The Story of Jews in the Twentieth Century and Why It Matters

The horrors endured by Jews during WWII have often been told, 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.

I have chosen five books that gave me a more nuanced insight into these matters.

1 – 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.

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 worldview could be realized only if Germany destroyed other states, so Hitler’s aim was a colonial war in Europe itself. In the zones of statelessness, almost all Jews died. A few people, the righteous few, aided them, without support from institutions. Much of the new research in this book is devoted to understanding these extraordinary individuals. The almost insurmountable difficulties they faced only confirm the dangers of state destruction and ecological panic. These men and women should be emulated, but in similar circumstances few of us would do so.

By overlooking the lessons of the Holocaust, Snyder concludes, we have misunderstood modernity and endangered the future. 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.

2 – The Pity of it All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch, 1743-1933, 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, and Hannah Arendt among many others. The Pity of It All summons up a splendid world of Jews amidst Germans, a dream of integration and tolerance – liberté, égalité, fraternité – that fueled liberal dreams for world brotherhood in the nineteenth century.

2 – Deadly Carousel, by Monica porter:  In March 1944, eleven divisions of German troops marched into Hungary. Thousands of Jews were rounded up and deported to death camps. Desperately, they sought foreign diplomatic relations, false identity papers, and hiding places. Vali Racz was a successful singer and film actress, the darling of the Hungarian public. Since she was young, beautiful, and safely Aryan, the Nazis represented no particular threat to her, but she was horrified by the persecution of the Jews, many of whom were friends and mentors. Risking her own life, she turned her villa in Buda into a secret refuge. Monica Porter traces both the life of her remarkable and courageous mother and a fascinating period in Hungarian history. This book is a wonderful portrayal of the intertwined lives of Jews and non-Jews in pre-war Hungary and wartime Budapest. It is an excellent live action history of what actually was going on in Budapest before, during and after the war to 1956 as told by Vali Racz,herself a non-Jewish participant observer to her daughter Monica Porter.

4 – 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?

This book, written as a letter to Rabbi Sacks’ daughter on her wedding day, 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.

5. With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps by Eliezer Berkovits

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  tells us the stories of Jews, who stuck by their faith in the camps, and analyses the strength of Jewish observance. 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, They are 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.”