Archived posting to the Leica Users Group, 2004/04/18

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Subject: [Leica] OT - Jeff Jacoby Article
From: sam at (Sam)
Date: Sun Apr 18 22:14:58 2004
References: <>

The following is off topic, but is worth reading--

Sam S

*Faith in the depths of Hell*
Jeff Jacoby

   The order to kill every pregnant Jewish woman had been issued that 
morning.  So when a Nazi guard patrolling the Jewish ghetto in Kovno 
noticed a pregnant Jew walking past the local hospital, he shot her at 
point-blank range. She died on the spot.
    Hoping to save the baby, some passersby rushed the dead woman into 
the hospital. An obstetrician determined that she had been in her last 
weeks of pregnancy, and said that if surgery were performed immediately, 
her baby might be rescued.
    But could such surgery be squared with Jewish law, which is 
stringent in its concern for the dignity of the dead?  If the baby 
didn't make it, the mother's body would have been mutilated for nothing.
    The question was put to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a young rabbinical 
scholar.  He didn't hesitate.  "When saving a life is involved, we are 
not concerned with the desecration of the dead," he ruled.  Besides, if 
the murdered mother could speak, wouldn't she welcome the "desecration" 
of her body if it would assure her baby's survival?  He ordered the 
operation to proceed at once, and the baby was born alive.
    Then came a horrifying postscript.  "The cruel murderers . . . came 
into the hospital to write down the name of the murdered woman. . . . 
When they found the baby alive, their savage fury was unleashed.  One of 
the Germans grabbed the infant and cracked its skull against the wall of 
the hospital room.  Woe unto the eyes that saw this!"
    This case from May 1942 was one of many that Rabbi Oshry was called 
upon to decide during the Nazi occupation of Kovno, Lithuania's 
second-largest city.  He recorded the heart-rending questions that were 
brought to him in brief notes on scraps of paper, then buried the scraps 
in tin cans.  Someday, he hoped, those scraps might be found -- evidence 
that even in the midst of the Nazi inferno there were Jews who clung to 
their God and His law, refusing to abandon Him even as they must have 
wondered whether He had abandoned them.
    More than 90 percent of Kovno's 40,000 Jews were killed in the 
Holocaust -- either by the Germans or by their Lithuanian 
collaborators.  Rabbi Oshry was one of those who survived. After the war 
he retrieved his notes and began writing them out as full-length 
rabbinical rulings, or responsa.  These were ultimately published in 
five Hebrew volumes; in 1983 a book of excerpts in English -- /Responsa 
from the Holocaust 
<>/ -- was 
published by Judaica Press.
    I read /Responsa from the Holocaust/ soon after it came out, and 
found it deeply moving.  With the approach of Holocaust Remembrance Day, 
which occurs this year on April 19, I took it down from the bookshelf 
last week -- and again found it powerful and affecting.  The questions 
laid before Rabbi Oshry can reduce you to tears, but what is really 
extraordinary, I saw now, was that anyone would care enough to ask such 
questions in the first place.
    In October 1941, "one of the respected members of the community" 
asked Rabbi Oshry if he could commit suicide.  His wife and children had 
been seized by the Nazis, and he knew that their murder was imminent.  
He feared that the Nazis would force him to watch as his family was 
killed, and the prospect of witnessing their deaths was a horror he 
couldn't bear to face.  He begged for permission to take his own life 
and avoid seeing his loved ones die.
    Later that month, the head of another household came to Rabbi Oshry 
"with tears of anguish on his face."  His children were starving to 
death and he was desperate to find food for them.  His query was about a 
bit of property that had been left behind by the family in the next 
apartment.  The entire family had been butchered a few days earlier, and 
there were no surviving relatives.  Under Jewish law, could he take what 
remained of their belongings and sell them to raise cash for food?
    Next to such questions, answers seem almost superfluous.  (The rabbi 
did not permit the suicide; he allowed the neighbors' property to be 
taken.)  What is stunning is that men and women in the throes of such 
hideous suffering and brutality were still concerned about adhering to 
Jewish law.  In the lowest depths of the Nazi hell, in a place of terror 
and savagery that most of us cannot fathom, here were human beings who 
refused to relinquish their faith -- who refused even to violate a 
religious precept without first asking if it was allowed.
    Violence, humiliation, and hunger will reduce some people to animals 
willing to do anything to survive.  The Jews who sought out Rabbi Oshry 
-- like Jews in so many other corners of Nazi Europe -- were not reduced 
but elevated, reinforced in their belief, determined against crushing 
odds to walk in the ways of their fathers.
    Some Jews fought the Nazis with guns and sabotage, Rabbi Oshry would 
later say; others fought by persisting in Jewish life.  In the end, 
/Responsa from the Holocaust 
<>/ is a 
chronicle of courage and resistance -- and a profound inspiration to 
believers of every faith.

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