Out of the Ashes of the Holocaust

This collection of letters1 dates from the summer of 5706 (1946) to the summer of 5708 (1948), the aftermath of WWII and the Holocaust. There is no way that anyone who did not live through these events can fathom the fear, shock, and terror they brought about. Even those who experienced this dreadful era have difficulty recalling it. Thousands of years of Jewish history went up in flames in less than a decade. Any words used to describe the awesome horrors of this period would be an understatement at best.

During the war years themselves, even outside Europe, large elements of the Jewish community were paralyzed. Those which were not, focused primarily on saving lives, rescuing whomever they could. They had little attention for anything else.

The Previous Rebbe arrived in the U.S. in 1940, and the Rebbe, in 1941. Needless to say, they both were well aware of the extreme hardships faced by the Jews in Europe, for they had fought Communist oppression in Russia and had been forced to flee the Holocaust themselves. Nevertheless, rather than become shattered by the awesomeness of the destruction, they applied themselves to building. They were concerned with Europe and did whatever they could to aid the refugees from the Holocaust — but foremost on their agenda was America. This was not the time to cry over the devastation of Jewry’s previous Torah center. Instead, they devoted their efforts to building a new one on America’s shores. With this intent, upon the Rebbe’s arrival in America, the Previous Rebbe established Machne Yisrael, Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, and Kehot2 to reach out to American Jews and create a framework for Jewish observance and Torah study.

After the Ice Was Broken

The war years themselves were focused on groundbreaking work. Little more was possible. Firstly, the financial resources of the Jewish community had been severely sapped and everyone’s attention was concentrated on the war effort. But these restraints aside, there was a major attitudinal difficulty: American Jews felt that they had escaped the old world of isolation in the shtetl by entering Western society. They resisted anything that might turn the clock back and threaten their newfound acceptance. It took several years for the ice to be broken and for American Jews to warm to the idea of Torah outreach.

These letters indicate that, the years of preparatory efforts had borne fruit, and it was possible to begin actual work. A perusal of the letters enables us to see the areas where the Rebbe’s efforts were concentrated.

An obvious and fundamental concern were the refugees from the Holocaust, both those who had reached the U.S. and those who were still in camps for displaced persons in Europe. The Previous Rebbe and the Rebbe placed an emphasis not only on providing for them in a material sense, but also in dealing with their spiritual needs. They established a fund, Keren HaMitzvos, for this purpose and several of the letters are concernedwith these endeavors.3

During this period, the Rebbe visited France for a long-awaited reunionwithhis mother after her emigration from Russia so that he could facilitate her arrival in the U.S. While he was in France, he lived and worked with the Lubavitch refugees in Paris. Several of the letters give us insight into his relationship with them and the efforts undertaken to help them both materially and spiritually.4

But working with the refugees was by no means the only thrust of Lubavitch activity. On the contrary, efforts were devoted to awakening the sensitivities of American Jews to a deeper and more encompassing Jewish experience. One of the primary examples of the activities directed toward that goal was Release Time, a Jewish education program for youth in public schools, and several of the Rebbe’s letters concern these efforts.5 Moreover, in addition to directing the centralized outreach efforts that Lubavitch had undertaken, the Rebbe in his letters also encouraged individual chassidim to involve themselves in these activities despite the reluctance some expressed.6

For the Immediate and for Eternity

One of the direst needs felt by the Jewish community at that time was a lack of Jewish texts; both sacred texts for the Torah community and reading material to serve as the basis for outreach to the Jewish community at large. The Previous Rebbe addressed himself to this need by founding Kehot Publications and appointing the Rebbe to head it.

This is the subject to which the largest number of letters in this volume is devoted. Kehot Publications began to produce a broad range of publications, including maamarim and other traditional chassidic texts, works of Torah scholarship like the halachic encyclopedia S’dei Chemed,7 and also educational texts and reading material for the Jewish youth of that era. The Rebbe’s involvement was all-encompassing. He was responsible for editing the texts, raising the money for their publication, the technical details of the printing, and their distribution.

The post-war conditions made it financially beneficial to print several texts in the cities of Shanghai, China8 and Poking, Germany.9 The Rebbe was very involved in every facet of these efforts, giving specific instructions with regard to the minute details of the publications.

A Beacon of Light

During these years, several chassidim began to develop close ties with the Rebbe, writing to him not only for explanations of concepts in chassidic thought, but also for personal direction and guidance. One of the areas which is of special interest to readers today is the guidance he offers to the chassidim with regard to their relationship with the Previous Rebbe, as he instructs chassidim on the importance of visiting a Rebbe,10 giving maamad,11 and preparing for yechidus.12

This collection also reveals the Rebbe’s scholarship, including in-depth scholastic treatiseson several topics, among them: whether a marriage is determined by Divine decree or man’s choice,13 the reluctance of Eldad and Meidad to participate in the lottery to see whether they would be chosen as elders,14 and an explanation regarding our Sages’ statement: “Three told the truth and perished from this world.”15 And just as there are profound explanations in nigleh, the realm of scholarship that focuses on the revealed aspects of Torah Law, so, too, are there letters in which the Rebbe answers questions concerning chassidic thought.16 Even when the main subject of a given letter is not a Torah theme, the Rebbe would frequently add a discussion of halachic interest17 or guidelines in our Divine service.18

This collection also contains several letters that open small windows to the Rebbe’s personal life; e.g., those involving his mother’s emigration from Russia19 and those requesting details of his father’s passing20 and the martyrdom of his sister-in-law and brother-in-law.21

A Labor of Love

As indicated by the above, there are many interesting subjects discussed in this collection of letters. Nevertheless, every member of the team who worked on the preparation of this volume felt something far greater than historical interest. It was always difficult for chassidim to describe their love for their Rebbeim. While it is presumptuous for us to compare ourselves to the chassidim of the previous generations, we must say that we felt a special energywhile working on this book.

We expect that this feeling will be shared by our readers. We all recall the intense concentration with which we would watch the Rebbe’s every move. In a similar way, these letters give us insights into the Rebbe’s private and public life and enable us to watch as he responds to the different situations and challenges he encounters.

Although this book gives us an opportunity to revitalize our connection with the Rebbe, we refuse to remain satisfied with this alone. We wait — but not passively, instead, with active anticipation and effort — for the time when the Jewish people will carry out the spiritual mission with which the Rebbe charged us and prepare the world for the coming of Mashiach. Afterwards, the world will continually ascend to levels of more complete perfection, until the Resurrection of the Dead when “those who lie in the dust will arise and sing.”22 Then we will no longer have to content ourselves with reading letters written in the past, but will hear new teachings from the Rebbe. May this take place in the immediate future.

Rabbi Eli Touger
Sichos In English

Eve of Chai Elul, 5762