Telling Story of Holocaust's Horrors Through Ultra-Orthodox Eyes

Brooklyn Museum Plans To Offer Neglected Shoah Perspective

yad vashem

By Paul Berger

Published April 09, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
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“What is it about the law of pikuach nefesh [preserving human life above other religious laws] that you don’t understand?” he asked, according to Berenbaum. Weissmandl feared that the partisan could be murdered by the Nazis or even by his fellow partisans if people knew he was Jewish. As Berenbaum related it, the rabbi instructed the partisan, “Your most important task is to survive.”

“They are in a process of wrestling with these kinds of stories,” Berenbaum said.

Kleinman has aims for the museum that go beyond just telling the story of the Holocaust itself. He wants visitors to learn about the vibrancy of Orthodox life in prewar Europe and about the flourishing of Orthodox life after the Holocaust. He also wants them to think more about anti-Semitism and about how easily a civilized country such as Germany could descend into barbarity. Jews often refer to America as a medina shel chessed — a country of kindness — Kleinman said. But toleration can disappear in an instant.

“We want these children to understand that [it] can be taken away from you like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. The Holocaust is a complex issue in the Orthodox world.

Many liberal or secular Jews refer to the Holocaust using the term Shoah, Hebrew for “catastrophe.” Ultra-Orthodox Jews are just as comfortable using the phrase Khurban Europa, which uses the same Yiddish word, khurban, with which they describe the destruction of the Temple.

A small but significant minority in the ultra-Orthodox community believe that the Holocaust was divine punishment for Jewish assimilation, intermarriage and the emergence of liberal streams of Judaism, such as the Reform movement, that do not accept traditional Judaic religious strictures.

“The minority of the righteous undergo the tribulations sent because of the sinful majority,” wrote Avigdor Miller, a popular ultra-Orthodox rabbi who died more than 10 years ago, in “A Divine Madness,” a collection of his reflections on the Holocaust.

In an interview last year, Rabbi Yitzchok Frankfurter, editor of the Orthodox publication Ami Magazine, pushed Kleinman on whether the KFHEC would include different interpretations of the Holocaust.


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