By Rabbi Andrew Davis
When we talk about the Shoah many people instantly think about Ghettos, Auschwitz, the gas chambers and destruction. It is important to remember that there were far more complexities to the Shoah and one of the most complex issues was resistance. The most famous act of resistance was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which saw the Jews of the Jewish Underground of Warsaw fighting the Nazis for 28 days. However, this was not the only type of resistance in the Shoah. One form of resistance that started long before this Uprising and continued until the end of the Shoah was that of spiritual resistance.
From the start of the Shoah, Jews had to try to continue living their lives in the best way possible. However, the Nazis had obviously put many obstacles in their way which made this very difficult. Some of these obstacles were physical and some were spiritual. However, for many pious Jews their faith was never lost, as seen in the many acts of religious resistance that have been documented. Some of these acts were simple such as the quest for Kosher meat in the ghettos, which in Warsaw even ended up with Jews smuggling livestock into the Ghettos in order to ensure proper shechitah (slaughtering) took place. Another proof of the continued plight for acceptable religious practice was the responsa of Rabbi Ephraim Oshry in the Kovno Ghetto, published in 1959 as Sefer Shealot V’Teshuvot MiMa’amakim.
One question posed to Rabbi Oshry was should the sick of the Ghetto hospital fast on Yom Kippur in 1941? The patients wanted to ‘join all of Jewry in fasting and in praying that God show mercy on His people and redeem them from the devouring German enemy.’ This alone shows the spiritual resistance felt by the people of Kovno at the time. However, Dr Zakharin told Rabbi Oshry that fasting would endanger his patients’ lives. Rabbi Oshry was informed that the people knew that fasting would make their condition worse, yet they remained adamant. In fact, the Doctor told Rabbi Oshry that it was not just the religious patients who wanted to fast, but even patients who had never fasted before on Yom Kippur who wanted to join with the rest of Am Yisrael.
Rabbi Oshry wrote in his responsa how this shows that even in the darkest hour the Jews still remained faithful to Hashem and were even prepared to sacrifice their lives in order to worship Hashem ‘with all their heart and soul’. However, as this was clearly a matter of Pikuach Nefesh (life or death situation), Rabbi Oshry ruled that the patients were forbidden to fast.
When remembering the Shoah, it is important to remember that the Jews who were persecuted by the Nazis had to continue with their lives as best they could. For many, religion was the way to survive, as seen in this example of religious adherence. Perhaps this year on Yom HaShoah, when we remember those murdered at the hands of the Nazis, we should remember how even in the darkest hours many of these Jews did not abandon Judaism, but clung to it. Therefore, in their merit, we should consider how we can improve our own adherence to Torah and Mitzvot.
From Bnei Akiva UK’s Sefer HaSefirah