The Difficulties of Making Sense of the Holocaust

These past few weeks, I’ve been working my way through Daniel Mendelsohn’s “The Lost—A Search for Six of the Six million.” It’s a long book, 518 densely packed pages, but it’s fascinating, as it reveals the holocaust in great and chilling detail and yet, at the same time, this book, a masterpiece in its own way is fundamentally wrongheaded.

In this unique memoir, Mendelsohn, turns the tragedy of European Jewry up close and personal, narrowing the focus from six million to six, the six victims who happened to be members of the authors own family.

Mendelsohn sets out to gather up as much knowledge as he can about his now extinct tribe of relations, the proud Jaegers of Bolechow, Poland. He seeks out all traces of them from the details of their physical appearance—swarthy, tall, blue eyed, to their work life–butchers, their hobbies, card playing and embroidery, their friendships and love affairs and of course the circumstances of their demise

Though he is intellectually honest enough to admit that “the living can never truly know the dead” Mendelsohn, devotes five years to this project starting online at Jewish genealogy websites and then traveling four continents and interviewing dozens of people who may have encountered these lost Jaegers. Slowly , painstakingly, a portrait emerges of six good but ultimately ordinary human beings who had the terrible luck, as Mendelsohn sees it, to have lived and died in the worst of times.

Sadly, there is one major gap in his inquiry and that is religion, spirituality, what his relatives would undoubtedly have called Yiddishkeit. As a secular American Jew Mendelsohn just can’t fathom that in a shtel like Bolechow, ran according to the timeless rhythms of the Jewish calender and that even a wealthy, dapper, beardless fellow like his Uncle Shmiel wasn’t just a prosperous butcher, a macher, he was first and foremost a Yid.

Reading between the lines, I’d bet the Jaegers were by the war years, not Haredi anymore but somewhere on the cusp between traditional and orthodox. Shmiel dealt in kosher meat and he and his family had Jewish names– Shmiel and Esther, Rochel , Rochel , Leah Frydka (Frieda) and Bronia (Breindel).

Sadly, Mendelsohn’s inability to apprehend this facet of his relatives lives reduces the book’s poignancy. At one point, Mendelsohn imagines his late uncle’s as he walked from the cattle cars into the gas chambers at Belzec. What might he have been thinking? Nothing special it seems., at least according to Mendelsohn. Although it is widely known that many holocaust martyrs died with reciting the Shema or the Ani Ma’amin the possibility of those final moments being devoted to prayer is never considered.

It is this lack of understanding that makes it impossible for Mendelsshon to interpret the holocaust . Unlike his assimilated brother, a believing Jew can see the holocaust as part of a bigger picture and anti Semitism not as a freak occurance, but also part of the plan . Every Seder night we declare it, as an object of faith that that in , “every generation, our enemies stand upon us to destroy us but the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands”.

Of course Mendelssohn never gets this. Ironically it is he and his intermarried siblings who join him on his journeys who are far more lost than the “lost” Jaegers who are now holy martyrs in Gan Eden.

Originally Published on 8/14/2008

22 comments on “The Difficulties of Making Sense of the Holocaust

  1. The notion that anyone has a theological “answer” for the events from 1933-45 struck RYBS as the wrong approach, as opposed to our communal and individual response-the rebuilding of the spiritual and physical needs of Am Yisrael, and the support of the State of Israel.

  2. AI
    While several years have passed since you posted this, since someone saw fit to repost this now I will hope that you see this response.

    I am not sure that anyone at any level of theology or philosophy can make sense of something as enormous as the Shoa.

    Bob Miller at the time asked if we are in for more rounds of “I’m more sensitive than you” I think though that the entire post is a display of incredible insensitivity.

    First off I would suggest to you AI that you read two books:
    1) When bad things happen to good people
    2) If G-d is good why is the world so bad

    The first while entirely within the realm of your hashkafa I am sure – it will give you perspective. The second will help you to understand why the sentence it is all for the best is complete and utter nonsense.

    Kushner has a worldview that may in fact be different than yours – but here is how I understand it.
    HKBH created a fabulous machine, the Universe, and this machine has everything it needs in order to function and requires no intervention from HKBH. Prayer is the way we request that HKBH momentarily change the way the universe functions. HKBH always answers our requests, sometimes the answer is no.

    In If G-d is good why is the world so bad Rabbi Blech toward the end of the book explains that there is a part of Sod, סוד, where each pasuk in the torah explains or stands as the summary of a year. Here are the passages in Devarim that describe the years of WWII 1939-1945:
    כב גָּפְרִית וָמֶלַח, שְׂרֵפָה כָל-אַרְצָהּ–לֹא תִזָּרַע וְלֹא תַצְמִחַ, וְלֹא-יַעֲלֶה בָהּ כָּל-עֵשֶׂב: כְּמַהְפֵּכַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה, אַדְמָה וּצְבֹיִים, אֲשֶׁר הָפַךְ יְהוָה, בְּאַפּוֹ וּבַחֲמָתוֹ. כג וְאָמְרוּ, כָּל-הַגּוֹיִם, עַל-מֶה עָשָׂה יְהוָה כָּכָה, לָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת; מֶה חֳרִי הָאַף הַגָּדוֹל, הַזֶּה. כד וְאָמְרוּ–עַל אֲשֶׁר עָזְבוּ, אֶת-בְּרִית יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתָם: אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת עִמָּם, בְּהוֹצִיאוֹ אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. כה וַיֵּלְכוּ, וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים, וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ, לָהֶם: אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יְדָעוּם, וְלֹא חָלַק לָהֶם. כו וַיִּחַר-אַף יְהוָה, בָּאָרֶץ הַהִוא, לְהָבִיא עָלֶיהָ אֶת-כָּל-הַקְּלָלָה, הַכְּתוּבָה בַּסֵּפֶר הַזֶּה. כז וַיִּתְּשֵׁם יְהוָה מֵעַל אַדְמָתָם, בְּאַף וּבְחֵמָה וּבְקֶצֶף גָּדוֹל; וַיַּשְׁלִכֵם אֶל-אֶרֶץ אַחֶרֶת, כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה. כח הַנִּסְתָּרֹת–לַיהוָה, אֱלֹהֵינוּ; וְהַנִּגְלֹת לָנוּ וּלְבָנֵינוּ, עַד-עוֹלָם–לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
    Devarim 29 – verse 22 till the end
    and then there is this pasuk
    ג וְשָׁב יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֶת-שְׁבוּתְךָ, וְרִחֲמֶךָ; וְשָׁב, וְקִבֶּצְךָ מִכָּל-הָעַמִּים, אֲשֶׁר הֱפִיצְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, שָׁמָּה.
    Devarim 30 verse 3

    I am not sure that any more of an explanation is required.

    Tragedy is personal – who is it that said one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic – there is much to be said for that.

    Have endured personal tragedy I can say that the empty platitude of גם זו לטובה is just that an empty platitude of people who dont understand or rather cant understand.

    Part of consoling those who are in mourning at a shiva house is to sit silently and try to feel, experience, perhaps absorb their pain. I am quite sure that someone who thinks that the death of my daughter somehow benefited myself or her or the world in any way has not in any way tried to feel, experience or perhaps absorb any of the pain – they cant! they have closed themselves off to that by saying:
    גם זו לטובה


  3. Anxious Ima,

    Perhaps the perspective you are describing could be found by reading a book entitled “Darkness before Dawn”
    in which author, Ezriel Tauber, a holocaust survivor himself, writes in the words of Torah commentators how the holocaust fits into a bigger picture of Jewish national tragedies and what our role is. why it happened and what our response should be in terms of building a stronger relationship with Hashem.

  4. Bas Yisroel,
    If you make the blog, I will be very happy to offer comments. I think we have an important perspective.

  5. Michoel, I must thank you for posting the link to the article about BT children of survivors. Perhaps one day someone will make a blog for those of us who are BT and children of survivors, I always felt so different from everybody else growing up. Thanks again.

  6. Please re-read Tal’s Post #10!

    Explaining the Holocaust is not the stuff of blog comments – and that wasn’t the original post’s point.

    The original post pointed out that an author who painstakingly tried to reconstruct the lives of actual Holocaust victims – to put as personal and human a face as possible on the Holocaust – tragically missed what was probably a major component of how those people viewed themselves and what was done to them.

    Because of that author’s blind spot about the traditional Judaism practiced by his subjects.

    And that’s a valid point.

  7. Michoel:

    I’m sorry. Interesting, my response was not to your post, especially considering you’re a fellow second generation person. But you have taught me well that I must be careful about the way I word things, and read and reread before pressing that “submit” button. You are so right in your observation that “this subject has large potential to stir emotions”
    and apparently mine were stirred, but not sifted and the chaff came out in the batter. Anyway, thanks for your suggestion and I will go to your suggested link.

  8. This subject has large potential to stir emotions so I ask up front that readers try to be m’lamed z’chus on my words. My intent is not to hurt and likewise I will not take offense to the views of others.

    When we speak of “understanding” the Holocuast, there are levels of understanding. I personally hear well the views of Rav Shach, Rav Avigdor Miller, Rav Yaakov Weinberg, the Satmar Rav and others that felt it was far kinder to Klal Yisroel to suggest reasons, rather than just saying “we can’t understand”. Often, the “we can’t understand” camp sees the “it happened because” camp as insensitive and presumptuous. But they should realize that things can be viewed the exact opposite way. If one believes that their family was killed for a reason, (and that reason provides them comfort of motivation) they don’t necessarily want to be told that they are kidding themselves.

  9. Tal,

    Trying to make any sense of the Holocaust is too mind-boggling for any “bosser v’dam” and anyone that would presume to understand it is kidding him/herself IMHO. Each person who came out of it alive (I, too, am a child of a survivor) struggles (or struggled, since so many, including my mother, and just last week, her brother, my uncle, have passed on)for meaning, as do so many of us second generation folks. I feel some discomfort reading the opinions of those whose immediate family did not go through the Holocaust, and my kneejerk reaction is to think “who are they to judge” but I know this is unfair and presumptuous. By the same token, I feel that anyone’s take on what happened has legitimacy, even if only for that person. Years ago I heard a Torah tape by a prominent rov who shall remain anonymous here, who revealed that the Holocaust took place because women weren’t covering their hair. I was glad my mother hadn’t heard that tape, especially since her mother (and father, amongst other relatives) covered her hair, and was murdered in Auschwitz.

  10. Kinneret,
    Good Erev Shabbos. First, in the interest of full disclosure, I am the son of a survivor who is not (yet) frum. I have some strong and thought out feelings on this issue but obvious no presumption of being correct in my views. I did not mean to imply that non-Frum people have no basis for understanding the Shoah, but I do believe that one who does not believe in Hashem has no basis for understanding the Shoah, or Tay Sachs, or buildings full of innocents exploding. Either life is random or it is not.

    Not frum people can and often do believe in Hashem and can therefor think meaningfully about why He allows things to happen.

  11. AI’s main point, which I think is a good one, is that a secular Jew has a difficult time understanding the Holocaust as experienced by the religious persons who suffered it. In a time of crisis, one’s religious beliefs come to the fore. Someone estranged from that belief has a hard time grasping how someone steeped in that belief would react to such a crisis.

  12. Some uninformed people believe it’s sacrilege or worse to suggest that the Torah provides any insight whatsoever into major calamities in our history or into the Shoah in particular. This goes well beyond the defensible point that we can’t totally understand the Shoah.

  13. I’ve not read this particular book, so obviously, I can’t comment on the specifics of Anxious Ima’s review. I do feel, however, there is a lot of value in writings about the Shoah from secular writers. Primo Levi comes to mind first. It strikes me as terribly problematic to assume secular Jews, especially those who were victims of the Shoah, have no basis for trying to understand it.

  14. “Whereas it’s pashut for us frummies.”

    It is pashut for us fummies that God runs the world according to the principals that He revealed in His Torah. It, therefore, may or may not be pashut for us to understand the Shoah but at least we have a basis for trying.

  15. I didn’t mean to suggest that I understand the holocaust,but anyone who reads the Chumash can see lots of annihilation all over the place. It is part of the plan. Do I understand the plan? No, but I know that Hashem has His reasons, even if He hasn’t revealed them to me.

  16. Anxious Ima…if you don’t like the book, don’t read it! There are SO many holocaust books written from a frum Torah perspective, my shelves are full of them. But since you have read this book, appreciate the fact that the man spent time and effort finding out about his relatives who were murdered in the holocaust. Something I haven’t done, and my parents lived through the holocaust. Let’s be more positive and not so critical, you can learn from everyone. Besides, this guy isn’t even frum, what were you expecting?

  17. I see. Define what you mean by “Torah perspective” then, in the light of which we are somehow privy to “interpret the Holocaust” any better than Mendelsohn did. At least he tried. What should the book be titled from a Torah perspective? “Six Million: Gam Zu l’Tovah”??

  18. Are we in for some more rounds of “I’m more sensitive than you” ?

    People view things from their own perspective, but those with a Torah perspective see more of the big picture.

  19. > It is this lack of understanding that makes it impossible for Mendelsshon to interpret the holocaust

    Whereas it’s pashut for us frummies.

    > a believing Jew can see the holocaust as part of a bigger picture

    what about a Jew who is honest with one’s self?

    > part of the plan

    The murder of 6 million Jews was part of the plan. I see. Please pass the chulent.

  20. For a book that properly captures the totality of shtetl life, see “There Once Was a World” by Yaffa Eliach.

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