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?”