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A chronicle of courage

Page 2 of 2 -- In October 1941, "one of the respected members of the community" asked Rabbi Oshry if he could commit suicide. His wife and children had been seized by the Nazis, and he knew that their murder was imminent. He also knew that the Nazis would most likely force him to watch as his family was killed, and the prospect of witnessing their deaths was a horror he couldn't bear to face. He begged for permission to take his own life and avoid seeing his loved ones die.

Later that month, the head of another household came to Rabbi Oshry "with tears of anguish on his face." His children were starving to death and he was desperate to find food for them. His query was about a bit of property that had been left behind by the family in the next apartment. The entire family had been butchered a few days earlier, and there were no surviving relatives. Under Jewish law, could he take what remained of their belongings and sell them to raise cash for food?

Next to such questions, answers seem almost superfluous. (The rabbi did not permit the suicide; he allowed the neighbors' property to be taken.) What is stunning is that men and women in the throes of such suffering and brutality were still concerned about adhering to Jewish law. In the lowest depths of the Nazi hell, in a place of terror that most of us cannot fathom, here were human beings who refused to relinquish their faith -- who refused even to violate a precept without first asking if it was allowed.

Violence, humiliation, and hunger will reduce some people to animals willing to do anything to survive. The Jews who sought out Rabbi Oshry -- like Jews in so many other corners of Nazi Europe -- were not reduced but elevated, reinforced in their belief, determined against crushing odds to walk in the ways of their fathers.

Some Jews fought the Nazis with guns and sabotage, Rabbi Oshry would later say; others fought by persisting in Jewish life. In the end, "Responsa from the Holocaust" is a chronicle of courage and resistance -- and a profound inspiration to believers of every faith.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com. 

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