Faith, fear and the Holocaust

Faith, fear and the Holocaust April 9, 2013

Back in March, this title on a New York Times news analysis grabbed my attention:

The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking

I found the article itself fascinating, but the headline struck me as more suited for a New York tabloid than the Old Gray Lady. I mean, I’m not sure how the systematic killing of millions of Jews could be any more shocking.

While no expert on the atrocities that occurred, I was blessed in 2004 to write an in-depth Associated Press story about the children of two Holocaust survivors finding each other — and finding answers. That piece remains one of the most memorable I have had the privilege of writing, and I remain enthralled by survivors’ stories.

I want to pull one such story, published a few weeks ago, out of my GetReligion guilt file. It’s a front-page feature by one of our favorite Godbeat pros, Peter Smith of the Louisville Courier-Journal. 

This is one of those cases where I wish GetReligion had a simple template for posting links and screaming, “READ THIS!!!”

The top of the story:

As a Jew living in neutral Switzerland in October 1942, John Rothschild took the extraordinary risk of walking into an internment camp in Nazi-dominated France — unnerved but undeterred by the ominous closing of the gate behind him.

He arranged to speak to the French camp commander, part of the right-wing puppet government of France that was shipping Jews by the trainload north to death camps such as Auschwitz.

Rothschild recalls placing a package of Swiss cigars on the commander’s desk, along with the business card of a helpful local lawyer whom the commander owed a favor. As Rothschild introduced himself, the commander said, “Oh, for the Swiss I would take the moon down from the sky.”

“I told him, ‘You don’t have to do that much. Let my fiancée go,’ ” Rothschild recalled.

His fiancée, Renee, was on a list to be deported to Auschwitz. The commander told Rothschild to return in two days for his decision.

In the meantime, Rothschild sought Renee out in the camp.

“I didn’t even know he was coming,” Renee Rothschild recalled in a recent interview with the couple more than 70 years later in Louisville, where they now live.

OK, you say, but what’s the news angle?

Glad you asked:

Earlier this month, at his Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Louisville, John Rothschild celebrated the 80th anniversary of his bar mitzvah, the traditional Jewish right-of-passage from boyhood to manhood for 13-year-old Jews. He put on the same woollen prayer shawl he wore that March day in 1933 in Zurich, Switzerland, and with a clear, firm voice, chanted the same Hebrew passage from the book of Exodus.

Renee Rothschild was there to celebrate with John, just as she has been by his side from their escape from the Nazis through more than 70 years of marriage and moves from Switzerland to Michigan to Kentucky.

For GetReligion, a key question is always: What role did faith play in the actions taken by the main characters? Reading the story, it’s obvious that Smith explored that question.

The story’s riveting ending:

The Rothschilds say they still remember the relief of their first night of freedom in Geneva, when, disheveled, they drew stares as they entered a hotel lobby — and were given its best suite when the clerk learned of their ordeal.

As they closed the door to their room, Renee said, “I thanked God to be alive.”

John Rothschild said the couple owes their lives to a combination of faith, hope, luck and initiative.

“It’s a big question about religion,” he said, referring to many people who “in their desperation (are) saying, ‘God will help,’ ” he said. “You have to help yourself.”


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4 responses to “Faith, fear and the Holocaust”

  1. “shocking” is about the last word that I would apply to this wonderful story. It would be shocking if somebody found a Nazi camp that was any way comparable to the facility at Guantanamo.

  2. I thought the NYT piece, despite the headline, to be excellent, though some definitions would have been helpful. Is this really a matter of greater scope or of becoming more inclusive by definition? The religious aspect is completely absent.

    The Louisville article was a great human interest story, though I found it light on religion. Was either or both raised in an observant home? Not mentioned, Adath Jeshurun is Conservative. We hear thanks to G-d, but did either pray for guidance during their ordeal? And how did each reconcile faith in G-d, a very important question for Holocaust survivors. Many survivors became atheists as the result of their experiences.

    The Rabbi’s comment struck me as particularly stupid (or ignorant; it’s hard to say which). Observant men are encouraged to study Talmud daily, and it is not uncommon to meet Torah scholars in their nineties who are still sharp. When my grandfather went blind in his eighties, he continued to study from memory. Before that, I never saw him without a volume tucked under his arm or open on the table. To make such a comment demeans all the men, past, present and future, who engage in daily study from the time they are children until the day they die, often well into their nineties.

    It is also the custom in many shuls to have men chant their Bar Mitzvah portions each year, if for no other reason than it frees up the usual person from weekly preparation. Torah and Haftarah (an additional reading, usually from the Prophets) must be chanted in a particular way. While the Haftarah contains the additional marks to denote vowels and phrasing (cantillation), the Torah scroll is written only in Hebrew consonants; the person who reads must be very familiar with both the pronunciation, punctuation, etc. in order to chant it correctly. I’d want to know if this was the first time since his Bar Mitzvah. I’d also like to have known which was his Bar Mitzvah parashah (portion) and, for those unfamiliar with how Torah readings are divvied up through the year, what it covered. Perhaps it had some relevance to his successful escape.

    • Thank you, sari, for that background. Often I learn as much from other commentators about religious practice and belief as I do from the GetReligionistas. So, I appreciate you taking the time to provide additional context to the story that a non-Jew like myself would not have known to look for. 🙂

  3. My ADD strikes again, on another post by Bobby. The Times article had no mention of the Rothschild story.

    Maybe I’m sensitive because of my German roots and conservative leanings, but the Times story might have included a sentence about the shocking aspects of the Gulag, the Cultural Revolution, and the Killing Fields. It also might have mentioned the sorry facts about the modern slavery of people, even in this country, who are held in conditions marginally better than existed in the labor camps.

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