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Reinventing the Holocaust

The Admor of Kalive, Manchem Mendel Taub, has decided that what the ultra-Orthodox community needs is its own alternative to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority, established in 1953 by Israel’s Knesset. According to Moshe Fichsler, who is in charge of the Kalive museum project, haredi youth knows little about the Holocaust.

Could this be, perhaps, because their elders have never visited Yad Vashem, and don’t bring their children? Could this be because even the national moment of silence in which Holocaust victims are remembered, is not honored in the haredi world?

Of course, the haredim have an answer for all that: Yad Vashem has pictures of women without their clothes on. And standing still and remembering is a “Gentile” invention.

Now, while I think it is legitimate to debate whether the dignity of the victims is violated by displaying such pictures, it is quite another to boycott the entire memorial site of the Jewish people because of it. As for standing silent and remembering, isn’t that exactly what the high priest Aaron did when he learned his two sons had died?

But I think we do an injustice to our ultra-Orthodox brethren to reduce their problem to such petty issues. In truth, the issues are much, much larger. For when I wander through the dark halls of Yad Vashem, taking in its devastating portrayal of Jewry’s unimaginable tragedy, and then I walk out into the Jerusalem sunlight, something happens to me. I am reminded that all of us born of Jewish parents or grandparents, whatever our beliefs or lifestyles, were treated equally by the Nazis and their collaborators. I am reminded that we Jews are all brothers and sisters, and that the State of Israel was founded to give Jews a home, a place that when we have to go there, it has to take us in. A place where we Jews could arm and defend ourselves from future tragedies. A place we could, as Jews, watch out and care for each other.

But this, apparently, is not the right message for ultra-Orthodox leadership. Why not becomes apparent in reading Ephraim Zuroff’s brave, well-written and most fair analysis in his book: “The Response of Orthodox Jewry in the United States to the Holocaust”.

Dr. Zuroff, an Orthodox Jew, is deeply sympathetic to the efforts of religious Jews to rescue European rabbis and yeshiva students, and he documents with care their successes and dedication. However, as a scholar, he can’t ignore the sad truth that in pursuing their goals, Orthodox leadership often ended up helping some Jews to receive double aid while others starved, all in the name of “enabling [yeshivah students] to continue their studies uninterrupted as if there were no war.”

Even after August 1942, when it became clear that wide-scale extermination of European Jewry was taking place, the Vaad ha-Hatzala Rescue Committee concentrated its support for rabbis who faced no immediate threat of annihilation in Shanghai and central Russia.

Nor can Zuroff ignore the fact that many prominent European rabbis, roshei yeshivot, didn’t bother to get their students vital documentation when it was still possible, unwisely squandering opportunities to save lives.

For his scholarship and fairness, Dr. Zuroff has (predictably?) been compared to Holocaust denier David Irving by Rabbi Berel Wein, and discredited by haredi historian Dr. David Kranzler. Their criticism leaves me wondering if either has actually bothered to read the book. (In my personal experience, my harshest critics have never bothered to read mine. That way, it’s so much easier to be critical.)

Yes, the Orthodox Vaad ha-Hatzala was willing to march and protest when secular Jews were too embarrassed (they also refused to march when secular Jews wanted to). They were willing to bend American regulations if it meant saving Jewish lives. And in the end, they were even willing to join with their fellow Jews for wider goals.

But the bickering, mostly over fundraising, between the Vaad and the JDC continued almost constantly throughout the war. True, the JDC sometimes hampered the Vaad’s unusual but sometimes successful initiatives. But without JDC funding, the efforts of the Vaad would have been close to worthless.

The importance of Jewish unity and cooperation seems to be the lesson of this historical fact-gathering. Without conveying that lesson, any Holocaust memorial is worthless.

Thus, the desire of haredim to even remember and mourn separately, to deny their children the experience of sharing in the Jewish people’s collective memory, is unforgivable, as are the attempts to vilify any Orthodox Jew who breaks ranks, bravely exposing unpleasant truths that must be faced about ourselves, our communities and the spiritual leaders we so love to aggrandize into saintliness and infallibility. The truth is, that when the chips were down, trusting the infallibility of rabbinical leaders cost people their lives. The truth is that when push came to shove, rabbis and yeshiva students worried about themselves and their own, and only very late, and very partially, did they consider the needs of the rest of Jewry.

We see that legacy today in the refusal of the haredi community to do their fair share of military service, or their fair share shouldering the financial and social burdens of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. Yes, I suppose they need a museum of their own. A place unburdened by reality, history, and the growing voices of dissent within their own ranks. But in building it, the haredim will be adopting another invention of the “gentiles” — Disneyland.

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