An opinion piece by Dr. Meir Wikler in Haaretz last week bemoans the near-total omission of Torah Jews and their Holocaust experiences from the exhibits at Yad Vashem’s Holocaust History Museum. He writes:
According to some experts, between 50%–70% of those murdered by the Nazis, were “traditionally religious Jews” … But in the rooms of Yad Vashem only one of the 50–60 video monitors playing taped testimonies of Holocaust survivors shows a Haredi Jew.…
The spiritual heroism of the Holocaust is almost completely overlooked. The abundant examples of incredible courage to study Torah and perform mitzvot despite unspeakable suffering and incredible hardships are relegated to footnote status and all but eliminated from the museum. The clandestine yeshivot and Torah study groups in the ghettos, the lighting of candles on Chanuka, the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana and the daily donning of tefillin in the concentration camps — all under the penalty of death — are not mentioned at all.
The massive rescue work of Haredi Jewry has effectively been purged from the historical record of the Holocaust as presented by Yad Vashem.
His claim of only one video testimony of a chareidi survivor “is not true.” Does that mean there are two, out of 50–60? His statement that “blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, donning tefillin, lighting candles on Hannukah ‘are not mentioned at all’ … is false.” So they’re mentioned in the caption under one photo? “Rabbi Weissmandl and the Working Group’s efforts … are respected by Yad Vashem and all the guides trained here.” And how precisely is that respect manifested?
I don’t know the answers to my questions, although I’m sure some readers, more familiar than I am with Yad Vashem, do. But what’s certain is that in concluding that it’s “unfortunate that Wikler chooses to see insults and slights where none exist,” she misses the point, which isn’t about seeing “insults and slights where none exist” but about treating Orthodox Jews as if “none exist.” Her response comes across as an exercise in obfuscation and, Dr. Wikler tells me, his past interactions with Yad Vashem on this issue, about which he’s written numerous times, have been characterized by similarly evasive stonewalling.
Dr. Wikler cites speculation that it is anti-chareidi bias or the Jewish establishment’s superiority mentality that might underlie the glaring omission of frum Jews from Yad Vashem. But I wonder if part of the answer is also that the story of Jews who did not lose their faith in the Nazi inferno and of those who exhibited amazing spiritual strength to defy it, is a very inconvenient truth for some secular Jews. It robs them of the ability to use the Holocaust, whether explicitly or implicitly, to justify varying levels of abandonment of G-d. You’re angry at G-d? But look at all those who summoned the courage to cling ever tighter to Him even in the shadow of the Valley of Death, those who emerged from it to rebuild lives and communities of Torah and mitzvos, who created the kind of meaning that could only be produced out of that incomparable madness.
Perhaps the strength of the giborei koach who didn’t yield makes those who impute their loss of faith to their wartime experiences feel weak-willed in comparison. Perhaps it reminds some that their relationship with the Almighty was already waning before the cataclysm struck, making it easier for their tree of faith to be uprooted by the winds of war. Perhaps.
I’ll state the obvious: Far be it from any of us to judge those who lived through those terrifying times. Their trials are unimaginable to us and we can’t know how we’d have fared in their place. The anecdote that says it all is that of the Satmar Rebbe pointing to a Yid with a number on his arm as someone worthy of giving brachos. And when a survivor gives vent to his pain, the Torah way is to listen with quiet empathy.
But neither am I at liberty to sit quietly as Jews, even those who didn’t go through the war but are more than willing to use it to justify their disaffection from Judaism, speak of our Father in Heaven, whom I am bidden to love unconditionally, not as the Av HaRachamim he is, but as, chalilah, its opposite.
WORLD SERIES In a few short weeks, Torah Jews will gather, im yirtzeh Hashem, at a New York sports stadium to have an intimate conversation with a few thousand of their friends and neighbors about their shared spiritual futures and how the onslaught of technological advances are putting those futures at grave risk. We ought to stop and contemplate for a few moments what an unusual occasion this is and what it says about our community.
The chosen venue for this gathering brings its uniqueness into sharp focus. It will take place at a site where multitudes of people usually come to participate in and view sports events that are, at bottom, utterly meaningless. Sure, a ballgame is a form of entertainment that by today’s societal standards is still relatively wholesome, although the increasing vulgarity and rowdiness of sports fans has made it less so as time goes on. And I can appreciate that it can be an opportunity for the expression of meaning, such as a father and son bonding through their shared love of a sport. But even at its most innocent, it is simply a diversion, a means to a fun time that is irrelevant to anything lasting and deep even as it’s taking place, and all the more so the moment it’s over.
And yet, what normally happens at this stadium is the intense focus of millions of people, and not just of illiterate laborers, but of highly paid professionals, academics, artists, the cream of our society. And all of a sudden, on May 20th, a radically different sort of crowd will stream through the turnstiles. They’ll be coming to ponder the most important questions a human being can ask: How do we foster fulfilling relationships? How do we promote depth of feeling and thought? What in the world am I doing in this world? And, most crucially, how are the blinking, beeping gadgets that are now ubiquitous in our lives impacting the answers to those queries?
In short, men, women, and children will do something simply unheard of in our society — they’ll come together en masse to get serious about life, and they’ll do it in, of all places, a Temple of High Unseriousness. What a striking phenomenon!
This is, after all, a topic that holds special importance for Torah Jews, but as we’ve discussed before in this space, it’s ultimately a crisis for human society as a whole. And yet, with all the resources that society has at hand, we keep hurtling toward the apocalypse, with no events at CitiField in the offing to address the gathering threats that technology poses to the human spirit, to our privacy, our relationships, our learning ability, our moral fiber.
And if, as the date draws near, you hear a cynic doing what cynics do, cracking wise about this event, you might want to look him in the eye and ask him calmly why he doesn’t see what a special people he belongs to, and what his plan is to make a meaningful life for himself.