Thursday, April 19, 2012

The chassidic response to the Holocaust


Tonight and tomorrow (Thursday), Israel commemorates the Holocaust and its victims:

Thousands of books have been written about the Holocaust. However, not too many deal with the religious side of it. The big question mark is still behind the Chassidim. Why did so many Chassidim die during the Holocaust while the Rebbes escaped ? Wouldn't it have been better if the Rebbes had stayed and died with their Chassidim instead of a kind of leaving them alone ? What was the role of the Gerer (Gur) Rebbe when he left Poland ? At the time of the Second World War, the Gerer Rebbe was already a very well known figure and as a celebrity it is easier to flee. But not only Gur has to deal with such a question. What about the Belzer Rebbe ? Today, Chassidut Belz considers the escape of their former Rebbe as a miracle. 

It isn't that easy to judge and many chassidic groups have to ask themselves if they reacted right or wrong. Unfortunately, this matter has been totally neglected after the war. There are many books about miraculous escapes of different Rebbes but hardly any book deals with the question of famous Rebbes who were able to escape and left the Chassidim behind. 

In this article, I am only mentioning a few different points of view to the subject "Chassidim and the Holocaust". I base the facts on the book of Pesach Schindler who did some research on this issue (The Chassidic Response to the Holocaust). Of course, there are plenty of other books; especially those describing the escapes and survivals of certain Rebbes in detail. Such as the Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Halberstam, or the survival of Chassidut Satmar or Bobov. 

The fact which Germans until today do not like to hear or are not even being aware of is that thousands of Chassidim died in the Holocaust. They don't know that whole chassidic dynasties were almost wiped out and to tell the truth, not too many of them are interested anyway. Until today, Chassidim are something strange in German society. No wonder because only Chabad set up some branches in the former Nazi country. 

Pesach Schindler in his book "The Chassidic Response to the Holocaust":

The majority of the Chassidim considered the Holocaust as a decree from G – d. No one has the right criticizing G – d's judgment and ask questions. All the answers for our questions we are going to receive from the Meshiach. Furthermore, times of suffering are supposed to be the forerunner of Meshiach (there are different interpretations about this statement). 

The Grodzisker Rebbe, Rabbi Israel Shapira, said in Treblinka:
We should not question G – d's actions. 

The opinion is based on a highly complicated chassidic concept:
Evil has its roots in good. According to the Zohar there is a spark of Kedusha (holiness) even in the "other side". Meshiach is coming close when Torah and Mitzwot are being kept even in the most evil times. The whole diaspora (Galut) is a Jewish tragedy. 

However, there were also different opinions.
Many Chassidim became resistance fighters and even built their own resistance groups. The Belzer Rebbe asked his Chassidim to leave Europe. The same did the Komaner Rebbe. Twenty Chassidim of the Ostrower Rebbe were prepared to sacrifice themselves in order to rescue the life of their Rebbe. In the end, the Nazis shot the Chassidim and the Rebbe. 

If the circumstances allowed it, many Chassidim refused to change their chassidic clothing style or to have the beard shaved. Many chassidic Rebbes (Admorim) didn't leave their Chassidim alone and went with them into the gas chambers. Even in Auschwitz – Birkenau the Mitzwot were kept; there still existed prayer services and Mazzot were baked. 

And there were also those chassidic Rabbis who did question G – d's actions. If G – d doesn't break His own commandments ? 

Rabbi Aharon Rokeach (Belz) was asked if the Jews should not ask G – d for a divine intervention. The Rebbe's response: No, everything happening is already a G – dly decree. 

Once someone told me that many Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz asked leading Rabbis in the camp if they couldn't curse the Germans and thus cause them do die. Rabbis even asked G – d for advice and a Bat Kol (according to Rashi it is an echo of a heavenly voice, see Talmud Yoma 9b and Eruvin 13b) responded: NO. No curses should take place. 

There are no answers to the Holocaust. Not even religious answers. It seems like we really have to wait for the Meshiach in order to find out why it happened. For the Chassidim, suffering has not ended. We all know about the war between Gog and Magog. The last Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Shneerson, however, said that already World War II was Gog and Magog and now everything is ready for the arrival of the Meshiach. 

And how do the Chassidim refer to the Germans today ?
As you can surely imagine, Germans are not be seen as the greatest friends. I know a Gerer Chassid who was born in Poland and he lost his whole family in the concentration camps. His name is Rabbi Shalom Mark (Markovitch) and he published a small booklet describing his experiences as a child in different camps. He called the booklet: "Choose Life". In his booklet as well as in his speeches, Rabbi Shalom Mark highly criticizes the Germans. He calls them gangsters and murderers. Even if he does meet younger Germans from time to time, the Rabbi still cannot get rid of his mixed feelings about them. 

And it is not only the Chassidim who don't want to forgive; also the Israeli national religious have their problems with the Germans. Have you ever seen the present German chancellor Angela Merkel being invited by the Gerer Rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter, of by Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu ?
Fact is that 99% of the chassidic population avoid going to Germany. Chabad is there but many Chabadnikkim have mixed feelings. The problem already starts as soon as you see elderly Germans. Then you always ask yourself what they did during the war. Let alone the new Neonazis walking around today. 

A sephardi Chassid told me that although Angela Merkel seems to be quite Israel friendly, this doesn't cause the Jews to forgive the Germans. Until today, many Israelis have difficulties hearing the German language. It always reminds you of something bad or evil. A national religious American born woman said to me that she doesn't ban German products as her mother did. However, she still thinks that there is something evil in the German character and culture. "Germans always want to be superior", she said. 

In other words, it is not enough for the Germans running to Jewish memorial services on January 27th (the German Holocaust Memorial Day). There is more to it than being sorry once a year. Germany has to prove that it is a different country. A democracy fighting anti – Semitism.


  1. who is the truest disciple of rav arele the first shomer emunim rav ?

  2. B"H

    In his acting or simply thinking that he is the true disciple ?

    I guess that either the Shomrei Emunim Rebbe as well as Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kahn do / did think so. However, the Shomrei Emunim Rebbe may be a bit more "open - minded" than Rebbe Avraham Yitzchak. I was told that the Shomrei Emunim Rebbe used to have a good relationship to the Baba Sali. Whether this is true, I cannot confirm.

    Rebbe Avraham Yitzchak, on the other side, was very strict in his rulings. His son David Kahn may be seen as a bit more moderate. At least, this is what a Belzer once told me.:-)

  3. i mean in terms of 'derekh rav arele' if there is such a thing

  4. What is the history of the Mishkenos Haroim ?
    Why are they such kanoim ?

  5. B"H

    I think I know the guy who wrote this Wikipedia on the Mishkenot HaRoim.:-)

    The present Rebbe originally comes from Ruzhin - Boyan but is not publicly in touch with them anymore. Only with his Boyan family.

  6. B"H

    In terms of stringency, Rebbe Avraham Yitzchak may have been the closest to Rebbe Aharon's ideology.

  7. mit torah und mitzvos