By: Fern Sidman
On Sunday May 29th, “Project Witness” sponsored a unique symposium entitled “The Untold Story: Religious Faith and Practice during the Holocaust,” held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage near Battery Park in lower Manhattan. As a non-profit Holocaust resource center, “Project Witness” merges lucid scholarship with cutting-edge media to provide thought-provoking Holocaust educational tools for schools, community centers and lay readers. While remaining deeply committed to the exploration of the spiritual, ethical and intellectual responses of Holocaust survivors and victims, “Project Witness” focuses on the character, identity and faith of survivors and victims and serves to ensure that their legacy is transformed into an eternal guide toward a more hopeful future.
Poignant and inspirational narratives abound about those who tenaciously clung to their belief in G-d and religious observance during the maelstrom of the Holocaust, but the vast repository of nuanced details on the personalities that shaped these values has yet to be given ample examination. Thus, the exceptionally informative day-long seminar centered around themes expounded upon in the new “Project Witness” book entitled, “Witness to History,” the nation-by-nation history of the Holocaust.
The editor-in-chief of this weighty tome is Ruth Lichtenstein, the founder and director of “Project Witness.” A noted author, journalist and history instructor, Mrs. Lichtenstein is also the publisher of the HaModia newspaper. She has been the recipient of a litany of journalism and teaching awards, including the Agudath Israel’s Reb Elimelech Tress Memorial Award, the Joseph Gruss Excellence in Teaching Award and the Council of Jewish Organizations’ Excellence in Media Award. She holds an MA in Jewish history, has written extensively on the Jewish experience in World War II and lectures internationally on the Holocaust
Jews are often known as “the people of the book” and their constant predilection towards intellectual curiosity and the desire for knowledge was elucidated upon in the scholarly lecture entitled, “Thirsty, but not for Water”: – The Battle for the Jewish Book.” Delivered by Esther Farbstein, author of “Hidden in Thunder” and Director of the Holocaust Education Center at Michlala College in Israel, the seminar not only spoke volumes about the lengths to which Jews were willing to place their lives on the line in order to preserve their sacred texts but the concerted effort by the Nazis to vanquish all remnants of Jewish literature.
“The book represented Judaism; the Jewish spirit,” said Mrs. Farbstein. “If the Nazis were to rule the world, they could nto allow this spirit to survive,” she intoned. Speaking of the Jewish readiness to sacrifice everything for their sources of all wisdom, she said, “In all of the ghettos, including Kovno and Vilna, Jews tried to bury their books and they took their books with them when hiding out in the bunkers of the Warsaw ghetto. Librarians in Vilna were killed by the Nazis when they refused to hand over Jewish books. A lot of Jews took their books with them until they got to the gates of Auschwitz. They took siddurim, mishnayos and Sifrei Torah into the camps as these books represented the sum total of their spiritual sustenance.”
During the organized systematic destruction of Jewish books, those that were not set ablaze in the infamous “book burnings” were collected, categorized and transported via cattle cars to Frankfurt where they were stored. Mrs. Farbstein said, “After the war, it was discovered that the Frankfurt storeroom had Torah scrolls that were still open to the very place where the Torah portion was to be read that week, so many years ago.”
An awe inspiring story of Jewish dedication to learning was told through the eyes and ears of Holocaust survivor Chaim Hollander in a powerful video presentation. As a child inmate at the Bergen Belsen death camp, Mr. Hollander was awoken every morning at 4:00 am by Rav Shimon Dasberg who had smuggled in a small Torah scroll from his native Holland. Each morning the rabbi would sit and learn from this Torah with the young Hollander in preparation for his Bar Mitzvah.
“One morning,” said Mr. Hollander “the rabbi conducted a real service and there were people around and I knew this was going to be my Bar Mitzvah.” In a voice reverberating with great emotion, Mr. Hollander recalled that “suddenly I saw my mother. The rabbi had found her as she was smuggled from camp to camp to be with me on this day. I read from the Torah, made my Bar Mitzvah speech and someone gave me a small piece of chocolate.”
It was then that Rabbi Dasberg handed the tiny Torah scroll to Mr. Hollander and asked him to take it. Protesting that he was too young to be the overseer of a Torah, Mr. Hollander tried in vein to convince the rabbi that he should not be responsible for it. Said Rabbi Dasberg, “I don’t expect to survive this war, but you may indeed survive and I am giving you this Torah scroll with the promise that you will tell this story after you are released.” Deeply moved by the rabbi’s gesture, Mr. Hollander promised that he would relay this story and decades later that little Torah scroll was taken into space by an Israeli astronaut who told of its history to the entire world from the cockpit of his vessel.
Mrs. Farbstein told her audience that survivors of the Holocaust printed religious books in Germany and while taking up temporary residence in Shang Chai in 1943, they published the works of the Sfas Emes. While in the displaced persons camps, survivors took upon themselves “the complicated and expensive process” of printing the entire Gemorra and Mrs. Farbstein spoke of the efforts of Rabbi Shmuel Rose who initiated of the “Munich Talmud” which was representative of the “survivors spiritual survival.”
Through the means of an outstanding slide presentation, Paul Radensky, Museum Educator for Jewish Schools at the Museum of Jewish Heritage addressed the subject of “Artifacts of Spiritual Resistance.” “Judaism is a religion of practice; a religion of deeds. We need certain objects to perform mitzvos and these religious artifacts were essential to the continuity of our belief system,” said Mr. Radensky. If pictures speak a thousand words, then each one displayed tells their own heart wrenching story. In 1932, a photo was taken in Krel, Germany of a brightly lit Chanukah menorah. The eerie backdrop, however, was one of a Nazi swastika flag reading “Death to Judah.”
Telling his audience that under the draconian dictates of the Nuremberg laws, Jews were prohibited from displaying the German flag, Mr. Radensky added that “they were permitted, however to display the Jewish flag” and rare photos were shown of Jewish flags being proudly flown throughout Europe. Other photos included a Megillas Esther scroll that was surreptitiously published in underground quarters, a ticket to a Rosh HaShana service written in both German and Hebrew with the words, “Give bread to the poor” on it, a photo of a joyous Simchas Torah celebration in Lodz, Poland, a ketubah (marriage certificate) drawn up by Jewish partisans, a Passover Haggadah used in the Leipzig labor camp that was written from memory, a shechitah knife (used for ritual slaughter) from Salonica and a pair of tefillin that was snatched out of a Nazi inspired bon fire.
Other photos told of the rare kind of “mesiras nefesh” (self-sacrifice) that was the mainstay of Jewish life in the ghettos. Mr. Radensky imparted a touching narrative of a rabbi who had feverishly raced to rescue a Torah scroll from a synagogue in Hanover, Germany during Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938). While on his way to retrieve the Torah, the Nazis had come to his home to arrest him but he could not be found as he was in the synagogue.