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 several 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.

Snyder concludes, by overlooking the lessons of the Holocaust,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.

With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Death Camps by Eliezer Berkovits,– This book took my breath away when I read it. It sheds light on  how Jewish values and practices enabled Jews to deal with their plight, even while finding themselves ensnared in the Nazi attacks. It answered many questions for me regarding the spiritual resistance that enabled Jews to maintain their integrity in the face of cruelty and brutality, to face death with dignity, and for a precious few, to come out bruised but not broken, on the other side.Their behavior demanded a courage no less great than that of armed resistance.

Berkovitz  discusses the dynamics of life and death in the ghettos and death camps during this period 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 hassid/disciple who asked it, said – if you are not answering it’s a yes! – and he did not save his son.

Another hassid 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. No survivor will deny the hunger, the starvation, the terror, but many who are quoted in this book, survived to share how their memories and teachings which they brought with them, helped them to rise above the dire reality.

Moshe Kraus, born in 1922 in Uzhorod, Czechoslovakia, a grandson of a hassidic Rebbe, was born into the bosom of Jewish learning and life of that time. Because of his tenor voice, discovered at an early age, he was visiting hassidic communities all over Europe performing concerts, and then became a beloved musical prayer leader/a hazzan. He too was enslaved in a slave labor camp and later in Bergen Belson. His personal struggles exemplifies the story of the Jewish people during this period and to the present time.

Antisemitism is a series of ideological lies used as a tool to turn people of all faiths and all nationalities against Jews: Sadly it appears to be rearing its ugly head in our times today. Every day we hear about attacks on individual Jews, attacks against synagogues and Jewish stores. This is why it is so important to share the truth about Jews and Judaism.

An important book in this regard is 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.