After Decades of Holocaust Legends, ultra-Orthodox Community Confronts the Dark Facts

Esther Farbstein is the leading Haredi scholar on the Shoah, shining a much-needed light on the struggles of observant Jews during WWII. But she worries that the Holocaust has become too big a part of modern Jewish identity.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish visitors look at a display of Nazi flags at Yad Vashem's Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem.
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish visitors look at a display of Nazi flags at Yad Vashem's Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem.Credit: Reuters

I meet Esther Farbstein early one morning in Borough Park’s Avenue Plaza Hotel, located on 13th Avenue – a thoroughfare strewn with houses of study, and children with sidelocks and still-sleepy eyes getting on buses.

Farbstein is flying home to Israel in a few hours, and our interview is peppered with phone calls from friends calling to say goodbye, dropping off gifts. During her short stay in ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) Brooklyn, she is treated like an academic superstar. Her lectures in private homes are packed with schoolteachers. Young women flock to her. She is the Haredi woman who “has it all”: An elite pedigree, as the great-granddaughter of the Ger Rebbe, Avraham Mordechai Alter, and as a rebbetzin, the wife of Hebron Yeshiva head Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Farbstein; a brood of seven children, 50 grandchildren and over 20 great-grandchildren; and an illustrious career in academia.

She is also considered the Haredi community’s leading scholar on the Holocaust, being best known for her monumental two-volume work, “Hidden in Thunder” – a study of rabbinic responsa that emerged from the Holocaust, shedding light on the struggles of observant Jews at the time.

Open Farbstein’s work and you’ll find harrowing stories lurking between the lines of earnest questions and rabbis’ weary answers: Does one say Kaddish for a family member if his death is uncertain? If one survived a raid, can one say the blessing of thanksgiving (“hagomel”), or is it too premature if the “ax” of the Nazis is still hanging over one’s head? Does a home in a ghetto need a mezuzah if it is difficult to obtain? May one eat treyf food in the ghetto? Must an able-bodied man fast on Yom Kippur?

Young couples in the Lodz ghetto plan to marry, though rumors say deportations are growing more frequent – should weddings be performed though the future is so unclear? May one give up one’s child to hide in a convent, knowing full well she will be baptized and may live the rest of her life as a Catholic?

I first met Farbstein during her visiting lecture at Yeshiva University’s Revel School, where she spoke to a crowded hall on the Holocaust in Hungary. Dressed in a striped jacket and short, dark blonde wig, glasses perched on her nose, she described the mass deportations of Hasidic Jews with almost alarming poise.

She projects a photo of bearded Hungarian Hasidic rabbis behind her: “We can see that the rabbis arrived in the camp in their rabbinic garb, directly from their beis medrash, from a relatively routine daily life. Hungarian Jewry had no interim period like Polish Jewry,” who came to the camps from ghettos.

“When studying a community, one must first understand the ideology of that sector,” she tells me later, in Brooklyn. Farbstein explains that her husband helped her study the rabbinic responsa – texts that are generally closed to women in the community. “I don’t see any conflict between my academic pursuits and my place in the ultra-Orthodox community,” she says.

“It was academia that gave me the tools to analyze the religious sources to emerge from the Holocaust, and it was my place in the community which gave me a deep understanding of those very texts.”

From the salvaged responsa documents, Farbstein pieces together the tragedy of a community that turned to faith at all odds. Yet for decades, Haredi memory of the Holocaust has remained rooted less in its actual documents and more in oral tradition, often veering from fact and entering into the murky waters of hagiography.

(Perhaps the most famous of the stories is that of the 93 Bais Yaakov girls – in which a 1943 letter from Krakow tells of 93 girls, ages 14-22, who took poison rather than be violated by their German captors. The tale immediately became a central piece of Holocaust education and has been used across ultra-Orthodox girls’ schools as a tool for lessons in chastity.

Most scholars, Orthodox among them, deem the story a religious fiction, too close to the religious narrative of martyrdom, a typological story of virginal martyrs who choose death over violation, especially with no survivors of the Krakow Ghetto having verified the story.)

For decades, the Holocaust remained mostly stuff of pious legends, used throughout the Haredi press, in weekly sermons and pamphlets, children’s literature and classrooms, popular novels and memoirs, all focusing on the hand of God throughout ghettos and camps, and where those who risked their lives to observe the mitzvot were usually rewarded.

But actual research was sparse – few Haredim visited Holocaust museums, and funding went first to yeshivas, providing for the future of the community, rather than investing in its past.

And after all, the rabbis intoned, from the Haredi perspective the Holocaust was nothing new in Jewish history; the term “Shoah,” denoting uniqueness, was forbidden by Haredi giants in the late 20th century. The establishment could not bear to face the reality: The fact that far too many of Europe’s Orthodox rabbis railed against the prewar migrations to the United States and Palestine, centers of sin and secularism, the very safe havens that hundreds of thousands could have escaped to – had their leaders not forbidden it.

It was out of the question to admit that great Torah scholars could be wrong – not to mention the stories of rebbes who fled at the last moment, leaving their communities behind, a phenomenon Farbstein (herself a descendant of a Hasidic Rebbe who fled to Palestine in 1940) says is to be expected, given the rabbis’ public positions rendered them high-profile targets.

The facts were deemed too dangerous for the people. Instead, Holocaust study remained in sermon-worthy parables, in video montages of old photographs of Hasidic rebbes and their students, paired with crooning ultra-Orthodox pop stars’ voices.

“We have stories without sources that became myths, which turn into a great symbol for the community in spiritual martyrdom. But there is enough strength in the truth itself, in the reality, [that] we don’t need to dress it more. Here, history is not so much about scientific research, but rather about moral education,” Farbstein says.

“When I teach Holocaust history in my community, I say: ‘Do not study without sources, without the hard facts.’ There is no room for drama here. If I give a lecture and I see that the audience is crying, I think the lecture has failed.”

It took 50 years for Haredim to encounter the difficult questions of faith and facts after the Holocaust: there were far too many questions, and too few answers. “Perhaps the leadership decided that we are stronger now and can handle this – now that the third generation is asking questions,” Farbstein says.

“But we needed the perspective of decades. We couldn’t do it right away. It’s a process of change, of learning to talk about the Holocaust here. Until the 1990s, many Haredim were reluctant to give testimony. They were afraid of being videotaped, they mistrusted the secular organizations seeking their testimonies. So with the help of Bnei Brak’s archive, Ginzach Kidush Hashem (directed by Moshe Prager), we started gathering information within the community.”

‘Their form of revenge’

Ruth Lichtenstein, the formidable publisher of the widest-circulated Haredi daily, Hamodia, started Project Witness seven years ago, to bring Holocaust study to the Haredi masses. Her father, a Gerrer Hasid and the founder of the newspaper, lost his first wife and son four months before the Allied liberation. “My father did not speak,” Lichtenstein says, gesturing to a black and white photograph hanging over her desk.

“Out of his pained silence, I learned to remember. He passed away suddenly at a young age. When I stood up from the shivah (the mourning period), I was determined to continue the mission he started.”

So she founded Project Witness, a Holocaust education resource center, producing school curricula, documentaries and community events for thousands of participants, in both English for “Lithuanian” Haredi schools as well as Yiddish for Hasidic communities.

“Until the last 20 years, survivors were trying to rebuild their lives,” Lichtenstein says. “It was very painful for them. They didn’t want to talk, they only wanted to rebuild life. That was their form of revenge. And almost nothing was done to help the second-generation survivors in the Orthodox community, no one was talking about it.

There is still a lot of guilt and pain over the silence. So we began talking about it in special programs for the second generation, children of Holocaust survivors. And then we were asked by people who came to our programs: ‘How did you know what went on in our house? Not throwing out bread, the recurring nightmares, the pain of knowing my father was previously married.’ How did we know? Because this is all of us.”

According to scholars, over half of the Holocaust’s Jewish victims were observant Jews. “But in the museums, in the history books, there was no room for the Orthodox,” Lichtenstein says. “If the story was not about physical resistance, it was ignored in Israel. I remember, as a young girl, I came with my father to Yad Vashem,” referring to the Holocaust remembrance center in Jerusalem.

“He was searching for some documents, whose content I couldn’t understand at the time. But I do remember how my intellectual father was treated, just because he looked like a Hasidic Jew. They looked at him like, ‘Who are you? A man of a vanished world.’ I never forgot it.

“For decades,” she continues, “secular scholars spoke about the ‘Yom Hashoah v’HaGevurah’ - the physical heroism, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. This implicitly has its own accusations against the victims, that those who didn’t resist went like ‘sheep to the slaughter’ ... they totally ignored spiritual heroism.

Spiritual heroism doesn’t only mean mitzvah-observance in difficulty; it’s also about the strength of the human spirit. For example, helping a fellow Jew, at the risk of being beaten to death – that’s spiritual heroism, too. But in past years, with post-Zionism, we see our narrative speaking to more people than ever before.”

Entrusted with artifacts

And so the Haredi community has turned to creating its own spaces for memory. Next year, the first Orthodox Holocaust museum will be opening in a remodeled Borough Park synagogue, a $4.5 million project spearheaded by Orthodox U.S. businessman Elly Kleinman.

The Amud Aish Memorial Museum and Kleinman Holocaust Education Center, designed by the National September 11 Museum’s architect David Layman, seeks to introduce the interactive museum model to the religious story of the Holocaust. “The victim’s humanity can only be understood by their identity, through their religious beliefs,” says Henri Lustiger-Thaler, senior curator at the museum.

The location, on Strickland Avenue, is deliberate; the neighborhood has the largest concentration of both religious Jews and Holocaust survivors outside Israel. And the museum itself reflects local sensitivities: no nude photographs of victims are shown, and there are separate times for male and female school group visits.

The majority of those who donate artifacts and documents to the museum are Orthodox, Kleinman says. “We are tapping into those who never felt comfortable handing over their collections to secular institutions. They trust us to convey their families’ experiences truthfully.”

In the center’s archives, five women in wigs pore over antique newspapers and yellowing documents. Walk the crammed aisles and the relics sit on tables and stare at you: A class photograph of a group of Bais Yaakov girls from a ghetto’s makeshift school. A ledger of handwritten names from Bergen Belsen – a death record compiled by the camp’s ritual burial society.

A wedding canopy from the Buchenwald displaced persons camp. Letters of Jewish Allied soldiers writing about the scenes in camps they just liberated. Tefillin smuggled into Mauthausen from the Lodz Ghetto; a child’s tzitzit; a young boy’s yeshiva report cards; a letter signed by Bais Yaakov pioneer Sarah Schenirer; an ordination certificate for a ritual slaughterer.

Dovid Riedel, a redheaded young Hasidic man in traditional garb, flits around the archives room with religious fervor. “There are heartbreaking circumstances throughout this archive, but so often you see tremendous spirit,” he says, with a slight Yiddish accent.

“How would we react in those circumstances? Would we be able to cling to hope, to continue functioning? You read these people’s letters, even under the occupation, even in a ghetto, read between the lines – and you still see how they’re continuing to live to the best of their ability.”

“Listen, Haredi society does not need the Shoah in order to understand our identity,” Farbstein explains. “The Holocaust is just a part of it. Unfortunately, general Jewish society has lost part of its Jewish identity, so it needs the Holocaust. And I believe the Holocaust has become too much a part of that identity. This is very problematic – harmful, in my opinion. We have not succeeded in building a strong enough modern Jewish identity without the Shoah at the center.” She gathers her bags: the taxi has come to take her to the airport.

“As Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi writes in Zakhor,” she concludes, “history has become the center of Jewish identity. We used to have Torah, texts, principles, leaders, all day immersed in our cultural world. But now,” she signs, “we simply turn to history for identity.”

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