Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

6 Elul 5763 - September 4, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly









Produced and housed by
Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Shema Yisrael Torah Network

Opinion & Comment
What the Nazis Knew

by Rabbi Avi Shafran

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 shores.

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 Orthodox.

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 Jewish life.

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 prevent.

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.