What does learning about the choices people made during the Weimar Republic, the rise of the Nazi Party, and the Holocaust teach us about the power and impact of our choices today?
Alternate Jewish Ed Unit Essential Question:
How is our Jewish identity tied in with the history of the Holocaust?
The concept of “theodicy,” or why a just God would permit evil in the world, entered the conversation among scholars and rabbis after the atrocities of the Holocaust. There is no easy answer to the question, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” but the resources in this lesson are meant to provide structure and language for teachers and students to enter this continuing conversation. We often hear from teachers from different Jewish educational settings that their students wrestle with the notion of God during the Holocaust, at a time when they are trying to make sense of God in their lives today. Although there is a temptation to provide comforting answers to our students when they ask the difficult “why” questions, it is important to allow students to reflect on the complexities of the question, “Where was God?”
In this lesson, students will compare and contrast a painting by artist and Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak that grapples with this same question and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel , with which Bak’s painting is in dialogue. This comparison invites students to explore the theme of the absence or presence of God during wartime. Then students will close-read quotations from six theologians, writing on the topic of faith and God after the trauma and tragedy of the Holocaust. Through these activities, students explore the themes of faith and doubt after the Holocaust and have opportunities to reflect individually on how they might respond to the question, “Where was God during the Holocaust?”
Elie Wiesel, in his memoir Night, writes about the High Holidays in Auschwitz:
In days gone by, Rosh Hashanah had dominated my life. I knew that my sins grieved the Almighty and so I pleaded for forgiveness. In those days, I fully believed that the salvation of the world depended on every one of my deeds, on every one of my prayers. But now, I no longer pleaded for anything. I was no longer able to lament. On the contrary, I felt very strong. I was the accuser, God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man. Without love or mercy. 1
Many of the central figures in Night, including Wiesel himself, were people for whom faith, religious study, and ritual observance were at the heart of their lives. Among the many conflicts and tragedies in Wiesel’s story is the way that the Holocaust unsettled, and even destroyed, their religious identities and beliefs. For believers, the Holocaust raised and continues to raise painful questions: How could a good and all-powerful God allow this to happen?
While Elie Wiesel reflected on his relationship with God in his writing, Samuel Bak has posed questions of faith and doubt in his paintings. Bak was born in 1933 in Vilna. He was eight when the Germans invaded in 1941, and he began painting in the ghetto. His father and his four grandparents were murdered by the Nazis, but Bak survived with his mother in a forced-labor camp, as well as by hiding in a convent. The painting in this lesson, The Creation of Wartime III, is one of a series that centers around questions of faith and doubt.