Holocaust Survivors and Godlessness

About a year ago University of Nebraska-Omaha student Jennifer Lassley published a graduate paper in International Social Science Review titled “A Defective Covenant: Abandonment of Faith among Jewish Survivors of the Holocaust.” This paper popped up in an EBSCOhost search a few weeks ago, and I downloaded it and added it to my queue, where it remained until recently. Finally reading it, I feel her paper is remarkable because it tackles difficult questions in a short, concise document. How do Jews reconcile the problem of evil? To what extent did the Holocaust shape Jewishness? What do survivors have to say? And so on. Classic history paper. I don’t think I can reflect on every point she makes, so I’ll be addressing her work in a general context—with a few more defined points here and there.

Intro and Methods

Lassley is vague about her methodology (more on that in the discussion) but, from what I can gather, it’s an impressive research project, especially for a graduate student. Essentially, she pieces together a historical narrative of European Jewishness immediately before and during subsequent decades following the Holocaust. In doing so she helps us understand how Judaism has changed—often to reject the concept of god—when it was forced to acknowledge the Problem of Evil.

In order to carry out her research, Lassley consulted the Visual History Archive at the Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education at the University of Southern California, which, in her words, contains “107,000 hours of video documentation of roughly 52,000 [Jewish Holocaust] eyewitness interviews conducted during the mid to late 1990s” (p. 2).

A Sample of Narratives and Biblical Promises

Lassley offers several Jewish Holocaust survivor narratives that show how the brutality of the Holocaust shaped Jewish theology, forcing many Jews to renounce belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-benevolent god. This rejection of the divine, Lassley writes, is not merely a product of brutality alone, however. She reminds us the Jews were offered a covenant with god, a covenant that was broken when god allowed the systemic annihilation of their people.

She exemplifies this concept with the following quote by Holocaust survivor Jim Burakiewicz: “Very often I think that the Lord could choose somebody else for the next 2,000 years so that we can have a little bit of peace. I don’t feel privileged just because I’m Jewish. I don’t feel exceptional. I suffered a hell of a lot just because I’m Jewish” (quoted on p. 8). Jim’s statement, she writes, underscores not only a rejection of guiding supernatural agency; it also underscores a rejection of the idea of Judaism. According to Jim, he’s a human being first, second, and last.

Another remarkable quote comes from Max Feig who struggled to understand why children suffered: “I saw what they did with small children. Big children, big people are sinners. Okay? They’re punished. What is a small child of four, five, six years, what sin can they have that they must be killed?” (quoted on p. 10). Max eventually lost his faith, unable to reconcile the problem with god’s absence during the slaughter of children.

Takeaway

Lassley helps us explain the phenomenon of Jewish atheism. She writes, “For [Jewish atheists], the horrors of genocide have provided a transformational vessel toward the abandonment of faith. Their tragic journey epitomizes an edifying addition to the spectrum of Jewish identity” (p. 15). In other words, facing unrelenting barbarism is sufficient—at least in the European Jewish context—to philosophically reject god, yet still hold onto the idea of being Jewish.

Discussion

First, I want to get some administrative matters out of the way. Lassley’s paper is sort of disjointed. I’m used to highly structured papers with headers and sub-headers. Her paper runs seamlessly, which probably works in history departments. But I don’t like having to guess what her hypothesis, methods, and conclusions are. But those are issues that do not detract from what she has to say. I was particularly confused by her methodology. She cites 107,000 hours of filmed Holocaust survivor interviews, but clearly she didn’t watch ~4,500 days worth of film to research this paper. How did she choose which interviews to watch? Or did she read transcriptions and sort for keywords? I don’t know. I wish she’d told us.

Something else hit me when reading this. The idea of Jewish atheism being a product of the Holocaust stands in direct contrast with Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart’s study, which shows us how religion is robust when existential security is low; when it’s high, religion fades to secular ideas. Of course, this in no way implies Lassley is mistaken. Perhaps in an environment where existential security is essentially zero, faith cannot sustain. In this case we might see faith increase as we work backwards from the concentration camps to the beginning of European antisemitism. Indeed, if I read her paper correctly, it appears that this is an implied argument she was attempting to make. In this sense there is no contradiction between these two studies; they are merely looking at different starting points.

Finally, Lassley is very honest about the limits of her research. For example, she acknowledges that memory is not precise. And using personal anecdotes can be problematic. She writes, “Although the personal accounts of survivors are abundant and often quite detailed, anecdotal source material must always be utilized with caution. Indeed, human memory is of better service to anthropological, sociological, and philosophical analysis, rather than historicity” (p. 2). In other words, Lassley is reminding you that her paper should not be viewed as gospel.

This post is part of my Science Sundays series.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political and social activist.
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