Religious Life During the Holocaust and After
YHE-SICHOT: SPECIAL ASARA BE-TEVET 5771 SICHA
In loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef v' Yocheved) z"l,
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Yossi and Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for Tzion and Yerushalayim.
For additional articles on Asara BeTevet, see http://vbm-torah.org/10Tevet.htm
Religious Life During the Holocaust and After
An Interview with Rabbi Yehuda Amital
Interviewers: Yael Novogrotzky and Billie Shilo
Translated by Kaeren Fish
Rabbi Yehuda Amital (Klein) was born in 1924 in Transylvania, at the time part of Hungary. Following the Nazi occupation he was taken to a labor camp where he remained for about eight months. He was liberated on Simchat Torah, 5705 (Oct. 9, 1944), and made his way to Eretz Yisrael as the only surviving member of his family. He continued his studies at Yeshivat Hevron and received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer. The day after the declaration of the State of Israel, he was drafted into the IDF and fought in the War of Independence.
Rabbi Amital studied and taught in Pardes Channa and, together with his father-in-law, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Meltzer, established Yeshivat ha-Darom in Rechovot. Following the Six-Day War he was invited to head the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Gush Etzion.
Rabbi Amital was one of the founders of the Meimad movement in 1988, and in 1995 he served as a government minister.
Following his withdrawal from political life, he once again devoted his full attention to his educational work as Rosh Yeshiva, and remained in this position until his retirement in his final years.
Tell us a little about your childhood.
We lived in Nagyvarad in Transylvania, in the Jewish Community building. My father was the community’s accountant and my mother ran a soup kitchen. I had a brother and a sister. I alone survived of my family. The culture was Hungarian, and we spoke Hungarian. I was a yeshiva student. My entire education consisted of four years of elementary school. I studied at a cheder and then at a yeshiva ketana that had been established by a Rosh Yeshiva who came from Lithuania, from the Mir Yeshiva. I was one of the prominent students at the yeshiva. Afterwards I found out that following the Nazi occupation, they took the Rosh Yeshiva to a labor camp. I remained in the city. I was at the yeshiva for as long as I was able. When the Germans came, at the beginning of 1944, they issued orders to put all the Jews in the ghetto; the place which afterwards became the ghetto was where I lived. They issued instructions as to how many people should be put in each room. I was in the ghetto for a very short time, and then I was sent to a labor camp. When I parted from my parents, my father told me, “I am certain that you will reach Eretz Yisrael.”
The labor camp was close to the city. We worked close to the front, preparing trenches and doing other jobs.
There were a few dozen of us who were religious, from among three hundred male prisoners in the camp. Most had families; I was one of the youngest. For half a year I didn’t see any Jewish women or children.
We observed kashrut the whole time. There was a certain period when we were sent to a town to carry out labor, under the supervision of two Hungarian soldiers – one an officer, the other a regular soldier. I didn’t know, but people who had money made sure that the religious [prisoners] would be sent to the same unit, so that we could also observe Shabbat. We carried out the work during weekdays, and ate kosher cooked food. During the three weeks we were, all our food was given to the Hungarian officers, and what was left over – potatoes and some vegetables – we cooked.
In the labor camp I was among the youngest. Many prisoners listed themselves as being ill so as not to go out to work. I told them, “Are you crazy? If there’s any chance of being saved, it will only be through the ability to work.” But nevertheless the possibility was available to them, so they bribed the camp commanders. One fine day they changed the entire staff of the camp. We had a very hard day. The military police came, and everyone who was listed as ill was sent to Auschwitz and to other camps. We remained there; they sent us to our city and we worked there on all sorts of jobs, sometimes hard labor: carrying sacks of cement to all kinds of places, or working in all kinds of agricultural labor. Afterwards word came that the front was approaching, that the Russians were getting closer, and the whole population and the army headed westward. Some of the prisoners were sent to Auschwitz.
We had a Hungarian commander who ensured that we remained there. On Yom Kippur eve we received orders to go back. We had a sefer Torah which we had brought out of the ghetto, before the expulsion to the [labor] camp. We took it along with us. We all carried the sefer Torah, taking turns, and we felt real upliftment.
Meanwhile the shooting was intensifying, to the point where the German soldiers guarding us ran away, because they were afraid that the Russians would capture them. And so we remained behind, and we got to the Jewish Community building, to the building where I had lived with my parents. We entered the cellar on Yom Kippur eve. We prayed on Yom Kippur in the dark. We had one machzor with us; one person read the prayers aloud, and thus we prayed with a minyan.
My whole concept of prayer comes from there. I saw people – fathers of children, men who had wives – they were alone, knowing that their families had been taken, but they didn’t know to where. And I said to myself, “How is it possible to pray?” We knew before then that the foundation of prayer is gratitude towards God. I said, “What gratitude? People are sitting here without parents, without children.” So I reached the conclusion – which I published later on – that service of God cannot be based on gratitude; there is something beyond that. “Though He slays me, I shall trust in Him” (Iyov 13:15). That is a higher level. That understanding was strongly imprinted in me then.
Young people can’t listen to this. They get upset when they read what I have to say. You take a young man or a young woman and you say that it’s impossible to base one’s Divine service on gratitude? They get upset: “What kind of religion is this?” But it’s a fact; I don’t hide it.
The day after Yom Kippur we were very hungry and we went to look for food. I went up to the apartment which had been my parents’. I was accompanied by my cousin, who had been with me throughout the period that I spent in the camp. The apartment was empty, but we found a piece of bread with mold. Of course, we rejoiced as if we had found a treasure.
Meanwhile we heard that the gate down below had been broken through, and they were shouting to the Jews to come out of the cellar. The German soldiers went in there, searching for partisans. Some of my friends shouted, “Yehuda, come down.” I was ready to go down, but my cousin said, “Don’t let them tempt you.” In the apartment there was a pantry. That’s where we hid. The soldiers started knocking and broke down the door of the apartment. I sat with my cousin and I said to him, “Let’s say the vidui (confession before dying).” He said, “No, let’s say Tehillim [Psalms].”
They went into every room, but they didn’t come into the room where we were. And thus we were miraculously saved.
What was religious life like in the camp?
We had to work also on Shabbat, except for those three weeks when we got to some village where we made an agreement with the soldiers that we’d finish our work before Shabbat. We even had a minyan on Rosh ha-Shana. We waited for the Russians to come; they didn’t come, and we stayed there. On Simchat Torah, in the middle of the prayer service, after the Torah reading, the Hungarian commander came in and said to us, “You’re free. Until now I’ve watched over you, now you watch over me.” I went outside and saw thousands of Russian soldiers. The Russians were in great disorder: some had uniforms, some didn’t. I kept shouting, “A Yid, a Yid.” I was looking for a Jew. And then a Jewish soldier went by, I think in a wagon. He yelled to me in Yiddish, “I am a Jew – we had a minyan on Rosh ha-Shana!” That same day we were liberated: Simchat Torah, 1944.
You chose to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael after the war.
The moment I was liberated, I told my friends that I wanted to go to Eretz Yisrael. They asked, “Where are you going?” They looked at me as though I was mad. We didn’t know what was happening in the world; we had no radio and no newspapers. Within two months I got to Israel [which was under British mandatory rule]. My grandfather and grandmother were in Israel, and also my uncles.
The first night of Chanuka I was in Aleppo, and that’s where I lit the first candle of Chanuka – on the train from Istanbul to Atlit. I got to Israel at the end of 1944, on the second day of Chanuka. That’s the day on which my whole family gathers together. We don’t celebrate birthdays, but we do celebrate the day I reached Israel. All our descendants come, all the grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I recount all sorts of memories for the children, as appropriate to their ages.
I didn’t want to go back to Europe. They offered me, at various opportunities, to go back to Europe; they even offered to pay for the entire trip. They wanted to get me to talk at all kinds of places, but I didn’t want to go back.
Where did you go when you got to Israel?
I arrived in Haifa, where an uncle of mine was living. He gave me overalls so I could start working. I didn’t go to work; I went to study at a yeshiva. They regarded me as something abnormal: You come to Israel and go to a yeshiva?
The first year after I came to Israel I went to visit Kfar Etzion, under the British Mandate, before the establishment of the State. On the way I met a friend who recognized me. In Hungary, during the difficult times, groups of us youths would sit together and think about what to do. He was related to the Rebbe of Vizhnitz, and he spoke about fleeing to Romania. I told him then that first, if Hitler was persecuting us, I don’t know what’s going to be in Romania; second, what chance do I have? He was part of the family of the Rebbe; I didn’t have any money or any connections. I said that at the very least we should prepare ourselves for Kiddush Hashem (dying in sanctification of God’s name). We should know that that’s it. At the time, he was angry at me because I spoke with such cynicism; then when he saw me in Israel, his first reaction was, “You were saved? Didn’t you preach about dying for Kiddush Hashem?” I answered him, “What do you want from me? What, am I guilty for surviving? That’s what happened.”
Do you know what happened to your family?
Only after the war I found out that my father was killed on February 15, 1945. I was certain that my father had been killed the day he reached Auschwitz; I knew the date he got there. Afterwards I found out that because he was 43, they took him for labor. They took him to a horrible, terrible camp – Mauthausen. Afterwards I started inquiring about what happened there. I thank God that my mother was murdered on the spot and didn’t endure all that suffering.
My younger brother, who was ten years old, was certainly killed on the spot. As to my sister, I received messages that she survived the Holocaust, but died after liberation. I know that she reached Auschwitz, and there was a rumor that afterwards she was in Sweden. I tried to find out about it, and I appealed to some of my friends in Sweden. I wasn’t able to find anything.
After the Holocaust you changed your name from “Klein” to “Amital.” What was behind that decision?
My name was Klein. In Hungary, it was a very common Jewish name. It doesn’t mean anything; now my name has more meaning.
There’s a verse that says, “The remnant of Yaakov shall be in the midst of many peoples like dew (tal) from the Lord, like showers upon the grass, that hopes not in man and waits not for the sons of men” (Mikha 5:6). I felt that this verse described our situation during the War of Independence. We were alone; we fought almost alone against the whole world. I looked for a name – “I shall be like dew for Israel” (Hoshea 14:6).
Did the fact that you’re a religious person help you to cope as a survivor?
After the war I was in contact with Abba Kovner a”h [a leader of the Vilna Ghetto revolt, and a kibbutz leader and poet in Israel]. Once we were both participants in a TV panel about the meaning of the Holocaust. He asked me, “Did you have problems with your faith?” I answered him, “I had problems? Your problems are even more serious. I believed in God; now, I don’t understand His ways. But you believed in man; now, do you continue to believe in man, after what you saw in the Holocaust? Truly, we both have a problem.”
Abba Kovner had a dream of creating a TV program. In one of our meetings he said to me, “People have become so far removed [from Judaism] – let’s do something with Judaism. I’ll discuss literature, you’ll discuss the Sages.” That idea lasted until one day he came and said, “Yehuda, the generation is lost to us. They don’t want to hear about Judaism.”
That was our last meeting. Afterwards he died. He ate himself up.
Did you have religious crisis points?
I can’t speak of crisis points. One lives in crises all the time. For me, every festival is problematic. On Simchat Torah, for example, I would speak at the yeshiva about the Holocaust [because it was the day of my liberation]; I couldn’t let Simchat Torah go by without mentioning the Holocaust. I spoke about it all the time. Every eve of Tish’a be-Av I spoke about it at the yeshiva; the subject occupied me.
Did it also affect your attitude towards prayer?
On the contrary – as Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi said, “I flee from You – to You.” I have no other option. I need God; without that I’m not able to exist at all. Without this faith I lose everything. But it’s not as people think, that when a Jew is religious then all the problems are solved. There’s no such thing. But I need His closeness. Just as a person cannot be alone, he seeks some intimacy, some anchor. For me, faith in God is that strong anchor.
Did the Holocaust lead you to new conclusions about your religious existence?
I don’t know about conclusions. Conclusions are a very big, very difficult subject. But it has to occupy us. The Holocaust isn’t part of our consciousness; people want it to be forgotten. What conclusions do we need to reach? I maintained the conclusion that I believe; that’s my personal conclusion. My conclusion is that I continue to believe in God. But the subject occupies me.
I pray, and I have problems. I think, sometimes, about how they prayed those prayers in Auschwitz. Once in a while I am reminded; on Yom Kippur, on Rosh ha-Shana, I say, “Ata bechartanu, You have chosen us from among all peoples; You have loved us and desired us” – and it occupies me. One of the things I ask myself is, How did people pray? I saw people who prayed after the war. Survivors who came back to the city and didn’t find their children, their families. I saw how they prayed, and I think about that all the time; how they prayed, “Nishmat kol chai tevarekh et Shimkha, The soul of every living thing will bless Your Name … for the kindnesses” – how they related to this. That occupies me. I don’t say that I have an answer, but that should occupy a thinking religious person. But I think people are afraid of these questions. Should we not address something just because it doesn’t have an answer?
Do you think that today, the Holocaust has ramifications for the religious world?
It has ramifications for every aspect of our life. Everything that exists in Israel is related to the Holocaust; everything is unconsciously influenced by the Holocaust. It plays a great role in our life in Israel – the whole existential fear, the [focus on] survival.
What, as you see it, is the place of the Holocaust in our religious world today?
In the early years, when I got here, I heard people say, “We don’t need to talk about it.” Once, when I was on a bus, a youngster was sitting next to me, from a secular kibbutz; he was a Holocaust survivor and began recounting what had happened to him. There was a Jerusalemite there who said, “They have to forget, not to think about all of that.” I couldn’t believe that. What a running away! Today, too, people run away from the Holocaust and won’t deal with the Holocaust – religious and non-religious alike.
Sometimes I encounter strange phenomena. They interview a religious person who says, “Why were some children killed there in a traffic accident? Because they didn’t observe Shabbat.” I said to him, “Okay, so you have an explanation for that, but why were millions of Jewish children killed? For that you have no explanation. So why are you trying to give a religious explanation? Be quiet.” It upsets me, but what can I do? Sometimes I keep silent.
How do you think [the inability to confront the Holocaust] finds expression?
People still think the world just carries on, in all the newspapers. They think that we’re living in this time like sixty years ago [before the Holocaust]. They don’t understand that something has changed in the world. Amongst religious people there’s still the same line that was there sixty years ago. That’s a sign that it’s difficult today to deal with the Holocaust.
What do you think should have changed?
The Holocaust should have occupied religious Jews, too. It should have been the main problem that we try to deal with. Today there’s a Judaism in which the Holocaust is not spoken about; people run away from the Holocaust. They don’t live the Holocaust, they don’t internalize the Holocaust. [I mean] the whole community – religiously and culturally.
All the years, and especially in recent years, I speak about the Holocaust at every opportunity. But I don’t hear other Jews talking. What does it matter whether I was there or not? They don’t speak about the Holocaust, it doesn’t occupy them. There are problems today; you look at what’s happening in the world of culture; they’re trying to explain that we [Israel] are like the Nazis. That also shows that they’re not okay with the Holocaust, and are looking for ways to ease their conscience. One may not say that Israel behaves like the Nazis. This whole comparison has no logical basis at all. What pains me is that there are Jews, too, who try to be universal and who also speak in this way.
Do you believe that the Jewish nation has an extra role in the wake of the Holocaust?
We have to bring across the Holocaust into human consciousness. This has to occupy us as human beings. Can we just carry on after everything that happened? Is it possible to carry on? Something happened. It demands of a person an emotional revolution, for a certain time.
Do you believe that we have more of a moral obligation than other nations, in the wake of the Holocaust?
I believe that it demands of us greater morality, greater attention to others.
As a rabbi and educator, where do you see the Holocaust’s influence on your educational approach?
First of all, I took upon myself to be a rosh yeshiva because I knew that I had to fill the place of my friends who did not survive. That [sense of mission] gave me the strength to do something. That fact that I was among the few who remained, that gave me strength. Otherwise I would not have taken upon myself such a role. I don’t come from a family of rabbis and leaders. My wife comes from a well-known rabbinical family. I come from a simple family; what business did I have building a large institution? I also took upon myself some public roles [as a minister in the Israeli government] a few years ago. I emphasized the moral aspect, and afterwards I was also in the opposition as far as a large portion of the Religious Zionists were concerned. What gave me strength was the fact that I must fill the place of others who did not make it there.
Everything I have said is only part of what I feel, but I’m not able to say any more.
For further reading: A World Built, Destroyed and Rebuilt – Rabbi Yehuda Amital’s Confrontation with the Memory of the Holocaust, by Moshe Maya, Ktav Publishing House and Yaacov Herzog College, 2005 (order here).
The Hebrew original of this interview, including an audio excerpt, can be found here:
A minute-long video excerpt is also available:
 The Hebrew original of this interview appeared in Yad Vashem’s online newsletter on Holocaust education, Zika, vol. 13 (Dec. 2007). Our thanks to Yad Vashem for allowing us to translate and post the interview.
The International School for Holocaust Studies, Yad Vashem, all rights reserved, 2007.