Sunday, June 3, 2012

Being comforted by the Holocaust - a true story

The May 29, 2012 edition of Binah (page 14) has a story "Savoring Shabbos" which is the first person account of a young wife and mother, who had appendicitis erev Shabbos in Jerusalem. She was forced to go to Shaarei Tzedek Hospital 2 hours before Shabbos to have emergency surgery.  I found her method of comforting herself quite disquieting. However I have been told that this is not unusual for girls who attend Jerusalem Seminaries for Americans.
As I lay uncomfortably upon my  stretcher, the inspiring words of Pearl Benisch, in her book To Vanquish the  Dragon, came to mind. She described her arrival in Auschwitz on a Friday night. As she and her fellow group of  Bais Yaakov girls were about to be  marched to their barracks, Tzila Orlean approached them and wished them a gut Shabbos. Mrs. Benisch questioned how a woman could greet her friends in such a manner in front of the smoke stacks of Auschwitz. Her answer gave me much strength on that challenging Shabbos:
Good Shabbos. How do those two words sound... when said amidst the stench of burning human flesh? But it was Shabbos in the whole world, including this living inferno. Even here, G-d, it was Your holy Shabbos, and Your children remembered it...
 If those tzidkaniyos were able to acknowledge the arrival of Shabbos in Auschwitz, then certainly I could feel the arrival of Shabbos in Shaare Zedek Hospital. As I lay in my little cubicle waiting for surgery I felt fortunate to be in a frum hospital in Yerushalayim, surrounded by Yidden. I felt the peaceful radiance of the Shabbos Queen, and I knew that I was in Hashem's Hands.


  1. Rabbi, why is this account "disquieting"? In times of great stress, I actually think identical thoughts. Indeed, many of us are familiar with this particular, very inspiring sefer. As it happens, this sefer was given as a gift to me by a very notable Rosh Yeshiva.

  2. My concern is the trivialization of the Holocaust as well as the danger of skewing emotional responses. Ready use of this rationalization will lead to not being upset by anything - since nothing can be as horrible as the Holocaust. If every time I had stress - I said, "Well if they could handle Auschwitz I can handle - pick the tragedy - heavy traffic, getting a C instead of an A on my book report,having root canal - why should I be upset about anything since it is not as bad as the Holocaust. And if that is in fact the goal - then a significant motivator for change is eliminated.

    There is the need for accurate evaluation - is a problem an irritant, difficult or catastrophe? .

    appendicitis causing the loss of a proper Shabbos atmosphere should not need recall of a description of Shabbos in Auschwitz to be comforted. And even if the thought should occur - what is it being presented as the centerpiece of a story published in a major publication for frum women?

    Do you see anything wrong in giving children major anti-depression medication or antipsychotic medication whenever they got upset?

    And on the other hand would you tell a child abuse victim - "why are you upset since it isn't as bad as Auschwitz?"

    In sum, Berachos 5a says, if you should experience suffering you should examine your deeds. if you can't find anything you should ascribe it to neglect of Torah study - Rashi says, if you couldn't find a sin that was significant enough to cause this type of suffering. פשפש ולא מצא ־ לא מצא עבירה בידו שבשבילה ראוין יסורין הללו לבא.

    One needs to see things in proper perspective and have a graduated and differential response to different types of problems.

    1. I agree, but, as a child of survivors who grew up with survivors and their children, I thought to add one amplification.  Children of survivors very often absorb a tacit injunction that is very much like the story you reported from Binah.  I can testify from personal experience that the psychotherapeutic literature is correct -- that this internalized injunction can result in tangible long-term harm.  I find it chilling that this (as you wrote) "is not unusual for girls who attend Jerusalem Seminaries for Americans".

      I have a suspicion as to why a seminary might inadvertently err like this: the injunction can strongly amplify and cement a certain type of Jewish identification and religiosity complex.

      Thanks for blogging.

    2. Thanks, also, for drawing attention to the "trivialization of the Holocaust".

      (Maybe I should just get used to it: [1] [2].)

      In dumbstruck concurrence, I offer bits of my mother's story. (Don't they take the kids to Yad Vashem? If they don't know what happened, what's Tisha B'Av to them? Have they fathomed any of the accounts of utter gadlus in pikuach nefesh?) My mother, ע"ה, arrived at Birkenau in July 1942, and remained there until she was death-marched to Ravensbrück in January, 1945. She was 16 years old, from the Chasam-Sofer communities of Oberland. She testified that she survived because of advice she received from two experienced inmates when she arrived. One of these inmates was a 'Bibelforscher', one of the specially-persecuted Christian sects, the other was a Yugoslav partisan woman. The advice amounted to: how to evade or mitigate beatings; how to present herself at selections; how to ration her food; how to ration her strength in heavy forced-labor.

  3. Reminds me of Israeli aphorism: We waited 2000 years to come back to Israel, we can wait a little longer until (your latest grouch) improves.

  4. "Do you see anything wrong in giving children major anti-depression medication or antipsychotic medication whenever they got upset?"

    Yes - they should deal with it through their own coping mechanisms.

    "And on the other hand would you tell a child abuse victim - 'why are you upset since it isn't as bad as Auschwitz?'"

    No - that's insensitive, cruel, and callous.

    What you're all saying makes sense, but, on the other hand, I see good in people internalizing the valiant struggles of the Holocaust. Just this Shabbos, in my shul, a survivor dedicating shalosh seudas to his mother's yahrtzeit told his story. He saw Mengele at Auschwitz Birkenau. He saw his mother, grandfather and uncle pointed by Mengele to the direction of the gas chambers. He went with his father and brother in the other direction. Mengele had his right hand in his shirt, in that arrogant German style. Certainly left an impression upon me.


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