Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a leading chasidic rabbi, was one of the most prominent rabbinic victims of the Holocaust. A leader of the Warsaw ghetto, he secretly ran a shul as well as covertly supervised outlawed Jewish rituals such as marriages and milah. He also delivered weekly Torah lessons that addressed the terrible nightmare that had engulfed European Jewry. The sefer was titled “Eish Kodesh,” or sacred fire—a title that evokes the infernal horror that ultimately took his life.
Writing in the winter of 1939, during the initial phase of the Holocaust, he criticizes Jews who struggled to understand the meaning of the Holocaust. After all, Jewish history is littered with anti-Semitism, hatred and persecution; sadly, this had defined much of our experience over the past two millennia. Though we battle valiantly to defeat anti-Semitism, we acknowledge that this ancient hatred will only cease when history itself is completed and fully redeemed. Excess “agonizing” about the travails of the Holocaust was deemed a deficiency of faith and was also insensitive to the great trail of tears that has lined Jewish history.
Three years later, during Chanukah of 1942, Rabbi Shapiro changed his tune. Acknowledging the severe and excessive Nazi persecution, Rabbi Shapira recanted his original assessment and now conceded that the Holocaust was unprecedented. Though Jews had suffered in the past, the Holocaust felt different: its ferocity and breadth were both unimaginable to previous generations. Something in history had shifted and it was now legitimate and even necessary to question the tragic events and reexamine our response to this nightmare. 1942 felt very different from 1939, and exploring the larger meaning of this trauma was now essential.
Which version of the Eish Kodesh is correct—the 1939 reprimand or the 1942 retraction? Was the Holocaust merely another “installment” in the lineage of anti-Semitism or was it a historical shift? It seems as if each statement is correct and that only the synthesis of these two opinions can properly frame what befell our people 80 years ago.
Anti-Semitism is woven into the fabric of human history. Jews challenge the world morally and theologically and for this we are despised. Hatred of the Jew is perennial, and the Holocaust is a modern chapter in that ancient story, whose wretched narrative is a stain upon the moral legacy of humanity. Just in the hundred years prior to the Holocaust, gruesome pogroms were committed across Islamic lands, in Russia, and in Israel. Imagining the Holocaust without accounting for the broader trail of anti-Semitism is myopic.
Additionally, the roots of the Holocaust were formed in the intellectual and cultural landscapes of the 20th century. Darwin taught the world about natural selection and cast the natural order as a perpetual competition between weak and strong species. For nature to advance, only the fittest could survive. Social Darwinism extended these concepts to human society: for society to thrive, weaker elements must be discarded so that the stronger races could thrive, and so that a superior society could be constructed. In his work “Mein Kampf,” Hitler quotes these theories to justify his plan of cleansing the world from the inferior Jews.
Furthermore, the Holocaust was deeply molded to the political realities of the 20th century. Losing World War I and dissatisfied with the “unjust” terms of the post-war treaties, Germany became extremely resentful to foreign powers and to the Capitalist establishments that had imposed such onerous fines as part of Germany’s surrender. Highly distrustful of the wealthier nations of the West, Germany was also wary of the encroaching Communist revolution to the East. These dual suspicions gave rise to an ultra-nationalist ideology that shunned the outsider and launched the Fascist-Nazi regime. These simmering fears of the foreigner were easily projected upon the ultimate foreigner—the Jew—who has always served as a convenient scapegoat. Social Darwinism and Nazi Fascism were instrumental in launching the early-20th-century version of anti-Semitism.
The Holocaust was not just a product of the intellectual discourse of the 20th century but was also propelled by dramatic scientific and technological innovations of that period. Mass extermination required efficient transportation of victims to centralized “murder camps,” and the advent of modern railroads provided this ghastly infrastructure. Developing the science of mass extermination, German researchers pursued more effective methods of sterilizing women, murdering mass populations and, of course, burning their remains in newly developed crematoria. The “idea” of genocide was nurtured by 20th century culture and politics, but the logistics of genocide were patented by 20th-century science and technology. The Holocaust wasn’t merely another installment in the ongoing tragedy of anti-Semitism. It is the grotesque reflection of advanced modern society unhinged from moral restraints.
However, as Rabbi Shapira himself asserted in 1942, the Holocaust feels different from history. Unlike previous localized pogroms, inquisitions and crusades, the Holocaust was the first methodical, state-instituted attempt to destroy everything and anything Jewish from the streets of Europe. Amidst the rubble of Hitler’s bunker, a list of a few hundred Albanian Jews was discovered, underscoring just how meticulous he was about liquidating every single Jew. Designing to ultimately export his genocide to the USA, Hitler obtained blueprints of synagogues in NYC—one day to be demolished or converted into museums of the extinct Jewish. Furthermore, during previous persecutions, Jews could generally escape discrimination and hostility by conversion or by cultural assimilation. Jews who were willing to “change sides”—either religiously or culturally—were able to walk away unscathed. The Holocaust targeted every Jew regardless of their level of Jewish identification. The Holocaust targeted the most basic aspect of Jewish identity: our ancestry and ethnicity. Though the Holocaust is an extension of historical anti-Semitism, it is also a break with history. This dark period launched a horror that hadn’t occurred in the 2,000 years since the Jews left Jerusalem. Rabbi Shapira was correct both in 1939 and in 1942. The Holocaust was an extension but also a historical shift.
There are enormous ramifications as to whether the Holocaust is an extension or a shift. If the Holocaust was merely a continuation of classic anti-Semitism, we shouldn’t expect dramatic transformations in our overall religious experience. What was, continues to be. If the Holocaust was also a shift, we face a transformative question: what else in our world has changed?
Some have argued that the nightmare of the Holocaust demands an altered religious or theological response. If God could allow the Holocaust to occur, we must view Him differently or relate to Him in a different manner. Perhaps our historical Covenant with Him must be reformulated under different terms. I find these suggestions erroneous (and dangerous) since faith itself is meta-historical and lies beyond the human realm. The events of Har Sinai, which launched the history of faith, were otherworldly and hover above historical events. My rebbe, Rav Lichtenstein, zt”l (whose yahrzeit is this week), once described faith as follows: your faith should be strong enough that you can be the last remaining Jew in the world, walk out of Auschwitz and still remain committed.” Torah and faith are eternal and in no way impacted by events on this Earth. The tonality of our relationship with God may change, but the basic terms of our relationship with God remain immutable.
However, though religious faith is immutable, historical perspective is very dynamic and historical perspective deeply influences our religious mindset. The Holocaust was a historical shift precisely because the long night of Jewish Exile was concluding. It is always darkest before dawn and the nightmare of Jewish history occurred just as a new sun was rising upon Zion and launching the final chapter of history—Jewish redemption. It is intellectually dishonest and morally treacherous to trace the relationship between the Holocaust and the State of Israel. However, the sheer proximity of these two events—occurring less than three years apart—should remind us that we have been chosen to be part of the final chapters of Jewish history. We are living in a different historical period, and the demands of history and by extension of religion have expanded.
The decade of the 1940s was a historical hurricane in which the world shifted twice: first it was plunged into the nightmarish misery of the Holocaust, and then it pivoted again to herald the great return of an ancient people to their lost homeland.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.