Wenn es einen Gott gibt mu[beta] er mich um Verzeihung bitten.
The phrase above was carved into the prison cell walls of the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. Although the authorship is unknown, this prisoner's words hold considerable weight. In English, the phrase translates to "If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness." (1) Religious victims of the Holocaust were confronted with the ultimate test of faith. The majority of these victims were the European Jews. Having already been a tormented demographic for thousands of years, they were faced with complete obliteration at the beginning of the Second World War, a time when antisemitism took on its most horrifying form. (2)
One of the essential teachings of Judaism is the belief that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. If God were truly omniscient, or "all-knowing," He surely must have been aware of the imminent death of eleven million human beings, six million of which were his chosen people. If He were really omnipotent, or "all-powerful," He would have been able to stop the atrocities. And, if God were indeed omnibenevolent, or "all-good," how could He have simply stood by while these atrocities occurred? These inconsistencies have given rise to an ongoing philosophical and theological debate among Jewish thinkers. Holocaust theology, a new realm of Jewish philosophy, seeks to explain the behavior and role of God in light of the Shoah. These discussions are composed of religious responses to the problems of suffering and unwarranted evil. Worthwhile engagement in these types of theological arguments requires the consideration of many perspectives, especially of those who were eyewitnesses to the depravity. The survivors of the Holocaust who have graciously supplied their testimonies have concurrently provided various outlets of interpretation concerning the nature, or even existence of God. In his 1980 publication, The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors, Reeve Brenner, an American Reform rabbi, commented on the importance of survivor testimonial material in field of Jewish studies.
In the absence of studies on general Jewish attitudes, the thoughtful and often deeply moving testimonies of survivors provide us with important insights into the nature of Judaism in the post-Holocaust world. And until careful surveys are conducted, survivors will not be speaking for themselves alone: They represent a sensitive barometer of contemporary Jewish beliefs and behavior, not only concerning the Holocaust but on a wide variety of issues. Here is telling proof that the terrible experiences of Auschwitz made victims of the Holocaust acutely aware of the existential condition of man in general and the Jew in particular. (3) With so few survivors left, eyewitness accounts are crucial to keep research in this area alive. In recent decades, the accessibility of survivor testimonies has significantly increased. Shortly after the release of Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg established the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education at the University of Southern California. The Foundation's Visual History Archive contains 107,000 hours of video documentation of roughly 52,000 eyewitness interviews conducted during the mid to late 1990s. (4) The testimonies used in this paper have been carefully sifted out of this invaluable collection of interviews. Although the personal accounts of survivors are abundant and often quite detailed, anecdotal source material must always be utilized with caution. Indeed, human memory is of better service to anthropological, sociological, and philosophical analysis, rather than historicity. Accordingly, the survivor testimonies in this work will be examined alongside a researched historical narrative.
Each man, woman, and child's experience with unrelenting wickedness varies. While some Jewish survivors have discovered a newfound strength in their faith, others have abandoned their beliefs entirely. Some Jews entered the camps as atheists and reemerged with an even deeper recognition of their disbelief. This work's specific investigation will focus on the process of spiritual transformation among the previously religious Jewish survivors who have abandoned their faith as a result of having lived through the inhumanity of the Holocaust. The exploration of these individual experiences will highlight the dramatic modifications and additions to Jewish spiritual thought, especially in regards to the notion of theodicy, or "justification of God." (5)
Civilian life at the turn of the century and during the prewar years did not suggest an imminent genocide. Jewish family life and traditions differed throughout Europe, usually depending on the location. Demographically, most varieties of Judaic systems emerged especially in Central and Eastern Europe. The Jews in the east made up a significant part of the population. They held a unified self-awareness of their circumstances; being Jewish was a collective endeavor, not an individual inclination. (6) Eva Bronstein fondly reminisces about being surrounded by loved ones during her family's weekly Shabbat tradition in Vilna, Poland prior to the war. "My mother made everything...Everybody used to come to our house because we observed all the holidays." (7) Eva's religious traditions would later deteriorate after loosing her entire family during the Holocaust.
Pre-war Jewish customs differed in Western Europe, where Jews considered their religion to be an individual, private attitude. (8) In France, for example, Jews were only mildly observant. They did not typically uphold traditional religious condemnation, such as using mechanical transportation on the Sabbath. (9) Marcel Braitstein, who grew up in Belgium prior to the war, describes his grandparents' religious differences. His grandfather was very orthodox, whereas his grandmother did not even keep kosher. Marcel's family still celebrated Jewish holidays together, but their individual belief systems remained personal. (10) Whichever traditions families upheld in either Eastern or Western Europe, they would become significantly altered following the events of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust did not happen out of thin air. The layman may perceive this famous instance of genocide to be an abrupt and evil implementation of the Nazis, satisfying Hitler's life-long dream of eliminating the Jewish population. Although aspects of this simple perception may hold some truth, mass extermination was certainly not a sudden occurrence. Antisemitism had been alive and well in many parts of the world, especially in Eastern Europe. Following the First World War, Jews became widely perceived as a social and political enemy of European gentiles. But, for the European Jews, their identity revolved around their destiny of enduring hardship. Many of them believed that the ability to tolerate prejudice was in their ancestral bloodline. In a sense, antisemitism was nothing new to them.
Survivor Frieda Aaron describes being taunted for her Jewishness by the children in her Polish town. She shares a memory of walking home with her sister, having to dodge rocks being thrown at them.
I was not surprised...ultimately you integrate it into your consciousness, you live with it because you have no choice. And you make the best of it. You retain your sense of humanity; you retain your sense of selfhood...You never allow yourself to be dehumanized. And that's how you fight back, because you cannot fight back with rocks at children. (11) Antisemitism was a standard part of life. For some survivors, this pre-Holocaust desensitization is often linked to their eventual abandonment of religious identity.
Upon the Machtergreifung of the Third Reich, the escalation of antisemitism increased the difficulty of daily life for eastern European Jews. (12) The Nazis sought to eliminate Jewish influence from positions within the civil service of Germany, especially careers in universities and economic institutions. The assumption was that this process would aid in the ultimate goal of forcing the Jews to leave Germany, and eventually Eastern Europe. The original intention did not involve mass extermination. (13) Alex Hershaft, who survived the Pruszkow concentration camp, describes his family's affiliation with Judaism hampering his father's professional career in Warsaw. "In Poland, you could only go so far as a Jew...you had to become a Christian, and my father refused to do that...There was very little religious freedom in Poland." (14) Jewish families like Alex's did not give in to the antisemitic atmosphere; they remained in their hometown and made do with the few opportunities available. Nonetheless, the distressing cloud of National...