Many questions have come to the fore in the matter of religion during the Holocaust. Some felt that God had abandoned them and did not understand how and why they deserved such suffering. They wondered about how the rabbis had not warned them; in fact, some of the rabbis had left and fled. Others experienced severe crises of faith and a few went so far as to abandon the faith.
On the other hand, religious people, or even some who were nonreligious or whose faith was shallow, found solace and mental fortitude during the Holocaust in religion as they could nowhere else. Instead of asking themselves why, they believed that there were answers for all the suffering that had been imposed on them - answers that transcended their understanding and that they had no right to seek. Their faith was so complete, so sincere, so deeply ingrained, that it constituted their very essence as human beings. The very fact of their being believers was their motivation. The Jewish traditions, prayers, and festivals were the pillars of their lives.
Words can hardly describe the power that these people derived from the faith, the moral strength that it gave them, and the difficulty in breaking their spirit as human beings even when their bodies could no longer endure the agonies. Jean Améry, writing about the phenomenon of faith in the Holocaust, remarked that believers transcended their own limits and, accordingly, were not bound to their existence as individuals. Instead, they belonged to a spiritual continuum that remained intact even in Auschwitz. In a certain sense, this may be likened to the ideologies in which people believed - Zionism, Communism, Socialism, and so forth. Religion, however, surpassed all of these. One can only contemplate this in amazement if not with jealousy—as one of the women in Birkenau, formerly a devout Communist, said after she had reached the brink of mental and physical collapse and was supported by a religious girl in her critical moments.
Religious women who adhered to their faith continue to observe the commandments and festivals as best they could. Many continued to “keep kosher” even in the camps. Sometimes they avoided soup if they thought it had been prepared with a chunk of meat, even though this was the only food served. They continued to pray, observe fasts, abstain from bread during Passover, and light candles for the Sabbath and on Hanukkah. They also tried not to work on the Sabbath, even though the Nazis might murder them if they discovered it. Some nonobservant Jews who shared their plight responded with incomprehension and anger, even considering their conduct an attempt to shirk the burden of labor and fearing that the Nazis would respond by acting against the entire group and not only against the Sabbath-observant. When they encountered problems that they did not know how to cope with, be it in sustaining their faith or in moral issues, religious women found ways to consult rabbis, and when rabbis were no longer available, they attempted to make decisions by themselves on the basis of the understanding and knowledge that they possessed. Staying alive and maintaining their humanness was their guideline.
Some of these women formed friendships on the basis of kinship or as former classmates or members of the same movement. The female alumni of religious youth movements and the Beth Jacob Seminary are particularly notable in this context.
Apart from maintaining their faith and continuing to observe religious customs, these women obtained moral strength from their faith. This affected their behavior in the inferno that they inhabited and enabled them to give and be considerate of others. It also prompted them to uphold moral strictures such as not stealing from others, showing forbearance, and so on. This is not to say that nonobservant women did not behave similarly, but rather that women who were motivated by their faith found it to be a source of support in this behavior.
Jean Amery, At the Mind’s Limits, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.