Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust

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Oral History by Yaffa Eliach, 1982

Yaffa Eliach's work Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust presents an interesting and well-documented collection of tales that, had it not been for the assistance and enthusiasm of Eliach's students in Brooklyn, might have not come to fruition. Eliach's tenacity in following up on each tale collected is admirable, and the work is the result of a project that lasted six years. Interviews were conducted in nine languages and several dialects, all translated by Eliach. Eliach's work demonstrates the typical wit and anecdotal style that is associated with Hasidic storytelling. "The very nature of the Hasidic tale made it a most appropriate literary form through which to come to terms with the Holocaust and its aftermath," she wrote. The role that women play in these tales is very evident—their bravery, religious conviction, and love for family show the strong and important position of women in Hasidic life. The stories provide a means of coming to terms with having to face unspeakable reality.

The foreword of the work provides a good explanation on the origins of Hasidism. This is a must-read section for those unfamiliar with Hasidic tradition, a tradition filled with a strong belief in humanity and God. The glossary and notes at the end of the work give the reader excellent explanations for uncommon terminology. The collection is divided into four sections, three representing stages of life in the concentration camps and one depicting life for survivors after World War II. The first section, "Ancestors and Faith," reflects stories about the power of one's departed family members. These stories depict the first stage of concentration camp life, the belief that God will always protect and the spirits of loved ones will carry camp inmates to safety. In "Hovering Above the Pit," Rabbi Israel Spira believes that he has been carried aloft by his ancestors over a large, open grave. The stories powerfully relate the strength of unrelenting faith. Religious services are carried out, despite the penalty of death, and traditions survive the worst of conditions, as seen in "The Zanzer Kiddush Goblet."

In the second part of the collection, entitled "Friendship," relationships in camps begin to develop. Loneliness and loss have provided a means for many to accept others as "sisters" or "brothers." In "What I Learned at My Father's Home," a woman named Bronia gives away her last white bread to a rabbi dying. By doing so, she saves his life. Simple words, as heard in "The World Needs You," save a rabbi's life, and quick thinking saves a cousin in "Stars." In "The Mosaic Artist's Apprentice," an elderly Polish Jew saves the life of a 13-year-old boy by lying for him. Adoption of others was not an uncommon practice, and placing one's own life in danger for another became regular practice, such as in the tale, "A Girl Called Esterke."

"The Spirit Alone," the third part of the work, contains representations of those barely clinging to life—human skeletons whose spirit could not be trampled by the Nazi regime. Senseless murders and other evil actions committed by the SS and the Gestapo are overcome by deep, unflinching faith. The Nazis especially liked to use Jewish holidays for particularly disturbing methods of inflicting fear and taking lives, such as represented in "Even the Transgressors in Israel." Wisdom, spirit, and faith never disappear, even when one is in deep pain, as evidenced by the Zaddik of Belz in "Death of a Beloved Son" when he states, "How can one mourn the death of an individual, even a beloved son, when one is overwhelmed by the collective pain of a nation mourning its six million dead!"

The fourth section, "At the Gates of Freedom," contains stories of survivors who are left to suffer alone as they return to empty or destroyed houses, decimated villages, and the taunts of hateful townspeople who have taken over Jewish property. Many camp survivors leave for America, as in "The Plague of Blood." Some deny their own Jewish heritage. In "Puff …" one of the most pious Hasidic men turns to the former enemy whom he now considers to be "the future." Still others refuse to let go of their religious upbringing or those who have left it return, as in "The Grip of the Holy Letters."

Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust is a collection of stories that exemplify the power of the human spirit, the will to survive, and the immense capacity of man to overcome seemingly impossible odds. They serve as a connection between the past to overcome the reality of the present and to carry the faithful into the future.

—Cynthia A. Klíma