What motivated Righteous Gentiles to risk their lives to save Jews from the Nazis? What drives people today to risk their own lives to save others?
Every year, the days between Passover and Independence Day are a period of rumination for me regarding the purpose of personal, familial, and national memory. Twenty-four years have passed since my son Uriel Yitzchaq of blessed memory, an infantry officer in the IDF, passed away, and I wonder what elements of my family story, prototypical of the Jewish-Israeli narrative of this generation, shall be remembered in my family in the years to come? What part of the heroic account of the “Holocaust and Renewal” generation shall remain in the collective memory of later generations?
While investigating an eminent Sephardi family named de Botton from the Ottoman Empirein 1989, I wrote to all the Sephardi communities abroad in search of any of their descendants. As a result, I received a two-page letter in French from a woman named Bouena Sarfatty Garfinkle who was living in Montreal. She mentioned de Botton, the orchestra conductor, and various others who all had been transported to Auschwitz and perished there. When in the U.S., I opted to visit this unique woman and to record her recollections. When she heard that I taught a course about the fate of the Sephardim during the Holocaust, she handed me 200 pages of Ladino verses (coplas) that she had written about Jewish life in 20th century Salonika and about the fate of the community during WWII. These verses provide an amazing entrée into the history and fate of a community destroyed during the Holocaust.
(This article is based on a longer article published under this title appearing in the journal B’shvil Hazikaron, Vol. 13 (November 2012), pp. 18-25.)
The 1938 pogrom in Germany known as Kristallnacht, the peak of the Nazi regime’s radical anti-Jewish program, was an existential turning point for German Jewry. Immediately following the pogrom, about 30,000 Jewish males were arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps, released only upon producing a visa for foreign travel. The Nazi regime moved, in practice, from a policy of segregation of Jews from the general German population to a policy of complete severing of Jews from societyand economic life, intended to force them to emigrate.
After celebrating Pessch and our exodus from Egypt, come the days of fear and trepidation: Holocaust Remembrance day, Memorial Day for the fallen soldiers, Independence Day and Jerusalem Day; the new commemorative days, engraved in the book of chronicles of our time, days of testimony on the destruction of our people and its revival in Zion.
This month’s column is not a responsum. In honor of Yom Hashoah, which is observed this year on May 1st in the evening and May 2nd, this column summarizes the main points of The Student Struggle Against the Holocaust by Rafael Medoff and David Golinkin, published by The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Schechter Institute and Targum Shlishi, Jerusalem, 2010. All page numbers in parentheses refer to that book. The book can be ordered from the bookstore at www.schechter.edu.
Kristallnacht is lodged in Jewish memory as a turning point in the active anti-Semitism that led to the Final Solution. In recent years, I have studied the philosophy of Emil Fackenheim, considered to be the greatest thinker on the subject of the Holocaust. Fackenheim delved for many years into the views and basic concepts that preoccupied post-World War II Jewry: mitzvot, revelation, theology, etc. Paradoxically, towards the end of the 1960’s, when he became more intensely immersed in the subject, Fackenheim did not link theology or Providence to the Holocaust. True, in his 614th Commandment, obligating each Jew to prevent Hitler’s ultimate victory by bringing Jewish children into the world and by aliya to Israel, there are theological and even revelatory connotations.
In late 1942, three young men who spent their days studying Torah in the serene confines of The Jewish Theological Seminary determined they could no longer stand idly by as their worst fears were confirmed: Hitler intended nothing less than the total annihilation of Europe’s Jews.
During the night between Nov 9-10, 1938, a pogrom took place in the streets of Germany and Austria in which hundreds of synagogues were set ablaze and close to 100 Jews were murdered. Through that night and the following day, about 30,000 Jewish males were arrested and sent to concentration camps, the first systematic, wide scale arrest of Jews. Martin Buber, who was then already in Jerusalem, wrote an article several weeks later declaring the end of the German-Jewish symbiotic relationship. Indeed, Kristallnacht is perceived as marking a new era of persecution of Jews, and is often considered to be the opening event of the Holocaust.