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"Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust" by Yaffa Eliach
Book Review and Reflection
“The biggest miracle of all is the one that we, the survivors of the Holocaust, after all that we witnessed and lived through, still believe and have faith in the Almighty God, may His name be blessed. This, my friends, is the miracle of miracles, the greatest miracle ever to have taken place.” --The Rabbi of Klausenburg, Rabbi Yekutiel Halberstam1
Yaffa Eliach’s Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust (1982) is a collection of stories from Hasidic Jews who endured Nazi concentration camps during World War II. The stories range from little acts of kindness to miraculous events in which the Hand of God can be clearly seen. The inclusion of tales big and small allows the reader to see that God’s acts of love can be recognized both in everyday kindnesses as well as ‘bigger’ miracles, though no act of love within the background of the Holocaust is to be considered ‘small’. The suffering was so great that even the tiniest amount of hope and kindness shone brighter than the blackness that surrounded the inmates.
The subject of the Holocaust inevitably brings us face-to-face with a question that has plagued mankind for centuries: If there is a God, why does He allow evil? It seems an insurmountable task to explain the actions of the Nazis within the framework of a loving Father. Indeed, the Holocaust was the very meeting on earth of heaven and hell, God and Satan, good and evil. We can explain suffering as working toward an ultimate good, but the suffering of the Holocaust leaves these explanations seemingly insufficient. It would be quite uncomfortable to converse with a Holocaust survivor and propose that God is a loving father who propagates only good things. The suffering endured during the Holocaust seems almost greater than God, an evil that truly overshadowed goodness, a time when Satan successfully got the upper hand.
Yet Eliach’s collection of stories shows us that this is not the case. God was always there, showing His face in unlikely places. Although the Nazis took everything physical, they could never manage to take God from the Jews. To give up God would mean the Nazis had prevailed. If hope was lost, then darkness would have taken over. The Jews, stripped of property, food, clothing, and family, were never stripped of God. The Nazis took all the earthly things, but could never manage to touch the life-giving essence of the Jews—their Father in heaven. Ultimately, humanity faced inhumanity and came out victorious, although battered and bruised.
When confronted with the question of evil and in the face of such atrocities, there are two ways one can react. The first is to direct anger at God for allowing such things, which is quite understandable. The other is to direct the anger not toward God, but toward man. When faced with the question of God’s role in the atrocities of World War II, one Jew replied, “I want to bring to trial a civilization for whom man was such a worthless being. But to bring God to trial? On what charges? For giving men the ability to choose between good and evil?”2 Evil, in other words, does not come from God. It comes from man. Therefore, any small glimpses of God’s relieving grace in the midst of the Holocaust horrors should be recognized and appreciated.
Eliach’s tales provide these glimpses of God for us. A pessimistic reader may think that God should not be thanked for a few miraculous crumbs of bread, for example, when He has set his children inside hell on earth. But we are not to scoff at stories of small acts of love amid such a great terror, angry at God for allowing the horrific situation to unfold in the first place. Instead, we should recognize that these horrors are human-inflicted, and God is there for us in the smallest of ways. He never left the Jews, and they triumphed in the end.
Two stories in particular stand out from this book. One is great, one small; one is a testament to works, one is a testament to faith. Both are a witness to God’s loving hand. The first, a small reward from God as a result of human works, involves a simple greeting. In the city of Danzig, a Jewish rabbi would give a good morning greeting to others in town, particularly a German farmer. When the war broke out, these two men met again in the camps, the rabbi dressed in a camp uniform and the farmer dressed in an SS officer’s uniform. Selections were under way, with the officer deciding which inmates would live or die. The Jewish man recognized the selection officer as the farmer from his town, and repeated his usual morning greeting. The officer responded in kind, recognizing his old friend. This small act of kindness resulted in the Jewish man being transferred to a safer camp where he survived the war. The rabbi later reflected, “This is the power of a good-morning greeting. A man must always greet his fellow man.”3 Our works, no matter how small, can save us.
The second story involves a bigger miracle as a result of faith. In this tale, a Jewish man had been injured while young, needing a skin graft to the palm of his hand. The result of the graft was that hairs began to grow on his palm, since the skin had been taken from a part of his body where hair grew. He came home one day to find that his sister had been taken by the Gestapo, and he marched into their office to demand her return, which was seemingly a suicide mission on his part. The officer agreed to let the girl free, on one impossible condition—that the Jewish man grow hair on the palm of his hand. He opened his palm, revealing the hair growing there, and secured the release of his sister. The miracle highlighted here is that God had worked since the time of this man’s injury, through to the Gestapo officer’s utterance of the strange request, to bring about the release of the Jewish girl. This man surely lamented his childhood injury and the strange condition it brought about, yet it was part of an overall plan to save his sister years later. As he stated, “Doctors tell me today that this is impossible, but the palm of my hand did not go to medical school.”4 We must have continued faith that God is with us and always working for us.
The suffering of the Jewish people throughout human history has been great. It is quite understandable that many endured the Holocaust but lost their faith in God, so immense were the horrors inflicted upon them. But for many, they recognized that it was man under which they suffered, and God was there in miraculous ways. The Jewish people have kept the faith and remained steadfast for thousands of years despite all of their suffering. As one German officer said, “Now I understand that our effort is in vain. The Jews will never be destroyed. For their will to live is unmatched by any other people. They, indeed, must be the eternal people.”
Eliach, Yaffa, Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, (New York: Avon Books, 1982), p. 228.
Ibid., p. 251.
Ibid., p. 130.
Ibid., p. 72.