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The Destruction of European Jewry:  A Devastation of Singular Dimensions

The Destruction of European Jewry: A Devastation of Singular Dimensions

Since 1945, the Jewish people can never again be the same.


The destruction of European Jewry 60 years ago was one of those singular occurrences in Jewish history that left the Jewish people permanently changed in both substance and image. It falls in the category of such national tragedies as the the destruction of the First Temple, which brought to a close the era when God's immediate presence had been felt in every moment of every Jew's life; and the destruction of the Second Temple, which also diminished the status of the Jewish people in ways that affected its essence, removing from Jewry the vital contact with the Divine provided by the daily sacrificial service.

These changes did not merely affect the Jewish people in degree, but in essence. Loss of the Beis Hamikdash, the Holy Temple, not only reduced the number of mitzvot that Jewry could perform, but struck at the quality of Jewish existence. So affected, the Jewish people responded to these events by convening the 17th of Tammuz and the 9th of Av as days of fasting and mourning; not merely for the loss of millions of lives that took place on those days, but for the loss that was suffered in our national existence, and in all Creation, as well.

And so we will continue to mourn this loss until the coming of Moshiach, when the Beis Hamikdash will be rebuilt and Israel will be returned to its once and future perfection.


Since the Churban, the destruction of the Temple, 19 centuries ago, the Jewish people has passed through many vicissitudes: pogroms, oppressions, explusions, and slaughterings. There is no forgetting them, for each of them -- the expulsion from Spain, Chmelnitzky's murderous raids, the Crusades -- has left its mark on the Jewish people. Each experience in its time was internalized by us as Jews -- not only in our prayers and in our remembering those who were lost during each of these periods, but in terms of our own perspective, our perception of what we are. For each event, there was a spontaneous reaction from within the Jewish people: the Jewish people had understood the nature of its essence and it lived accordingly. Thus it reacted to each of these horrors as a Jewish people, with a recognition that each event -- no matter how tragic -- had its place in the continuum that began at Sinai, that had its roots in the Covenant made between the Almighty and His people.

With all their attendant horrors and sufferings, the Jews were in fact strengthened by seeing clearly the direct hand of God in their lives.

Each of these oppressions reflected the horrors of the tochachah (rebuke), wherein God foretold us at our very inception as a nation that as a Godly people we would suffer these terrible oppressions. Thus, in the wake of each of these events, with all their attendant horrors and sufferings, the Jews were in fact strengthened by seeing clearly the direct hand of God in their lives. Accepting His chastisement as an expression of His concern and closeness, they reacted with a recognition that they were treading on the road that leads to Moshiach; that these sufferings are the signposts that tell us of the eventuality of the day of God's ultimate reign.

No questions were asked, because the answers were clear before a question could be uttered. We knew the "Why"; we knew it in our being, in our minds, in our hearts, in our souls. It was not necessary for us to articulate it, for we lived with the knowledge that the "Why" was the ongoing of our special relationship with God. Thus Jewry could face tragedies with a confidence that they were a source of strength, ultimately leading to the full redemption.


The most recent Churban, however, is unique in many ways. It is the first time since the destruction of the Temple that a tragedy has befallen the Jewish people that has permanently affected its very essence; since 1945, the Jewish people can never again be the same.

Our areas of function, the nature of our problems, the methods we employ to solve them, even our very feelings have all undergone permanent change because of Churban Europe, the destruction of Europe. Not only has the focal point of the Jewish people been transferred from Europe to Eretz Yisrael, which brings with it a host of challenges, problems and shifts in perspective; not only have we lost the centers of vibrant Jewish life, with all the ramifications this must have on ourselves and our children for all generations to come; but we have lost our prime source of living Judaism.

We must now struggle on a different level not only to understand the hashkafa, the philosophical outlook of Torah, but even to properly experience the simple awareness of our existence as Jews. Thus, our children are more impoverished than all preceding generations, for they cannot draw from this reservoir of a continuous, ongoing Jewish existence per se. The continuity was weakened and we must now recreate it.


For the first time the question: "Why" is posed because of loss of that clarity of insight.

Even worse, however, is the extraordinary phenomenon that for the first time in its existence, the Jewish people did not recognize with its customary clarity, certainty, and self-awareness that it was to react to events as a Jewish nation, a Torah nation. For the first time the question: "Why" is posed because of loss of that clarity of insight. The Jewish people failed to recognize instinctively that this Churban also has its place in the continuity of its destiny, that its very horror is part of an ongoing relationship with God, and that its very uniqueness is the truth of God's agonizing love for us.

Ironically, never since the Churban of 1,900 years ago has it been so abundantly clear that all that had occurred is the workings of the direct hand of God. Nonetheless, the question "Why" was posed: Not the "Why" of our Rabbis of old, "Why was the land destroyed?" -- the search for the specific sin that earned destruction, which only God could pinpoint; but the "By what right?" -- subjecting God himself to our judgment, wherein human intelligence presumes to evaluate Divine justice.


Perhaps the uniqueness of this strange response can cast a light on a major theme underlying this Churban. Indeed it is one with the very problems that we find ourselves facing today, 60 years later.

Churban Europe brought to the fore the total bankruptcy of the belief that Man can fulfill his potential of greatness without cognizance of God's existence and His demands. This, in effect, is the Amalek approach, and never before was it so clearly revealed and then so roundly defeated. This Amalek -- which had been manifest through Haman and his single-minded obsession to wipe out all of Jewry -- was incarnate in Hitler and his murderous designs.

In the earlier confrontation with Amalek, in the days of Mordechai and Esther, the Jews were worthy of the Purim miracle wherein Amalek was defeated. Haman was destroyed, and not one Jew suffered harm. To some extent, it was the same during this most recent Churban: Amalek had wanted to destroy the totality of the Jewish people -- not as a mere by-product of his desire for power, but as Hitler's primary goal. He was prepared to conquer a world to destroy the Jewish people. But there the similarity ends. For the first time, Amalek succeeded in doing as much as it did. And if, again, we witnessed a miracle that in the end saw Amalek's destruction and the Jewish people's survival, at what price was this victory bought!

The degree of Hitler/Amalek's success and his final defeat would seem to put this recent epoch in the category of seminal events recorded in the Scriptures -- except that we have neither the Prophets to explain to us nor the wise men with ruach hakodesh, divine inspiration, to guide us in our response to them.

Yet undeniably, Amalek in its ugly reality was unmasked for us. For what is Amalek but total denial of God-given criteria for human conduct? This was the essence of Amalek when it first accosted the Jews in Refidim when they were newly redeemed from Egypt -- a militant challenge to God's rule on Earth. And it was the hallmark of the world view that came to full fruition in Nazi Germany. Indeed, this unique Churban crowned an era when Man's conduct was determined by man-made ethics, formulated by his own understanding of right and wrong... an era when Man believed in the greatness of his own scientific thought, his own creativity, and his own instinct for goodness.


He who depends on his own understanding and feelings rather than on God's command to determine good and evil will ultimately shed every semblance of human dignity.

Surely it was Divine Providence in recent events that displayed so unequivocally that he who depends on his own understanding and feelings rather than on God's command to determine good and evil will ultimately shed every semblance of human dignity, totally losing his Divine image. It was surely obvious in 1940 that Man cannot depend on Man. Jews cannot depend on Man, and Jewry cannot depend on other nations -- not on their humanity, their innate goodness, their sense of justice, nor on their sense of human dignity. After all, even those who did not join in the atrocities of Nazi Germany did join in the silence of complicity that viewed them, and with very few exceptions, managed to avoid even a minimal expression of outrage.

Perhaps the era of good will that followed World War II allowed some of us to forget the graphic and painful lessons of the bankruptcy of a Godless humanity. But surely it is as apparent again today as it was then, during the war. For is human dignity built on the basis of man's understanding on a higher level today than at that time? Are the concepts of truth, right, justice and ethics held by men today any more acceptable than they were then? Is it not obvious, or have we yet to learn with even greater clarity, that only through God's Torah and His mitzvot can man ever be more than the beast!

It is essential -- not only for Jewry to be Jews, but for mankind to function as humans -- that we declare our total submission to Divine wisdom and Divine rule. Until we accept that there is no other source of truth, no other source of right, no other criterion for human behavior, we will continue to face the very same crises affecting all phases of human existence, awakening alienation and disaffection among all segments of humanity.

We are guilty of neglecting to learn what the entire epoch was about. For our own sake and for the sake of our children, we must reaffirm that truth and justice stem only from God's Torah and our submission to Him. This is the only source of hope for Jewry and for all mankind.

This essay, based on an address delivered at the 53rd national convention of Agudath Israel of America in November 1975, appeared in The Jewish Observer of June 1976, and is included in the collection of essays "A Path Through the Ashes", Mesorah Publications.



April 26, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) SamtheShamus, June 9, 2013 11:15 PM

Robert Burns' famous poetry....

made humor of the things he had heard from these young men. Could it be that we Jews in attempting to be a light to the nations perhaps be taught how to relate to non-Jews?

In a post-Holocaust era, add to your lists and articles, a need to teach our own "which end is up" since all have lost our bearings. Remember, if you wish, all the lessons of G-d's commands are not only dreidels and latkes.

(10) Ezza Amittai, March 16, 2009 7:41 AM

Helping Everyone and Showing It

I agree with Howard that we need to actively and overtly include Gentiles in our mitzvoth. I feel that the main ongoing cause of anti-semitism is the feeling that Jews only help and care for each other. There have been times when I've been so poor that I went to the Salvation army or St Vincent De Paul's and they gave me food vouchers and furniture for free. Not once did they ask me what my religion is. They just gave. We are told by G-d to "be light unto the nations", and I believe that if we outreached more openly to all people, we would cast that light. When bad things happen, we tend to draw into ourselves, and maybe it's a catch-22? I'm not the expert here, it's just an idea I want to share. My Rabbi told me to have a tzedekkah box for Jewish charities, and I said what about the Gentiles and he was shocked. After awhile he said "So you'll have 2 boxes." Does anyone else think tzedekkah to all people is a beneficial idea? Shalom

(9) Gilit, January 15, 2006 12:00 AM

Understanding the perverted mentality of Nazi Germany and how such a developed country murdered so many Jews and other people will get us no where. After all why would we want to comprehend someone's G-d less mentality, perhaps its best to leave that knowledge to Hashem. This would not accoplish anything, because if a non Jew wants to target a Jew he/she will find any reason to do so. Its important to remember that every Jew is first and foremost Jewish and needs to be around other Jews. If we don't remember this, as the Torah says (and history has shown), our enemies will gain power over us, and we will be reminded.

(8) Johannes Stockburger, January 13, 2006 12:00 AM

Understanding what happened needs careful analysis of 300 years of history in Germany

I spent many years trying to understand what the Germans did, and what was the underlying mistake which made such a huge potential of knowledge as the Germans had into a maxium catastrophe not only for the Jewish but also for the Europeans.

If I look at Geothe, whom the Germans see as a co-founder of their modern German ("Klassiker"), you find in Faust something like a governor, Faust, aligned with Mephisto, the devil, creating good. This is a thinking that denies that there is good and evil per se, that an action is good or evil.

The next clue I found was an exchange of letters between Voltaire, the French philosopher, and Friedrich II, that king of Prussia who laid the foundation of Prussian hegemony in Germany. Here you find a discussion whether it is possible that there is a G-d, and whether it is possible to explain the world without G-d.

The fact, and how this discussion is going, alone shows that these people did not have any connection whatsoever to G_d, especially not Friedrich.(I did not read the whole book, because it had a damaging impact on me)

But on the other side these people used the claim that their position as king, or later "Kaiser", was given to them by G-d, they claimed even jurisdiction over the christian churches up to the point that they decided who is allowed to be a priest or a bishop and who not.

In this way they claimed for themself the position of a quasi-god, being the last souce of justice and the distinction of good and evil. In this way they were trying to put themselves in G-d's place, and the people, who accepted that in any way, broke the first commandement.

These are my thaughts. I do not want to hurt anybody. If you find it in any way inappropriate, please remove it or do not put it up. I do think, that this needs a lot more research. But I suggest that research in this direction could be promising.

(7) Howard, May 8, 2005 12:00 AM

preventing another holocaust

Isn't the message to help people of all types, to intervene. In the 60 years following the holocaust, there were other mass destruction of people involving many the same tactics, horrible cruelty, targeting based upon perceived race, and again, the world stood still.

If we are to condemn the papacy for failing to intervene, as we should, how can we say, "this is someone else's problem."

A few years ago, I became aware of mass starvation and targeting of a race in Africa, and asked a prominent Jewish newspaper if they would feature the story. The cold response was, this doesn't seem to be a Jewish problem so we can't.

Sixty five years ago in 1938, I bet some Methodist came to her church and said, did you read about Crystallnacht, and the destruction and what they are doing to the Jews, can I write about it, and the editor probably said, we don't deal with political issues here, this is a religious magazine. You might want to write your congressman.

This is not to suggest we are at fault. It was the Christian world, those supposedly religious people, who attended church Sundays, sent their children to religious school, and doing the week engaged in horrible persecution and murder. As Jews our history does not bear this stain.

We cannot change what happened. Many of us have resources and we have the ability to help and change the world. When 4 million Koreans starved to death, in the 1990's, no one cared, few did anything- for every one person who sent food, there were 500 who did nothing. Like the Jews in Europe, the population neither identified with them, nor saw the need to become involved. Read books like Hitler's Pope, condemn the massive hypocrisy of Christian leaders, but also fulfill the standards and practices that you advocate. If you condemn them for failing to help, you cannot be guilty of that failure too.

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