They Went Like Sheep to the Slaughter
To march silently into the gas chambers, to line up against a wall waiting for the bullet that would end life, or to stand naked at the edge of a ravine filled with bloodied, lifeless bodies, awaiting one’s turn to die, is beyond comprehension.
Indelibly printed in the minds of not only the survivors and their children, but in the minds of people everywhere, are the questions, “Why didn’t they fight?” and “Why did they go like sheep to the slaughter?”
I find it to be very painful and humiliating, as well as a perversion of the truth and reality, to hear people say that the Jews of the Shoah went to their death like sheep to the slaughter. Not true! It is one of the most insulting and humiliating statements hurled at the martyrs of the Shoah. It is an epithet that insults the good name and memory of those who died a saintly death. A gross falsehood!
It hurts me to hear people talk like that for many reasons. It hurts me because it insults the memory of my mother and father and infant brother who perished in the Shoah. They did not go like sheep to the slaughter. They went with dignity! They went under the guard of overwhelming numbers of soldiers, Germans, Poles, Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Bialorussians, Estonians and Latvians alike. They did not go like sheep. They walked like human beings! With dignity, faith, and the words of Shema Yisrael on their lips.
My six-month old baby brother is not to be compared to a sheep. He had the imprint of G-d upon him. My mother did not die like a sheep. She went to her death with dignity. She went to her death with tears flowing down her cheeks. She walked her last step with a prayer on her lips and faith in her heart, holding her infant son in her arms.
My father was not killed because he walked to the slaughter like a sheep. He was killed because he was a Jew, and had no means of escape, or weapon with which to fight back or with which to take his own life and thus deny the murderers their opportunity to kill another Jew. He died the death of a martyr with the words Shema Yisrael on his last breath.
I remember well sitting in the ditch by the roadside as a six year old boy, waiting my turn to be taken to the pit to be shot, and now to be spoken of as having been led to the slaughter like a sheep? What an outrage! What a lie! What does it even mean? Presumably, it means to allow oneself to killed without offering any resistance, and to allow oneself to be killed when one had a chance to fight back and live, or at least, to die fighting.
I remember watching while I was waiting to be shot, as two young boys, mere teenagers, jumped up and started running away into the field, toward the nearby tiny woods, with the hope of escaping death. They ran no more than about five hundred feet before they were shot by a volley of gunfire coming from the rifles of the Wehrmacht soldiers who were guarding us and leading us to the death squad. They did not go like sheep to the slaughter. Should I, a six-year old orphaned boy, hungry and barely able to walk, have gotten up then and tried to run to the forest? Would that have been the heroic thing to do? Or does the world recognize that my very survival, my will to live, and the fact that I am a Rabbi today, leader of a community of G-d fearing Jews, is an incomprehensible miraculous heroic feat?
One had but to search the faces of the victims to see that those were people with no hope. Betrayed and abandoned by the world and by mankind as well, they were left to grope in darkness and terror. Make no mistake. The insinuation that somehow they could have or should have fought back physically is a vicious and libelous statement. The responsibility for their heinous murder lies not in their lack of courage, but solely with the Nazis and their collaborators. Do not allow outrageous questions to taint the memories of the holy neshamos that were murdered by evil people.
We must try to walk in the victim’s shoes, crawl into his skin, and take on his identity. Jews of the Holocaust began to know terror as part of daily living, with the Nuremberg Laws, anti-semitic newspaper articles, broadcasts, rallies, beatings and economic boycotts, all part of the process to dehumanize him.
How much can he withstand? Jumbled fearful panicked thoughts race through his head. Should he take his wife and his children and flee Europe? How could he leave his aging parents and beloved family behind? Will he be able to get out? Where should they run?
Where could he go, when the International Conference at Evian, France, has demonstrated that he is unwanted, that no country will accept Jews. The doors to freedom, and therefore, to life are closed to the victim. Like a pariah, a leper, shunned and unwanted elsewhere, trapped, his passport is now stamped with the letter “J” for “Jude.” Kristallnacht finds Nazis wantonly destroying homes, businesses and shuls in his town, inhuman deeds orchestrated by hate for the purpose of eradicating all signs of Jewish life.
Then it begins in earnest. His friends are arrested, interrogated, beaten and sent to concentration camps, never to return. His precious children are expelled from school, unable to leave the house for fear of being beaten. He is unable to explain why they are living a nightmare and cannot allay their fears. He is forced to wear the yellow badge of death and his home is confiscated. He must now live in a ghetto.
Seven in one small room, insufficient food to sustain life, little or no medication available to cope with rampant illness, he watches helpless, as Jews of all ages lay dying in the streets. One of his children becomes ill and succumbs. He wails in anguish but the world is deaf and uncaring. His mind cannot comprehend that this is reality. This is not the barbaric Middle Ages; it is the modern day in a sophisticated civilized world. How can this be happening?
Then the day arrives when he is told to report to the railroad station with his family*; and he must obey. During the unspeakable five day trip in boxcars, his father dies as he gasps for air. The dead are not permitted the luxury of falling to the ground, but are held upright, pressed against the living like sardines.
Faint with hunger, barely conscious, they arrive at a concentration camp, numb, starved, and barely able to move let alone run. They are processed immediately, by a small inhuman beast wearing a Nazi uniform, brandishing a gun and a whip. With the whip, he point to the left or the right, randomly choosing who will live and who will die. The weak and destroyed Jew soon learns that most of his loved ones have preceded him; they have gone to their deaths in the “ovens”, and the smoke of their remains is above his bent head. And
YET THIS JEW MIRACULOUSLY CLINGS TO LIFE.
HE IS WITNESS TO DEATH, TORTURE AND UNBELIEVABLE ACTS OF DEGRADATION AT THE HANDS OF THE NAZI MONSTERS. Like a haunted animal, he exists from hour to hour trying to be invisible in order to avoid more suffering. He dreams of escape. Escape how? Escape to where? In this hell, where the labor is unbearable, the hunger forever gnawing at this insides, he is plagued by nightmares in which he sees his wife and children gasping for air in the gas chambers, sees his mother’s outstretched arms begging for rachmonis and his neighbor, Moshe, beaten to death. He cannot quiet his children’s voices, the screams that awaken him night after night. He tries in vain to erase the thoughts of the horrors all around him, the hideous experiments being performed on the Jewish women, in the name of German science….and with all this….he does not cry. He has no tears left. A fellow inmate attempts to overcome a guard. He is tortured brutally and shot on the spot in front of the others.
Yet there are moments of miraculous sanity and he dares to hope that this will end so that he will be free of pain and hunger and guilty feelings for having survived. He even dreams sometimes that he will arise from the slime, a whole man, a man who will build a new life.
How dare the world ask, “Why didn’t they fight back?” “Why didn’t they kill the guards?”, “Why did they go like sheep to the slaughter?” Fight back? How? With what? Broken in body and weary to death in spirit, how could our victim fight? It is incomprehensible that he could even survive the day, and after witnessing and surviving, it is incomprehensible that he could live on to build a new life. The world must realize the incredible courage and heroism that was the will to live, to survive, and to go on to build a life, and a better world after the devastation.
WHAT A MIRACLE INDEED THAT THE SURVIVORS WENT ON TO DO WHAT THEY DID!!! NOT JUST TO SURVIVE (even that would have been miracle enough!)…BUT TO THRIVE AND BUILD AND TO GIVE US A GENERATION OF HEROES AND LEADERS!!!
The world must know that bravery and courage take many forms, and that the Holocaust victims were heroic. The will to survive, to rejoin the human race that had abandoned them, to build a new life and a better world for others, that takes incredible special courage.
By virtue of surviving and crawling back from the filth, morass and horror of Hitler’s hell, they fought back. They are unsung heroes who lived to alert mankind to the unspeakable evils that live in men, evils nourished by hatred and prejudice. The remnants of Hitler’s inferno came back literally from the grave to build a new nation, a nation conceived in blood and tears, a nation that loudly proclaims, “I will not be silent. Jews return to your own home. Our gates eagerly await you.”
The flickering wick of Jewish life could not be extinguished by the monsters. The story of the Holocaust must be told again and again so that our children, our children’s children, and their children will know that the Jews have been tyrannized, murdered, berated, threatened, maligned, abased, and degraded by enemies for centuries. The world stood by and let it happen! And yet, we, unlike any other people, have survived. We must forever be proud of our Jewish heritage, and we must stand fro truth and justice, as a light unto the nations, so that the light of the Jew is never extinguished. Jews have fought against tyranny for themselves, as well as for others, throughout history. They did not, they cannot and will not destroy us. We did not perish in the infrerno. Our nation will never march like sheep to the slaughter. The people of Israel shall live. Am Yisrael Chai!
(Addendum to my dear Moriah: Imagine the heroism of your Saba, my father Alexander Yaakov ad meah v’esrim shanah, and his parents and sister. My grandfather who was murdered, Saba’s father Yitzchok HaLevi ben Yaakov HY’D, and my grandmother, Saba’s mother Gittel bas Yehoshua Chaim z’l had the courage at the moment when they were told to report to the Warsaw railroad station, despite the frightening and overwhelming odds against them, with armed SS men surrounding them, my grandfather and grandmother had the courage and faith and will to try and find a way out of what was an inevitable death. You know the story, you know how my father hid for days in the mattress factory and ran through the streets of Warsaw as a little child, alone, looking for the address on the piece of paper, surrounded by evil people looking for any Jew, even a child, to shoot him and kill him. Can you imagine any child being more heroic? Can you imagine a mother being so heroic as to send her little boy off into the frightening dangerous streets alone, in order to save him, if at all possible, not knowing if she would ever see him again? Can you imagine a father so heroic as to see his little boy in a barber shop, and not speak to him or touch him, so that he might save his life, knowing that he may never see his child again, and indeed never seeing him again, because the father is murdered….for nothing….for being a Jew, when the war is over, and there are hours left to liberation…..And can you imagine the heroism of my father, to leave his mother, in all the devastation of Poland, after having gone through all of the horrible experiences of the ghetto and the sewer and hiding with the gentile family, and seeing his father for the last time in the barber shop before he was murdered, knowing no other life, and having no other person with him, to willingly get on a ship to a far off unknown country, not knowing whether he would ever see his mother again? And can you imagine the heroism of my father as that young boy, barely 13, raising his hand in England and walking up to the Torah for an aliyah to mark his Bar Mitzvah? And can you imagine the heroism of my father as that young man, figuring out how to get to America, and insisting on going to Chaim Berlin and learning Torah and living as a proud Jew after what he witnessed? And can you imagine the heroism of my mother Breindel Faige ad meah v’esrim who survived the work camps with her siblings and mother, and whose father the Rav Moshe Zev HYD was murdered by Nazis…for nothing….for being a Jew… when the war is over…hours away from liberation? Can you imagine the heroism of her mother, Raizel bas Yisroel Meir z’l who throughout the war, managed in countless miraculously unexplainable situations to stay alive together with her eight children, (including appealing to Nazi commanders in their office to “bring back my boys”) and who unbelievably thought about making sure that they should be learning Torah throughout the time that they were in the work camp, and so she took a melamed into the tiny room and shared their bare subsistence of flour and potato peels with him in order to pay him for teaching her children? Can you imagine the heroism of such a woman, that was my grandmother? And can you imagine the heroism of my mother, your Savta, who as a young girl demanded to be allowed to study at the Bais Yaakov school, and who after the war, after her beloved father, the Rav of the town, was murdered and there was devastation everywhere, she proudly and happily (yes with simchah! you know how your Savta is always b’simchah?) took the reins of an entire elementary school and her mother and seven siblings were given a house to live in and food to eat, in exchange for her running the entire school and she was only 16 years old? Can you imagine such heroism? And can you imagine how my parents, each coming from foreign countries with no money and without fathers to take care of them or give them anything, and having witnessed and experienced murder and degradation of their families, and their people, that they each came to America, happy and optimistic, and proud to be Jewish and to daven and learn Torah, and to live a wholesome Jewish life? And they each arrived to the hotel in the Rockaways that summer, not only healthy in body and spirit, but full of joy and ready to meet the love of their life and build a Jewish home dedicated to the values that we have given over to you? Can you imagine anything more heroic? Hodu L’Hashem Ki Tov, Ki L’Olam Chasdo.
Do you think our people went like sheep to the Slaughter? If anyone ever dares to insinuate that in your presence, please Moriah, answer them!!!)