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Shapira Chanukah Sermon

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Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust

Jewish Religious Life and the Holocaust

What roles did religion play in the lives of Jewish people during the Holocaust? Less than half of European Jews actively practiced a form of Judaism at the outbreak of World War II, and religious Jews expressed piety and faith in a variety of different ways. This collection of primary sources explores a wide range of responses—communal, personal, and spiritual—to escalating persecution under Nazi rule. 

Jewish Religious Life and the Holocaust

On the eve of World War II, there was a range of important differences among Jewish people throughout Europe. Jewish people had many different regional histories, different experiences of oppression and freedom, different economic and social opportunities—and different cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions. Some Jewish people observed distinct religious and cultural traditions, while many were not religious at all. Others shared the same national cultures, languages, and self-identities as their non-Jewish neighbors.

Since the late 18th century, Jewish intellectuals and religious leaders had debated the impact that modern life in Europe was having on Jewish traditions. By the time the Nazi Party rose to power in Germany in 1933, Jewish religious and political groups had developed many different approaches to these questions.1 There was a vast spectrum of positions between those who believed in the strict preservation of Jewish traditions and those who believed that Jewish religious practices needed to be adaptable to modern life.2

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Jewish religous groups also varied politically. They included a wide range that included conservatives, liberals, and radicals. Many Jewish people were members of Zionist—and anti-Zionist—movements. Although there were many important differences among them, Jewish religious groups also shared some common characteristics because they shared the realities of discrimination and persecution.3

The growth and spread of antisemitism in Europe in the years between World War I and World War II—and especially the Nazi regime's state-sponsored persecution of Jews—posed fundamental challenges to Jewish life. Anti-Jewish laws in Germany directly affected Jewish individuals, families, organizations, and businesses in multiple ways. The Nuremberg Race Laws and other official policies legalized anti-Jewish discrimination and persecution. Jewish religious practices, synagogues, and emblems of faith often became targets of anti-Jewish discrimination and acts of violence. 

Persecution and genocide affected Jewish religious practices in a variety of different ways. Circumstances changed over time as Nazi anti-Jewish policies became more severe and deadly, and conditions faced by Jewish people throughout Europe were often very different. When the Nazi regime and its collaborators applied greater pressure, Jewish people had fewer opportunities to maintain and observe religious traditions.

Nazi ideology identified and targeted Jewish people primarily based on ideas about race rather than religion. Many people who had converted to a Christian faith and assimilated were still labeled as Jewish based on Nazi definitions of race. But many Nazi leaders, German officials, and collaborators also held antisemitic views whose roots sprang from traditional anti-Jewish prejudices based on religious bigotry. Because of this, much anti-Jewish discrimination and violence tended to focus on rabbis, religious institutions, and ritual articles as targets.

The efforts of religious Jews to observe religious commandments during this period of persecution often ran into difficulties that non-observant Jews did not face. Religious Jews and their leaders were confronted with unprecedented situations and dilemmas. Topics raised in this collection address the place of religious concerns in daily life, as well as the complex situations facing Jews during the Holocaust. What needs could religion serve under these conditions?

Because of the relative scarcity of sources, attempts to answer some questions—such as how many Jews belonged to each religious movement, how many people prayed in the camps, which Jewish holidays were observed, how many Jews followed the laws of Kashrut—inevitably fall short.4 Most Jews—especially those within the Nazi camp system—did not participate in traditional forms of religious activity during the Holocaust. Camp authorities banned Jewish religious practices, and any observances had to be done secretly. Since religious activities required effort and access to specific items, many religious Jews were unable to follow Judaic laws and traditions. Religious Jews were actually a minority among Jewish people in Europe on the eve of World War II, and non-observant Jews did not attempt to follow Judaic traditions. 

Nevertheless, materials presented in this collection spotlight some of the ways in which Jewish people managed to overcome obstacles to religious worship during the Holocaust. A Passover prayer from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp shows how scriptural laws were adapted to address shortages of ritual foods. Similarly, the widowhood release of Golda Leitman points to postwar efforts to cope with everyday problems created by the destruction of Jewish communities. Other sources underscore individual responses to catastrophe. For example, the memoir of a Jewish policeman captures one man's struggle with the moral and spiritual contradictions that he tried to navigate.

Religious Jews—whether living in hiding places, ghettos, or camps—tried to continue the patterns that defined their lives before the war while coping with the radically different circumstances forced upon them. For many Jewish people facing persecution under Nazi rule, the practice of religion played an important role in their struggle to survive.

To learn more about Jewish political history leading up to World War II, see David Vital, A People Apart: A Political History of the Jews in Europe, 1789-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

To learn more about the emergence of Orthodox and Liberal Judaism in Europe, see Robert Liberles, Religious Conflict in Social Context: The Resurgence of Orthodox Judaism in Frankfurt am Main, 1838-1877 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985); and Michael Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995).

To learn more about these shared experiences, see Dan Michman, Holocaust Historiography, a Jewish Perspective: Conceptualizations, Terminology, Approaches and Fundamental Issues (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2003), 251-299.

Kashrut is the collection of dietary laws in Judaism. See the related item "New-Kosher!" in Experiencing History for more details.

All 18 Items in the Jewish Religious Life and the Holocaust Collection

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