In the diary that he kept in the Warsaw ghetto, teacher and educator Chaim Aharon Kaplan wrote, “In these days of our misfortune, we live the life of Marranos. Everything is forbidden to us, and yet we do everything.”
With these words, Kaplan expressed the struggle of the Jews to maintain their human spirit under the impossible conditions in which they found themselves under Nazi German occupation.
From their rise to power, the Nazis strove to exclude all Jews – men, women and children – from the human race. They did not recoil from any means to accomplish that goal, and implemented a policy of racist oppression and legalized terror against the Jews. The Jews were isolated, cut off, singled out and starved. The Nazi process of dehumanization eventually became a systematic campaign of extermination, wherein approximately six million Jews were murdered.
Everywhere the Nazi regime reached, it acted to rupture the very structures of Jewish life, both communal and familial. Among other steps, they attempted to annihilate the Jewish spirit and culture. Therefore, one of the Nazis’ first acts was the destruction of synagogues, and the outlawing of Jewish prayer and public assembly. Confronting this reality, the Jewish community found itself moving anxiously between self-preservation and disintegration, between dire crisis and persistent efforts to create communal frameworks that might facilitate continued physical and spiritual existence.
Under the subsistence conditions of the Holocaust, where life and death existed in such close proximity, many Jews naturally focused their efforts upon their own physical survival and that of their dear ones. In a world where murder had become the norm and brute force begat acts of unprecedented horror, many were unable to do more than struggle for mere survival. Yet, simultaneously, some were able to behave differently, and demonstrated astonishing spiritual strength during a time of persecution and death. Facing the disintegration of entire fabrics of life, they clung to the essence of existence and attempted to preserve life grounded in moral values, as well as a cultural dimension befitting a decent society.
Alongside externally imposed hunger, humiliation and isolation, the Jewish ghettos also contained self-initiated organizations for mutual aid and support, medical care and culture. Many mobilized to help those weaker than themselves. Throughout the entire period, there were Jews who displayed exemplary sacrifice in their attempts to save their brethren. In a reality where education was prohibited, small study groups were established in which children met covertly and studied with teachers, whose recompense was usually meager portions of food. Even under the harshest of conditions, Jews exercised creativity, wrote, prayed, issued religious rulings, and secretly observed their holidays. Youth groups and underground journalism were evident, as were impressive cultural undertakings, such as theatrical performances, lectures, literary evenings and poetry readings.
In January 1942, in the Vilna ghetto, archivist and Bund member Herman Kruk wrote in his diary, “Today I received a formal invitation from a group of founding Jewish artists in the ghetto announcing that the first evening of the local artistic circle will be held… in the auditorium of the Real Gymnasium at Rudnicka 6. A dramatic and vocal musical program will be presented… I felt offended, personally offended… Here, in the doleful situation of the Vilna ghetto, in the shadow of Ponar, where, of the 76,000 Vilna Jews, only some 15,000 remain – here, at this moment, this is a disgrace.” The Bundists decided to boycott the event, and in the streets of the ghetto Yiddish placards were hung, reading: “You don't make a theatre in a graveyard.”
However, some two months later, Kruk entered as follows in his diary: “Nevertheless, life is stronger than anything. In the Vilna ghetto, life begins to pulse again. Under the overcoat of Ponar, a life creeps out that strives for a better morning. The boycotted concerts prevail. The halls are full. The literary evenings burst their seams, and the local hall cannot hold the large number that comes there.”
Evidence of spiritual activity could be found even behind the barbed wire of the camps, helping the prisoners transcend the extreme existential hardships there. Jewish women, deported via Auschwitz to a labor camp in Germany, organized study groups in 1944. Each woman was asked to write down poetry from memory on a piece of paper, using pencils gathered painstakingly from the ruins of the bombed-out buildings where they labored. "After a few days we were seated in a circle writing, and a few days later held our first reading. We invited guests from the other blocks and declaimed grandly until we almost forgot where we were.”
Writing was also a way to preserve the freedom of the human spirit: Many Jews documented their lives. Artists and intellectuals, along with children and laymen, described the shattering horror of the war through words and pictures. Some wrote out of their will to preserve the memory of the tragedy for future generations, as a final testimony. Others viewed writing as a means of venting and expressing feelings of guilt, pain and rage. Writing was also a means to sustain their spirits as free men and women. Facing the horror of death, diaries became the sole testaments that their owners left behind, the last remnant of the human soul.
Even today, the atrocities perpetrated by and in the name of Nazi Germany throughout Europe elicit challenging questions regarding the abyss to which humanity can descend. At the same time, the horrors of the period also illustrate how high the human spirit can soar, as evidenced in the actions and sacrifice of the persecuted, as Jews and as human beings. Even today, over 70 years after the Holocaust, we are inspired by the spiritual fortitude of those who upheld their ethics and values in a world in which these had collapsed around them.
In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, "Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of independence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress."
Many of those who struggled to maintain and preserve the human spirit did not survive the horrors of the Holocaust, but their deeds and actions are a reminder to future generations of the stamina and the nobility of the human spirit.