Three days before Passover in 1943, a young student and his instructor discussed the events unfolding outside. The instructor asked the student where his peers were, to which the young boy responded, "Outside. The Germans are here. They went to look." The teacher lowered his head and said,
The Germans are here you say? You say so because you see them? Well let me ask you this: Do you see the blessed Creator? No, you dont. But He is here, whereas they will disappear. Do they think they can upset out work, just like that, with impunity? That they can offend the Creator by preventing us from fulfilling His law? In a few days we shall welcome Passover, and that is all that matters. Have you forgotten the meaning of Passover? Our enemies are swallowed up, the people of Israel survive (Weisel 58).
From the beginning of 1938, news began to spread of the plans of the Third Reich. Many Jews had no idea of the storm that was about to ensue. Students such as Elie Weisel in the above quote and Anne Frank, one of the most notable young women of the Holocaust, were uninformed and did not understand what was occurring. Before the Nazi invasion, Elie was intrigued by what he heard about the war on the radio. He did not know what to accept as truth and what to disregard as mere German horn-blowing" (58). Similarly, as Anne Frank and her family were forced to go into hiding in the attic of Otto Franks office, Anne entered the situation with wide eyes. She often referred to the operation as an adventure, going to her "Secret Annex" and keeping her diary as a travel journal of sorts to fill with her dreams and goals. Once the actualities of the war began to unfold, both Anne and Elie lost their innocence. We have literary proof of their feelings and thoughts throughout the war. We have some insight into what acted as their lighthouse, the guiding light that lifted them from the real world. Both Weisel and Frank attribute their prosperity to God. Despite six years of complete exile and Nazi attempts at eliminating all Jewish culture and tradition, European Jews like Elie Weisel and Anne Frank maintained their faith in God and trust in the Jewish religion.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel was just fifteen years old when he and his father were torn from their family home in Transylvania and sent to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp in Poland. His sister and mother were sent to different, unknown concentration camps, and were never seen again. Elie and his father were together until Reb Shloime Weisel died in captivity at Auschwitz. Elie Weisel managed to survive through personal strength and faith in God despite the evil inflicted on his family and fellow Jews. He questioned his faith, because of the heinous acts perpetrated against his people, but only for a miniscule amount of time. Elie found that without his faith, he would not have survived. He said, "He who looks God in the face must die. But the faith that bound me to the God of Israel and of my ancestors remained immune to all that. At least for the moment. It remained nearly intact" (Weisel 83).
The astonishing thing is not the fact that Elie as an individual maintained his faith and his trust in God throughout the war, but that the majority of European Jews in World War II similarly did not question their Jewish tenets. Their synagogues were being burned, and their businesses destroyed. They were forced to wear yellow stars on their coats signifying their religion. They had every piece of their Jewish identity stripped and molded into one unit and one name: "Jew." They were not a race, they were a group of people who all believed in one ultimate Creator and who all strived for a common good.
The first wave of synagogue burning took place in Munich, Germany in June 1938, followed by the initial deportations of German Jews. The news spread all over Europe, including France, where seventeen-year-old Herschel Grynszpan was residing with family members, while his parents remained in Germany. When word of their deportation to a camp reached him, Herschel went to the German embassy in Paris with the intent to confront any representative of those connected to his familys fate. He shot Third Secretary Ernst vom Rath, who died from his wounds two days later. News of this incident spread like wild fire all over Europe and provided Joseph Goebbels, Hitlers Chief of Propaganda, with the excuse he needed to launch a pogrom against German Jews. Goebbels characterized Grynszpans attack as evidence of a conspiracy by "International Jewry" against the Reich. Goebbels pogrom came to be called Reichskristallnacht, or "The Night of the Broken Glass."
November 8 and 9, 1938, Nazi official Heinrich Muller sent a telegraph to all German Gestapo offices instructing what immediate action would be taken in response to the Paris incident (Graml 42). It mandated that all Jewish businesses were to be destroyed by storm troopers in uniform, with members of the press as witnesses. Furthermore, "All Jewish synagogues are to be burned immediately. The fire brigade is not allowed to intervene, only to protect "Aryan" homes. All Jewish signs are to be burned and replaced with signs reading: "Revenge for the murder of vom Rath. Death to International Jewry. No Compromise with Jew-Loving People." The Gestapo troops were to be prepared to arrest over ten thousand Jews that night (Schleunes 239-240).
The night of November 10, 1938, many Jewish synagogues and businesses were damaged in swift attacks. Party officials secretly mingled with the ever-growing curious by-standers, cleverly provoking them into a mood characterized by German historian Hermann Graml as "sullen agitation and intensity of the atmosphere with their loud and virulent intervention. It seemed only natural when the stones they had brought smashed through windows of a shop or synagogue. This broke the spell and the crowds rampaged through synagogues, shops, and houses" (25). That night, over two hundred synagogues burned down, and another one hundred were demolished. At least eight thousand Jewish businesses and countless homes were destroyed. Graml observed, "That night, the Gestapo had dragged off thirty thousand Jews to concentration camps" (25). Reichskristallnacht was a major turning point in the events to come. No synagogue escaped destruction, further limiting the Jews in their pursuit of some sense of normalcy or solace through community prayer. In those cities not yet ravaged by the Nazi party, Jewish communities became stronger through unity.
It would have been easy for Jews to turn away from God and their religion as a result of their dire situation. The beautiful thing is that most didnt. They sought strength in Gods help and believed the reason they could survive the atrocities would be through Gods work. In his memoirs entitled All Rivers Run to the Sea, Elie wrote:
I will never cease to rebel against those who committed or permitted Auschwitz, including God. The questions I once asked myself about Gods silence remain open. If they have an answer, I do not know it. I refuse to know it. I maintain that the death of six million human beings poses a question to which on answer will ever be forthcoming (85).
Perhaps the strength came from the surviving Jews in undamaged cities. They were forced to live without the amenities that they once had. Their rights were taken away, along with every external aspect of their culture and tradition. Those forced into hiding had fixed routines, the bare minimum supplies, and only their good spirits to keep them enlightened. The people forced into hiding, most notably Anne Frank and her family, kept ties to the outside world from the cramped attic that concealed eight people for two years. They listened to the radio for news reports and updates on the war. They obtained news from the German secretaries that worked downstairs in Otto Franks office building. The secretaries bought food and staples for the families and provided the essentials such as: drawing pencils, books, candles for the menorah, and an occasional surprise or two.
Even though the Franks and the others in the "Secret Annex" were closeted from the outside world, they maintained their faith and Jewish tradition. They didnt have much, but they managed to celebrate, even under extreme situations. On Monday, December 7, 1942, Anne reported in her diary about the celebrations of the approaching Hanukkah holiday. She wrote, " We didnt make much of a fuss with Hanukkah, merely exchanging a few small gifts, and lighting the candles. Since candles are in short supply, we lit them for only ten minutes, but as long as we sang the song, that doesnt matter. Mr. Van Daan made a menorah out of wood, so that was taken care of too" (75). The menorah and the song that Anne talks about are merely external qualities that are easy to retain, even while in hiding. What was not as easy for Anne to keep was her internal faith and trust, something you cant ask a secretary to pick up with a ration coupon.
Until April of 1944, Anne had sustained that God was always watching out for her and the families in the Annex. God was a helpful presence and was looking after both Jews and the Christians who were helping all over Europe. However, hints of question start to arise in Annes voice. She wrote, " Who has inflicted this on us? Who has set us apart from all the rest? Who has put us through such suffering? Its God who has made us the way we are, but its also god who will lift us up again . God has never deserted our people The weak shall fall and the strong shall survive and not be defeated!" (257). She attempts to explain the events that are happening and gives logical rationale. After tossing out bits of doubt, Anne resorts to the argument that the answer to the questions of God is that there is no right answer. Or rather, what could the answer be? The murders did not take place to make the Jews stronger, but instead the events as a whole ended up strengthening their belief after the war, and as Anne brings up, throughout the centuries. Why did this happen? Perhaps the actions that took place were so inhumane that there could only be an explanation from an outside being. No human could contrive these events. The only way to explain the Holocaust is to not explain, but instead just trust that there was an outside power governing the outcome (Angress 12).
Even before they went into hiding, Jewish families like the Franks had to celebrate their Jewish holidays and observances in their own homes, away from the eyes of those in power that attacked their differences. In Elie Weisels village, the night before the Passover celebration in 1944, the Nazis burned their only synagogue. Without that central meeting place, Elie and his neighbors met separately in private homes to celebrate the holiday. He later wrote,
Stores were closed, and we were forbidden to go out except at certain hours. Jewish state employees were fired. Jews no longer had the right to walk in municipal parks or go to the movies or take the bus, tram, or train. However-Thank God- they could still breathe the mountain air and warm themselves in the spring sun. The important thing was that even this normal life be normal (Weisel 57).
After the Nazis invaded Elies Carpathian village sending him to Auschwitz, Elie met a young man named Primo Levi, an Italian Jew of the same age. Primo also struggled with the issue of God and faith throughout his entire time at Auschwitz. Primo said, "Either God is God and therefore all-powerful and hence guilty of letting the murderers do as they pleased, or His power is limited, in which case he is not God" (Weisel 83). Elies response was that there is never going to be one solution. Faith and God are too complicated to figure out for one individual human being. He said, " The suffering and death of innocent children inevitably places divine will in question and arouses men to wrath and revolt. But what if that were just what God intended: That men cry out to Him of their pain and disappointment? Might that be the path to a solution? I prefer to suggest that no solution exists" (84).
After the war, Elie kept contact with Borsher Rebbe. He often asked Rebbes advice and council during the times he wrote pieces that would later earn him the Nobel Prize for Literature. In 1986, Elie and Rebbe had this dialog regarding Jewish faith after the war:
" Rebbe, I asked, how can you believe in God after Auschwitz? He looked at me in silence for a long moment, his hands resting on the table. Then he replied, in a soft, barely audible voice, How can you not believe in God after Auschwitz? Whom else could one believe in? Hadnt man abdicated his privileges and duties? Didnt Auschwitz represent the defeat of humanity? Apart from God, what was there in a world darkened by Auschwitz? " (403).
They maintained a life that could be classified as "normal" in World War II Europe. Jews during this time regarded the actions of Hitler and the happenings of the Holocaust as a passing event. They survived this tragedy, as they had survived so many other devastations throughout the centuries, to regain common strength and reaffirmation of faith. Anne Frank viewed her experience as a stepping stone, and as an opportunity to teach the world. About her plans after the war she wrote,
" In the eyes of the world, were doomed, but if, after all this suffering, there are still Jews left, the Jewish people will be held up as an example. Who knows, maybe our religion will teach the world and all the people in it about goodness, and thats the reason, the only reason, we have to suffer If God lets me live, Ill achieve more than Mother ever did, Ill make my voice heard, Ill go out into the world and work for mankind" (257-258).