Tzarich Iyun > “Seder Sheni”: Reflections > Holocaust > Private or Public: Holocaust Memory in Haredi Society

Private or Public: Holocaust Memory in Haredi Society

Racheli Ibenboim Founder and Chairwoman of the 'Movilot' Program

A great chasm separates between Holocaust awareness among general Israeli society, and that of Haredi society. Like all of post-war Jewry, Haredi Judaism sprouted in the shadow of the Shoa. But the stories it tells, the narrative it endorses, and the kind of commemoration it chooses to employ, are altogether different. If Jewry in general underscores the disconnect of the Holocaust, Haredi Judaism emphasizes its continuity.

Shvat 5780, January 2020
 

Marking Holocaust Memorial Day is no trivial matter for Jews of all varieties. For the Haredi Jew it is also a complex, somewhat confusing affair.

For the duration of my Haredi 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 defense of the Jewish State. Alongside tragic loss, Holocaust Memorial Day focuses on courage and Jewish strength. It is aptly named Yom HaShoa Vehagevura, and of all events, Israel’s collective memory gives prominence to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Haredi 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.

Yet in its own way, Haredi 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 excrutiating sighs of pain but also with a 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.

Haredi society […] 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. Yet in its own way, Haredi society certainly adopts the memory of the Holocaust as a foundational narrative

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 Haredi Jew not to stand? After all, the Holocaust belongs to all of us, and is no less important to the Haredi collective as it is for 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 Haredi Society in Israel

Haredim, a small minority among European Jewry, certainly felt the full brunt of 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 ultimate “Never Again”), the Haredim 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 thus clear that Haredi society would never be the same. The enormity of the catastrophe, alongside collosal historical changes, guaranteed this would not be possible. Rebuilding Haredi 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 ultimate “Never Again”), the Haredim 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.

“We have no remnant but this Torah” is the Haredi axiom of existence. The destruction of Europe’s yeshivos with their Rabbis and students neccessitated 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 the new centers of an ancient tradition. While numbers remained small, the rate of growth was huge. The nascent Israeli Haredi school system tripled its students 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 quicklly reached numbers (of yeshiva students) that overtook those of pre-war Europe, became a founding myth of Haredi .

In this period, a move took place from the learning mission of the yeshivos to a mission that included religious, social, and educational elements. On the entrace to the renowned Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak the following words were 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 strenthething 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 an exilic powerlessness that culminated in inevitable destruction. The Holocaust is the end of a sad and unfortunate chapter in the history of our people, 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 founding myth, a model of Jewish heroism that the new state can draw inspiration from. By contrast, the Holocaust presented an urgent challenge for Haredi society of rehabilitating the concept of Jewish continuity. The Holocaust formed a massive hole within the heart of Jewish tradition, which called for urgent repair surgery.

Haredi society is predicated on the idea of tradition and continuity, and it does everything it can to blur the magnitude of the catastrophe, at least in its spiritual dimensions. The Holocaust thus became “another chapter” in the heroism 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 Haredi survivors, wartime European Jewry was even described in nostalgic and idyllic style, with a strong empasis on miraculous rescued and spiritual heroism in the face of impossible adversity — a far cry from classic Holocaust texts such as Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man. Haredi 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 Haredi-Israeli, is reflected in how their choice of commemoration. Official Holocaust commemoration in Israel is carried out by means of monuments, ceremonies, and memorial books. This form of commemoration is frowned upon in internal-Haredi discourse, which presents monuments as “dead stones” and memorial ceremonies as non-Jewish rituals devoid of true meaning. Israeli commemoration is sometimes even described as distortions serving a cynical justification for the heretical State of Israel.

Haredi society is based on the idea of tradition and continuity, and because of this it must do everything to blur the size of the catastrophe. Instead of Holocaust ceremonies stressing the loss and the disconnect, Haredi society therefore 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

Haredi commemoration of the Holocaust is fundamentally different. Instead of the collective, public realm, the sphere of Holocaust memory in Haredi 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 dedicatd 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 catastraphe 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, totally 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 therefore 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 the continuity played an additional role: providing a way for Haredi 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.

A prominent writer in this field was Rabbi Yissaschar Shlomo Teichtel, who in 1944 published Eim Habanim Semeicha, a book in which he retracted from his previous anti-Zionist positions (as a hassid and student of the Mukatcher Rebbe), and endorsed the Zionist vision of a Jewish State. Other rabbinic leaders, who had previously preached against emigration, themselves fled to Palestine to escape the Nazis. Among those who did were the Bezler Rebbe, his brother the Belgroi Rebbe, and the Munkatcher Rebbe. The Zionist style of Holocaust commemoration, stressing the weakness of European Jewry in contradistinction to the power of Zionist Judaism, further weakened the already fragile Haredi community.

In the face of the electrifying energy of Zionism, the Haredi community’s work to guard its perimited 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 Haredi 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 Haredi society and the justice of Zionism (such as the writings of Rabbi Teichtel mentioned above) — these were generally excluded from the collective Haredi 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 coming 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 do do so by others. Either way, the exodus of the rabbinic leaders is presented in Haredi history as a true miracle which enabled the continuity of Haredi society, and not God forbid as a cowardly or egotistical 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 Haredi society and its ability to overcome, ultimately, a never-ending 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 Haredi 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 outself, and Haredi Judaism continues to tread a misguided path. To deal with such a potent threat, Haredi Judaism was forced to separate from the Jewish collective both in joy and sadness — both in joy over the renewal of life in the Land of Israel, and also in the national memory of the Holocaust of European Jewry

More extreme voices went still further and marked Zionism as sharing blame, to varying degrees, in the Holocaust itself. During the war itself, stridently anti-Zionist streams of Haredi 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 calamity 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 refulsal 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 member of the Youths of Agudat Yisrael. According to him, “What the heads of Zionism did to European Jewry in the days of the Second World War is nothing other than as 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 (United Torah Judaism) 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 Haredi 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.

In sharp contrast to this approach, the Haredi approach continues to await the longed-for messianic redemption, a miracuous 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 call redemption is for Torah-true Jews just another form of exile.

True, many Haredi Jews today do not live with this mindset; the rhetoric, however, continues to characterize Haredi ideology to this day.

The challenge of the Holocaust for Haredi Judaism is not just the enormous hole it punctured in the historical continuum of Jewish life, but also in the piercing ideological questions is raised, threatening to undermine the Haredi 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 outself, and Haredi Judaism continues to tread a misguided path. To deal with such a potent threat, Haredi Judaism was forced to separate from the Jewish collective both in joy and sadness — both in joy over the renewal of life in the Land of Israel, and also in the national memory of the Holocaust 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 of exilic Jewry and the opening of a new era in the life of the Jewish People. Haredi 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, Haredi 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 Haredi 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.


photo: Bigstock

2 thoughts on “Private or Public: Holocaust Memory in Haredi Society

  • Thank you for clarifying the Haredi approach to the Holocaust and its commemoration, especially in Israel. This is not new to me, but as a lifelong Zionist, having made Aliyah in 1972, I’m saddened that the Haredim are so antagonistic to the idea of the State. I understand it, but still believe that, together with the rebuilding of Torah institutions, which has been accomplished above and beyond expectations, the Haredim could be more connected to the Zionist idea, which in large part follows a very religious form of Zionism. Thank you.

    • I, too am a deep Zionist, and moved to Israel many years ago. But although I deeply believe in the nationalist project, I cannot but identify with the Haredi disposition over the years to distance from the secular State of Israel. The dangers of association with the State unfortulately outweigh the ideological truth of Jewish nationalism and its expression as the State of Israel. Perhaps today, as Haredi society grows bigger and stronger, there will be room to loosen the barriers and to allow a greater involvement and engagement with the State.

Write a Comment

Please write down your comment
Name field is required
Please fill email