Five Books – Research for Moshe Kraus – musical drama highlighting the story of Jews in the twentieth century and why it matters

Recently there was another documentary about the Shoah called Anne Frank, Parallel Stories. The story of Anne Frank, and the horrors perpetrated against the Jews during the Nazi reign in Europe, this story has been told many times, but the deeper questions of how did it happen? Where did this madness come from? and what was the Jewish response? These stories have not been addressed. In the course of studying and researching the life of Moshe Kraus, (1922 – present) for a documentary film project, I came to grapple with the answers to some of these questions. Here I have chosen five books that gave me a more nuanced insight into these matters.

The first book,  With G-d in Hell by Eliezer Berkovitz, addresses the questions
• Where was G-d?
• Why didn’t the Jews resist?
• How did any of them survive?

This book answered many questions for me. It describes the spiritual resistance that enabled Jews to maintain their integrity in the face of cruelty and brutality and to come out whole on the other side. In this fascinating book, Eliezer Berkovitz (1908-1992) tells us the stories of Jews, who stuck by their faith in the camps, and analyses the strength of Jewish observance in such an environment.
Only thus, he suggests, can we gain an understanding of the power of the Jewish religion, and an insight into the great historic destiny of the Jewish Nation.
Their behavior demanded a courage no less great than that of armed resistance.
He gives real case histories of courageous Jews, who gave up all to observe Judaism, and also discusses the dynamics of life and death and the holocaust according to halacha – (Jewish law). He shares how Jews sacrificed to say early morning prayers, to acquire tefillin, and a shofar: to keep holidays – even difficult ones like Sukkot and Passover: and to continue to consult with their rabbis on ethical questions such as: is it permissible for me to save my son from execution if I know that someone else will then die in his place? Would I then be an accessory to murder? The Rebbe declined to give a ruling saying this was beyond his expertise…but the chassid who asked it, said if you are not answering it’s a “yes” and he did not save his son…

And another chassid asked is it permissible to say the morning blessing thanking G-d for making us free men under these circumstances when one is a slave. The Rebbe answered yes – since we are free in our spirit – it is our captors  who are the slaves, slaves to the German Reich, but we Jews remain free spirits, servants of G-d alone.

Berkovits finally refers to the hope of redemption for the Jewish people, by victims of the holocaust, such as the young Jewish boy hiding in Belgium who wrote in his Hebrew diary:

  • My brothers! Do not misunderstand me. As I speak to you about vengeance I want you to pay attention to it’s positive side. Our revenge for present suffering and for all our sufferings during these two millennia of galut/exile, will be the restoration of our land; it’s settlement by its people; the return of our beloved people to it’s inheritance. This will be the greatest revenge that is in our hand to achieve. For this we ask first of all for the help of our G-D , of the G-D of Israel, who has protected us from extinction during our entire exile. He is sure to help us and and to guide us anew to the land of our inheritance, to our holy land, the land of Israel.”


2. Deadly Carousel by Monica Porter

This is a memoir of Vali Racz, the Hungarian Marlene Dietrich, written by her daughter Monica Porter. The book is a wonderful portrayal of the intertwined lives of Jews and non-Jews in pre-war Hungary and wartime Budapest and is also an excellent live action history of what actually was going on in Budapest before, during and after the war to 1956 told by a non-Jewish participant observer.

3.  Black Earth The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder

This book talks about the grand ideas of the nineteenth and early twentieth century and how they played out in the grand scheme of the nations and their ideologies that resulted in so many deaths, not only of Jews. He points out the problem of stateless actors – partisan groups –  and state actors, beholden to G-dless ideologies like those of the Nazi master race idea and Soviet communism which glorifies the state as the Grand Master.

He explains that the Holocaust began in a dark but accessible place, in Hitler’s mind, with the thought that the elimination of Jews would restore balance to the planet and allow Germans to win the resources they desperately needed.  Such a world view could be realized only if Germany destroyed other states, so Hitler set out to enslave and steal from all of Europe and to eliminate the Jews – who he felt stood in his way as the conscience of the world – protecting the poor and the weak,  – one of the prime tenets of the Torah.

Snyder concludes, The early twenty-first century is coming to resemble the early twentieth, as growing preoccupations with food and water accompany ideological challenges to global order.  Our world is closer to Hitler’s than we like to admit, and saving it requires us to see the Holocaust as it was — and ourselves as we are.

4. The Pity of it All by Amos Elon  shows us the Jewish panorama before the war. Writing with a novelist’s eye, Alon peoples his account with dramatic figures: Moses Mendelssohn, Heinrich Heine, beloved lyric poet of Germany who famously referred to baptism as the admission ticket to European culture, Hannah Arendt. Elon traces how this minority-never more than one percent of the population-came to be perceived as a deadly threat to national integrity. A collective biography, full of depth and compassion, The Pity of It All summons up a splendid world and a dream of integration and tolerance – liberté, égalité, fraternité – that fueled the liberal dreams for world brotherhood in the nineteenth century. This was a time when due to what began with Napoleon, Jews began to be given rights as national citizens: here was born the modern source the Jewish conflict – am I a Frenchman or a Jew? A German citizen or a Jew? An American citizen or a Jew? Can I be both? The twentieth century response to this in Hitler’s time was “no”! Once a Jew always a Jew, and the only solution is death.

5.  A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion by Rabbi Jonathon Sacks

Rabbi Sacks claims, for too long, Jews have defined themselves in light of the bad things that have happened to them. And it is true that, many times in the course of history, they have been nearly decimated: when the First and Second Temples were destroyed, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, when Hitler proposed his Final Solution. Astoundingly, the Jewish people have survived catastrophe after catastrophe and remained a thriving and vibrant community. The question Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks is, quite simply: How? How, in the face of such adversity, has Judaism remained and flourished, making a mark on human history out of all proportion to its numbers?

He traces the revolutionary series of philosophical and theological ideas that Judaism created — from the idea of covenant (contract) to sabbath and human rights, to the power of early education — and shows us how they remain compellingly relevant in our time.

This book was written as a letter to Rabbi Sacks’ daughter on her wedding day. This is the story of one man’s hope for the future — a future in which the next generation, his children and ours, will happily embrace the beauty of the world’s oldest religion bringing all of us to brotherly love and shalom/peace. May it be so, speedily, and in our time.

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