Denying the Holocaust

R. Yehuda (Udi) Dvorkin • 2017

Holocaust denial can be done actively, but can also be done by with the way in which the Holocaust is dealt, such as by searching the facts in a way that ignores the enormity of the terrible event that has been revealed to us. Here are a few thoughts on the Yom HaShoah, remembrance and denial.

Pesach is always characterized in popular, Israeli newspapers through articles about ‘proof’ of the Exodus from Egypt and the wandering of Israel in the desert. Last year I even read about the wheels of Egyptian carriages found at the bottom of the sea. I never understood why the Exodus should be proven. After all, we believe in it, and in any case, the wheels of Egyptian chariots found in an underwater excavation in the Red Sea will not make anyone religious, nor will they create new content regarding the meaning of the Exodus from Egypt. Archaeological and historical studies of Egypt are important to our historical understanding of the period and can also give a new perspective on the beginning of the Jewish people, but they will not change the world of Halakhah, mitzvot, midrash and philosophy created in the last three thousand years. Even if we deal a little with the history surrounding the Exodus from Egypt, most of our Pesach revolves around the meaning that we ascribe to it.

Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) comes a week after Pesach and is characterized by a completely opposite movement. The press is replete with historical articles, testimonies, statistics, numbers and personal stories. The television channels broadcast films that try to present ‘authentic’ pictures while staying close to the true stories. The more serious channels broadcast documentary films or even simply broadcast personal testimonies of Holocaust survivors. It seems that the popular way to deal with the Holocaust is in its historical understanding and in learning about the facts. Anyone who tries to instill meaning in the Holocaust is accused of “exploiting” the Holocaust or of the desecration of the victims. Sometimes it seems that our society avoids dealing with the Holocaust as an event with philosophical, religious or halakhic significance. It always seemed to me a little like a denial of the mythical variance of the Holocaust and its absoluteness. As a scholar of Jewish History, when I sit in the archives and try to pick through yellowing documents in German extracting fact after fact, it is clear to me that this is a secular occupation, attempting to give an authentic historical account of the event and its consequences. I have no illusions that there is religious significance in academic research that shed light on the countless events that occurred before, during and after the Holocaust, and without which we cannot understand what happened there. But the truth is that even when I devote a lot of time to research, I do not necessarily care what happened there. I wonder why it happened.

It is very difficult to claim that the Holocaust is just another event of persecution on a continuum of the pogroms. How can we continue to claim the same claims of death for ‘sanctification of God’ (קידוש השם)? The definitions of who is a Jew have always been relatively clear and in difficult times it was possible to avoid a cruel fate, either by conversion or by other means, but the Holocaust cancelled (in some places) these possibilities. In the Warsaw Ghetto alone, three churches operated for “Christians of Jewish descent”, known families who were apostatised were deported to the camps together with their “former” people. How can one speak of ‘Kiddush Hashem’ in a world where faith is no longer relevant and everyone is sentenced to death? How can we describe progress towards a better world (whether in modernist or Messianic sense) while the Torah, research and public centres of the Jewish people are being erased?

It is very difficult to read the explanations that seek to link the Holocaust to redemption or to see it as a punishment. It is difficult to try and explain why God allowed the Germans to murder six million, yet this task is necessary. The Holocaust, it seems to me, is not just ‘another pogrom’ that can be investigated in a historical way and remembered for its details. Historical research is important but it is more important that we listen to the rabbis, theologians and the different philosophers, attempting to understand why it happened. Not how the earthly progression allowed it, but what was the progression in the uppers.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes that the Jewish People is unique in that it survives its disasters but rather by the fact that it responds to them with a new burst of creativity. He sees in Holocaust survivors the correct Jewish confrontation: they did not sink into “victimhood”, but rather re-established their lives (particularly in the State of Israel). He contrasts them with Lot’s wife, who by “turning her head back to see the destruction, became a pillar of salt”. It seems that according to Rabbi Sacks, the continual preoccupation with the facts and the “victims” is not Jewish but rather an essentially Western-secular position.

Many rabbis thought that the Holocaust was a struggle between Amalek and Israel. Thus, the late Rabbi Elchonon Bunem Wasserman regarded mass death as a necessary sacrifice for Amalek’s rise in the world. Other rabbis who served in the holy matters during the Holocaust sought to view the oppressed people of Israel as atoning for the world through their scarification. The Piasetzna Rebbe emphasized the suffering of God and the ability of the Jew to be part of this infinite suffering through the terrible reality of life. Others, such as the late Rabbi Teichtal, the author of “Eim Habonim Semeichah” or the Belzer Rebbe, emphasized the Messianic dimension of the Holocaust and connected the event to Eretz Yisrael and to Aliya. Rabbi Sarna taught at the Hebron Yeshiva in 1944 about the religious uniqueness of the Holocaust and proclaimed that G-d cried during the destruction of the First Temple, wept for the exile of the People of Israel, and the Holocaust is the third time of divine weeping. Divine weeping, in his opinion, allows the weeping of the Jews, which can lead to repentance, and perhaps even to redemption.

The Jewish theologian Hans Jonas tried to suggest that God continued the Kabbalistic idea of contraction (צמצום) and suggested that the Holocaust took place because God is already outside the world in such a way that he cannot influence it, a total reduction that in effect secularises the world completely and leaves it without a God. There were years when I agreed with such an explanation. Not because I wanted a world without a God, but because I found it hard to believe in a God who allows a third of his people to be slaughtered and does nothing. There were also years when I also believed in the struggle against the highs that Rabbi Sarna talked of or in the Divine suffering that the Piasetzna Rebbe had tried to describe.

Today it seems to me that the verbal explanations are too harsh and I turn, as in many cases, to the story. This is a Hassidic story that Yaffa Eliach brings in her book, ‘Hassidic Tales from the Holocaust’.

” The Messiah Is Already Here! ”

On the eve of Rosh Hashana 1941 more than 4000 from Eisysky and its vicinity were herded together by the Lithuanians into the shtetl’s synagogue. Men were wrapped in their prayer shawls; women and children carried pillows, blankets, and pets filled with the food and delicacies that had been prepared in honor of the Jewish New Year of 5702. More people kept arriving at the already congested main synagogue and the overcrowding became unbearable. About sixty Jewish lunatics from the nearby insane asylum at Selo were put in charge of the crowd in the packed synagogue by the drunken Lithuanian armed guards. The lunatics‘  wild laughter, gestures, drooling, and gibberish created a strange scene, as if from another planet.

Huddled together like ether families in the main synagogue. in an attempt to the protect each other from the unknown, sat three brothers with their wives and children. They were all shoemakers, known in Eisysky as Yankel the shoemaker, Eli David the shoemaker, and Chaim Yitahal: the shoemaker. While the two latter brothers made a decent living, owned cobbler chairs, and were respected members of the shoemaker’s shtibel, Yankel the shoemaker was poor and begged for alms. With a big empty potato sack thrown over his shoulder, he would make the rounds in the neighboring shtetlach begging for food

and money. On Friday he would return to his native Eisysky and make his rounds there. His brothers were mortally embarrassed and they avoided being seen in public with him. But new they were all sitting together. Yentel, Eli Doyid’s wife, was holding on to a pot of golden chicken soup filled with carrots and stewed chicken. Yenkel was clutching his empty, coarse potato sack.

Near the holy ark at the Mizrach (Eastern) wall, not far from the three brothers, stood Rabbi Scholem, Eisysky’s mystic. His beautiful black heard was neatly combed, its few gray hairs looking like silvery threads. Dressed in white kittel and prayer shawl, with a tall white satin yarmulke on his head, he was an impressive, solemn figure. How many nights had Reb Scholern spent in solitude with the holy scrolls? Night after night, burning candle after candle until daylight filtered in from the arched windows, he had stayed there alone.

Many rumors had circulated in Eisysky about Reb Scholern, for Eisysky was a town of Mitnaggedim, opponents of Hasidism and mysticism. But even they loved him, for in his prophecies he had singled out their beloved shtetl as the place where the Messiah was going to come. Some said that Reb Scholem came to Eisysky from Russia from a prominent Hasidic dynasty, and in his youth had been an ardent revolutionary. According to the stories, disappointed by the Revolution and its false Red Messiah that failed, he returned to the fold and came to Eisysky to bring the true Messiah. For years every night, alone in Eisysky’s resin synagogue, surrounded by the Zohar, the Book of Splendor, and other mystical writings, Reb Scholem had tried to calculate the date of the coming of the Messiah and induce him to hasten his arrival.

Now Reb Scholem was sure that the Messiah would come. Everybody was here in the synagogue, men in their prayer shawls, women, children, babes in arms, the sick, the lame, the insane, just as it says in the Scriptures. Rah Scholern stood with his eyes closed, his hands stretched out to the open holy ark. In the two-tiered shelves of the ark, the holy scrolls stood next to each other like the rest of Eisysky’s community. Some of the scrolls in this holy ark were as old as Eisysky’s most ancient families. Bedecked in pure-white velvet mantles, ornamented with gold and silver embroidery as befitting the High Holiday season, they too awaited the verdict.

Reb Scholem lifted his hands to heaven and in a powerful voice commanded the Messiah to come! Silence fell in the synagogue. Even the lunatics from Selo froze in their bizarre positions. Just then, Yankel the shoemaker lost his balance and tripped over his sister-in-law Yentel‘s chicken soup pot. The soup spilled and quarters of stewed chicken scattered all over the floor. Yankel picked up the largest polka {drumstick} and began to chew on it. With the polka in one hand and his beggar’s bag in the other, he walked over to Reb Scholem in front of the Holy Ark. His eyes were gleaming with exhilaration. He began to talk, at first in a quavering voice that became more powerful with each word he uttered:” Prominent households of Eisysky, brothers and sisters! Do you see with your own eyes that I, Yankel the shoemaker, the beggar, am holding a chicken polka in my hand and standing at the Mizrach wall reserved only for the privileges, if I am standing here next to the great scholar, Reb Scholem, my friends, the order of the universe must indeed have changed!

Your troubles are at end, for the Messiah has just arrived here in our own shtetl of Eisysky. The Messiah is already here!”

During the following days, on September 25 and 26, 1941, All of Eisysky’s (Ishikok) Jews were murdered at the old Jewish mammary. Among than were Reb Scholem the mystic and Yankel the shoemaker. Zvi Michalowski survived the killing in Ishikok / Issaisky and told the story.

I do not really care whether this story happened as it was or whether, as claimed by scholars, it pertains to too much “storyness” and the only survivor of the town (who was a frum, religious Jew himself) combined a number of stories to assemble an allegorical story about Judgment Day on Rosh Hashana.

One can expand upon the actions of the rabbi who teaches us that the events of the Holocaust attest to the breaking of reality and a Messianic revelation. It is also possible, of course, to expand upon the pouring of chicken soup on the shul’s floor and the meaning of eating in front of an open ark in the midst of the Day of Judgment. I will let anyone continue to expand upon the tale and try to understand the way it sees the Holocaust. It seems to me that the story gives me a way to explain the Holocaust, each time through another character.

Sometimes I feel on Yom HaShoah like Yankel, who held a chicken’s leg in one hand and a beggar’s bag of in the other while being certain that the Messiah had already arrived. Sometimes I feel like a rabbi who was certain he was right even though he was blind to reality. At other times like Yentel whose only pot had been spilled or like the madman who gets stuck in the shul, while at other times I feel like a community in silence in front of an abyss and, lastly, I often feel like a baby who does not understand a thing.

The fact that the day after Rosh Hashana, all of these were murdered is the hardest to take in and sometimes when I think about it, I almost do not feel anything anymore.

May we merit complete redemption in our day.

ישיבת שיח יצחק גבעת הדגן - אפרת, מיקוד: 90435