The Curious Case of Hitler’s Signed Copy of the Nuremberg Laws

Hitler’s Copy of the Nuremberg Laws

The announcement that the Huntington Library has given its copy of the Nuremberg Laws personally signed by Adolf Hitler to the National Archives raises some interesting questions.

Recall that this document was taken by General George Patton, who was a notorious antisemite, as part of his personal war booty and given to the Huntington Library, which at the time shared his sentiments regarding Jews, where it was stored in a safe for decades and unavailable to the public. Peculiarly, it was not even noted among its archival holdings.

A word of history: Two laws promulgated at the annual Nazi party rally in Nuremberg on September 15, 1935—the Law for the Protection of German Blood and the Reich Citizenship Law—became the centerpiece of Hitler’s anti-Jewish legislation. Those laws, which were soon known throughout the world as the Nuremberg Laws – not to be confused with the post-war Nuremberg Trials—restricted citizenship in the Reich to those of “German or kindred blood.” Only citizens, racial Germans, were entitled to civil and political rights. Jews were merely subjects of the state. In order to “protect German blood and honor,” the marriage of Jews and “citizens of German or related blood” was forbidden. So too were sexual relations between Jews and Aryans. Women under the age of 45 could not work in Jewish households. Jews could not fly the German flag. Categorization had consequences. Definition was the first step toward destruction. Patton took Hitler’s personal signed copy of the Laws, which he found in Hitler’s Munich apartment and for almost three scores years the public did not know that such a document existed.

To the credit of the current staff once the copy was discovered the Huntington lent it to the Skiball Cultural Center, which promptly put it on display. It was shown at the entrance to their small but ever so moving memorial to the Holocaust 6 photographs of Jews who were killed in the Holocaust with a stark inscription “6 of 6 Million.” The Skirball exhibited it adjacent to a mandatory “Emergency Exit” sign, perhaps without quite being aware of the irony: unless Jews found an emergency exit from Europe, they became part of the Six Million, murdered during the Holocaust.

Still questions must be asked:

Why did the Huntington gift this historic document to the National Archives and not maintain it on display at the Skirball?

Why did it not give it to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the American national memorial institution dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust?

Why did it not give it to museum dedicated to the Holocaust such as the Los Angeles based Museum or Tolerance, or even to Yad Vashem, the Jewish National Memorial to the Holocaust.

Mind you, in a sense this document is coming home. Patton took the Nuremberg Laws either illegally or inappropriately. All such documents captured by the US military at the end of World War II should have been turned over the Army War Records which are now stored in the National Archives .By giving it over to the National Archives, the Huntington is reuniting the signed copy of the Nuremberg Laws with millions of other documents captured by the US Army in after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Yet the National Archives will not display this document as any of these other institutions would most certainly have. It will be buried among their collections rather than be seen by the public.

I suspect that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum will – most certainly it should – request the document on loan for display in the Museum as part of its exhibition on the Nuremberg Laws, but still one wonders why the leaders of the Huntington gave it to the Archives and not a Holocaust institution.

The Shoes of Majdanek

Reports of the fire at Majdanek that damaged the barracks housing hundreds of thousands of shoes should cause up to shudder. Something monumental has been lost and we must be mindful of its magnitude.

A word about Majdanek: The camp is situated in a valley just outside the major town of Lublin, in proximity to Little Majdan from which it derived its name. It was in the Polish territory annexed to the Reich. During the war it was part of Germany proper.

Today it is on a side road, adjacent to the major road between Lublin and Zamosc, a picturesque and charming Polish city. During the war, the camp was obscured from the road – but not from the city. Farmers worked the fields adjacent to the camp.

Majdanek was captured whole in July 1944. Unlike what happened in Auschwitz, the Nazis had no time to evacuate the camp or to burn it and destroy the evidence. The story of Majdanek was featured on the front page of the New York Times, then as now, the most prestigious of American newspapers.

H.W. Lawrence, a correspondent for the New York Times, wrote: “I have just seen the most terrible place on earth.” These revelations were not given much credence. The very existence of something as awful as a death camp seemed impossible. Even graphic films of the camp shown in Britain and the United States were dismissed as Soviet propaganda.

Because it was captured whole, visitors to Majdanek see far more than they might see at Auschwitz itself. As any visitor of the camp will tell you, Majdanek is more primitive, more actual and more real.


Visitors would walk through a barracks of shoes, the shoes of 500,000 Jews from the various ghettos and camps, who entered but did not leave. To me that barrack was the most powerful part of a visit to Majdanek, more powerful even than the gas chambers and crematoria that one sees intact at the top of the hill, more powerful still that the pyramid of ashes that form a mountain just outside the gas chamber.

Moshe Shulstein, the great Yddish poet wrote of these shoes:

I saw a mountain
Higher than Mt. Blanc
And more Holy that the Mountain of Sinai
On this world this mountain stood.
such a mountain I saw—Jewish shoes in Majdanek….

Hear! hear the march.
Hear the shuffle of shoes left behind—that which remained.
From small, from large, from each and every one.
Make ways for the rows—for the pairs—
For the generations—for the years.
The shoe army—it moves and moves.

We are the shoes, we are the last witnesses.
We are shoes from grandchildren and grandfathers,
From Prague, Paris and Amsterdam,
And because we are only made of stuff and leather
And not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire.
We shoes—that used to go strolling in the market
Or with the bride and groom to the chuppah
We shoes from simple Jews, from butchers and carpenters,
From crocheted booties of babies just beginning to walk and go On happy occasions, weddings and even until the time
Of giving birth, to a dance, to exciting places of life…
Or quietly—to a funeral.
Unceasingly we go. We tramp.
The hangman never had a chance to snatch us into his
Sack of loot—now we go to him.
Let everyone hear the steps which flow as tears.
The steps that measure out the judgment.

Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz wrote:

“Death begins with the shoes: for most of us, they show themselves to be instruments of torture, which after a few hours of marching cause painful sores which become fatally infected. Whoever has them is forced to walk as if he was dragging a convict’s chain… he arrives late everywhere and everywhere he receives blows. He cannot escape if they run after him. His feet swell and the more the friction with the wood and the cloth of the shoes becomes insupportable.”

Gisella Pearl, a Hugnarian gynecologist from Elie Wiesel’s home town of Sighet described her own experience, but in the first person, and in a much more personal way:

“For two months I stood on my bare feet during two daily roll calls. My feet swelled and were covered with sores—which was not only painful but also dangerous…Then one of the women working near the crematory stole a pair of shoes for me in exchange for two days ration…I received a pair of shoes, about size ten, and I refused to listen when they tried to tell me the story of the man who had worn them…The shoes were so big that I could not walk in them. I needed shoe strings…I wanted them so much that nothing else seemed to matter.”

The shoes of Majdanek are rotting. They smell. The rot and the smell tell us of the distance that stands between that time and our time. They bear witness to the erosion of time, which we do not want couple with the erosion of memory.


In another barracks just adjacent to the shoes the visitor walks down a barracks filled with uniforms of men and women, even of children who lived in this camp, who died in this camp. Human beings once wore these uniforms, once they were alive, now they are dead. One can sense their absence; the visitor must imagine their presence.

There are two gas chambers at Majdanek; the first one primitive, meant to murder a few. Simple, it has an entrance way, an undressing room, and then a small gas chamber with a motor next door and a sealed booth for the engineer who ran the diesel engine.

And then in the rear of the camp on top of the hill, the visitor sees the large gas chamber and crematoria, still intact, looking as if it is ready to go. The first gas chamber could kill a few people, one dozen or two. The second one could kill thousands and dispose of their bodies, leaving mounds of ashes.

How did the shoes and uniforms arrive at Majdanek?
Majdanek was the place where the warehouses from Aktion Reinhard were located, where the clothing and valuables taken from the prisoners were delivered, sorted and stored and shipped back into Germany.

It was also the headquarters for the destruction of regional ghettos and the place of supervision for the Aktion Reinhard camps Sobibor, Belzec and Treblinka.

Majdanek also was used as a prison camp and also as a transit camp for those who were deported elsewhere; it later became a killing center though that was not its primary purpose. Jews were a minority of those incarcerated in Majdanek though they were the overwhelming majority of those murdered there.

Jews were sent to Majdanek from diverse places including Slovakia, Theresienstadt and Germany in 1942, and later from the Lublin and Warsaw Districts of Poland and from the Bialystock ghetto upon its destruction. Between October 1942 and September 1943 the SS built two and possibly three gas chambers at Majdanek. Modeled on the gas chambers that were not used at Dachau, they could operate either on Carbon Monoxide or Zyklon B which was in use elsewhere at Auschwitz.

Historians differ as to the numbers of Jews killed at Majdanek. Postwar reports detailed 120,000 killed, others spoke of twice or three times that number. In a recent study by the director of the camp, Tomasz Kranz detailed the number of Jews deported to Majdanek and the number who were sent from Majdanek elsewhere, almost always to Aktion Reinhard camps where they were killed. According to the Memorial at Majdanek, some 74,000 Jews were deported to Majdanek and 15,000 Jews were deported from Majdanek to other death camps, leaving some 59,000 who were killed at Majdanek. Though the figures may be taken merely as a minimum since after 1942 camp officials ceased to record Jewish dead and in 1944 the records of the Majdanek camps were burnt just before its liberation.

We do know that more than half of that number were killed in 1942 and almost one in three during the so called Erntefest” (Harvest Festival) of November 3, 1943 when
SS and police units carried out Heinrich Himmler’s orders to murder the surviving Jews in Lublin District, including the remaining Jewish prisoners at Majdanek. They concentrate 18,000 Jews from various camps and prisons in Lublin, including at least 8,000 Jewish prisoners in Majdanek, and then shoot them in large prepared ditches outside the camp fence near the crematorium. The killing at Majdanek on November 3, 1943, was the largest single-day, single-location massacre during the Holocaust at the camp. Majdanek was captured by the Soviet Union in July 1944, captured whole before the Germans had time to destroy the camp.

So much was lost in the fire – the material remains of the people who were consumed there and elsewhere by fire, whose burial place was the sky.

I cried when I heard of the flames that consumed these shoes and then I thought again. Perhaps after 66 years of bearing witness of the hell fire, the shoes – made of fiber and leather – were reunited with the grandfathers and grandchildren from Paris, Prague and Amsterdam, the men, women and children of flesh and blood.

Pious Pronouncement with Action

I take prayer seriously, very seriously. It is an integral part of my daily life.

Years ago when I officiated at High Holiday services I found one prayer most disturbing. Recited at the beginning of the Reader’s repetition of the Musaf Amidah in melodious and beautiful the Congregation and its leaders would go through forty four versus loudly proclaiming,

“And all believe that God is faithful, inquires into secrets, searches human conscience, redeems from the grave, a Mighty Redeemer, judge of humanity, that there is none besides God, that God heeds the covenant. ..”

You get the point.

Reciting the acrostic poem from alef to tof, twice for each letter from the beginning of the Hebrew alphabet to its end, Jews would clearly lie to God in the midst of their most sacred service. Perhaps there was a time when all believed, but even in the most pious of congregations some harbor even the most secret of doubt as the one belief or another and all must acknowledge that not all believe.

So from time to time I would ask the congregation “what do all Jews believe?” The answer we came up with would cause some to chuckle.

We can truthfully say that all Jews believe that there is at most One God. And all believe that we need an energy policy.

At most there is one God—there are many Jewish atheists and agnostics, and many who are idolators, in the most significant sense of the term – worshipping false gods, but I know of no Jewish polytheists.

But it is the second of the universally held Jewish beliefs that concerned me as I shuddered from the scenes I am seeing from the Gulf of Mexico. “Drill baby drill is not going to work. The oil companies and the government did not know how to control the leak, how to cap the well and an ecological disaster unfolded before our eyes day-in and day-out.

How profound a disaster it was and will be, I cannot judge – I suspect that no one really knows.
There are only two long-terms solutions to our energy problem: “Conserve baby conserve” and develop alternate energy sources.

Former Vice President Cheney was wrong when he spoke of conservation as a private virtue: it is a public necessity. And former President Jimmy Carter was right – Carter was right, at least once – when spoke of the struggle for energy as the moral equivalent of war. People mocked him sitting in the White House with a cardigan sweater in front of a burning fire place. The American people welcomed President Ronald Reagan’s unbridled optimism when he spoke of “morning in America.” But Carter was correct then and now. Sacrifice is required, discipline and the unleashing of the American imagination so that we can take the leadership in creating alternate sources of energy. And higher prices; the consumer must understand that cheap energy is a thing of the past.

As Congress struggles with whether to take up the energy bill or the immigration bill first, the stakes could not be more serious. There is no issue more pressing for the United States—and for the long-term security of Israel—that the development of alternate energy sources that would wean us off imported oil. When Senator Lindsay Graham withdrew his support from the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill, the very bill he drafted and which bore his name, his act was anti-American and even more deeply anti-Israel.
And when AIPAC keeps tabs on individual votes in support of Israel will they include votes on energy policy, which is the most pro-American and pro-Israel vote a Representative can cast.

I know that many in the liberal community have been deeply disappointed in Senator Joseph I. Lieberman in recent years. But on this issue he is right.

If Congress cannot take up the energy bill and craft a good one, they are imperiling the future of America. The solution for the electorate may not be to throw these rascals out for those who replace them may be far worse, but to demand that they confront the issue and get it right.

If, as Rahm Emanuel has said.  “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” we wasted the crisis of 1973 and 1979 the oil crisis. We wasted the Enron crisis and the California energy supply shortage and since then things have only gotten worse.

The American people, with the American Jewish Community in the lead, should be demanding of our President and the Congress that we set forth an energy policy that moves us to conserve and stimulates the development of alternate energy sources, making them economically feasible by imposing a tax whose proceeds go to the development of alternate clean energy sources.

Demand sacrifice, unleash the American imagination. If we do not lead, others will lead and America will overtime become second rate economically. And we will deserve our fate.

The current policy enriches our enemies – enemies of the United States and enemies of Israel – and despoils our environment.

We all know what should be done. We must have the will and the imagination to get it done.

The Place of Remembrance: Tisha B’av in Contemporary Times

By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion

Psalms 137:1
With these words, the Psalmist reminds us that the place from which we remember an event shapes how the event is remembered. Place, even more than time.

We weep for different reasons. There are tears of sorrow, tears of joy, tears of exultation, and tears of frustration.

So permit me to grapple with Tisha b’Av and its contemporary meanings by recalling place and remembering the different tears that I shed as I remembered Zion, on what had been traditionally regarded as the saddest day in the Jewish calendar.

Tisha b’Av 5718 (1958), Connecticut
Like many American Jews of my generation, my first serious encounter with Tisha b’Av came at summer camp, in my case Camp Ramah. Because of the peculiarities of the Jewish calendar, the only holiday that occurs in the camping season is Tisha b’Av, and thus it becomes a centerpiece of the summer. There were many hours of preparation during the three weeks of mourning between the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av. We were taught the laws of the holiday; and when we reached the nine days just before Tisha b’Av, our sense of enjoyment was diminished ever so slightly. Our classes and the new melodies we learned shaped our consciousness of the anguished moments in Jewish history. And then the evening itself arrived. Shoes were removed for sneakers; the lighting was dimmed and replaced by candles. From the choir came songs of sadness, Ma’ariv (the daily, evening prayer service) was recited, followed by chanting of the Book of Lamentations (Eikhah) with its haunting melody and the special trope for the 66 short, crisp verses of Chapter 3. Silence was present, rather than chatter; softness rather than the loud voices of children at play. The entire atmosphere in the camp was transformed; and there was little reality from the outside world to intervene, to shatter the mood.

We experienced the rhythms of Tisha b’Av: heavy mourning in the evening; mourning of less intensity in the morning, but with benches still overturned and mourners not wearing tallit and tefillin; and a gradual lifting of the mourning as the day progressed. We were taught to think historically and to see that past, present, and future were related. We were taught to understand that the Jewish people have repeatedly faced defeat, lived in its aftermath (albeit in a diminished and weakened state), and been blessed with enough energy to endure and, ultimately, to be creative again. We were taught the rebukes of Jeremiah in the first part of Isaiah and the consolation of Jeremiah in the second part. We were taught to think about Jerusalem, the city so seemingly distant and not-of-this-earth, and about the Holocasut, 13 years in the past, but still fresh.

Since camp, Tisha b’Av has always loomed large on my calendar. Since camp (which coincided with my bar mitzvah), I have fasted and observed it seriously, although perhaps not with the intensity I experienced in camp. For in camp, the outside world did not interrupt; such was the power of camp and a prime reason for its effectiveness.

Tisha b’Av 5727 (1967), Jerusalem

I belong to the generation that went to Israel for the 1967 war, the one that lasted only six days. In fact, I left for Jerusalem instead of going to my college graduation. The mood in the United States was bleak and the sense of looming catastrophe overwhelming. We left right before the war began, and we arrived on its second day. On June 7, the third day of the war, I was on a bus headed toward Jerusalem when the driver turned up the volume om the bus’s radio. A spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces announced: “The Old City is ours.” My friends and I had departed from the United States in sadness; in Israel, we experienced a historical exultation unlike any I have ever experienced before or since. On Shavuot, the Kotel (Western Wall) was made accessible to Jews for the first time since December 1947 when the Arab Legion gained control of the Old City.

Hundreds of thousands of Jews—from caftan-clad Hasidim to miniskirted women—arrived as pilgrims and rejoiced to see the site of the destroyed Temple. We exulted in the unfamiliar glow of Jewish triumph, in what we sensed was the reversal of Jewish anguish. We had gone from Auschwitz to Jerusalem in one generation, from defeat to victory—so we thought, so we felt. The sixth day of the Six-Day War was Shabbat. Zalman Shazar, the president of Israel, spoke poetically and masterfully at student services: Livshi bigdei tifartekh Yerushalayim (“Wear the clothes of your majesty, Jerusalem”).

That year Tisha b’Av felt different. The Book of Lamentations sounded joyous, defiant. Even as we heeded the Jewish laws about mourning, we glowed inwardly. We had experienced the majesty and mysterious attraction of Jerusalem. I paused at one verse (18) in Chapter 5:

“Because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate;
Jackals prowl over it.”

I remembered the Talmudic tale [iii] of Rabbi Akiva and his friends walking by the site of the destroyed Temple. The other rabbis wept while Akiva remained merry. His reasoning? Because the first words of prophecy—the prophecy of rebuke—had been fulfilled, so, too, would the second promise be fulfilled, that of return: “There shall yet be old men and women in the squares of Jerusalem, …” (Zech. 8:4).

I laughed as I read that verse. For here were a hundred thousand of the children of Zion, walking amidst a thriving city that was no longer desolate, no longer forlorn. How does one speak of the destroyed Jerusalem when in the hills of Judah and the courtyards of Jerusalem the voices of joy and gladness, the voices of the bridegroom and the bride are being heard—when the Jewish people have returned? I fasted half a day; after Mincha there was a seudah, a meal not of famine but of joy.

Tisha b’Av 5736 (1976), Kiev

In the summer of 1976, I visited the Soviet Union for the first time. Like many Jewish activists of my generation, I was in the Soviet Union to meet with Refuseniks and, for an even more specific purpose, to continue arrangements for a conference on the topic of “Jewish studies” scheduled (clandestinely) for December. The trip was intense. In what may have been an amateurish (or perhaps actually effective) guise, we behaved as tourists during the day—seeing museums and monuments, visiting the sites of Kiev, Leningrad, Moscow, and Tallinn. In the evening we broke away from our group (travel to the Soviet Union in those days was always in groups) to go to phone booths to telephone our contacts. Then we traveled by cab or by subway to meet them, to deliver material and to offer contact and support. We talked, sang songs together, worked on learning texts, and became friends, family. On Shabbat, we went to synagogue; but we spoke to the Refuseniks outside, not inside, where there were informers. We were in Kiev for Tisha b’Av. We associated Kiev with the slaughter at Babi Yar. [iv] A visit to the site on Tisha b’Av was imperative; and there we met Russian Jews who were observing the solemn day by visiting the killing fields. In the words that were spoken that morning, the Jewishness of the victims was unmentioned; the Jewishness of the visitors was also unmentioned, but so apparent. My group had earlier gone to synagogue to recite the kinot (lengthy poems of sorrow) during the morning service. I came as any other Jew; and I sat unnoticed, unwelcomed—or so I thought. About three quarters of the way through the reading of kinot, I was asked to lead the congregation. Only once I started to read the lamentation did I realize why I had been invited to recite this particular one. It begins, Tzion halo tishali l’shalom asirayikh, “Zion, will you not ask of the fate of your captives.” For the Russian Jews, the words of the poem’s author, Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Levi, were an admonition; for me, they were a personal imperative. In my chanting those words, we all understood each other well.

That afternoon, we flew to St. Petersburg, then under its Communist name of Leningrad where, because of the long summer days, daylight still prevailed at 10:30 or 11:00


On Tisha b’Av, the parameters of the length of the fast is based on actual location; and I learned not only to consider whether I had traveled into a different time zone, but also the latitude of the city I was visiting. After meeting with Refuseniks, I went to synagogue and donned my tefillin for the afternoon and evening services of Mincha and Ma’ariv. The old Jews who were present asked if I would speak to them. The only language we had in common was Yiddish, a language that I understood but did not speak. But I did speak. For 30 minutes I managed to say everything that I wanted to say using my extremely limited vocabulary. Proud of my performance I said with a tinge of apology, “You know, I have never spoken in Yiddish before.”

A man in the back of the synagogue nodded his head and said sadly: “We know, we know.” Although he was merely expressing his awareness that Yiddish was rapidly disappearing among Jewishly educated and observant American Jews, I was somewhat intimidated by his remarks. I have not spoken Yiddish since.

Tisha b’Av 5739 (1979), Krakow
Three years later, traveling with the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, I made my first visit to Auschwitz on the 8th of Av. We had wanted to visit the extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau on Tisha b’Av, but the planes between Warsaw and Kiev would not cooperate. We simply could not visit Auschwitz on Tisha b’Av, then make a flight to Kiev for a visit we had planned, and manage to be in Moscow, our next stop, for Shabbat. So we decided on a different plan. We would visit Auschwitz on the 8th instead of the 9th of Av. Then we would go from Auschwitz to the city of Krakow, to the Remuh Synagogue, named after Rabbi Moses Isserles (buried in the adjacent cemetery), in time to join the Jews of Krakow for Tisha b’Av services that would begin that night.

Anyone who has been to Auschwitz more than once knows that the first time is the most painful, the most difficult. Walking in Birkenau (the extermination camp within the Auschwitz complex), one is enveloped by the evil that befell the Jewish people.  The presence of the killers can be felt—and the magnitude of their crime.

We arrived in synagogue shattered.

Meeting the remaining Jews of Krakow was perhaps even more shattering.

One Jew was blind and one was lame. One was without legs and the other without arms. One seemed mentally disturbed; and another, who was not disturbed, was disturbing to us by the very appearance of normality in the midst of everything. The synagogue smelled, and the books were tattered and not cataloged. It felt like we were arriving after the Hurban (literally, “the Destruction”), the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem. The scene was all too appropriate for Tisha b’Av.

That particular evening resonates with me now in a 1979 fable written by Yaffa Eliach, [vi]  which she included in her 1988 book Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust. In it, the character [vii] Miles Lerman challenges God to a din Torah (literally, “judgment of Torah”) to bring God to justice. Lerman, a partisan fighter during the Shoah, lost much of his family in Poland. His mother and sister and her children were murdered at Belzec, and his wife, who he met after the war, had been imprisoned at Auchwitz-Birkenau. This is his first journey back Poland and he was profoundly shaken. He poured out his heart, but the final commentary on his memorable speech was given by an old Jew. “A din Torah with God? Here there is no God. God doesn’t live here anymore.”

For me, the paradox of the evening came in the fifth chapter of Lamentations:

Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us;
Behold, and see our disgrace!
Our heritage has passed to aliens,
Our homes to strangers.
We have become orphans, fatherless;
Our mothers are like widows. …

Gone is the joy of our hearts;
Our dancing is turned into mourning.
The crown has fallen from our head; …

Because of this our hearts are sick,
Because of these our eyes are dimmed:
Because of Mount Zion, which lies desolate;
Jackals prowl over it. (vv. 1–3.15–18)

I wondered as the author of Lamentations had:

Why have your forgotten us utterly,
Forsaken us for all time? …

For truly, You have rejected us,
Bitterly raged against us.

The tradition requires that one not end with despair but with hope. It mandates that the Book of Lamentations end with a repetition of verse 21:

Take us back, O Lord, to Yourself,
And let us come back;
Renew our days as of old!

That evening there could be no renewal, merely abandonment. I simply could not recite the words of return aloud.

Tisha b’Av in the Here and Now

From the place where we are today, how should we approach Tisha b’Av?

First of all, we must mark the day, embrace the day, and find a means to engage the past and to encounter the present and the future. We can read the Book of Lamentations from a new perspective and see that because of the unfolding of events, the ancient text has the capacity to speak to contemporary Jews in ways that the tradition may never have contemplated. Sometimes, by contrasting the pain described in the book with the many blessings Jews enjoy today—especially in Israel and in the United States—we become acutely conscious of and grateful for what has been accomplished. At other times, we think about the days of old, categorized by defeat and catastrophe, exile and anguish; and we see the link to today—to our current fears, suffering, and losses. But always after the 9th of Av comes the 10th; and we struggle to live, to endure, and to overcome our pain in the aftermath of tragedy.

The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson

Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Princeton University Press, 2010) pp. 343, $29.95

One should never begin a book review with a confession—and certainly not with two – but in fairness to my readers I must.

In 1990 when discussions of the Rebbe’s role as Messiah were reaching a feverish pitch, I was in the middle of building the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I remarked to a young colleague who was having great difficulty finishing his doctorate that he should read an earlier work entitled When Prophecy Fails, the influential sociological study of what happens when a prediction that the world was coming to an end by a date certain fails to materialize. Sociologists had read a prediction by a religious leaders that on a certain date in 1956 the world was to going to end and decided to investigate. Their reasoning simple: either the world would end and therefore, they would be present at its end and have no need to write a book doctorate or if the world did not end, they would be present at the moment of acute disappointment and be able to study the dynamics of what happens when prophecy fails.

I told my would-be Ph.D. to become a fly on the wall at 770 Eastern Parkway. If the Rebbe is the Messiah, then he would witness his revelation. And if not – a scenario I deemed far more likely—than he would hear all of the justifications that will be offered to account for the unrealized prediction. My colleague did not follow my advice; it would neither be his first time nor his last. So even vicariously, I could not participate in one of the most interesting stories of late 20th century Jewish life.

When Samuel Heilman and Menachem Friedman, the two most distinguished sociologists of contemporary Orthodox Judaism set out to write this book, I was green with envy They would combine their considerable talents and learning to bear on arguably the most fascinating, perhaps even the most successful,  late 20th century Jewish religious leader. Yet I also begin the book with trepidation wondering would they be equal to the task. Could they enter the inner courtyards of Chabad, would they be granted to the access? Would they be able to pierce the mysteries surrounding the Rebbe? Could they dare write history and not hagiography and could they as practicing Orthodox Jews withstand the pressure that such a controversial book would invite? My fears were unfounded. They have done an admirable job.

Heilman and Friedman devote almost half the book to the early life and to Menachem Mendel Schneerson ascent to office. A cousin of the previous Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson married the Rebbe’s younger daughter Chaya Moussia and chose to keep his distance – physical as well as spiritual—from the world of Chabad, living in Germany before the rise of Hitler and in Paris during the 1930 where he studied engineering. He was not to be found in Chabad circles and apart from returning to his father-in-law’s home for Passover and for the High Holidays he was little affiliated with the small Hasidic community either in Berlin or in Paris. Heilman and Friedman measure the distance between where the Schneerson’s dwelled and the Hasidic worlds of Berlin and Paris, both literally to the tenth of a mile and figuratively. His wife wanted little part in the entourage of a Rebbe and would often described herself even in later years as Mrs. Schneerson of President Street, a reference to their private place of residence rather than the now famous capital of Chabad 770 Eastern Parkway.  The secular religious divide, which so characterizes our age occurred within the family in the early decades of the previous century. It is interesting to note how tempting was such a choice even for scions of the most famous of Hasdic families.

Menchem Mendel was not expected to succeed his father-in-law. He had chosen a secular rather than a religious path. In retrospect Chabad speaks of his secret missions on behalf of previous Rebbe, stories are told, but they lack specificity but no documentation is offered and while Heilman and Friedman are too polite to say it directly, they remain skeptical.

As the direct male descendent, the Rebbe’s grandson Shalom Dov Baer [later known as Barry] Ghourary was first in line, but having served his grandfather loyally early in his youth, he wanted no part of the Hasidic mantle and religiously disqualified himself from serving as Rebbe. Only later in life did he lay claim his familial inheritance much to the chagrin of Chabad and his Uncle, the Rebbe, seeking with the support of his mother, the Rebbe’s older daughter, to take possession of his grandfather’s library which he regarded as a familial rather than an institutional legacy. The American Court sustained Chabad’s institutional claims, perhaps not quite understanding that the distinction between personal and institutional property does not apply to charismatic religious leadership where person and institution are joined. In a not dissimilar case, Rev. Moon, who declared himself the Messiah, was found guilty of tax evasion.

Had Menachem Mendel – I mean no disrespect but he was not yet the Rebbe—been a more successful engineer or had the events of World War II not intervened forcing Chabad to relocate to the United States and Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson, then the Rebbe, to flee with key members of his court, the Jewish people would have lost one of its major religious leaders. The escape of the Friediker [previous] Rebbe was implausible but it has been well documented by a secular historian Brian Mark Rigg. The Rebbe [Yosef Yitzhak was rescued from German-occupied Warsaw by order of the head of German intelligence Admiral Canaris, who sent an intelligence officer of Jewish origin to drive him and key members of his entourage to Berlin and from their to his Riga, Lithuania, whose citizenship the Rebbe possessed and on to New York. Chabad Hasidim regard his rescue as miraculous. A secular historian who traced all of the documentation in German and American archives regards it as only a little less so. Menachem Mendel and the Rebbe’s daughter were left behind in Paris. Herculean efforts were made to save Chaya Moussia and her husband who came to the United States in 1941. With his hope for success as an engineer dashed, Menachem Mendel was drawn in to the orbit of Chabad, which was desperately in need of reengineering in the New World. Heilman and Friedman come closer to describing it as a “career move” rather than as a religious response to the Jewish world’s destruction that he had so all pervasive within his world.

Barry’ father, the Rebbe’s faithful son-in-law Shamaryahu Gourary, who was constantly at the Rebbe’s side, was the next logical successor. He had done his duty, paid his dues, served his master faithfully put in his time, he had married the eldest daughter and he had never been at a distance from Chabad. But he was less than charismatic. Perhaps the charisma of office would have in time overshadowed his lack of personal charisma. Heilman and Friedman trace in great detail the ascent of Menachem Mendel Schnnerson to Rebbe and his consolidation of power, during the year after the previous Rebbe’s death. He displayed his religious credentials, his understanding of the unique Torah of Chabad, he waited his time – there was a one year interval between Yosef Yitzhak’s death and Menachem Mendel’s ascent—and he had to assert continuity of mission – a messianic mission that seemed incredible in 1950s. The previous Rebbe, Yosef Yitzhak, had preached of the coming of the Messiah. In moving to assume leadership of Chabad, Menchem Mendel doubled down, he would succeed where his father-in-law had not.

Heilman and Friedman do not shy away from the Messianic claims of Chabad, which they portray neither as peripheral nor as personal idiosyncrasy of the Menachem Mendel but as essential to the teaching of his predecessor and to his own work. The Holocaust served to underscore the Messianic urgency because if it the battle of Gog and Magog, the apocalyptic struggle at the end of days, only then could it be understood and accepted as part of the divine plan for redemption.

The Rebbe had a rival for his Messianic claims, one so deeply attractive to the secular world and one with its own religious legitimation. Zionism was actually returning Jews to the Promised Land, redeeming the Jews and the Land, providing hope and inspiration. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook had described it as the “dawn of redemption,” words incorporated into the prayer for the State of Israel. The authors are most persuasive when they depict the Rebbe skillful use of Zionism for his own religious ends. By meeting with Israeli leaders, who always travelled to Brooklyn, by sending commands for prayer and for fixing mezzuzot, he would lay claim religiously to the victories of 1967 and 1973, for the safety of Israel under attack from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, as his own, religious victories. Generals had not won the war, the Rebbe had. Saddam Hussein had not failed in his attacks on Israel; the Rebbe had protected Israel.

Though he never set foot in Israel, his impact there was significant and he fought vigorously on the “Who is a Jew issue” that threatened and continues to divide world Jewry. We can trace the hardening of the Who is a Jew issue within the Haredi community back to the Rebbe’s staunch leadership.

The most poignant sections of the book are devoted to the Rebbe personal life, his relationship with his wife, perhaps the only one in his inner circle in the years before her death who related to him as a person, not a Rebbe and not as Messiah. They write of the Rebbe’s relationship with his predecessor, his urgent visits to his grave and communion with the dead and of the debilitating stroke that felled him as his disciples would not interrupt him even as he tarried, thus deprived him of the immediate treatment required to overcome a stroke. They fault his medical care: the Messiah Rebbe did not go to the hospital but the hospital came to him until he was beyond treatment. And they see his deteriorating physical condition as invigorating his religious movement, who sought to make manifest his messianic mission before his physical end.

But they give deep respect to the work of the Rebbe’s shulachim [emissaries] – male and female. The Shulachim go to even the most remote places on the globe where Jews are to be found to transform the Jewish world deed by deed, mitzvah by mitzvah. Were Heilman and Freidman to employ business terminology, which they scrupulously avoid, they could have described Chabad as a “name brand” and the emissaries as franchisees, taking root in their territories, providing services for the religiously observant but more importantly hoping to inspire the non-observant to repent. It is a formidable operation, surely, the most effective in the entire Jewish world. Heilman and Freidman do not comment on the role of non-Jews in the world of Chabad, in the theology of the Chabad. They do unmentioned except where they acknowledge the Rebbe’s global significance and empower the mission of Chabad.

Still, one must wonder about those who change the world, yet seek to remain unchanged by the world they encounter. Even the Red Heifer, the Biblical offering that the Priest sacrificed to purify the impure, contaminated him until evening.

The authors are clear, but without quite saying it that succession in the United States is corporate rather than charismatic. They divide the two competing factions in Chabad not by their belief in whether the Rebbe was – and is – the Messiah but rather in how manifest they should make that claim, whether to proclaim it for all too hear in advertisements in the New York Times and elsewhere or keep it as a whisper campaign lest those who are skeptical of such an assertion actively oppose Chabad. They call this faction of Chabad restrained messianism. David Berger has written of the scandal of contemporary Orthodoxy, which tacitly ignors the messianic claims. And one wonders, if as Chabad learned how to conduct a business in the contemporary world, did they not subconsciously absorb some of the strategies of early Christians when an earlier Jewish Messianic figure failed to complete his mission. Is the strategy for dealing with an incomplete messianic mission something deeply rooted in Judaism or it is something subconsciously absorbed from Christianity.  Chabad refuses to speak of the Rebbe in the past; his date of death – the third of Tammuz is regarded as a day of ascent. They pray at his tomb and ask for Divine intercession. Some sing of “our Master and our Teacher, our Rabbi, our Creator the King Messiah.” “Creator” is to say the least theologically problematic.

And what of the future? Chabad are now emissaries without a center. Should the Messiah tarry, it will become more difficult to Chabad to assert its messianic belief convincingly to others and perhaps even to themselves. If the contemporary age religious revival, which usually comes in waves, run its course then one wonders.

Right now the all seeing Rebbe guarantees the franchise’s brand. One wonders about its duration and its relationship over time with the rest of the Jewish people. But Heilman and Friedman tell a powerful story of the most unpredictable and religiously interesting Jewish phenomena of our day. They allow us all to be a fly on the wall at one of the most interesting time in Jewish history/

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