by Rabbi Avi Shafran
What the Nazis Knew
Dovid Hamelech's tefilla in Tehillim, "Make me
wiser than my adversaries,"can also be read as "From my
adversaries, make me wise." Sometimes, in other words, one
can learn valuable things from one's worst enemies.
The thought came to mind after reading a detailed memo
presented by the Agudath Israel World Organization to the
Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, more
commonly known as the "Claims Conference."
The Conference oversees restitution funds yielded from the
sale of recovered but unclaimed East German Jewish property.
Recently, it reaffirmed its disbursement formula: 80% of
those funds go to institutions and social services helping
Holocaust survivors; 20%, for Holocaust-related research,
documentation and education.
The world organization of Agudath Israel suggested that, as
they allocate the portion of funds earmarked for research and
education, Jewish leaders not forget the European communal
and educational institutions that the Nazis and their
henchmen destroyed but that have since been rebuilt on new
Kehillos and yeshivos are contemporary
hallmarks of Jewish religious life that prominently represent
the rebirth of pre- Holocaust Jewish Europe; yet they have
not benefited to date from any significant restitution-
related funding streams.
Such communities and institutions, Agudath Israel maintains,
characterized Jewish Europe before the Nazis came to power.
Thus, their empowerment will help perpetuate not only the
memory of the Jewish world the Nazis destroyed but, in a very
real sense, that world itself.
Often forgotten is the historical fact that a substantial
portion of those Jews who perished during the Holocaust were
Respected Holocaust historian (and former director of the
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum) Dr. Michael Berenbaum
estimates that between 50%-70% of Jewish victims of the Nazis
and their cohorts were traditionally observant Orthodox Jews,
having lived their too- short lives in one of several
thousand identifiable kehillos.
There were, moreover, as many as 800 yeshivos for boys
and young men in pre-War Europe, according to a study
undertaken by Agudath Israel, and some 250 Bais Yaakov
schools for young women.
Today's Orthodox institutions of education and communal life,
the memo maintains, not only are helping ensure the survival
and continuity of the very way of life that those victims,
had they been given the opportunity, would have sought to
perpetuate, but are also among the most needy in contemporary
What was most striking to me, however, was another assertion
the memo made: that, in a certain, significant way,
kehillos and yeshivos have a unique moral claim
to restitution, because "central to the Nazis' aim of
destroying the Jewish people was the object of destroying
Jewish learning and education."
That might come as a surprise to some. There is a tendency to
think of the "Final Solution" as having had only Jews as its
target, not Judaism. But the fact of the matter is otherwise.
The Nazis may have considered the Jewish people to be a race,
but they clearly sought to liquidate not only Jews but their
faith as well.
Among the evidence presented is a quotation from Alfred
Rosenberg, Hitler's chief ideologue. Writing in 1930, he
identified "the honorless character of the Jew" as "embodied
in the Talmud and in Shulchan-Aruch."
Perhaps even more telling is a 1940 directive issued by the
German Highest Security Office, also quoted in the Agudath
Israel memo. It prohibits Jewish emigration from occupied
Poland on the ground that an influx of "Rabbiner, Talmud-
lehrer, rabbis, teachers of Talmud," and in fact
"jeder orthodoxe Ostjude, "every Eastern European
Orthodox Jew," could foster geistige Erneuerung,
"spiritual renewal," among American Jewry.
To a large degree, that fear proved well founded indeed;
Orthodox immigrants, although arriving only after war's end,
in fact helped rejuvenate Jewish life on these and other
shores, rebuilding their communal and educational
institutions, like the kehillos and yeshivos
whose cause the Agudath Israel memo advocated, and fostering
traditional Jewish observance.
How fascinating that the Nazis identified Jewish religious
life and Torah-study as the greatest threats to the ultimate
success of their genocidal plan. They apparently understood
something that all contemporary Jews would do well to ponder:
the Jewish people and the Jewish future depend on fealty to
the essence of the Jewish past: the Jewish mesorah.
Every Jew today is a potential avenger of the deaths of the
Six Million. Our revenge, however, does not take the form of
violence. It is a sublime and meaningful revenge, in fact an
ultimate triumph over those who hoped to eradicate us. It
consists of strengthening our own commitment to Torah and
mitzvos, of doing precisely what the Nazis were determined to
It is undeniably important to utilize restitution funds for
survivors, for research and for education. And it should be
important, too, to the larger Jewish community that those
funds be utilized for kehillos and yeshivos,
proven portals to Jewish continuity,
Most important of all, though, is that all of us realize that
there is another level entirely above restitution, a plane
beyond what money can accomplish. A way of life is waiting to
be even more fully restored and each and every Jew is capable
of making good on the historical debt.
That is the valuable lesson we can learn from those who
sought to create a world without Jews or Judaism.
All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.