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Yad Vashem Studies, Vol. 47:1 (2019)

Three research articles address Halakhic issues that observant Jews faced during and after the Holocaust and changes in Halakhic understandings and rulings engendered by the event: Moshe Tarshansky on Rabbi Ephraim Oshry; David Deutsch on what Jews who regarded themselves as religiously observant actually did during the Holocaust; and Tehila Darmon Malka on the issue of Agunot after the war. In the fourth research article, Miriam Schulz examines female Jewish martyrdom in Soviet Yiddish literature. The issue also includes six review articles by Mary Fullbrook, Dan Stone, Dennis Deletant, Yehuda Bauer, Boyd van Dijk, and Annette Weinke. Volume 47:1 is dedicated to the memory of three scholars, with articles on their contributions to the field: Shmuel Krakowski (Judith Levin and David Silberklang); Randolph Braham (Robert Rozett); and Walter Zeev Laqueur (Bernard Wasserstein).

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The writings of Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a survivor of the Kovno ghetto, and particularly his Sheelot Uteshuvot Mima’amakim (“Responsa from the Depths”), are known among researchers and the public at large as epitomically important sources on religious life in the ghettos. His Khurbn Lite has also earned a place of honor among scholars of Lithuanian Jewry.

However, alongside the many researchers who quote him, some have questioned the authenticity of his writings. The article subjects this question to thorough inquiry by comparing his writings with parallel historical sources and with each other.

The conclusion is that while hardly any details in Rabbi Oshry’s writings definitely clash with the facts, the credibility of many may be doubted. Various reasons for his straying from the facts are suggested. In addition, an important purpose of his writings has been presented: teaching faith in the Creator of the Universe and observance of His commandments “despite,” or even “because of,” the Holocaust.

Rabbi Oshry was a trailblazer of the genre known as Kiddush Hashem in the Holocaust. This genre, stressing devotion to the commandments even when Jews walk in the vale of the shadow of death, transformed the Holocaust from a theological minefield into leverage for observance of the commandments. Seemingly, then, Rabbi Oshry’s writings should be attributed to the literary genre of Orthodox historiography that is mobilized for an educational purpose. Thus they should be read suspiciously and not treated as historically reliable source material unless supported by parallel sources.


What did Jews actually do in order to observe Halakhah during the Holocaust? Past studies on Halakhic observance in the camps stressed that heroism was required for religious dedication and noted that these practices maintained a semblance of stability. Yet these studies focused on rabbinical rulings while neglecting to explore how Jews altered Halakhah in order to fit life during the "Final Solution." This article focuses on written and oral testimonies that reveal trends of change and revision in the Halakhic modus made in response to Nazi persecution. For many Jews Halakhic observance proved to be an instrument of survival rather than an expression of Supreme Will. Focusing on God's "sanctification of life," observant prisoners rebranded religious acts in an effort to survive a variety of circumstances in the camps. Often individuals' spirituality remained while their exact religious practices varied, such as a Passover blessing of bread with matzah or a seder table arranged with the plagues of their persecuted reality.


One of the most heated issues among rabbis at the end of the Holocaust was the problem of ‘agunot (“chained wives”). Thousands of women who had managed to survive knew nothing about the fate of their spouses and, according to the rules of rabbinical law, were defined as ‘agunot and thus were not allowed to remarry. The article gives an overview of the phenomenon and proposes to show that survivor-rabbis were the first to come to these women’s aid in the initial days and months after the liberation, even though they had neither books nor resources to call upon. Due to their dual identity as rabbis and survivors, they were able to bridge between survivors of the Holocaust and the Halakhic world in the immediate aftermath of the war.

By investigating the “unchaining” of these women shortly after the Holocaust, the author finds a difference between rabbis who had gone through the Holocaust themselves and those who had not experienced the tragedy in the way they proposed to solve the ‘agunot problem in light  of the post-Holocaust reality. The conclusion is that the former continued to make Halakhic rulings in the manner that had taken root during the Holocaust.


Kiddush Hashem has been ubiquitous in the Jewish lexicon of persecution for centuries as a way of making sense of the depredations of history and of transforming Jewish victims into ultimate and sacralized victors. In the 1940s, the unprecedented wave of persecution unleashed by Nazi Germany radically complicated the debates on martyrdom amongst Jews worldwide –– and also in the oft-forgotten Soviet Union. The language of martyrdom proved incredibly fruitful in the matter of sense-making and consolation in face of the Holocaust, vindication and/or (re)configuring of Soviet Jewish identity, and serving Soviet (Jewish) political and ideological ends. These narratives have traditionally been highly gendered, though. Focusing on works by Dovid Bergelson, Peretz Markish, and Der Nister, this paper zooms on the role of the female in Soviet Yiddish martyrological narratives, traces the gradual transformation of Jewish female martyrs into heroines and tries to understand how the use (and potential abuse) of the female reflect back on the male authors, their cultural fabric, hopes, and anxieties.


Review of Götz Aly, Europa gegen die Juden, 1880-1945


Götz Aly's Europa gegen die Juden, 1880-1945, a pan-European survey of modern antisemitism, is compelling but incomplete. Aly's overview is illuminated with detailed case studies and individual stories. Building upon previous work, Aly's survey is more comprehensive in scope and more complex in argument. Yet the end result lacks a driving center. Readers are left with questions regarding effective resistance, ideology, and a fuller explanation of how sporadic antisemitic outbursts led to the mass murder of the Holocaust. Nonetheless, Aly's journalistic nature and emphasis on the strains of modernity render an especially informative and provocative panoramic book. 

Review on Joseph R. White with Mel Hecker, eds., United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945. Volume III: Camps and Ghettos under European Regimes Aligned with Nazi Germany (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, in association with United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2018). xxvi+990pp.


This review of Volume III of the USHMM’s Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos 1933-1945 explores the extent of the camp system erected by Nazi Germany’s allies. It shows how concentration camps defined the Axis regimes, which created camps of their own independently of the Third Reich. It considers what this remarkable research tells us about the definition of “the Holocaust”; it argues that scholars will now be able to substantiate claims that collaboration in the Nazis’ crimes was ubiquitous; and it suggests that scholars will need to reconsider what is meant by a “concentration camp.”

Review article on Alexandru Florian (ed), Holocaust Public Memory in Postcommunist Romania


This volume concludes a research project on Holocaust memory in communist Romania, supported by the Romanian Ministry of National Education. The research project was prompted by the question: how do we explain that seventy years after the end of the Second World War, in Romania the public memory of the Holocaust is still disputed, and approaches that minimize or even deny it have become more dominant in the public sphere?’ Most of the topics explored in the book were formulated following national surveys, repeated five times between 2007 and 2015, that examined the impact of the Final Report of the International Commission on the Holocaust in Romania (2004). The aim of these surveys was to reveal public perceptions of Marshal Antonescu, the Holocaust in Romania (victims, perpetrators, bystanders), and the social distance separating the Romanian majority and the ethnic minorities. An analysis of the survey results allowed the identification of certain facets of the mentality of Romanian society as crucial for an understanding of the distorted perceptions of the Holocaust in Romania. Three factors were considered most relevant in the minimization of the tragedy of the Jews: ethnocentrism, nationalism, and anticommunism and it is these factors that inform the contributions to this unique volume.

Review of Rebecca Erbelding, Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America's Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe


Rebecca Erbelding’s Rescue Board: The Untold Story of America’s Efforts to Save the Jews of Europe is not necessarily untold. While Erbelding’s book is the first full-length study of the War Refugee Board (WRB), she reaches the same conclusions as past historians. Erbelding focuses on Washington and the individuals within the WRB. Her book pieces together the WRB structure, history, work, and problems in the context of war. But Erbelding’s book is less about rescue and more about U.S. wartime bureaucracy. Her new insights on the inner workings of American government are impressive, but missing is a discussion of Jews under Nazi domination.

Review of Gerald Steinacher, Humanitarians at War: The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust


Gerald Steinacher’s well-researched book, Humanitarians at War, is a welcome addition to the burgeoning scholarship on the darkest chapter in the history of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). In recovering an extraordinary amount of fascinating archival materials, it opens up new avenues for thinking about the organization’s response to the Holocaust. At the same time, it raises major concerns about how the ICRC’s positioning affected both wartime and postwar thinking about humanitarianism, law, and war.

Review of Hans-Christian Jasch and Wolf Kaiser, Der Holocaust vor deutschen Gerichten. Amnestieren, Verdrängen, Bestrafen


This book is a welcome addition to an expanding corpus of historiographical works that deal with the histories of war crimes trials in postwar Germany. Departing from the inconsistencies between Germany’s current Holocaust-centered memory culture and its relatively meagre balance sheet with regard to Holocaust prosecutions, the authors describe the ways in which German courts in West and East Germany adjudicated the Judenmord after 1945. The authors’ ambition is not to further empirical research or to develop a new conceptual framework. Instead the book takes a twofold approach by combining a general survey of jurisprudential trends with an exemplary discussion of selected verdicts from the 1940s to the latest Auschwitz trials. Though the authors convincingly convey the complicated legal dogmatics to a broader audience, their argumentation sometimes suffers from a too-narrow focus on the legal framework.