Esther Farbstein is a 'courageous' Holocaust researcher. Why? Because…
…she compiled a database of prefaces rabbis who survived the Holocaust wrote to sefarim, religious books, they published afterward:
…The conference hosts presented a CD-ROM containing a database of prefaces to religious texts - Torah interpretations and meditative literature - written from 1945 onward by rabbis who survived the Holocaust. Only one of the prefaces was written before the end of World War II.
The database project was initiated by ultra-Orthodox Holocaust researcher Esther Farbstein, director of the Holocaust Education Center at Jerusalem's Michlala Women's College in Jerusalem, with the support of the Holocaust Claims Conference.…
Farbstein is seen as a trailblazer in Holocaust studies in the ultra-Orthodox community. Some say that had she not been the daughter of a family of rabbis, she would not have been permitted to go so far.…
For almost two generations, the ultra-Orthodox avoided dealing with the Holocaust, at least officially. Farbstein says this derives from the trauma they experienced after the great destruction, the need to rebuild their communities and to survive in the face of secular Israeli society and Zionism. It may also derive from their revulsion at the Zionists' appropriation of the subject.…
The bodies of these religious books do not deal with the Holocaust itself; only in the the prefaces, where rabbis mention family members killed and communities destroyed, is the subject mentioned.
This is 'revolutionary' because the haredi world has largely suppressed any discussion of the Holocaust, in part because of theological issues (how could God have allowed babies to be turned into soap?, etc.). But a larger part of the silence comes from the behavior of haredi rabbis leading up to and during the Holocaust:
…Professor Menachem Friedman, however, one of the leading experts on ultra-Orthodoxy in Israel, attributes it to Haredi society's reluctance to confront the most difficult questions arising from the period. Questions like "Where was God in the Holocaust?," and those raising doubts about the rabbis' performance during those dark years. These questions were seen by ultra-Orthodox society as threatening to their way of life, and pushed it into a defensive stance.
"Even now, the Haredim cannot ask, at least not openly, how the Gerrer, Satmar and Belzer rebbes and others fled and saved themselves, leaving their followers behind. The question is not only why the rabbis refrained from warning their followers, but also why they prevented them from migrating to Israel for fear of 'spoiling' them," says Friedman.
Friedman says these questions, which Agudat Yisrael newspapers dealt with passionately immediately after the Holocaust, gradually became taboo over the years. …
Farbstein wrote a book on the Holocaust to explain actions during the Holocaust to non-Orthodox historians and researchers. That book has now been published in English by Mossad HaRav Kook and Feldheim.
Ephraim Zurroff , a Holocaust historian and researcher associated with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has long contended haredim rescued their own first, paid rabbis to study Torah while rank and file Jews burned, and that leading hasidic rebbes fled to safety while telling their flocks not to run away.
Zuroff reviews Farbstein's book for Ha'aretz. He finds much good in her work, especially in dealing with the application of Jewish law to real life ghetto situations like turning over Jews to the Nazis to fill deportation quotas.
But Zuroff also finds much bad:
…With a graduate degree from the Hebrew University's Institute of Contemporary Jewry, the world's premier institution for Holocaust studies, and with a most-impressive ultra-Orthodox pedigree as the wife of the head of the Hebron Yeshiva and the great-granddaughter of the Ger Rebbe, Avraham Mordechai Alter, Farbstein possesses the necessary tools to conduct pioneering research in the field: access to Haredi sources, knowledge of the mindset of ultra-Orthodox Jews and training as a professional historian. In the end, however, these two volumes come with only the veneer of objective historical research, and ultimately read like something closer to hagiography.
This is clearly evident in Farbstein's focus on two highly controversial subjects: the priority given to the rescue of rabbis and Torah scholars(as opposed to run-of-the-mill Jews) during the war; and the decision of three leading Hasidic rebbes to escape Nazi-occupied Europe, leaving their adherents behind. This is hardly surprising, since it is these two questions that continue to be bitterly debated, serving as a source of constant friction and hostility in the relations between ultra-Orthodoxy and the rest of the Jewish world.
Priority for whom?
The first subject was highlighted by the activities of the Va'ad Hahatzalah rescue committee, which was established in the United States in mid-November 1939, in the wake of the escape of hundreds of Polish rabbis and yeshiva students from Eastern Poland, which the Soviet Union had occupied that September, to the independent republic of Lithuania. Created by American Orthodox rabbis, the Va'ad was initially established for the sole purpose of rescuing these rabbis and yeshiva students, who were seen as the elite of the world of Torah study and as deserving of absolute priority in all rescue projects. Farbstein explains the halakhic basis for granting rescue priority to these groups and presents the Va'ad's activities in an entirely positive light, while neglecting to mention a very problematic policy it pursued in the latter stages of the war.
Thus while a theoretical case could certainly be made for granting Torah scholars priority if they are among a group of Jews all facing the same degree of physical danger, it's difficult to believe that halakhah would support sending money to rabbis and yeshiva students who are not facing death, at the same time that other Jews are in danger of being murdered.
This was the situation in 1944 and 1945, by which time it was absolutely clear in the U.S. that Jews living under Nazi occupation were facing the threat of mass murder. During those years, the Va'ad, which in the meantime had officially expanded its mandate to include the rescue of all Jews, sent a significant portion of the funds it raised (close to 40 percent) to groups of rabbis and yeshiva students who had already found refuge in Shanghai and Soviet Central Asia. They undoubtedly faced difficult physical conditions, but by then they were not threatened with physical annihilation. In addition, these refugees were simultaneously being assisted by other Jewish relief agencies (the Joint Distribution Committee in Shanghai, and both the JDC and the Jewish Agency in Central Asia), so that the funds sent from the U.S. were not absolutely critical for their physical survival. Instead, they were used to enable them to pursue Torah study on a full-time basis.
At the same time, the Va'ad had found a means to send funds into occupied Europe to save Jews in Hungary, Slovakia and Poland from deportation to death camps. It did so by helping to move them from more dangerous places to less dangerous ones, supplying them with false documents and the like, objectives that clearly should have been given absolute priority over the support of Torah study. Oddly, there is absolutely no mention of this dilemma in Farbstein's book, nor is there any suggestion that the policies of the Va'ad were at any point highly questionable, even from a halakhic standpoint. Also missing from the context is the fact that most of the refugee rabbis and yeshiva students who had escaped to Lithuania, whom the Va'ad was established to save, were ultimately murdered by the Nazis.
One of the main factors responsible for this result was the refusal of most of the yeshiva heads who had been among those who escaped from eastern Poland to Lithuania to endorse a rescue scheme for emigration via the Far East. Only the Mir Yeshiva, whose head, Rabbi Eliezer Yehuda Finkel, was convinced by Zionist leader Zerach Warhaftig to make arrangements to supply all his students with the necessary documents and visas to enable their emigration from the Soviet Union (which occupied Lithuania in June 1940) via Japan, was saved in its entirety. The vast majority of students from the 20 or so other yeshivot who had escaped to Vilna chose, upon the advice of their rabbinic leaders, to pass on the admittedly dangerous option of applying to emigrate from Soviet Lithuania. Farbstein also neglects to point out that among those who advised their students not to try and emigrate via the Far East were yeshiva heads who themselves had visas to the U.S., at least one of whom, Rabbi Aron Kotler, of the Kletzk Yeshiva, indeed went to America.
This total reluctance to criticize rabbinic leaders, which is characteristic of Haredi historiography, can also be clearly seen in the manner in which Farbstein assesses the decision of several leading Hasidic rebbes to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. The three most famous cases in this regard are those of the Ger Rebbe, the Belzer Rebbe and the Satmar Rebbe, all of whom left behind their followers and fled to the safety of Palestine, a decision that has been severely criticized by non-Haredi scholars and polemicists.
"Sense of public duty"
Farbstein is correct when she points out that each such decision must be analyzed separately, given their different historical contexts. (The Ger Rebbe escaped from Poland in 1940, the Belzer left Poland initially and then Hungary in January 1944 and the Satmar was on the "Kasztner transport" released in December 1944.) Ultimately, however, the rationale she presents to justify their escape is the same in all three cases, pointing to their "sense of public duty"-which dictated that they rescue themselves, as the future of Judaism was to a large extent dependent on their survival. Farbstein compares the rescue of the rebbes to that of Zionist leaders, whose escape she belittles as virtually worthless in terms of the Jewish future.
At the same time, however, that Farbstein justifies the escape of the rebbes, she also points to the extremely positive and inspirational role played by those rabbis who did not escape overseas, leaving unanswered the obvious question of the positive role that the Ger, Belzer and Satmar Rebbes could have played had they chosen to remain with their communities. What is clear in this sense is that Farbstein consistently supports the decision of the rabbis, even if in certain instances they appear contradictory. This basic inability to criticize Orthodox rabbis reduces the analytical elements of Farbstein?s study to hagiography rather than history. …
…The Rebbe Rayyatz followed in his father the Rashab's virulent anti-Zionism. (Did you know that a significant part of Neturei Karta's ideology is based on three hasidic Rebbes' anti-Zionism, the Satmar Rebbe, the Munkatcher Rebbe and the Rebbe Rashab of Lubavitch?) The Rayyatz told his followers there would be no war and Warsaw was safe for them. He did this in the summer of 1939, a couple of months before the Nazi destruction of Poland.
The Rayyatz was saved by American intervention. As he was being whisked out of bombed out Warsaw, what did he ask his American saviors for? To save more Jews? No. He asked for his book collection (largely secular books like Sherlock Holmes in Yiddish) and his household silver. The Rayyatz wrote several letters to President Roosevelt during the war. He never once asks Roosevelt to save Jews.…
None of us know how we would act if, God forbid, we were placed the same situations haredi leaders found themselves in 70 years ago.
The point here is not to assign blame – although in some cases, the blame is clear.
The point should be as follows: Rabbis are not perfect and should not be followed as if they were perfect.
Whitewashing history may make haredim feel good, but feeling good should not be the goal – learning from past mistakes should be.
Haredim and the Holocaust.
The Satmar Rebbe and the Holocaust.
The Belzer Rebbe and the Holocaust.
Chabad and the Holocaust (index).
Daas Torah and the Holocaust.
My rebbe, right or wrong - Haaretz - Israel News.pdf
Sign of Haredi society coming to grips with the Holocaust - Haaretz - Israel News.pdf
[Hat Tip: FormerlyFrum.]