Jewish World Review / August, 1998 / Menachem-Av, 5758

An Understanding of the Holocaust in the Light of Moshe Prager's Sparks of Glory

Rabbi Nosson Scherman introduces JWR readers to a Chassidic chronicler of the Holocaust, a close confidant of David Ben-Gurion, and his unique perspectives on the the Six Million and the Nazis.

MOSHE PRAGER, A WARSAW JEW descended from the Chidushei HaRim, was an established young journalist when World War II broke out. He was one of the pillars of the Orthodox Jewish press in Poland -- an institution inspired by his cousin, the Gerrer Rebbe, Zt"l -- which served as a powerful educational and social force in restructuring the Torah community after the ravages and dislocations of World War I.

With the Nazi invasion, Prager became a secret correspondent for the Joint Distribution Committee (often referred to as the Joint) and convinced the American-based organization that, as an agency under the legal protection of a still neutral power, it was in a unique position to carry on relief and hatzalah (rescue) operations. Meanwhile, the Gerrer Rebbe was the Germany's Public Enemy Number One. Following their pattern wherever they conquered Jewish communities, the Nazis first tried to destroy the religious life of the then-helpless victims by burning and pillaging synagogues and yeshivos, and killing, torturing, or imprisoning the religious leaders. The Rebbe was in hiding from the Gestapo.

An old and intimate friendship with Stephan Porayski, director of the Warsaw Office of the Italian shipping firm Lloyd Triestino, made Prager a key figure in the attempt to smuggle the aged, ailing Rebbe out of Poland under the noses of the Gestapo. Prager approached Porayski asking him to arrange papers and passage. The Pole agreed, but only on the condition that Prager, too, accept a ticket to Palestine and save his own life as well. He did not want to leave his family, but his father and wife insisted that the rescue of the Rebbe was too vital a cause to be jeopardized by family considerations. If Porayski wanted Prager to go, then Prager would have to go. The miraculous rescue of the Gerrer Rebbe was accomplished and it became the subject of one of Prager's later books. The results of that daring feat are still unfolding in the rebirth of Ger in modern Israel, which began when the Rebbe arrived in Palestine.

"A Personal Mission: To Record ... "

Prager's family was wiped out in the Warsaw Ghetto, and it became a personal mission for him to salvage on paper the glorious history of Eastern European Jewry. During the war years he began carving a significant niche for himself in Israeli society. He was a very rare combination: an unusual literary and journalistic talent; a chassidic Jew steeped in the fervor and philosophy of Ger; a fighter in the Haganah; a brilliant thinker; a magnetic personality. He was perhaps the only one in the country who had entry without prior appointment to such disparate personalities as the sainted Gerrer Rebbe and secular political leaders such as David Ben-Gurion. He was a close confidante of such key figures in the secular life of the land as Shimon Peres, and, over the years, he used his influence to the benefit of the Torah community.

Ben-Gurion saw him as the "symbol of the eternal Jew," and sought him out as a bridge to the Torah community. Prager was thus helpful in convincing Ben-Gurion that no Jewish state could survive unless it recognized its link with history. To build a totally secular state, he argued, would be to build a society without roots; such a society would wither and die. Prager's role was thus as "midwife" of sorts in bringing about the agreement between the religious community, represented by Agudath Israel's Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Levine, and the Jewish Agency on behalf of the proposed State of Israel, guaranteeing official recognition of Shabbes, kashrus, rabbinical control over personal status, and exemption of yeshivah students from conscription.

The Nazis: More Than Race Hatred

It was in Warsaw under the Nazis that Prager began to realize the underlying motive behind the Germans' sadistic brutality to the Jews: race hatred, to be sure; but more: the hatred of what the Jews represented as a spiritual force, as well. He began to understand this as a result of incidents like the following:

Prager was leaving Joint headquarters when he saw a Jew, an ordinary man-in-the-street, walking and appearing to be in great pain. The man was badly bruised and Prager took him into the building to ask him what was wrong and to see if he could be of assistance.

"It's nothing," the man said.

After much coaxing, he told Prager his story.

He was walking down the street when two German officers accosted him and ordered him into an empty garage. There, for no apparent reason, they began beating him mercilessly. The Jew decided that he would endure the suffering without begging for mercy, without even screaming in pain. Mastery over his body might be denied him, but he would maintain his pride and dignity as a Jew. After a while, the Germans asked why he wasn't screaming. He remained silent. He realized that their purpose was to degrade him, to force him to scream and beg, and thus humiliate him. This doubled his resolve not to give them the satisfaction.

The beating continued until finally his torturers themselves began screaming hysterically at him --- almost begging him to cry out. Finally, they gave up and let him go. And it was very plain that he had defeated them.

Prager's research continued -- on a personal, anecdotal level, as a questioner and collector of experiences -- and on a deeper, philosophical level, as a historian who studied documents and looked for meanings in the senselessness that engulfed European Jewry. He came across many other bits and pieces of evidence that convinced him that he was on the right track.

A memo, sent by the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin to the Gestapo in Poland, said: the Nazis were willing to permit some Jewish emigration from Germany and Austria, because the assimilated, de-Judaized Jews, of Western Europe would simply blend into whatever country was willing to accept them; there was no danger that they would re-establish Jewish life in their new surroundings. From Eastern Europe, however, no escape was to be permitted. The Ost-Juden were too Jewish, too saturated with the values and ethics that was sworn to eradicate. They would rebuild their institutions and start all over again. This, Nazi Germany could not permit.

Prager cites, as further evidence, Hitler's letter written just before he committed suicide during the taking of Berlin. He wrote apologetically that he had not succeeded in carrying out the extermination of the Jews. Not succeeded? He had carried out the most barbaric, most efficient campaign of genocide in history! Yet he was apologizing for failure! In light of Prager's thesis, Hitler's remorse is quite understandable. The slaughter of the Six Million had not been sufficient to destroy Jewish influence and values because there were still enough Jews alive to rebuild. True, we have not nearly recovered from the Holocaust, but Torah life has developed to an unimagined extent, and its influence has penetrated areas that were closed to it even before the Holocaust.

Nazism: Destruction of Jewish "Conscience"

What then, is Prager's definition of German anti-Semitism? Firstly, it is not a new phenomenon. It is nothing more than the traditional hatred of the Jew that began when Abraham became recognized as the bearer of a unique set of values. The only truly new thing in Nazism was its harnessing of German efficiency and technology to the cause of anti-Semitism ... Zyklon B was merely the most effective tool yet invented for murdering Jews, but the cause it served was not at all novel.

Anti-Semitism was hatred of what the Jews represented. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, the nineteenth-century German philosopher, was not an anti-Semite, but his formulation of what the Jew represented became the raw material for the vile fumings of Hitler, Rosenberg, Streicher and their cohorts. Nietzsche differentiated between the "slave mentality" characterized by feelings of weakness, mercy, and kindness -- epitomized by the Jew -- and the "master mentality" characterized by strength, courage, brutality -- epitomized by the German. He saw Jews as the cultural force that had overthrown the natural order of Might Makes Right, the law of the jungle, and replaced it with a weakness. What is known as Western civilization and morality, he claimed, are in reality perversions of natural law and a violation of the ideal human order of domination by the strong for no other reason (for no other reason is necessary) than the fact of their strength.

Hitler, in his mad rantings, put it this way:

"It is true, we are barbarians. That is an honored title to us. I free humanity from the shackles of the soul, from the degrading suffering caused by the false vision called conscience and ethics. The Jews have inflicted two wounds on mankind --- circumcision on its body and 'conscience' on its soul. They are Jewish inventions. The war for domination of the world is waged only between the two of us, between these two camps alone --- the Germans and the Jews. Everything else is but deception."

So the genocide of the Jews was not at all comparable to the genocide of the gypsies, because the Final Solution transcended race. That is why, in the closing year of the war, Hitler diverted troops and transport from his deteriorating front lines to speed extermination of the Jews. If unable to win the victory of the Thousand Year Reich, he could at least exterminate the "slave mentality," his ultimate philosophical enemy. And it was not enough simply to murder Jews. They had to be humiliated, dehumanized, stripped of their dignity and pride in order to discredit their creed and the philosophy of life they represented.

Seen in this perspective, the epitaph that ''the Jews went like sheep to the slaughter" becomes all the more awful a distortion, because it implies that the Nazi atrocity is not told in the chilling words "Six Million" --- it also indicates that the master race succeeded in demonstrating its spiritual superiority over the slave race.

Biographer of the Soul

Against this background, Prager's work assumes a new dimension. He is more than a historian of the Holocaust; he is the biographer of the Jewish soul in its period of severest trial in many centuries, perhaps since the Churban Bais Hamikdash, destruction of the Holy Temple.

Prager's family was completely wiped out during the war. But, scholar, historian, and journalist that he was, he had the training and the tools to investigate the deaths and keep alive their memory and what they represented. And he had the unflagging will to do it. "I die every day and I am resuscitated again," he says. Fame, success, and prosperity did not dampen his determination to carry out his mission of capturing and preserving the truth of the past.

As soon as the war ended, he obtained permission to visit the Displaced Persons Camps of Europe. Many people were doing so in those days, but none of them were hearing the stories of the emaciated remains of Eastern European Jewry, for they could not be interviewed. The agony through which they had lived was too horrible to tell: to tell it was to relive it --- and how could one voluntarily enter hell again?

Prager's method was different. He lived with the liberated prisoners. For six weeks he lived in Bergen-Belsen, listening and gently probing until he became one of them and was able to elicit their stories. Always he sought corroboration and refused to settle for less than the most accurate version of events obtainable.

His research has continued to this day and has resulted in scores of articles and a shelf of books. He was probably the most widely read historian of the Holocaust in Hebrew and Yiddish, and his popularity spans all shades of the Israeli cultural and religious spectrum. His tales are not happy --- how could tales of the Holocaust be happy? Yet, Prager is popular despite the tragedy, pathos, and heartbreak of his stories. One reads him and feels drained --- yet elevated. He explains it best:

I looked at the tragedy of the Holocaust and I saw the Jewish people enveloped in fire. But we were like the burning bush in which G-d first revealed Himself to Moses. "The bush was not consumed." No matter what the Nazis did to us, we were not consumed. They did not win the war; we did because they are gone and we have rebuilt.

When I was last in the United States, I met the principal of a day school in Denver, Colorado. He told me that he was in Auschwitz when the war ended and for the last eleven days before the liberation, he lived by eating snow! He survived and he has been a mechanech (educator) for seventeen years. "The bush was not consumed." He symbolizes what the Nazis were trying to destroy, but he outlived them and he is bringing Toras Hashem to a new generation in America.

That is what my stories are about. The Nazis could kill us, torture us, destroy our bodies --- but their war was against our spirit and they could not destroy our spirit.

(From an interview with the author)

"Sparks... "

Prager's first collection of stories of Kiddush Hashem was Nitzotzei G'vurah, published in Israel in 1952. It was an immediate success and has gone through many printings. Chapters from Nitztotzei G'vurah have been printed in anthologies and are used in standard texts by all three Israeli school systems and by the Israel Defense Force. A long-overdue English translation, Sparks of Glory, has now finally appeared. Sparks of Glory contains twenty-eight chapters, all of them isolated stories of heroism. They show Jews -- in nearly all cases, ordinary amcho people -- reacting to desperate situations of hunger, danger, torture, pain, suffering. The more the layers of flesh were stripped away from them, the stronger their spirits became. As one of the countless unknown heroes of the book puts it, "We thought that our bodies were keeping our souls alive, but our souls were keeping our bodies alive."

The book makes it clear that the Six Million did not go like sheep. They went like great men. They perceived that the conqueror wanted to destroy their spirit, so they responded by keeping their spirit strong and vibrant. Of course, they didn't rise up in physical revolt. How could they? But they did react with almost unbelievable bravery and strength of neshamah, soul.

  • The Jews of Lublin were doomed to fall victim to SS Commander Glabochnik, a notoriously sadistic murderer. He herded them to the outskirts of the city until their backs were up against barbed wire. He ordered them to sing and ordered his troops to beat them savagely and push them backward against the barbed wire. Their flesh was torn as the barbs cut into them and they fell upon one another trampling each other. Then someone freed himself and began to sing: "Lomir zich iberbetten --- Let us reconcile... " but he sang alone. Then he improvised:

    "Mir vellen zey iberleben, iberleben, iberleben,
    Avinu Shebashamayim;
    Mir vellen zey iberleben, iberleben, iberleben."

    "We shall outlive them, outlive them, outlive them,
    our Father in Heaven;
    We shall outlive them, outlive them, outlive them."

    The bruised and bleeding mob rose and began singing and dancing the refrain. Glabochnik roared with laughter until he realized they weren't accommodating him; they were defeating him. He ordered them to stop. They continued. He panicked and pleaded, but the singing and dancing continued. The SS troops plowed in swinging whips and clubs and still the singing continued.

  • A simple Jew performed a miracle. All through the war he never missed a day of laying tefillin even in the death camps. Once he was caught by a German guard. The infuriated German threw him to the ground, ground one iron-studded boot into his stomach while scraping the skin off his face with the other, as the Jew lay on the ground, sure he would never get up again.

    "What did you think to yourself?" Prager asked this same Jew when he later related the story to him.

    "What's the difference ... ? I don't know ..."

    Prager pressed him until he finally answered, "All right, I said a verse from Psalms over and over again: 'See my suffering and my ordeal and forgive all my sins.' I repeated it over and over again, and it may be because of that that I was able to rise up and go on with my prayers ... "

  • Little Shmulik was brutally whipped by a Polish policeman because he sneaked out of the ghetto to buy extra food for Shabbos. He hid his terrible pain from his parents, but against his father's wishes made his way to the secret subcellar where Shabbos prayers were held. The Germans punished public prayer with death and the Jews didn't allow children to come, to protect the safety of all. But Shmulik came and knocked. The men thought it was the Gestapo and agreed to open the door and face death bravely. But it was Shmulik. They were outraged and his father slapped him. Shmulik could endure his pain no longer.

    "Will you beat me, too? Haven't I had my share of blows? I, too, am a Jew. I, too, want to pray!"

  • A humble little shamash smuggled a shofar into a death camp, organized a minyan on Rosh Hashanah, and blew the shofar. The guards came running and decided to make a spectacle of the shamash. They whipped him endlessly, mercilessly, and all the while he continued chanting the prayers out loud.

    "The righteous will see and rejoice ... and all wickedness will banish like smoke, for You will have removed the evil kingdom from the earth."

  • Rabbi Shem of Cracow was among those chosen at random to be condemmed to a special torture jail. He comforted his fellow Jews by asking them, "If each of us were given the choice at this moment to be the victim or the victimizer, which would he choose? Ribono Shel Olam, is there one Jew who would like You to turn him into a murderous gentile?"

    "Rabbi, Rabbi, I swear to you on the memory of my holy mother, even I would not want it."

    It was the Jewish Kapo.

Who Will Teach "Holocaust" to Our Children?

Who won? Who outlived whom? Was the bush consumed? There is agony and inspiration in Sparks of Glory, and the sum total is pride in Jews who faced death --- and worse --- like lions.

But it has enormous value for another reason, and it is to be hoped that we will not pass up the opportunity it presents us. The publicizers of the Holocaust have not been Torah Jews. The popular image that has been drummed into the minds of American Jews, and especially of our young people, is precisely the one that Prager fiercely opposes --- that the Jews went like sheep to the slaughter. Many young people here and in Israel hold the Six Million in contempt for that reason, especially during this era when violence and militancy are as American as apple pie.

At the same time, the children in our yeshivos are virtually untaught about the Holocaust. The reasons for this are many. A large proportion of the parents and faculties of our yeshivos are survivors of World War II Europe. The suffering of that period left physical and emotional scars on them that make it difficult if not impossible for them to teach the history of this period to their children and students. Then, too, the unprecedented bloodletting and barbarism raise excruciatingly difficult questions of hashkafah: How could G-d allow it to happen? What sins could have justified such punishment? Why was the cream of religious Jewry decimated when the principal sinners were surely found elsewhere? The list goes on. We are living in an age that is not prepared to accept anything without a full explanation --- but the ways of G-d are inscrutable. The response of many Gedolei Yisrael was outlined in the essay, "Questions Without Answers ... Faith Without Questions." But it is not a subject that is easy to teach and this is especially true when there is a distinct lack of English-language materials that are both literate and consonant with the Torah outlook.

For whatever reasons, however, the fact is that few of our young people have any knowledge of the behavior of their martyred brethren other than the sheep-to-the-slaughter stereotype. To further complicate matters, the non-Orthodox and left-of-center Orthodox have virtually monopolized the memory of the Six Million. It is they who commemorate the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and Yom Hasho'ah. The Torah camp cannot subscribe to the tenor of their observance and the "Never Again" ironfisted philosophy it represents. Then, too, much of the enthusiasm for Holocaust observances comes from people who would substitute Yom Hasho'ah for Tishah B'Av when, to us, the Holocaust is an outgrowth of the historic Tisha B'Av. This has caused a backlash effect resulting in too many Torah Jews ignoring or belittling the significance of formally preserving memories of the Holocaust, an attitude that has the terrible effect of Jews refusing to learn lessons of Torah and teshuvah from the destruction of the Six Million.

Rabbi Nosson Scherman, philosopher, historian, and author, heads Brooklyn-based Mesorah Publications, Ltd., the world's leading Judaica publisher, which has published several of Moshe Prager's works in English.


©1998, Agudath Israel of America