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!
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • Novelist Sayed Kashua finds it hard to write about the heartbreak of Gaza from the plush confines of Debra Winger's Manhattan pad. Tough to argue with that, whichever side of the conflict you are on.
  • "I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn."
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • 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.