine enemy.’ I want to read Mein Kempf in the original.”
At the end of my first week of German study, after two classes and a language lab repeating, “Guten tag, Freulein Hess,” I had a convoluted dream. I woke up in the middle of it, shaking. I and everyone else in the dream had been speaking fluent German.
Trying to understand myself without a concept of reincarnation was like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing.
Dreams and Phobias
The clues that hint at a reincarnated soul from the Holocaust are recurrent dreams, phobias, and déjà vu experiences, especially by people born in the first decade or so after the Holocaust. In the 1950s and 60s, books and movies about the Holocaust were virtually non-existent and therefore could not account for these vivid phenomena.
Jackie Warshall was born in Brooklyn in 1950 to American-born parents. When she was four years old, at night after her mother tucked her in and left her to go to sleep, little Jackie would stare into her pillow as if it were a TV set, and see a vision. She saw herself inside the back of a truck filled with women. Some of them were collapsing to the floor. Then she saw herself fly out of the truck. There, above the truck, she would feel a sense of liberation, and say, “I got out. I’m free now.”
Only decades later did she learn that the Nazis’ earliest experiment in mass murder was to pack people into a truck and pipe the carbon monoxide gas from the motor into the back of the truck.
Many years later, Jackie was teaching a fourth grade class in a Jewish day school in Connecticut. In the library, leafing through a Holocaust book for young readers, she found a watercolor sketch of women standing inside the back of a truck. “Standing in the library,” Jackie recounts, “I felt like a lightening bolt of recognition hit me.”
Anna B. was born in 1957 in St. Louis to a traditional Jewish family with no direct link to the Holocaust. When Anna was five years old, she began to have a recurring dream that she was being tortured in a laboratory setting. Her torturers were a doctor wearing a white coat and, incongruously, a man in a military uniform. She had this recurring dream until she was ten years old.
When she later learned about the Holocaust, Anna felt, “The Nazis were the people in my dream.” Starting in third grade, she became obsessed with the Holocaust, reading whatever Holocaust books and seeing whatever Holocaust movies were available at that time. At some point, she concluded that she had been experimented upon in Mengele’s infamous twin experiments.
Years later, Anna was invited for a Shabbos meal in New York City. When she arrived, an elderly gentleman who was a fellow guest opened the door for her. She looked at him quizzically. She knew him, but she couldn’t place from where. He also stared at her with a perplexed recognition. Finally, still standing at the doorway, he said, “I think I know you.” Anna replied, “I think I know you, too.” Neither of them, however, could figure out from where.
The connection between Anna and this man, many decades older than she, was so strong that the man’s wife started to get upset. The man and his wife had been guests in this home many times before. Over Shabbos lunch, however, the elderly man, a Holocaust survivor, revealed something that his hosts had never before heard: He had been a subject in the Mengele twin experiments.
I received the following correspondence from a Talmud scholar who detailed a recurrent nightmare he had as a child, six decades ago. He wrote: “I have never shared the following story with anyone, not even my parents, wife or closest friends.” At the end of his account, he added: “I wish to remain anonymous. Jerry Friedman was the first fictitious name that popped into my head.” So averse was he to being associated with a book about reincarnation that he even created a special Gmail account just to send me his story.
He described his recurring dream:
I was born in 1942 to American-born parents. As a young child I had a recurring nightmare. I was a child of about 7 years of age, lying on a well-worn wooden floor, my back propped up against a wall. The room was in my home, not my real home, but in my “nightmare home.” Somehow I knew that the home was in Europe, probably Poland ... . The room was dimly lit and filled with choking smoke. I could see people on the floor who had been shot. They were my “nightmare” family.
There were several uniformed men standing in the room – the perpetrators of the slaughter. I spotted a black gun on the floor next to me and picked it up, still lying on the floor with my back propped against the wall. I held it tightly in my two hands and aimed it at the upper chest of one of the uniformed men who was standing above me. The officer – I just assumed he was an officer of some sort because of his cap – just mockingly smiled at me as if to convey that he knew I would not have the courage to pull the trigger. I looked to the right and left of the officer and noticed the other men and their armbands with the strange symbols, X’s with the ends broken back, like a pinwheel. [At that point in his childhood he was totally unfamiliar with the swastika.]
I looked back at the officer as he was slowly raising his gun towards me. I tried real hard to pull the trigger of my gun. I knew if I didn't pull it, he would shoot me. I just stared at his eyes and his mocking grin growing wider and his gun raised, pointing to my head. I wanted so much to pull the trigger of the black gun. Then the dream ends.
Since early childhood, I have had an aversion to guns, especially black guns. I still get the chills when I see one.
Nechama Bornstein, a Jewish woman from Denmark, born in 1963, had a dream as an adult:
In the dream, I was walking with a group of people, through a darkened passage. At the end of this hallway, there was a wall, made of brown wooden planks. The ceiling was low. The wall to the left was set with white-painted bricks. … I knew that we were being taken to be punished. We had done something terrible, according to the Nazis. We were herded on, close together. … Then right before the end of the hallway, on the right, a door was slightly open. We were pushed through it and entered a fairly large room. It was lit, but I didn't see any source of light. …
Years later, a traveling exhibition of children's photos from Auschwitz was held in The Architect Academy in Copenhagen.
A small photograph on the wall caught my attention. … The small photograph wasn't showing a face, but a low-ceiling hallway. My heart started pounding. I moved forward, every step seemed to take an eternity, unfolding in another time dimension. I knew this place. There it was – the wall made of wooden planks, then that of white-painted bricks. ... I was so upset, I could hardly breathe. I reached the small photograph. This was where we had been walking [in the dream]. There was the door to the right.
A small sign beneath the photograph read: "Entrance to the gas chamber at Auschwitz."
Perceiving God’s Love
Reincarnation turns the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the pits of Babi Yar into terrible chapter endings rather than the final conclusion of the soul’s story. Every great epic includes fearsome chapters where, for example, the heroine is abducted by the villain and subjected to torment. If that were the ending, the saga would indeed be dubbed a tragedy. But if there’s a subsequent chapter, where the villain is vanquished and the heroine – now wiser and kinder for her ordeal – is reunited with her family and goes on to live a salubrious, happy life, would you call that story a tragedy?
The most impactful words I ever heard came from the mouth of Batya Burd, widow of Gershon Burd, speaking at a recent event. After her husband drowned on his 40th birthday, Batya was left a 39-year-old widow with five children under the age of ten. Some people have been asking Batya how such a tragedy could have occurred to her. Batya offered “a potential scenario just to quench the ‘Why?’”
What if, she asked hypothetically, she had been a religious girl in the Holocaust, and had seen someone very dear to her die in front of her. And her reaction had been to deny God, abandon Jewish practice, and rail against God to as many people as would listen. As Batya postulates in her hypothetical scenario:
“What if I spoke out very strongly to people around me that there must be no God, that He must have abandoned us, and I brought others down with me.” What if she then died, and in “the World of Truth,” where the soul goes after death, she recognized her mistake and asked for a chance to rectify it. And God gave her another opportunity to “get it right and fix what I had spoiled before.”
And what if she was born again into this world, and had “a good life, and, again, God had someone very dear to me die in front of me, and this time I was going to be given ample opportunity to stay strong in my faith, and I was going to be given a platform to strengthen other people to stay strong, and in that way not only would I rectify what I had done before, but I would go even higher.
"What a good, loving, caring, compassionate God, to allow me the opportunity to rectify and perfect myself and the world around me.”
Reincarnation is a powerful lens through which God’s love and mercy can be perceived in the cataclysms of life.
I’m not asking you, dear reader, to start believing in reincarnation, only to be open-minded enough to examine the evidence. As Jesse Bering wrote in his Scientific American blog: “I’m not quite ready to say that I’ve changed my mind about the afterlife. But I can say that a fair assessment and a careful reading of Stevenson’s work has, rather miraculously, managed to pry it open. Well, at tad, anyway.”
Sara Yoheved Rigler is collecting more stories for a book on this subject. Readers who have reason to believe that they had an incarnation in the Holocaust are requested to fill out this survey with their email address: https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/PD8C3ZX
- See Deut. 33:6, and Targum Onkeles and Targum Yonosson on that verse. Also see Isaiah 22:14.
- Mishnah Berurah 23:5 and Shaar HaTzion 622:6