Rabbi Sholom Friedmann

Survivor Testimony within Halachic History

Sholom Friedmann – Survivor Testimony within Halachic History

One of the most utilized resources for Holocaust education is survivor testimony. This is due to several factors, not least of which is the value of hearing firsthand accounts of victims discussing their experiences.

Yad Vashem suggests two main purposes for survivor testimony:

  1. Historical record
  2. Humanizing the victims

For the religious Jewish community, the Holocaust is also viewed as a seminal event in Jewish collective history. However, this community holds a different perspective on Jewish history, and by default, on Holocaust history.

For the religious Jew, Jewish cultural and religious history has played a predominant and definitional role. However, rather than singularly looking back, the Jewish religious approach to history collapses previous periods within contemporary events. It not only defines the Jews as a spiritual nation, but also reveals and defines their relationship with God from ancient times through to the present. No other religion commands the proactive act of remembering, Zachor, in such a determinate way which pervades the everyday.

In Judaism, history is not a passive engagement. Rather, the Torah proactively commands Jews to be an active part of history. So much so, that the Torah counts amongst its 613 commandments the command to remember certain historical events, including the Exodus from Egypt and the attack of Amalek. The declaration, ‘Zachor’, (remember these historical events), is stated over 160 times. History itself becomes a form of collective memory which not only offers guidance on past events, but on the present and future development on both collective and individual levels.

This memory does not simply refer to contemplating past events. The Torah’s definition of memory must lead to action. As Zvi Gill, a Holocaust survivor states:

“In Jewish tradition, the command to remember is absolute. But its obligation does not end with the cognitive act of memory- it must be connected to both meaning and action. Today, we for whom the memory is burned in our hearts and on our flesh gather to pass the torch of memory to the next generation. We pass to you, as well, the fundamental lesson of Judaism: that memory must be accompanied by action of ethical and moral intent. This must be the foundation and the focus of your energies toward the creation of a better world.” (Remarks by Zvi Gill (in Hebrew) in his Closing Message to the Conference on the Legacy of Holocaust Survivors (April, 2002 at Yad Vashem). Translated into English in Our Living Legacy, Yad Vashem, 2003)
Memory leading to action is understood through the concept of Ethical Monotheism. In Judaism, faith is not purely a ‘strongly held belief in God’, rather faith must lead to development of ethical behavior. A Jew can only develop a close relationship with God through developing his character and becoming a moral, ethical person.

Commentators cite the following as one example where this idea manifests itself in the Torah:

When Abraham entered Egypt, he introduced his wife, Sarah, as his sister. Avimelech, after suffering terrible afflictions for attempting to take Sara as his concubine, confronted Abraham, and asked why did he misrepresent his wife? Abraham responded; “I saw there was no fear of God in this place”. The commentators explain that when Abraham and Sarah entered Egypt, the natives first asked Abraham about Sara, and only afterward asked about Abrahams welfare. Abraham considered this unethical behavior and equated this with a lack of fear of God amongst these people. In other words, if one does not practice ethical behavior, by extension, one is not a God fearing individual.

Ethical Monotheism is expressed through the 613 commandments. Halachah (Jewish law) is the codification through which these 613 commandments manifest themselves. The Bible not only elucidates these halachic concepts as black and white rulings, but rather also within an historical narrative. History is not only a temporal point of reference, but rather it is halachic as well. History as a means to transmit the physical expression of achieving a relationship with God, becomes as relevant and explicit as the 613 commandments.

Jews view their history as ‘Halachic History.’ Jewish history is selective and the command to remember and act is intertwined with the codified halachic presence within history. The patriarchs and matriarchs, the bondage in Egypt, the exodus of Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, and the subsequent time spent in the wilderness are just as relevant to the Jewish code of historical behavior as the laws of sacrifice and kashrut. Hence, history is a present interpretive phenomenon as much as it is a past phenomenon around meaning and its many interlocking threads.

Halachic history demands that Jews live history. Halachic history therefore has past, present and future expressions.

The Past: starting from the creation of the world, to the development of the Jewish people and their relationship with Gd, to post biblical events and responses.

The Present: it offers context to the challenges Jews face both on a communal and individual level and their responses.

The Future: it offers insight into the recurring themes that have historically occurred as a template for future events.

Jews did not record history in the typical sense however, they were no less historic. The lack of a chronological, recorded history is not a testament to a lack of interest. But the role that history plays for the Jewish people is not a detailed record of events.

Everything that has happened to the Jews was already written in the Torah. Following that, although the names and places may have changed, it was still the same ‘Esau,’ ‘Amalek’ and ‘Lavan’, albeit in different forms and periods that have impacted the Jewish people. The experiences of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Maccabees and Mordechai and Esther, offered a point of refence and guidance about how to respond. No other record was necessary.

No more dramatic evidence is needed for the dominant place of history in ancient Israel than the overriding fact that even God is known only insofar as he reveals himself “historically”. Sent to bring the tidings of deliverance to the Hebrew slaves, Moses does not come in the name of the creator of Heaven and Earth, but of the “God of the fathers”, that is to say, of the God of history: Go and assemble the elders of Israel and say to them: The Lord the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has appeared to me and said: I have surely remembered you…”(Exodus 3:16). When God introduces himself directly to the entire people at Sinai, nothing is heard of his essence or attributes, but only “I, the Lord, am your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt, the house of bondage” (Exodus 20:2). That is sufficient. For here as elsewhere, ancient Israel knows what God is, from what he has done in history. And if that is so, then memory has become crucial to its faith and, ultimately, to its very existence. (Yerushalmi, Zakhor)
A further example of historic memory is the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar is not linear, rather it is cyclical. When commemorating the Jewish revolt against the Greeks at Channukah, the struggle and response is just as relevant to the contemporary Jew as it was thousands of years earlier. The same is said for Purim, and the other holidays. The Passover seder is a wonderful illustration of Halachic Judaism at its finest. Every year, Jews around the world celebrate the exodus from Egypt. However, the context of the seder is one that places the participants together with those that actually left Egypt several thousands of years ago. The Haggadah starts with the biblical historical narrative of how the Jews ended up in Egypt, placing the exodus as the outcome of a long historical narrative beginning with Abraham. The Haggadah commands the participants to view themselves as if “they themselves left Egypt”, placing them within that context. This is accomplished through recitation of specific liturgy and ritual actions.

Halachic history has created a cultural narrative, and a collective memory. This narrative of Jewish history is found within various formats, including; talmudic aggadata and exegesis, liturgy and Rabbinical responsa, written during the period that the historical events took place. Jews look to these sources for inspiration and guidance on how to respond when they themselves are facing challenges, on both a collective and personal level.

One of the most fundamental roles of halachic history is to provide guidance for the Jewish nation during the periods of diaspora, and subsequent persecutions. The underlying guidance that Halachic history provides is the development of ‘cultural resilience’.

The Talmudic sages describe this in the following parable:

A king marries a princess. He gives her a ketubah (marriage contract). In that ketubah he describes, in great detail, how her every need will be taken care of. Furthermore, he commits himself to always taking care of her, and never forsaking her. Soon afterward the king leaves to fight in a war. The princess eventually needs to go to town for supplies. The local neighbors approach her and ask her where is the King, does she not realize that he is gone, and not coming back? As time goes by, this continues, and the locals become more aggressive in their persecution of the princess. Eventually the princess becomes despondent, beginning to be convinced that the words of the locals are indeed the truth. The King has forsaken her; she is on her own. One day there is a knock on the palace door. The princess opens the door, and lo and behold it is the King. The King is shocked to see the princess. He says, “My princess, I am quite frankly surprised to see you, I thought that you would have given up on waiting for me a long time ago. Where did you get the strength and courage to wait for me?” The princess responds, “Indeed I was afraid that you would never come back, and subsequently, I became despondent. However, I looked at the ketubah you left me. In it you describe your commitment to me. How you would always care for me, look after me and never leave me. It was that ketubah that gave me strength to persevere”.
The sages point out that this parable symbolizes the plight of the Jewish people in diaspora. The princess refers to the Jews, the King is G-d, the neighbours are the persecuting nations throughout history and the ketubah is the Torah. (Medrash Rabbah, Eichah)

The two traits that are specifically drawn from this midrash are:

Unrelenting belief in G-d fulfilling his promise to the Jewish people of eventual salvation, and hope. These two traits have been nurtured by Jews throughout history and has empowered the Jewish nation with resilience.

One of the most relevant examples of the Halachic History narratives are found in the piyyutim. These are Jewish liturgy written in a poetic prose addressing the destruction of the Temple, and also written after significant events of persecution in the diaspora. The majority of these piyyutim were written in response to the crusades, the Spanish Expulsion and the Chelminieke massacres. Despite the fact that these were written several centuries earlier, they are still recited at various prayer services throughout the year and continue to be a part of contemporary services today. The piyyutim enable collective memory to be expressed by providing a language which allows the reciter to be incorporated into a narrative. Many of these piyyutim are specifically recited on Tisha B’Av, the traditional day of Jewish mourning over the destruction of the Temple, and all share three similar themes: Grieving, Faith and Hope.

Following is an excerpt from a piyyut written after the first crusade:

Please take to your hearts to compose a bitter eulogy, because their massacre is deserving of mourning and rolling in dust as was the burning of the House of our G-d, its hall and its palace. However, we cannot add a new day of mourning over ruin and conflagration, nor may we mourn any earlier-nor later. Instead, today (on Tisha B’Av), I will arouse my sorrowful wailing, and I will eulogize and wail and weep with a bitter soul, and my groans are heavy from morning until evening.
When the State of Israel was established, there was a national discussion regarding the appointment of an annual day of mourning for the Holocaust. The Brisker Rov refers to this piyyut when discussing the creation of this day, by default illustrating this collective memory:

“It is clear from this piyyut that the various hardships and catastrophic events in our collective history are all related to our plight in diaspora and required the same response. We must reflect on our role within the community, what we can do to strengthen ourselves and the rest of Klal Yisroel (Jewish people), and ultimately to continue moving forward. This is the theme of Tish B’Av, hence no other days in our calendar are necessary to set aside for this.”
Although a day of mourning set aside to commemorate the Holocaust was not deemed necessary amongst the traditional community, other forms of expressing this collective memory are prevalent. Although two piyyutim have been written and incorporated into the Tisha B’Av liturgy, this mode of expression is no longer utilized today. Rather, a more contemporary response has been found in the testimony of religious survivors.

The religious community treats survivor testimony with the same reverence as the message of the piyyutim, exacting strength and conviction when hearing of the resilience of these survivors firsthand. Following are three excerpts of testimony exhibiting these traits of faith, hope and resilience:

“Rivka climbed on top of the heater, she turned towards her listeners and made a “speech to the nation,” loud and fearlessly – “Girls! Together we sleep on the same bunks, together we bear the same pain, together we agonize, tormented In the darkness of death. But tonight is Chanuka (the festival of lights)! At night, the Bais Hamikdash (the Temple) was rededicated. Here, we lit a candle, and a little of the light banishes much of the darkness. Friends! That tiny flame we lit tonight, is holy! In every Jewish heart resides the holy spark. This divine spark will dispel much of the darkness of our miserable world”  (Pearl Beinish, Chanukkah in the Camps)

“We were quartered in the same block as your mother. She was always ready to give her aid to anyone at any time. She was no less ready when my sister fell ill. My sister’s fever soared, and she suffered awful pains, obliging her to go outside to the facilities every few minutes. This, however, was beyond her strength. She was so weak, we had to help her get up every time. ‘Your mother has a small bowl for laundry-a priceless possession in the camp. When my sister could no longer get out of bed even with help, your mother gave us her bowl to use for my sister. We were terrified that whole night lest your mother be caught and punished for her kindness. But she herself was not afraid at all. She told me that first of all we must help each other. She had such faith in Hashem(G-d) that nothing ever frightened her. In the morning a Jewish doctor came around and had my sister transferred to the sick block. She lay there a long time in critical condition, but in the end recovered. The doctor told us later on the she wouldn’t have recovered if she hadn’t had aid the night before her transfer. I was not strong enough to lift my sister by myself. Who do you think helped me each time? So, we owe your mother our sister’s life.” (Irma Ess, Ysupar L’Dor, by Y. Emanuel)

Akdamus Millin, On the way to Auschwitz, Shavuos 1944
The train is moving, crossing the Carpathian Mountains on its way to Poland. A sound rises between the Jews, “do you know which day it is today”? We know, well. A hushed conversation takes place between the people in the cart. Shavous (the festival celebrating receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai) is tonight, the celebration of Kabbalas Hatorah (receiving the Torah). Soon the sun will set. We have holy yidden (Jews) with us here. One of them is Reb Avrum Mayer Braun, a Tzadik (righteous person), whose lips don’t stop reciting Torah and Tehilim (psalms). Back home he is the first to rise early for shul in the winter and summer. Now he is encouraging us all “Wake up, it is the Yom Tov of Shavuos, tonight. Yeshuas Hashem Keheref Ayin(the salvation will come like the blink of an eye)! We have a full day ahead of us. Tomorrow is yom tov(the holiday) as well, yom tov sheni shel galuyos (the second day of the holiday in diaspora). Anything can happen. We will rise to a beautiful morning “. The trains continue to their destination. They travel nonstop for two days, with no room to stretch. A voice rises in the cart and cuts through the silence. Reb Avrum Mayer is holding a shavous machazor (holiday prayer book) and singing the known traditional tune of Akdamus millin, a piyyut composed by one of the rishonim(medieval commentators), that is recited on Shavous. That tune accompanied us to Auschwitz… (Yehoshua Danziger, ‘Echod Me ׳ir’)

For the religious community, testimonies such as these follow the guidance of Halachic History. They are the ultimate affirmation that the Jewish people has the ability to persevere no matter what challenges are presented, as has been directed by the biblical template. Through this testimony, we also hear the voices of those who suffered persecution over the generations, and the message of “In every generation there will be attempts to destroy us, but G-d will continue to save us” (Passover Haggadah).


Lecture at the Webinar: FAITH IN AUSCHWITZ – THE VICTIM EXPERIENCE and INTERFAITH DIALOGUE TODAY. November 5th 2020, organized by The Centre for Dialogue and Prayer in Oświęcim, Poland, in collaboration with the Amud Aish Memorial Museum, in Brooklyn, NY, USA.

Rabbi Sholom Friedman
Rabbi Sholom Friedman is an ordained Rabbi and Director and CEO of the AMUD AISH MEMORIAL MUSEUM in Brooklyn. He previously directed the Zechor Yemos Olam Holocaust Education division of Torah Umesorah, an umbrella organization that develops curriculum, trains teachers, and provides educational materials to schools on a national scale. He was a Fellow in Holocaust Education at the Imperial War Museum, London, UK. Rabbi Friedman’s holds an MA in Talmudic Law, a BS in Hebrew Letters, Qualified Teachers Status from the Teaching Regulation Agency, UK and a Diploma in Emotional Factors in Learning from The Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust.