YHE-HOLIDAY: SPECIAL ASARA BE-TEVET
loving memory of Channa Schreiber (Channa Rivka bat Yosef v' Yocheved) z"l,
with wishes for consolation and comfort to her dear children
Mona, Yitzchak and Carmit, and their families,
along with all who mourn for
additional articles, see http://vbm-torah.org/10Tevet.htm
Religious Life During the Holocaust and
An Interview with Rabbi Yehuda
Interviewers: Yael Novogrotzky and Billie
Translated by Kaeren Fish
Rabbi Yehuda Amital (Klein) was born in 1924
in Transylvania, at the time part of Hungary. Following the Nazi occupation he
was taken to a labor camp where he remained for about eight months. He was
liberated on Simchat Torah, 5705 (Oct. 9, 1944), and made his way to Eretz
Yisrael as the only surviving member of his family. He continued his studies at
Yeshivat Hevron and received rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Isser Zalman
Meltzer. The day after the declaration of the State of Israel, he was drafted
into the IDF and fought in the War of Independence.
studied and taught in Pardes Channa and, together with his father-in-law, Rabbi
Zvi Yehuda Meltzer, established Yeshivat ha-Darom in Rechovot. Following the
Six-Day War he was invited to head the Har Etzion hesder yeshiva in Gush
Rabbi Amital was one of the founders of the Meimad movement
in 1988, and in 1995 he served as a government minister.
his withdrawal from political life, he once again devoted his full attention to
his educational work as Rosh Yeshiva, and remained in this position until his
retirement in his final years.
Tell us a little about
We lived in Nagyvarad in
Transylvania, in the Jewish Community building. My father was the community’s
accountant and my mother ran a soup kitchen. I had a brother and a sister. I
alone survived of my family. The culture was Hungarian, and we spoke Hungarian.
I was a yeshiva student. My entire education consisted of four years of
elementary school. I studied at a cheder and then at a yeshiva ketana that had
been established by a Rosh Yeshiva who came from Lithuania, from the Mir
Yeshiva. I was one of the prominent students at the yeshiva. Afterwards I found
out that following the Nazi occupation, they took the Rosh Yeshiva to a labor
camp. I remained in the city. I was at the yeshiva for as long as I was able.
When the Germans came, at the beginning of 1944, they issued orders to put all
the Jews in the ghetto; the place which afterwards became the ghetto was where I
lived. They issued instructions as to how many people should be put in each
room. I was in the ghetto for a very short time, and then I was sent to a labor
camp. When I parted from my parents, my father told me, “I am certain that you
will reach Eretz Yisrael.”
The labor camp was close to the city. We
worked close to the front, preparing trenches and doing other
There were a few dozen of us who were religious, from among
three hundred male prisoners in the camp. Most had families; I was one of the
youngest. For half a year I didn’t see any Jewish women or
We observed kashrut the whole time. There was a certain
period when we were sent to a town to carry out labor, under the supervision of
two Hungarian soldiers – one an officer, the other a regular soldier. I didn’t
know, but people who had money made sure that the religious [prisoners] would be
sent to the same unit, so that we could also observe Shabbat. We carried out the
work during weekdays, and ate kosher cooked food. During the three weeks we
were, all our food was given to the Hungarian officers, and what was left over –
potatoes and some vegetables – we cooked.
In the labor camp I was
among the youngest. Many prisoners listed themselves as being ill so as not to
go out to work. I told them, “Are you crazy? If there’s any chance of being
saved, it will only be through the ability to work.” But nevertheless the
possibility was available to them, so they bribed the camp commanders. One fine
day they changed the entire staff of the camp. We had a very hard day. The
military police came, and everyone who was listed as ill was sent to Auschwitz
and to other camps. We remained there; they sent us to our city and we worked
there on all sorts of jobs, sometimes hard labor: carrying sacks of cement to
all kinds of places, or working in all kinds of agricultural labor. Afterwards
word came that the front was approaching, that the Russians were getting closer,
and the whole population and the army headed westward. Some of the prisoners
were sent to Auschwitz.
We had a Hungarian commander who ensured
that we remained there. On Yom Kippur eve we received orders to go back. We had
a sefer Torah which we had brought out of the ghetto, before the expulsion to
the [labor] camp. We took it along with us. We all carried the sefer Torah,
taking turns, and we felt real upliftment.
Meanwhile the shooting
was intensifying, to the point where the German soldiers guarding us ran away,
because they were afraid that the Russians would capture them. And so we
remained behind, and we got to the Jewish Community building, to the building
where I had lived with my parents. We entered the cellar on Yom Kippur eve. We
prayed on Yom Kippur in the dark. We had one machzor with us; one person read
the prayers aloud, and thus we prayed with a minyan.
concept of prayer comes from there. I saw people – fathers of children, men who
had wives – they were alone, knowing that their families had been taken, but
they didn’t know to where. And I said to myself, “How is it possible to pray?”
We knew before then that the foundation of prayer is gratitude towards God. I
said, “What gratitude? People are sitting here without parents, without
children.” So I reached the conclusion – which I published later on – that
service of God cannot be based on gratitude; there is something beyond that.
“Though He slays me, I shall trust in Him” (Iyov 13:15). That is a higher level.
That understanding was strongly imprinted in me then.
can’t listen to this. They get upset when they read what I have to say. You take
a young man or a young woman and you say that it’s impossible to base one’s
Divine service on gratitude? They get upset: “What kind of religion is this?”
But it’s a fact; I don’t hide it.
The day after Yom Kippur we were
very hungry and we went to look for food. I went up to the apartment which had
been my parents’. I was accompanied by my cousin, who had been with me
throughout the period that I spent in the camp. The apartment was empty, but we
found a piece of bread with mold. Of course, we rejoiced as if we had found a
Meanwhile we heard that the gate down below had been
broken through, and they were shouting to the Jews to come out of the cellar.
The German soldiers went in there, searching for partisans. Some of my friends
shouted, “Yehuda, come down.” I was ready to go down, but my cousin said, “Don’t
let them tempt you.” In the apartment there was a pantry. That’s where we hid.
The soldiers started knocking and broke down the door of the apartment. I sat
with my cousin and I said to him, “Let’s say the vidui (confession before
dying).” He said, “No, let’s say Tehillim [Psalms].”
They went into
every room, but they didn’t come into the room where we were. And thus we were
religious life like in the camp?
We had to work also on
Shabbat, except for those three weeks when we got to some village where we made
an agreement with the soldiers that we’d finish our work before Shabbat. We even
had a minyan on Rosh ha-Shana. We waited for the Russians to come; they didn’t
come, and we stayed there. On Simchat Torah, in the middle of the prayer
service, after the Torah reading, the Hungarian commander came in and said to
us, “You’re free. Until now I’ve watched over you, now you watch over me.” I
went outside and saw thousands of Russian soldiers. The Russians were in great
disorder: some had uniforms, some didn’t. I kept shouting, “A Yid, a Yid.” I was
looking for a Jew. And then a Jewish soldier went by, I think in a wagon. He
yelled to me in Yiddish, “I am a Jew – we had a minyan on Rosh ha-Shana!” That
same day we were liberated: Simchat Torah, 1944.
You chose to emigrate to Eretz Yisrael after the
The moment I was liberated, I told my friends that I
wanted to go to Eretz Yisrael. They asked, “Where are you going?” They looked at
me as though I was mad. We didn’t know what was happening in the world; we had
no radio and no newspapers. Within two months I got to Israel [which was under
British mandatory rule]. My grandfather and grandmother were in Israel, and also
The first night of Chanuka I was in Aleppo, and that’s
where I lit the first candle of Chanuka – on the train from Istanbul to Atlit. I
got to Israel at the end of 1944, on the second day of Chanuka. That’s the day
on which my whole family gathers together. We don’t celebrate birthdays, but we
do celebrate the day I reached Israel. All our descendants come, all the
grandchildren and great-grandchildren. I recount all sorts of memories for the
children, as appropriate to their ages.
I didn’t want to go back to
Europe. They offered me, at various opportunities, to go back to Europe; they
even offered to pay for the entire trip. They wanted to get me to talk at all
kinds of places, but I didn’t want to go back.
Where did you go when you got to
I arrived in Haifa, where an uncle of mine was
living. He gave me overalls so I could start working. I didn’t go to work; I
went to study at a yeshiva. They regarded me as something abnormal: You come to
Israel and go to a yeshiva?
The first year after I came to Israel I
went to visit Kfar Etzion, under the British Mandate, before the establishment
of the State. On the way I met a friend who recognized me. In Hungary, during
the difficult times, groups of us youths would sit together and think about what
to do. He was related to the Rebbe of Vizhnitz, and he spoke about fleeing to
Romania. I told him then that first, if Hitler was persecuting us, I don’t know
what’s going to be in Romania; second, what chance do I have? He was part of the
family of the Rebbe; I didn’t have any money or any connections. I said that at
the very least we should prepare ourselves for Kiddush Hashem (dying in
sanctification of God’s name). We should know that that’s it. At the time, he
was angry at me because I spoke with such cynicism; then when he saw me in
Israel, his first reaction was, “You were saved? Didn’t you preach about dying
for Kiddush Hashem?” I answered him, “What do you want from me? What, am I
guilty for surviving? That’s what happened.”
Do you know what happened to your
Only after the war I found out that my father was
killed on February 15, 1945. I was certain that my father had been killed the
day he reached Auschwitz; I knew the date he got there. Afterwards I found out
that because he was 43, they took him for labor. They took him to a horrible,
terrible camp – Mauthausen. Afterwards I started inquiring about what happened
there. I thank God that my mother was murdered on the spot and didn’t endure all
My younger brother, who was ten years old, was
certainly killed on the spot. As to my sister, I received messages that she
survived the Holocaust, but died after liberation. I know that she reached
Auschwitz, and there was a rumor that afterwards she was in Sweden. I tried to
find out about it, and I appealed to some of my friends in Sweden. I wasn’t able
to find anything.
Holocaust you changed your name from “Klein” to “Amital.” What was behind that
My name was Klein. In Hungary, it was a very
common Jewish name. It doesn’t mean anything; now my name has more
There’s a verse that says, “The remnant of Yaakov shall be
in the midst of many peoples like dew (tal) from the Lord, like showers upon the
grass, that hopes not in man and waits not for the sons of men” (Mikha 5:6). I
felt that this verse described our situation during the War of Independence. We
were alone; we fought almost alone against the whole world. I looked for a name
– “I shall be like dew for Israel” (Hoshea 14:6).
Did the fact that you’re a religious person help you to cope
as a survivor?
After the war I was in contact with Abba
Kovner a”h [a leader of the Vilna Ghetto revolt, and a kibbutz leader and poet
in Israel]. Once we were both participants in a TV panel about the meaning of
the Holocaust. He asked me, “Did you have problems with your faith?” I answered
him, “I had problems? Your problems are even more serious. I believed in God;
now, I don’t understand His ways. But you believed in man; now, do you continue
to believe in man, after what you saw in the Holocaust? Truly, we both have a
Abba Kovner had a dream of creating a TV program. In one
of our meetings he said to me, “People have become so far removed [from Judaism]
– let’s do something with Judaism. I’ll discuss literature, you’ll discuss the
Sages.” That idea lasted until one day he came and said, “Yehuda, the generation
is lost to us. They don’t want to hear about Judaism.”
That was our
last meeting. Afterwards he died. He ate himself up.
Did you have religious crisis points?
can’t speak of crisis points. One lives in crises all the time. For me, every
festival is problematic. On Simchat Torah, for example, I would speak at the
yeshiva about the Holocaust [because it was the day of my liberation]; I
couldn’t let Simchat Torah go by without mentioning the Holocaust. I spoke about
it all the time. Every eve of Tish’a be-Av I spoke about it at the yeshiva; the
subject occupied me.
Did it also
affect your attitude towards prayer?
On the contrary – as
Rabbi Yehuda ha-Levi said, “I flee from You – to You.” I have no other option. I
need God; without that I’m not able to exist at all. Without this faith I lose
everything. But it’s not as people think, that when a Jew is religious then all
the problems are solved. There’s no such thing. But I need His closeness. Just
as a person cannot be alone, he seeks some intimacy, some anchor. For me, faith
in God is that strong anchor.
the Holocaust lead you to new conclusions about your religious
I don’t know about conclusions. Conclusions are
a very big, very difficult subject. But it has to occupy us. The Holocaust isn’t
part of our consciousness; people want it to be forgotten. What conclusions do
we need to reach? I maintained the conclusion that I believe; that’s my personal
conclusion. My conclusion is that I continue to believe in God. But the subject
I pray, and I have problems. I think, sometimes,
about how they prayed those prayers in Auschwitz. Once in a while I am reminded;
on Yom Kippur, on Rosh ha-Shana, I say, “Ata bechartanu, You have chosen us from
among all peoples; You have loved us and desired us” – and it occupies me. One
of the things I ask myself is, How did people pray? I saw people who prayed
after the war. Survivors who came back to the city and didn’t find their
children, their families. I saw how they prayed, and I think about that all the
time; how they prayed, “Nishmat kol chai tevarekh et Shimkha, The soul of every
living thing will bless Your Name … for the kindnesses” – how they related to
this. That occupies me. I don’t say that I have an answer, but that should
occupy a thinking religious person. But I think people are afraid of these
questions. Should we not address something just because it doesn’t have an
Do you think that today,
the Holocaust has ramifications for the religious
It has ramifications for every aspect of our life.
Everything that exists in Israel is related to the Holocaust; everything is
unconsciously influenced by the Holocaust. It plays a great role in our life in
Israel – the whole existential fear, the [focus on] survival.
What, as you see it, is the place of the Holocaust
in our religious world today?
In the early years, when I
got here, I heard people say, “We don’t need to talk about it.” Once, when I was
on a bus, a youngster was sitting next to me, from a secular kibbutz; he was a
Holocaust survivor and began recounting what had happened to him. There was a
Jerusalemite there who said, “They have to forget, not to think about all of
that.” I couldn’t believe that. What a running away! Today, too, people run away
from the Holocaust and won’t deal with the Holocaust – religious and
Sometimes I encounter strange phenomena. They
interview a religious person who says, “Why were some children killed there in a
traffic accident? Because they didn’t observe Shabbat.” I said to him, “Okay, so
you have an explanation for that, but why were millions of Jewish children
killed? For that you have no explanation. So why are you trying to give a
religious explanation? Be quiet.” It upsets me, but what can I do? Sometimes I
How do you think [the
inability to confront the Holocaust] finds
People still think the world just carries on,
in all the newspapers. They think that we’re living in this time like sixty
years ago [before the Holocaust]. They don’t understand that something has
changed in the world. Amongst religious people there’s still the same line that
was there sixty years ago. That’s a sign that it’s difficult today to deal with
What do you think
should have changed?
The Holocaust should have occupied
religious Jews, too. It should have been the main problem that we try to deal
with. Today there’s a Judaism in which the Holocaust is not spoken about; people
run away from the Holocaust. They don’t live the Holocaust, they don’t
internalize the Holocaust. [I mean] the whole community – religiously and
All the years, and especially in recent years, I speak
about the Holocaust at every opportunity. But I don’t hear other Jews talking.
What does it matter whether I was there or not? They don’t speak about the
Holocaust, it doesn’t occupy them. There are problems today; you look at what’s
happening in the world of culture; they’re trying to explain that we [Israel]
are like the Nazis. That also shows that they’re not okay with the Holocaust,
and are looking for ways to ease their conscience. One may not say that Israel
behaves like the Nazis. This whole comparison has no logical basis at all. What
pains me is that there are Jews, too, who try to be universal and who also speak
in this way.
Do you believe that
the Jewish nation has an extra role in the wake of the
We have to bring across the Holocaust into
human consciousness. This has to occupy us as human beings. Can we just carry on
after everything that happened? Is it possible to carry on? Something happened.
It demands of a person an emotional revolution, for a certain
Do you believe that we have
more of a moral obligation than other nations, in the wake of the
I believe that it demands of us greater
morality, greater attention to others.
As a rabbi and educator,
where do you see the Holocaust’s influence on your educational
First of all, I took upon myself to be a rosh yeshiva
because I knew that I had to fill the place of my friends who did not survive.
That [sense of mission] gave me the strength to do something. That fact that I
was among the few who remained, that gave me strength. Otherwise I would not
have taken upon myself such a role. I don’t come from a family of rabbis and
leaders. My wife comes from a well-known rabbinical family. I come from a simple
family; what business did I have building a large institution? I also took upon
myself some public roles [as a minister in the Israeli government] a few years
ago. I emphasized the moral aspect, and afterwards I was also in the opposition
as far as a large portion of the Religious Zionists were concerned. What gave me
strength was the fact that I must fill the place of others who did not make it
Everything I have said is only part of what I feel, but I’m
not able to say any more.
For further reading: A
World Built, Destroyed and Rebuilt – Rabbi Yehuda Amital’s Confrontation with
the Memory of the Holocaust, by Moshe Maya, Ktav Publishing House and Yaacov
Herzog College, 2005 (order here).
original of this interview, including an audio excerpt, can be found
A minute-long video excerpt is also available:
 The Hebrew original of this interview
appeared in Yad Vashem’s online newsletter on Holocaust education, Zika, vol. 13
(Dec. 2007). Our thanks to Yad Vashem for allowing us to translate and
post the interview.
The International School for Holocaust Studies,
Yad Vashem, all rights reserved, 2007.