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A chronicle of courage

THE ORDER to kill every pregnant Jewish woman had been issued that morning. So when a Nazi patrolling the Jewish ghetto in Kovno noticed a pregnant Jew walking past the local hospital, he shot her at point-blank range, killing her on the spot. Some passersby rushed the dead woman into the hospital, hoping that it might be possible to save her baby. An obstetrician determined that she had been in her last weeks of pregnancy, and said that if surgery were performed immediately, the baby might still be rescued. But could such surgery be squared with Jewish law, with its stringent concern for the dignity of the dead? If the baby didn't make it, the mother's body would have been mutilated for nothing.

The question was put to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, a young rabbinical scholar. He didn't hesitate. "When saving a life is involved, we are not concerned with the desecration of the dead," he ruled. If the murdered mother could speak, wouldn't she welcome the "desecration" of her body if it would assure her baby's survival? He ordered the operation to proceed at once, and the baby was born alive.

Then came a horrifying postscript. "The cruel murderers . . . came into the hospital to write down the name of the murdered woman. . . . When they found the baby alive, their savage fury was unleashed. One of the Germans grabbed the infant and cracked its skull against the wall of the hospital room. Woe unto the eyes that saw this!"

This case from May 1942 was one of many that Rabbi Oshry was called upon to decide during the Nazi occupation of Kovno, Lithuania's second-largest city. He recorded the heart-rending questions that were brought to him in brief notes on scraps of paper, then buried the scraps in tin cans. Someday, he hoped, those scraps might be found -- and give evidence that even in the midst of the inferno there were Jews who clung to their God and His law, refusing to abandon Him even as they must have wondered whether He had abandoned them.

More than 90 percent of Kovno's 40,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust -- either by the Germans or their Lithuanian collaborators. But Rabbi Oshry survived, and after the war he retrieved his notes and began writing them out as full-length rabbinical rulings, or responsa. These were ultimately published in five Hebrew volumes; in 1983 a book of excerpts in English -- "Responsa from the Holocaust" -- was published by Judaica Press.

I read "Responsa from the Holocaust" soon after it came out, and found it deeply moving. With the approach of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which this year falls on April 19, I took it down from the bookshelf last week -- and again found it powerful and affecting. The questions laid before Rabbi Oshry can reduce you to tears, but what is really extraordinary, I saw now, was that anyone would care enough to ask such questions in the first place.   Continued...

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