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September 20, 2014 / 25 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘the Holocaust’

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

Thursday, September 13th, 2012

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.

Maryland Congressman Apologizes for Holocaust Reference

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

A Maryland congressman apologized for referring to the Holocaust as he discussed his opposition to federal involvement in providing student loans.

Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) apologized Thursday for the remarks, which drew criticism.

“While explaining my position on an important Constitutional issue I regrettably used an extreme example as a comparison that was ill-advised and inappropriate,” Bartlett said in a statement. “I should never use something as horrific as the Holocaust to make a political point, and I deeply apologize to anyone I may have offended.”

In his initial comments at a town hall meeting on Wednesday, Bartlett had argued that the federal government lacked the authority under the Constitution to offer student loans and warned of a “slippery slope” if the Constitution is ignored.

“If you can ignore the Constitution to do something good today, tomorrow you will be ignoring the Constitution to do something bad,” he said, adding: ” The Holocaust that occurred in Germany — how in the heck could that happen? And when you start down the wrong road, it can be a very slippery slope.”

How the Holocaust Never Happened in Rumania

Sunday, September 9th, 2012

The virus of antisemitism is alive and well in Eastern Europe, and so is the denial of the Holocaust. It is particularly disconcerting that a younger generation in Rumania, and more than likely everywhere else in the world, should be infected with this virus, and is — or claims to be — ignorant of the real treatment of Jews in the 20th century.

Dan Sova, a 39 year old Rumanian lawyer and Social Democrat, who has been a Senator in the Parliament since 2008, was promoted to the position of Minister for Parliamentary Relations by the Prime Minister Victor Ponta on August 6 after saying on a television broadcast on March 5, that “no Jew suffered on Rumanian territory (during the Holocaust) thanks to Marshal Antonescu.” Two days later Sova was removed “temporarily” from office as speaker of his political party. He has also said that “only 24 Jews were killed during the Iasi pogrom (of June 28-29, 1941) by the German army.”

Both statements by Sova were false and malicious. Ion Antonescu, the pro-Nazi dictator of Rumania during World War II was “leader of the state,” prime minister, foreign minister, defense minister, and self-appointed Marshal. He joined the Tripartite Pact of Germany, Italy, and Japan against the Allies in November 1940, two months after it had been signed. He also established close personal contact with Hitler. It was Antonescu who on June 27, 1941, ordered the commander of the military garrison of the town of Iasi, in northeast Rumania, to “cleanse” the city of its Jewish population. The action was not instigated by the Nazis but by the Rumanian authorities and the Rumanian army on their own initiative.

It is estimated that during the two days of the pogrom in Iasi, between 13,000 and 15,000 Jews were massacred in the streets or else died in the death trains on which 100 Jews were herded into each boxcar; most died of thirst, starvation, or suffocation. The actions of the Rumanian regime in the Holocaust led to the deaths, not of 24 Jews, but a number estimated to be between 280,000 and 380,000 Rumanian Jews — most likely the larger number, in the territories under its control.

It was not Nazi policy that triggered the massacre of Jews but the Rumanian government itself — with the enthusiastic participation of the military, and the endorsement of the broader society, similar to the better-known participation of the French Vichy regime and French authorities during the war.

In the period after World War II, from 1945 to 1989, Rumania was under Communist control, first by the Soviet Union and then as an independent country; information about the country’s actions during the war was largely suppressed. Few Rumanians were aware of the involvement of their country during the Holocaust. Perhaps the kindest thing to be said of Dan Sova is that his schooling did not include any information about the Holocaust.

It is difficult, however, to believe that a young lawyer educated at the University of Bucharest could be so ignorant. When criticism arose of his promotion on August 6, four days later he confessed that his remarks on the Holocaust were “completely wrong.” It would be nice to take at face value his plans to take concrete actions on the matter, one of which will be a course of lectures on the Holocaust.

No matter the degree of sincerity in Sova’s apologies and regrets, a few lessons could be drawn from his case: there is a critical need to keep on discrediting Holocaust deniers, ranging from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran to Ernst Zundel, a German who lived in Canada. Education, especially of the young, about the Holocaust is urgent and essential to put an end to the falsehoods of distortions of history by individuals such as David Irving in Britain, Robert Faurisson in France or Louis Farrakhan in the U.S. Both the young and the old should continue to be informed of the assertions of the deniers — the allegations that the Diary of Anne Frank was a hoax because parts of it were written with a ball point pen, or that Auschwitz was too small to have been an extermination camp — to be able to refute them.

Joy To The World, We’re Jewish

Friday, August 17th, 2012

When I began this article, I had intended to write about Anna Breslaw’s article in Tablet (www.tabletmag.com/jewish-arts-and-culture/105853/breaking-bad-karma) where she basically defamed Holocaust survivors and called them “villains masquerading as heroes.” As I tried to organize my thoughts, I wondered how many young Jews agreed with Anna’s article. I realized that maybe the problem isn’t one article but that Judaism is not being taught correctly to my generation.

One of my dear friends is a Christian and she is on fire for her faith. It glows in her eyes, it brings a smile to her face and it makes her love life. She is proud of who she is and holds her head higher because of what she believes.

I may not want her religion, but I definitely want that fervor brought to my faith. I want Jewish kids on fire for Judaism, I want us smiling when we talk about our faith, I want us to be proud and happy to be Jewish. Anna Breslaw isn’t on fire for Judaism and I want to know why.

As much as we like to kvetch about it, being Jewish is really awesome. It’s an ancient system of beliefs that has survived massive persecution to produce immense scholarship and achievement. We resurrected a language, we got a country and we have a unique contract with the One Who Created the World. Why aren’t Jewish youth walking around with a light in their eyes?

One reason a friend mentioned is that modern society seems to reject rules in favor of freedom and personal expressions. I’d accept that theory, but I see so many religious Mormons and Evangelical Christians observe long lists of rules and do it voluntarily. More importantly, they do it joyfully.

Maybe that is the problem. In a survey of Metropolitan Chicago Jews, 81% of Jews said that remembering the Holocaust was an important part of their identity and 80% said that stopping anti-Semitism was the most important. 49% felt it was important to take positive steps like donating to Jewish causes. If our relationship to Judaism is just suffering, it is no wonder that it is being rejected. It’s hard to be on fire for something so negative. If being Jewish is about remembering the Holocaust and avoiding it happening in the future, I’d mock such a faith myself.

As vital as the Holocaust is, as terrible as anti-Semitism is, it’s not what being Jewish is about. When I smile at the harried neighbor and ask how she’s doing, that is being Jewish. When I give up my seat to an elderly person, that is being Jewish. I live my life as a stich in an incredible tapestry and I am so proud of who I am. I know he might not be the best example of Judaism, but Disraeli had it right when he said that his ancestors were priests in the temple of Solomon. We have a glorious history and an even more glorious future!

We have so much positivity in our faith. There is no joy like playing Vashti in a Purim shpiel and then downing far too many Hamantashan at a merry feast. There is no sport like negotiating hard for an afikoman, or looking up at the stars peeking in between the sparse roofing of a Succah. There is no feeling that can compare to seeing the Western Wall and crying with hundreds of strangers who are instantly your family. My personal week’s highlight is when my dad lays his head on my head and gives me a blessing before he makes kiddush.

The problem is that many Jews today are missing out on those amazing experiences and all they have is the Holocaust as their heritage and the eternal terror of anti-Semitism. Who wants that?

Judaism faces a unique challenge today. We can live where we wish, work in whatever fields we wish and even marry whom we wish. There is no badge that marks us as Jews; people of the Tribe have reached the greatest heights in every single area of American life. That kind of freedom is wonderful, but it also means that unless a fundamental choice to be Jewish is made, there is little holding back assimilation. Judaism must market itself attractively and some are already ahead of the trend.

Family Breakdown (Part One)

Thursday, August 9th, 2012

In the past few columns I have focused on the tragic breakdowns in our families that have become all too common. The response has been overwhelming. I’ve featured a couple of those responses, but it would take weeks to run all the letters and e-mails that have come in. This week I will share some of my own thoughts on the subject.

As most of you know, my family arrived in this country after the Holocaust. We came from Bergen Belsen, where we saw and experienced satanic evil. Our bodies and souls were exhausted. The strength had ebbed out of us, but our emunah, our faith in Hashem, never ebbed.

My saintly father, HaRav HaGaon Avraham HaLevi Jungreis, zt”l, imbued us with a mission: to rekindle the light of Torah that once illuminated the shtetls of Europe. Our hearts reverberated with hope – hope of reigniting that eternal light from Sinai that Hitler was determined to extinguish for all eternity. Yet with all that, my saintly mother, Rebbetzin Miriam Jungreis, a”h, looked with fear at our new surroundings.

“How can parents raise children in this country?” she asked fearfully.

Having come from a place where starvation was our daily fare, where vermin and rodents were our constant companions and where the silence of the night was shattered by pitiful, anguished cries of the suffering, what could my mother have seen that prompted her to ask that question – that made her fearful of America?

Surely she should have exulted in this blessed country. She should have been at peace in the knowledge that now we would not go hungry, that we would sleep in beds with clean blankets, pillows and sheets, that our nights would be silent and peaceful and that the sun would shine brightly announcing a new day. So what could have made my mother’s heart tremble?

My mother had a quick eye and often spoke like a surgeon. She would cut to the source of the problem and without embellishment identify the festering tumor. And so it was that even when no one else saw it, she pointed to the disease that was infecting America: the breakdown of family, the absence of respect in the parent/child relationship. She bemoaned the fact that parents not only tolerated the unbridled chutzpah of their children but encouraged it, albeit unknowingly. She was ahead of her time and foresaw the tragedy that was about to destroy the solid foundation of family life.

Reverence for parents is the pillar on which faith in Hashem and strong, stable families are built. When it does not exist, the very foundation stones of our lives collapse and crumble. When children are allowed to believe they “know better” and have the right to relate to their mothers and fathers with condescension, the children begin to rule and the parents lose their authority. When chutzpah is regarded as “friendship” – being a “pal” to your children – there is a loss of authority that is mistaken for good parenting. That is what my mother saw and feared.

My father, in his gentle way, always endeavored to find the sunshine behind every cloud, so he tried to reassure my mom. “Dee Ribbonoh Shel Olam vet helfen – Almighty G-d will help us to protect our children in the solid enclaves of Torah,” he said with confidence.

But, tragically, while those mighty walls of Torah insulated many families, many others were infected by our secular culture. The damage was done. Today the disease is everywhere and every individual and family must be vigilant. No one can be confident of immunity.

My mother’s words were prophetic. Family breakdown, alienation between the generations, contempt, anger and dysfunctional relationships are everywhere. The toxic fumes have left devastating damage on not only children but grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles – entire families.

What can we do about it? I’m afraid nothing much that is positive. Yesterday, children felt indebted. Today they feel entitled. Yesterday, parents taught children to speak; today children teach their parents to keep silent.

Yesterday, the young rose in honor of their elders; today the elders rise in honor of the young. Yesterday, children reverently greeted their mothers and fathers; today parents are grateful if their children take a few seconds to look up from their computers and grunt in their direction. Yesterday, adult children tried to attend to the needs of their parents; today parents keep their wallets open and their mouths closed.

40 of Poland’s ‘Hidden Jews’ to Complete Daf Yomi in Lublin

Monday, July 30th, 2012

More than 40 ‘Hidden Jews’ from Poland will participate in an unprecedented seminar organized by Shavei Israel on July 30 through August 2 in Lublin, Poland, dedicated entirely to the study of Talmud.

The gathering will be held at the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva and will coincide with the completion of the Daf Yomi daily cycle of Talmud study which was launched by the yeshiva’s founder more than 80 years ago. The seminar aims to strengthen the local Polish Jewish community while also reaching out to the ‘Hidden Jews’ throughout the area, many of whom are looking to reconnect with the Jewish people.

“The symbolism of this seminar and its location are especially poignant,” said Shavei Israel Chairman Michael Freund, adding that “the Germans and their collaborators sought to snuff out Jewish life and learning. But nearly seven decades after the Holocaust, Jews are once again studying the Talmud at Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin.”

Freund also noted that “since the fall of the Iron Curtain, an increasing number of young Poles have begun rediscovering their Jewish roots and expressing a desire to draw closer to Israel and the Jewish people. It is incumbent upon us to reach out to them and help them to do so.”

The Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva was founded in 1930 by the late Rabbi Meir Shapiro, who introduced the revolutionary idea of ‘Daf Yomi’ to the Jewish world. The practice is a daily regimen of study covering the entire Babylonian Talmud, completed one day at a time in a cycle of seven and a half years, a practice that has had resounding success and which continues today.

A group of Jews from abroad who have taken part in the Daf Yomi will be completing the cycle at the same time as the Shavei Israel seminar, which is being led by Rabbi Boaz Pash, Shavei Israel’s emissary to Krakow who serves as the city’s Chief Rabbi. The ‘Hidden Jews’ in participation will take part in the final days of study along with them and then will join them in celebrating this milestone.

When the Nazis took Lublin in 1939, they closed the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva, stripped the interior and burned the Yeshiva’s library in the town square. The Nazis then used the building for the regional headquarters of the German Military Police. In 2003, the building was returned to the Jewish community and was reopened in February 2007.

The Jewish community of Lublin dates back to 1316, when Jews first settled at the outskirts of the city. By the mid-16th century, Jewish life in Lublin had begun to flourish, and an autonomous Jewish zone existed in the district. Jews were given land to build their own institutions and a cemetery, and a Hebrew printing press was established in 1547.

The city was home to rabbinical giants such as Rabbi Shalom Shachna, who established a yeshiva in Lublin where luminaries such as Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Rama) studied. In the 18th century, Lublin became a center for Hasidism, and leading rabbis such as the renowned Seer of Lublin left their mark on Jewish life.

During the Holocaust, Lublin was transformed into a center of mass extermination of Jews. The Nazis captured Lublin in 1939 at a time when about 30,000 Jews lived there. By 1941, the Jewish population had reached about 45,000.

Today, several dozen Jews are officially registered as members of the Lublin Jewish community, but hundreds of‘Hidden Jews’ reside in the area. Recently, a growing number have begun to reclaim their roots.

The “Hidden Jews” are a phenomenon that has gained in strength in Poland in recent years, with many Jews slowly returning to Judaism and the Jewish people. Many of these Jews lost all contact with Judaism due to the extreme anti-Semitism they encountered after the Holocaust, and some of them even converted to Christianity. Others concealed their Judaism from the Communist authorities and now feel free to assume their true identity.

Another phenomenon are Jews who were adopted by Catholic families and institutions during the Holocaust. They were told nothing of their Jewish identity, and only in recent years have gradually begun to discover it. Today, around 4,000 Jews are registered as living in Poland, but according to various estimates, there are tens of thousands of others who have concealed their true identity, or are simply unaware of it.

The Advent of Hitler in India

Monday, July 30th, 2012

Hitler is considered a heinous historical by most of humanity, but in the last few years India has been witness to the advent in his popularity.

Dr. Navras Jaat Aafreedi, an Assistant Professor at the Department of History & Civilization in Gautam Buddha University in India, is a scholar of the history of the Jewish communities in India. Last month he concluded a lecture tour to Israel, during which he gave a lecture titled “The Rise of Hitler’s Popularity in India” at Tel Aviv University. He notes that “India is the only country in the world where Jews have lived with their non-Jewish neighbours in complete harmony for more than two millennia. Jews are India’s smallest religious minority and Muslims its biggest, and the two have produced beautiful examples of amity, unlike anywhere else in the world.”

Hiltler has rapidly gained popularity in India in recent years. This phenomenon is a paradox because of the absence of Anti-Semitism in India. Yet, though the country has never known anti-Semitism, sales of Hiltler’s Mein Kampf have risen over 15% in the last decade. The name “Aryan” is becoming a popular first name in India, and “Hitler” is the name of the protagonist in many a Bollywood production.

Dr. Aafreedi offered a few explanations. Unlike the modern-day neo-Nazis who idealize Hitler for his racism and persecution of the Jews, Indians who respect Hitler do so out of misinformation. He believes that this rise in Hitler’s popularity is not a result of anti-Semitism: “It can be ascribed to the absence of Jewish Studies in India, where Islamic Studies are available at almost all major Indian universities. The level of ignorance among Indians about Jews is hysterical and the state has been unwilling to introduce Jewish Studies in India, whereas in the neighboring country China, Jewish Studies are available at ten of its universities.” He explains that Indians are largely ignorant of the Holocaust, and such individuals “tend to see it as a justified collateral damage for the greater good of Germany, influenced as they are by the way Hitler is often projected as a hero by the Hindu right wing,”

He observes that “Most of the Indians do not even know about the Jews, let alone the Holocaust. Among the section of the Indian population that is aware of the Holocaust, there are many who have fallen into the trap of the Holocaust deniers and have started either doubting it as a whole or just its scale.” As part of this misinformation, many Indians believe that the Axis powers of World War II were partially responsible for India’s independence from the British in 1947. It is believed that Hitler’s battle with the Allies forced Britain to focus their resources in Europe. Britain was unable to control a territory as large as India, leaving room for an Indian independence movement. Subhas Chandra Rose, a key figure of the Indian independence movement, collaborated with Axis powers to raise an army to fight the British.

Another reason is the younger generation’s great desire for strong leadership. Dr. Aafreedi thinks they do not have good examples.

Dr. Aafreedi believes that the key to combating this situation is the dissemination of facts. “I promote Jewish Studies in India, the study of Jewish history, culture and religion. It is just not possible to understand the two most widely practiced religions, Christianity and Islam, without a study of Judaism, oldest of the three Semitic monotheistic religions. It is important for any nation to appreciate and recognize the contributions made to it by its religious minorities. If this does not happen, the society becomes intolerant towards minorities, which has grave consequences not just for the minorities but also for the majority community. In India, Jews happen to be the smallest religious minority and the Muslims, the biggest. As a result of their small numbers, most of the Indians know them only through secondary sources, which are mostly unreliable, and not as a result of any direct contact with them. Ignorance gives birth to stereotypes and misconceptions, and hatred thrives on falsehood. Hence, it becomes very important to promote Jewish Studies in India. If this is not done, we would neglect one-sixth of mankind.”

Hitler’s Mein Kampf is available in almost all Indian languages, but the only book on the Holocaust in India’s national language, Hindi, is an FAQ about the Holocaust published by Yad Vashem. Dr. Aafreedi has worked and continues to work in spreading accurate information about Judaism and the Holocaust in India. He has organized cross-cultural and international student dialogues at the University of Lucknow. There he also invited Jewish authors and filmmakers to speak about their works and brought a number of Muslim intellectuals to speak out against anti-Semitism. “I believe that if awareness is created through the spread of information,” he says, “it can help in eliminating many misconceptions that people have.”

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