‘Spiritual Resistance’ is topic of Aish talk

Dan Reich and Rabbi Shmuel Greenwald are excited and they’re fairly certain the audience will be as well when they hear Bonnie Gurewitsch speak about spiritual resistance during the Holocaust Nov. 17. Gurewitsch is the archivist/curator of New York City’s Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

“I think it’s going to be a very enlightening evening,” said Reich, curator and director of education for the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center, which is co-sponsoring the event with Aish HaTorah. “The image has always been that Jews went like sheep to the slaughter. I think no one really thinks that anymore.”

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Reich said that view has been dispelled as stories of the uprisings at Auschwitz and the Warsaw Ghetto have gained wider currency and recent films like last year’s Defiance, have popularized the history of the Jewish partisan movement.

But Reich noted that non-violent forms of opposition also played a less noted, but no less important, role in the resistance to Nazi oppression, sometimes just through the simple act of communities continuing to observe traditions and individuals working to preserve their spiritual identity.

“Not everyone could take up arms or smuggle in weapons for the kind of uprising that occurred in the Warsaw Ghetto or escape to join the partisans,” he said. “But people could maintain their humanity. If the intention of the Nazis was to dehumanize these people and destroy them as Jews, then the idea that people under the direst, darkest circumstances in ghettos and camps would maintain their faith, celebrate holidays and maintain decency toward one another was something that they could do.”

Like Reich, Rabbi Greenwald of Aish HaTorah said he has long had an interest in the topic. One item he found especially moving was a picture taken by the wife of the rabbi of Kiel, Germany, which depicts a windowsill menorah in the foreground while a Nazi flag hangs ominously behind it in the distance. The iconic photo is now featured on promotional materials for the event.

Greenwald said that the spiritual courage of those who resisted decades ago can have lessons for Jews today.

“Nowadays people are trying to do various mitzvot but everything is flying in our favor,” he said. “We can acquire everything that we need easily and nobody is trying to prevent us from doing it. These are people who did this in the most adverse situations.”

Gurewitsch noted that the type of spiritual resistance offered usually reflected the evolving challenges posed by each phase of Hitler’s regime.

“In the early period where the Nazis took over in Germany and Austria, the resistance was against the stereotyping, the persecution and the dehumanization,” she said. “The primary weapons were education and helping young people escape.”

But by 1939, as German expansion rolled into high gear, choices became more difficult. Despite this, Gurewitsch points out that some of the harsh initial steps taken to deprive Jews of civil and economic liberties seemed familiar to Jewish communities who understood the sting of an anti-Semitism that had been practiced against their forefathers. Even the infamous ghettos weren’t a Nazi invention. Similar concepts had existed as early as the 16th century.

Often operating in secret, Jews responded to the harshness of ghetto life by holding synagogue services, continuing religious and secular education and strengthening communal institutions. Soup kitchens, hospitals, and even public libraries were sometimes set up.

“There was actually a clandestine medical school in the Warsaw Ghetto that lasted 14 months,” she said. “It’s a mind boggling story.”

Unfortunately, during the later stages of the Third Reich, the options grew more limited and the choices starker.

“The question was do you get on the train or not get on the train?” she said. “People responded to that in different ways.”

Not knowing their fate, those bound for concentration camps often took along ritual objects like tefillin or Kiddush cups, hoping that some semblance of a normal life might await them at the other end of the track. For many, those hopes ended in a gas chamber. However, some prisoners found themselves in labor camps where life was brutal but there was a chance for survival. Gurewitsch said labor camp Jews often engaged in clandestine prayer, sometimes even writing Passover Hagaddahs from memory using pencils and paper stolen at the risk of their own lives.

As part of Nazi propaganda efforts, “model” camps like Terezin in Czechoslovakia were filmed and opened to inspection by outside groups. This allowed greater freedom for prisoners and more opportunity for cultural life to develop.

“There were artists who did forced labor creating propaganda posters for the Nazis,” she said, “while at night they were stealing art materials from their workshops to create clandestine art. It’s a fascinating duality.”

Some, however, never got that chance. For many, the final act of spiritual resistance was a written letter or even an “ethical will,” a document detailing the deceased’s spiritual legacy. Some of these were found buried in bottles at death camps. Often they urged future generations to stay committed to the Jewish people or to study Judaic texts to memorialize the dead.

Gurewitsch plans to quote from some of these ethical wills at this month’s event.

“Some are political in nature. Some are Zionist in nature. Some are in Yiddish. Some are in Hebrew,” she said. “There’s one that simply says, ‘Be happy and be a good person.'”

“Spiritual Resistance During the Holocaust”

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 17

WHERE: Aish HaTorah Firehouse, 457 N. Woods Mill Road


MORE INFO: Aish HaTorah and the St. Louis Holocaust Museum and Learning Center are presenting the event, which is sponsored by Gloria Feldman and family in memory of Rubin Feldman. Call 314-862-2474 for more information.