Photo Credit: Marcin Bialek / Wikimedia Commons
Arbeit Mach Frei entrance gate to the Auschwitz death camp, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Editor’s Note: Our columnist, Dr. Alex Grobman, has provided his review of the scholarly volume edited by Dan Michman and Robert Rozett, Jewish Solidarity, the Ideal and the Reality in the Turmoil of the Shoah (Jerusalem: The International Institute for Holocaust Research, Yad Vashem, 2022) ISBN 978-965-308-648-7 



The essays in this volume are in response to a statement made by historian Saul Friedländer at a conference at Yad Vashem, during which he asserted that solidarity among Jews during the Nazi era had collapsed, and that European Jews were only concerned about their own survival and that of their closest relatives. Even in the best scenarios, they cared only about the welfare of “their own Jews.” Polish Jews worried about Polish Jews and German Jews agonized about German Jews, but not about Jews living in other countries.  

Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh 

Friedländer’s declaration provoked a very spirited debate among the audience. The indictment is especially painful because the concept of Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh (All Israel are responsible for one another) “is a pilar of traditional Jewish thought” noted historian Steven T, Katz. Over the centuries, the belief has become to be understood as “a broad category that involves moral, psychological ontological and metaphysical implications.” Ensuring the good of all members of every social class of the community “reflects our primordial interconnectedness and is a non-negotiable obligation.” 

The editors of this volume believed the subject “is so multifaceted and multilayered, replete with complexities and shadings” that a more in-depth discussion was required, despite the challenges the subject raised. At a conference convened by Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research in December 2014, a group of leading historians sought to address this very damning accusation. They discussed interpreting the meaning of Jewish solidarity; challenges to unity in the ghettos, urban centers, concentration, labor and extermination camps; and solidarity in rescue efforts and operations; and religious response.  

Religious Response 

The decision to include articles on religious response to the Shoah is especially important in providing a context for the issues observant Jews encountered. Rabbi Moshe Tarshansky discusses responsa—rabbinic responses to the many halachic dilemmas they faced within the community, which “often tested the limits of morality and solidarity.” These included: Should a prisoner willingly sacrifice his life to save another? How far can one go to prevent a crying child from disclosing your hiding position from the Germans seeking Jews to deport to the camps? Is it permissible to jeopardize innocent individuals in order to recue others?  

After the war, Jews asked what were the correct way to seek atonement for the sins they committed between man and his fellow man; between man and G-d; “substituting another person for one condemned to death;” participating in mercy killings; for having violated the limits of Jewish solidarity; and for indirectly causing a person’s death. An analysis of these questions Tarshansky said, tells us what individuals “actually did on the basis of the faith and values instilled in them, and also of spontaneous instinctive decisions.”  

Gershon Greenberg, a professor of philosophy and religion, explains how the question of Jewish unity during and after the war was fundamental to struggles by a number of important Jewish thinkers to comprehend the hurban (destruction: the phrase used by most Orthodox scholars). Was the suffering a test, based on the notion of Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh or a punishment? 

Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein, a Hebrew University-trained historian and the foremost Haredi scholar of the Holocaust, reveals the previously unknown rescue activities of Renée Reichman and her daughter Eva (Maidi). After the Anschluss (March12, 1938), the Reichmans eventually reached Tangiers, where they began sending packages to Jews in occupied countries. Following Germany’s occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944, she began the extraordinary task of arranging visas to Tangiers. Renée Reichman collaborated with the legendary Recha Sternbuch of Switzerland.  

Both were Haredi women, and mothers who managed households that were open to all in need. When catastrophe occurred, they charged into rescue activities often requiring them to work at home and at times away from home, and contacting representatives of governments and international organizations.  

Vaad Hatzala 

An important key component in the religious response to save Jews was the Vaad Hatzala. At the urging of Rabbi Hayyim Ozer Grodzinski, the leading rabbinical authority in Lithuania and world Jewry, Rabbi Eliezer Silver established the Orthodox Rabbis’ Rescue Committee/ Vaad Hatzala in the US in response to the overwhelming number of refugees from yeshivas inundating Vilna and other cities in Lithuania. 

According to a resolution of the Agudath Harabonim (an Orthodox rabbinical association founded in 1902), members of the Vaad were required to follow Jewish law, which meant they were bound to rescue the spiritual leaders, teachers and students, who ensured the continuity of the Jewish people—even if it meant violating American law. Primarily, the issue was a matter of pikuach nefesh (a matter of life and death).  

 As I have noted elsewhere, historian Hillel Ben Sasson explained that in this case, they followed the Talmud. When Jerusalem lay under siege before the destruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai urged that he be given the academy of Yavneh and its wise men so he could rebuild Jewish life (Talmud Tractate Gittin, 56a-b). Ben Zakkai understood that the future of the Jewish people would be endangered if this leadership disappeared.  

The Vaad and members of the Orthodox Jewish community saw parallels in the history of Ben Zakkai and the threat facing the Jewish community in Europe. Few other American Jewish organizations appreciated the urgency of saving the spiritual leadership of the Jewish people. Their priority remained the rescue of labor and Zionist leaders, artists, writers, and other intellectuals. If the Vaad had not attempted to rescue the rabbis and yeshiva students, no one else would have done so.  

The American Jewish community charged the  American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) with saving the “masses” of the Jewish people. The members of the Vaad understood this, but they had to ensure that as long as the rabbis were at risk, their interests would also be addressed 

The US created the Above Quota Emergency Visitors’ Visas which granted visas to provide sanctuary in the U.S. to qualified, endangered European refugees on an emergency basis. Included in this group were Jewish and non-Jewish artists, writers and union leaders. The Jews simply attempted to use the opportunity to benefit their brethren in Europe. The US, not any of the Jewish and non-Jewish organizations, determined the elitist nature of this program.  

Orthodox Jews did not take any space reserved for any other Jew.  

A Final Note 

The responsibility of Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh was severely and profoundly tested during the Shoah—more than in any period of Jewish history observed Steven Katz. Under the circumstances, he said, it is not surprising these “ethical mandates were not always met.” There were countless acts of selfishness, vicious cruelty and apathy, and many cases of petty and rampant corruption by members of the Jewish police, informers and Kapos. Yet, Katz is convinced “the majority of the Jewish communities generally acted with courage, dignity and an abiding sense of obligation” that sprang from their “instinctive sense of Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh. 

Many in the concentration camps pleaded with their fellow inmates to inform the world what happened: “If you live, please tell our story.” The obsession to document the systematic destruction of the Jews of Europe began in the ghettos and continued in the camps. Jews wanted to be remembered for how they lived and the moral, ethical and religious challenges they were forced to contend with; not by how they died.  

This invaluable work goes a long way in fulfilling their wishes. 

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Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and PhD in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew university of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.