What could be a greater chutzpah than telling someone else that they have a duty to read a particular book? Yet I'm going to do just that. The book is Hidden in Thunder: Perspectives on Faith, Halachah and Leadership during the Holocaust by Esther Farbstein.
That obligation is twofold. It is first an obligation to Rebbetzin Farbstein, who has been the champion of every believing Jew in her nearly three decades of work in Holocaust studies. But much more important, it is an obligation to ourselves. I cannot imagine anyone studying this two-volume work without their own faith being deepened and their commitment to keeping the flame of Torah life burning intensified.
The youngest survivors of the Holocaust are already in their 70s, and the living link to the most cataclysmic event in Jewish history since the destruction of the Temple will soon be severed. It is that link that Rebbetzin Farbstein has sought to preserve with her encyclopedic knowledge of all the various forms of testimony recorded by those millions who perished and the few who survived.
Esther Farbstein deserves to be linked with the late Dr. David Kranzler as a fighting historian. He opened up the entire study of Orthodox rescue efforts during the Holocaust in a series of biographies of the leading activists – Recha and Isaac Sternbuch, Dr. Yosef Griffels, George Mantello, Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, Renee Reichman. In Thy Brother's Blood, Kranzler analyzed the difference in approach to rescue between the Orthodox and mainstream leaders like Stephen Wise and organizations like the Joint Distribution Committeee And she has opened up the entire area of academic studies of spiritual responses to the Holocaust.
Rather than lament that the impact of the Holocaust on religious Jews and their responses had largely been ignored by academic historians or been distorted for those with little feel for the world of believing Jews, Farbstein acquired the requisite academic training and pioneered these studies. She recognized that people will study what they know best, and that the history of spiritual responses to the Holocaust could only be done by those inhabit the same spiritual universe.
She employs the methods of academics and asks some of the same questions – e.g., the comparative reliability of contemporaneous diaries vs. later memoirs – but there is nothing dry about her approach. Beneath the surface of her elegant, measured prose, beats the unmistakable passion of a great-granddaughter of the Imrei Emes of Ger. And the debt to her husband Rabbi Moshe Mordechai Farbstein, Rosh Yeshivas Chevron, is equally evident in her analysis of numerous complicated halachic topics.
Rebbetzin Farbstein's ways are pleasantness: Her inevitable response to those who address her by her professional title or as Rebbetzin is, "Call me Esther." But she has taken the fight to the academics on their own turf and using their own tools. Her dissection of those academic historians who have heaped scorn on Rebbe Mordechai of Bilgoraj's speech delivered prior to his departure from Budapest for Eretz Yisrael, together with his brother Rebbe Aharon of Belz, is alone worth the price of the book. So too her analysis of the teachings of the Piaseczner Rebbe in the Warsaw Ghetto (printed as Aish Kodesh) against academics who have detected a wavering of faith.
Rebbetzin Farbstein knows every nook in cranny of the Yad Vashem Exhibition Hall, and has spent more than a decade alternately cajoling and demanding that the story of spiritual fortitude be told as well – the six Bais Yaakov schools in the Warsaw Ghetto, the mitzvah observance even in the death camps, the hundreds of rebbes, roshei yeshiva, and communal rabbonim who refused to abandon their flocks, even when the opportunity presented itself, the wretching halachic sheilos that were asked and answered in the ghettos and death camps. They do not yet find their place in the Yad Vashem Exhibition Hall; they are the subject of Hidden in Thunder.
Hidden in Thunder touches upon virtually every aspect of faith during and after the Holocaust – e.g., the role of rabbinic leadership, definitions of Kiddush Hashem when the choice whether to live or die had been taken away, and the efforts of the survivors to reconstruct their lives after the war. Yet this work is not meant to be the definitive word on any of the subjects touched. Each chapter points the way towards new directions in research.
The Nazis, ym"sh, sought not only to exterminate the bodies of every Jew; they also waged war on Hashem and His Torah. Rebbetzin Farbstein quotes the order of German High Commander I.A. Eckhardt that no Eastern European Jews must be allowed to escape, for they "supply a large proportion of the rabbis, Talmud teachers" and thus offer hope for the "spiritual renewal of United States Jewry." Niva v'lo yodea ma'she'niva. Elsewhere she cites the sadistic account of on one Nazi soldier of how the "Jews of Lublin gathered around the blazing books and wailed bitterly," as the Nazis made a bonfire of the huge library of Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin.
The knowledge that their torments were part of a cosmic struggle between Amalek and Hashem gave comfort to Jews on the verge of death and the strength to persevere to others. Their spiritual heroism in circumstances incapable of being fathomed by anyone who did not experience it cannot help but spur each of us to a greater commitment to do our part in the war against Amalek.
Many who had risked their lives to observe mitzvos in the death camps found it harder to do so after liberation. They had consoled themselves that the collective suffering of the Jewish people during the Holocaust must surely be the last stage before the coming of Mashiach. And they were astounded to emerge from the darkness to find, in the words of one survivor, "the world was proceeding as usual, G-d was hidden as before. . . . "
Equally painful was the apathy on the part of their fellow religious Jews in the West. Rivka Horowitz, a graduate of Sara Schenirer's Cracow Seminary, penned a series of bitter, accusatory letters from the DP camps, in which she related the desperation of the survivors for Jewish books, periodicals, and, above all, for contact with their fellow religious Jews:
"Why did the greetings from the Jewish world come to us through the pipeline of secular Jews? Why don't we see you and hear your voice? Will you stand silently aside and see the destruction of everything that was built and established with such devotion? Our youth must equip themselves with faith. . . . Has pioneering vanished from Orthodox Jewry, Heaven forbid? We want to see you here, to hear your encouraging and consoling voice. We are waiting for you. It is time to act for G-d."
More than sixty years later, those words cannot be read without feeling the sting of her challenge and asking: In what ways am I also apathetic today? What great challenge facing Klal Yisrael am I leaving for others? How have I failed to utilize Hashem's bounty for His people and His Torah?