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Memory And Belief In The Wake Of The Holocaust: An Interview with Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau


Rabbi Lau (right) with interviewer Daniel Retter.

Rabbi Lau (right) with interviewer Daniel Retter.

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, formerly the chief rabbi of Israel and currently chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, visited the United States recently to address the Siyum HaShas at MetLife Stadium and to appear at a Chabad Shabbos retreat in Fort Lauderdale.

Rabbi Lau spoke with The Jewish Press about his account of coming of age during the Holocaust, first published in Hebrew as “MeMaamakim” and translated into English as “Out of the Depths: The Story of a Child of Buchenwald Who Returned Home at Last” (Sterling/OU Press).

The Jewish Press: How were you able to recollect so vividly what you lived through as a very young boy during the Holocaust?

Rabbi Lau: This question has been asked of me many times. There are three answers.

First, God blessed me with a wonderful memory and so I was able to recall events that occurred many years ago.

Second, I am sure you remember something about first grade when you were six years old, like the name of your teacher and the first day of class. Well, if you can remember something like that, which was perhaps dramatic but certainly not traumatic, how much more can someone remember something that is not only dramatic but, unfortunately, traumatic?

Third, every time I finished a chapter, I would fax what I had written to my brother Naphtali, who is eleven years older than I am, and I would ask him to be my fact checker. Naphtali was surprised that all my facts were correct and he himself wondered how I was able to remember what happened to me during my awful experience during the Holocaust at such a young age.

There are those who survived the Holocaust and turned away from Hashem in terms of the observance of mitzvot. What do you say to people who have gone through the same experience as you but turned out so different?

Yes, unfortunately, there are many whom I encounter who have turned their back on the synagogue. I refer them to the third chapter of Tehillim, where King David, speaking from the perspective of the Jews’ enemy, states, “They say let us eradicate them [the Jews] as a nation,” which refers to the physical destruction of the Jews.

But then King David continues, “and there will be no remembrance of the Jews ever,” which refers to their spiritual eradication, chas v’shalom. I explain, with a great deal of empathy and sympathy, to these survivors that they are handing the ultimate victory to the Nazis, for although they physically survived, their spiritual survival has been eradicated. And instead of bringing solace and comfort to their parents and great-parents who were killed by the Nazis, they are bringing gratification to the Nazis.

I know these words penetrate many of the survivors and give them pause to think about how they should lead their lives. It is not easy. I also refer them to Tehillim 92 where King David says “How great are your wonders O God,” which refers to the absolute marvels of the natural world we see around us and can barely understand.

King David continues, “Your ‘thoughts’ are so deep” and not comprehensible by humankind. I ask them, “If we cannot truly fathom God’s wonders in what we can physically see in nature and the world around us, how can we understand God’s intent and reason for this horrible tragedy that befell our people?”

Would you describe your book as an autobiography or as a story of the Holocaust and the beginnings of the state of Israel – or a little of both?

The book is not a biography or even an autobiography. It is a book of emunah, of faith. It was my desire to give strength to Holocaust survivors and their families, to know that despite what we went through, we can succeed and prosper.

Why is there little if any Holocaust education in yeshivas, particularly among haredim?

This is something I have been working on for many years. I was the first person appointed to the Yad Vashem Council who had a “yeshivish” background. I soon discovered there was a haredi department at Yad Veshem that was rarely used or visited. I succeeded in obtaining the cooperation of thousands of haredi rebbeim and teachers to visit for several days and to learn lessons on the Holocaust to be taught to their students. I also was involved in publishing various kinos that recall the Holocaust.

Perhaps the main reason for the lack of Holocaust education in yeshivas is that it was the secular community that initially published literature about the Holocaust while the haredim stood aside. Now we are trying to catch up with what has already been put out there by the non-religious.

Your book is replete with mention of your beloved brother Naphtali, who cared for you like a parent. Why didn’t he follow in your father’s footsteps as you did and become a rabbi?

Naphtali is very religious but he felt the times did not call for him to be a rabbi. He studied in the Lomze Yeshiva and he roomed with Rabbi Moshe Soleveichik, z”l, Rabbi Israel Sorotzkin, z”l and, libadel, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, who all influenced his life. He is a wonderful brother, and those who read his book, Baalam’s Message, will understand why he entered government service rather than become a rabbi as I did.

About the Author: Daniel Retter, Esq., author of “HaMafteach,” the indexed reference guide to Talmud Bavli and mishnayos, is counsel to the Manhattan law firm of Herrick, Feinstein, LLP. He is a frequent contributor to The Jewish Press.


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