As world leaders gathered in Israel last week to commemorate the Holocaust at the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, millions across the globe heard eloquent speeches by heads of state recalling humanity’s darkest hour and vowing to combat anti-Semitism.
Ironically, one of the most powerful speeches came from Germany’s president Frank Steinmeier who cautioned that “the spirits of evil are emerging in a new guise.” Steinmeier made his remarks at Yad Vashem, telling the audience he wished he could say Germans had learned from history.
“But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading,” he admitted.
“I cannot say that when Jewish children are spat on in the schoolyard; I cannot say that when crude anti-Semitism is cloaked in supposed criticism of Israeli policy,” he added. “I cannot say that when only a thick wooden door prevents a right-wing terrorist from causing a blood bath in a synagogue in the city of Halle on Yom Kippur.”
He was referring to a planned massacre in October when a gunman tried to shoot his way through the door of a synagogue in Halle, Germany, and when that failed, killed two people nearby.
Steinmeier called on Germany to “live up to its historical responsibility,” and vowed that Germany would fight anti-Semitism… protect Jewish life…and stand with Israel. Here at Yad Vashem, I renew this promise before the eyes of the world.”
‘We Stand with Israel’
How ironic to hear these words from the leader of a nation whose ambassador votes for anti-Israel resolutions in the United Nations, most recently in December. That resolution labeled the Kosel and the Jewish Quarter as “occupied Palestinian territory.”
Stand with Israel? By siding with the Arabs who seek to delegitimize Jewish history and criminalize the Jewish presence in Jerusalem?
Other heads of state at the remembrance gathering made stirring speeches, acknowledging the evils of Jew-hatred and calling for unity in combating it. So many world leaders were pledging solidarity with Israel. So many were proffering friendship, loyalty, commitment. It was remarkable and unprecedented.
But if Israel has so many friends, why is the Jewish state so alone? Why is it so unjustly maligned and reviled across the world? Why, with all these loyal friends, is Israel singled out for condemnation in the UN for so-called abuses that no other countries—even those with atrocious human rights records—are held accountable for?
Why is it when the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced last month it would begin an investigation of war crimes in the “Israeli-occupied territories” at the request of the Palestinians, and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu called on world leaders to protest such illegal action, only three countries—the United States, Hungary and Australia—responded?
Why the silence from Germany, France, Britain and all the government leaders who in Jerusalem last week pledged to oppose “anti-Semitism masked as anti-Zionism,” and to “stand with Israel?”
Words of Truth
Searching for heartfelt words of truth at the Holocaust gathering, many found them not in the grandiose promises of world leaders but in the painfully honest thoughts expressed by Rabbi Yisroel Meir Lau, former chief rabbi of Israel, current chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, and a survivor of Buchenwald.
After thanking all in attendance for their warm touching words, and the commitment to fight anti-Semitism, Rabbi Lau recalled how he was incarcerated at the age of seven, orphaned of his parents, robbed of everything he had, including his name. “I was only a number,” he said, reciting the six digit number tattooed on his arm to a hushed room.
With his life having turned around so dramatically in the decades since, “people say it’s time to forgive and forget,” Rabbi Lau remarked. “I came especially to tell you I cannot forgive. Because I am not authorized to forgive.”
Rabbi Lau said his mother, before she was taken away, “did not ask me to forgive. She asked me to continue the chain, so the Jewish chain will be unbroken, unbroken forever.” Thirty seven generations of rabbonim had preceded him, his mother reminded him. He must continue that holy legacy.
“As far as forgetting…? How can I forget the beatings, the tortures, the suffering? I can never forget,” he told the gathering.
The Power of Eyewitness Testimony
With the last generation of survivors fading from the scene and the mushrooming of Holocaust denial across the world, Rabbi Lau’s words reminded the world that like the numbers branded into his arm, Holocaust wounds cannot be erased. Nor do the memories die.
Historians speak about the defining power of Holocaust memory, especially the kind anchored in eyewitness testimony about Nazi atrocities, and the scope of the genocide machinery.
Leading Holocaust historian Esther Farbstein, author of Hidden in Thunder, attaches special importance to testimony recorded “in real time” as the events were unfolding, such as the famed Ringelblum Archive, a huge cache of documents collected in the Warsaw Ghetto by a group of scholars.
Of a very different nature but equally irreplaceable, she notes, are the diary and memoir of Rav Yehoshua Moshe Aronson, the rov of Sanniki, Poland, who survived the sadistic slave labor camp of Konin and later on, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. His writings were published in the sefer, Alei Merorot.
After liberation he served as a rabbi in a displaced persons camps in Germany and Austria before emigrating to Israel in 1951, where he served as the beloved rov of Petach Tikvah and Emmanuel. He authored halachic works and other writings including Yeshuat Moshe, where various issues related to the Holocaust are discussed.
One of the tragically few Polish rabbonim to survive the war, Rav Aronson compiled meticulous records of events he witnessed and experienced during almost three years of captivity, at great risk to his life.
The diary, originally titled Megilas Beis Hoavodim, Scroll of the House of Bondage, is shattering. It chronicles day by day, week by week, the mind-numbing atrocities he and his fellow Jews were subjected to. It describes the brutal camp conditions, relentless abuse, prospects for resistance, questions of suicide, the observance of yomim tovim, and a number of gut-wrenching halachic decisions pertaining to life and death situations in the camp.
In addition to his diary, Rabbi Aronson compiled detailed lists of all Jews he could trace who had perished through execution, disease, torture or “resettlement” (gassing at Chelmno).
Through his writings, these shocking events are frozen in time. But the diary is spine-tingling for another reason: its description of acts of courage and indomitable faith many Jews displayed in the face of horrendous suffering.
His testimonials are all the more precious as they allow us a glimpse of the inner world of a Torah leader, “a human being writhing in agony,” as the author describes himself passing through the crucible of the Holocaust.
Rav Aronson was deported to the slave labor camp of Konin (near Kalisch in the Gostynin country) with about 800 Jews from nearby towns, including Sanniki, where he served as rov. The scion of a prominent rabbinical family, he was then in his thirties.
Most of the inmates were put to forced labor for German firms and suffered horribly from the extreme brutality of the camp commander, Helmand Hausbrand, and his deputies. Most of the prisoners were transported in groups to the Chelmno death camp between the summer of 1942 and the spring of 1943, and the sixty or so who remained were sent to Auschwitz.
‘Aunt Esther from 7 Megila Street, Apt. 4, is Coming’
While still in Sanniki, Rav Aronson had heard an eyewitness account from a Chelmno escapee, Mechal Podchlebnik, about the secret executions using gas vans at the outskirts of the town of Chelmno, in which tens of thousands of Jews were being killed.
Rav Aronson recorded this information in his diary, one of the first documentary testimonies during the Holocaust about Chelmno, the first extermination camp in Poland.
While others dismissed the man’s report as the ravings of an unhinged mind, the rov’s sense of Jewish history and intuition about Nazi barbarism led him to reach a different conclusion: Podchlebnik was telling the truth—a truth too horrifying to absorb.
Rav Aronson tried to alert Jewish Council Leaders in Sosnowiec and elsewhere to the ongoing slaughter, as the residents of one Polish shtetl after another were taken away, never to return. Afraid his messages would be read by Nazi or local authorities, he couched his words in Biblical allusions.
In a cable to the Sochaczewer Rebbe, Rav Aronson wrote, “Aunt Esther from 7 Megila Street, apt. 4, is coming.” Embedded in this code is an allusion to impending disaster taken from Megilas Esther 7:4: “Ki nimkarti, ani v’ami, lehashmid, leharog ule’abeid. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, killed and annihilated.”
Hidden in Thunder cites this example to show how some rabbinic figures were among the earliest leaders to comprehend the diabolical Nazi plans; she documents their attempts at publicizing the danger, calling for physical and spiritual responses from Jewish leaders.
Farbstein notes that rabbonim were quicker in some cases than secular leaders to comprehend the cataclysm facing European Jewry, pointing out that most rabbis “grew up on Jewish history.” Their intimacy with two millennia of Jewish suffering at the hands of Jew-haters made them skeptical of the outside world.
Jews who viewed themselves as fully German or Austrian couldn’t absorb the reality that their own governments and compatriots sought to kill them for being Jews.
So Those Who Perish Will Not Be Lost for Eternity
After arriving in the Konin slave labor camp, Rav Aronson decided it was imperative to document what was happening to the Jews. His specific intention, he writes, is tell the story of his people’s martyrdom.
“B’ezras Hashem, Early Winter, 5703, Konin
“I am writing a diary, the Megilas Beis Ho’avodim, Scroll of the House of Bondage,” he began. “This is a chronicle for those who may one day study this era of ours, so that those who have perished will not be lost to eternity. I write with brevity, one item out of a thousand, without any embellishment; just as I witnessed the thing happen with my own eyes.
“..I write at midnight, in danger of death if caught. I must conceal far more than I can possibly reveal. The wise reader will hear in my words the moaning of the human spirit from one who writhes in his agony…condemned to death for no reason.”
Rav Aronson wrote in Hebrew. He began by describing the roundups in his hometown and the entire surrounding district, where people were cruelly driven out of their homes in the middle of the night, torn from their families with no belongings or provisions, and deported.
He went on to describe the sadistic conditions under which the inmates labored in the Konin slave labor camp to which they were herded. Fiendish guards randomly assaulted and beat people over the head as they labored on the brink of starvation at railway construction.
“The beaten person collapses and wallows in a pool of his own blood. If he is somehow still alive, he is forced to get up and continue working at top speed. If he fails, he’s done for.”
“For this reason, people are frantic to hide in the morning after appel (roll call),” Rav Aronson wrote, so they can avoid the violent abuse and likely death. If discovered hiding, they pay with their life.”
To the World of Truth
In one example of an inhuman dilemma this terrifying situation caused, Rav Aronson describes the case of Reb Simcha Gardom of Kutno, a refined talmid chochom who was being daily beaten for not keeping up with the pace of the work at the railway construction site.
Reb Simcha decided that instead of succumbing to another day of murderous abuse, he would stay behind in the barracks, come what may.
“Either way, my fate is sealed,” Reb Simcha told Rav Aronson, according to the diary. “I prefer to go to the World of Truth with a page of Gemara than with a shovel.”
“I tried to convince him not to hasten his death this way…He was firm. My entreaty was useless,” Rav Aronson wrote.
Rav Simcha stayed behind, was discovered, and died as he had wished.
In an Adar 21, 5702 (March 10, 1942) entry, Rav Aronson described the frighteningly high rate of mortality and effort to observe kovod hameis and proper burial for the victims.
“We gathered to minister to the deceased…I prepared all the bodies for burial as the Torah requires. Out of a mattress and a sack we made a hoop, a shirt, and pants of cloth, and a hat and a belt. We dressed all of them in these.”
The diary also elaborates on an episode that left the rabbi with piercing agony: an event the author calls “Burying a Boy Alive,’’ in which he and others in the camp were ordered to bury a boy who had been beaten almost to death, but was still clinging to life. Refusal to obey Nazi order to bury the boy alive would have meant a death sentence for all.
The rov’s description of the incident includes frantic halachic deliberations and a decision not to perpetrate such a burial no matter the consequences. Somehow he escaped death.
Last Moments in Konin
As he proceeded with the diary, “Rav Aronson drew the Jewish leaders of the camp into his confidence,” writes Farbstein. “They took part in this secret activity by providing paper and ink, by protecting his diary from discovery, and by helping to conceal the material in a secret trunk.”
When the danger mounted, Rav Aronson transferred the writing project to the camp morgue. He persevered for about a year and a half, from March 1942 until late August 1943, within several days of the liquidation of the camp.
Several days before the Konin camp was liquidated, the rabbi made his final entry.
“I must cut my words short as I have no more opportunity to write…Yesterday the Gestapo men came and made a list… Indications are they will take us to the shadow of the valley of death at Chelmno where we will perish… There were 898 men here at first. Now we are only 60.
“We nullify our will before the will of Hashem Yisborach, dayan haemes.”
In the tense hours before being herded out of the camp, Rav Aronson and his colleagues sought a way to remove the writings from the camp for safekeeping, hoping someone would survive and retrieve them. The diary and documents attached to it were concealed in crates and left with a local Pole who had worked with them in the camp carpentry, writes Farbstein.
Another copy was entrusted to a German worker who had offered his assistance in exchange for a character recommendation he could use as a post-war “alibi” if the need arose.
From Konin, Rav Aronson was shipped to Auschwitz, where he endured several harrowing months there before being sent to Buchenwald, where he was eventually liberated.
In the post-war months, survivors returned to the camp in search of Rav Aronson’s documents, but they were unable to locate either the Pole or the German. The precious diary appeared to have been permanently lost.
Anguished over its loss, Rav Aronson decided to rewrite the diary while still at the Bad Gastein DP camp in Austria. The memoir was completed in Yiddish in 1946. (According to Farbstein’s interview with Rav Aronson’s wife, it had been written by the time they married in 1947.)
After editing and polishing the document, the rabbi sent a copy of it to a Jewish organization in Austria that was gathering Holocaust documentary material. In an extraordinary twist years later, the original diary pages surfaced and in a long, winding process, made their way to Israel, one by one.
Most of the diary reached the Ghetto Fighters’ House, a branch of Yad Vashem. The original pages are now safely in the possession of Rav Aronson’s family, with copies archived in Yad Vashem.
Strikingly, although the memoir had been written three years after the events recorded in the diary, the two documents are in most respects amazingly similar, attests Farbstein, testifying to the rabbi’s extraordinary memory and concern for accuracy.
Rav Aronson settled with his wife in Petach Tikvah, serving as rov of the city for many years and raising a family there. In 1996, three years after he passed away, his diary and memoir were published in the gripping sefer, Alei Merorot.
Why Did We Not Take Vengeance on The Malach Hamoves?
Rav Aronson’s foresaw that Holocaust victims would be judged negatively for failure to resist the Nazis.
“I find it necessary,” he notes in one of his entries, “to answer the question that will be asked by students in the coming generations. Why did we not defend ourselves and take vengeance on the malach hamoves, who came to take us to the valley of death?
“The answer is, at first, many did not believe they were being led to their death. They believed what they were told—they were going to perform easier work, or they were going to the hospital [to recuperate].
“Even the few who understood did not want to take responsibility for the whole community [by resisting].
“After being subjugated for four years, and in the slave labor camp for 16-24 months, we are simply unable to do anything. We lack the strength and power of the spirit.
“In addition, very careful monitoring is maintained over us and the slightest suspicion brings a retaliation faster than the blink of an eye. Many prisoners are so disgusted with this life of slavery, they prefer death to life. They long to be redeemed from their terrible suffering, the suffering of Iyov.
“The obvious question is: why go on living when we have lost our dear families and know what awaits us? Why do intelligent people not commit suicide instead of serving our oppressors with the last of our strength?”
Rav Aronson suggests that Jews are imbued with a deep aversion to suicide, and have been conditioned throughout centuries of exile to hope for a better tomorrow no matter how hopeless things seem.
He then goes on to ponder “the hidden force beyond our understanding, higher than our intellect, which generates a will to live even amid a life of such suffering. It is about such conditions that Chazal taught, “Al korchecha tichyeh…” You will hang on to life in spite of yourself…”
The First Pesach In Konin
-Excerpt from the Scroll of the Konin House of Bondage
The rabbi’s writings in the midst of the gehenom were suffused with profound faith. The following excerpt, in which he describes the first Pesach in the camp in 1942, is illustrative.
“We had obtained a Haggadah, and we all began to recite it with holy trepidation. When I finished reciting kiddush and came to the shehecheyanu blessing, the entire group broke into bitter weeping. It continued for half an hour.
I spoke with those around me, asking, “If we conduct the seder in tears and bitterness instead of celebrating the anniversary of our freedom in joy and exaltation, have we not recited the blessing for nothing?”
I called their attention to the phrasing of the text: “The days of your lives’ [refers to] the days, ‘all the days of your lives’ [refers to] the nights.” Meaning, even in the bleakest times, in the midst of pain and abject humiliation, even then we are mechuyav to observe the commandment of retelling the miracle of yetzias Mitzrayim. For this is the source of future redemption from the exile of the four kingdoms (Alei Merorot, p. 145).
Trump’s Proclamation on 75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz
Driven by virulent hatred and unspeakable cruelty, the Nazis implemented a systematic and methodical plan to exterminate the Jewish people and others they deemed undesirable. Two out of three Jews in Europe and millions of other people were murdered. They were sent to ghettos, concentration camps and death camps where they were persecuted, imprisoned, starved, tortured and executed. It is simply unthinkable that such barbarity occurred just 75 years ago.
Today, we honor the memory of those who were killed in the Holocaust. We cherish the survivors who ensured the perpetuation of the Jewish people. And we offer a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid to our brave soldiers who sacrificed everything for freedom.