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Holocaust questions.

Among my rejections of popular beliefs concerning the Shoah, I count the following two:

I reject the idea that every survivor must have a sense of moral guilt. The assumption is that the only way you could survive was by resorting to some act which was not quite ethical, or which was somehow not in line with the standards you ought to follow; and if you accept this assumption, then you must have survived at the expense of someone else. "Lo mineh velo miktzato!" - this is not so in whole or in part! I can say categorically that I do not feel guilty for having survived. I am grateful to Almighty God that I survived, and I do not feel that my survival impacted adversely on the life of anyone else. There was one instance in which I was given cigarettes to distribute and some of them did not reach their destination, but other than this I can think of nothing I did that caused anyone else any suffering. There were people, of course, who survived by all kinds of moral compromises, but I daresay most survivors of concentration camps have no reason at all to feel such guilt.

Here allow me to insert a parenthetical appeal on behalf of those few who survived the concentration camps themselves. I often feel uncomfortable, to the point of being annoyed, when people claim to be survivors who actually escaped the camps. Not that I begrudge them their claims. Obviously, if they make such claims they have a need for them, and God knows, by all normal standards they suffered appallingly. Still, I want to specify that those who survived the camps themselves - Majdanek, Treblinka, Auschwitz - one can count them; these people survived on totally different terms from those who went to a foreign consulate in '38 to struggle for a visa. Even if the visa was first rejected, or they almost missed it, or perhaps if they had come one hour, one minute, one second later, they would not have escaped and would have been sent to the camps - theirs was a totally different experience.

I often say that anyone whose lungs absorbed, on the ramp, on the station platform of Auschwitz, the smoke effusing from the chimneys of the crematoria - those who looked, or could not look, in Mengele's face, when right and left meant death and life - these are different people who have known a different kind of abandonment. That's not knocking on the door and begging, "Give me a visa." There is a different story for those who walked those ramps. Marching down that short road from the train to the crematoria cannot be duplicated by any other experience, whether the victims were aware or not aware. In fact, I remember one man from Sighet who had somehow saved a bottle of schnapps, and when he arrived at the ramp he drank it and became intoxicated on the spot. He had the presence of mind to know what was about to happen, and he saved his bottle for this eventuality. Similarly, those older women who took their daughters' children with them in the selection so that at least one person would have the chance to survive - these people showed enormous personal orientation, and with this orientation comes the enormity of the abandonment.

So, in a sensitive understanding, we must make this distinction. Let the others write books, movies, plays, whatever helps. Hitler's evil hand reached Jews, and other people, in all kinds of ways, throughout the world. Other peoples tell similar stories - refugees tell them - and our age, unfortunately, is full of such stories; but survivors of the camps themselves are different people who have experienced a different transformation. I think that this, for the record, should be made clear.

Finally, my rejection diminishes, and I stand to be corrected by those who have a keener eye and are better trained in the social sciences. Nevertheless, I have not noticed any special characteristic unique to the survivors, and this despite the unique experience. Second to my work in Talmud, I follow the literature of Holocaust survivors closely, and I have not discovered anything of a predictable nature so that one might say: He or she is a survivor, therefore such and such will be the case. Of course, most survivors were anxious to rebuild their families, to regain the recognition in society that they lost. There are not many academicians among the survivors. There are some - more than one might suspect - but still relatively few. Probably this is because those who survived were constrained, as I was, to start their secular studies anew, from the elementary level and in a new language. Still, I do not see a common stripe that one might say arises from being a survivor.

However, having said that, I still believe that a sensitive survivor - and particularly one who has the opportunity or the leisure to pursue intellectual activity - must work, should work, under the influence of mutually contradictory forces. A sensitive survivor must recognize that there was a collapse of norms. Everything we held dear, everything we thought must be, and everything we thought must be pursued turned to naught. The Shoah signifies that whatever one considered the pattern of life one should choose - the ideal standard - collapsed. And if you are sensitive, in the face of this collapse you must reexamine what you stood for. You can put it as a test: If not for the Shoah, what would you be doing? If the answer is, "The same," then know that this is wrong. If you were teaching literature, for example, that literature failed, betrayed you. Something must be changed. Something must be different, intellectually - cannot be the same, should not be the same. So somebody who studied Talmud before and studies Talmud after has this problem. Something must be different.

I remember, after I came to the United States, Moshe Meisels Amishai, the Hebrew philosopher, asked me, speaking in Yiddish "Were you religious before the war?" and I said, "Yes of course I was, I was a chasid." "Are you religious now?" he asked. I said, "Yes." And he said, "I understand those who were religious before and became irreligious after and those who were irreligious before and became religious after. I can't understand those who were religious before and remain religious after. Nothing happened? Something must have changed."

On the other hand the person who has survived, and has been wounded so deeply, needs that support which only tradition can provide. "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him" (Job 13:15). You cannot imagine, even if you follow the literature, the sadism of which the Germans and their cohorts were capable. I keep on reading the literature, and now I still come across something that shocks even me. That mankind could sink so low and inflict this kind of violence upon children: one must react to this spiritually. And at the same time one must seek spiritual solace.

Opposite forces bear upon the survivor. On the one hand, one must find fault with what happened, for if there is no fault, there is an indirect affirmation. If you continue doing now what you would have done before, then you are saying that nothing was wrong - and you do not relate to what happened. Not criticizing the past is being like those who justify, those whom I mentioned at the start of this chapter - the ones who know why. Knowing why is a statement of approval. On the other hand, if you acknowledge the wrong, then you run the risk of cutting off the branch upon which you rest. A sensitive theologian must work with both sides, for if you take away the tradition, too, you take away the branch upon which you were raised and nurtured, and then you really are uprooted without any basis, without any roots.

Therefore the struggle this person has is the struggle to do both: to find a way of criticizing tradition, but of holding steadfastly to it. Criticizing affirms that something went wrong - badly wrong, deeply wrong. Yet there must be something to come home to. A person must find comfort and consolation in tradition. However, something in that tradition must be different, or else we say implicitly that nothing happened.

Personally, I found this balance in the critical study of Jewish texts, in a combination of criticism and belief in the divine origin of the text. My studies often question the veracity of the text as we find it, and at the same time they aim to increase the dignity of this text by restoring earlier readings. There are many instances in which the Gemara rejects the opinion of a sage, concluding with such interjections as kashya (it remains difficult), or tiyuvta (it is refuted), or in which the Gemara designates the statement of a particular sage as beduta (invented without sound basis), or beruta (outside, not on the mark). By picking out these passages and interpreting them in a manner that reveals the original context and meaning of the sage's words, Talmud criticism can be said to restore the dignity of our sages of blessed memory. It restores the dignity of the text, which in turn bestows dignity upon its authors; but it does so at the expense of questioning traditional reliability.

I undertake critical studies of the Talmud, and at the same time the Talmud is my bastion which I can always come home to and find solace in. This contradiction is not unlike the one that began to bother me in childhood and still troubles me. Once I wrote: "How is one to explain the blatant contradiction between counting and upholding every word, every letter of the text, and at the same time boldly announcing, 'Chasora mechasra vehacha ketani - 'There is a lacuna in the text, and it should be read differently'?" The Rabbis had to lend divine power to the text to lend power to their defiance of it. A lacuna in a human text is of no religious significance. A lacuna in a divine text? That already smacks of heresy. The Rabbis of the Talmud tampered with the biblical text, frequently offered interpretations that ran counter to the integrity of it, and openly said: There is a lacuna in the Mishnah. When God once wanted to intervene in a Rabbinic dispute, the Rabbis boldly rejected His intervention, saying: The Torah is not in heaven; it now belongs to man and not to God. Man exercises, as it were, leverage over Him. Man controls His Torah.

Gaining hegemony over a text, but at the same time insisting that it is a divine text, represents another arena in which this contradiction is expressed: that tradition failed, and yet there is a need for right and wrong to be continuous. This contradiction is fought out in the interplay between God saying, "Nitzchuni banai" - my sons have done me proud in their defiance - and God being stern elsewhere and saying, "You cannot do this."

Different people - sensitive survivors - will have to find equivalents in their own fields, in their creative endeavors. We must somehow find room for acknowledging that something went awfully wrong - that nobody extended help, not even God Himself. It is said of the Berditchever that he once interpreted the verse "Lo ta'asun keyn ladoshem elokocha," "Do not do thus with the Lord your God" (Deuteronomy 12:4), as referring to God Himself. He pointed out that keyn also means "right": "Keyn benot Zelophehad dovrot": "The daughters of Zelophehad are right" (Numbers 27:7). So the Berditchever said, "Lo ta'asun keyn ladoshem elokecha" - don't justify Him, don't make Him right.

Nonetheless, as religious Jews, we have to know that without God there is no humanity. Life makes sense only if we are hooked on to something higher, something transcendent. It's like a trolley car, if you've ever been in a trolley car: you may think the conductor is in charge, but the power comes from above. "Walk humbly with the Lord thy God" (Micah 6:8) - like a child holding hands. You must hold hands, and walk. But this does not mean that you always have to say, particularly in remembrance of the Holocaust, "What You did was right." It was terribly wrong.

There is no dearth of memoirs by survivors. Indeed, it has almost become a duty for any survivor who can hold a pen (or who can hire someone who can hold a pen) to write down his or her memoirs. Each of them - even the least felicitous writer whose content is the expected and whose style is drab - contributes some newness that increases our awareness of the cruelty of the Holocaust's perpetrators. The purpose of such accounts, generally, is to chronicle the sufferings of the writer - the crueler, the more worthy of chronicling. There seems to be an inner drive to record one's tribulations as a means of reliving them, especially when, as was the case with the Nazis, the intent of the tribulation was to eradicate, to wipe the victim and his people off the human register. Remembering the suffering then becomes an act of defiance, showing that the criminals failed, that the victim still exists, and that this existence is acknowledged and recognized.

The purpose of this memoir is to define myself spiritually in the light of the Holocaust (what an odd combination, "light" and "Holocaust"). My spiritual self is learning, learning Torah, the Bible and the Talmud, as a highly stimulating pursuit permeated with divinity. Therefore I do not dwell much on cruelties, though I experienced my share of them. I merely hint at them in a subdued manner. The only cruelty that asserts itself again and again in these recollections is the gassing. More than fifty years later, it still overwhelms my imagination that human beings were able to do this to other human beings, especially to children. Just think of a child whom you love, your own, a relative's, a friend's, and imagine pushing him or her into the gas chamber. What kind of a person could do that?

This memoir follows the biblical style, in which the physical appearances of the heroes are usually omitted because they are irrelevant. We do not know whether Moses was tall or short, thin or heavy - an unpardonable omission in the Greek style of writing. We do not know these things because they are not relevant to Moses' role as an intermediary between God and His people. The Bible tells us that Moses was slow of speech, but this fact is important: it is Moses' pretext for not wanting to appear alone before Pharaoh. In this memoir as well, physical descriptions are few and far between. Aside from those facts which are essential to the account, a small number of descriptions set the physical scene in a rudimentary way and hint at the details beyond.

Not everything that is paramount in my life is recorded here. Among the omissions are my three sons and their families. Only someone who was without family for as long as I was can appreciate, as I do, the joy and sense of completeness that a loving family can provide. Also absent in the preceding pages is my passionate concern for Israel, the land, its history and tradition. Only one who has suffered from anti-Semitism for so long and who imbibed the divine story of Israel with his mother's milk, as I did, can appreciate the meaning and the import of this old-new country. Any threat to its existence or natural development evokes pangs of deep-seated personal fears.

These, and other things, are not included in this memoir because they are not integral to the spiritual odyssey that is expressed in my learning. They did not contribute to my survival and were not instrumental in defining my spiritual self as did, and does, learning. It was learning that made my life as a child bearable, insulated me from what was happening in the ghetto, and reached symbolic heights with the bletl, the page of holy text in which the German guard wrapped his snack; and it was learning that allowed me to resume my life after the Holocaust and to enter academia.

No wonder that the two people mentioned the most in this memoir are my grandfather, who taught me in Sighet, and Professor Saul Lieberman, my teacher in America. I have deviated from their styles of learning, from Grandfather's after his death and from Professor Lieberman's while he was still alive, which caused some friction, though it was soon overcome. I am more inclined toward source criticism, which both shunned. Source criticism looks for discrepancies in the early transmission of a text to account for forced interpretation. Grandfather was not acquainted with such scholarship, per se, and Professor Lieberman was uncomfortable with it. Yet I remain deeply influenced by both of them. My learning would have been quite different were it not for them. Without Grandfather, I might not have dedicated my life to learning altogether. They share in my development, one before and the other after the cataclysm.

In the course of these fifty years, since the destruction of the Jews of Sighet, countless books, articles, essays, poems, drawings, even movies - all conceivable means of expression have been mobilized to ponder the imponderable: How was it possible for human beings to be so savage and cruel to one another, to condemn a whole people, young and old, toddlers and hoary heads, hale and infirm, to be tormented, tortured, killed through unimaginable modes of death, with maximum pain, solely because of the accident of their birth? This enormous literature attempts to find out whether the destruction of European Jewry was an eclipse of history or a periodical outburst expected to be repeated. Was the Holocaust a mere whim of history, or is its cruelty inherent in each one of us, bursting out whenever the artificial constraint is removed?

Without passing judgment on the resolution of the "How was it possible?" question, indeed, on the feasibility of answering such questions in general, may I by contrast say that comparatively much less attention has been devoted to how those who survived made it, how they overcame the powers of destruction and left enough of them behind to start a new life. And if you want to peruse these inquiries at greater depth, you may ask: Are the survivors to be credited for their own survival? Was their survival due to their own strength, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, or was it merely an accident, a combination of circumstances that a few were lucky enough to have survived?

I suspect that the question of how the survivors survived is more difficult to answer, making it less inviting to deal with. Humankind's tendency to cruelty may be explained in terms of a few principles, whereas survival of cruelty needs to be explained in terms of individual stamina. It requires as many answers as there are individual survivors, which makes the task impossible. To put it differently: whereas those who perished perished more or less the same way and for the same reasons, those who survived survived in their own ways and for their own reasons. The former is within the domain of scholarship. The latter defies scholarly capabilities.

But not the capabilities of the memoir writers. They can and should describe not only how they made it physically (after one reads a few memoirs, most of the rest fall into discernible patterns) but also what spiritual power drove them to continue, not to falter under the yoke of hopelessness and despair. It constitutes, as it were, the soul of surviving. And like the soul of the body, it can easily be missed or denied. When this happens, the elan vital of survival has been extinguished and the memoir is incomplete.

DAVID WEISS HALIVNI is the Lucius N. Littauer Professor of Classical Jewish Civilization in the Department of Religion at Columbia University. He is the author most recently of Peshat and Derash and Revelation Restored. This excerpt from The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction, by David Weiss Halivni, Copyright (C) 1996 by David Weiss Halivni, is reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. A paperback edition is forthcoming.
COPYRIGHT 1997 American Jewish Congress
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Author:Halivni, David Weiss
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 1997
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