Jewish World Review / August, 1998 / Menachem-Av, 5758

" --- Like Sheep"?!

History is more than sounds. It is also scenes to be viewed and analyzed, observes Yisroel Saperstein.

ROOTS ARE ALWAYS important, especially in times of shifting values. So people ask, "What was it like before I was born? How did my predecessors live? How did they die?"

Some young Jews find their past a stumbling block to defining their personal identity, for how can they be proud to be descendants of a people who, like sheep, submitted en masse to slaughter at the hands of the Nazis?

This stigma has been placed on our nation because it is believed that Jews behaved in a cowardly fashion during World War II --- a reaction that was uniquely Jewish.

Nothing dispels myths as well as facts. Let us listen to the sounds of history and the facts will emerge:

We have yielded to force. Since we are not prepared even in this terrible hour to shed blood, we have decided to offer no resistance.

This sounds like the voice of a miserable ghetto Jew, without backbone, or dignity --- for who but an Eastern European, galus-complexed Jew could be so cowardly?

But listen again. It is the voice of the Chancellor of Austria, Dr. Schuschnig, broadcasting his country's surrender to Germany on Friday evening, March 11, 1938.

Another voice rings out from the past:

"We were abandoned, we stand alone," he declared, explaining his lack of resistance to German seizure.

Is it a typical apologist attempting to rationalize the behavior of his shameful Jewish ancestors?

Listen more closely. It is the broadcast of General Sirovy, Premier of Czechoslovakia, explaining Czech surrender of the Sudetenland to Germany at S P.M., September 30, 1938. This surrender doomed close to one million Czech citizens to being uprooted from their homes and deprived of all personal possessions. Yet this country, with its fully prepared armed forces, declared that she was abandoned and therefore could offer no resistance. She was surrendering.

Czechoslovakia surrendering? How could an independent country that had the most formidable defense fortifications in Europe next to the Maginot line in France, a nation that had a well-equipped, well-trained, modern army of thirty-five divisions --- how could it surrender the Sudetanland, the key to its entire defense structure, without any resistance?

After the Czechs yielded, the Nazis inspected their fortifications. They had this to say: "The Czech border fortifications caused general astonishment ... A test bombardment showed that our weapons would not have prevailed against them." Even the usually arrogant Hitler was impressed and admitted that taking them through battle would have been very difficult. (From the memoirs of the Nazi Minister of Armaments, Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, p. 111.)

"The position is quite clear, resistance would be folly." A quote from another of those cringing, shuffling, old-time ghetto Jews -- right?

Wrong. Those words were spoken by Dr. Hachu, President of Czechoslovakia on 2 A.M. on Monday, March 15, 1939, as he surrendered what remained of Czechoslovakia to Hitler.

"Hard to Believe One's Eyes"

History is more than sounds. It is also scenes to be viewed and analyzed.

So watch as one-and-a-half million humans are driven eastward across the Vistula River, after having been dragged out of their homes. The temperature is -40 F, and freezing to death is a common phenomenon. How does this great mass of humanity permit itself to be driven? Why are Jews so cowardly?

A closer look reveals that 1,200,000 of these people are Poles. Only the remaining one-fifth are Jews. Did anybody ever wonder why Poles permitted themselves to be driven, to freeze to death?

Somehow I have never heard the question asked.

But there is more to be seen: It is hard to believe one's eyes, trained in the art of watching 5,750,000 military men -- men trained in the art of warfare -- being marched by the Nazis to certain death by starvation and exposure to freezing conditions These men were brave Russian soldiers, now Nazi prisoners. Were these, too, "cowardly men" who could not think for themselves, unable to form a plot, too defeated in spirit to unite to rebel?

There is yet one more scene:

They were led barefoot to the quarry ... At the bottom of the landing the guards loaded stones onto their backs to carry to the top of the steps. On the first trip up, the stones they handled weighed some sixty pounds each, and they were encouraged with generous blows ... The second trip up the stones were heavier, and whenever these men sank under their burden, they were kicked and bludgeoned. By evening half were dead, the rest holding out till morning, when they too died.

Why didn't these men throw their stones at their tormentors? Didn't they clearly see that they were being worked rapidly to death? Why was none of them courageous enough to take some Nazis with them? But what can one expect from cowardly Jews? Oh? --- These are not Jews? They are United States Air Force officers? Oh.

It would seem obvious that when men -- or nations -- are faced with the threat of a more powerful force, they endeavor to preserve their lives for as long as possible. As one historian points out: "How could a group, even a large group, rise in revolt against the marching guns, flame throwers, and tanks of the SS?"

When one sees in print such obvious explanation for the total absence of any wide-spread revolt against the Nazis, it seems almost too self evident; but at least it clears the air of the malicious canard hurled at the previous generation.

Except that the writer quoted is not explaining Jewish behavior. He is discussing the conduct of another nation.

Time to Speak for Ourselves --- to Ourselves

Apparently, then, it is time for us to speak for ourselves --- to ourselves ...

When Aleksendr Solzhenitsyn can declare in an interview published in thirteen languages that the men with whom he was imprisoned in Communist Russia are giants, it is time to examine the true greatness of our imprisoned. Reading One Day in the Life of Ivan Desinovich, which describes one of the camps where these "giants" dwell, one finds very little to justify the title "giant" (except, perhaps, for one fellow who eats with his back straight instead of hunched). Not only is there a complete absence of any bravery in the popular cowboy-and-Indian style, but there is not even mention of one act of moral courage! Did anyone give up a portion of food for someone else? Did any groups convene to read books of democratic ideals, to declare that they are ready to die for their ideal?

It is time, then, to appreciate the idealism of the Jewish people. From the time the first Jew was thrown into the ovens --- that is the first Jew, Avraham Avinu --- the Jewish nation time and again has placed its ideals above life itself.

During this past thousand years of exile in foreign lands -- where restrictions on every facet of life abounded, where pogroms, imprisonment, and decrees of expulsion were never rare -- every individual Jew knew that if he wanted to live safely, securely, and comfortably, all he had to do was enter the nearest church and say one word: Yes. Not only would the restrictions suffered for being a Jew be removed, not only would he receive vast honors and recognition from the Church for his act; but, often, as a seasoned merchant he would find countless new opportunities open to him and he would grow in both riches and power. Yet the persecuted Jews remained Jews, true to their ideals and faithful to their traditions.

The fires of mesiras nefesh, self-sacrafice for Judaism, continued to burn in the breasts of our people, even in the most terrifying of circumstances. Jews who smuggled tefillin, printed copies of the Torah, shofars, and even Torah scrolls themselves into the concentration camps, instead of an extra morsel of food, or their jewels, or money ... Jews who lit Chanukah candles in the dark depths of Auschwitz and Buchenwald --- where they had a minyan ... Jews who, after a whole night of body-breaking labor, went with their last ounce of strength to the back of their barracks to put on a pair of tefillin ... The queues for putting on tefillin were so long in Buna-Auschwitz that a gabbai was appointed to make certain that nobody kept on the tefillin for longer than a brief moment. In Tirnau, Jews lined up in the dead of night, from 3 A.M. to 5:30, for a turn to put on the tefillin ... Jews who baked matzos in the Kluga Death Camp in Estonia, where there was a regular minyan complete with tallis and tefillin ... Jews whose v'ahavta I're'acha kamocha (love for one's fellow) was so strong that slave laborers who were allocated less than survival rations left over some of their own precious portions of food for others in a nearby concentration camp, who would sneak over at night for a little sustenance. It was our Jews who, even after having been forced to surrender their bodies as other nations had surrendered theirs, still remained in command of their own spirit.

It is time for us to proclaim our heroes, if not to those who read thirteen languages, then at least among ourselves and our children.

Rabbi Yisroel Saperstein attended the Mirrer Yeshiva Kollel. He resides in Monsey, NY.


©1998, Agudath Israel of America