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Lecture #02: Before the Holocaust

  • Rav Tamir Granot

 

 

 

A.  European Jewry Prior to the Holocaust

 

CRISES AND TURMOIL: A review of the situation of European Jewry prior to the Holocaust usually creates the impression of outstanding vitality and creativity.  At the same time, it must be remembered that this was a time of great crisis in the world in general, and in the Jewish world in particular.  Powerful processes were unfolding: new states arising following World War I, the Soviet Revolution, the appearance and development of the Fascist and Nazi movements, and the economic crisis that followed WWI and reached its peak around 1930.

 

URBANIZATION AND ITS EFFECTS: A phenomenon of great importance for our discussion is the massive urbanization of Jews during this period.  This movement had begun earlier, of course; it had started already in the 19th century.  However, it was experienced most intensively during the period between the two World Wars.  Jews began leaving their small villages – shtetls – and heading for large towns and cities.  In Poland, for example, prior to WWI, 68 towns had a Jewish majority; there were many others that had sizeable Jewish populations.  In the 1930's about a quarter of all Jews lived in cities of a million or more inhabitants, while another quarter inhabited large towns whose inhabitants numbered between 100,000 and a million.  Thus, about a half of the Jewish nation was settled in very large population centers. 

 

Of course, this process had far-reaching ramifications.  In the new conditions of the city, it was very difficult to maintain the traditional lifestyle that had rested on the foundations of social cohesion, strong community, and clear boundaries separating the Jewish community from its gentile surroundings.

 

EMIGRATION: During the 42 years preceding WWII, some 30% of Europe's Jews left for other continents: America, Eretz Yisrael, etc.  While almost every third Jew was moving away from Europe, the Jewish percentage of the population of Europe nevertheless grew.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of the phenomenon of emigration in any survey of the Jewish situation during those years and continuing until our times.

 

NUMBERS: Before the outbreak of WWII, Europe was home to between 10-12 million Jews.  Poland alone had a population of some 3.5 million Jews.

 

COMMUNITIES AND ORGANIZATIONS: In most European countries, Jews had created strong communities and communal organizations.  This was particularly true in eastern European countries such as Poland and Hungary (but not in Russia, where the Communist regime set about dismantling Jewish communal structures).  The community organization also played an important role in setting the educational policy of the various streams.

 

STREAMS: In a very general sense we may distinguish the following streams in European Jewry:

1.        Charedi Jewry (Chassidim, Mitnagdim, and unlabeled observant Jews);

2.        Neo-Orthodox and Zionist Orthodox;

3.        Reformist movements (Reform, Conservative, etc.) – numbers in decline in Europe;

4.        "Civic" Jews – secular, with a tenuous Jewish national identity;

5.        Zionists;

6.        Socialists;

7.        the "Bund."

 

B.   Orthodox Jewry

 

Obviously, whatever was happening to Jews in general also affected the Orthodox sector.  Nevertheless, we may point to certain processes and phenomena that affected this sector in particular, or had specific relevance to it.

a. Loss of hegemony: In general, we may say that around the time of WWI, Orthodoxy ceased to be the leading force of Judaism.  It had lost its hegemony in central and western Europe a half a century previously, and around this time the process was completed in Poland, too.

b. WWI: This was a traumatic time for Jews, and particularly for the Orthodox sector.  The horrors of the Holocaust have come to overshadow the preceding period, but the fact is that the results of WWI were far-reaching for the Jews of Europe.  During the war, more than half of Europe's Jews lost their homes and became nomads, while many communities were either utterly destroyed or attacked and pillaged.  Thus Jewish centers, communities, synagogues, yeshivot, and Chassidic courts lost their bases of activity.  It seemed to many people at the time that Orthodox Jewry would not recover, but such forecasts proved false.  There was a speedy rehabilitation into the new, modern and urban reality that arose at the end of the war.

c. Division and rapprochement: While the currents between the different groups within Orthodox Jewry flowed in different directions, the prevailing trend was one of rapprochement and assimilation between them.  This was especially true of the great reconciliation that began to take shape in various spheres between Chassidic Jewry and Lithuanian-Ashkenazi Jews, as we shall see below.  Unquestionably, the effect of the "common enemy" – the Enlightenment and (secular) Zionism - played a decisive role in this process.  In light of the new challenges presented by these movements, the different sectors of Orthodox Jewry came to realize that what united them was greater and more important than their issues of controversy.

d. Agudat Yisrael: In 1912, the first Agudat Yisrael conference was held in Kattowitz, Poland.  This movement brought together the most prominent leaders of the Chassidim (such as the Rebbes of Ger, Alexander and Sochaczew); the Lithuanian leaders and Roshei Yeshiva (such as the Chafetz Chayim and Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski); and the heads of Orthodox Jewry in Germany.  Those excluded were mainly the spiritual leaders of Galicia and Hungary, and in the east – Chabad.  Agudat Yisrael created the model of Orthodox Jewish leadership that is maintained amongst the ultra-Orthodox sector to this day: decisions made by a Council of Torah Sages, and mediated and executed by community activists on their behalf.

e. The Yeshiva became the dominant institution in Orthodox education, thereby also attaining prime status in the religious ethos of this sector.  Following the precedent of the Lithuanian yeshivot and those of the Musar movement, there arose Chassidic yeshivot, too – first among Belz and Chabad communities, and then spreading to Ger and Sochaczew and the rest of the Chassidic world.  This was further indication of the rapprochement and consolidation of forces between the Lithuanians and the Chassidim.

f. Entry of girls into the educational system: The agreement on the part of the "Imrei Emet" (Rebbe of Gur) and the Chafetz Chaim to the establishment of the Beit Yaakov girls' schools signaled a fundamental paradigm change with regard to education.  It reflected the recognition that education in the modern era could not rest solely on the pillars of tradition and communal structure – structures which had lost their power and vitality.  Both the yeshivot and the Beit Yaakov network reflect the diminishing status of the home and the community, which had played a central role in the old world.

g. Modernization and conservatism: In general, the Orthodox leadership followed a conservative line.  Some rabbis permitted their followers to study a profession and a foreign language (e.g. the "Imrei Emet" of Ger) while others opposed this trend (Chabad, Munkacz, the leaders of Belz and Sanz).  For the most part, though, there was no deliberate cultural assimilation – at least in theory.  In practice, a speedy process of modernization swept many Chassidic homes in its wake, and the new social reality (urbanization), along with the need to make a living and the absorption of the values endorsed by society in general, soon had their effect on Orthodox society as well.

h. Zionism: The most important and most sensitive ideological issue was that of Zionism.  Agudat Yisrael opposed Zionism in its official form, but adopted a pragmatic approach to aliya and settlement of the land.  The Rebbe of Ger recommended aliya for those Chassidim who possessed the necessary means, and in practice there were also many leaders of Ruzhin and Sochaczew who conveyed the same message.  On the other hand, for some of the heads of yeshivot, such as Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, and for some of the Chassidic leaders, such as the "Minchat Elazar" of Munkacz and Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson of Chabad, even indirect support for the Zionist enterprise represented heresy.

 

C.   Did the Jewish Spiritual Leadership Anticipate the Holocaust and Prepare for It?

 

This controversial question is surrounded by differing opinions as well as by some misconceptions.  It is an important question and one worthy of the effort to arrive at an orderly response.

 

Could the Holocaust have been foreseen? Seemingly, the answer should be 'yes.'  Anyone who paid attention to what Hitler yimach shemo was saying, in his speeches and in his writings, would have had ample evidence of his explicit intentions.  Even if some of his demagoguery preceded his election and could have been interpreted as nothing more than populist rabble-rousing, it was clear from the moment that he took the reins of government in Germany and began to promote his campaign of antisemitic legislation and action that he was carrying out his previously declared intentions.  Indeed, with his rise to power there began a massive emigration of Jews from Germany to the US and to Eretz Yisrael.  This movement slowed around the years 1935-6, but picked up again in 1937-8, with the intensification of antisemitic attacks.  Does the fact that so many German Jews left the country prove that anyone could have known? In this regard, many people point to Ze'ev Jabotinsky and his speeches throughout Europe, warning again and again of the imminent catastrophe facing the Jews of that continent.

 

Despite all this, I am inclined to accept the argument of Prof.  Yaakov Katz that this clarity comes with hindsight, and that an authentic re-creation of the processes and events in their historical context leads us to the conclusion that it would have been difficult to imagine the Holocaust as a serious possibility.  We know that the weight given to declarations by leaders, and their proper interpretation, is largely context-dependent.  Who could honestly have imagined that Hitler's venomous statements, delivered to gatherings of various associations and groups, were any more than expressions of hatred and belligerence, that there was the remotest chance that anyone in the enlightened world would allow them to be fulfilled, that there would be an operative plan for their realization, and that he would attain power? All of these barriers, along with many others, prevented an accurate reading of the early signs.  A reading of the declarations by Jabotinsky and other leaders who are often cited as warning of the Holocaust, demonstrates that even the most chilling predictions failed to envision a deliberate, systematic, all-encompassing annihilation of Europe's Jews.  Such leaders spoke of disasters, expulsion, casualties of war, etc. – but not a "Final Solution."  Finally, the bald fact is that the Holocaust was truly an event which, until it happened, was truly unimaginable.  Only after it actually took place was it possible to conceive of it, and to learn that what seems altogether unimaginable and impossible can in fact happen.

 

Within the religious world, too, there are various leaders who are often cited as having foreseen the Holocaust.  Here, too, I am inclined to believe that none of them seriously envisioned what was going to happen.  Statements of an apocalyptic style are not rare in religious exhortations and discourse, and they are not generally meant as evaluations of operative significance.

 

The words that are perhaps most often cited in this context are those of Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman in his article, "Ikveta de-Meshicha" (The Footsteps of the Messiah).  This article, published in 1937 – two years before the war – became a sort of ideological manifesto in some circles, and it was reprinted several times after the war as an example of the vision of Jewish leaders which preceded the events and predicted them with great accuracy.  Below we shall examine the main parts of his article.

 

D.   "Ikveta de-Meshicha" – the Article by Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman Hy"d

 

HIS LIFE: Rabbi Elchanan Bunim Wasserman ("Reb Elchonon") was born in Birz, Lithuania, in the year 5635 (1874).  Around the year 1890 his family moved to Boisk (in Latvia), and he went to study at the yeshiva of Telz, under Rabbi Shimon Shkop and Rabbi Eliezer Gordon.  He was recognized as an "ilui" (genius) and after a few years of study at Telz he went to study with Rabbi Chaim of Brisk.

 

In the year 5659 (1899), Rabbi Wasserman married the daughter of Rabbi Meir Atlas, who served at the time as the rabbi of Salant.  In 1903 he established the Amitchslav yeshiva in Russia.  In 1907 he arrived in Radin, studied at the "Kollel Kodshim" of the Chafetz Chaim, and became the latter's leading disciple.

 

In 5670 (1910) he accepted the position of Rabbi of the city of Brisk, and eleven years later he established his yeshiva for young men - "Ohel Torah" - in Baranowicz.  Rabbi Wasserman was close to Rabbi Yosef Rosen (the Rogachover) and to Rabbi Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky, who was his brother-in-law.  His book "Kovetz Shiurim" has acquired the status of a classic Torah text in yeshivot with a Lithuanian orientation. 

 

Rabbi Wasserman was murdered in the Holocaust in the year 5701 (1941), in the Ninth Fort at Kovno.

 

 Rav Wasserman

Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman

 

 

 

PUBLIC ACTIVITY: Rabbi Wasserman was opposed to Zionism, and he wrote an open letter to the rabbis of the Mizrachi movement explaining his reservations.  His speech denouncing the movement and his letter to its rabbis were published in Part I of his book Kovetz Ma'amarim, in which he sets forth his philosophical approach.  He corresponded on communal matters with the Chazon Ish and with Rabbi Yosef Rosen.  While in Radin he happened to study for a brief period with Rav Kook, and although he disagreed with Rav Kook's ideology, when the latter fell ill he sent him a letter inquiring after his health.

 

Rabbi Wasserman was one of the rabbis of Agudat Yisrael, and one of the most prominent leaders of the movement.  At the "Great Conference" of 5696 he led the minority view that opposed the Partition Plan.  His view was rejected once it became clear, following the many discussions, that most of the rabbis supported the establishment of a Jewish state, even in just a small part of Eretz Yisrael.  Rabbi Wasserman eventually became a figure of adulation amongst the ultra-Orthodox community, both because of his death in sanctification of God's Name, together with his students, and because of his view of historical reality, to be presented below.

 

His language is forthright and direct, sometimes blunt.  Rav Zvi Yehuda Kook could not forgive Rabbi Wasserman for his harsh statements about his father, Rav Avraham Yitzchak Ha-Kohen Kook, and would declare – as reported to me by one of his students – that he showed respect to Rabbi Wasserman only because he was a martyr.

 

Ikveta de-Meshicha

 

Rabbi Wasserman was one of the personalities who molded the perception of the final period in the life of the Jewish nation in exile, including the period of the Jewish state, as "Ikveta de-Meshicha":

 

1) We may indicate several periods in the history of the Jewish nation: the period of the Tannaim, the period of the Amoraim, the period of the Savoraim, the period of the Geonim, the period of the Rishonim, etc.  The final period is referred to in the holy writings as "the end of days," and the Gemara refers to it as "ikveta de-Meshicha," the footsteps of the Messiah (Sota 49b), or "chevlei Mashiach," the birthpangs of the Messiah (Ketubot 111a).  The concept of the "end of days" includes the period immediately preceding the redemption and the redemption itself, while the "footsteps of the Messiah" or the "birthpangs of the Messiah" refers only to the final period of subjugation.[1]

 

The ancient term coined by Chazal is of great significance for an understanding of Rabbi Wasserman's historical approach, and it should be contrasted with the term commonly associated with Religious Zionism – "at'chalta di-ge'ula," the beginning of the redemption, or "reishit tzemichat ge'ulateinu," the beginning of the flowering of our redemption.

 

The concept of the "beginning of the redemption" expresses a view of the modern era as a constructive stage on the way to the final redemption. It entails a positive view of our historical reality, seeing in it the Jewish nation’s development and progress on the way to redemption.

 

The term "footsteps of the Messiah," although also denoting proximity in time to the redemption, expresses a completely opposite view of the period.  For the Jewish nation, the modern era - and especially the period between the two World Wars - looked like a general, almost catastrophic, crisis and disintegration, especially as pertaining to the spiritual situation.  The disintegration of traditional society, the loss of the communal structure, the Enlightenment, Reform, assimilation, and finally Zionism and Communism, all represented a multi-pronged attack on faithful Judaism, endangering the continuation of Jewish existence in accordance with Torah and the commandments.  If we add to this the reality of economic distress, WWI, emigration, and pogroms, intensified in the 1930's with racist antisemitism, the murderous decrees, and Stalin's persecution, we are faced with an extremely grim picture, which Rabbi Wasserman identified as a descent to the nethermost depths.  Chazal, in the final mishna in Sota and in the Gemara ad loc., describe just such a situation and refer to it as "the footsteps of the Messiah."

 

Rabbi Wasserman identifies our period as "the footsteps of the Messiah" not only because it conforms with the symptoms described by Chazal, but because it fits in with his general philosophy of history as well.  Prior to God's revelation and the redemption of Israel, there must be a period during which we come to see that all other means proposed for the redemption of Israel and of the world are worthless.  Only after the ascent of all the other "isms" – Zionism, liberalism, Socialism, etc., and their negation from within history, when they are successively shown to be empty and powerless – only then will God's redemption unfold:

 

All of the above verses establish that prior to the redemption, the Jews will be misled into various forms of idolatry, in each period devoting themselves to different ones.  What is the nature of the idolatrous worship that they will engage in? Firstly, we must understand the meaning of the concept of "idolatry."  Any matter that appears to a person to operate independently of God's will, and as having beneficent or malevolent power, falls within the category of idolatry ("this one beneficent and this one malevolent" – Sanhedrin 61b).

Let us review all the forms of idolatry that they have worshipped in the last hundred years. First, there was the Berlin enlightenment – or, more accurately, the Berlin foolishness - from which they hoped for all-encompassing salvation.  When the winds of liberalism began to blow, the Jews quickly arranged themselves in the front lines of its defenders.  After liberalism lost its luster, they turned to democratism, Socialism, Communism, and the other "isms" that have showered down on our generation in such abundance.  To these idols they offered sacrifices of creeping things – in both senses of the term.  They all proved worthless.  Not a single one of these forms of idolatry fulfilled the hopes that had been attached to it.  Moreover, each of these "isms" died a quick death and suddenly disappeared.

 

The crisis of Jewry in general, and of Orthodox Jewry in particular, is the inevitable outcome of the dizzying ascent of other world-views and their seeming success.  While they succeed, faithful observant Judaism suffers greatly – but they are destined to collapse, simply because they are based on lies.

 

How are we to understand the connection between the spiritual crisis and the growing antisemitism and suffering befalling us?

 

Firstly, claims Rabbi Wasserman, the era of "ikveta de-meshicha" is compressed.  Periods of time are shortened.  The heavenly angel appointed over human history realizes, as it were, that time is short, and that he must finish up both communal and personal accounts:

 

18) The Chafetz Chaim taught further: The changes that take place in the world today within a short time, used to take hundreds of years.  We see that the wheel of time is spinning at lightning speed.  "What has God done to us?" (Yirmiyahu 5:19); why are conditions changing in this way? Concerning these questions, the Chafetz Chaim taught: Since the time of Creation and until today, endless accounts have piled up.  Before the Messiah comes, these accounts must be settled, because the redemption will remove the evil inclination, and thus all matters of this world that pertain to the battle waged against the evil inclination will be cancelled.  Therefore, every person must settle whatever debt he still owes God.  Since the time of the Messiah is very close, it is imperative that this process be speeded up.  From the day that the Chafetz Chaim, z"l, expressed this view, the pace of events in the world has grown even faster.  Overnight, literally, things have happened that previously would have taken many generations… It is as though the wheel of time is accelerating under pressure from an external command: "Hurry up!"  Anyone with intelligence can understand that we are living in a special period, which is destined to change the entire world order; day by day, the pace grows faster…

 

Secondly, Divine Providence operates in history in accordance with the principle of "measure for measure": our sins become the very rod that strikes us.  How is this principle realized in the historical reality of the 1930's?

 

In these times, Jews have chosen two forms of idolatry before which to offer their sacrifices.  They are Socialism and nationalism.  The ideology of the new nationalism may be defined succinctly: "Let us be like all the nations."  Nothing is asked of a Jew but national feeling.  One who carries shekels and sings Hatikva is exempt from all the commandments of the Torah.  Clearly, this approach is considered idolatrous in the eyes of Torah.  These two forms of idolatry have poisoned the minds and the hearts of Jewish youth.  Each has its leadership of false prophets, in the form of authors and speakers, who perform their work faultlessly.  A miraculous feat has been accomplished: in the heavens, these two forms of idolatry have been fused into one – National Socialism (i.e. Nazism); they have been forged into a terrible staff of wrath that beats Jews all over the land.  The impurities which we worshipped come to beat us.  "Your own evil will afflict you" (Yirmiyahu 2:19).

 

Jewish nationalism (i.e. Zionism) views itself as an alternative to Jewish religious existence.  Nationalism is not only a historical movement; it is a cultural and spiritual ethos motivated by the thought that normalization of Jewish existence will solve the problem of antisemitism.  On the other hand, Socialism adopts a universalist approach that negates the nationalist element.  Rabbi Wasserman identifies the contradiction at the heart of the Nazi party's self-definition: nationalist socialism is not possible.  The temporary alliance between Stalin and Hitler was an alliance of two megalomaniac fascists, not between nationalism and Socialism.  From a religious perspective, all of this was simply the irony of God's Providence which had forged these two "isms," with their throngs of Jewish supporters, into a single synthetic approach whose central ideal was antisemitism.  In other words, neither normalization through nationalism nor universalism through Socialism could solve the Jewish problem.  On the contrary, they created an antisemitic monster that was far worse than its predecessors.

 

How are We to Determine our View of History?

 

Rabbi Wasserman introduces his article as follows:

 

If we wish to grasp the essence of the events in our lives, we must seek verses and statements that pertain to the period of "ikveta de-meshicha," i.e., the period of transition between exile and redemption.  If we compare that which is written to what is taking place, we see in the Torah – as though through a clear glass – all that is happening to us, and all the reasons for it.  Everything that is stated in those verses is being realized, and everything that is being realized was foreseen.  Let us start reading the Torah.

 

Similarly, Rabbi Wasserman introduced his speech at the "Great Conference" of Agudat Yisrael in 1937 by quoting his master, Rabbi Yisrael Meir ha-Kohen of Radin – the Chafetz Chaim zt"l:

 

The brilliant and saintly Chafetz Chaim z"l said that if there is a time when, concerning some matter, a person is unable to decide what to do, he is advised to inquire of the Throne of Glory, and to receive his answer from God Himself.  We may ask – how is this possible? The Chafetz Chaim says that every person has the power to inquire of the Holy One, blessed be He, and to receive a response.  In other words, he has the Torah, in which he will find the solution to all the questions in the world.  For instance, if some association arises and declares that it will bring salvation to the Jewish nation, while other people come and argue that through this association suffering will come to the Jewish nation, heaven forefend, then how are we to ascertain the truth? Or, for example, an individual concerning whom some people speak in favor, while others denounce him – how can we know the truth?

 

Concerning all of these questions, the clear answer must be sought in the Torah.  First, we must investigate the actions of this association, or this Jewish individual, and thereafter we must consult the Torah concerning such actions. 

 

The Chafetz Chaim would often offer a parable: If Reuven tells Shimon that his face is dirty, and Levi comes along and declares that Shimon's face is sparkling like the sun, then the best advice is for Shimon to go to a mirror and there he will discover the truth.  Similarly, if there are differences of opinion, we should go to the Torah, which is our mirror, and there we shall see clearly the truth.[2]

 

Rabbi Wasserman's position, in the name of the Chafetz Chaim, may be presented as follows. The entire historical situation demands a decision on our part as to how we should respond and act.  The answers should be sought in our sources – the Torah, the prophets, the teachings of Chazal and our early masters.  Reality gives rise to questions, and the Torah provides the answers.  The simple assumption is that every question presented by historical reality has its answer in the Torah.  This in turn rests upon a further assumption – that every possible reality has already been taken into account by the Torah and the Sages.  In other words, there cannot be a reality that is altogether different and unexpected, for then the Torah and our tradition would be deficient, and we would not know how to respond.  Our actions are dictated, then, by the range of situations described in our tradition and by the guidance that it has always contained.  Reality itself introduces nothing that is new.

 

The central principle for the interpretation of history is taken from Tanakh. It is, of course, the rule of reward and punishment, or more accurately – "measure for measure."  Suffering and punishment come about because of our sins: this is the ultimate explanation for the situation of the Jewish nation in Tanakh, and Rabbi Wasserman sees no reason to deviate from this view.  His methodology necessarily brings him back to the established mode of thinking.

 

The extreme or "compressed" nature of the suffering may be understood on the basis of the Chazal's "prophecy" concerning the period of the "footsteps of the Messiah."  However, identification of the situation as such does not invite any original response on our part, since the turmoil and suffering are inherent to this period, and we can only wait for God's salvation.  This being so, and because our suffering is caused by our own sins, we can be redeemed only through repentance and Torah study.  The inescapable conclusion is that Am Yisrael must strengthen its ancient values, separate itself from the nations, and fortify its institutions of Torah and its performance of the commandments.  Then there will be no need for Divine retribution, and we will be ready for the future redemption.

 

E.   Did Rabbi Wasserman Foresee the Holocaust?

 

What arises from the above excerpts, as well as from other writings by Rabbi Wasserman, is a realistic and very sober perception of reality.  Rabbi Wasserman understands exactly what the situation is, and he warns of what is to come.  Indeed, many of his students regard his words as proof of his Torah insight and his ability to foresee the future.

 

However, with humility and with acknowledgment of Rabbi Wasserman's greatness, I seek to raise the following question.  We know that, just prior to the war, Rabbi Zerach Warhaftig set off from Eretz Yisrael as an emissary to Europe, and offered aliya certificates to Rabbi Wasserman and the students of his yeshiva.  They discussed the severity of the situation, which was a known fact, but Rabbi Wasserman refused.  Would he have refused to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael had he known that within two years, he, together with the students of his yeshiva in Baranowicz and all of his community, would be murdered? If he had known that Polish Jewry would soon cease to exist, would he not have urged his students to emigrate – and even done so himself – during the years preceding the war?[3]

 

Rabbi Wasserman's analysis, as presented here, indeed perceived the situation as one of crisis, and he clearly anticipated trouble.  However, I permit myself to assume that he was thinking of events like the Kishinev pogrom or perhaps some aspects of what had happened during WWI.  Ultimately, in their descriptions of "ikveta de-meshicha" the Sages did not speak of absolute destruction, of annihilation within such a short time, nor anything close to it.

 

We cannot know what Rabbi Wasserman would say were he still with us.  The teachings of his students and those who continued his ideological path, such as, for instance, Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, will be the subject of the next lecture.  It is possible that he would still maintain that "a judge has nothing to go on but what his eyes see," and insist that at the time of his decision, he acted correctly.  Perhaps he would admit to having been mistaken in his evaluation of the situation, but would nevertheless maintain his approach, or perhaps he would change his view completely, as did Rabbi Teichtal and others.  What I find difficult to accept is the claim that he knew in advance what was going to happen.  Such a claim may bring him glory by attributing to him prophetic powers, but at the same time it renders his decisions unbearable on the human level and in terms of his leadership.

 

Appendix: From a Description of his Final Moments by Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, an Eye-Witness

 

Reb Elchonon's facial expression reflected seriousness, yet conveyed normalcy, and his speech gave away no change in the sense of personal introversion.  He even made no attempt to attempt to take leave of his son, Reb Naftali; rather, his entire self was directed, in those moments, towards the Jewish people as a whole.  He spoke thus:

 

"In the heavens we are apparently regarded as righteous people, for we have been chosen to atone, through our physical selves, for the Jewish nation.  Therefore, we must engage in complete repentance, and immediately … time is short.  The way to the Ninth Fort (where the martyrs of Slobodka-Kovno were slaughtered) is near, and we must keep in mind that through our repentance, our sacrifice will be held in greater favor.  No improper thought should enter our mind, heaven forefend, for it would be like a blemish, invalidating our sacrifice.  We are now fulfilling the greatest mitzva. "You set fire to it, and through fire You are destined to rebuild it" (from the Tisha Be-Av prayers).  The fire that burns our bodies will be the fire that will return and revive the house of Israel."  (Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, Responsa Mi-Ma'amakim, part II, siman 177)

                     

 

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 



[1]  The article "Ikveta de-Meshicha" has been published in several different editions.  The citations here are from the newest edition, published by Yeshivat Or Elchanan, entitled Kovetz Ma'amarei Ikveta de-Meshicha (Jerusalem, 5762), pp. 291-328. The entire Hebrew text of the article (from a different edition) can be found here:

http://www.daat.ac.il/daat/ezrachut/tsiyonut/ikveta.pdf.

[2]  As recorded in the Torah journal Ha-Pardes 11:1 (5697).

[3]   Great controversy surrounds the issue of the certificates and the extent to which it would practically have been possible for Rabbi Wasserman to leave, either with or without his students, following the outbreak of the war.  Owing to the multiplicity of views and the inaccuracy of some reports, I prefer to steer clear of this question.