Surviving The Holocaust (Ideas #17)

In the late spring of 1980, I felt a sense of personal victory over Hitler: After spending all of Shavout night learning Torah at the main synagogue in Munich, my comrades and I walked back to a breakfast kiddush in a different part of the city. That walk took us through Odeonsplatz, which was a favorite place for mass Nazi rallies. Gone were the banners, swastikas and uniforms that I had seen in so many different pictures and, in their place, a few Jewish students doing what Jews have been doing for hundreds of years. We had survived - Hitler had failed.

The Jewish people have truly and surprisingly prospered in the post-war era, often making it difficult for younger generations to really feel the loss caused by the holocaust. The focus is on the unimaginable numbers lost and the cruelty with which the acts were perpetrated. As the actual individuals are forgotten, we lose our sense of mourning - instead, we merely ponder, reflect and introspect.

Our physical prosperity and strength, however, belie the state of affairs. We are far from having outlived the pernicious effects of the holocaust. Indeed, much of what has shaped individual and national Jewish policy since 1945 is rooted in rebuilding a nearly destroyed nation.

The Zionist movement took on harsh positions to ensure a place where Jews could live and recreate the numbers lost. Foreign policy hard-liners from Ben-Gurion to Begin would only have to make a veiled reference to Hitler, and any vague possibility of accommodation with our neighbors would be ridiculed as naive. In the geopolitical context of Israel's first few decades, this may have served a need. The attitude, however, was genuine and not merely pragmatic. All the barbarity of the Arab world aside, their view of Israel as militaristic and unbending is not as farfetched as we would like to believe. We trusted the civilized nations of the world and were let down. We are afraid, and perhaps unable, to ever trust again.

The roshei yeshiva took on harsh positions to recreate the religiously intense atmosphere lost in Eastern Europe. The reduced pool of advanced yeshiva students remaining reached crisis proportions: a laboratory atmosphere had to be created, isolating away any of the cultural mix that had made Volozhin such a lively and yet ideologically vulnerable institution. Whereas the premier yeshiva in Europe included creative students who sometimes left tradition, there was no room for such at Ponovicz or Lakewood. Pre-war creativity and individuality were replaced by conformity of thought, action and appearance. In order to further prevent threatening influences the yeshivot separated themselves from the rest of Jewish life. Students were expected to follow the halachic norms of the roshei yeshiva instead of the pulpit rabbis. In the words of history scholar Jacob Katz:

Where once they catered to the needs of a living environment, producing its spiritual leaders and intellectual elite, in their new settings they were quasi-monastic institutions maintaining themselves only through their cultural aloofness.

The latter yeshivot have essentially turned their backs on the Jewish community that their predecessors had been built to serve. As with the Zionists, the immediate pragmatic benefits of the resultant ideology must be weighed against the problems it created in our own day.

Realize it or not, our nation has taken on a very different look from what it was before the war. Our center was destroyed, leaving the periphery to recreate a culture. Imagine America stripped of its cultural elite, its major cities and universities totally destroyed, leaving a couple of second-class cultural outposts to recreate its culture anew. Such a task would be a tall order indeed. This was the situation in 1945 for the Jewish people. Up until now, we have been too busy rebuilding to carefully examine the quality of the enterprise.

Perhaps now, with our physical numbers in reasonably good shape, it is time to step back and see that some of the limbs created are not organic. On the contrary, these overly stimulated, artificial appendages threaten to make us grotesque.

In truth, we must mourn what Hitler has done to the Jewish people. Our nation remains a cultural and psychological victim of the war perpetrated against us.