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?”
I was crushed to learn of the choices these leaders made, that they hadn’t been more courageous or more aware of what was going on, that they couldn’t and didn’t find a way to lead their followers, who were so fervently attached to their every command, to escape from the gruesome deaths that awaited most of them. Perhaps it is harsh to assign too much responsibility to mere men, who could do little in the face of a swift and secretive Nazi machine, but these were not mere men — these were godly leaders, believed, by their followers, by me in my childhood, to possess a “Holy Spirit” that gave them access to more information than the average mortal.
If they did not have at least as much foresight as sentinels like Polish resistance fighter Jan Karski, who reported to the Polish government in exile about the concentration camps, and Shaul Avigur, a founder of the Israeli intelligence community, the rabbis’ political position, if not their spiritual position, should still leave them accountable for their miscalculations.
Walking through the cobblestone streets of Germany, the language of my childhood nightmares assaulting me at every turn, I felt dizzy grappling with the historical atrocity that had again come to life for me. How could the leaders I revered in my youth have been so mistaken? How had it come to pass that my relatives who had perished in the Holocaust were slaughtered like helpless chickens?
But what would I do, I wondered, if time suddenly slipped back 70 years and I found myself, a Jew, in Germany? Where would I go, with my curly hair and my almond-shaped eyes?
My people had no guns, I realized. My ancestors had no army. They had no inkling of the horrors that were coming before they arrived, and once they did, it was too late to flee.
But I also wondered if our religion played a part in our tragedy. I wondered if our faith had been less focused on the incorporeal body and more on the physical self, less on fear and more on assertiveness, perhaps more would have survived. I wondered if these qualities of Judaism were inherent to our tradition, or if they were a mutation, due to centuries of humiliating anti-Semitism, that infiltrated our culture with a kind of Stockholm Syndrome where weakness imposed on us was renamed piety, and laws that forbade us from defending our physical well-being spawned a love of spiritual defense. I wondered if the rabbis had internalized the abuse their communities suffered to shape a philosophy and code of law of fear and introversion and complete obedience, at any cost.
I know the Judaism of fear well. If prewar Judaism was hampered by anxiety and a legacy of pain, ultra-Orthodoxy has taken that relationship to a new extreme. In my childhood, fear of God’s punishment, delivered through mortal messengers, was ever-present. The threats were not idle, as I found out as a teenager — when I was pushed out of my family and left to fend for myself in New York City because I had violated the rules of modesty. I spent years reeling from that abandonment, struggling to survive, desperately trying to rebuild my life.
Harsh punishment was communal as well as personal. My great uncle, Rabbi Avigdor Miller, a widely respected yeshivish rabbi, wrote: “Hitler was not only sent by Heaven, but was sent as a kindness from Heaven…. Because assimilation and intermarriage are worse than death.”
When we rebelled against God, we could expect calamity.
The only way to survive was for men to delve ever more fervently into religious texts, for women to adhere ever more stringently to laws of modesty, and for us all to reject the distractions of secular life and surrender our will to an ever more demanding God who spoke only through male rabbis and whose hand was always raised, poised to destroy us via the mighty gentile. In the ultra-Orthodox attempt to make sense of the Holocaust, suffering has become God. And now God is suffering, and suffering must be endless to ensure that God sticks around.
Those of the ultra-Orthodox community defend this perspective, claiming that their views are the most authentically Jewish. They call their way of life “Torah” Judaism. But visiting the birthplace of the trauma that lead to the creation of contemporary ultra-Orthodoxy, I realized that ultra-Orthodoxy has little to do with Torah.
The Jews of the Torah are Miriam, who was Moses’ sister and led the people in dance and song; Tamar, who was rewarded for dressing as a prostitute and seducing her father-in-law with a child who became King David’s ancestor; Samson, who, in between falling in love with gentile women, fought his enemies with foxes, a donkey’s jawbone and a suicide attack in a temple; Yael, who pounded a nail through the enemy general’s brain, and Devorah, who was judge, military strategist and poet. Not fearful individuals who hid from the world, but archetypes of verve and power who lived fully in it.
They are our true history and values. Judaism should not be shaped by the Nazis or by the failure, on too many parties’ accounts, to stave off tragedy. Judaism should celebrate, as our Torah ancestors did, values of engagement with the world, brash empowerment of the physical self and responsibility for practical defense.
On the last day of my trip to Germany, I wondered what the Jewish ghosts who seemed to roll down from the hills in white fog would say in response to my criticisms of the world I was raised in and to my attempts to re-engage with the very ancient past of our people.
I wondered if these ghosts would cry out in shame or cry out with pride, and if it mattered. If the only way I could honor the tragedy was by listening to the victims crying, Or if there was something to be said for having the chutzpah of our forefather Moses — interrupting, contradicting and trying to promote a different way to encounter life, with spine and power, offering a blasphemous disrespect that might ensure Jews today don’t have to suffer the same fate as the Jews of yesterday who are gone.
Leah Vincent is an activist working for reform within ultra-Orthodoxy and for the empowerment of former ultra-Orthodox Jews. She is the author of “Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood.” Find her on Twitter @EhyehLeah and at www.leahvincent.com