Inspiration from the Kovno Ghetto

Jewish children in a clandestine school, located in a stable, in the Kovno ghetto, circa 1941–1942. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Eliezer Zilberis

By Sara J. Bloomfield

In difficult times, history can provide perspective as we struggle to understand the present and think about the future. The Holocaust, a very different event at a very different time, reminds us just how catastrophic life can be and what truly matters. It can add deeper meaning to our lives.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, as we face fear, uncertainty, and our own mortality, I have found comfort in reflecting on the remarkable attitude of the Jews imprisoned in the Kovno Ghetto.

While the Germans were waging their genocidal assault on this community, the ghetto inhabitants were waging their own clandestine war — of resistance, resilience, and record-keeping. In an environment of constant humiliation, degradation, starvation, and death, they would take charge of what they could: maintaining their dignity and writing their stories. During the three years of the ghetto’s existence, they secretly but deliberately amassed photography, meeting minutes, diaries, charts and graphs of daily life, yearbooks on the evolving situation of the community, works of art, and much more.

This was a remarkable community effort made possible by many individuals, one of whom comes to my mind today.

In the ghetto, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry’s dedication to Judaism and to Jewish education and values remained unshaken over several years of unspeakable events. At great risk he hid treasured Jewish books and taught clandestine classes in Talmud to youth and adults. All that in itself was extraordinary, but he did something more. He gave a unique kind of spiritual leadership that both reflected and reacted to the horrific circumstances, skillfully preserving faith and community yet adapting them to survivability.

Copy of an invitation to a celebration in the Kovno ghetto religious school on August 15, 1943. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Eliezer Zilberis

Rabbi Oshry actively encouraged ghetto residents to continue the traditional practice of posing questions seeking rabbinical advice, and he painstakingly researched his answers called responsa. Catastrophe had changed the questions, but for him it did not change the importance of longstanding religious principles. Here are three of his responsa:

In the first, the Germans had brought stray dogs and cats to a house of religious study where they shot them. They forced several Jews at gunpoint to rip apart a Torah scroll and use the sheets of parchment to cover the carcasses of the dead animals. Having committed a sacrilege, these individuals asked the rabbi what to do. His response: those who witnessed the Torah being torn were obligated to rend their garments, a Jewish expression of mourning. Those who actually tore the scroll, even though they were forced to do so at gunpoint, had to fast. But if they could not fast because of physical weakness due to hunger and other sufferings they bore daily in the ghetto, one could not obligate them to fast.

The second example involves a storeroom filled with clothing that once belonged to Jews who had been murdered. The question was “could the garments be used again?” His response: since the garments had no bloodstains, they must have been removed before the victims were killed. Therefore they could be worn not only by the victims’ heirs but by others as well. He said, “The martyred souls would unquestionably derive spiritual satisfaction from the fact that their surviving captive brethren were garbed in garments that once belonged to them.”

The final question came from a 12-year-old boy who was devoted to the study of Torah. Recognizing that German killing actions were now a daily occurrence and that children were a main target, he asked if he might be permitted to observe the adult prayer ritual wearing tefillin, despite the fact that his bar mitzvah was three months away. Rabbi Oshry wrote, “I ruled that the precious child who has such great desire to merit the privilege of fulfilling this mitzvah because he feared he might not live until 13 certainly had authorization.” And then the rabbi himself posed a question, “Who could assure that [the boy] would live three months and reach the age of 13?”

The agonizing nature of these questions, the unimaginable context in which they were asked, and the rabbi’s responses epitomize the ultimate struggle for human dignity. They provide a glimpse of a drop of humanity fighting to stay alive in an ocean of inhumanity.

Rabbi Oshry and the other inhabitants of the Kovno Ghetto faced an unthinkable and unparalleled catastrophe that we can never truly understand. But their example of character and courage stands as a timeless inspiration for all of us — in good times and bad.

Sara J. Bloomfield is the director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org