Spiritual Revival in the DP Camps
Can these dry bones come back to life?” we wondered. “From Heaven came the answer: These bones shall live! We saw with certainty Hashem’s kindness dripping the dew of techiyas hameisim upon us. “ –Rav Yehoshua Moshe Aronson, Alei Merorot
For most Holocaust survivors, liberation and the opening of the camps triggered an outpouring of exultation. Footage taken in many camps at the hour of liberation captures the joyful sobbing of ravaged inmates, as the yearned for moment of freedom finally arrived.
But for many survivors, the initial burst of jubilation fizzled out as the magnitude of the devastation sank in, and traumatized victims realized they had no homes or community to return to, no family to embrace them.
Across the world, wild celebrations filled the streets. But Jewish survivors did not belong to that world. They seemed to belong nowhere, perhaps not even fully to themselves. Nazi brutality and dehumanization had wiped away many facets of their identity.
Haunted by their memories, sick and prematurely aged, trapped in the camps even after liberation, many survivors hovered on the edge of an emotional and spiritual abyss, questioning whether there was anything worth living for.
“When the few survivors were liberated, one from a city and two from a family…without the breath of life or any desire to live, there was no natural means visible on their horizon by which these people could recover,” Rav Yehoshua Moshe Aronson, one of the few Polish rabbonim to survive the Holocaust, wrote in his sefer“Alei Merorot.
“Can these dry bones come back to life?” we wondered.
Rav Aronson was deported with his community in 1942 and went through a long agonizing odyssey in various Nazi camps. He was liberated in Buchenwald. During this period, he compiled meticulous records of events he witnessed and experienced during almost three years of captivity, at great risk to his life.
His diary, originally titled Megilas Beis Hoavodim, Scroll of the House of Bondage, chronicles 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 he made pertaining to life and death situations in the camp.
Rav Aronson also penned profound essays on the process of recovery and awakening that brought survivors back to the land of the living, and the world of Torah and mitzvos.
Some Jews had clung to faith until the very end—until death or liberation, he testified. Others were crushed by their bitter suffering. Some abandoned their beliefs, lashing out at the Creator in their rage and despair.
Others sought to heal themselves in the weeks and months after liberation by nursing the flickering embers of faith, and clutching at symbols of Jewish life that represented their shattered past.
The Redemption That Never Came
“In order to illustrate the enormity of the our ordeal, I will mention one little detail that tells volumes,” wrote Rav Yisroel Efraim Fischel Rothe, a Hungarian rov, in Kol Hakatuv Lechayim.
“The entire time I was in the extermination camp. I said Shema Yisroel every day. I continued even after the liberation, but trying to remain steadfast in emunah was harder than during the Holocaust itself.
“Fifty years from now, will anyone begin to understand this? Why someone would feel it commendable that they said the Shema after liberation? Will anyone grasp how in the camps we survived by keeping alive the expectation that the geulah would come suddenly –perhaps the very next day! We would then understand why we had suffered so terribly.
“But when liberation finally came—that is when we discovered the extent of the churban, and that nothing had changed!
The writer went on to mention examples of the Jews’ degrading treatment after liberation. Survivors were languishing in fenced-in barracks, cut off from contact from the outside world, while German killers lived in comfortable houses. Murders and pogroms occurred in many places; Jewish refugees wandered from country to country, forced to sneak across borders since no country would take them in.
“So don’t be surprised at those who did not return when the war was over,” Rabbi Rothe wrote. “For many of us, G-d was as hidden as before. His concealment after the “liberation” was awful.”
Dying Embers Burst Into Flame
Survivors in their memoirs and testimonies recall events that ignited the path to the recovery in these grueling days. The first Shabbos seuda in freedom; the sound of shabbos zemiros; the first rousing Yehei Shemei Rabba during public prayer—these moments kindled the thirst for a return to Jewish life and a yearning for closeness to Hashem despite the terrible pain of His self-concealment.
An emotional reunion of family members or childhood friends torn from each other by war had the power to break through frozen hearts.
Prayer was often the spark that opened the floodgates of spiritual hunger, survivors attest.
Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Rose, a survivor of Dachau, recalled the first emotional tefilla betzibur he experienced after the war. He was in a hospital near the extermination camp where he and many other survivors were recovering.
Rose, who had been a talmid of Slabodka in Kovno, wrote that they gathered to daven the first day they arrived. As the ancient words tumbled from their lips, deep emotion engulfed them. “Only then were we convinced that we had been liberated in the full sense in the term.”
Minyanim were held in the hospital three times day, he recalled. The men wore white yarmulkas they fashioned out of hospital bedsheets, and they even had tefillin and a sefer Torah. Astoundingly, one Jew from Kovno had managed to hide a tiny miniature sefer Torah in Dachau—one of the most bloodthirsty camps—and others had at enormous risk kept a pair of tefillin.
“The scroll made it to the hospital in St. Ottilien and we davened with it b’tzibur,” Rose recounted at a siyum haShas in Yerushalayim many years later. “And then a powerful thirst for a daf gemorah awoke within us. What’s the point of living and what meaning does liberation have if we don’t have to the opportunity to study Torah? (Shirat Shmuel, cited in Hidden in Thunder)
The First Yizkor
Another survivor wrote about an unforgettable minyan on German soil after liberation.
“We were the “ude mutzal mei’asih,” brands plucked from the fire, and during that service we felt like one united torch. We wept and screamed and cried out to Hashem. All the depths of our anguish burst out in that prayer.
“When the baal tefillah started reciting Yizkor, powerful weeping sprang forth from hundreds of throats. But afterward, a different feeling made its way into our hearts, a feeling that the terrible days of Hashem’s concealment were over, and that a new life awaited us.
Children who had stopped living religious lives during the war sometimes experienced a longing to return after hearing the melody of a familiar tefillah. Some youngsters resumed davening because they wanted to say Kaddish for their parents.
“When our comrades returned from escorting convoys of religious children (most of whom had been in hiding), they described how shocked they were to hear Kaddish being recited during the youngsters’ tefilla betzibur.
One of them told us how hundreds of children had stood in a remote farmyard and recited Kaddish before setting out to cross the border, their childish voices ringing out over the open field as they chanted the prayer. We all cried with him as he described the scene. (Farbstein, quoting Efraim Dekel in Seridei Cherev)
“On Iyar 13 (April 26, 1945) the day before Pesach Sheini, it was announced that an American chaplain would be arriving,” wrote Avraham Shdeur in his memoir, Korot. “Rabbi Hershel Schachter arrived at the camp. He said Keil maleh Rachamim for all the kedoshim who had been killed, slaughtered and burned in European lands.
“This was the first time I realized this prayer was about my father, mother and brother and sisters. I knew that they were not alive but when I heard the prayer, the knowledge that they were really gone hit me with full force. They were all dead and I was alive…I needed to daven for their neshomos…
“When I recovered, I saw that two lines were forming. At the front of one line, the rabbi was handing out matzo, at the other line, siddurim. I was given a siddur and suddenly the words of the tefillos came emotionally to my lips. For eleven months I hadn’t been able to remember the words of Shema… suddenly I remembered every word. I discovered I was still a believer, my faith was returning.”
American Chaplains Reel in Shock
Some 300 Jewish chaplains served in the US Army in the post-war occupation in Europe, from 1945-1949, according to Alex Grobman in Rekindling the Flame: American Jewish Chaplains and Survivor of European Jewry. Almost half were Reform rabbis, with the rest Conservative and Orthodox in approximately equal numbers.
They were sent to provide religious services to the Jewish soldiers fighting with the allies in Europe, not to get involved with survivors—about whom very little was known even by high-ranking military authorities.
This mandate changed upon the liberation of the camps, largely upon the chaplains’ own initiative when they confronted the scope of the human disaster. This often meant walking a tightrope between their duty as Jews and identification with the survivors, and their obligations to the U.S. Army.
Among these chaplains were several who were attached to the military forces that opened the gates of Dachau and Buchenwald. They were among the first to greet the survivors and get a glimpse of the horrors they had been through.
One of these was Rabbi Hershel Schachter who recalled reeling in shock from the sights, noting that “neither he nor any other American chaplain had been briefed about what to expect.”
Americans had known about the mass extermination of European Jewry since 1942, but this information remained cerebral, including in the American Jewish community. It never translated to a grasp of the monumental atrocity that millions of human beings were being systematically murdered in the most hideous ways.
Shocked and sickened by the machinery of mass-murder, the mountains of corpses, the evidence of systematic torture, starvation and depravity, the chaplains conveyed the state of affairs to their superiors and to the public.
Their reports and articles informed the world about survivors in Italy, France, Holland, Belgium, Austria and Germany, humanizing them and spurring relief organizations into action. They indirectly influenced U.S. policy in terms of financial relief and the eventual loosening of restrictive immigration quotas.
As the war ended and the pictures and newsreels of the camps began filtering down to the public, the Jewish world was tormented by grief and feelings of guilt.
“Yet months would pass before a real bridge formed between the Jewish world and survivors,” notes Farbstein. Only in 1946 did leaders of all segments of Jewry visit the DP camps where thousands were still languishing.
Seesaw of Hope and Despair
Among the Orthodox group of chaplains were Rabbi Hersh Livazer, a talmid of Rav Yechiel Michel Gordcon, rosh yeshiva of Lomza, and the renowned Rav Eliezer Silver of Cincinnati, a remarkable activist and one of the leaders of the Vaad Hatzala.
As they formed ties with the survivors and began to grasp what they had endured, they realized that their involvement was coming at a critical time—when the survivors’ hope for a future could either be nursed back to life, or extinguished.
This seesaw of despair and hope is portrayed in many survivors’ memoirs of the period.
“I lay on my bed, trying desperately not to give in to despair…What did I have left worth living for?” Rabbi Yechezkel Harfenes, Slingshot of Hell.
“I forced myself to consider [why life was still worth living]. I was still alive, wasn’t I? Had I not witnessed miracle after miracle, overcoming insurmountable odds? Did I have no purpose to achieve having survived hell? The sharpened sword had been at my throat yet I was still alive. Divine Providence had guided my steps and now I must rebuild my life…”
“Although the army did not understand their deep involvement with the survivors, most chaplains followed their hearts and consciences,” writes Farbstein. “They acted more as warm Jews and representatives of the DP’s than as representatives of the army; in fact, they took advantage of their military status for the benefit of their people.”
Chesed Shel Emes
Lt. Meyer Birnbaum was not a chaplain but a regular officer in the US armed forces; he nevertheless assumed many of the duties of a chaplain, as recounted in the book, Lieutenant Birnbaum. He and Rabbi Hershel Schachter had conveyed the news of liberation to disbelieving Jewish inmates of Dachau and Buchenwald, going from barracks to barracks announcing, “Sholom Aleichem Yidden, ir zeit frei!”
Birnbaum later told of how devastated he and other chaplains were by the deaths of thousands of Jews after liberation, despite desperate efforts of doctors and medics to save their lives. Before them lay vast swaths of territory covered with corpses and skeletons of thousands of Jews killed on death marches. In addition, thousands of prisoners died after liberation from exhaustion, weakness and inability to digest normal food.
Aided by emaciated survivors, the chaplains conducted a staggering number of burials day after day, week after week. The urgency of burying the decomposing bodies and the emotional toll it took made record-keeping all but impossible.
One of these chaplains was Rav Tzvi Azaria from Yugoslavia who recounted this wrenching work in Eidim Anachnu, cited in Hidden in Thunder.
“How many thousands?” he wrote. “No one is counting. Who are the people being buried every day? No one knows. No names. No statistics. Although it is May, thick clouds cover the sky, as if to keep the sun’s rays from penetrating this place of horrors called Bergen Belsen.”
Rabbi Azaria’s colleague, Rabbi Avraham Goldfinger, described the chesed shel emes of his friend in his own account of the ordeal in “Mabat Le’achor. “I see him walking behind a truck loaded with corpses, silently mourning, full of grief and agony. He cannot utter a sound, not even of prayer.”
Truman Commission Castigates Army for Callousness Toward Survivors
Responding to survivors’ unbearable loneliness, the chaplains undertook letter-writing campaigns and networking with their contacts to locate relatives who had survived the Holocaust or who lived overseas. This brought about many emotional reunions between siblings, parents and children, husbands and wives.
Reform Rabbi Abraham Klausner, one of the first American chaplains to reach the camps with the liberating forces, helped Rav Dovid Shapiro, the last surviving rov from Warsaw, reunite with his brother, a chaplain in the U.S. Army.
The same Klausner, notes Farbstein, revealed the deplorable conditions of the DP camps to the Harrison Commission, sent by President Truman in 1945 to investigate the DP situation, after the United State assumed responsibility for the overall welfare of the survivors.
Harrison’s sharply worded report, which led to better conditions and separate housing for Jews in the camps, can be attributed to Klausner’s efforts to publicize the military’s callous treatment of survivors.
“As matters now stand,” the Harrison report states, “we appear to be treating the Jews as the Nazis treated them, except we do not exterminate them.”
The U.S. army was described as “alienated” or “repulsed” by the appearance of the emaciated, hollow-eyed survivors and did not treat them as human beings in need of kindness and respect.
As often happens, outspoken truth-telling of people like Klausner offended the powers that be. He further ruffled feathers by publishing a booklet explaining the survivors’ rights, and by founding the first newspaper by survivors, called “Unzer Veg.
Klausner encouraged the formation of a central committee for survivors, and worked for its official recognition. Within a few months, writes Farbstein, an independent organization with dynamic leadership comprised wholly of survivors was in place.
This operation took over part of the responsibility for survivors’ living conditions and initiated efforts to procure religious articles and accommodations.
Klausner’s advocacy for survivors so annoyed U.S. military commanders that he was transferred out of Europe. But his achievements remained in place and were expanded on by others after he left.
Chaplains’ Activism Gains Momentum
In the very first weeks and months after liberation, the chaplains helped obtain kosher food in the DP camps for those who wanted it, and soon afterwards, helped set up kosher kitchens and a kashrus system.
Their post-war correspondence reveals the extent to which the chaplains, regardless of their degree of affiliation with Orthodoxy, tried to obtain from world Jewry adequate shipments of religious items to meet the growing requests for tefillin, talleisim, yarmulkas, hats, siddurim and sifrei kodesh.
The chaplains were the first to grasp the survivors’ desperate longing for religious books, and were actively involved in retrieving thousands of seforim that the Germans had looted and stacked into large warehouses (aside from the millions they destroyed in public book-burnings across Europe).
The chaplains distributed the books to survivors and Jewish libraries and centers around the world.
In addition, a number of chaplains used their influence to open the doors of other countries to the survivors. Rabbi Hersh Livazer arranged for Rav Yisroel Gustman, rosh yeshiva of Ramailis Yeshiva in Vilna and one of the few survivors of the city, to emigrate to the United States.
Lt. Birnbaum worked with Recha Sternbuch of the Vaad Hatzala to bring children to Switzerland, forging visas in cases where none could be obtained. Rabbi Schachter brought children to Switzerland as well, and Rabbi Robert Marcus escorted a convoy of 500 children and teenagers, including former students of Polish and Hungarian yeshivas.
Some of them held minyonim on the train three times a day, testifies historian Alex Grobman in Rekindling the Flame. Throughout the journey, they sang songs of Eretz Yisroel, songs from the ghettos and camps and song of faith.
“Can these dry bones come back to life?” Rav Aronson recalls wondering in the initial period following liberation, when he was frozen with grief.
“From Heaven came the answer,” he wrote. “These bones shall live! We saw with certainty Hashem’s kindness dripping the dew of techiyas hameisim upon us.” –Alei Merorot.
Shehecheyanu in the Shadow of Death
Seder night, 1942. Some four million Jews have already been butchered but the Nazi’s lust for blood is insatiable. At this stage of the war, Hitler seemed invincible.
In the Konin death camp, a group of Jews led by Rav Yehoshua Moshe Aronson of Sanniki, Poland, huddled together to read the Haggadah. As recounted by Rav Aronson in his sefer, Alei Merorot:
“We had obtained a Haggadah and began to recite it with holy trepidation. When I finished reciting kiddush and came to the shehecheyanu blessing, the entire group burst into bitter sobs. The weeping continued for half an hour.
“I finally spoke to the people around me… ‘My friends, if we conduct the seder in tears and bitterness instead of celebrating the anniversary of our liberation in joy and exaltation, haven’t we made a brocha levatoloh?’”
“I called their attention to the text: “The days of your lives’ [refers to] the days, ‘all the days of your lives’ [refers to] the nights.” This means that even in the bleakest times, in the midst of pain and utter humiliation, even then we are obligated to observe the mitzvah of sipur yetzias Mitzrayim.
“For this my friends is the source of future redemption from the exile of the four kingdoms!”
Rav Aronson miraculously survived and after leading survivor communities in Germany and Austria, eventually settled in Eretz Yisroel, becoming the beloved rov of Petach Tikva.
His diary, written at enormous risk in the Konin death camp, and a memoir written immediately after liberation, were published in Alei Merorot three years after his death in 1996.
It is not known how many of the courageous, broken-hearted Jews who celebrated Pesach with him in the “Konin House of Bondage” lived to be liberated.
Pesach Sheini in the DP Camp
On April 27, 1945, three years after the Konin “shehecheyanu,” a distinguished-looking rabbi who had been liberated in Buchenwald a couple of weeks before, stood up before a group of Jews in the DP camp.
Rav Yaakov Avigdor of Drohobycz (Galicia) had been severely ill when he was freed. “Just as my body was covered with sores, bruises and open wounds for several years and the marks are still visible,” he wrote shortly after the war, “I feel inside my soul that it has suffered terribly and is still wounded, beaten and aching…” (Tehilat Yaakov, cited in Hidden In Thunder)
Now, facing the assembled Jews on Pesach Sheini, he held a piece of matza in his hand. Visibly moved, he paused to compose himself before he spoke.
“Even with his tortured body, he cut an impressive figure,” a survivor recalled. “With eyes full of tears, he recited the blessing over the matza before the assembled Jews. Before tasting it, he recited another blessing: shehecheyanu,”
“Amein!” burst forth emotionally from the throats of the assembled. None of them had seen matzo in years; many did not believe they would ever celebrate Pesach again. The package of matza was quickly distributed all around as the Jews followed the rov’s example.
Kimat Kiluni Ba’aretz V’ani Lo Azavti Es Pikudecha…
the chaplains working with religious survivors in the DP camps in Germany understood their longing for sifrei kodesh. They actively supported a remarkable printing project spearheaded by two survivors from Dachau, Rabbi Shmuel Sneig (appointed, chief rabbi of the U.S. Zone) and the above-mentioned Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Rose.
Funded largely by Vaad Hatzalah and using improvised facilities set up in Bergen-Belsen, the survivors printed chumashim, the Hagadah, the Chameish Megilos, sifrei mussar and sifrei halacha, particularly taharas hasmishpacha.
The climax of the project was the printing of the two masechtas, Kiddushin and Nedarim—in time for Shavuos 1946. The title page of the first masechta, illustrated by a survivor, depicts palm trees and fields representing Eretz Yisroel above a death camp encircled by barbed-wire fences.
Underneath the picture runs a poignant verse from Tehilim, capturing the profound emotion driving the survivors: “They almost obliterated me from the land but I did not abandon Your commandments.” (Tehillim 119:87)
The project’s success fueled an even bolder plan: to print the entire Talmud in Germany. Despite objections from many quarters regarding the impracticability and extravagance of such a project, it was actually carried out.
Funding came the JDC, Vaad Hatzala, and most surprisingly, the U.S. Army, whose commander in chief Gen. McCnarney saw it as a conciliatory “gesture to the survivors” who had been hurt by the army’s callousness, notes Farbstein.
Before printing could begin, a complete set of the Talmud had to be found to use as a prototype. So total had been the Nazi assault on Jewish books that in all of Western Europe, not one complete set of the Talmud could be located. Finally, two complete sets were found in New York and sent to Germany by the JDC.
In a stroke of irony, the U.S. Army took over the Carl Winter Printing Plant in Heidelberg, Germany, which had produced Nazi propaganda literature during the war. Thus, on the accursed land that had wiped out a third of the Jewish people and also sought to destroy its sacred books, the printing of the Talmud was completed in 1949.
By that time, most of the 300,000 survivors had left the DP camps for the United States and Israel. But the Munich Talmud, or the Survivors’ Talmud, as it became known, was studied by bnei Torah in Israel and around the world for many years—a powerful symbol of the survivors’ spiritual revival and the eternity of the Jewish people.