The public is invited to Jewish Religious Responses to the Holocaust by UVM Professor of Religion Richard Sugarman Thursday, April 12 at  7:30 p.m. in the Memorial Lounge in Waterman. This lecture will explore some of the ways that religious Jewish life was affected and responded to during the time of the Holocaust.

There is a specific literature dealing with rabbinic responses to urgent questions that were asked at the time. Raul Hilberg found this to be among the most difficult and emotionally disturbing genres of Holocaust literature. This literature is quite spare in English translation—it features questions that were asked in the Kovno ghetto to which Rav Ephraim Oshry responded.

The overall theme of this questioning concerned what was permissible and not permissible under such dire and often unprecedented circumstances. When was it possible to “endanger oneself to save another”? May a person save himself by causing the death of a fellow Jew? The implications ranged from what the Jewish counsel was allowed to do when it had a finite number of “exemption cards that would permit someone to survive for a while longer while working as a slave laborer.”

This question was radicalized in Auschwitz where Rav Tzvi Hirsch Meisels was asked by a Jewish father if he was allowed to save the life of his own son if he knew that this would lead to the death of another Jewish boy? Rabbi Oshry and Meisels were the two best known surviving Jewish legal authorities to survive the war and to come to America. What these kinds of questions highlight is a level of conscience that arose from Jewish religious sources. This does not mean that the responses given were meant to go beyond the situations in which they arose.

The victims also looked to religious authorities for guidance before, during, and after the war. The question concerning the Warsaw ghetto uprising, which began on the first night of Passover 1943, involved violent resistance. One of the leading remaining sages in Warsaw, Rav Menachem Ziemba’s, affirmative response to the uprising may well have made it possible for the remaining inhabitants to wage their militant fight whose outcome for most was not uncertain. What was required of Jews who had even limited resources to rescue their endangered brothers and sisters? This was a question that Rabbi Michael Dov Ber Weissmandel asked, and to which he responded, for the last remaining active Yeshiva in Slovakia and all of Europe. It was Rabbi Weissmandel who was personally responsible, along with the Slovakian working group, for postponing the deportations to the death camps from Slovakia for two years.

The more one learns about the Holocaust, the more responsible one is for transmitting its lessons. What are the moral and religious lessons that apply in our time?

Richard Sugarman’s fields are phenomenology, Jewish philosophy, existentialism, and the humanities, ancient and modern. His long list of publications includes several important works on the Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. He has won each of the three teaching awards at UVM: the Kroespsch-Maurice Award for Excellence in Teaching, the Dean’s Lecture Award, and the George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Member Award, given by the UVM Alumni Association. He has been teaching at UVM since 1970.

This event is sponsored by The Miller Center for Holocaust Studies at UVM.


Kevin Coburn