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Responsa From the Holocaust

Responsa From the Holocaust

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Rabbi Ephraim Oshry was just 27 years old when the local Lithuanians attacked his Jewish neighborhood, Slobodka, and went from street to street, torturing and butchering every Jewish man, woman or child they encountered. That night, June 25, 1941, was the beginning of the end of Jewish Lithuania. An image Rabbi Oshry could never forget and whose lesson he always strove to fulfill was that of the sexton of the Slobodka Yeshivah, Reb Gershon, who with his throat slit pleaded to his fellow Jews, “Children, when you are freed, tell about our suffering and hell!”

Rabbi Oshry, who had studied under the most renowned Torah sages, was one of the few rabbinical authorities for the Jews seeking the Torah’s answers for their heart-wrenching questions throughout the war. Rabbi Oshry hoped to one day show the world how his fellow Jews thought, felt and behaved in the most inhumane of circumstances. When asked a question, he would write the details on scraps of paper, along with the responses he provided. He then hid these papers in cans which were buried in the ground of the concentration camp near Kovno.

Rabbi Oshry miraculously survived the war. However, his beloved wife and children were murdered in the concentration camps. He later remarried, to a woman who herself was a survivor of Auschwitz.

After the war, Rabbi Oshry unearthed the hidden cans, and then painstakingly reviewed each and every question with Torah texts, as his original answers were based solely on memory. Once properly researched, he then compiled a five-volume work in Hebrew of the responses, titled Shaalot U’Teshuvot Mimaamakim (“Questions and Answers From the Depths”). This was later translated into a one-volume work titled Responsa From the Holocaust.

Soon after the war, Rabbi Oshry founded the Yeshivah Me’or HaGolah in Rome for orphaned refugee children who had survived the Holocaust. After moving to New York, he served as president of an organization of rabbis who survived the concentration camps. Rabbi Oshry passed away on Rosh Hashanah of 2003, at the age of 89, leaving behind his wife, three daughters and six sons.

The following are excerpts from the English translation, published by Judaica Press, 1983.

Making a Taharah in Advance

Question:

On the night of the 25th of Menachem Av 5701 [August 18, 1941], I was giving a Torah lecture at Abba Yechezkel’s Kloiz in Slobodka. This was after the German invasion of Lithuania, just as the joy of the Jewish people was being cut short by the Germans. In the middle of the lecture, we suddenly heard heartbreaking screaming and wailing. The daughter-in-law of Reb Zalman Sher, who was attending the class—may G‑d avenge him—burst into the kloiz and told Reb Zalman that the Germans had, moments ago, killed her three sons together with her husband, Reb Zalman’s son. Right then and there, as the woman bewailed these tragic four deaths, her father-in-law passed out, fell off the chair, and died right before our eyes.

The director of the chevra kadisha (burial society), Reb Moshe Chayim Kaplan—G‑d avenge him!—who was responsible for arranging funerals in accord with Jewish custom, posed the following problem to me: Since the enemy’s decrees affected the entire population—both the living and the dead—it was impossible to know when the funeral and burial would be able to take place. Under the tragic circumstances of the German invasion, there was no question it would take at least a day or two, so it was possible that by the time the funeral could be arranged, there would be no one available to perform the taharah, the ritual washing and preparation of the body for burial, usually performed just before burial. Present in our kloiz, however, were a number of Reb Zalman’s close friends, and it seemed best to extend final respect to the departed by performing the taharah immediately—on the very table where the fallen Jew had just studied Mishnah and Talmud.

The question was simply, “Is it permissible to make the taharah in advance, rather than as close to the funeral as possible?”

Response:

I permitted immediate taharah for Reb Zalman. For future instances in the ghetto, I instructed the director of the burial society, Reb Moshe Chayim, to perform the taharah for the deceased as soon as possible, since no one would ever be certain that it would be possible to perform the taharah close to burial.

(Pages 7–8)

Using the Garments of Martyred Jews

Question:

On the day before Rosh Hashanah 5702 [September 21, 1941], due to the impending holy day, the ghetto Jews did not fill the quota of 1,000 slave laborers demanded by the Germans. The murderers were furious. Led by their bloodthirsty chieftain Neumann, may his name be obliterated, they entered the ghetto toward nightfall to grab Jews for slave labor. They began by molesting and ended with shooting two of them. They were merciless, particularly toward those Jews who they found in synagogues at the time. These men had come to pray to G‑d, to beg and supplicate Him to have mercy on His suffering Jewish people. The two men who were shot that Erev Rosh Hashanah by the murderers were Yitzchok Baum, owner of a metal shop on Linkova Street in Slobodka, and Berel Mendelevitch, may G‑d avenge their blood!

After the murderers had done their dirty work, they ordered other Jews to dig a grave for the corpses and then to remove the garments of the dead as a macabre gift for the Jews who had dug the grave. I was asked whether these garments—which had no bloodstains on them—might be put to much-needed use, or whether it was forbidden to make use of them.

Response:

The halachah (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 364:4) is that if a Jew is found murdered, he is to be buried as he was found, without burial shrouds; not even his shoes are to be removed. This applies to one who died with his garments on. One who is murdered by non-Jews, even though his blood has stopped flowing by the time he is found, is still buried as found, so as to arouse Divine anger.

Since the garments in this case had no blood upon them, one might certainly use them, and there would be no need to bury them with the corpses, were it not for the stated purpose of arousing Divine anger. Since the dead men had already been buried without their garments, the greatest pleasure one could provide them was to allow their surviving children to benefit from these garments, either by wearing them to warm themselves or by selling them in order to purchase food for survival. It seemed to me that it certainly would be the wish of the martyrs that their garments be given to their children to help them survive, despite the efforts of the accursed murderers.

(Pages 18–19)

Bringing Tefillin into a Hospital Where all Personal Objects are Burned

Question:

…I was asked to render a halachic decision on the following problem: A boy, whose leg the Germans had amputated, lay in the hospital. Wishing to pray daily to his Creator, he sent a request through Jewish channels that a pair of tefillin be sent into the hospital. A persistent rumor in the ghetto claimed that the Germans burned every patient’s personal possessions upon his death or dismissal. Knowing what might happen to the tefillin, was it still permissible to send a pair into the hospital?

Response:

I ruled that the tefillin might be sent to the lad, so that he could fulfill the Torah’s commandment. . . . The story of the Germans burning personal effects was an unsubstantiated rumor, one of many produced by the fear that reigned in the ghetto. If we had known it to be a fact, I would definitely have forbidden sending him the tefillin. But a rumor alone was not enough to deprive that lad from praying with tefillin. They were sent through a trustworthy emissary who gave them secretly to the boy, away from German eyes.

I also felt that the tefillin would be an inspiration to the boy, a recent baal teshuvah who had changed his life around from non-observance to observance. . . . Dr. Davidovitch, who worked in the hospital, testified to the boy’s immense joy when he donned the tefillin for the first time.

On 3 Tishrei 5702 [September 23, 1941], when the accursed Germans destroyed the Little Ghetto, they also burned down the hospital, incinerating the patients, nurses and doctors inside. Some 60 Jews, including Dr. Davidovitch and the boy to whom the tefillin had been sent, were killed in the fire. G‑d avenge their blood!

Wonder of wonders! One of the Jews who had been inside the hospital was miraculously saved, and told of what happened before the incineration. The boy had guarded the tefillin literally with his life. When he realized that the hospital would be destroyed together with its patients and its staff, he asked this man to make every effort to hide the tefillin so that they would not fall into the hands of the murderers, who would surely destroy them. The man succeeded in escaping from the hospital trap, and showed us the treasure, the boy’s tefillin that had been saved. May G‑d fulfill in our time the verse, “For You, O G‑d, have set in afire, and You will restore it through fire.”

(Pages 21–23)

Committing Suicide in Order to Be Buried Among Jews

Question:

On 6 Marcheshvan 5702 [October 27, 1941], two days before the horrifying Black Day of the Kovno Ghetto—when some 10,000 men, women and children were taken away to be butchered—every one of the ghetto dwellers saw his or her bitter end coming. At that time of confusion, one of the respected members of the community came to me with tears on his cheeks and posed a question of life and death. He felt that he could not bear to see his wife, children and grandchildren put to death before his very eyes. For the German sadists had a system for extermination. In order for the murderers to enjoy the suffering of their victims, as a matter of course they would kill children before the eyes of their parents, and the women before the eyes of their husbands. Only after satisfying their bloodlust in this sadistic fashion would they put an end to the suffering of these men. Because he felt certain that it would be too painful to witness the horrible suffering of his loved ones, he asked whether he could terminate his own life earlier, to avoid witnessing the deaths of his loved ones. This way, besides being spared a horrible death of great suffering as the hands of the accursed murderers, he would also gain burial among the Jews in the Jewish cemetery in the ghetto.

Response:

Although the man knew he would definitely be subjected to unbearable suffering by the abominable murderers, and so hoped to be buried among Jews, he was still not allowed to commit suicide.

Moreover, permitting suicide in such a case meant surrendering to the enemy. For the Germans often remarked to the Jews, “Why don’t you commit suicide . . . ?” Suicide was viewed as an immense desecration of G‑d’s name, for it showed that one had no trust in G‑d’s capability to save one from the accursed hands of the defilers. The murderers’ goal was to bring confusion into the lives of the Jews and to cause them the deepest despondency, in order to make annihilating them all the easier.

I cite proudly that in the Kovno Ghetto there were only three instances of suicide by people who grew intensely depressed. The rest of the ghetto dwellers trusted and hoped that G‑d would not forsake His people.

(Pages 36–37)

Performing a Caesarean Section on a Dead Woman

Question:

(On 20 Iyar 5702 [May 7, 1942] the Germans issued an edict that if a Jewish woman was found pregnant, they would immediately kill her . . .)

Once this edict regarding pregnancy was issued, other problems came up. The very day the edict was issued, a pregnant Jewish woman passed by the ghetto hospital. A German noticed her swollen belly and shot her for violating the German order against reproduction. His bullet penetrated her head, and she fell dead on the spot.

Passerby immediately carried her into the hospital, thinking there might be a chance to save her or the baby. Since she had clearly been in her final weeks of pregnancy, a Jewish obstetrician was rushed over. He said that if surgery was performed immediately, the baby could be saved. Since I had witnessed this shocking murder and was present in the hospital, I was asked if, according to halachah, it was permissible to perform the Caesarian section. Since no one could be sure that the baby was still alive, was there a halachic concern with the desecration of the dead mother? In addition, in the remote possibility that the mother was still alive, cutting open her abdomen would surely kill her.

Response:

It was clear to me that when a doctor who knows his medicine rushes to operate minutes after a woman’s death, declaring that the baby can be saved, one must listen to him, because the issue at that moment is saving the baby’s life.

Where saving a life is involved, we are not concerned with the desecration of the dead. In this case, the mother would be overjoyed if desecration of her body meant that her baby’s life would be spared. I therefore ruled that the operation proceed as quickly as possible. As it states in the Talmud: “Whoever saves a single Jewish life is credited with saving an entire world.”

The baby, miraculously, was alive. However, to our great sorrow, our hopes were soon shattered. The cruel murderers, with typical mad German punctiliousness for keeping records of the living and dead, soon entered the hospital to record the name of the murdered woman in their book of the dead. When they found the baby alive, their savage fury unleashed. One of the Germans grabbed the infant and cracked its skull against the wall of the hospital room. Woe unto the eyes that saw this!

(Page 73–74)

Reciting the Blessing “Who Has Not Made Me a Slave” in the Ghetto

Question:

During morning prayers, Reb Avrohom Yosef . . . reached the blessing, “[Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d . . .] who has not made me a slave,” and shouted bitterly to the Master of all Masters, “How can I recite the blessing of a free man? How can a hungry slave, repeatedly abused and demeaned, praise His Creator by uttering, ‘Who has not made me a slave?’”

I was then asked for the Torah ruling on this question: Should the blessing be omitted because it seemed to be a travesty—in which case it would be forbidden to recite it—or was it forbidden to alter or skip any part of the prayer text established by our sages?

Response:

One of the earliest commentators on the prayers points out that this blessing was formulated in order to praise G‑d not for our physical liberty, but rather for our spiritual liberty. I therefore ruled that we could not skip or alter this blessing under any circumstance. On the contrary, despite our physical captivity, we were more obligated then ever to recite the blessing, to demonstrate to our enemies that even if physically we were slaves, as a people we remained spiritually free.

Sefira Ross is a freelance designer and illustrator whose original creations grace many Chabad.org pages. Residing in Seattle, Washington, her days are spent between multitasking illustrations and being a mom.
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Anonymous Ohio August 14, 2016

Germany is actually the descendant of Amelek, may it's name be blotted out! Avenge Israel's blood!

(Excerpts from Pillars of Faith, written by Rabbi Pinchas Taylor.)

According to the Vilna Gaon, that the sixth millennium which includes the Holocaust, corresponds to the Torah Portion of Ki Savo. In Talmud it says that "Jacob said before G-d: "Master of the universe, do not grant Esau the wicked, the desire of heart, draw not out his bite". This refers to Germamia of Edom, for should they go out, they would destroy the entire world. Rashi comments that Germamia is the name of a monarchy of Edom, the Vilna Gaon then comments on this verse that Germamia is Germania, or Germany.

The Nuremberg Trials parallel the hanging of Haman's sons. According to the sages, the large space and the word "Vav or and" denotes replication. The Tav, Shin, Zayin are small, and there's a big Vav. The large Vav means Sixth millennia or 5000, the Tav, Shin, Zayin add up to 707. 5707 = 1946 in English Calendar. Reply

Hanna Athens, Greece via chabad.gr August 14, 2016

God has promised that all evildoers will be cut off and those who hope to God will inherit the earth. May we live to see God's justice and His Holy Temple in our life time. Reply

Jerry NYC August 12, 2016

May all of Germany and their World War Two accomplices suffer for eternity. Reply

arthur yanoff August 10, 2016

after all the horrors inflicted on our people , before the horrors we were jews, after the horrors we are still jews. may we see the end of all hamans. Reply

Anonymous 31210 August 10, 2016

Never Again All lives matter regardless of differences. Reply

s UK August 10, 2016

Difficult Apart from reading these painful and shocking questions, the questions truly highlight the suffering of the faithful to HaShem.

Let us all pray, never again. Amen Reply

Shlomo Baltimore August 9, 2016

Mossada Question: considering the story of the mass suicide of the people in Mossada during the siege by the Romans, can we say that their actions were a mistake? Reply

Eliav Yitzchak ben Reuven Zalman DC August 9, 2016

when it happens again... "Rabbi Ephraim Oshry was just 27 years old when the local Lithuanians attacked his Jewish neighborhood, Slobodka, and went from street to street, torturing and butchering every Jewish man, woman or child they encountered. "

When it happens again, how will you respond? The good jews of Slobodka relied on the protection of the police and the government. They thought it would never happen. Just Ukrainians thought Russia would never invade and take Crimea, just like Rwandans never thought Hutus would slaughter Tutsis, just like Syrians never thought they would be slaughtered by any one of three different factions, and just like Yazidis never thought they would be sold into sexual slavery and extinguished from Earth.

When it happens again... and it will..

Think about that when you are debating whether firearms should be banned and law-abiding people (like yourself) should be prevented from self protection.

The Jews of Slobodka were forced to rely on the police and government. Reply

C S Alexandria, VA/USA August 9, 2012

The book I finally tracked down a copy of the responsa. Extremely powerful. The terrible tragedies that extend forever past the accursed Nazi actions. But Rabbi Oshry continued to support the community.

He summed it up in Q.98, "Were all the oceans ink and all the skies parchment, and every single person on earth a scribe, they could never relate in its entirety all that our enemies -- the accursed Germans -- did to the Jewish people." Reply

Rentsy March 20, 2009

May G-d avenge their blood Reply

Arlene Johnson Johnstown, PA February 1, 2009

The need to remember and not forget I am a Catholic American. However, my great grandfather was half jew who came to America. I did not find that out to way later into my life as it was hidden even in this country. The reason was that jews married out of faith and produced children would also be exterminated. They fled the country. However, the rest of the family was not so lucky. Thepain of families separated and the hiding of racial identities to survive is sad but courageous. Reply

Anonymous November 28, 2008

May G-d have mercy for the innocent dead and may He keep them in His eternal love. May G-d remove all hatred and vengeful thoughts from the minds of His children for the world needs them as witnesses to His Hope. May G-d purge the evil, past, present, and future that turns men away from Him and against each other, may in His Mercy bestow cleansing for the human condition. Dear Jewish brothers and sisters, in the midst of a world gone mad, we need your witness more than ever. Humbly learning about G-d... Reply

Chana US September 1, 2008

It is always so heart-wrenching to read stories of suffering and destruction during the Shoah. But it is also inspirational to hear of the steadfast courage and faithfulness of our people during this horrific time. May G-d avenge their blood. Reply

Nathan Siegal Centennial, CO via chabad.gr September 12, 2007

I will never forget my Jewish Community that lost I will never forget my Jewish Community that lost their lives in the most tragic years of all time when my Jewish brothers and sisters lost their lives in the horrible holocaust. I know that G-d gives justice to the wicked and peace to the victims. I shall never forget the tragic holocaust-the only holocaust. G-d bless all of you at Chabad. Reply

Kevin Smith May 24, 2005

Please, G-d, allow me to someday see the revenge You brought upon these hideous creatures. Please G-d, allow me someday to know that the earthly manifestations of the souls they destroyed are with Your presence in joy and complete fulfillment.

How bitterly disappointed You must be with us, so many times. They never learn. Reply

BARBARA GOLDIN, U.S. Army Retired SFC, TXSG Pflugerville, TX/USA May 5, 2005

Questions, Answers, Only Reposnses 1. The Torah, and the Rabbis' rulings helped the people to LIVE
while at the same time, living a horrible life physically, mentally, and spiritually.

2. The spiritual guidance given by the Rabbis gave strength and
courage for each person's soul, which is the essence of life itself.

3. Perhaps many people lived one more day, one more week because
of the strength of the Torah.

4. The people had a reason to go-on, to press forward, and to remain
sane despite the insanity what was being done to them by others, and
ignored by the world.

5. Death marches continue in the world today because the world has
made so many enemies.

6. I'd like to say, "Never Again" for anyone, anywhere, for any reason. Reply

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