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Rabbis At Bergen-Belsen Used This Ledger To Help Holocaust Survivors Remarry

Update, 9:30 a.m.: ​The auction has been put on hold. A court in Tel Aviv put a hold on the sale after a lawsuit was filed by the Organization of Bergen-Belsen Survivors in Israel. Read more at this link.

A ledger meant to free people from marriage to spouses who were missing and presumed dead after the Holocaust will go to auction next week in Jerusalem, the auction house said in a press release.

The ledger, contained in a German notebook, has nearly 85 rulings filled out by a rabbinical court in the displaced persons camp at Bergen-Belsen, which had been a concentration camp. The rabbis had to investigate because of Jewish restrictions on remarriage for both men and women in the absence of proof of a spouse’s death.

The rabbis collected testimony from survivors of events like the gas chambers, shootings and other terrors of the Holocaust to determine the likelihood of missing victims’ survival. They recorded the testimonies in the ledger, then issued marriage permits and signed them.

“This is a document that encapsulates, in poignant form, the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people,” said Dr. Henry Abramson, dean at Touro College in Brooklyn. “It is a document that describes in terse, legal language the phenomenal depth of agony.”

The document has immediate historical and genealogical significance but beyond that, it could be used to provide legal precedent to free today’s agunot — people “chained” to their marriages due to a spouse’s disappearance or possible death.

The ledger’s starting price at Kedem auction house is $4,000.

The issue of agunot is centuries old, said Dr. Lisa Fishbayn Joffe, Director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute at Brandeis University. It’s also an issue unique to Jewish divorce. According to Jewish law, a rabbinical court does not have the power to religiously dissolve a marriage. Both parties must consent. If a spouse is not known to be living or dead, a person can’t remarry, in part to ensure compliance with bans on polygamy. (The contemporary controversy regarding female agunot whose husbands won’t give them divorces is a variation on this phenomenon.)

Joffe said the quest to solving these logistical and emotional problems for remarriage is a consistent theme in Jewish history.

“There’s a broad literature in Jewish law of trying to find different presumptions and different strategies,” she said. “There’s also been sort of communal approaches to the possibility of mass disappearance.”

Men who went to war, for example, would often write a traditional get, a divorce document, before their departures to ensure their wives could remarry if they did not return.

In those cases, perhaps thousands of marriages were affected by disappearances, Abramson said. In the case of the Holocaust, it was millions.

Displaced persons camps after the Holocaust was a crucial element of this type of investigation, said Rabbi Michael Broyde, Law Professor at Emory University and a visiting professor at Stanford Law School. He also used to serve as a member of the Beth Din of America.

“The scale and the magnitude of the Holocaust was something that had never been encountered before, so they took great pains to try to reunite couples,” he said. Postwar officials worked hard to share survivor lists and to help people find each other by letting them go from camp to camp.

Boyde said relatively few survivors of the Holocaust ended up trapped as agunot through the efforts of rabbis such as the ones who did the research and made the rulings documented in this ledger: Rabbi Yoel Heilpern, Rabbi Yisrael Arie Zalmanowitz, Rabbi Issachar Berish Rubin and Rabbi Yitzchak Glickman.

The ledger is also illustrative of the sense of urgency felt by people in displaced persons camps to rebuild and move on with their lives. Survivors wanted to marry to repopulate the earth’s Jews; scholar Atina Grossman has used the term “biological revenge” to characterize the birth rate in the camps, Touro College’s Henry Abramson said.

German Jews in 1948 had a birth rate that was more than double that of all Germans in 1933, he said.

“Jews desperately wanted to have children to replace those losses,” he said. “They believed that by bringing these children into the world, they would literally affect redemption onto the entire world.”

Molly Boigon is the investigative reporter at the Forward. Contact her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @MollyBoigon


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