Category Archives: Holocaust

80 Years Since Babi Yar

Wanton murder of Jews was a prominent feature of Ukrainian history from time immemorial. But the most infamous massacre of Jews on Ukrainian territory came in 1941, when the Nazis and their Ukrainian friends massacred nearly 34,000 Jews within two days, at the ravine known as Babi Yar.


Jewish history, though, is full not only of tragedies but of unexpected twists and turns. To read what I mean, please click here.

Yetzias Kaufering

Pesach Sheni is a special day in my family, because in 1945, on that day of the Jewish calendar, my father-in-law, who passed away earlier this year, was liberated from Dachau by American soldiers.

You can read about his last days in the concentration camp, and about his family’s marking of that day each year, here.

(Photo is of my father-in-law and one of his orphan charges in France.)

Blood and Soil

Some recent reading led me to wonder if there might be something about German soil that somehow resonates, in susceptible people, with cruelty and murder? Might the Nazi slogan “Blut und Boden!”—“Blood and Soil!”—hold deeper meaning than mere nationalist dedication to the land?

To read my thoughts on the matter, please visit:
https://www.amimagazine.org/2020/08/12/blood-and-soil/

Locusts, the Holocaust and Today

The 17-year locusts, as many call them, won’t be singing their deafening song this spring on the East Coast. The particular brood (there are several) that we easterners are familiar with, though, is expected to emerge again en

The fearsome-looking insects cause no harm, despite their large size, big red eyes and total disregard of anybody’s personal space. Nor are they locusts. They are cicadas, an entirely different species of bug.

What, though, is a locust, the insect that swarmed by the billions in East Africa earlier this year, devastating large swaths of the countryside? Glad you asked. The answer is very interesting.

Locusts, under normal climatic circumstances, are virtually indistinguishable from garden variety grasshoppers. In fact, they technically are grasshoppers, members of the family Acrididae.

But, when subjected to stress like drought, especially after a rainy season, and crowded together, they morph amazingly into what seem to be very different creatures.

The timid green or brownish bugs living solitary lives become boldly colored, with black markings on a bright yellow background; they become shorter-bodied and stronger. And they swarm in massive numbers. Voracious, they descend in huge dark clouds on fields of vegetation, leaving them bare.

The radical change from an insect version of Dr. Jekyll to one of Mr. Hyde is mediated by a phenomenon that has attracted scientific attention in recent decades: epigenetics.

The term is used to describe characteristics of organisms that come about through the “switching on” of certain genes that do not otherwise express themselves.

While most of us are familiar with the idea that genes are inherited and pass traits from one generation to the next, epigenetics describes how certain genes, due to experiences an organism has undergone, can be chemically marked in a way that activates them.

In 2015, researcher Rachel Yehuda tried to extend the idea to the realm of human psychology, publishing results of a study of a group of Holocaust survivors and making the claim that manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were evident not only in the survivors themselves but in their offspring, ostensibly, she contended, through epigenetic expression.

Others disagree strongly, and assert that any stress disorders that may seem disproportionate in children of survivors are likely the effects of the inadvertent “sharing” of survivors’ own stress, either by exhibiting symptoms of PTSD or repeated recounting of their traumas with their young.

That certainly has occurred. Several speakers at this past February’s Project Witness fourth annual Holocaust Educators’ Conference recounted how their survivor parents pushed them in extreme ways to excel in school, and subjected them to other stressors, sometimes explicitly invoking the Holocaust as the reason for their insistence.

Such parents, of course, can’t be blamed for the effects on them of the indescribable evils they endured, or for any resultant distress caused to their children. But such distress, it seems, has not been uncommon.

Several Shabbosos ago, my wife and I sponsored a Kiddush in a small shul (remember shuls?) in memory of my mother, a”h, whose yahrtzeit fell that week. The custom in that shul is for the Kiddush sponsor to say a few words. There are many, many words I could summon to describe my mother, who was legend in Baltimore for her empathy and kindness, who was an indispensable part of the life of my father, a”h, and of the shul they built together, and who was a kiruv professional decades before the phrase came into existence.

But I chose instead to just share how happy a childhood I had, and why.

My father spent the years of World War II fleeing the Nazis and then sent by the Soviets to Siberia to labor in the taiga, where the temperature in winter would fall to 40 degrees below zero. My mother came to Baltimore from Poland as a young girl before the war but soon suffered the death of her grandmother, the only grandparent who had been part of her life, and then, mere weeks later, her 20-year old brother, who had been studying in yeshivah in New York. Two years later, her father, a respected Rav, passed away at 48. She thought for a while that sitting shivah was just part of the Jewish year-cycle.

Growing up, I knew none of that. Neither of my parents spoke of, or showed any overt signs of, the traumas of their youth years. I only heard about my father’s wartime experiences when I was already married and a father myself, when a tape of a speech he delivered to a group on Yom HaShoah was sent to me by a member of the audience. My mother’s early life losses, likewise, were only revealed to me as an adult.

Some survivors of the Holocaust or other adversities, I know, speak freely of them. Others, like my parents, choose to compartmentalize them, at least up to a point, often as a conscious act, to spare their children the burden of knowing what their parents endured.

As I mentioned, my childhood was entirely happy. And I think I owe that fact, at least partly, to my parents’ reticence and wisdom.

Many parents today, with their children watching, are facing adversities of their own. While expressing deep feelings of pain or frustration openly may afford some immediate release, it’s important to keep in mind always that, whether or not stresses can be bequeathed epigenetically to children not yet born, giving vent to them can certainly have an effect on the young already here.

And all parents want their children to have happy childhoods.

© 2020 Hamodia

[This article didn’t appear in Hamodia, due to lack of space this week.]

A Misleading Morph

I’ll never forget coming across the phrase “the Holocaust” – complete with the definite article and capitalized second word – in, of all things, a translation of the Mishnah. More unnerving still was that the volume had been published in the 1920s.

The Holocaust?!

Leafing through the old, worn book in the otzar sefarim of the yeshivah in Providence, where I was a Rebbi (and history teacher) for eleven years, and confronting those words, I wondered if I had somehow been transported to an alternate universe.

I hadn’t been, baruch Hashem. (I’m quite fond of this one).

The initially flabbergasting phrase, as a glance at the Hebrew text it was translating revealed, was a reference not to a historical event but rather to a korban olah, what most translations today would call a “burnt offering” – a sacrifice that is entirely consumed on the mizbe’ach. (Holo, in Greek, means “entirely”; caust, “burnt.”)

As it turns out, the more familiar use of the phrase today derived from that earlier usage. It was apparently, and understandably, deemed an apt descriptor for the Nazis’ and their friends’ plan for European Jewry.

All sorts of words also see their meanings morph over time. Many of us can recall when the sentence “My mouse died” more likely referred to the demise of a small furry pet than the failure of an electronic computer accessory.

Another word that has come to mean something entirely other than what it once meant is “Palestinian.” Once, it indicated a Jewish resident of Eretz Yisrael.

I discovered that fact as a teenager, when I salvaged a box of coins from a Jewish bookstore that was jettisoning old merchandise before a move. The coins were Palestinian pounds, duly labeled so, examples of the currency used, first, by the British Mandate, from 1927 to May 14, 1948; and then by Israel until 1952, when they were replaced by lirot.

The Palestine Bulletin was the name of the newspaper founded by Jews in Eretz Yisrael in 1925; later it was renamed The Palestine Post. What today is known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra began, in 1936, as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra.

Today, though, “Palestinian” has come to signify Arabs who lived in Eretz Yisrael under Jordanian or Egyptian rule, and their descendants. It is, thus, a most misleading morph.

Which brings me to a new book, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, by Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University. If that endowment chair title doesn’t tell you enough about the man’s sympathies, the subtitle of his book, A History of Settler Colonialism and Resistance, 1917-2017, should. And you can add his longtime support of the BDS movement to the evidence.

Professor Khalidi sees Israel’s founding as akin to the early American colonization of the land of native North American tribes or to Australia’s appropriation of that continent’s Aborigines’ land.

But the professor’s postulate is a put-on.

While Arabs have lived in Eretz Yisrael for centuries, there was a Jewish presence in the land since Yehoshua’s time, even after the destruction of the Second Beis Hamikdash and the expulsion of most of Klal Yisrael from the land. The Arab presence, by contrast, was anything but indigenous.

What people like Professor Khalidi imply, that Arabs are the native residents of Eretz Yisrael, is, simply put, a fiction.

Many who today claim the label “Palestinians,” in fact, are descended from successive waves of people who came to the area from other places. Like Egypt, from which successive waves of immigrants arrived at the end of the 18th century, fleeing famine, government oppression and military conscription at home.

The 19th century saw further Arab immigration to the land from Algeria and what is now Jordan. Bosnian Muslims, too, came in fairly significant numbers.

Later on, in tandem with Jewish return to the land, employment opportunities drew yet more Arab immigration. As the Peel Report noted in 1937, “The Arab population shows a remarkable increase ….. partly due to the import of Jewish capital into Palestine and other factors associated with the growth of the [Jewish] National Home…”

To be sure, when Israel declared its statehood in 1948, there was a sizable Arab population in Eretz Yisrael. To pretend otherwise is to deny facts. And the desires and aspirations of that population and its descendants who remained in the land should not be ignored. That is why a two-state solution like the one President Trump has advanced, is a necessary part (though no less necessary than the Arab population’s sincere embrace of peaceful coexistence) of ending the conflict in the region.

But v’ha’emes v’hashalom ehavu, “Love truth and peace” (Zecharyah, 8:19). Before peace there must be truth.

And the truth that here needs to be confronted is something that President Trump stated on the campaign trail, that Yerushalayim is the “eternal capital of the Jewish people”; and that his predecessor, President Obama, said back in 2013, that, after “centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice and pogroms and even genocide… the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home.”

In other words, that, with all due recognition of the aspirations of Arabs in Israel and Yehudah, Shomron and Gaza, while there is indeed an indigenous population of Eretz Yisrael, it isn’t them.

© 2020 Hamodia

The Nazis Knew

A dear friend who had a secular upbringing and maintains an irreligious outlook took issue, gently, if a bit cynically, with something I had written for Aish.com, a website that reaches out to a broad swath of Jewish readers.

The article was about R’ Yosef Friedenson, a”h, the longtime editor of Dos Yiddishe Vort, the Yiddish-language periodical published for many years by Agudath Israel of America. “Mr.” Friedenson, as he preferred to be called, survived the Holocaust and was a keen historian, meticulous journalist, eloquent speaker – and one of the nicest people I have ever met. I had the pleasure of his company for some twenty years in the Agudah national offices in Manhattan.

In my tribute to R’ Yosef, I included a story from his recent, posthumously published collection of memories, “Faith Amid the Flames” (Artscroll/Mesorah).

At the start of World War II, when Poland had been overrun by the Nazis, ym”s, Mr. Friedenson was a 17-year-old living with his family in Lodz. One day, two German soldiers burst into the family’s apartment.

At one point, they demanded the teenager identify the stately tomes on the bookshelf.

He had no reason to lie. “The Talmud,” he answered.

“At the mention of that word, they became like mad dogs,” Mr. Friedenson recalled many decades later. “They threw the holy books on the floor and trampled them, ripping them to shreds with their heavy boots.”

And when they had left, the young Yosef asked his father why the Nazis had responded so viciously.

“They don’t hate us as a people,” was the response. “They hate us because of our holy books. What is written in them is a contradiction to all they stand for, to their outlook and corrupt mentality.”

My friend was suitably impressed with my description of Mr. Friedenson. “Nice memory,” he e-mailed me, “of what sounds like a remarkable man.”

But, he continued, “I’ll take a pass, out of respect, as to the assertion that the Nazis hated Jews because of the content of books the former almost certainly never read.”

My friend found it hard to imagine that the Nazis’ hatred was qualitatively different from the antipathy of various ethnic or national groups toward others. His materialistic outlook attributed no specialness to our mesorah and, hence, no rationale for how a movement based on power and paganism might find Torah a mortal threat to its success.

I can’t prove otherwise to him, but shared something to buttress Mr. Friedenson’s father’s observation, a memorandum discovered by the noted Holocaust historian Moshe Prager, a”h.

It was sent on October 25, 1940 by the chief of the German occupation power, I.A. Eckhardt, to the local Nazi district governors in occupied Poland. In it, he instructs German officials to refuse exit visas to “Ostjuden,” Jews from Eastern Europe.

Eckhardt explains that these Jews, as “Rabbiner un Talmudlehrer,” Rabbis and Talmud scholars, would, if allowed to emigrate, foster “die geistige erneuerung,” spiritual revival, of the Jewish people in other places.

So it seems that it wasn’t just Jews whom the Nazis hated, but Judaism. In fact, writing in 1930, Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler’s chief ideologue, denounced “the honorless character of the Jew” – his take on the idea of personal conscience and devotion to the Creator – as “embodied in the Talmud and in Shulchan-Aruch.”

The “spiritual renewal” that the Nazi memo author so feared, baruch Hashem, despite the best evil efforts of the movement he championed, has in fact come to pass.

Torah-committed Jewish survivors helped rejuvenate Jewish life on these and other shores, rebuilding Jewish communal and educational institutions and fostering shemiras hamitzvos and, yes, Talmud study, in new lands. The scope and enthusiasm of the Siyum HaShas is powerful evidence of that.

Daf Yomi, of course, was introduced by Rav Meir Shapiro in 1923. It isn’t known how many attended the first or second Siyum HaShas. But, amazingly, right after the Holocaust, in 1945, thousands of Jews in Eretz Yisrael, the Feldafing Dispaced Persons camp and New York united to mark the third Siyum HaShas.

The 1968 Siyum at the Bais Yaakov of Borough Park drew 300 people; by 1975, at the 7th Siyum, five thousand celebrants gathered at the Manhattan Center; and, at that gathering, the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah permanently dedicated the Siyum HaShas to the memory of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust.

The 1990 Siyum filled Madison Square Garden’s 20,000 seats. In 1997, the Siyum required both Madison Square Garden and the similar-sized Nassau Coliseum.

In 2012, the 12th Siyum Hashas filled MetLife Stadium with close to a hundred thousand Jews – joined at a distance in countless other locales by thousands of others.

The Talmud and its lehrers had emerged victorious.

Ironies abound on the path to that victory. Perhaps none, though, as astonishing as the format of a new publication of “Mein Kampf” in its original German, the first edition of Hitler’s rambling, anti-Semitic imaginings to be produced in Germany since the end of World War II.

Intended for scholars and libraries, it is heavily annotated to provide the elements of the screed with their necessary context.

The critical notes, however, are not presented in a traditional manner. The academic team that prepared the edition decided for some reason to instead “encircle” Hitler’s words with the deconstructing annotations.

Dan Michman, head of international research at Yad Vashem museum in Israel, described how, as a result, the pages would appear.

They will, he said, “look like the Talmud.”

© 2019 Hamodia (in shortened form)

Love, Hate and the Holocaust

Considering that a survey last year revealed that 31 percent of Americans, and 41 percent of millennials, believe that two million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and that 41 percent of Americans, and 66 percent of millennials, cannot say what Auschwitz was, a large and impressive Holocaust exhibit would seem to merit only praise.

And praise the “Auschwitz. Not Long Ago. Not Far Away” exhibit currently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan has garnered in abundance. It has received massive news coverage in both print and electronic media.

First shown in Madrid, where it drew some 600,000 visitors, the exhibit will be in New York into January before moving on.

Among many writers who experienced the exhibit and wrote movingly about its power was reporter and author Ralph Blumenthal.  In the New York Times, he vividly described the artifacts that are included in the exhibit, which includes many items the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Poland lent for a fee to the Spanish company Musealia, the for-profit organizer of the exhibition.

Mr. Blumenthal wrote that the museum, within sight of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, had to alter its floor plan to make room for large-scale displays like a reconstructed barracks. Outside the museum’s front door, there is a Deutsche Reichsbahn railway cattle car parked on the sidewalk, placed there by a crane.

Inside, among the 700 objects and 400 photographs and drawings from Auschwitz, are concrete posts and barbed wire that were once part of the camp’s electrified perimeter, prisoners’ uniforms, three-tier bunks where ill and starving prisoners slept two or more to a billet, and, “particularly chilling,” an adjustable steel chaise for medical experiments on human beings.

There is a rake for ashes and there are heavy iron crematory latches, fabricated by the manufacturer Topf & Sons There is a fake showerhead used to persuade doomed victims of the Nazis, ym”s, that they were entering a bathhouse, not a death chamber about to be filled with the lethal gas Zyklon B.

And personal items, like a child’s shoe with a sock stuffed inside it.

“Who puts a sock in his shoe?” asks Mr. Blumenthal.  “Someone,” he explains poignantly, “who expects to retrieve it.”

Another essayist, this one less impressed by the exhibit – at least in one respect –is novelist and professor Dara Horn, who teaches Hebrew and Yiddish literature.

Writing in The Atlantic, Ms. Horn approached the exhibit carrying in her mind the recent memory of a swastika that had been drawn on a desk in her children’s New Jersey public middle school and the appearance of six more of the Nazi symbols in an adjacent town. “Not a big deal,” she writes. But the scrawlings provided a personal context for her rumination on her museum visit.

In her essay, titled “Auschwitz Is Not a Metaphor: The new exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Heritage gets everything right – and fixes nothing,” she recalls her visit to Auschwitz as a teenager participating in the March of the Living, and reflects on Holocaust museums, which she characterizes as promoting the idea that “People would come to these museums and learn what the world had done to the Jews, where hatred can lead. They would then stop hating Jews.”

And the current exhibit, she notes, ends with a similar banality. At the end of the tour, she reports, “onscreen survivors talk in a loop about how people need to love one another.”

To do justice to Ms. Horn’s reaction would require me to reproduce her essay in full.  But a snippet: “In Yiddish, speaking only to other Jews, survivors talk about their murdered families, about their destroyed centuries-old communities… Love rarely comes up; why would it? But it comes up here, in this for-profit exhibition. Here is the ultimate message, the final solution.”

Ouch.

“That the Holocaust drives home the importance of love,” she writes further, “is an idea, like the idea that Holocaust education prevents anti-Semitism, that seems entirely unobjectionable. It is entirely objectionable.”

Those sentences alone would make the essay worth reading.  And the writer’s perceptivity is even more in evidence when she writes:

“The Holocaust didn’t happen because of a lack of love. It happened because entire societies abdicated responsibility for their own problems, and instead blamed them on the people who represented –have always represented, since they first introduced the idea of commandedness to the world – the thing they were most afraid of: responsibility.”

Har Sinai is called that, Rav Chisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna explain, because it is the mountain from which sinah, hatred, descended to the nations of the world. (Shabbos 89a).  One understanding of that statement is precisely what Ms. Horn contends. Although her essay appeared the week before Shavuos, she didn’t intend it to have a Yom Tov theme.

But in fact it did.

© 2019 Hamodia