NEW YORK — Building a clandestine sukkah; putting on phylacteries; seeking rabbinic counsel. Despite the risk of immediate death if caught, spiritual resistance — large and small — ran strong among religious Jews in the Nazi concentration camps.
Yet, for more than 70 years, the ways in which so many men and women fought to practice their faith under such dire circumstances has gone largely untold — an omission particularly felt during tours of Auschwitz-Birkenau.
“Holocaust history has to a large extent has been about what occurred to the Jews. When focusing on the individual devastated by genocide, by default it becomes a perpetrator history. When you talk about what happened to the victim, the human story gets sublimated,” said Dr. Henri Lustiger-Thaler, chief curator of the Amud Aish Memorial Museum in Brooklyn, New York, and professor of social science at Ramapo College in New Jersey.
Indeed, much of what people learn while visiting the concentration and extermination camps is rather clinical: Piles of suitcases, carefully labeled with names and addresses, heaps of shorn locks. Such artifacts are necessary to help tell the story of the Holocaust, but can divert a greater share of attention to what the Nazis did rather than how Jewish prisoners reacted.
Working together with the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, educators from Amud Aish and the Kleinman Holocaust Education Center traveled to Poland, where they trained Auschwitz Museum guides to better tell the story of how faith-based and Orthodox Jewish prisoners lived through this time.
“For the very first time, the complex topic of how Orthodox Jews dealt with the reality of the Auschwitz extermination camp was analyzed in an exhaustive manner and presented to the museum educators. They were provided with an important tool which will enable them to present this question both to visitors who are not involved in Jewish Orthodoxy, as well as to Orthodox groups, whose presence in the museum is constantly increasing,” said Andrzej Kacorzyk, director of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust at the Auschwitz Memorial.
Nearly 2.1 million people visited Auschwitz in 2016, a new record 71 years after its liberation. That number is already on track to increase for 2017, according to the museum.
The majority of visitors took tours with the museum’s 286 guides, who collectively speak nearly 20 languages. However, until now museum-led tours didn’t incorporate the more spiritual and religious life of Jews imprisoned there.
“By adding this dimension you start to see that the story of the religious Jews and the religious culture of Europe was completely destroyed. Incorporating this gives them [the prisoners] a voice here and also helps reanimate that world as well. The story isn’t just about a person entering the ghetto, or the work camp, or the gas chamber — it was about a culture entering the ghetto, or the work camp, or the gas chamber,” Lustiger-Thaler said.
In recent years, some claim “Holocaust fatigue.” But through this project, Lustiger-Thaler has learned that the further one digs, the more one learns that this dark world is anything but exhausted. New stories, new angles, are revealed all the time, he said.
During lectures and tours of the camp, Lustiger-Thaler and Amud Aish director Rabbi Sholom Friedmann talked about how religious victims struggled to maintain their identities and fought to observe their faith.
“The million Jews who perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and those who survived, were predominantly religious. Although the war turned their lives upside down, many still maintained their beliefs. As a result, their suffering was experienced through the lens of their faith,” Friedmann said.
Over 70 guides participated in the training, which included six additional stops to the Auschwitz tour. Four more elements are planned for next year, including adding stories from observant women.
While the training gave guides a new narrative-enriching tool, the content and core of the tours remains the same, said Tomasz Michaldo, the director of guiding methodology at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum, in an email.
“For me, the most important point about the training was to familiarize guides with faith-based perspective on Auschwitz and to make them aware that Jewish faith-based experience varies from the non-faith-based one,” Michaldo said.
“All of them said that this was an eye-opening session. Most of those who participated have already been to Yad Vashem and other Holocaust related museums, but the faith-based perspective is not stressed in any of those. I do know that many of them use what they’ve learned during the tours,” said Michaldo.
The guides learned how to incorporate some of these stories and discussion topics at six different stops during a tour. One stop is at the kitchen; another includes testimonies about how Jews used barrels to clandestinely build a sukkah in Auschwitz III-Monowitz in 1943, as well as how they secretly held prayer services and continued to wear religious garments under their uniforms.
They also explored the questions that some victims posed to rabbis in a treacherous and deadly world. At a stop in the male camp in Birkenau, guides learned the exact location where questions were posed to Rabbi Tzvi Hersch Meisels on the practice of ransoming the lives of boys selected for the gas chambers: Could a father ransom his son’s life knowing it meant that the ransomed boy would be replaced by another victim?
“Oftentimes in a concentration camp and a death camp there were choiceless choices. The rules changed; there was no normative behavior. What was still there? An inner life was there, or at least the choice to have an inner life, in a place where everything — everything — was a life and death question,” Lustiger-Thaler said.
“These were not one-off moments of resistance, it was continuous. Their entire camp life became one of resistance,” he said.