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Book Review: Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust

You might think a book called Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust would make you incredibly sad. Perhaps. Well, most probably. But perhaps also it will give strength, hope, inspiration. In the forward to the book, Yaffa Eliach explains how she gathered these tales. They are based on interviews and oral histories, compiled with the help of her Brooklyn College students. She begins by relating the history of Hasidism, a movement founded by the Baal Shem Tov (1700 – 1760). From the foreword: “The main themes of Hasidic Tales are love of humanity, optimism and a boundless belief in God and the goodness of mankind.” One can see why this form of tale could be helpful in relating the horrors of horrors of the Holocaust.

“You can’t fool me there ain’t no Sanity Clause.” That phrase from the Marx Brothers movie came to mind as I was reading the book. But instead, I thought, “You can’t fool me, there ain’t no happy ending!” When I first started reading the tales, I found them so unbearably sad, I had to stop reading the book for a while. But when I picked it up again, the belief in humanity was like a spark that compelled me to read further.

For example, there is the story about Rabbi Spira who always used to say hello or good morning to everyone he passed, including Herr Muller. When Rabbi Spira was taken to Auschwitz, and it was his turn to be in the selection of right or left, he looked up, and there was Herr Muller. The rabbi was sent to the right – to life. Many years later, Rabbi Spira relates this conclusion: “This is the power of a good morning greeting. A man must always greet his fellow man.”

Another story that touched me was one of Moshe Dovid and his father, a Hasidic rebbe. Moshe Dovid was used to following his father’s advice; so when his father told him separate in order to survive, he did. He later discovered his father’s advice incorrect, and he went back to him, saying his advice did not work. His father sadly explained that these were very unusual times, and he could no longer be the one to give the sage advice. The rebbe said he is like the leader ram of the herd that a shepherd in his anger has blinded. Each person had to decide on his own and trust his own instinct. Moshe Dovid was able to survive the war.

Several survivors talk about a deceased father or a mother or a rebbe coming to them in a dream. And this person in the dream would encourage the person still alive to survive and give the person meaning.

A fascinating tale is that of Zvi, who survives a shooting by falling into the grave a split second before the volley of fire hits him. He climbs out at night and looks for a Christian home that will shelter him. All send him away. Then he comes up with a plan – I won’t tell you who he pretends to be – you will have to read the story yourself.

Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust by Yaffa Eliach (written in 1981) should be rated as a classic in Holocaust literature. And here is the conclusion to the foreword, a quote from Bertolt Brecht: “The imagination is the only truth.”