During times of excruciatingly unjust pain and suffering, we may look up to God for help and justice. If we do not receive help, we may rebel against God. Abraham in the Bible asked God: “That be far from thee […], to slay the righteous with the wicked […]: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Genesis 18:25, King James Version). Seeing the wicked succeed and the righteous suffer generated these questions: “[…] Wherefore doth the way of the wicked prosper? Wherefore are all the happy that deal very treacherously?” (Jeremiah 12:1 KJV).
The Holocaust was a time of monstrosities. Many Jews wonder where God was when six million Jews were annihilated in the Holocaust. I will briefly illustrate some answers.
Some claim that there is no God, or that God is guilty.
There are those who think that the reason for the Holocaust will become clear in the future. We must accept everything with faith and love, otherwise, our faith is conditional. Some thought that the Nazi persecutions heralded the coming of the Messiah. Everything God does, he does for a reason, but sometimes we cannot understand how it is so.
There are those who argue that the Holocaust was the outcome of the sins of the Jews; they left the countries where they lived and did not wait for the Messiah to take them to Israel. They assimilated, therefore, God “hid his face” and did not intervene in the Holocaust. Some claim that Jews are responsible for each other, sometimes the righteous suffer because of the sinners--even if the sinners are dead.
Another opinion is that the wicked will pay in due course for their wickedness. Some think that we owe explanations to God, and not vice versa. It is not for God to take care of our affairs. For many years, Jews did not immigrate to Israel while they could. There is a connection between the Holocaust and the founding of Israel.
Calamities of different magnitude happen every day. Grief-stricken people call for God and when he does not answer, they wrestle with their faith and cannot accept explanations such as the ones above. They may become disbelievers and rebel against God.
This is what happened to the national Hebrew poet H. N. Bialik (1873-1934, he was a Yeshiva student at his youth) — when he identified with the Jewish victims of the 1903 pogrom in Kishinev, Bessarabia (at that time czarist Russia, now Moldova), that shocked the western world.
A newspaper published that the Jewish community murdered a Christian boy and a girl in order to use their blood for preparing a Passover Matsah (unleavened bread). Provoked rioters murdered 47 Jews, severely injured 92, slightly injured 500, destroyed hundreds of Jewish houses, and robbed hundreds of stores and raped many Jewish women.
The New York Times described the riots this way:
There was a well laid-out plan for the general massacre of Jews on the day following the Russian Easter [...] the general cry, "Kill the Jews," was taken up all over the city. The Jews were taken wholly unaware and were slaughtered like sheep. […] Babes were literally torn to pieces by the frenzied and bloodthirsty mob. […] At sunset the streets were piled with corpses and wounded. (April 28, 1903)
The riots shocked Russians; protesters rallied in New York, London and Paris, particularly because there was a belief that Russia at that time represented open-mindedness. Many idealistic young Jews joined the battle for social justice.
The Jewish community of Odessa sent Hayyim Nahman Bialik, A 30-year-old Hebrew poet, to Kishenev, with instructions for his mission. Bialik wrote about 200 pages of evidence. For example, he reported one woman’s story thusly:
Afterward he raped me twice in a row. One young man […] about three hours afterward. Another man came to me before dawn… The third rapist conducted himself cruelly and murderously, kneaded and clutched me and ripped my clothes” (p. 123)
This was the backgrounds for Bialik’s poem “On the Slaughter.” I translated two stanzas of “On the Slaughter” in which Bialik wrote about God and faith and speaks for his people
Heavens, plea for mercy for me!
If there is God in you and there is a path to God—
But I have not found it --
[Then] you pray for me!
I -- my heart is dead and there is no prayer anymore on my lips,
And helplessness and there is no longer hope —
How long, whereto, how long?
The speaker doubts that God exists, his heart is dead, he is hopeless and he does not have any prayers left anymore. He implores the heavens to pray for him in case God does exist. His choice of words may allude to Biblical questions, such as, “Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph?” (Psalm 94:3, KJV); “Until when shall you forget me, forever?” (Psalm 13:2, KJV); “O Lord, how long shall I cry, and thou wilt not hear! Even cry out unto thee of violence, and thou wilt not save!” (Habakkuk 1:2, KJV).
Bialik also wrote:
And if there is justice--let it appear at once!
But if [only] after I am annihilated from under the sky
Justice will appear—
Let His throne be eradicated forever!
And with eternal evil heavens will rot;
And you too, villains, go forth with your violence
And live in your blood and be acquitted.
If justice exists at all, he demands it immediately, before his people are annihilated, not an abstract justice in the future. If justice appears after his (the Jews’) annihilation, he wants the throne of God to be hurled down forever and the heavens to rot eternally. The biblical, “I said unto thee when thou wast in thy blood, Live.” (Ezekiel 16:6, KJV). Here living in the blood means staying alive; while in the poem the wicked live in the blood of murders. No wonder it was hard to get permission from the Censor to publish the poem. Questions, exclamations, short sentences, repeated words, poetic images, imperative language and the many allusions (illustrated here), intensify the emotional content.
The world without God is a sad world, without justice, prayer and hope.
The following link displays some images of the pogrom in Kishenev (the narrative is in Hebrew):https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z7DNOX_L-eI