A Visit To Germany Reawakens Fears of an Ultra-Orthodox Childhood

The Price of Obedience


By Leah Vincent

Published March 30, 2014, issue of April 04, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

On my first trip to Germany, as I traveled to the town where a friend of mine lives, everything reminded me of the Holocaust.

The pink-cheeked travelers in my train car seemed to morph into Nazis. T-shirts shimmered into gray-green uniforms. Cell phones looked like guns.

As we rolled through emerald fields, I found myself scanning the landscape, wondering: Would that copse of trees hide me? How long could I stay in that abandoned hut before the Nazi dogs sniffed me out?

These were the fears that defined my yeshivish ultra-Orthodox childhood, and their re-emergence took me by surprise. I hadn’t come to Germany looking for Jewish history; I was on vacation, celebrating the completion of my memoir that charted my tumultuous adolescent journey out of my religious community. I hadn’t thought much about the Holocaust in years.

The Holocaust had once defined my life. When I was young, stories of the ghettos and the concentration camps, along with tales of Jewish martyrs to the Cossacks, the Inquisition, the Greeks and the Romans, saturated my existence. We dwelled on a foundation of fear, as if our home rested on a sleeping monster that could waken with a single misstep. “In every generation they rise up to destroy us,” we sang each Passover, a prediction of impending tragedy that drove us to defensive piety throughout the year.

The friend I was visiting in Germany is a former Satmar Hasid. When I told him that this trip was reviving my youthful memories of stories of the Holocaust, he remembered how, in his own childhood, he had celebrated the anniversary of the day the Red Cross miraculously rescued Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the grand Satmar rabbi, from the Nazis. My friend later learned that the story was more complex: Teitelbaum actually accepted a spot for himself on a train out of Hungary, organized by a Zionist activist (a man whom the fiercely anti-Zionist Satmar community never credits or thanks), leaving his followers behind to meet their fate.

This piece of news sent me searching for more information on the behavior of ultra-Orthodox leaders during the Holocaust. I learned that the Belzer rebbe and his family escaped from Hungary in 1944, a month before the Nazis came. At a major conference the day before he left, allegedly attended by thousands, the rebbe’s brother, speaking on the community leader’s behalf, did not urge the Belzer followers to also try and flee, but instead explained the rebbe’s leaving as a spiritual journey, not an abandonment.

In 1939, Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, one of the leaders of prewar yeshivish life, forbade his students from accepting a few visas that were available to go study in the more liberal schools of Yeshiva University and the Hebrew Theological College, in the Chicago area, saying, “What is the gain in achieving physical salvation if you lose your spiritual life?”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.