Psychological Pain and Victims of Holocaust

The physical suffering that was experienced by Jewish victims of the Holocaust, through the Nazi’s regime of systematic annihilation, is widely known. However, the impact of this trauma was not just at the physical level. The violent and devastating realities of the Holocaust inherently created an intense strain on Jewish religious and spiritual identity. Through the analysis of three primary sources, a memoir, a sermon, and a prayer, I will demonstrate how this strain lead to a variety of theological responses including, loss of faith, strengthening of faith, and new ways of practicing faith. In the memoir of Calel Perechodnik, a Jewish policeman from the Otwock ghetto, the nature of faith is deeply contemplated. Perechodnik expresses clear contempt for the religion of Judaism, criticising its ideals and attacking its spiritual leaders. Perechodnik even goes as far as attributing a large portion of blame for the Holocaust entirely to the Jewish religion. He further questions the existence of God and does not understand how such senseless violence could occur.

This memoir was written in 1943, an entire year after the Otwock ghetto had been liquidated (encyclopedia). This is the same year all five crematories were completed in Auschwitz and the number of Jews killed by SS Einsatzgruppen passed one million. While Perechodnik does not describe in detail the atrocities that he witnessed first-hand in this excerpt, it is apparent that the suffering he endured was extreme enough for him to doubt the God that he once worshiped and completely reject his faith. The implications of this loss of faith are evident in Perechodnik’s writings. In a Godless world, his life no longer held meaning, and he felt as though there was no longer a place for him in society, even if he survived the war. This theological response was not uncommon for other Jews. Elie Wiesel, author of Night, expressed a similar religious reaction to the tragedy he experienced during the Holocaust. Wiesel wrote, Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes (34). These experiences serve as prime examples of the dehumanization of the Jews that occurred on behalf of the Nazi regime.

Dating back to his 1926 letter to Adolf Gemlich, Hitler’s early claim that Jews were to be classified as a race not a religion, was consistently contradicted by later actions of the Nazi forces. For example, in the minutes discussion of the Wannsee conference it states, in reference to the number of Jews in all of Europe, the number of Jews given here for foreign countries includes, however, only those Jews who still adhere to the Jewish faith, since some countries still do not have a definition of the term “Jew” according to racial principles. This overall shows that religion was used when convenient by the Nazis to further persecute the Jews, from early efforts of Nazi propaganda perpetuating anti-semitic ideals that had existed in Europe for centuries to these dehumanization efforts that ended up destroying Jewish faith. The 1941, Chanukah sermon, by Rebbe Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, offers a different theological response to this same suffering. Being a rabbi, prompts Shapira to have a uniquely devout perspective on religious life, especially in comparison to an average Jewish civilian of the time, like Perechodnik. Shapira’s sermon is centered around the belief that our people [Jewish people] have been persecuted and you [God] have protected them time and time again.

Shapira attempts to relieve the fears and strengthen the faith of his congregation by reassuring them that through selflessness and total devotion, God will offer protection. In doing so, Shapira essentially advocates for the acceptance of suffering and connects the current suffering of the Warsaw ghetto to past events in Jewish history. The suffering occurring in the Warsaw ghetto at the time of this sermon was mostly due to starvation. The food rations provided to the ghetto by the German civilian authorities was not nearly enough, and consequently, in less than 3 years, 83,000 Jews died of starvation and disease (encyclopedia). While Shapira attempted to view this time of suffering as a way to strengthen his own faith, and further devote himself to God, he also expresses shame towards his own inability to offer comfort to his followers. The Passover prayer from Bergen-Belsen, offers yet another theological response to this suffering.

The prayer was written by two rabbis, Aaron Davids and Abraham Levisson, both Dutch Jews who were deported to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. The rabbis developed a new interpretation of traditional Jewish text, that altered their religious practices, in order to prioritize survival during their time in the camp. Similar to Rabbi Shapira, they experienced pressures as religious leaders to find spiritual answers for these difficult circumstances in order to maintain faith and comfort their followers. In the early stages of Nazi rule it became difficult for practicing Jews in Germany to continue the ritual of kashrut, which set guidelines for the preparation and consumption of food. In April of 1933, German policy outlawed kosher slaughter, drastically limiting availability of kosher meat. In addition to these policies targeting Jewish rituals, the conditions surrounding imprisonment in ghettos and forced labor camps severely restricted Jews’ ability to follow kosher laws. This suppression of religious practices and attacks on religious identity, were further used to the dehumanize and persecute the Jews. Davids’s and Levisson’s prayer advocates for adjustment of traditional Passover rituals due to the extreme conditions of living within a death camp. The prayer also suggests parallels with the doctrine of Kiddush ha-hayyim or “the sanctification of life.”

This doctrine prioritized survival over law, in contrast to a tradition of Jewish martyrdom, known as Kiddush ha-shem or “the sanctification of God. Faithful Jews who practiced their martyrdom died in order to remain pious. These conflicting doctrines further show the complexity of the theological reactions to the Holocaust. All three of these sources show various approaches to the crisis of faith raised by the Holocaust. While the theological responses differed, it clear that each of these victims were forced to make a spiritual choice a choice to continue to have faith in God or to reject Him and a choice to prioritize survival or value piety over all else. The reality is that all of these choices lead to suffering. When spiritual faith was unable to be restored in previously practicing Jews, the demoralization was catastrophic. Religious identity had been the one thing that had kept Jews united for centuries. This identity that was once a source of strength and purpose, turned into the cause of intense suffering. In contrast, those who chose to strengthen their faith, held onto the mindset that God would protect Jews no matter what. This mentality contributed to an element of disbelief: there is no way God would let this happen to us. As suffering continued the mentality shifted to: we must endure this suffering for God. But in the end no one escaped the suffering. These primary sources further highlight how agonizing it was to come to these spiritual decisions and shine a light on the dark reality of their outcomes. Perechodnik and Rabbis Shapira, Davids, and Levisson, all did not live to see the end of the war, but their writings give insight into how deeply intertwined religious identity was to the suffering that took place during the Holocaust.

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