Hidden Hand II – The Holocaust

Light in the Kingdom of Darkness

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Aushwitz-Birkenau. The main Nazi guard tower is the highest point, offering a view of virtually the entire camp. In that tower, we davened mincha…

Last month, I joined a group of 24 educators visiting the concentration camps in Poland. It was the culminating leg of a year-long fellowship program sponsored by Zechor Yemos Olam, the Holocaust education branch of Torah U’Mesorah. Its director, Rabbi Sholom Freidmann, and I worked all year with these highly experienced and accomplished teachers helping them to become in effect the vanguard of a new generation of Holocaust educators.

From the remains of the Warsaw Ghetto to the death camps at Treblinka and Majdanek to the Yeshiva Chachmei Lublin (presently being rebuilt) to the kevarim of the Remah, Sfas Emes, Chozeh of Lublin, Maharal and others – none of us came back the same.

Undoubtedly, the most moving experience was Auschwitz…

Auschwitz – its name alone sends a chill down the spine.

Peering through the barbed-wire fence for the first time, the thing that struck me was its size. Nothing had prepared me to grasp the sheer expanse of Birkenau, Auschwitz’s main death camp. Besides the unimaginable numbers murdered there, it housed 80,000 slave laborers.

80,000!

That’s larger than most Jewish communities today; think of a medium-sized town.

Row after row of barracks stretched almost as far as the eye could see. Straight ahead, the infamous railroad tracks extended into the distance further than I had imagined until they veered off to the equally infamous disembarkation point where Dr. Mengele conducted the Selektion, deciding who would live and who would die….

A chilling thought as we head into the days of Elul and Yemei HaDin….

It took hours to tour the camp. Terrifying… horrifying… yet uplifting don’t properly convey the emotions… especially by the “Pool of Ashes,” a marsh-like area of human ash next to the tangled concrete and metal of the now destroyed gas chambers and crematoria, listening to Rabbi Shmuel Klein talk about Kiddush Hashem… which was followed by a rousing kaddish.

Kiddush Hashem – it’s hard to explain to the uninitiated the connection between Auschwitz and Kiddush Hashem. But, nowhere more than the depths of the deepest darkness can the brightest light of spiritual heroism emerge.

By day’s end, we were the only group remaining in this Empire of Evil. That was eerie enough. But then we were given special permission to ascend the main Nazi guard tower. And there, high above Hitler’s Valley of Death, we turned east, bowed and poured our hearts out to Hashem.

After mincha, the guard tower became engulfed in a supernatural orange glow of the now set sun. Spontaneously, we formed a circle and danced — silhouetted against heaven’s glow — singing Aleh Varechev, Ani Ma’amim and L’shana Habah b’Yerushalayim.

View from atop the guard tower where we davened mincha. (View is west; we prayed facing east.)

It was a flash of light in the Kingdom of Darkness. A moment of triumph. A proclamation! The Thousand Year Reich is dead… Om Yisrael chai….

Elul is a time for introspection… and inspiration… to make light, not darkness… to choose life… to live lives of Kiddush Hashem… for the six million kedoshim… for ourselves.

The Hidden Hand & The Holocaust

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Last year I spoke at the Holocaust Museum & Study Center in Spring Valley, NY, on Tisha B’Av. Feel free to download, listen and distribute this lecture entitled: Astor Tisha Bav 5770 Finkelstein Holocaust Museum.

National Tragedies on Tisha B’Av in History

“Then the entire congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night.” (Bamidbar 14:1)

Rabbah said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: “That night was Tisha B’Av. Hakodosh Baruch Hu, said, ‘They cried for no valid reason; I will establish for them [this night as] a weeping for generations.’” (Sotah 35a)

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On the ninth of Av it was decreed that our fathers should not enter the [Promised] Land, the First and Second Temples were destroyed, Beitar was captured and the City [Jerusalem] was ploughed up. (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)

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  • Bnai Yisrael were told they would not live to enter the Land of Israel (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
  • The First Bais HaMikdash was destroyed (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
  • The Second Bais HaMikdash was destroyed (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
  • The City of Beitar was captured[1] (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
  • The Temple Mount was ploughed[2] (Mishnah Taanis 4:6)
  • On Tisha B’Av — July 18, 1290 — Edward I (1272-1307) issued an edict of expulsion for the Jews from England
  • Tisha B’Av, 1492, was the deadline of the Royal Decree expelling the Jews of Spain on pain of death
  • World War I began on Tisha B’Av — August 1, 1914[3]
  • The Final Solution was unleashed in full force on Tisha B’Av 1942 as the first Jews of the Warsaw[4] Ghetto were gassed at Treblinka (see The Hidden Hand – The Holocaust by Yaakov Astor)

Healing through our Wounds

“I [Hashem] will heal you with your own wounds” (Yirmiyahu 30:17). Hashem not only heals us from our wounds but heals us with our wounds. By the same token, says the Midrash, Yosef fell into great misfortune because of his dreams, but dreams also brought about his salvation. If we are far-seeing enough, we will see that Hashem not only heals us from our wounds but heals us with our wounds.

Even more so, He prepares the healing in advance of the wound (Megillah 13b). Rabbi Berel Wein illustrates this via the events of Tisha B’Av, 1492:

OnAugust 2, 1492,Spainbecame a graveyard of Jewish hopes and lives. The Talmud teaches, however, that God provides the cure before giving the illness, and that black day had a ray of light in it; a ray of light borne on three small ships that many feared would fall over the edge of the world. OnAugust 3, 1492,Columbusset out on his historic voyage. He, in fact, writes in his log how he was delayed in the harbor by the traffic of ships evacuating the Jews….

The journey of Christopher Columbus across the frighteningAtlanticmust be reckoned as one of the turning points in the history of civilization….America, and all that it would later come to represent, would masterEurope, inexorably change it, and itself usurp the dominant role in the story of man. But all of this was not yet visible even to the most far-seeing savants ofEurope, in 1492….

Only later would the irony of the Divine plan be seen: on that very day when Spain chose to close out six centuries of intense and productive Jewish life on its soil, Columbus sailed to discover a new continent where there would be a safe haven for Jews (and others) and where the people of Israel would once again be able to rise to a preeminent role in general society. That black day in August 1492 had a ray of brightness to it. Pity that this did not become apparent for another four centuries. (Triumph of Survival, pp. 38-9)

Thus, the wheels of the Divine Plan were already in motion. As the epoch of Spanish Jewry was coming to a close, the seeds of American Jewry were to be planted. The healing was prepared before the wound.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decreed a deadline beyond which all Jews remaining in Spainmust either convert or die at the stake – a day that fell on the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, the anniversary of the destruction of both Templesin Jerusalem. To the tens of thousands of Jews crossing the border to lives of suffering and uncertainty, the date was a Divine omen, signifying that though God was angry with them, He had not forgotten them. (Triumph of Survival, p. 3)

Tisha B’Av teaches us that though Hashem allows the Jewish people to suffer, He is nevertheless with us. He wants us to learn our lessons and benefit from the knowledge won. We may not understand why Hashem allows national tragedies to occur, but we are comforted by the knowledge that He has a plan and ultimately it will be for our good… even if we cannot see it at the time.

(Excerpted from The Hidden Hand – The Holocaust by Yaakov Astor)


[1] [About 65 years after the destruction of the Second Bais HaMikdash, Beitar was] a city where tens of thousands of Jews lived who were led by a great king whom all of Israel and its Sages thought was Mashiach. The city fell to the Romans and all its inhabitants were killed. It was a catastrophe akin to the Temple’s destruction (Rambam, Laws of Fasting 5:3). Hundreds of thousands of Jews were killed (Gittin 57a). The Romans not only slaughtered the inhabitants of Beitar, but they refused to allow them to be buried (Berachos 48b).

[2] Employing an army of slaves, the Roman Emperor Hadrian lowered the Temple Mount almost 1,000 feet. He simply plowed it. When one goes to Jerusalem today, the mountains around the Temple Mount (such as the Mount of Olives and Mount Scopus) are taller. Before Hadrian, however, Mount Moriah (the mountain upon with the Bais HaMikdash stood) was the highest mountain there. Hadrian literally reconstructed the landscape in order to prove to the Jews that it would never be rebuilt again. (Rabbi Berel Wein, Travels Through Jewish History, Lecture 12, “The Destruction of the Second Temple”)

[3] In many ways, World War II was simply the continuation of WW I, since the treaty that ended it (the Versailles Treaty) was the direct cause of World War II (and, ultimately, the Holocaust).

[4] Birthplace and home to some of the greatest Torah giants over the centuries, Warsaw boasted by far the largest concentration Jews, and, therefore, more than any other city, symbolized European Jewry. The deportation and extermination of its population in the death camp of Treblinka can be seen as a microcosm of the entire Holocaust itself. If so, the “Final Solution” – the term commonly used to signify the systematic extermination of Jews in death camps ─ can be said to have been fully unleashed on the ninth of Av 1942.