Each Jew must develop some personal perspective on the horrors of Nazi Germany. Different conclusions have been drawn, and they are reflected in the literature of post-Holocaust Western Jewry. Rather than generalize about various responses, I would like to deal with just one—that of the poet Jacob Glatstein.
Jacob Glatstein came to the United States from Lublin, Poland, in 1914. He weathered the Second World War in this country, while Lublin became the site of a large concentration camp. Glatstein had a deep love for his people and the culture of Eastern European Jewry. As the tragedy of the Holocaust became known, he eulogized a lost world—the world of the shtetl, the Yiddish language, and, in his view, the Jewish God.
In a stark poem entitled, Without Jews,” he states, “Without Jews there is no Jewish God.” God has “…burned in every Jewish face…glowed in every Jewish eye…” But after the slaughter of the Holocaust, who will remain to remember God? His thoughts move onto an inexorable and horrifying conclusion:
“The night is endless when a race is dead.
Earth and heaven are wiped bare.
The light is fading in your shabby tent.
The Jewish hour is guttering.
You are almost gone.”
Glatstein pronounces that a God who would allow six million people to die is either ineffectual or no God at all. And unfortunately his beliefs are shared by many.
The problem of how an all-knowing, all-powerful God could allow suffering in the world He created has been wrangled with by philosophers and theologians for centuries. But let’s look for a moment at the reaction another Jewish man had to a similar tragedy that took place centuries earlier.
I’m speaking of the prophet Jeremiah, who lived in Judah before and during the Babylonian Captivity. He was witness to the sacking of the Temple, the most holy place in the land of Israel, and he saw his people driven from their land. In reading his Lamentations, we can feel the pain he felt as he watched Jerusalem being destroyed, as he saw children die of hunger:
“My eyes fail because of tears’ my spirit is greatly troubled; my heart is poured out on the earth, because of the destruction of the daughter of my people…”
Jeremiah reflects a potpourri of emotions as he looks on Jerusalem. He goes from describing God’s motives and his people’s sins to questioning and imploring God. But in the midst of his sorrow, Jeremiah can still praise Him. There is a clear distinction between Jeremiah’s reaction and that of Jacob Glatstein. Even though the prophet doesn’t understand all that God has done, his every word takes into consideration the fact that an all-powerful, all-knowing and, yes, merciful God is in control of the situation.
“For the Lord will not reject forever’ for if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness. For He does not afflict willingly, or grieve the sons of men.”
Such faith in God in the midst of personal and national suffering is not unique to Jeremiah. Imagine how Moses felt as he toiled to lead the Jewish people on a seemingly endless journey out of Egypt, yet his faith remained. They were thankless and faithless but he bore with a whole generation.
And let us remember for a moment another Jewish man-the man Jesus of Nazareth. For those who know Him, both as God and man, it’s always important that we remember that all the pain and suffering He endured was felt more intensely than it wouId have been felt by any other man. Death by crucifixion was an agonizing and humiliating way to die. Yet, so much greater pain did He feel, for He was God and could have called for a legion of angels to rescue Him. Instead, He chose to die, to suffer, that all might have spiritual life. The unfortunate victims of the Holocaust could not choose to continue their physical lives. But all men can choose spiritual life for an eternity because of God’s sacrifice on the cross.