The Hallowed Dead


Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

— Ludwig Wittgenstein

The black-and-white photograph, taken in 1935, shows a woman identified as Esther Lapp posing with someone in an early Mickey Mouse costume. The image is part of an extensive collection depicting everyday life in a Jewish shtetl called Eishyshok in Poland from 1890 until 1941. There are studio portraits, class pictures and family photos, as well as images chronicling everything from birthday parties to civic group meetings. Many are now part of a permanent exhibition called the “Tower of Faces” at the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. The photographs have been carefully documented by date and occasion, with many of the individuals identified by name. There is a 1936 group portrait of kindergarten students dressed in costume for a Purim play. A photo taken in 1938 shows Hebrew school children working in a garden “in preparation for immigration to Palestine.” Another image shows a four-year-old girl feeding chickens in the front yard of her family’s summer home on the day German troops marched into Eishyshok in 1941.

There is a certain poignancy to any photographs depicting a vanished world, all the more so in this case because of what is not shown. Three months after that last picture was taken, all but a handful of the Eishyshok’s Jews were rounded up and murdered by the Nazi Einsatzgruppen in mass shootings over a two-day period, ending 900 years of Jewish history in that town. Among the survivors was Yaffa Sonenson, the little girl who had been photographed feeding chickens at her family’s summer home. She grew up to become Yaffa Eliach (her married name), a professor of Judaic studies at Brooklyn College and a member of President Carter’s Holocaust Commission. She collected 10,000 photographs of life in Eishyshok, many of them taken by her maternal grandparents, who were the town’s photographers. She also conducted nearly 2,000 interviews with former residents to produce a comprehensive history of Eishyshok entitled There Once Was a World. Her goal, she said, was “to create a memorial to life, not to death.”

Efforts by Holocaust survivors to come to terms with their experience are varied and complex. The psychological trauma has been well documented and can extend to the second and even third generations. Yaffa Eliach has chosen to memorialize the world the Nazis sought to eradicate. The writer Primo Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, was driven by a "need to tell," describing his experience with the precision of the scientist he had been trained to be. For the Hassidic leader Aaron Rokeach, the Rebbe of Belz in Poland, the response was utter silence, which extended even to a refusal to say prayers for the dead. His wife, children and grandchildren all died in the Holocaust.

U.S. rabbi Arthur Hertzberg remembered an unsettling encounter with Rokeach in Tel Aviv after the war. Hertzberg had come seeking information about relatives who had been Rokeach’s followers in Belz. But the Rebbe of Belz, who was rebuilding his Hassidic community in Israel, refused to respond in any way to Hertzberg’s inquiry, not even with so much as a gesture. Hertzberg was upset by the Rebbe’s strange behavior, but an assistant explained that those who had been killed by the Nazis were of transcendent holiness. Rokeach believed that any words said about them were irrelevant and might desecrate their memories. Accordingly, he responded the only way he knew how, with silence.

In writing about Rokeach and his own “quarrel” with God, Hertzberg noted that a number of his Orthodox friends had become fierce atheists because of the Holocaust. However, Hertzberg himself was saved from doing so because he kept rereading the Book of Job. It is not a work for those seeking easy answers to the problem of evil. In swift succession, Satan strips Job of every worldly possession, including his sons and daughters, with God looking the other way. Job’s wife urges him to curse God and die, but Job responds at first with almost unearthly detachment: “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away, blessed be the name of the Lord.” But then his so-called friends begin piling on, blaming the victim for the misfortunes that have befallen him. They assume he must have sinned greatly to deserve all this, but Job knows himself to be a righteous man. All he asks is that God give him an explanation for his suffering, but this is never forthcoming.

Hertzberg recalled as a young man having confronted the theologian Martin Buber in Jerusalem for arguing in the Eclipse of God that God had hidden his face from humanity during the Holocaust. Herzberg screamed that God had no right to absent himself while his family members were murdered by the Nazis. And yet he must have known from his reading of Job that God’s silence in the face of evil was not without precedent. The question is, how do we respond? We can curse God and die, as Job’s wife urged him to do. We can come up with lame justifications for the evil that occurs, as Job’s friends did. Or we can become militant atheists, like some of Hertzberg’s friends. But Job does none of these things. After he has at last exhausted his importuning, Job is left with a stark choice: God or no God. To choose God is to do so at the cost of everything he holds most dear in life. And yet for him there is no choice. In the face of God’s silence he responds the only way he knows how, by falling silent himself.

Arthur Hertzberg, "A Lifelong Quarrel with God," New York Times, May 6, 1990

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