It was not uncommon for Jewish prisoners to attempt to record their experiences during the war, but in the environment of the concentration camps, it was nearly impossible. Rabbi Yehoshua Moshe Aronson, z”l, spent part of the war in Konin, a labor camp in western Poland, where he was able to write a detailed memoir. He survived the war, and so did most of his writings.
Today, a copy of his memoir can be viewed at Yad Vashem. I have seen sections of it, and the following story caught my eye.
“In the summer of 1942, a limousine came into the camp. Several SS officers stepped out of it, followed by a serious and grandly dressed old man with gold rimmed spectacles on his nose. The chauffeur unloaded six leather suitcases, each bearing its owner’s name. After the officers shook his hand, they bid him a courteous farewell and left. We all strained our eyes to observe this gladdening phenomenon within our benighted camp…”
The distinguished prisoner was Dr. Hans Knopf, an assimilated German Jew who was both a decorated World War I officer and a respected physician. He was given special quarters and was not subjected to violence or humiliation. He often dressed in his uniform, adorned with medals, and treated his fellow prisoners with condescension.
However, as time went on, the doctor began to realize that he shared the same fate as his brethren. He discovered that Rabbi Aronson was a rabbi, and he confided in him about his despair and disillusionment. How was it possible that such a devoted citizen could be treated this way?
By the spring of 1943, the doctor’s sense of Jewish identity had been completely transformed. With Pesach approaching, he took the great risk of baking matzos in his own room and insisting that a Seder be held, despite the dangers and difficulties involved. Now he was proud to tell his fellow inmates that he too had once conducted a traditional Seder.
Sadly, Dr. Knopf did not survive the war. When I read his story, I was struck by the greatness of every Jew. Instead of allowing himself to plummet into deep despair and anger at G-d the doctor lifted himself above his hardships to see the beauty of Yiddishkeit. If this is how a Jew with little religious experience can transcend his background, we certainly have an obligation to improve ourselves and strengthen our emunah.
There are many stories of religious revival in the camps. During the early years of the war, most concentration camp inmates were from Poland, and they soon lost touch with normal Jewish life. In 1944, as thousands of Hungarian Jews were brought to the camps, their vibrant Yiddishkeit rejuvenated the religious sensibility of many Polish prisoners. An account of one Jew from Łodz, who had long been non-observant, is recorded in a book called Hidden in Thunder by Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein:
“[The Hungarian Jews] turned our block into a Galician-Hungarian kloyz… where Jews prayed overtly, studied, sang and danced. This outpouring of prayer, song and recitation of Psalms had a good influence on me. Although I had spent many years in a different spiritual climate, far from religiosity, now—of all times—I derived contentment from Judaism… I felt like one of them… I hardly noticed how I was drawn slowly to their Hasidic melodies and dances. I penetrated their world so fully that no one would have recognized me as the former heretic.”
When I read such powerful testimonies, a simple thought crosses my mind: Not only did these Yidden remain faithful to Hashem, but their conduct had a profound effect on others with a less-thanpositive impression of their own heritage. It was precisely in those dire circumstances that their love and commitment to Torah sparked a fire in their brethren, drawing them closer to Hashem.
What can we learn from their example? Have we, in the land of freedom and liberty, been able to transform our lives through Torah and mitzvos? Do we fully appreciate our ability to serve Hashem without limit?
If the stories of the kedoshim help us answer “yes” to these questions, we are ensuring that they inspired not only their fellow inmates, but many generations to come.