“Like sheep to the slaughter.” To many Jews, the Holocaust represents our shameful, oppressed past. “Why should we teach our children about the disgrace of their ancestors? No heroes, no rulers …?” asks a well-known Israeli author. To him, the Holocaust has no meaning, no lessons we can learn.
How untrue! It’s just that the true story—that of the valor, strength and spiritual tenacity of European Jewry—has not been sufficiently told. Holocaust studies focuses, for the most part, on the brave acts of physical resistance: the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the destruction of a crematorium at Auschwitz, the sabotage work of partisans.
But what about spiritual resilience? What about the Jews who, despite living in intolerable, inhuman conditions, baked matzot, laid tefillin and circumcised their sons? In even the most desperate circumstances, we find Jews who ferociously clung to their Jewish identity, who exhibited superhuman strength in defying their captors in order to preserve their religious beliefs. Indeed, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, the spiritual leader of the Kovno Ghetto during the Holocaust, saw spiritual resistance as the highest form of resistance against the Nazis. “One resists with a gun,” remarked the rabbi, “another with his soul.” In the pages ahead, we present an extraordinary array of photographs that attest to the rich spiritual and religious lives of European Jews during the devastating years of 1939 to 1945.
All photographs were provided by Shem Olam, an Israel-based organization dedicated to researching and documenting the ethical and religious lives of Jews who lived during the Holocaust. To date, Shem Olam’s team of researchers has collected more than 700,000 documents and artifacts related to faith during the Holocaust years, many of which can be seen at the Shem Olam Museum in Kfar HaRoeh. For more information, contact Shem Olam at 972.4.630.1637 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.