The Struggle for a Jewish History of the Holocaust

By Michael Berenbaum — September 4, 2020

Mark L. Smith’s “The Yiddish Historians and Struggle for a Jewish History of the Holocaust” (Wayne State University Press) is a significant work. A successful architect turned historian, Smith explores the life and work of five Yiddish historians, all steeped in the prewar tradition of Yiddish historiography, who chose to continue their historical work in the language of those they left behind. Theirs was an act of homage to those who died in the Holocaust and of solidarity with their fellow survivors.

Educated in a trilingual culture, many spoke and wrote in many more than three languages. They came of age in interwar Poland but persisted doing their work in Yiddish even as they made their homes in Israel, Paris or New York.

They wrote for a broad readership explaining to them what happened to their own community. They wrote for a diminishing readership as the sons and daughters of the Yiddish reading public read in other languages.

Had postwar Poland been more hospitable to Jewish revival, they may have remained there, but after the pogroms, communism and Stalinism, they emigrated. The sparks of post-Shoah revival were quickly extinguished.

Who were these men? Philip Friedman (1901-60), Isaiah Trunk (1905-81), Nachman Blumenthal (1905-83), Joseph Kermish (1907-2005) and Mark Dworzecki (1908-75).

For whom did these men write?

They wrote for educated laypeople who wanted to understand their past. Many of their contemporary scholars prided themselves on the density of their scholarship, boasting of its inaccessibility.

What did they write about?

They wrote as participant observers of the everyday life of the Jews, not of theirmurders. Surprisingly, after all they had gone through, they were advocates of the anti-lachrymose theory of Jewish history, believing that Jewish history is not all about pogroms and persecution, anti-Semitism and discrimination but about the life of real people. Trunk said: “how the ghetto lived is no less important than the question of how it was murdered.”

They fiercely denied the uniqueness of the Holocaust; their critique was twofold. The uniqueness of the Holocaust is not connected to anything that the Jews did but is rooted in the Nazi accomplishment. Furthermore, they were categorically against the mystification of the Holocaust. Trunk was adamant: “If the Holocaust was regarded as unassailably unique therefore ineffable and unfathomable, it would elude the tools of historical inquiry,” and thus defeat the very nature of their historical efforts, singular and collective.

Many participated in the trial of Nazi war criminals by providing essential documentation, but they regarded that as a civic duty, seemingly unrelated to their historical task. When pressed, Nachman Blumenthal agreed to testify — “not as an accuser but as an expert.”

Those who went to Israel — Kermish, Dworzecki and Blumenthal — fought against the dominant Zionist ideology of shelilat hagolah [the negation of the exile]. They were unimpressed by efforts to create the “new Jew” and reticent to transfer their allegiance to the Hebrew language. The spearheaded an internal revolution within Yad Vashem where the primary emphasis in the years of its inception was on the role of the perpetrators. They argued that the task of the Jewish memorial was to tell the Jewish story. Their enduring legacy: Yad Vashem has depicted its new exhibition as telling the story from the Jewish perspective.

They were most willing to confront the dark side of Jewish behavior. Dworzecki’s admonishment: “Remain Silent or tell the whole truth.”

Smith depicts their collective achievement as redeeming Jewish honor by recognizing the many ways that Jews struggled to remain alive under Nazi domination.

These historians were pioneering. Long before feminists began to write about the role of women in the Holocaust, these Yiddish historians of the Holocaust — and they were all men — wrote of the unique role that women played both in the ghetto, when many men who could no longer provide for their family lost a sense of self-worth, and wives and mothers had to provide for the entire family. They depicted the role that women played in the resistance because their Jewishness could not be revealed by circumcision.

The Yiddish historians directly and unapologetically confronted the accusation that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter.

They detailed the obstacles Jews faced: The choice to resist was met by disproportionate punishment. The Nazis skillfully practiced the classical tools of domination: conquer and control, divide and rule.

Jews lacked arms or even sources for arms. Facing two enemies, the Nazis bent on their destruction and the native anti-Semites who were rewarded for turning in a Jew and punished often by death for shielding Jews, they could not count on the support of the local population.

Traditionally law abiding, Jews were often optimistic, a fatal communal and individual flaw when an enemy is determined to kill and destroy without restraint. Jews had illusions of faith in humanity and divinity, in the West and even in the German people.

These historians documented many instances of self-help. As a professor at Bar Ilan University, Dworzecki made his students work with survivors and listen to survivors at a time when they were still pejoratively called sabnonikim [soaps], referring to the discredited rumors that Nazis made soap from the fat of corpses of those who died in concentration camps.

Jews had to summon the inner resources to survive. Cultural activities were essential to combat depression and apathy. Religious observance and study preserved and enhanced the spirit. The very act of staying alive longer than the Germans predicted was an act of resistance.

Armed resistance was not the first instinct of Jewish leaders. They sought clarification and compromise, to plead, to bribe, to amend, to spiritually defy their masters, to seek religious solace and to work out some form of accommodation.

It was not a question of courage. Armed resistance was only one form of courage. It took courage for fathers to stay with their families, for mothers to comfort their children, for teachers to teach in the ghetto, for rabbis to remain with their congregants and for simple Jews to maintain their values.

Ironically, Yiddish historians avoided comparisons to the non-Jewish world. They did not ask — as others do — how was it that Soviet POWs, trained fighting men of military age unburdened by family and community, could die in massive numbers — 3.3 million — without rising in resistance.

Yiddish historians contend that spiritual resistance was the only means of resistance in which the great masses of Jews could and did engage in and which might reduce the threat of their immediate or eventual deaths. The concept of Amidah made its way into Holocaust history, standing up and remaining resilient in the face of oppression.

Smith’s research is voluminous. He devotes 90 pages to a bibliography of each of these five men, the books and articles by them and about them in the multiple languages in which they wrote. He has written a collective not an individual biography of men who knew one another, worked with and for one another, admired and liked one another, memorialized and celebrated one another — remarkable for a group of scholars.

They shared a common enterprise to write a history of the Jews, how they lived and how they endured what they had to endure, how they sought to preserve their honor and dignity in a world determined not merely to kill them but to dehumanize them. This book is not about the people who killed the Jews but about the Jews they killed.


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.

Published in the Jewish Journal here.

Chasidism Taught Through a Modern Lens in Two-Volumes

By Michael Berenbaum — June 17, 2020

In the two-volume “A New Hasidism,” subtitled “Roots” and “Branches,” editors Arthur Green and Ariel Evan Mayse explore the attraction to and transformation of Chasidic teachings by a generation of Western seekers inspired by the teachings of an 18th- and 19th-century movement that had captured Eastern European Jews. But as products of contemporary Western civilization, they chart their own path more interested in spiritually integrating two clashing traditions, well understanding that the conflict cannot be solved but it can be lived.

Like the founder of Chasidism, their world is suffused with God, divine sparks are everywhere. Like the Besht, they are energized by a love of God, of Torah and of the people Israel. And like Chasidism, they upset the religious establishment; soon thereafter, they forced change.

The editors were born into different generations. Green, the rector of the rabbinical school at Boston Hebrew College, is best known for his works on Chasidism, his early biography of Nachman of Bratslav, his translations and compilations of basic Chasidic texts, and his masterful and manifold theological writings. A founder, together with his late wife Kathy, of Havurat Shalom in 1968, he is widely respected in the U.S. and Israel. Mayse is an Israeli-trained Orthodox rabbi with a doctorate in Jewish Studies from Harvard. Now at Stanford, he came to a mountaintop encounter with God through the martial arts. He was a Green’s Hebrew College colleague before moving westward.

The two volumes build upon the other, engage the other.

Volume I, “Roots” presents selected writings of the founding fathers (all men) of this new movements.

Most founders are familiar. Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel were among the most influential and admired of 20th-century Jewish thinkers and activists; Shlomo Carlebach and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, two European-born men who came to Chabad as disciples of the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn,who were sent by his successor to change the world but who, much to his regret,were changed by the world. Green is the only founder still alive. The less well-known but appropriately chosen figure is Hillel Zeitlin, a Polish socialist mystic deeply rooted in Chasidism yet who wrote on Spinoza and Nietzsche as well as Buddhism. He urgently sought to shape an elite religious community in his native Warsaw, seemingly intuiting the impending catastrophe. He was killed in the Shoah.

The editors chose wisely among their many works, but not the writings that a more casual student of Jewish thought might read. Each thinker is given an appropriate contextual introduction indicating their potential influence for contemporary Jewry. Carlebach’s musical performances often were interrupted by long maashiyot, tales better heard than read. Song was the enticement; for Carlebach Torah was the substance. In “The Torah of Nine Months,” one encounters his unique teaching style and brilliance. His personal failings are neither excused nor allowed to overshadow his contribution.

Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the Rebbe of Jewish Renewal, is presented in dialogue with Green, a friend, colleague and talmid (student) who asks the profound questions that two men who know each other well can discuss. Green’s early work, controversial because he dealt openly with the psychedelic culture of his youth, shows his range as scholar and seeker.

The second volume, “Branches,” is more adventuresome, diverse but no less interesting. Seventeen essays are offered by some of the most spiritually sensitive Jews of this generation. Schachter-Shalomi and Green are the bridge between “Roots” and the “Branches.” Both lived into the 21st century and established communities of fellow seekers, Schachter-Shalomi’s community was more personal and intimate. Green headed institutions that sought to train rabbis who could create spiritual communities of serious Jews but also do the daily work involved in the contemporary rabbinicate. There is an article about Carlebach, not by him.

These essayists could sojourn only in the vibrant and expanding Chasidic communities because their attitudes toward women,gender andgays are more inclusive, shaped by a sense of equality and by feminism, attitudes found only at the periphery of modern Orthodoxy — at least for now. They are welcoming toward non-Jewish religiosity. Chasidic hostility toward non-Jews reflected the hostility toward Jews in Eastern Europe, and contemporary Chasidism — Chabad is the exception — had adopted a policy of insularity to defend against modernity. The world of New Chasidism is not divided between Jews and goyim. They are engaged with Western civilization. Many have found their home within the multicultural university.

They are also not uncritical of contemporary Judaism. Two essays have been chosen as illustrative.

Ebn Leader asks does a new Chasidism need a rebbe? Submitting to authority is difficult for Americans raised on rugged individualism and touched by the 1960s culture that rallied against the establishment. Some of the formative figures of the new Chasidism were as deeply ambivalent about becoming rebbes as their students were ambivalent about becoming Chasidim. Buber saw himself as a man endangered before God and not a tzadik assured of God’s presence. Heschel struggled between his role as professor and the role he was expected to assume as rebbe. His prophetic role was incompatible with being a rebbe. Neither Schachter-Shalomi nor Carlebach could transfer their allegiance from the sixth to the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, and while each somehow modeled a rebbe, neither produced heirs ready to assume their mantle. Green has had many students and disciples but drew back from fully embracing the role of rebbe. He is more comfortable as mentor and teacher, guiding students to discover their own way rather than following his.

Contemporary Jews seek guidance from many sources, psychologists, financial advisers, rabbis and marriage counsellors rather than rebbes. And although a psychologist may apply Chasidic teachings in her therapeutic work, master/disciple not client/therapist was the Chasidic model. The rebbe was perceived as a tzadik, living in God’s presence and he offered that direct relationship to those more distant from God, a way to approach God for those who sought to come closer. Liberal Jews are more egalitarian. They may approximate having a rebbe and expect the teacher to offer more than knowledge and “set forth their lives as the material of their teaching.” In return, the student must be prepared to be far more vulnerable and personal than the traditional academic relationship. Knowledge must be more than objective and detached. Religious knowledge should be lived rather than merely analyzed.

We are, Leader argues, “vessels shattered by the Enlightenment, Emancipation and the Holocaust.” We must use many different tools to become spiritually whole again.

Mayse wrote an important essay on “Neo Hasidism and Halakhah: The Duties of Intimacy and the Laws of the Heart.” There is an innate tension between those who have or seek a direct experience of God and the authority accrued over centuries by Jewish religious law. His martial arts training is manifest in his approach to halachah. Mayse writes: “One must submit not only to the goal but the journey itself.” The role of the master is to give the student “the discipline and the inspiration to become a confident and self- sufficient practitioner.” He views halachah less as law than as the path. His critique of contemporary Orthodoxy’s rigidity: “Love for the Shulchan Aruch — the Set Table, the Code of Jewish Law — is an inadequate substitute for love of God.” Some are too focused on being yotzei, on fulfilling one’s halachic obligation rather than yotzehyedey shamyim, answering the summon of Heaven.

Submission and discipline become imbalanced without the forces of love and devotion. He introduces a measure of flexibility and a four-tiered approach to halachah that mirrors the four levels or understanding the Torah, PARDES (peshat, remez, derash and sod).

The time has come for a third volume of “New Hasidism in the Holy Land,” where new dimensions of Jewish spirituality are being explored by Jews deeply literate in Jewish tradition and who even, if they left the Orthodoxy of their yeshiva world, have not become “unorthodox” but religious Jews in a rather new way. We are ready for an understanding of Torah that goes beyond Litvak talmudists and even Rav Kook and the politicalization and militarization of some of his followers.

After reading these two intellectually informative and spiritually rich works, we ask how indeed 21st-century Jews living in comfort, in freedom, in modernity in an age of feminism and egalitarianism, at a time when they draw close to those who have been “other” will adapt the spiritual teaching of their 18th- and 19th-century ancestors.

Judaism will be much enhanced by such adaption as has been this reader.


Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.

Published in the Jewish Journal here.