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Shapira Chanukah Sermon

1 of 13 Collections in

Jewish Perspectives on the Holocaust


Jewish Religious Life and the Holocaust

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

On the eve of World War II, European Jewry consisted of many groups. Jews differed in terms of their regional and national histories, experiences of oppression and freedom, economic and social opportunity, and cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions. Whether religious or secular, Jews cannot be regarded as a single entity.

Since the late eighteenth century, Jewish intellectuals and religious leaders had debated the meaning of European modernity for the Jewish tradition. By the time the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, European Jews' understanding of "religion" had been well defined.1 They occupied a wide spectrum of positions between those that saw themselves as true to the Jewish tradition and those that believed that Jewish religious practice needed to adapt to societal change.2 Reform and Orthodox Judaism, respectively, formed the poles of this spectrum.

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Religious Jews and their organizations also varied politically, spanning from conservatives to liberals to revolutionaries. Many were members of Zionist and even anti-Zionist movements. Despite this political diversity, different Jewish religious groups shared common characteristics because they shared the reality of oppression. Depending on the local context, coping mechanisms and practices might have been slightly different.3

The resurgence of antisemitism in Europe in the interwar period, and especially the state-sponsored persecution of Jews following the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in 1933, posed fundamental challenges to Jewish life across Europe. Anti-Jewish laws in Germany affected Jews directly: the Nuremberg Laws and other legislation took aim at Jews and their organizations. However, as Kristallnacht made clear, the essence of being Jewish was under assault. The dramatic escalation of anti-Jewish sentiment in Nazi Germany had profound implications for Jewish religious practices and other aspects of faith and belief. 

This collection deals with Jewish religious life in the shadow of this threat, which eventually turned genocidal. The concept of "religious life" refers to the practice of observing religious commandments, holidays, and rituals. Questions of theology and Jewish philosophy are related to religious life, but this collection addresses them only in passing. They are vast realms with their own separate topics and documents.4 Instead, the sources presented here speak to Jewish religious life in its historical context during and after the Nazi period.

Persecution in its various forms—eventually including mass murder—affected Jewish religious practices in varying ways and to varying degrees. The greater the pressure from Nazis and their collaborators, the smaller the space Jews could create or maintain for observing religious commandments. Still, the Nazis' attitudes toward Judaism were complex. On the one hand, until Kristallnacht in November 1938, Jewish religious life in Germany was rarely subject to overt attack. While religious antisemitism has a long history in Europe, and the Nazis built upon longstanding religious antisemitism, Nazi ideology targeted Jews primarily as a race, not a religious group. For that reason, many Jews who had converted and assimilated were labeled Jewish based on a Nazi definition of "race" and thus found themselves targets of anti-Jewish laws. Yet, many officials in the Nazi leadership as well as many anti-Jewish activists, sympathizers, and collaborators, whose antisemitism derived from religious and other more traditional prejudices, tended to focus on rabbis, religious institutions, and ritual articles as targets of their assault. They saw Judaism, exemplified particularly by the Talmud, as the source of "Jewish stubbornness" and other kinds of wickedness.

The efforts of religious Jews to observe religious commandments during this period of persecution often entailed 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.5 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.6 Most Jews, especially in the camps, did not participate in traditional, pre-war forms of religious activity since religious Jews were a minority among European Jewry on the eve of World War II, and since religious activity required effort and energy, which was difficult for Jews to marshal under extreme persecution.

Nevertheless, materials presented in this collection spotlight some of the ways in which Jews attempted to overcome obstacles to religious worship. A Passover prayer from the Bergen-Belsen camp illustrates how scriptural laws were adapted to address shortages of ritual foods. Similarly, the Widowhood Release of Golda Leitman, points to religious Jews' postwar efforts to to cope with everyday problems created by the decimation of their communities. Other sources underscore individual responses to catastrophe. The memoir of a Jewish Policeman, for example, captures one man's struggle with the moral and spiritual contradictions imposed by genocide.

Religious Jews in hiding places, ghettos, and camps tried to continue the patterns that defined their lives before the war, while coping with the radically different circumstances forced upon them. The existence of Jewish religious life implies a lifecycle that came into being within the cycles dictated by the Nazis. The significance of religion within that forced reality stands at the center of this collection.

The concept of religion itself was the product of European modernity. As a result of a number of specific historical and cultural developments, Enlightenment thought had construed the realm of Christian faith and belief, previously permeating everyday lives of most Europeans, with a heavy focus on the individual and the private sphere. This posed significant challenges to non-Christian belief systems and practices (Judaism and Islam, among others). For an overview of Jewish political history since the French Revolution, including the implications of the emancipation, see David Vital, A People Apart: A Political History of the Jews in Europe, 1789-1939 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

For two most important 19th-century developments, the emergence of Orthodox and Liberal Judaism in Central 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).

Among the common characteristics, the following should be listed: a connection to the community and the synagogue; seeing the rabbi as a spiritual leader; living as close as possible to a certain center that provided the basic religious needs of the community; a close connection to the Jewish calendar (Sabbath, Jewish holidays, fasts and memorial days); relying, fully or partially, on a codex of customs and commandments; a need for ritual articles and religious books, and a deliberation of questions of faith. See Dan Michman, Holocaust Historiography, a Jewish Perspective: Conceptualizations, Terminology, Approaches and Fundamental Issues (London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2003), 251-299.

A great deal has been written on the theological effects of the Holocaust on Judaism and religious Jews. See, for example: Eliezer Berkovitz, With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Death Camps (New York: Hebrew Publishing Company, 1979); Shmuel Boteach, Wrestling with the Divine: A Jewish Response to Suffering (Northvale, NJ: Aronson, 1995); Reeve Robert Brenner, The Faith and Doubt of Holocaust Survivors (New York: Free Press, 1980); Steven T. Katz, Shlomo Biderman and Gershon Greenberg, eds., Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses During and After the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

Halacha is the body of Jewish written and oral law and includes commandments guiding everyday life. Core texts include the Talmud and the Torah.

Kashrut is the collection of dietary laws in Judaism.

All 14 Items in the Jewish Religious Life and the Holocaust Collection