Colored by Love and Hatred

"Beseter Ra'am: Halakha, Hagut Umanhigut Biyemei Hashoa" ("Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Theology and Leadership During the Holocaust") by Esther Farbstein, Mossad Harav Kook, 656 pages, NIS 80.

"Beseter Ra'am: Halakha, Hagut Umanhigut Biyemei Hashoa" ("Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Theology and Leadership During the Holocaust") by Esther Farbstein, Mossad Harav Kook, 656 pages, NIS 80

When we read a book or article on the Holocaust, be it scholarly or literary, educational or journalistic, we often wonder about the objectivity of the writer. Writers will bend over backward to prove how unbiased and fair they are. Readers tend to be skeptical. A religious author will be suspected of engaging in apologetics on behalf of the rabbis and a secular author, of bad-mouthing them; a Zionist author will be accused of Zionist bias and a post-Zionist author, of portraying Zionism in a bad light; a Jew will be suspected of exaggerating in one direction, and a non-Jew, in the other. That is par for the course when it comes to an emotionally charged subject like the Holocaust. And yet, we demand three things from a researcher: examination of all the source material, critical analysis and intellectual integrity.

If reading any text about the Holocaust raises such suspicions, how much more so when the book is about leadership during the Holocaust, and especially religious leadership. Many will say that in such cases, an Orthodox writer will always try to show that the rabbis acted properly, in the same way that an academic researcher is guaranteed to find fault.

So what happens when the rabbi - or to be more precise, the rabbi's wife - is also an academic researcher? Esther Farbstein's personal bio does not appear on the book jacket - which is no accident, of course - but the facts are known: Farbstein comes from a distinguished family of Gerer Hasidim and is married to one of the heads of the prestigious Hebron Yeshiva. At the same time, she is a university-trained historian, and her book is clearly the product of serious research.

The complexity already begins to show in her acknowledgments: Farbstein extends her gratitude to one side while virtually ignoring the other, and this is certainly no oversight. The choice of publisher is also telling. It would seem only natural for such a book to be put out by Yad Vashem, or it might have been adapted for publication by an ultra-Orthodox press. But the publisher is Mossad Harav Kook, which puts out mainly non-Haredi Torah literature with a certain tilt toward academe. In this respect, the book could not have found a better home. The problems, however, lie deeper, as we shall see.

The subject of the book is summed up in the subtitle: "Halakha, Hagut Umanhigut Biyemei Hashoa" (rendered into English, for some reason, as "Faith, Theology and Leadership During the Holocaust"). The book contains 17 chapters organized in seven sections exploring such issues as the relationship between the rabbinic leader and his flock, Jewish law, family, prayers and holidays, faith, survivors and testimonial literature. Farbstein examines the rabbis' response to the news of mass murder, efforts to rescue Hasidic leaders, problems relating to halakha arising during the Holocaust, martyrdom and assumed identities, Jewish life in the ghettos on weekdays and holidays, marriage and circumcision customs, individual and communal prayer, Torah study, kashrut, ritual immersion, matters of dress, burial, the problems faced by agunot (women who seek divorce but whose husbands have disappeared or refuse to give them one), questions of faith, the value of diaries as a historical source, and much more.

Fine line

Farbstein, as we have said, walks a fine line between two worlds: She makes extensive use of relevant Torah literature but also draws upon academic research in Hebrew and other languages, including sources that are not very flattering to her subjects. This, it seems, is where her book is put to the test: Is she capable of subjecting "hallowed" ultra-Orthodox narrative to critical analysis?

Her approach is nicely illustrated by her handling of two such narratives: the flight from Poland of the Admor of Belz, and the last will and testament of the Bais Yaakov girls. First the Admor moved around from ghetto to ghetto, and then fled to Budapest when the Nazis began to liquidate them. On January 16, 1944, he attended a gala "siyum" ceremony in Budapest, marking the completion of study of the Talmudic tractate Sukkah.

The Admor's brother, Rabbi Mordechai of Bilgorey, delivered a sermon on this occasion, which was printed and distributed in several editions. Most of the sermon was devoted to the importance of extending aid to the refugees from Poland and Slovakia who had fled to Hungary, in keeping with the mitzvah of prisoner redemption. The rabbi also reassured the Jews who were not packing to leave, insisting that the departure of the rebbe himself was no cause for alarm: "For he saw a resting place that it was good" (Genesis 49:15). The tzaddik assured them that all was well, and predicted that only good things would befall the Jews of Hungary. He was only leaving out of love for Eretz Yisrael, explained Rabbi Mordechai.

The rest is history: Before three months were up, Hungary was occupied by the Nazis and the Jewish community was wiped out. The rebbe, now safely in Palestine, escaped the inferno.

How does one explain this tremendous gap between the rebbe's reassurances and the tragic fate of the Jewish community? There would seem to be three possibilities: (a) The rebbe was aware of the great danger but misled the Jews of Hungary in order to facilitate his own escape; (b) The rebbe knew what lay in store but since there was no way for the majority to flee, he opted for words of comfort; or (c) The rebbe was wrong. He himself was surprised by the rapid turn of events, and the sermon was delivered in all innocence.

To those who have complete faith in the righteousness of tzaddikim and all they do, there is some thing of a trap here: If the rebbe is not wrong, that eliminates the third possibility. With the first one totally unthinkable, that leaves only the second possibility, which, truth be told, will not gladden the heart of followers either. Indeed, the Belz Hasidim had trouble with this issue for years. In consequence, a fourth option was invented to solve the problem: denial (nothing of the kind ever happened and the rabbi of Bilgorey never said such a thing), and falsification (22 lines of reassurance were cut out of the rebbe's biography).

Farbstein chooses "c." She argues that just as "the judge has only that which his eyes can see" (Baba Batra 131a), an Admor, too, is not immune to error. "I am the Lord ... That turneth wise men backward, And maketh their knowledge foolish" (Isaiah 44:25). The sermon was a reflection of what the eye could see- even an Admor's eye - and it was not unreasonable at the time.

Farbstein does not stop there. She pours out her wrath on those who would even consider the first possibility. She rejects the conclusions of researcher Mendel Piekarz, who says the rebbe's actions were a model for those leaders "who not only abandoned ship but sounded the all-clear signal when they should have been ringing the alarm."

Such statements are tendentious and manipulative, says Farbstein, and what is more, they contain not a grain of historical truth. She has caught Piekarz bending the facts to suit his own purposes on other occasions, too. He latches on to the words of one person - the Rabbanit of Strapkov's accusations against the Belz Rebbe on her way to the crematorium - while ignoring other data attesting to the leadership qualities of the Admor of Boyan, for instance, and how he stood up to his Nazi killers.

To Farbstein's credit, let it be said that her choice is quite courageous, considering that the Admor, in the circles from which she comes, is not only perceived as a great rabbi and scholar, but something akin to a prophet and a saint. Farbstein does not choose the second option because she says it contradicts the facts: At that time, no one - no human being, at least - had foreknowledge of the events to come. Farbstein also candidly discusses the unease of the Belz Hasidim on this issue, leading to their deliberate exclusion of the rebbe's reassuring message to the Jews of Hungary - although she adds that the Belz community has become more willing to confront these "missing lines" in the last few years.

Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the feeling that Farbstein has an agenda and is trying desperately to make the facts fit. Piekarz may be doing the same, but Farbstein's tone, even more than what she says, clearly reveals her passionate feelings on the subject, proving yet again that love can color one's writing as much as hatred.

Story-turned-myth

Then there is the story of the 93 Bais Yaakov girls, which has been elevated to the status of myth. Right after the war, a letter dubbed "the will of the 93 Bais Yaakov girls" began to make the rounds. The story, first told in the United States and Palestine, was that the Germans rounded up 93 girls from the Krakow ghetto in the summer of 1942 and held them in isolation for two weeks. Rather than submit to the soldiers' sexual demands, the girls chose suicide. In a letter dated August 11, 1942, they describe their plight and ask to have kaddish, the Jewish mourner's prayer, recited in their memory.

This letter was a great sensation. It was translated into many languages, widely circulated, and read out at public assemblies, becoming a symbol of Jewish martyrdom. Later, two Holocaust survivors, Yitzhak Albert of Tel Aviv and Hannah Weiss of Colombia, offered parallel testimonies that appeared to confirm the truth of this story.

Historical researchers, however, have contested the authenticity of both the described events and the letter. They doubt that the Germans as an organized group would openly engage in conduct that violated Nazi race laws, and say it is hard to imagine that such a large group of girls could be held in one place without any witnesses or documentation. The story does not coincide with descriptions of life in the Krakow ghetto. Former students of Bais Yaakov in the ghetto who survived the Holocaust have no recollection of such an incident. Furthermore, the letter is written in the Yiddish dialect spoken in Hungary - not Krakow.

So what does Farbstein do? Contrary to expectations, perhaps, she refuses to compromise her principles and sides with the research community. She freely questions the credibility of the story and the authenticity of the documents, poring over the counter-evidence in minute detail. Her conclusion is that both the story and the letter are literary-pedagogic creations rather than historical sources. In a kind of rabbinic exegesis, she even says that the number 93 is symbolic - a reference to the 93 holy vessels in the Temple.

From Farbstein's approach to these two stories, we get a fairly clear picture of what guides her. On the one hand, she is not prepared to cast aspersions on a distinguished rabbi, doing everything in her power to find an explanation for his actions. On the other, she will not help to authenticate a fabricated story, even if it has become a part of ultra-Orthodox hagiography, making it her business to assign it to its proper place. This combination of perspectives lends the book depth, credibility and a solid outlook.

In this book, a clear division exists between the collected material and its analysis. The material, culled from archives, diaries, books, scholarly articles and rabbinic literature, is impressive in scope and very useful. Farbstein has done a major job of burrowing into the sources and presenting a picture of the "everyday" life of religious Jews during the Holocaust. Her analysis, on the other hand, is largely a matter of personal taste and outlook. People will say this and people will say that, but there is no question about the significance of her contribution.

Rabbi Dr. Neria Gutel teaches at the School of Education of Bar-Ilan University.