The order to kill every pregnant Jewish woman had been issued that morning. So when a Nazi guard patrolling the Jewish ghetto in Kovno noticed a pregnant Jew walking past the local hospital, he shot her at point-blank range. She died on the spot.
Hoping to save the baby, some passersby rushed the dead woman into the hospital. An obstetrician determined that she had been in her last weeks of pregnancy, and said that if surgery were performed immediately, her baby might be rescued.
But could such surgery be squared with Jewish law, which is stringent in its concern for the dignity of the dead? If the baby didn't make it, the mother's body would have been mutilated for nothing.
The question was put to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a young rabbinical scholar. He didn't hesitate. "When saving a life is involved, we are not concerned with the desecration of the dead," he ruled. Besides, if the murdered mother could speak, wouldn't she welcome the "desecration" of her body if it would assure her baby's survival? He ordered the operation to proceed at once, and the baby was born alive.
Then came a horrifying postscript. "The cruel murderers . . . came into the hospital to write down the name of the murdered woman. . . . When they found the baby alive, their savage fury was unleashed. One of the Germans grabbed the infant and cracked its skull against the wall of the hospital room. Woe unto the eyes that saw this!"
This case from May 1942 was one of many that Rabbi Oshry was called upon to decide during the Nazi occupation of Kovno, Lithuania's second-largest city. He recorded the heart-rending questions that were brought to him in brief notes on scraps of paper, then buried the scraps in tin cans. Someday, he hoped, those scraps might be found evidence that even in the midst of the Nazi inferno there were Jews who clung to their God and His law, refusing to abandon Him even as they must have wondered whether He had abandoned them.
More than 90 percent of Kovno's 40,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust either by the Germans or by their Lithuanian collaborators. Rabbi Oshry was one of those who survived. After the war he retrieved his notes and began writing them out as full-length rabbinical rulings, or responsa. These were ultimately published in five Hebrew volumes; in 1983 a book of excerpts in English Responsa from the Holocaust was published by Judaica Press.
I read Responsa from the Holocaust soon after it came out, and found it deeply moving. With the approach of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which occurs this year on April 19, I took it down from the bookshelf last week and again found it powerful and affecting. The questions laid before Rabbi Oshry can reduce you to tears, but what is really extraordinary, I saw now, was that anyone would care enough to ask such questions in the first place.
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In October 1941, "one of the respected members of the community" asked Rabbi Oshry if he could commit suicide. His wife and children had been seized by the Nazis, and he knew that their murder was imminent. He feared that the Nazis would force him to watch as his family was killed, and the prospect of witnessing their deaths was a horror he couldn't bear to face. He begged for permission to take his own life and avoid seeing his loved ones die.
Later that month, the head of another household came to Rabbi Oshry "with tears of anguish on his face." His children were starving to death and he was desperate to find food for them. His query was about a bit of property that had been left behind by the family in the next apartment. The entire family had been butchered a few days earlier, and there were no surviving relatives. Under Jewish law, could he take what remained of their belongings and sell them to raise cash for food?
Next to such questions, answers seem almost superfluous. (The rabbi did not permit the suicide; he allowed the neighbors' property to be taken.) What is stunning is that men and women in the throes of such hideous suffering and brutality were still concerned about adhering to Jewish law. In the lowest depths of the Nazi hell, in a place of terror and savagery that most of us cannot fathom, here were human beings who refused to relinquish their faith who refused even to violate a religious precept without first asking if it was allowed.
Violence, humiliation, and hunger will reduce some people to animals willing to do anything to survive. The Jews who sought out Rabbi Oshry like Jews in so many other corners of Nazi Europe were not reduced but elevated, reinforced in their belief, determined against crushing odds to walk in the ways of their fathers.
Some Jews fought the Nazis with guns and sabotage, Rabbi Oshry would later say; others fought by persisting in Jewish life. In the end, Responsa from the Holocaust is a chronicle of courage and resistance and a profound inspiration to believers of every faith.