Rabbi Meir Wikler
Yad Vashem only honors Holocaust’s secular victims Haredim have authored their own Holocaust history books, developed their own curricula to teach it to their children and are building their own museums to memorialize the martyrs.
By Meir Wikler • Ha’aretz
When Yad Vashem in Jerusalem opened its new wing, known as The Holocaust History Museum, in 2005, it was much ballyhooed as a state of the art, multi-million dollar Holocaust museum to top all others. While praise for the new museum wing has poured forth from dignitaries and laymen, the unified opposition of so-called ultra-orthodox, or Haredi Jewry, has stuck out like a sore thumb. Why have Haredim been so upset?
While Jewish religious life before World War II is illustrated at the museum, the testimony of haredi survivors is largely missing.
According to some experts, between 50%-70% of those murdered by the Nazis, were “traditionally religious Jews.” There is no reason to assume the percentage of survivors who were religious was any less. But in the rooms of Yad Vashem only one of the 50-60 video monitors playing taped testimonies of Holocaust survivors shows a Haredi Jew. By choosing to record and display taped testimonies of mostly secular Jews, Yad Vashem is giving a distorted picture of the religious affiliations of the survivors. This gives the false impression that few ultra-orthodox Jews survived the Shoah.
The spiritual heroism of the Holocaust is almost completely overlooked. The abundant examples of incredible courage to study Torah and perform mitzvot despite unspeakable suffering and incredible hardships are relegated to footnote status and all but eliminated from the museum. The clandestine yeshivot and Torah study groups in the ghettos, the lighting of candles on Channuka, the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashana and the daily donning of tefillin in the concentration camps – all under the penalty of death – are not mentioned at all.
The massive rescue work of Haredi Jewry has effectively been purged from the historical record of the Holocaust as presented by Yad Vashem. Rabbi Michoel Ber Weissmandl, for example, and the heroic efforts of his Working Group, are impugned and dishonored. Instead of crediting them with successfully delaying the transports from Czechoslovakia by bribing and outsmarting the Nazis, the paragraph written about them makes it sound as if they were the ones who had been duped.
Yad Vashem’s responses to queries on this subject have been disappointing. At one meeting, the Yad Vashem representative requested that the discussion be kept “off the record.” The institution’s written responses to published critiques have attempted to obfuscate the issue. The spokesperson cited, for example, the online services available to the Haredi community. They also pointed to the special Orthodox division of their tour guide training school and they emphasized how many Orthodox students make use of Yad Vashem archives for research purposes.
Yad Vashem’s underlying motives for all of this are open to speculation. Some Herdim believe that Yad Vashem feels that dealing more favorably with ultra-Orthodox Jews is antithetical to their secular, Zionist agenda. Others see this as a reflection of the anti-Haredi bias of some segments of secular Israeli society. And still others suspect that Yad Vashem simply suffers from the, “We know best,” mentality, so prevalent today in Jewish establishment circles.
However, there have been a few improvements made to the new Museum wing. For example, the immodest pictures of victims which were originally on display when the museum opened have since been removed. In addition, while the new building opened with no videotaped testimonies from any Haredi survivors, now there is one.
Unfortunately, these changes fall far short of what is needed. As the premier Holocaust museum under Jewish auspices, Yad Vashem dishonors the memory of the six million by continuing to present a distorted and incomplete record of the Shoah. No, not all those who perished in or survived the Shoah were Haredim. But many more Haredim did survive than the 2% represented by the one videotaped testimony currently on display.
In spite of the extremely rare but highly publicized Haredi use of Holocaust imagery against the State, the overwhelming majority of Haredim today take Shoah remembrance seriously. Yad Vashem, however, is seen by many as irrelevant. As a result, Haredim have authored their own Holocaust history books, developed their own curricula to teach it to their children and are building their own museums to memorialize the martyrs.
If many ultra-Orthodox Jews see Yad Vashem as irrelevant, why are some so outspoken in their criticism of the new Holocaust History Museum? Millions of visitors, both Jew and non-Jew, stream through Yad Vashem each year. The vast majority of them would never visit a Holocaust museum under Haredi auspices. Yad Vashem needs, therefore, to make further corrections to the new building for those visitors. And world Jewry must insist on it.
Yom HaShoah observances are designed to memorialize the martyrs. Nothing would honor their memory more, however, than being remembered as they would have wanted. We cannot save a single life that was lost in the Holocaust. We can, however, protest the distortions at Yad Vashem that dishonor the memory of religious victims because they can no longer do that for themselves.
Dr. Meir Wikler is a Brooklyn based psychotherapist, author and lecturer.
Meir Wikler is dishonest. He’s also a fool.
As I noted in May of last year in response to an ‘interview’ of Wikler in The Jewish Week [the quotes are from that 'interview' but are similar to what he wrote now above]:
1. “At least half, if not more, of all survivors were haredi.” This is complete hogwash. At the dawn of WW2, 2/3 of Warsaw’s Jews were secular. The number of secular Jews was even higher in Paris, Amsterdam and Denmark. And most of Budapest’s Jews were secular, as well. Even smaller cities like Munkatch had large secular populations. And all these areas had large populations of what we would call Modern Orthodox or Zionist Orthodox Jews, as well. The vast majority of Europe’s Jews in 1939 were secular or non-haredi Orthodox. There are to my knowledge no studies, no academic research, and no evidence to back up Wikler’s claim. But there is much evidence against Wikler. Satmar, Bobov, Klausenberg, Chabad and other American hasidic groups were broken by the Holocaust. Most of the people who today call themselves hasidim are descended from people who were secular or non-haredi-Orthodox after the Holocaust, but who were recruited by hasidic leaders, many of whom had difficulty getting a quorum for prayer in 1946.
2. “The description of Harav [Rabbi] Michoel Dov Weissmandel, of blessed memory, [who led an effort to save Jews from the Holocaust] depicts him as having been naïve and duped by the Nazis. The truth is just the opposite. He was a brilliant rabbinic leader who outwitted the Nazis at every turn.” All available evidence shows Rabbi Weissmandl – the Slovakian rabbi who was courageous and tireless as he tried to save Jews from the Nazis – was, in fact, duped by the Nazis and achieved little. The only way to interpret the evidence differently (besides lying, of course) is to say that the Allies would have allowed American and Palestinian Jews to give the Germans tens of thousands of trucks and other war supplies in exchange for Jews in the middle of war they were fighting against those Germans
3. “There are videotaped testimonies of only two haredi survivors in the New Wing of the museum. Compared with the 50 or 60 testimonies of non-haredi survivors, it gives the mistaken impression that hardly any haredi Jews survived, and by extension, that haredi Judaism did not survive the Holocaust.” I’ve known dozens of Holocaust survivors on three continents. They include parents of friends, Jewish communal leaders, Holocaust educators, simple Jews, and even a Nazi hunter. Only one or two could be honestly described as being haredi after the war. Before the war that number would be four or five, at best. What Wikler does is define haredi in terms so broad the word no longer has meaning. Therefore anyone with a onetime connection to the haredi community, no matter how tenuous it may be – even if that ‘connection’ comes from grandparent’s affiliation only, or even if that ‘affiliation’ comes from Wikler defining non-haredi Orthodoxy as haredi for the purpose of his argument – is defined by Wikler as haredi. That pumps up his numbers and allows him to lambaste Yad Vashem for, in effect, following the normative definition of the word and then acting on it. On top of Wikler’s behavior, there is the overall behavior of the haredi community that did survive the war. Their leaders generally refused to cooperate with Yad Vashem, which means haredim are underrepresented there – but not to the degree Wikler claims. The fault is not Yad Vashem’s – it is Yoel Teitelbaum’s and the other haredi leaders who refused to cooperate with it.
4. It isn’t just that haredim do not commemorate Yom HaShoah. For years, they did things that flew in the face of it, just as for years haredim refused to stand still and be silent for the one minute of silence observed for Israel’s fallen soldiers.
Past all this, Wikler ignores key facts that surely influenced and continue to influence Yad Vashem:
A. Haredim propagated and continue to propagate the most base and bizarre conspiracy theories to ‘prove’ Zionists collaborated with the Nazis and to delegitimize Israel. The ‘facts’ these conspiracy theories are based on are largely false, and the little that is true is taken out of context. They do this because the existence and success of the State of Israel is an existential threat to the validity of their theology.
B. Any fair representation of haredi behavior during the Holocaust must include the behavior of hasidic rebbes who ordered their flocks to stay in Europe and then fled, leaving their followers to die horrible deaths. The Satmar Rebbe did this. So did the Belzer Rebbe and his brother. So did the Lubavitcher Rebbe. And then there was Rabbi Elchanon Wasserman, a non-hasidic haredi leader who forbade his followers from fleeing Europe, even telling students not to accept offers to study at Yeshiva University in New York. Wasserman hated YU because it was Zionist and because it was Modern Orthodox. On a visit to New York, Wasserman himself turned down a teaching position there and went back to Lithuania. He and many of his students were killed by the Nazis shortly after.
C. There were rabbis – some haredi, some hasidic, some Modern or Zionist Orthodox – who refused to leave their followers and accompanied them to the killing fields and death camps. Most of them who survived came out of that hell as Zionist or Zionist leaning.
D. Scholars who study the haredi reaction to the Holocaust – including at least one haredi academic, Esther Farbstein – note that haredi rabbis’ strong opposition to Zionism before the war, coupled with Israel’s subsequent success and the poor behavior of the rabbis noted in section B above, largely account for the haredi community’s rejection of Holocaust studies and Holocaust memorials and its ambivalent and sometimes hostile relationship with Yad Vashem. And, as I noted in section A above, it is this cognitive dissonance that is the foundation for the bizarre anti-Israel and anti-Zionist conspiracy theories common in haredi communities.
Wikler lies with appalling regularity.
The sad thing is that haredi leadership and the haredi rank and file don’t even care.
Update 12:22 pm CDT – Here’s Yad Vashem’s response to Wikler’s lies:
Yad Vashem responds: We do pay tribute to Holocaust’s ultra-Orthodox victims Meir Wikler’s op-ed that the museum is biased toward the secular Jews who perished in the Holocaust is full of misinformation, writes Yad Vashem spokeswoman. By Iris Rosenberg • Ha’aretz
Meir Wikler’s latest article on what he perceives as bias against Haredim at Yad Vashem is replete with misinformation.
For example, Wikler says there is only one testimony of a Haredi survivor in the Holocaust History Museum; this is not true. He claims that blowing the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, donning tefillin, lighting candles on Hannukah “are not mentioned at all”. Again, this is false.
Rabbi Weissmandl and the Working Group’s efforts, under impossible circumstances, to rescue Jews are respected by Yad Vashem and all the guides trained here. It’s unfortunate that Wikler chooses to see insults and slights where none exist.
To state that “spiritual heroism of the Holocaust is almost completely overlooked” is wrong and misleading, demonstrating a perception unrelated to reality. Yad Vashem seeks to meaningfully impart the story of the Shoah in all its complexity and variety with a special emphasis on spiritual heroism. The activities of Yad Vashem – its museums, exhibitions, online material (viewed by over 12 million people last year), educational approaches, publications, and more – prove the contrary.
Wikler says that Haredim have authored their own Holocaust history books, developed curricula and teach their children. Indeed, for nearly a decade, an ultra-Orthodox department in Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies has been working closely with Haredi educators and leaders to prepare educational material such as the multi-volume textbooks Years Wherein We Have Seen Evil in Hebrew and English and seminars – at Yad Vashem and elsewhere – serving Haredi educators and students throughout Israel.
Sincere dialogue between Yad Vashem and the leadership of Haredi Jewry and their representatives over the years has resulted in productive educational activity with the Bais Yaacov and other Haredi educational systems, and many Haredim participate in seminars at Yad Vashem, in genuine partnerships with Agudath Israel of America and the Belz community in Israel, to name just a few.
To claim, as his headline does, that “Yad Vashem honors only Holocaust’s secular victims” is outrageous and can only be a result of an unfounded bias.
I invite Haaretz readers to join the hundreds of thousands of people, including Haredim and other Jews and non-Jews of all backgrounds, who visit the Holocaust History Museum, and other sites at Yad Vashem, and experience it for themselves.
Iris Rosenberg is the Spokesperson at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.