Where was God during the Holocaust?

God and the Holocaust (Topic 1, part 1)

In April 2020, to coincide with Yom HaShoah, the day in the Jewish calendar dedicated to Holocaust remembrance, and the 75th anniversary of the liberation, Rabbi Sacks launched a series of videos offering his perspective on many of the big questions raised when studying the Holocaust.

Faith for me is an intensely personal experience, and clearly there are many responses to the question, “Where was God in the Holocaust?”, but all I can do is tell you mine. The first time I went to Auschwitz, I was simply overwhelmed. I stood in Auschwitz- Birkenau on the train-tracks that brought Jews from all over Europe to be gassed, burned, and turned to ash. The Nazis actually endangered their own war effort in order to divert trains to this relentless evil for evil’s sake. I went through Stammlager Auschwitz, seeing the suitcases, the spectacles, the glasses, the hair, the Nazis kept everything. Everything was worth keeping except one thing, human life.

I could not believe that. They kept the suitcases, and they killed a million and a quarter people, quarter of a million children. And then I saw the photographs because in Auschwitz, the first people who were sent to Auschwitz, were photographed. Of course, they stopped that quite soon. But there were photographs of four-, five-, six-year-old children. I just broke down. I wept, and I asked myself, “God, where were You?”

And words came into my mind. I’m not claiming they were any kind of revelation, but this is what they said: “I was in the words, ‘You shall not murder.’ I was in the words, ‘You shall not oppress a stranger’. I was in the words that were said to Cain when he killed Abel, (the first murder in the Bible). ‘Your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground.'”

And suddenly I knew that when God speaks and human beings refuse to listen, even God is helpless in that situation. He knew that Cain was about to kill Abel, but He didn’t stop him. He knew Pharaoh was about to kill Israelite children. He didn’t stop it. God gives us freedom and never takes it back. But He tells us how to use that freedom. And when human beings refuse to listen, even God is powerless.

And then there is the second answer: This one came to me from Holocaust survivors, many of whom told me they felt that God was personally with them, giving them the strength and courage to survive. There were people who lost their faith at Auschwitz. There were people who kept their faith, and there were people who found faith in Auschwitz.

To my mind, one of the most moving stories is the one Victor Frankl told about himself.

When he first came to Auschwitz they stripped him of everything, his clothes, his identity, and the one thing that was most precious to him, apart from his wife and family, which was the book he’d written. He said, “When they took that from me, my life was over.”

And of course, after they took their clothes, and they sent them all into a shower, and he was expecting that to be death. But he was one of the lucky ones. It was just a shower. And afterwards they gave him clothes, clothes of people who’d been killed. And he put on these clothes, and he found something in one of the pockets. He took it out, and saw that it was a scrap of paper. It had been torn from a Siddur, from a prayer book.

And it contained these words, “Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echad,” Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One. “Ve’ahavtu et Hashem Elokecha…,” And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. And Frankl said, “Those words transfixed me. They were saying to me, ‘Now, you must live every single thing you ever taught and practised. You must live that here, now, in Auschwitz.'”

And that gave him the courage to do what he did, which was give people the will to live. So that is where God was in the Holocaust. He was in the commands, in the sanctity of life that were so cruelly and devastatingly unheard, and in the hearts of some of the survivors who found God, giving them the strength.

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This series, created in partnership with the Holocaust Educational Trust, has been made possible thanks to the generous support of Richard Harris.

View the full Holocaust series of curriculum resources with additional discussion questions and historical background