Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust

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Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust
By Esther Farbstein
Translated by Deborah Stern
Mossad HaRav Kook
Jerusalem, 2007
2 vols., 769 pages

“There were always choices to make,” recalled the Austrian-born Jew Viktor Frankl after enduring three years in Auschwitz and concentration camps under the Third Reich. “Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self,” asserted the subsequent founder of the school of existential psychotherapy known as logotherapy. Incessant German efforts at dehumanizing Jews, undertaken even prior to the systematic murder process of the Holocaust, adversely affected many a victim. Other Jews under the Nazi swastika, on the other hand, resolved to hold onto cherished values, an independence of mind and personal belief in the future.

Rabbi Avraham Dov-Ber Kahane-Shapiro, the venerated chief rabbi of Kovno, maintained Orthodox tradition to the last. Returning from Switzerland before the war erupted in order to remain with his Lithuanian community, Rabbi Shapiro cautioned Jews against any illusions of safety. The ailing sage declared early on that German forces wished to “crush and destroy them [the Jews] by means of false hopes and deception”; and that all imprisoned in the ghetto existed “under sentence of death.” At the same time, Rabbi Shapiro told fellow inmates to continue reciting the berachah “Who has not made me a slave” as part of the morning blessings, since that benediction reflected their spiritual freedom and free will. Rabbi Shapiro studied Torah and wrote on halachah until his death in the Kovno Ghetto on February 27, 1943. His family was killed the following year.

Esther Farbstein’s Hidden in Thunder, impressive in its size and its scholarship, is devoted to a study of the choices that Rabbi Shapiro and numerous other Jews made in order to preserve the tenets of their faith and rituals during Jewry’s darkest hour. Historians have explored various aspects of this subject, from the early writings by Shaul Esh, Meir Dworzecki and Nathan Eck to the more recent evaluations by Dan Michman, Judy Tydor Baumel and Gershon Greenberg. Books by H. J. Zimmels and Irving J. Rosenbaum, which owed much to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry’s five-volume She’eilot Uteshuvot Mima’amakim, introduced the study of how halachah was upheld in the years of the Holocaust. Testimonies from survivors, first conveyed in stories by Moshe Prager and Simcha Unsdorfer, and collections edited by Mordechai Eliav and Yehoshua Eibeshitz, provided additional information. Eliezer Berkovits’s With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps proved influential. Some contemporary reflections by religious leaders who perished, such as Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira’s (the Piaseczner Rebbe) Eish Kodesh and Rabbi Yisachar Shlomo Teichtal’s Eim Habanim Semeichah, deservedly achieved the status of classics. Yet these significant works limned individual spaces of a large canvas, lacked context and overlooked valuable archives. Hidden in Thunder contributes greatly towards filling this lacuna.

Farbstein copiously demonstrates that the prayer, observance of commandments and the celebration of Jewish festivals continued for many in the ghettos, in the labor camps and even in the death centers.

These two volumes, handsomely produced, differ slightly from Farbstein’s original Hebrew volume (Beseter Ra’am: Halachah, Hagut Umanhigut Biyemei HaShoah [Jerusalem, 2002]). A very able translation by Deborah Stern follows the identical chapter outline except for the excision of a twenty-page chapter on Purim in 1942, some parts of which are discussed in the first chapter. A helpful glossary has been added, along with a list of the documents that have been reproduced in both editions. Separate indices of names and of places remain. The extensive bibliographical sections have been combined, but the list of archives consulted is absent here. As in the Hebrew volume, no conclusion is offered.

Combing memorial books, responsa, diaries, reminiscences, scholarly literature, interviews and archival material, Farbstein judiciously explores different facets of what she terms “spiritual steadfastness” in the face of Adolf Hitler’s oft-proclaimed “Final Solution of the Jewish Problem.” Her range is broad: the role of rabbis; prayer; rescue; hiding, particularly children, as Christians; marriage; kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name); halachic questions of religious practice in varying circumstances and the religious life of survivors in the immediate postwar period. A careful analysis of the writings of the Piaseczner Rebbe and of Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aronson, the latter a Holocaust survivor, reveals these leaders’ ongoing concern and guidance for the agonies of a suffering people as their world disintegrated around them.

Having mined rich and diverse sources over the course of many years, the author discusses several important topics. These include the difference between religious and secular Jewish reactions to news of the catastrophe; the rabbis’ pioneering research into the Holocaust because of the tragedy of agunot (women who cannot remarry because their husbands have not been declared dead according to halachah); the singular importance given to religious books during and after the Holocaust; the German assault on Judaism per se; and the critical value of responsa as primary documentation. Farbstein also raises many points that merit further exploration, such as the small number of suicides among Jews from Eastern Europe; a comparison between rabbis—the majority of whom did not desert their flocks—and other Jewish leaders in that time of evil regnant; the ambivalence felt by some within the Orthodox camp concerning the rescue of a few Chassidic rebbes; and the factors that weakened, as well as strengthened, religious life among some survivors.

Farbstein copiously demonstrates that the prayer, observance of commandments and the celebration of Jewish festivals continued for many in the ghettos, in the labor camps and even in the death centers. This reality is nothing short of remarkable, she aptly observes, given the Orthodox dictum that pikuach nefesh (saving one’s life) takes precedence over everything except the Torah prohibitions of idolatry, illicit relations and murder. Perhaps understanding ought to begin by recalling the little boy in the Vilna Ghetto who had just learned of the Biblical struggle between the brothers Jacob and Esau. As recorded by Zelig Kalmanowicz, a librarian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and admittedly “an errant Jewish soul,” this youngster suddenly remarked to his teacher: “We’re descended from Jacob and they [those oppressing and persecuting us] are descended from Esau, right? That’s good. I want to belong to Jacob and not to Esau.”

There are limits to what can be covered in an academic work. The topic of physical resistance is not taken up other than a mention of support from the Radzyner Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Shlomo Leiner. Yet what, for example, of Hillel Seidman’s diary entry of January 14, 1943 (not noted in the book), stating that Rabbi Menachem Zemba endorsed an armed revolt in the Warsaw Ghetto? Aside from some scattered lines, the reader also does not know what Holocaust-era Orthodox Jews and their leaders thought about Eretz Yisrael and Zionism. The same is true regarding attitudes toward non-observant Jews. In addition, the author acknowledges that sources from Western Europe are presented “to a limited extent only.”

Yet to be addressed is a sustained treatment of theodicy as understood by Orthodox rabbis and laypeople during and in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. In a prefatory statement, the author explains that her title was taken from Psalms 81:8 (“I answered you hidden in thunder, I tested you at the waters of Merivah [strife]”) because that verse “alludes to the idea that the thunderous voice of faith can be heard even when God conceals Himself.” Maintaining religious faith in such times “is perceived as a ‘test’” from on high, she continues. “The choice of the title reflects faith that the Creator watches over His people in times of trouble and not only in tranquil times, as well as a belief in the uniqueness of the Jewish people.” (The Hebrew edition ends with a sentence not included in the English translation: “This faith also requires humility vis-à-vis the leaders of the Jewish people.”)

Traditional commentators understood Psalms 81:8 and the verses that follow it to mean that when the Jews cried out for heavenly salvation from Egypt, the Creator rescued them with thunder from a concealed place, and would do so in the future if they listened to the Divine voice. Farbstein’s phrase “reflects faith” may signal a personal credo, but the chapters do not disclose what the subjects of her volume actually thought in this respect. While keeping faith and halachah, did Orthodox victims and survivors acknowledge that the Holocaust represented a “test”? Did they feel that another miraculous deliverance like their Biblical ancestors’ Exodus would occur, or that His face remained hidden throughout their travail?

This point is connected to Farbstein’s earlier assertion in the preface that “the annihilation of European Jewry should be viewed within the framework of Jewish history, as a terrible link in a chain of calamities that began with the destruction of the Temple.” The claim is but one legitimate theological understanding of the Holocaust, yet it is a perspective that is not sufficiently pursued or supported in the following chapters. Farbstein quotes an Agudath Israel newspaper article, published in the Warsaw Ghetto in February 1942, as proof that Hitler was viewed as a modern incarnation of “Amalek and his descendant Haman.” Yet she also cites Rabbi Aronson’s understanding that the Holocaust was “unparalleled in human history,” and the Piaseczner Rebbe’s conclusion, after he witnessed that “the holy congregations have been annihilated in a radical excision” by the end of 1942, that the tortures and murders were “unprecedented.” “It was a unique war aimed at annihilating and killing the Jews,” averred Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Meisels after surviving Auschwitz. The student of history should tread warily, especially in this regard.

Hidden in Thunder, with its lucid, thorough and balanced treatment of the issues under analysis, is a major contribution to the field. It is also noteworthy that the chapters raise significant topics deserving of further examination. Other subjects remain to be plumbed. We look forward to future researches by Farbstein and other scholars for further elucidation.

Professor Penkower is professor emeritus of Jewish History at the Machon Lander Graduate School for Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. His books include The Jews Were Expendable: Free World Diplomacy and the Holocaust (Urbana, Illinois, 1983), The Holocaust and Israel Reborn: From Catastrophe to Sovereignty (Urbana, Illinois,1994) and Decision on Palestine Deferred: America, Britain and Wartime Diplomacy, 1939-1945 (London, 2002).

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2008.

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