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


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?”


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


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.


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


…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?


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


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.


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


(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.


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


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?


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.