The ultra-Orthodox Discover Yad Vashem

Dealing with the subject in the past often led to accusations that some Hasidic rabbis told their followers back then not to immigrate to Israel, advising instead that "God will help us."

A quartet of musicians from the "Old" Beit Yaakov seminar in Jerusalem, their cheeks blushing, played sad tunes. There wasn't a single dry eye in the room as the emcee read, in a tone reserved for pathos-filled events, a poem in Yiddish. The audience, made up almost entirely of teachers from the Beit Yaakov school network, seemed to have all forgotten their obvious discomfort because of the overcrowding and were attentively viewing photos of children from the ghetto that were slowly flashing before them on a large screen. The participants, who came from all over the country after a day of work, filled the lecture halls and even stood lined up along the walls.

The seminar on teaching Holocaust studies in ultra-Orthodox schools, which took place last week in Jerusalem, succeeded well beyond expectations. The event was intended to present Beit Yaakov teachers, as well as some representatives of Hasidic schools, such as those run by the Belz and Vishnitz Hasidim, with learning materials on the subject of the Holocaust. These learning materials are now being produced by various educational institutions for ultra-Orthodox elementary and junior high schools - not just the large teacher-training seminaries run by the Beit Yaakov network, but also Yad Vashem's School for Holocaust Studies, which until recently was deemed off-limits as it represented the Zionist establishment.

The three largest Beit Yaakov schools - the Beit Yaakov Tel Aviv Seminar, the Old Beit Yaakov and the New Beit Yaakov, among which there seems to be a veiled competition - presented impressive displays on CDs, filled with testimonies and diaries and accompanied by documentary and story-telling footage.

Job's dilemma

For the organizers of the seminar, however - the Holocaust Studies Teaching Department at the Michlala, Jerusalem College for Women in Bayit Vegan, in collaboration with the Claims Conference - the marketing objective was purely secondary, and with good reason: among a sector that until recently rarely dealt with the Holocaust in the schools, the organizers saw the mere interest sparked by the topic as the main accomplishment.

Esther Farbstein, a Holocaust researcher, the head of the Holocaust Studies Teaching Department in Bayit Vegan and the living spirit behind the gathering, acknowledges that she had no idea so many teachers would show up. Farbstein is undoubtedly one of the leading figures who have contributed to the revolution in the attitude to the Holocaust in the ultra-Orthodox sector, to which she belongs.

Two years ago her book B'Seter Ra'am ("Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Theology and Leadership during the Holocaust") was published, the first research book dealing with the Holocaust from an ultra-Orthodox perspective. Some among the ultra-Orthodox think that only someone who comes from the right kind of family, such as Farbstein - her grandfather, Rabbi Yehezkel Sarna, was the head of the Hebron Yeshiva, and her father is a well-known head of a yeshiva - could have dared to break the taboo surrounding the Holocaust.

Rabbi Yeshayahu Lieberman, principal of the New Beit Yaakov Seminar, believes that in the decades since the Holocaust, the approach was to focus on building and doing and not on memory. "The proximity to the Holocaust made dealing with it too sensitive an issue," he says.

Prof. Menachem Friedman of Bar Ilan University, who conducts research on ultra-Orthodox society, says that "only now are the ultra-Orthodox starting to tell their story of the Holocaust - until now the ultra-Orthodox public ignored the biggest story of the Jewish people."

The repression, Friedman believes, can be explained by the fact "that any discussion of the Holocaust was loaded because of the Zionist issue."

The ultra-Orthodox heatedly dispute some of the main precepts of Zionism regarding the Holocaust, such as "from Holocaust to rebirth" and "like sheep being led to the slaughter." It is easier for the ultra-Orthodox to deal with the subject today, after the general public has also taken a more critical approach to these precepts.

Dealing with the subject in the past often led to accusations that some Hasidic rabbis told their followers back then not to immigrate to Israel, advising instead that "God will help us."

According to Friedman, "the Holocaust seems to have proven in the clearest possible way that the Zionist program was correct" - in other words, those who immigrated to Israel were saved and those who stayed in Europe, including many ultra-Orthodox, were killed during the Holocaust. Above all, dealing with the issue of the Holocaust raised Job's question of how a righteous person suffers, which, Friedman says, is a tough question to answer and raises some serious issues concerning faith.

Farbstein thinks the documentary sources "were not accessible, and not handled" in a manner that would have been appropriate for the ultra-Orthodox public, and in any case did not reach the ultra-Orthodox schools. According to her, the word "repression" is not appropriate to describe the ultra-Orthodox attitude to the Holocaust.

"There was intense discussion of the Holocaust," she says. "After all, the ultra-Orthodox constantly were involved in memorializing in the names of yeshivas or neighborhoods that commemorated destroyed communities."

The problem, she says, was that the Holocaust was dealt with on an emotional level only, and this was not based on any orderly historical knowledge and therefore lacked any critical review.

"I remember from my childhood that there were plays about Shimke [the hero of a famous story by the ultra-Orthodox author David Zaritzky], and we would dream about that at night. And that was at a time when there were no children's plays about the Holocaust even for the general public."

The lack of critical review, she says, lead to the creation of myths, led by the chilling story about the suicide of 93 Beit Yaakov girls whom the Germans threatened "to violate." Today, as Farbstein delicately phrases it, "in the best case this is considered a controversial matter."

Anne Frank-style diaries

In the literature written about the Holocaust - and to a large extent also that being written nowadays - there were mostly stories of amazing rescues that were somehow connected, for example, to a prayer book that saved a life. Today, these are more likely to be seen as folklore stories.

Today the three largest Beit Yaakov seminars run teaching centers that research and document the Holocaust from an ultra-Orthodox viewpoint, with funding from and supervision by the Claims Conference. They rely on information and sources from Yad Vashem, but also work on their own to gather authentic materials, testimonies and documents.

The New Seminar is documenting, for example, the Beit Yaakov movement and highlighting the legendary personality of Sara Schenirer, the founder of the movement in 1918. The teaching center's archive has on display the original minutes of a meeting held in the teacher's room of the Beit Yaakov seminar in Cracow. The archive is also working together with Ginzach Hakodesh in Bnei Brak, an archive that was established by the writer and journalist Moshe Prager, who was perhaps the first to work on documenting the Holocaust when the topic was still silenced.

For the past two years, the school's teaching center has been working together with the Spielberg Foundation. Farbstein says researchers at the foundation asked, "`Where are all the Hasidim?' They realized that they were missing testimony from Hasidic survivors."

After rabbis were consulted and permission was given, Beit Yaakov teachers were selected to work on documenting the stories. They attended a special course on interviewing and filming and met with dozens of survivors. Rabbi Yeshayahu Lieberman, the principal of the school, relates that he is now working on establishing a museum and visitor's center - a kind of Yad Vashem for the ultra-Orthodox. He acknowledges that the ultra-Orthodox realized this too late, when the survivors were already old: "We certainly regret this," he said.

Undoubtedly, the ultra-Orthodox sector has discovered the educational potential of the Holocaust. The learning tools combine the old and new approach: In addition to relating miraculous stories, the violin music and the exaggerated pathos, the approach also seems to be clearly focused, more research-oriented, and includes among other things the use of children's diaries, much like that of Anne Frank.

The learning tools presented by the teaching center and the documentation presented by the Tel Aviv Beit Yaakov illustrate the combined approach. An explanatory sheet addressed to the "dear history teacher," for example, cites the biblical command "to remember what Amalek did to you." However the curriculum itself starts with the background of the Holocaust, raising for discussion questions such as, can increasing anti-Semitism lead to a second Holocaust, and it also deals with the Jewish world after the destruction and the impact of that destruction on Israeli culture and the sense of Jewish identity.

"Without a doubt, in the first decades there was concern that if the subject of the Holocaust was studied, many questions would arise," says Farbstein. "There was a lot of wisdom in this, that the third generation is the one to rediscover the subject, with the perspective provided by time. The event was too big and too sensitive to have been dealt with earlier."

The absence of a representative from Rabbi Wolf's institution in Bnei Brak, the more extreme, Lithuanian institution, indicates there is still some opposition to this trend.

Friedman believes that Yad Vashem's monopoly over documentation and its Zionist approach in dealing with the Holocaust are directly related to the ultra-Orthodox public's reservations about dealing with it.

"Regarding the subject of the Holocaust, there were mutual accusations of the ultra-Orthodox and the Zionists, and stereotypes and preconceived notions evolved," agrees Farbstein.

In her effort to reveal the ultra-Orthodox side of the Holocaust, it was necessary to cross bridges and also establish contact with organizations that had been off-limits, such as Yad Vashem.

"It's impossible to erase the general inclination expressed by that organization as well in connecting the Holocaust and the reestablishment of the state and in the statement `like sheep being led to the slaughter,'" says Farbstein. "But as part of the privatization of the memory of the Holocaust in Israel, Yad Vashem's School for Holocaust Studies adopted a policy of openness to other communities and a willingness to review new materials."

And indeed, the school for teaching Holocaust studies has for several years been running a special department for producing learning materials for ultra-Orthodox schools, and Beit Yaakov teachers regularly attend seminars there.

According to Shulamit Imber, the school's pedagogic director, researching ultra-Orthodox life during the Holocaust is today a subject of interest not just in the religious schools.

At the New Beit Yaakov Seminar, the story of the 93 girls still prompts tears and keeps people awake at night.

"It's impossible for the public to declare that the story never happened," says Farbstein, but according to her it is marginal. "The story of the Tehran Children [ultra-Orthodox child survivors of the concentration camps whom the Zionist movement tried to transform into pioneers] is still an open sore among the ultra-Orthodox sector," she says. "This episode is studied, but the accusing finger has moved from focusing on the secular, or what Jews did to other Jews, to what the Germans did to the Jews. Our public learned that things are not black and white. Today they understand that it was a purely political matter, and that the entire public tried to increase its constituents as part of the real and untiring fight over the future. Apologetics are not of interest nowadays."