Faith After the Holocaust

Rabbi Sacks responds to the devastation of the Holocaust

In 1995 Rabbi Sacks recorded a pre-Rosh Hashanah programme for the BBC during a visit to Auschwitz (Remember Us For Life).

This animated video brings new visual illustration to an excerpt from the programme, and asks the fundamental question of how humanity could allow the Holocaust to happen.

People sometimes ask me: where was God at Auschwitz? I don’t know, but Jewishly it’s the wrong question. The real question is: Where was humanity at Auschwitz?

God never said He’d stop us harming one another, but He did give us a moral code, commandments engraved in stone which taught us how to stop ourselves. Where was humanity when old men and women were being murdered, millions being gassed, children thrown on the flames, still alive?

The real question, so painful we can hardly ask it, is not where was God when we called to Him, but where were we when He called to us?

This is what the Bible warned against in its very first chapter when God said, “Let us make man in our own image, after our own likeness.” When human life is no longer sacred, Auschwitz becomes possible.

Shalom Katz was one of fifty prisoners ordered to dig their own grave and then stand in front of it to be shot. Before the guns were raised, he asked the guards’ permission to say Kel malei rachamim, the Jewish prayer for the dead.

It was granted. He sang it, and the guards were so moved by the beauty of his voice that they took him out of the line, and kept him alive to sing for them.

When Auschwitz was liberated, he sang the prayer a second time for all those who had died. “O God full of compassion, grant rest to those who have gone from this world and shelter their souls under the wings of Your Presence.”

We must never forget the Holocaust. Never again may we walk down the road that begins with hate and ends in attempted genocide.

Towards the end of his life, Moses summoned the Israelites and said, “I’ve set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Uvercharta bachaim. Therefore, choose life.”

Jews didn’t despair; the survivors built new lives, new communities grew up elsewhere, and in the State of Israel, we’ve come together as a people again, building one of the world’s oldest and newest countries, and singing, “Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people lives!”

For me, faith after Auschwitz is the courage to live and bring new life into the world, never forgetting those who died but never yielding to despair. It means fighting for a world in which we recognise that those who aren’t in our image are still in God’s image. It means remembering, for the sake of life and humanity and hope.

And on the faces of Jewish children, I see a People who walked through the valley of the shadow of death coming to life again, cherishing life, sanctifying it, and knowing that in it is the breath of God.

“Remember us for life, O King Who delights in life, and write us in the book of life for Your sake, for You are the God of life.”

faith after the holocaust resource

This educational resource has been designed for students of middle and high school age, as a companion resource to the animated video, in exploration of the lessons we can learn from the Holocaust, and how we should live our lives as Jews in a post-Holocaust world.