April 25, 2004


A Chronicle of Courage (Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe, 20/04/04)

In October 1941, "one of the respected members of the community" asked Rabbi Oshry if he could commit suicide. His wife and children had been seized by the Nazis, and he knew that their murder was imminent. He also knew that the Nazis would most likely force him to watch as his family was killed, and the prospect of witnessing their deaths was a horror he couldn't bear to face. He begged for permission to take his own life and avoid seeing his loved ones die.

Later that month, the head of another household came to Rabbi Oshry "with tears of anguish on his face." His children were starving to death and he was desperate to find food for them. His query was about a bit of property that had been left behind by the family in the next apartment. The entire family had been butchered a few days earlier, and there were no surviving relatives. Under Jewish law, could he take what remained of their belongings and sell them to raise cash for food?

Next to such questions, answers seem almost superfluous. (The rabbi did not permit the suicide; he allowed the neighbors' property to be taken.) What is stunning is that men and women in the throes of such suffering and brutality were still concerned about adhering to Jewish law. In the lowest depths of the Nazi hell, in a place of terror that most of us cannot fathom, here were human beings who refused to relinquish their faith -- who refused even to violate a precept without first asking if it was allowed.

Violence, humiliation, and hunger will reduce some people to animals willing to do anything to survive. The Jews who sought out Rabbi Oshry -- like Jews in so many other corners of Nazi Europe -- were not reduced but elevated, reinforced in their belief, determined against crushing odds to walk in the ways of their fathers.

Some Jews fought the Nazis with guns and sabotage, Rabbi Oshry would later say; others fought by persisting in Jewish life. In the end, "Responsa from the Holocaust" is a chronicle of courage and resistance -- and a profound inspiration to believers of every faith.

One wonders how they would have behaved if they thought life was a series of random, purposeless accidents and only a 1.6% gene differential separated them from the animals.

Posted by Peter Burnet at April 25, 2004 8:12 AM

"One wonders how they would have behaved if they thought life was a series of random, purposeless accidents and only a 1.6% gene differential separated them from the animals."

The Nazis didn't care if you were a practicing Jew or even if you were an atheist. Your ancestry was enough. Myself, I would have picked up a rifle and shot the first 3 Nazis that came through the front door. I'm an atheist, but I don't sell my life cheaply.

Posted by: Pete at April 25, 2004 10:49 AM

Don't be so smug about your faith Peter, it is no magic shield. If you've read Voctor Frankl's book, you would know that the Jews tat he witnessed in the concentration camps either survived or succumbed according to their own personal ability to find meaning in their suffering. When it comes down to facing your own mortality, it is individual personal qualities, not worldviews or cosmologies, that make the difference.

Tragedies often pull the rug out from under the faithful. For many faithful, their faith is supposed to protect them from tragedy. I personally know religious people facing grave hardship who, like Salieri the composer, are now cursing God for their unfair treatment. Their faith is not a source of strength, but a torment.

I found the article that you cited uplifting, but you saw it as an opportunity to denounce secularists. Debating philosophy and religion is challenging and exciting, but I've found that it is a fool's errand to judge a person's character and worth by his philosophy.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 25, 2004 11:46 AM


1. It isn't my faith;

2. I respectfully suggest you know little about my faith;

3. I agree with everything you say;

4. I was talking specifically about these people, not theirs or anyone elses cosmologies.

Now, who needs the chill pill?

Posted by: Peter B at April 25, 2004 12:58 PM

Peter, you said "One wonders how they would have behaved if they thought life was a series of random, purposeless accidents and only a 1.6% gene differential separated them from the animals."

Forgive me, but I take that as the typical "no atheists in foxholes" taunt, that materialsts cannot possibly withstand tragedy with the courage and dignity of these believers. If I am wrong in reading that into your comments, I apologise.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at April 25, 2004 1:47 PM

And last week Orrin said doctrine is meaningless and he would coform to whatever the going fad was, blowing off all the martyrs.

Hard to say what the best response would have been. Would more Jews have survived, more ready to keep being Jews, if all -- even the aged and the young -- had fought with their bare hands at the evaucation trains; or was the generally pessimistic (as I see it) and pacifist strain they actually adopted more conducive to the long-term survival of the religion?

Don't know. Life is darwinistic. You can never be sure.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 25, 2004 7:42 PM

Pacifism? Fight with bare hands? Harry, you have just proven you haven't a clue what modern totalitarianism is.

Posted by: Peter B at April 26, 2004 4:58 AM

They fought totalitarianism with bare hands at Masada.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at April 29, 2004 12:00 AM