Holocaust Remembrance Day April 19

  1. Faith in the depths of Hell
    Jeff Jacoby (archive)


    April 19, 2004 | Print | Send

    The order to kill every pregnant Jewish woman had been issued that morning. So when a Nazi guard patrolling the Jewish ghetto in Kovno noticed a pregnant Jew walking past the local hospital, he shot her at point-blank range. She died on the spot.

    Hoping to save the baby, some passersby rushed the dead woman into the hospital. An obstetrician determined that she had been in her last weeks of pregnancy, and said that if surgery were performed immediately, her baby might be rescued.

    But could such surgery be squared with Jewish law, which is stringent in its concern for the dignity of the dead? If the baby didn't make it, the mother's body would have been mutilated for nothing.

    The question was put to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a young rabbinical scholar. He didn't hesitate. "When saving a life is involved, we are not concerned with the desecration of the dead," he ruled. Besides, if the murdered mother could speak, wouldn't she welcome the "desecration" of her body if it would assure her baby's survival? He ordered the operation to proceed at once, and the baby was born alive.

    Then came a horrifying postscript. "The cruel murderers . . . came into the hospital to write down the name of the murdered woman. . . . When they found the baby alive, their savage fury was unleashed. One of the Germans grabbed the infant and cracked its skull against the wall of the hospital room. Woe unto the eyes that saw this!"

    This case from May 1942 was one of many that Rabbi Oshry was called upon to decide during the Nazi occupation of Kovno, Lithuania's second-largest city. He recorded the heart-rending questions that were brought to him in brief notes on scraps of paper, then buried the scraps in tin cans. Someday, he hoped, those scraps might be found -- evidence that even in the midst of the Nazi inferno there were Jews who clung to their God and His law, refusing to abandon Him even as they must have wondered whether He had abandoned them.

    More than 90 percent of Kovno's 40,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust -- either by the Germans or by their Lithuanian collaborators. Rabbi Oshry was one of those who survived. After the war he retrieved his notes and began writing them out as full-length rabbinical rulings, or responsa. These were ultimately published in five Hebrew volumes; in 1983 a book of excerpts in English -- Responsa from the Holocaust -- was published by Judaica Press.

    I read Responsa from the Holocaust soon after it came out, and found it deeply moving. With the approach of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which occurs this year on April 19, I took it down from the bookshelf last week -- and again found it powerful and affecting. The questions laid before Rabbi Oshry can reduce you to tears, but what is really extraordinary, I saw now, was that anyone would care enough to ask such questions in the first place.

    In October 1941, "one of the respected members of the community" asked Rabbi Oshry if he could commit suicide. His wife and children had been seized by the Nazis, and he knew that their murder was imminent. He feared that the Nazis would force him to watch as his family was killed, and the prospect of witnessing their deaths was a horror he couldn't bear to face. He begged for permission to take his own life and avoid seeing his loved ones die.

    Later that month, the head of another household came to Rabbi Oshry "with tears of anguish on his face." His children were starving to death and he was desperate to find food for them. His query was about a bit of property that had been left behind by the family in the next apartment. The entire family had been butchered a few days earlier, and there were no surviving relatives. Under Jewish law, could he take what remained of their belongings and sell them to raise cash for food?

    Next to such questions, answers seem almost superfluous. (The rabbi did not permit the suicide; he allowed the neighbors' property to be taken.) What is stunning is that men and women in the throes of such hideous suffering and brutality were still concerned about adhering to Jewish law. In the lowest depths of the Nazi hell, in a place of terror and savagery that most of us cannot fathom, here were human beings who refused to relinquish their faith -- who refused even to violate a religious precept without first asking if it was allowed.

    Violence, humiliation, and hunger will reduce some people to animals willing to do anything to survive. The Jews who sought out Rabbi Oshry -- like Jews in so many other corners of Nazi Europe -- were not reduced but elevated, reinforced in their belief, determined against crushing odds to walk in the ways of their fathers.

    Some Jews fought the Nazis with guns and sabotage, Rabbi Oshry would later say; others fought by persisting in Jewish life. In the end, Responsa from the Holocaust is a chronicle of courage and resistance -- and a profound inspiration to believers of every faith
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  2. 15 Comments

  3. by   SmilingBluEyes
    POWERFUL STUFF steph. THANK YOU!
  4. by   suzanne4
    Thank you for the posting..................
  5. by   bluesky
    You know I was watching a show on the children of the Holocaust and was shocked by some of the statistics... only 7% of all jewish european children survived the war. 1.5 million in all died. I can't believe how lucky my mother was to be one of the 7%.

    Please don't use my family's history as some springboard for defending Bush's attack in Iraq. That would really, really, really, upset me. Thank you.
  6. by   nursedawn67
    Thanks for posting that, my daughter is doing a report on Anne Frank and this went "hand in hand" with her information. What a terrible...horrific thing to have happened.
  7. by   Spidey's mom
    Quote from bluesky
    You know I was watching a show on the children of the Holocaust and was shocked by some of the statistics... only 7% of all jewish european children survived the war. 1.5 million in all died. I can't believe how lucky my mother was to be one of the 7%.

    Please don't use my family's history as some springboard for defending Bush's attack in Iraq. That would really, really, really, upset me. Thank you.
    Please don't even worry about that because I would never do that.

    steph
  8. by   pickledpepperRN
    Thank you Steph!

    35 years ago I lived in Hollywood, the Fairfax district. Many survivers would admire my baby (now a 35 year old woman).
    Their spirit amazed me.
    One woman who chided me for not covering the baby (in >100 degree summer weather0 had survived in a pile of dead bodies. Her mother, father, sisters, brothers, husband, and children were all killed.
    She sold stationery, laughed at the funny new 60s fashion, and loved to eat. Once she insisted I eat a boiled potato! It was cold and delicious as i ate it lid=ke an apple.
    As a Christian I truly believe such a remarkably kind and cheerful person is in heaven.

    When younger we had as teachers German nuns in Oklahoma. They were grouchy, short tempered, and hit children on the back of the hand for not learning their lessons.
    I complained, "Sister is mean."
    My Dad told me those women had hidden Jewish people in the convent risking their own lives to help others. He said he thought the constant fear had taken caused them to act that way.
  9. by   NurseRatchet26
    I have read conflicting dates for Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Some sources say it was the 18th, others the 19th. Whatever the exact date is I think its important to remember these horrible events. This time in history has always held some great interest for me because of my love of history itself and desire to learn everything I can. Nothing that I have ever learned of has brought such heartache and horror to me. The treatment of the children alone has given me nightmares, and the photographs are so heartwrenching you would have to be made of stone not to cry at the sight of them. But as much pain and suffering as the Jewish people (as well as others deemed unworthy by the Nazis) there are so many unbelievable stories of hope , survival, and an unbreakable spirit that is hard to imagine after all the terror. The people who risked their lives to revolt against their captors, those who helped Jews hide or escape, those who helped find some sort of justice for the murdered by tracking down the fugative Nazis. Those who lost everything but their life and had to start over from square one. If that isn't courage I don't know what is.
  10. by   fergus51
    I don't think there is anything more haunting than stories like these. I went to Aushwitz when I was 18 and will never forget that experience.

    It saddens me to know that the human race still hasn't evolved beyond this type of thing. A jewish school in Montreal was firebombed a few weeks ago. Swastikas were painted on the door of a Holocaust survivor in Toronto. Jewish graves were desecrated. People seem to think anti-semitism is a thing of the past, but it really isn't. And even if it were, there are always more targets for genocide. One only has to look at Rwanda, the former Yougoslavia, Cambodia, etc. to see that "never again" has already happened again and again.
  11. by   Spidey's mom
    My best friend teaches 8th grade and they are studying the play, Diary of Ann Frank. The kids are appalled that something like that ever happened.

    We've got to keep teaching, preaching and yelling from the rooftops that this is just wrong.

    This is one area I can be called intolerant. I do not tolerate bigotry and prejudice and evil.

    Our pastor had a passover dinner for us this year explaining the significance. I love the fact that he incorporates Jewish traditions into our church and that he has such a heart for the Jewish people. Fergus, his Dad took him to the concentration camps when he was 12, back in the 60's. It made a huge impression on him.

    steph
  12. by   nekhismom
    Wow. Thanks for sharing. I can't even fathom the holocaust, it sickens me to the depths of my soul. I admire those who fought against this genocide, and I admire the survivors.
  13. by   NurseRatchet26
    Quote from fergus51
    I don't think there is anything more haunting than stories like these. I went to Aushwitz when I was 18 and will never forget that experience.

    It saddens me to know that the human race still hasn't evolved beyond this type of thing. A jewish school in Montreal was firebombed a few weeks ago. Swastikas were painted on the door of a Holocaust survivor in Toronto. Jewish graves were desecrated. People seem to think anti-semitism is a thing of the past, but it really isn't. And even if it were, there are always more targets for genocide. One only has to look at Rwanda, the former Yougoslavia, Cambodia, etc. to see that "never again" has already happened again and again.
    You are absolutely right, antisemitism is alive and well in the world, it never went away. As long as hate continues to be taught to the children it will continue to spread.
  14. by   bluesky
    Quote from stevielynn
    Please don't even worry about that because I would never do that.

    steph
    OK then please accept my appology for mentioning it.

    Lex :kiss

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