Analysis of Jewish religious observance in Nazi occupied Europe during World War II, 1939-1945 / Berta Stein Bienenstock
Includes bibliographical references (p. 501-516)
Problem. This study examines the nature of religious observance by Jews during the Holocaust in Nazi occupied Europe 1939-1945. Modifications of traditional Orthodox Judaism by laymen and rabbis utilizing both written and oral sources are presented and analyzed. Methodology. Written memoirs and rabbinic responsa from various libraries were surveyed for references concerning adaptations of the practice of Orthodox Jewish ritual. Holocaust survivors were randomly selected to be interviewed if they had witnessed or participated in reactive, adaptive religious behavior. Their statements transcribed from informal interviews described a wide range of religious experiences. Adaptations of religious observance during the Holocaust are contrasted with normative Orthodox ritual behavior as depicted by the researcher. Findings. Attempts to practice traditional Orthodox Judaism were thwarted by religious aspects of the anti-Semitic campaign of the Third Reich. Although Nazi anti-Semitism was predominantly racial, obvious religious overtones were manifested in the destruction of Jewish religious organizations and institutions and in the desecration of holy ritual places and objects. Formal Nazi legislation in greater Germany and the informal enactments in the territories reflect this antireligious sentiment. A hostile environment precluded routine observance of Judaism and was most keenly felt on the Sabbath and the major festivals. The scanty diet devoid of holiday fare, illegality of prayer service, and the onerous daily work schedule limited the celebrations drastically. Survivors, in written and oral reports, indicated that the timing of the intensive Aktions (aggressive acts) was frequently scheduled to coincide with the most revered Jewish holidays. In the face of mass extinction, physical and spiritual resistance took on new forms as did the concept of martyrdom. Rabbis, often pawns in the selections, were rarely available for consultation and spiritual guidance. From the ranks of surviving clergy, a small number formally responded to halachic questions. The principles of sheat hadichak (emergency) and pikuach nefesh (saving lives) influenced their decisions and provided halachic guidelines for legal adaptive behavior. With or without rabbinic sanctions, religious practice during the Holocaust stripped of its layers of customs, was motivated by spiritual inspiration, and dedicated to the preservation of the Jewish tradition.
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