NEW YORK — Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish year, is bracketed by two Shabbat Torah portions in which God proclaims his intention to hide his face from his people’s misery and suffering.
“Then My anger will flare up against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My countenance from them,” God is quoted by Moses in the Torah reading preceding Rosh Hashanah, followed by “And I will keep my countenance hidden on that day because of all the evil they have committed by turning to other gods.” (Deuteronomy 31:17-18)
And on Shabbat Shuva, the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we read God’s declaration that “I will hide my countenance” from the Israelites in the moments of their greatest distress, their greatest need.” (Deuteronomy 32:20)
Both my parents survived Auschwitz-Birkenau and Bergen-Belsen. My mother described her 15 months at Birkenau as “a time of humiliation, torture, starvation, disease, fear, hopelessness and despair.” After managing to escape and being recaptured, my father was imprisoned and tortured for months at Auschwitz in Block 11, the so-called Death Block. My parents’ entire
immediate families were murdered in the Shoah. My mother’s 5 1/2-year-old son — my brother — was one of more than 1 million Jewish children who were killed by the Germans and their accomplices only and exclusively because they were Jewish. What possible transgressions could any of them have committed to cause God to turn away from them?
On Sept. 26, 1944, the Jewish kapo — an inmate assigned supervisory tasks by the Germans — in charge of Block 11, where my father had been an inmate for more than five months, wanted my father to conduct the Yom Kippur service. That night my father — emaciated, starved — chanted Kol Nidre from memory in the Death Block of Auschwitz, and then led the prayers there that evening and the following day for his fellow prisoners. As a reward, the kapo gave my father and the other inmates of Block 11 an extra bowl of soup to break the fast.
“You have screened Yourself off with a cloud, so that no prayer can pass through,” we read in the Book of Lamentations. And yet it is told that Reb Azriel David Fastag, a disciple of the Chasidic Rebbe of Modzhitz, spontaneously composed and began to sing what has become the best-known melody to Maimonides’ 12th Principle of Jewish Faith while in a cattle car from the Warsaw Ghetto to the Treblinka death camp: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah; and even though he may tarry, nevertheless I will wait every day for him to come.”
A young Jew managed to escape from the Treblinka-bound train, taking with him the niggun, the melody of Reb Azriel David Fastag’s “Ani Ma’amin.” Eventually the melody reached the Modzhitzer Rebbe who is said to have exclaimed, “With this niggun the Jewish people went to the gas chambers, and with this niggun, the Jews will march to greet moshiach.”
Very much in the spirit of the Parashat Ha’azinu, the Shabbat Shuva Torah reading, Martin Buber wrote about the “eclipse of the light of heaven, eclipse of God,” during “the historic hour through which the world is passing.” Along the same lines, talmudist David Weiss Halivni, who survived several Nazi death and concentration camps, has written that, “There were two major theological events in Jewish history: Revelation at Sinai and revelation at Auschwitz. … At Sinai, God appeared before Israel, addressed us, and gave us instructions; at Auschwitz, God absented himself from Israel, abandoned us, and handed us over to the enemy.”
Which raises a fundamental question: How can we pray to or have any relationship with God if we believe, in Weiss Halivni’s words, that he abandoned us, and handed us over to the enemy?
But maybe, just maybe, Buber and Weiss Halivni looked for God’s presence and power in the wrong place. What if God was very much there during the Holocaust, but not with the killers, with the forces that inflicted the Holocaust on humankind? What if he was in fact with and within the victims, those who perished and those who survived?
Could it be that God, the true God, did not hide his face from Reb Azriel David Fastag in the cattle car to Treblinka but instead gave him the inspiration and strength to compose his niggun? And could it also be that God was praying alongside my father in Block 11 on Yom Kippur in 1943?
On the façade above the main entrance of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City is a relief sculpture of the Polish-Jewish educator Janusz Korczak surrounded by children who are desperately holding on to him. Born Henryk Goldschmidt, Korczak, a secular Jew, founded and directed an orphanage in Warsaw. After the German occupation of Poland, Korczak declined numerous offers to save himself, refusing to leave his children behind in the Warsaw Ghetto. On Aug. 5, 1942, Korczak led the children through the streets of the Ghetto to the Umschlagsplatz, the deportation square, from which a train took them to the gas chambers of Treblinka. Abandoned by the world, seemingly abandoned by God, Korczak did not want his children to feel that he, too, had abandoned them.
My mother was sent from Auschwitz-Birkenau to the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in November of 1944. By that time, her parents, her first husband, her child, her brother and her sister had all been murdered. She was utterly alone and by all rights should have succumbed to despair. Instead, she had used her medical skills at Birkenau to enable countless women to survive, more often than not at the risk of her own life. Assigned to that camp’s infirmary, she had performed rudimentary surgery, camouflaging women’s wounds, sending them out of the barrack on work detail in advance of selections and thus keeping many of them out of the gas chambers.
At Bergen-Belsen in late December of 1944, my mother and several other Jewish women inmates took a group of Dutch Jewish children into their barracks. My mother then proceeded to organize what became known as a Kinderheim, a children’s home, within the concentration camp. One of my mother’s fellow inmates subsequently recalled that my mother “walked from block to block, found the children, took them, lived with them, and took care of them. … Most of them were orphans, and she was like a mother to them.” Among them were children from Poland, Czechoslovakia and elsewhere.
Some had been brought to Bergen-Belsen from Buchenwald, others from Theresienstadt.
If God was at Treblinka, I want to believe that he was within Janusz Korczak as he accompanied his children to their death. I feel certain that the mystical divine spark that characterizes Jewish faith, the Shekhina, was within my mother and the other Jewish women in her group as they kept 149 Jewish children alive at Bergen-Belsen despite horrific conditions, despite the lack of food and medicine, and despite a raging typhus epidemic and other virulent diseases.
Perhaps God was also within every Jewish parent who comforted a child on the way to a gas chamber, and within every Jew who told a story or a joke or sang a melody in a death camp barracks to alleviate another Jew’s agony. Perhaps it was the Shekhina that enabled young Jews like my wife Jeanie’s father to take up arms against the Germans in ghettos and forests. Perhaps God was within the Ukrainian farmer who hid Jeanie’s mother and grandparents, and within all the other non-Jews who defied the forces of evil by saving Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
And so it is that I have come to the conclusion that perhaps God did not hide his face from my parents after all during the years of the Shoah. Perhaps it was a divine spirit within them that enabled them to survive with their humanity intact. And perhaps it is to that God that we should be addressing our prayers during these Days of Awe and throughout the year.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities. This column is adapted from a guest sermon delivered at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City on Shabbat Shuva, Sept. 7.)