God, Faith & Identity From the Ashes, a collection of reflections of children and grandchildren of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, was inspired by an exchange between its editor and Pope Francis.
It offers Catholics a beautiful gift of intimate memories and personal reflections that together provide a profound meditation for the reader on God, mercy and the need to be “healing in the world.”
Edited by World Jewish Congress general counsel Menachem Rosensaft, himself a child of Holocaust survivors, God, Faith & Identity From the Ashes brings together 90 short essays from a variety of Jews, of all walks of life, occupations and perspectives. They are all people whose parents or grandparents suffered the cataclysm of the Holocaust and grew up learning why they did not have the grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins — even brothers and sisters — that other children had. For the reader, understanding the loss they suffered is perhaps best understood in terms of this happening to one’s own family: If Europe’s Jews were a family of 10, more than eight were systematically murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices.
Yet what makes this book so powerful for the reader is the underlying theme that God — present with the survivors and their descendants, and not Hitler and the Holocaust — has the last word. Rosensaft’s own essay reveals the string that runs through the entire work: God dwells in those who live their humanity by exercising mercy and compassion, not succumbing to despair in the face of evil, and find their personal triumph over evil by seeking to bind up and heal the wounds of people in this world.
Pope Francis’ personal thanks for a sermon Rosensaft delivered at his synagogue on God’s presence in the Holocaust — later a core essay in the book — inspired him to invite Jewish descendants of survivors to contribute their own essays.
As the Pope wrote to Rosensaft: “When you, with humility, are telling us where God was in that moment, I felt within me that you had transcended all possible explanations. … You came to discover a certain logic, and it is from there that you were speaking to us … the logic of that ‘gentle breeze’ (I know that is a very poor translation of the rich Hebrew expression) that constitutes the only possible hermeneutic interpretation. Thank you from my heart.”
In his own essay, Rosensaft asks: “What if God was very much there during the Holocaust, but not with the killers, with the forces that inflicted the Holocaust on humankind? What if he was in fact alongside and within the victims, those who perished and those who survived?”
The answer can be seen in the example of Rosensaft’s mother, who kept 149 abandoned Jewish children alive through much sacrifice in the horrific conditions of Bergen-Belsen until their liberation in April 1945, and his father, who kept hope alive for other Jews by leading Yom Kippur prayers in an Auschwitz death block. In one particular account, the reader feels the emotion of a survivor who is given a chance from an Allied soldier to execute vengeance on his tormentor but then exercises mercy, refuses to take another life and casts the gun away.
The answer can be seen in the survivors, who built new lives out of their trauma and the ashes of their families, in countries all over the world. It can be seen in their children, who, having reflected on their parents’ pain and legacy, describe how they try to accomplish some form of tikkun olam (“healing the world”), identifying with the weak and marginalized.
Of course, each contributor varies in his thoughts on what this looks like. Some work as rabbis and counselors; others work for human rights, whether it be with Aboriginals in Australia or Palestinians in Israel; some build bridges for Polish-Jewish reconciliation; another works to preserve Yiddish culture, language and song.
Caveats: There are a few contributors who feel that their experiences compel them to advocate for redefining marriage — a conclusion at odds with Catholic teaching. The same goes for Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, whose own views against human life both before and after birth are self-defeating as a descendant of Holocaust survivors. One Jewish paraplegic and disabilities-rights activist makes that very point in his own reflection, pointing out that Hitler’s path to destroy the Jewish people went first through his systematic murder of disabled persons.
The contributors also do not have the same relationship with God: Some have no faith; others have deep faith; and many occupy different points along that path, reminding readers in visceral fashion what the name “Israel” means: “struggle with God.” And the reader can understand why the authors feel this way, as well as reflect that the good and loving Father understands better than we the wounded heart.
God, Faith & Identity From the Ashes should be read patiently — perhaps two to three stories at a sitting — so that the reader can really have time to absorb and reflect on what it means for him or her.
For the Catholic, one can recall that the Jewish people are Christ’s blood relations and remember Jesus’ words: “What you did to the least of these my brothers you did unto me.” We can see Jesus Christ entering the gas chambers alongside each of his Jewish relatives, and we can see their betrayal in the massive indifference that Pope Francis has been warning us — again and again — to renounce. Through these reflections, we can see in the unnamed Oskar Schindlers, and in many of the survivors and their descendants, the active people of mercy and healing we Catholics need to become.
This book is a beautiful gift from Menachem Rosensaft and the descendants of Holocaust survivors, who have invited us to make their legacy part of our own. This legacy can help us prepare to be the Christians Pope Francis — and Christ himself — wants us to become: people always seeking opportunities to exercise mercy and compassion to everyone we meet, particularly to the weak and vulnerable.
After reading this book in time for the Year of Mercy, the reader should take to heart this charge from a survivor: “I have told you this story not to weaken you. But to strengthen you. Now it is up to you!”
Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register's Washington correspondent.
GOD, FAITH & IDENTITY FROM THE ASHES
Reflections of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors
Edited by Menachem Z. Rosensaft
Prologue by Elie Wiesel
Jewish Lights Publishing, 2014
352 pages, $25
To order: www.jewishlights.com