Marking Holocaust Memorial Day is no trivial matter for Jews of all varieties. For the Charedi Jew, it is also a complex, somewhat confusing affair.
For the duration of my Charedi education, I recall teachers instructing us (well in advance of the day itself) to refrain from standing up during the memorial siren on Holocaust Memorial Day. The State of Israel connects the establishment and continued existence of the state to the Nazi decimation of European Jewry, which serves as the ultimate justification for the foundation and existence of the Jewish State. Alongside tragic loss, Holocaust Memorial Day focuses on courage and Jewish strength. It is aptly named Yom HaShoah Vehagevura. Of all events, Israel’s collective memory highlights the Warsaw Ghetto uprising; even the day’s date corresponds, in whichever way possible, to the heroic uprising.
Charedi society sees things differently. It opposes the secular orientation of rebellious heroism and is reticent to adopt the state-sponsored distinction between a current era of power and a former time of powerlessness. Rather than physical heroism, Haredi society highlights spiritual heroism of maintaining the religious spirit and human elevation in horrific circumstances. This is a far cry from the annual “never again” declaration of Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Day.
Yet, in its own way, Charedi society certainly adopts the memory of the Holocaust as a foundational narrative. As a girl, the Holocaust was present throughout the year, receiving an almost mythical status that affected all aspects of life. It was a matter of intense interest in all areas of society: the school system, popular literature, the press, public lectures, and social and familial circles. It was mentioned with holy reverence, with excruciating sighs of pain but also with the faintest hint of a smile marking the victory of our Jewish spirit over the Nazi devil. Haredi existence, the continuity that emerged from the ashes, is itself seen as a defiant act of protest against the chilling intentions of the Nazi enemy.
I realized that my own Holocaust awareness was sharply different from the manner in which general Israeli society remembers it. Concepts such as “heroism and redemption,” as well as the sacred ceremonialism of Israel’s Holocaust memory, were entirely missing from my conception of the Holocaust. Why was it so important for the secular Jew to stand during the siren and so important for the Charedi Jew not to stand?
When I grew up, I realized that my own Holocaust awareness was sharply different from the manner in which general Israeli society remembers it. Concepts such as “heroism and redemption,” as well as the sacred ceremonialism of Israel’s Holocaust memory, were entirely missing from my conception of the Holocaust. Why was it so important for the secular Jew to stand during the siren and so important for the Charedi Jew not to stand? After all, the Holocaust belongs to all of us. Is it less important to the Haredi collective than to the general one?
I have asked myself these questions for many years, and continue to ask them. In the present article, I wish to present my brief reflection on the matter.
Holocaust and Charedi Society in Israel
Haredim, a small minority among European Jewry, certainly felt the full brunt of the Holocaust’s brutal force. Centers of Haredi society were located predominantly in regions laid waste by the sword of the Nazi destroyer, and thousands of families and communities were entirely eliminated. The fabric of Haredi life was burned to dust. Beyond decimating its numbers, the Holocaust caused the sudden demise of Haredi society’s Rabbinic and Torah leadership. In the immediate aftermath, this loss seemed irreconcilable as well as irreplaceable. Many survivors who had belonged to Haredi communities abandoned their faith, and thousands were drawn by the pioneering, even redemptive appeal of Zionism to leave the exilic pattern of Haredi life. Haredi society, which barely survived the emancipation and secularization of pre-war Europe, seemed doomed.
[B]y contrast with the Zionist ethos, which saw life in Israel as the mirror image of the Holocaust, the Charedim needed to create an ethos of continuity. How does one create continuity after such total destruction?
As the dust of war began to clear, and as remnants of European Jewry undertook the mission of returning to life, it was clear that Haredi society would never be the same. The enormity of the catastrophe, alongside colossal historical changes, guaranteed this would not be possible. Rebuilding Charedi life in Israel thus demanded a reshaping of Haredi society. But by contrast with the Zionist ethos, which saw life in Israel as the mirror image of the Holocaust, the Charedim needed to create an ethos of continuity. How does one create continuity after such total destruction? For this purpose, Haredi society formed its own distinctive memory of the Holocaust.
The Charedi axiom of “we have no remnant but this Torah” was the rallying cry for a post-Holocaust rebuilding that would form a continuous link with a glorious past. The destruction of Europe’s Yeshivos with their Rabbis and students necessitated the rebuilding of the Torah world as a part of the Jewish continuum, and all energies of post-war Haredi society were thus focused on re-establishing the Yeshivos and Hassidic courts that would form new centers of an ancient tradition. While numbers remained small, the rate of growth was huge. The nascent Israeli Charedi school system tripled its student numbers over less than two decades, a rate of growth that was seen by Haredi society as nothing but miraculous; and the concept of a Torah renewal out of European ashes, which quickly reached numbers (of yeshiva students) that overtook those of pre-war Europe, became a founding myth of the great Charedi rebirth.
On the front doorway to the renowned Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak the following words were thus inscribed: “On Mount Zion will be a remnant, and it shall be holy.” These words reflected the belief that establishing the Yeshivos in the Land of Israel is the true Jewish response to the Holocaust. Only by rebuilding and strengthening the Torah world could the eternal heritage of Holocaust victims be perpetuated. This was the true revenge against the Nazi oppressors.
The Land of Israel: Continuity or a New Beginning?
The Zionist response to the Holocaust glorifies the redemption and renewal of the State of Israel as an antithesis to exilic powerlessness that culminated in inevitable destruction. The Holocaust is the end of a sad and unfortunate chapter in the history of our people, which some even saw as a mark of shame, while the State of Israel represents a fresh beginning, a creation out of destruction. For this purpose, Israeli society emphasizes the enormity of the destruction alongside the frailty of European Jewry.
The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, as opposed to the general story of the Holocaust, becomes in this view a foundational myth, a model of Jewish heroism that the new state could draw inspiration from. By contrast, the Holocaust presented an urgent challenge for Charedi society of rehabilitating the concept of Jewish continuity. The Holocaust formed a massive hole within the heart of Jewish tradition, calling for urgent repair surgery.
Charedi society is predicated on the idea of tradition and continuity, and preserving these foundations required blurring the magnitude of the catastrophe, at least in its spiritual dimensions. The Holocaust thus became “another chapter” in the tragic heroism of Jewish history, in the narrative of the Sisyphean struggle of an exilic Jewry strewn among its enemies. Like all other chapters, the Jewish spirit ultimately prevailed to survive into the next generation.
In many essays penned by Charedi survivors and their progeny, wartime European Jewry is even described in nostalgic and idyllic style, with a strong emphasis on miraculous rescue and spiritual heroism in the face of impossible adversity — a far cry from the descriptions found in classic Holocaust texts such as Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. Charedi society thus created a restorative narrative stressing continuity and blurring the paralyzing power of a crisis of a magnitude previously unknown to Jewish history.
The deep gap between the two young societies, the Israeli and the Charedi-Israeli, is reflected in their choice of commemoration. Official Holocaust commemoration in Israel is done by means of monuments, ceremonies and memorial books. This form of commemoration is frowned upon in internal Charedi discourse, which presents monuments as “dead stones” and memorial ceremonies as non-Jewish rituals devoid of true meaning. Israeli commemoration is even described on occasion as an intentional distortion that provides a cynical justification for the State of Israel.
Charedi society is predicated on the idea of tradition and continuity, and preserving these foundations required blurring the magnitude of the catastrophe, at least in its spiritual dimensions. The Holocaust thus became “another chapter” in the tragic heroism of Jewish history, in the narrative of the Sisyphean struggle of an exilic Jewry strewn among its enemies
Charedi commemoration of the Holocaust is fundamentally different. Instead of the collective, public realm, the sphere of Holocaust memory in Charedi society is the familial and personal arena. On one level, the family home was where new generations met survivors, internalizing the theme of Jewish survival and continuity in the face of a brutal enemy. Yet beyond this, the family presents opportunities for commemoration, such as in the common practice of naming newly born descendants after relatives who perished in the Holocaust or writing a family-oriented book dedicated to the life-story of survivors.
The very drive for large, Torah-imbued families is perceived in Haredi consciousness as an act of commemoration and revenge. For survivors, the formation of a Jewish, Torah-observant family, the more so in the Holy Land of Israel, is itself a framework for commemorating victims. Adherence to Torah and Mitzvah observance is the ultimate expression of a spirit that defeated the Nazi scheme to eliminate Judaism and the greatest, most meaningful form of commemoration.
In the first years of the State of Israel, the avoidance of a ceremonial or public marking of the Holocaust catastrophe sparked internal discussion among Haredi society, but after several years the norm of personal and informal commemoration won the day. The Chazon Ish, among the most prominent of early Haredi rabbinic leaders, rejected all proposals to establish collective mourning arrangements. His principal argument, which emerged victorious against dissenting claims by such leaders as the Admorim of Vizhnitz and Sadigora, was that the Holocaust did not warrant collective mourning. Each should rather mourn his individual loss.
Instead of Holocaust ceremonies stressing loss and disconnect, Haredi society remained faithful to the idea that the study and preservation of the Torah, with an emphasis on continuity, was the true commemoration and victory over the Nazis.
Holocaust, Zionism, and the Restoration of Haredi Society
The focus on commemoration through continuity played an additional role: providing a way for Charedi society to cope with the fierce ideological winds blowing in from the pioneering spirit of Zionism.
The fact that rabbis were perceived as having failed to predict or prevent the Holocaust, by contrast with Zionist leaders who called for emigration en masse to Palestine (and some, like Jabotinsky, who simply called for Jewish escape from impending doom), strengthened the Zionist position. One prominent author was Rabbi Yissaschar Shlomo Teichtel, who in 1944 published Eim Habanim Semeicha, a book in which he retracted his previous anti-Zionist positions and endorsed, in the wake of the Holocaust calamity, the Zionist vision of a Jewish State. The Charedi position was further weakened when some rabbinic leaders, such as Bezler Rebbe, his brother the Belgroi Rebbe, and the Munkatcher Rebbe, who had previously preached against emigration, themselves fled to Palestine to escape the Nazis.
In the face of the electrifying energy of Zionism, the Charedi community’s work to guard its perimeter fences demanded a huge effort. Sometimes, the memory of the Holocaust itself was enlisted for this purpose: after all, “He who causes a person to sin is worse than he who kills him.” Emphasis on preserving the spirit of Judaism, and pointing commemoration in the direction of decimated Charedi communities, likewise served the purpose of strengthening opposition to Zionism.
As for uncomfortable testimony or events — those highlighting the ostensible (physical and spiritual) weakness of Charedi society and the justice of Zionism (such as the writings of Rabbi Teichtel mentioned above) — these were generally excluded from the collective Charedi memory. Sometimes, the testimony was preserved yet given an alternative interpretation; in a new edition of Rabbi Teichtel’s work, his son clarified that his father never actually meant to endorse Zionism.
Alongside these efforts, an alternative narrative was presented in which the Rabbis were aware of the impending danger, and encouraged their flock to emigrate to Palestine. In addition, attempts were made to justify the escape of rabbinic leaders to Palestine without their communities (countering the argument that they abandoned them to a bitter end), on the grounds that they never wished it but were forced to do so by others. Either way, the exodus of the rabbinic leaders is presented in Charedi historiography as a true miracle that enabled the continuity of Charedi society, and not God forbid as a cowardly flight from danger.
These miracles of rescue are part of the heroic story of the restoration of Judaism after the Holocaust. They connect to the idea of continuity that stresses the (spiritual) power of Charedi society and its ability to overcome our neverending persecution. This miraculous rescue reveals the Divine supervision that brought about the rebuilding of the Yeshivos destroyed in the fires of Auschwitz. The newly rebuild Charedi world is the greatest proof of this eternal truth.
If Zionism is the solution to the problem of Jewish exile then the rabbinic leadership was wrong from the outset, and Haredi Judaism continues to tread a misguided path. To deal with such a potent threat, Charedi Judaism was forced to separate from the Jewish collective both in joy and sadness — joy over the renewal of life in the Land of Israel, and sadness over the national memory of the Holocaust of European Jewry
More extreme voices went still further and marked Zionism as sharing the blame, to varying degrees, in the Holocaust itself. Even during the war, stridently anti-Zionist streams of Charedi Judaism castigated Zionism as a violation of the “Three Oaths” (one of which prohibits “moving to the Land of Israel as a wall”) and associated Zionist heresy with the destruction of the Holocaust. In 1940, a placard posted by Neturei Karta in Jerusalem wrote: “The destruction must be attributed to this rebellious and inciting heretical Zionist leadership, which rebelled against the King of Kings in his very palace of the Holy Land.” In this vision, exilic Judaism was never doomed to die at the hands of the Nazis, and the destruction was unrelated to Jewish refusal to leave Europe; on the contrary, the Zionist betrayal of the exile is what brought destruction to the Jewish diaspora.
A particularly strident accusation was made by a book entitled The Burned of the Crematoria Accuse [Hebrew] of Rabbi Moshe Sheinfeld, a publicist and leader of the Youths of Agudat Yisrael. According to Sheinfeld, “What the heads of Zionism did to European Jewry during the Second World War is nothing other than actually killing it. […] They sunk into the fortifications of my walls the destroyed Jewish children of the exile.” While serving as editor of Hamachaneh Ha-Haredi, Knesset Member Yisrael Eichler (UTJ) wrote in the same vein that “not only did [the Zionists] refrain from lifting a finger, but they actively tried to block rescue attempts.”
All told, the ideological struggle of the Charedi approach against Zionist ideology created a situation in which one Holocaust narrative threatens the other. For Zionism, the Holocaust is the end of the exile, and life in the Land of Israel is the beginning of redemption — be it religious-messianic or secular-materialist. By sharp contrast, the Charedi approach continues to await the longed-for messianic redemption, a miraculous event that will bring the Holy Temple down in flames from the sky. This, and nothing but this, will bring the Jewish exile to its close — an exile that continues unabated even as millions of Jews reside in the Holy Land.
This approach is clearly expressed in the words of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman (who perished in the Holocaust in 1941) at the founding convention of Agudas Yisrael, in which he describes the vision of the Jewish State as as “exile among the Jews.” In a paraphrase on the idea of the “beginning of redemption,” Rabbi Wasserman beseeched his audience to realize that what Zionism calls redemption is for Torah-true Jews just another form of exile. It is true that many Charedi Jews today do not live with this mindset; the rhetoric, however, continues to characterize Charedi ideology to this day.
The challenge of the Holocaust for Charedi Judaism lies not only in the enormous hole it punctured in the historical continuum of Jewish life, but even in the piercing ideological questions it raises, which threaten to undermine the Charedi understanding of the essence of Jewish living. If Zionism is the solution to the problem of Jewish exile then the rabbinic leadership was wrong from the outset, and Charedi Judaism continues to tread a misguided path. To deal with such a potent threat, Charedi Judaism was forced to separate from the Jewish collective both in joy and sadness — joy over the renewal of life in the Land of Israel, and sadness in the national memory of the destruction of European Jewry.
The Zionist conception sees the Holocaust as a transition, a watershed event marking the end of the exile and the beginning of a new phase of Jewish nationalism. The Holocaust is enlisted by the Israeli narrative as the tragic culmination of exilic Jewry and the opening of a new era in the life of the Jewish People. Charedi society tells the story differently. It sees the Holocaust as another catastrophe in a series of catastrophes that the Jewish People experienced in its exile — not an inconceivable loss, and certainly not of the kind that inevitably leads to a historical reorganization with redemption at its core.
To ensure the narrative of continuity of the chain of generations, Charedi society needed to limit the magnified tragedy of the Holocaust. It continues to emphasize the continuous line running between the waves of pogroms that pepper our exilic condition, including the Holocaust as a (uniquely destructive) case in point, while marking the continuity between the glorious Torah world of pre-war Europe and the restoration of Charedi society in post-war Israel. Haredi memory of the Holocaust is cast in the same mold: not a formal commemoration of ceremonies in the public square, but a commemoration that flows naturally across the calendar and throughout the Jewish lifecycle.
In conclusion, it is worth mentioning the seeds of change that can be seen today in Holocaust commemoration within Charedi society. In tandem with other aspects of social life, recent years have seen some parts of Charedi society adopt Holocaust Memorial Day as a day for marking the memory of victims and the miraculous stories of survivors. This is especially prominent on Charedi websites, which have adopted the custom of publishing Holocaust-related items over the course of Yom HaShoah. As the potential for private memory dwindles with the number of survivors, the adoption of a public memorial becomes inevitable.
The Charedi narrative of continuity will doubtless continue to pass the test of time. Yet, as the non-Charedi public softens its own narrative of heroism, perhaps the conflict of narratives can be softened even from the Charedi side of the fence. Yes, we do try our best to maintain a chain of continuity, but the Holocaust remains unique.