|BATTLING THE NAZIS BY
ADHERING TO THE JEWISH FAITH
by Jeff Jacoby, The [Louisville, KY] Courier Journal, April 18, 2004
|THE ORDER to kill every pregnant Jewish woman had been issued that morning. So when a Nazi patrolling the Jewish ghetto
in Kovno noticed a pregnant Jew walking past the local hospital, he shot her at point-blank range, killing her on the spot.
Some passersby rushed the dead woman into the hospital, hoping that it might be possible to save her baby. An obstetrician
determined that she had been in her last weeks of pregnancy, and said that if surgery were performed immediately, the baby
might still be rescued. But could such surgery be squared with Jewish law, with its stringent concern for the dignity of the dead?
If the baby didn't make it, the mother's body would have been mutilated for nothing.
The question was put to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a young rabbinical scholar. He didn't hesitate. "When saving a life is involved,
we are not concerned with the desecration of the dead," he ruled. If the murdered mother could speak, wouldn't she welcome
the "desecration" of her body if it would assure her baby's survival? He ordered the operation to proceed at once, and the
baby was born alive.
Then came a horrifying postscript. "The cruel murderers . . . came into the hospital to write down the name of the murdered
woman . . . . When they found the baby alive, their savage fury was unleashed. One of the Germans grabbed the infant and
cracked its skull against the wall of the hospital room. Woe unto the eyes that saw this!"
This case from May 1942 was one of many that Rabbi Oshry was called upon to decide during the Nazi occupation of Kovno,
Lithuania's second-largest city. He recorded the heart-rending questions that were brought to him in brief notes on scraps of
paper, then buried the scraps in tin cans. Someday, he hoped, those scraps might be found - and give evidence that even in the
midst of the inferno there were Jews who clung to their G-D and His law, refusing to abandon Him even as they must have
wondered whether He had abandoned them.
More than 90 percent of Kovno's 40,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust -- either by the Germans or their Lithuania
collaborators. But Rabbi Oshry survived, and after the war he retrieved his notes and began writing them out as full-length
Rabbinical rulings, or responsa. These were ultimately published in five Hebrew volumes; in 1983 a book of excerpts in
English -- Responsa From The Holocaust -- was published by Judaica Press.
I read Responsa From the Holocaust soon after it came out, and found it deeply moving. With the approach of the Holocaust
Remembrance Day tomorrow, I took it down from the bookshelf -- and again found it powerful and affecting. The questions
laid before Rabbi Oshry can reduce you to tears, but what is really extraordinary, I saw now, was that anyone would care
enough to ask such questions in the first place.
In October 1941, "One of the respected members of the community" asked Rabbi Oshry if he could committ suicide. His wife
and children had been seized by the Nazis, and he knew that their murder was imminent. He also know that the Nazis would
most likely force him to watch as his family was killed and the prospect of witnessing their deaths was a horror he couldn't
bear to face. He begged for permission to take his own life and avoid seeing his loved ones die.
Later that month, the head of another household came to Rabbi Oshry "with tears of anguish on his face." His children were
starving to death and he was desperate to find food for them. His query was about a bit of property that had been left behind
by the family in the next apartment. The entire family had been butchered a few days earlier, and there were no surviving
relatives. Under Jewish law, could he take what remained of their belongings and sell them to raise cash for food?
Next to such questions answers seemed almost superfluous. (The Rabbi did not permit the suicide: he allowed the neighbors'
property to be taken.) What is stunning is that men and women in the throes of such suffering and brutality were still concerned
about adhering to Jewish law. In the lowest depths of the Nazi hell, in a place of terror that most of us cannot fathom, here
were human beings who refused to relinquish their faith -- who refused even to violate a precept without first asking if it was
Violence, humility and hunger will reduce some people to animals willing to do anything to survive. The Jews who sought out
Rabbi Oshry -- like Jews in so many other corners of Nazi Europe -- were not reduced but elevated, reinforced in their belief,
determined against crushing odds to walk in the ways of thier fathers.
Some Jews fought the Nazis with guns and sabotage, Rabbi Oshry would later say; others fought by persisting in Jewish life.
In the end, Responsa From The Holocaust is a chronicle of courage and resistance -- and a profound inspiration to believers of
|Jeff Jacoby's email address is email@example.com|