Here is Yosef’s contribution to Out of Hiding: Holocaust Literature of British Columbia (Ronsdale Press 2022). This is a truncated version of a much longer piece he wrote on the many aspects of hiding that have been part of Jewish life throughout the ages.

Out of Hiding:

Questions and Answers from the Depths
Afterword by Yosef Wosk

Capture of Jerusalem

Capture of Jerusalem — Prise de Jérusalem by Marc Chagall 1

There are millions of ways to discuss the Holocaust. Every victim had a story to tell, a life to live, a dream to fulfill. This, however, is a condensed essay. It is guided by the Talmudic dictum: “A hint is sufficient for the wise.”2

Ideas presented are an attempt to make sense of the catastrophe. This is not an exercise in right or wrong but rather in harvesting reactions from across vast fields of speculation. It reminds me of the time I asked Jonathan Berkowitz, a prominent statistician at the University of British Columbia, “What are the odds of being born?” He responded that there were too many variables and that it was impossible to calculate.

When I pressed him further, he paraphrased a famous retort: “That is my answer. If you don’t like it, I have others.”3

The stories you read about in this book tell of tender tears conceived in hiding, stories of how millions of adults and children—seeds of innocence born of nostalgic love, defiled by self-sanctified madmen— were violated by the horrific actions of state-sanctioned terror.

Before we enter a maze of ideas and search for meaning, please take a moment to sweep away other people’s theories and imagine yourself in a ghetto, or in the forest with rebel partisans. Place yourself hiding under a false identity, fearful of being discovered, nervous of being betrayed at any moment. Situate yourself in exile, a new immigrant, trusting no one, suspicious even of God and your own thoughts.

Impossibly, consider yourself in the living hell of a concentration camp. No place can ever be compared to the camps with their singular reputation as places where murder was manufactured on an industrial scale, reaping profits while extinguishing hope with gas, ovens, bullets, disease and starvation. While millions were exterminated and countless others suffered, one thing survived: hope. Appropriately, the national anthem of the resurrected State of Israel is called Hatikvah, “the hope,” to signal the rebirth of the aspirations of a decimated people in the only country that has planted more trees, trees of life, than it had one hundred years ago.

Menachem Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of Children of Holocaust Survivors, emphasized that “we are at a critical stage of history because this is a moment of the transfer of memory” from one generation to the next. When something is transferred it can be corrupted, dissipated and imperfectly transmitted or received. It is similar to perfume being poured from one bottle into another: most of the liquid may flow but some of the fragrance is lost.

Our mission is to be good listeners; to record and read history; to never forget.

Kinds of Hiding

Hiding in Paradise

Whether you accept the story of Adam and Eve in Paradise literally or as a metaphorical legend, everyone knows something about the narrative of the first people, the first transgression, the first hiding, and the first question.

After creating the world, God planted a garden in the east of Eden. Adam and Eve were placed there and given all plants to eat except the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and also the Tree of Life. These two trees were the most open, the most visible, the Out of Hiding 300 most not-in-hiding at the centre of the garden. The woman and man violated their trust, ate from the Tree of Knowledge and committed the first transgression. The consequences lead to not only the knowledge of good and evil but also the ability to act on it, to do good or commit evil. They became conscious of self as distinct from the other; they even became strangers to themselves.

The roots of the Holocaust were planted in Eden.

Adam, whose name derives from adamah, the earth, and Eve, Hava—translated as the mother of all life—became the progenitors of genocide as much as mavens of culture. The garden that was pleasant was now polluted. Upon exile from the garden they gave birth to Cain and his brother Abel. When Cain became angry at his brother and murdered him, it was the worst genocide in human history. One quarter of the population was killed.

These early biblical mythologies relate universal principles. There is nothing more complex than a simple story; nothing more true than fantasy; nothing more waiting to be revealed than that which is deep in hiding.

Two questions are asked in this Garden of Eden story. The first is asked by the serpent; the second by God. After ingesting the forbidden fruit whereupon their eyes were opened, Adam and Eve heard God in the garden and hid in fear. “But the Lord God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid’” (Gen. 3:8-9).

This is the first mention of fear and hiding. God’s interrogation of Adam became the one eternal question that has echoed throughout human history. “Ayeh’kah? Where are you?” Not just where are you hiding physically but also where and how are you concealing yourself emotionally, intellectually and spiritually? It is the question that contains all others. Everything that we as humans—the best of species and the worst of species—do, is a response to that cosmic query.

Ayeh’kah is not just a question, it is also a lament4 for the unintended consequences of an experiment in creation gone wrong. The Creator then decided that the only recourse was to drive the first people out of their favoured abode and leave them, for better or for worse, to their neurosis. Behind the wound lies the genius. We remain the most conflicted of creatures.

Hiding in Nature

Hiding is a universal exercise. It can take the form of back and forth flirting between lovers or commercial negotiations between business parties. Jewish tradition reminds us that even God hides.

There are many ways to hide. Hiding does not always carry a negative connotation. Often it is nurturing and generative. The egg hides in the primal womb prior to fertilization and then continues to evolve before being birthed into an expectant world. Most seeds germinate underground—buried before they are born—and then work their way to the surface where they break through the soil into sunlight.

Nature provides camouflage for the sake of survival. Animals develop hiding skills for protection from threatening weather and escape from predators. Hiding—the right to personal privacy—has existed as a fundamental practice throughout the ages. It is not always done out of fear or embarrassment. It is also found in the whisper of intimate love. We hide secret presents to be revealed at just the right moment for that particular person; we hide the end of jokes, the punch line, for the end to preserve laughter and dissipate darkness.

In a bivalent universe, for everything that is revealed, something is hidden. Hiding is a cosmic principle. Our thoughts are hidden from others and our essence manifests from the Hidden, the unformed basis of all existence. Through a series of incalculable coincidences we coalesce into an embodied consciousness that is simultaneously unique and yet also a mere footnote, inconsequential for the most part, in the midst of eternity.

Nature has no favourites. Individual lives soon expire. Everything has a beginning and an end, even space caught in the web of time. Existence is precarious.

No wonder we’re anxious.

No wonder we hide. Aspects of hiding described in this Afterword, with a few exceptions, Out of Hiding 302 have relevance to persecution, most notably traumatic concealment during and after the Holocaust. Some ideas utilize ancient biblical stories and related teachings from rabbinic literature. They can be interpreted in tens of ways from the literal to the allegorical and from the plain to the esoteric. Do not discard these treasures of world literature by considering them to be foolish scribblings of an earlier naïve age. Many mysteries have been packed into a few seemingly simple words.

Following every major national catastrophe, people have searched their traditions for something that would lend meaning. Reporting on a theological debate in the search for meaning, the Talmud in Eruvin 13b records one such doctrinal struggle. It took place in the generation following the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and exile of the majority of the population. These disastrous events felt like the abandonment of the people by the God of Israel and produced great existential reflection.

For two and a half years, the Academies of Hillel and Shammai debated. The House of Shammai maintained that it would have been better if people had never been created while the House of Hillel was of the opinion it was better people were created rather than not. They finally concluded on a compromise: Never being created would have been better than being created but now that we are here we should examine our past and scrutinize our future deeds.

Is the Creator good? Are people progressive? Or is this a neutral, indifferent universe with no particular mind or meaning, no justice, hope, or care? Perhaps we exist for no reason, we come from nowhere and return to nothing. We tell ourselves stories as insulation against madness and as a crutch for survival.

Some of these stories are quite wonderful. In their service we have built ethereal temples and extended kindness to those who suffer. But we have also weaponized stories, worshipped beliefs and saluted prevailing loyalties. There are always those who have harassed, murdered and destroyed what the other half has built.

When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem two thousand years ago, they were far less efficient than the Nazis in terms of eliminating Jews from their empire. In the continent of Europe—not just one city—the Nazis achieved a kill rate of approximately 70% throughout their conquered realm; 92% when it came to children. The Nazis never forgot a sheaf in the field and if they ever did, they did not leave it for the benefit of the disenfranchised. They murdered most of those as extra mouths to feed and as defective examples of the master race. They sent armies into the fields, stealing every grain for the military and destroying the rest so their enemies might starve. They hid their evil intentions from their victims while demanding abject obedience unto slavery and death. They burned the Hebrew Bible as well as its adherents as contrary to the German spirit.

The Nazis did not only eliminate Jews and Roma (Gypsies) as racially inferior. They also slaughtered Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, blacks, the physically and mentally disabled, political opponents, dissenting clergy, resistance fighters, prisoners of war and individuals from the artistic communities. The deaf, the blind, the physically disabled, homosexuals, the mentally ill and alcoholics were either to be sterilized or killed simply because they were viewed as genetically defective. Slavic people, though labeled racially inferior by the Germans, were allowed to exist as slaves in order to supply the Nazis with free labor.

Hiding from the Light

The Hebrew Bible mentions the idea of hiding over two hundred times in various contexts. Sometimes it is even God who is in hiding and occasionally the prophets. Prophecy, by its very nature, is something that is hidden from the vast majority of people and only revealed to a few chosen individuals who are tasked as messengers for making God’s will known to the nation. Even the greatest prophets had to hide.

At the Burning Bush, Moses was suddenly confronted by a miraculous occurrence—the presence of an angel in the ethereal fire that burned within the bush but did not consume it, and then the voice of God. “At this, Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God” (Ex. 3:6). During a subsequent encounter Moses asked God to reveal more of Itself to him—“Show me, please, your Glory”—but God agreed to reveal only a part by proclaiming the essence of Its name. He then warned Moses that he could not be shown more: “You cannot see My face, for no one can see Me and live.” Moses is then hidden in a crevice of a rock on the heights of Sinai where God further protects him by covering him with His hand until the Presence passes by. “Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back, but My face will not be seen” (Ex. 33:18-23). These four levels of protective hiding were necessary to transmit a certain amount of information—more than any person had ever experienced—and yet preserve his life.

To shelter Abraham from a frightening revelation concerning the future of the nation that would issue from him, and also about the land upon which they would settle, God causes him to fall into a deep sleep: “As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and suddenly great terror and darkness overwhelmed him (Gen. 15).” History has corroborated that the history of the Jewish people and the land of Israel would not be easy. Abraham had to be hidden from the “terror and darkness.” something that would have been too much to bear if awake.

A third example takes place in the midst of a prophetic dream vision where Elijah is transported to the desert Mountain of God, Horeb, also known as Mount Sinai. He took refuge in a cave from where he heard a wind powerful enough to shatter rocks, but God was not in the wind; then an earthquake struck, but God was not in the earthshaking; “After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came kol demama daka, a still, small voice. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19).

Hiding from the Mission

Jonah, hidden inside the belly of a whale, is perhaps the most famous of the reluctant prophets. He is instructed to travel to Nineveh, a large, non-Jewish city, to preach warning of imminent destruction unless the inhabitants changed their corrupt and heartless ways. Certain of failure and ridicule “Jonah got up to flee to Tarshish, [as far] away from the presence of the Lord [as he could get]. He went down to Jaffa and found a ship bound for Tarshish. So, he paid the fare and went aboard to sail for Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord (Jonah 1).” God, however, caused a great storm to assail the ship at which time Jonah’s identity and purpose are discovered and he is thrown overboard. Swallowed by a whale to both protect him and give him three days to reconsider his calling, he is hurled up on shore from where he makes his way to Nineveh. His prophecy ends with success, one of the few times in biblical history.

When God appeared to Moses and told him his mission—“Go! I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt”—Moses demurred, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God assured him, “I will be with you.” But even that was not enough for Moses. According to a rabbinic midrash teaching story, he continued to argue with God for seven days and seven nights in an attempt to recuse himself from the appointment. He doubted the enslaved Israelites would believe him and asked God, who hasn’t been around for a long time, “By the way, what is your name?” God is patient and gives him tactics to use as well as signs and wonders to perform yet Moses continues to excuse himself claiming that he is not eloquent, is slow of speech and one who stutters, to which God counters: “Who gave man his mouth? Or who makes the mute or the deaf, the sighted or the blind? Is it not I, the Lord? Now go! I will help you as you speak, and I will teach you what to say.” To which Moses, in desperation, cries out: “Please, Lord, send someone else.” At this, God got angry at Moses and would harbour no further excuses, telling him that his older brother, Aaron, who was eloquent and a leader among the people—but someone Moses had never met—would assist him (Ex. 3). That is how Moses, the humble outcast hiding from the Egyptians, his own people and now God, became the reluctant prophet, liberator of his nation, negotiator with Pharaoh, mediator with God, and vehicle of divine revelation, the Torah.

The final example of hiding from one’s mission with reluctance is Jeremiah. God said to him, “I have appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah’s response to this sudden numinous invasion of mind, body and soul was both humble and deflective: “Ah, Sovereign Lord, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” God reassured him, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” “Then the Lord reached out his hand, touched my mouth, and said to me: ‘Behold, I have put my words in your mouth’” (Jer. 1). Jeremiah ended up preaching his message for forty years but few listened. He lived to witness the destruction of Jerusalem and exile of its inhabitants. He also joined them in exile, for the prophet’s final act is not to gloat and further demean a dejected people—“I warned you! I told you this would happen!”—but rather to console and give them hope for renewal.

Hiding from Persecution

Possibly the most famous example of Biblical hiding—in terms of being known to non-Jews—remains the story of Moses as an infant. When the Hebrew population began to increase and the Egyptians felt threatened, Pharaoh decreed that all the newborn boys were to be sentenced to death. Moses’ mother, Yokheved, hid him for three months and then put him in a basket and floated it in the Nile. The basket was discovered and he was saved by none other than Pharaoh’s daughter who drew him from the river, redeemed him from hiding, and then raised him as her own in the palace.

Elijah’s Vision by Marc Chagall. Elijah entered a cave and spent the night. A great and mighty wind tore into the mountains and shattered the rocks, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still, small voice. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Suddenly a voice came to him and asked, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19).

In recognition of her defying her father’s decree to kill all the male babies, rabbinic tradition rewarded her with a Hebrew name, Batyah, the “daughter of God.” In appreciation for her revolutionary act and becoming a Righteous Among the Nations, she was elevated: “No longer are you just the daughter of a pharaoh, you are now considered a daughter of God.”

Hide & Seek

In a Hasidic story, the grandson of Rebbe Barukh of Medziboz (1753–1811), Yehiel Mihal, was playing hide-and-seek with another boy. He hid himself well and waited for his friend to find him. After waiting for a long time, he came out of his hiding place but the other boy was nowhere to be seen. He suddenly realized that his friend had not sought him out at all. The distraught child broke into tears and ran to his grandfather’s study. As the boy told his story, tears fell from the rebbe’s eyes and he said, “That’s exactly what the Almighty Himself says: ‘I hide myself but nobody wants to search for Me.’”

During the Holocaust, however, the game was transformed into a matter of life and death. Some were able to conceal their Jewish identity and continued to live in the open under the guise of counterfeit identification papers. Others were assisted by non-Jewish friends who secreted them—at great risk to themselves—in places such as attics, cellars, barns or forests. Some survived the war but countless others were discovered and killed.

Rabbi Joseph Polak, born a Dutch Jew in The Hague, really did play hide-and-seek in the concentration camps. He was not yet three when the war ended. He survived imprisonment in Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen with his parents. His father died in Bergen-Belsen but he survived with his mother and, after moving to Montreal and then Boston, sought for decades to reclaim memories that were not yet preserved because of his youth. He studied the history and gathered stories, struggled with childhood health problems and hidden emotional trauma, but could not consciously remember the starvation, disease and death all around him.5 He writes:

Mother died when I turned 40. Freddie, a tad older than I, came to sit with me at her shivah. “Do you remember, Joseph,” he said, “do you remember how we used to play hide-and-seek around the corpses in Bergen-Belsen?” I did not remember, but it was this question, coming from him, that allowed me to accept myself as a survivor. And it has taken nearly three decades following that shivah for me to have learned that what my mind does not remember, my body does, and so does my soul.6

Hermit in Hiding

Hiding as a recluse is as old as caves. Some people are more comfortable living in obscurity, off the grid, withdrawn from society, a hermit in hiding. John Donne, 17th century English poet, asserted that “No man is an island” but some people hide so well and protect themselves with so many defensive layers of separation, that some of us are islands. During the Holocaust and other persecutions, while most people refused to leave their families, even when they had an opportunity to escape and were doomed, some individuals were saved because they travelled lightly and alone.

Hiding in Dreams

We spend about a third of our lives in sleep. Sleep and hosting dreams can be a retreat from day’s demanding activity. During the Holocaust every day was filled with terror. It was a time when dreams, even nightmares, were a relief and dawn itself the horror. Sleep was a temporary escape from a daily routine controlled by others. Decades after liberation, however, many survivors wake up screaming in the night, haunted by memories from which there is no escape.

Human existence is a precarious braid composed of an intertwined series of revelations and hidings. We emerge from an almost impossible union, are conceived in passion’s flowered cave, are born to improbable odds, and emerge crying into a strange world. According to the Torah we are born into a world of light, “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. And God saw that the light was good, Out of Hiding 310 and He separated the light from the darkness” (Gen. 1:3-4). Many, however, have been condemned to the Kingdom of Night, the Valley of Tsalmavet, the Shadow of Death (Ps. 23:4). The metaphoric themes of light and dark have also been debated in the curatorial world of museums. For example, James Belgin, content leader of Holocaust Galleries at the Imperial War Museums in London, commented: “There are good reasons for [most Holocaust museums] to be [presented] in the dark. It feels appropriate to the nature of the subject. But the problem is that it also tacitly suggests the Holocaust is something that happened in the shadows. We wanted to be really clear with visitors about the fact that these things happened in our world. We need to accept that fact, that this didn’t happen despite Western culture; it happened within it and because of it.” Excerpt from “The dress that gave hope after the horror of the Holocaust” by Etan Smallman, The Daily Telegraph, January 27, 2021.

Life is a temporary reprieve between two hidings—pre-existence and post-existence. For those few years we are condemned to be free. It is an often awkward dance. Hiding can nonetheless be as comfortable as forest moss in the gentle shelter of gnarled trees, subtle beauty that is only shared in low light, rust that reveals as much as it conceals, and erotic fantasies that are best stimulated beneath evening’s seductive veil.

Once protected from the “fear of night” (Ps. 91:5), one can merge with the evening and sing with the stars. The dream of Zion, the aura of Israel, kept millions alive during the darkest of times.

Pathologies of Hiding

The Nazis were not the first enemy to burn Jews alive. Paranoia can be triggered by having been in threatening or stressful situations. The Jewish people have experienced so many of those as to live in a constant state of legitimate low-level suspicion.

There are also pathologies of hiding, such as irrational feelings of being persecuted, accused and followed. Paranoia has also often been 311 reported by Marranos—crypto-Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism by the Spanish or the Portuguese Inquisitions in the late 15th century. There are still descendants of Marranos today, five hundred years after the persecution, and as they pass down hints of secret Jewish tradition they are still held back by a centuries-old residual fear of being discovered. The consequences, they fear, would be arrest, punishment, excommunication or even death.

Hiding in Humility

Humility can be another type of hiding. Holocaust survivors know a unique humility. They live in a place that is inaccessible to the rest of us and they are understandably reluctant messengers as to its reality.

Out of a sense of politeness, modesty, manners, and social etiquette, we have been taught under most circumstances not to ask others certain probing questions, and not to listen to particularly embarrassing answers or to engage in gratuitous gossip. Complete revelation of ones thoughts and actions would be unbearable. We protect one another’s privacy by the mutual suppression of information and label its desecration as we would a war: an invasion of privacy.

Humility, knowing one’s place and not boasting, is one of the highest virtues in Jewish moral tradition. Maimonides (1138–1204) advised that we should follow a middle path when expressing any character trait but that excessive humility was a virtue.7 Humility, however, does not necessarily imply weakness or having a low self-regard for oneself. Moses, for example, conversed with Pharaoh, leader of the most powerful country in the world; he led a nation of slaves to emancipation, including forty years of wandering interspersed with multiple issues and uprisings; and, as an appointed prophet of the ancestral God, he often found himself in heated negotiations with the Almighty. And yet, in conjunction with his strong personality, according to the Torah, “Moses was a very humble man, more so than anyone on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).

Another lesson in humility is drawn from the giving of the Torah, the Ten Commandments, at Mount Sinai. The first tablets were written with the “finger of God” in the midst of the fire and presented with great pomp as part of a forty-day ritual punctuated with deafening thunder and blinding lightening that was so disorienting that the people ran from the mountain in fear for their lives while experiencing synesthesia during which they “saw the sound and heard the visions.” The dramatic experiences, however, were not sustainable. Moses descended the mountain to find that the people had reverted to familiar Egyptian slavery practices of building and worshipping a Golden Calf. He threw down the divine tablets, shattering them against the mountain. The second set of tablets were given and received in subdued humility. These were the ones that lasted.

Strength and humility are often intertwined in the biblical text. Rabbi Yohanan observed in the Talmud that “Wherever the power of the Holy One is mentioned, you also find his humility” (Megillah 31a). Biblical literature is replete with examples of the humble and humiliated ones elected to fulfil the working of divine history: the unassuming shepherd, the deformed prophet, the crippled patriarch and limping God, the younger brother, the smallest nation, the weak and poor, the stranger, exile, widow, outcast and disenfranchised. That which is concealed in humility is exalted in other realms.

And so “greatness tempered by humility” is a common theme. Consider the Burning Bush (why was a lowly bush chosen for the revelation instead of a tall, strong tree?), Mount Sinai (why was a modest desert mountain chosen instead of a more prominent peak or one situated by the great sea?) and Moses (why did God choose an inexperienced person with a speech impediment as his ambassador instead of a clever orator, a leader known and respected by the nation?).

Abandonment and Invisibility as Acts of Hiding

The exact percentage of Jews who chose to conceal their identities throughout the centuries remains necessarily hidden. There were those who became invisible, crypto-Jews, and continued to engage in some form of secret remnant of Judaism, those who abandoned their religion and converted to other religions, and those who simply gave up transmitting the tradition to the next generation so that the terrible burden might die with them. Even then, however, much has been passed on unconsciously in the epigenetic, subconscious cellular memory of an ancient people who entered into an eternal covenant with transcendent forces of history.

Hiding in Silence

There are many kinds of silence just as there are multiple ways to hide.

“The world” hid in silence and denial in reaction to Hitler’s provocations in the pre-war years including the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, his blatant anti-Semitic persecution, abuse of human rights and massive rearmament in violation of the Treaty of Versailles. The principle response from the West was diplomatic appeasement. The reluctance to use stronger language and forceful containment led to even greater forays by the Germans. The results of this fearful silence were World War II, the destruction of Europe, the Holocaust, the deaths of approximately 45 million civilians and soldiers, with another tens of millions wounded.

Just as the worst war in history was preceded by silence, it was also followed by silence. Initially, Holocaust survivors were too shocked to be able to speak or write about what they had experienced. Trauma from persecution and concentration camp horrors resulted in some survivors feeling as if their tongues had been severed and hung on the gallows of Auschwitz. Horrified, many naturally chose exile from their native lands and Europe altogether.

Jewish life began in exile when Abraham was instructed to “Leave your country, your place of birth, and your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you” (Gen. 12:1). Exile follows as one of the recurrent themes in the Bible until there is a return to the Promised Land of Israel. Consequently, the bible reminds us at least 36 times—more often than we are directed to believe in God—not to oppress the stranger.

You, too, must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Deut. 10:19).

When a stranger dwells with you, a stranger in your land, do not cheat him. You should consider him as one of your [natural] citizens, that stranger who lives with you. You shall love him like yourself. I am the Lord your God.8

Being a stranger in exile makes one a visible minority and it is therefore the opposite of hiding. The new immigrant, however, is one who is constantly living on edge, trying not to be conspicuous as an identifiable “other.” Two familiar mottoes for Jews in exile throughout the centuries were “To endure, be obscure”9 and “Be a man in the streets and a Jew at home.”10

The Nazis depicted the Jewish people as the consummate outsiders and therefore they were scapegoats for every perceived offence to the “pure Aryan German race.” The more the Jews tried to assimilate, the more they were suspected of being a fifth column, infiltrators and desecrators of German society. It only took the Nazis a few years to arrive at the logical conclusion to their accusations: “The Final Solution”, the deadliest genocide in history. Now we know why the Torah considered the directive to “love the stranger”—or at least to assist the immigrant—to be as important as belief in God and why we were reminded so many times over.

Hiding from Truth

A number of recent case studies have uncovered varying results in attempts to determine how many lies a person tells every day.11 Some studies estimated that we are lied to as much as 200 times a day. The Bible contains several admonitions against lying including the ninth commandment “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” However, during the Shoah, we had to become masters of 315 masquerade. Jews used concealment as an act of survival, and lied for the sake of truth. We dressed as the other in order to preserve the self and deceived evil to redeem whatever scraps of goodness still managed to defy the chokehold of authority.

Such deception and concealment to preserve who we are is reminiscent of the Jewish holiday of Purim, originally celebrated 2,500 years ago, when Esther the queen managed to hide her Jewish origins until revealing them helped to save her people. It was a time of ve’naha’foh hu (Esther 9:1), when everything had been turned upside down and inside out. “On this day the enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower them, but their plan was overturned and the Jews overpowered those who hated them.” To this day we celebrate the holiday by dressing in costumes to commemorate the creative deception that lead to salvation. Even the presence of God is not mentioned once in the entire book of Esther. Ironically, when all things official reek of skull & crossbones, of corruption and chaos, masking the truth sometimes results in the greatest veracity.

There are times when pretending to be someone else is the only way to preserve yourself. While biblical literature champions honesty—its foundational injunction being “Keep far away from anything false”12—it is also replete with examples of deception and disguise for the purpose of survival, to usurp blessings, to obtain information, for the sake of love, for generational continuity and as political strategy.

A few examples of deception: Sarah who told Avimelekh, king of Gerar, that she was Abraham’s sister, not his wife; obedient Jacob who disguised himself as his brother, Esau, at the behest of his mother, Rivka, in order to receive his blind father’s blessing; Esther who hid her Jewish nationality from the king until revealing it in a bold move to save her nation; David who feigned insanity among his enemies to save his life; Tamar who veiled her face and dressed as a prostitute to become pregnant and carry on the family lineage by stealth; Leah who was instructed by her father, Lavan, to pretend under the cover of night and modesty, that she was her younger sister, Rahel, and trick Jacob into marriage; Moses who, in his early life, passed as an Egyptian; the twelve spies, one representing each tribe, who were sent to scout out the land; Joseph, who, when prime minister in Egypt, concealed his identity from his brothers who had attempted to kill him and then sold him into slavery. King Saul also disguised himself as a commoner to consult the forbidden augury of the witch of Eindor. The Christian bible describes an extra-dimensional level of deception when it submits that “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:15).

During the Holocaust, in a nightmarish world where you were condemned just for being yourself and were guilty by birth, you often had to lose your previous identity and become someone else in an effort to survive. Possessions were reduced to a minimum; all that was important was saving your life. You had to become invisible even in plain sight. You were given a new name, foreign and false. Your past was erased, your future was only as secure as the next knock on the door.

Those in hiding were only safe as imposters. Some boys posed as girls to avoid being searched for marks of circumcision. Many hid under the guise of different religions—as Catholics, Protestants or Muslims—and learned their prayers and rituals. Those in hiding had to keep their identity secret from even their closest new friends. They could not even afford to have cluttered thoughts, for those, too, might be detected by an eager enemy. Their silence must be perfect. Concealed. A secret disguised with deception beneath a well-rehearsed mask reciting someone else’s lines in a theatre of the absurd. A wayward comment, an honest sharing of information, or the murmurings of inquisitive neighbours could lead to betrayal and death.

During this most terrible of all wars, the biblical passage—“Life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21)—was never more true. The Nazi search for the hidden was incessant. There were harsh punishments for gentiles who hid Jews and rewards to informers who turned them in. There were raids, threats, blackmail, checking identification papers again and again. The pressure was intense both for those in hiding and those who hid them.

Some rescuers may have been kind at first and some protected their charges for the duration of the war but others only took them in for money, then turned around and handed the children or others in hiding over to the Nazi authorities for an additional reward. More often it was fear that finally drove the benefactors to have the desperate Jewish refugees, often children, removed from their homes.

At first, some Jews who were not as assimilated into German culture and still maintained their Jewish sounding first and last names, tried becoming less conspicuous in society by altering them to more common Germanic appellations.13 They changed them to more common Germanic names. This offered some protection until the Nazis instituted a law forbidding such changes. On August 17, 1938, the Nazis issued a further Executive Order concerning the Law on the Alteration of Family and Personal Names. It required German Jews bearing first names of “non-Jewish” origin to adopt an additional identifying name: “Israel” for men and “Sara” for women. Later, all Jews were forced to sew six-sided yellow Stars of David onto their clothing to make their presence more obvious. Hiding became even less possible when even your clothes shouted your identity.

Hiding when you are “Disappeared”

During the shoah, millions of Jews were ostracized and declared pariahs; they were deported, enslaved, forced to flee and murdered. The Nazis then engineered a cover up of mass graves, crematoria and other concealments. Never were so many “disappeared.”

En route to that disappearance, millions were removed from society by arrests and incarceration, expelled from school, fired from their jobs, bullied or made to feel invisible. Nazis and their collaborators considered Jews as “parasitic vermin,” a deadly virus, and marked for eradication. Incessant propaganda legally declared Jews to be criminals in and of themselves or portrayed them as Bolshevik agents out to subvert European society.

“The vast majority of Jews in German-occupied Europe never went into hiding, for many reasons. Hiding meant leaving behind relatives, risking immediate and severe punishment, and finding an individual Out of Hiding  or family willing to risk providing refuge. Any one caught rescuing them was under a threat of severe and immediate penalties. Many Jews, no doubt, held out the hope that the threat of death would pass or that they could survive until the Allied victory.”14

Yellow Judenstern “Jew’s Star” that German Nazis forced Jews to sew onto their clothing.

Approximately 1,500,000 Jews were able to escape the Nazi killing machine by fleeing to neighbouring European countries or to a few other states worldwide. More than 90,000 German and Austrian Jews fled to neighbouring countries between 1933 and 1939; nearly 300,000 Polish Jews fled German-occupied areas of Poland and crossed into the Soviet zone between 1939 and 1941; while after the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, more than a million Soviet Jews fled eastward into the Asian parts of the vast country.

Children in Hiding

1.5 million Jewish children were murdered during the Holocaust. “All Jews were targeted for death, but the mortality rate for children was especially high. Only 6 to 11% of Europe’s pre-war Jewish population of children survived as compared with 33% of the adults. Of the almost one million Jewish children in 1939 Poland, only about 5,000 survived.”15

The effect of all this trauma—living through years of terror confronted by history’s most efficient and cruelest killing machine—forced some children to mature beyond their years. One child survivor described them as “old people with children’s faces, without a trace of joy, happiness, or childish innocence.”16

Although the following encounter is mentioned in the preceding segment called “Lulek’s Story,” I believe it bears repeating here in the context of hiding. In 1995, fifty years after liberation, Rabbi Israel Meir Lau—a child survivor of Buchenwald called Lulek who eventually became a Chief Rabbi of Israel—described how an American rabbi, a chaplain with U.S. forces [Rabbi Herschel Schacter], had taken him in his arms after the camp was freed on April 11, 1945.

“He came in and met a child of less than eight years old—that was me—taking him in his arms, weeping and trying to smile and laugh. Holding me in his arms he asked [in Yiddish]: ‘How old are you, my child?’ And I said, ‘What does it matter? I’m older than you.’ ‘Why do you think you are older?’ he asked me. I said, ‘Because you cry and you laugh like a child. I don’t cry and I haven’t laughed for a long time. Tell me who is older: me or you?’” Rabbi Lau added: “After fifty years we are permitted to cry.”17

After the war, many children who had been in hiding experienced the trauma of reunification with their birth parents. Due to their young age and the passage of so many years, some children forgot who their parents were and didn’t want to go with them. Others did not want to be Jewish: it represented danger; they felt safer with their Christian foster protectors who had also grown fond of the children and wanted to keep them. For many hidden children, the years of separation became permanent when their murdered parents or siblings could not return to rescue them. The reverberations of being hidden never fully subsided once World War II officially ended.

The Enemy also Hides

Europe is littered with buried bones, scattered ashes and destroyed archives—all attempts made by perpetrators to cover up their crimes. The Nazis engaged in fraud, deception and secrecy on a massive scale. With only a few exceptions, “the fact of deliberate physical destruction of human beings, and particularly of the European Jews, was never mentioned in published Nazi documents.” The “solution to the Jewish question” was generally spoken about in code words and euphemisms such as “emigration” and “evacuation” or “the final objective” or “total solution” or that “they be appropriately dealt with.” The secrecy of the operation was guarded so as not to arouse international reaction, panic by the Jewish population, and to elicit gradual cooperation by the Wehrmacht, the combined armed forces of Nazi Germany.18

As an example of the attempted cover up: At Auschwitz, where over one million people were murdered, “bones that did not burn completely were ground to powder with pestles and then dumped, along with the ashes, in the rivers Soła and Vistula and in nearby ponds, or strewn in the fields as fertilizer, or used as landfill on uneven ground and in marshes.”19

“The secrecy was complete and, to a large extent, effective. The very monstrosity of the crime made it unbelieveable. In fact, the Nazis speculated that the unimaginability of their Aktionen would work in their favor. Commenting on a report of such an Aktion, Heinrich Lohse, Nazi commissioner for Ostland, observed: “Just imagine what would happen if such occurrences became known to the enemy and were exploited; but probably such propaganda would have no effect since those who hear or read it would not be willing to believe it!”… Despite all the efforts, Himmler’s expectation that ‘the extermination of the Jewish people… this glorious chapter in our history… should never be told,’ was frustrated by the Allied victory. [What remained of] Nazi archives were opened, contemporary Jewish documents were discovered, and facts were ferreted out by courts and scholars. Moreover, by 1942 the Free World had gradually learned the truth, albeit not always complete and precise.”20

Some Last Words

Even though the all-consuming fire of the Holocaust Sacrifice has been extinguished, embers still glow in the service of memory.

Hannah Szenes penned this poem when she was 22 years old, days before her capture on June 9, 1944, leading to her execution by a firing squad on November 7, 1944:

Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with strength to stop its beating for honour’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.

May these words enlighten your path and illuminate your heroic journey of discovery.

Hannah Szenes

Hannah Szenes in Budapest, circa 1937–1938

There is much to remember and even more to know as the Holocaust comes out of hiding.

1 This etching with hand colouring by Russian-French Jewish artist Marc Chagall (1887-1985), was produced as one of 105 images from Bible, a project initiated by Vollard in France in 1931 and published by Tériade in 1956. It, too, has a history interrupted by the Holocaust: see the online article “Marc Chagall’s Bible Series: How the Artist Brought the Bible to Life”, Park West Gallery, Southfield, Michigan. It is part of the Yosef Wosk Collection, purchased with the assistance of Susanna Strem, owner of the Vancouver-based Chali-Rosso Gallery. Strem’s family was from Hungary. Many were murdered in Auschwitz; a few survived the Holocaust but were then forced to live under Communist rule after the war. Strem—who left in 1986, emigrated to Israel in 1992 and then to Vancouver in 1996—relates how “my father and his parents were saved from the ghetto by a Nazi party member. The building they lived in before and during the war had a caretaker. She was from the countryside, with very little education. Before the war broke out, she became a member of the local chapter of the Nazi party for nationalistic reasons and to rectify the wrongs Hungarians felt had been imposed upon them by losing territory after WW I. Late in 1944 all the remaining Jews of Budapest were forced to leave their homes and move into a ghetto. Soon rumours spread that the entire ghetto was booby-trapped and was going to be blown up killing everyone. This simple-thinking janitor, when learning that my family was locked in this place, managed to find her old Nazi membership card (which she has not used before), and went to the ghetto to pick up my family. She marched in with great dedication and soon all of them marched out from the ghetto, she with a big Nazi salute. She even went back to bring out other families whom she knew. She would have been shot on the spot if the police knew what she was doing…What always shocks me is the timeline of history. The frenzied speed of the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews from Budapest took place when Paris was being liberated. France was free! While the French were celebrating the war being over, not far away the death marches and transports to Auschwitz were being accelerated in Hungary.” In May 1944 the deportation of Hungary’s Jews to Auschwitz began. In just eight weeks, some 424,000 Jews were deported. By the end of the Holocaust less than a year later, some 565,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered (“Murder of Hungarian Jewry”, Yad Vashem).

2 Dah’ee la’hakima bi’remizah (Midrash Proverbs 22:15).

3 “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them…well, I have others,” attributed to Groucho Marx. Cf.

4The same word of four Hebrew letters—aleph, yud, khaf, heh—in a slightly different grammatical form is used as the first word in the Book of Lamentations. It is a cry of despair asking Eikha, “Ai, how does the lonely city once full of people exist?” It is an agonizing lament written, according to tradition, by the prophet Jeremiah after the destruction of Jerusalem and exile of her population by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. It is the same question expressing divine disappointment with humankind—whether in the Garden or in Jerusalem—spoken thousands of years apart. We did not learn our lesson then nor have we now.

5 “On April 15, 1945, British forces liberated Bergen-Belsen. The British found around sixty thousand prisoners in the camp, most of them seriously ill. Thousands of corpses lay unburied on the campgrounds. Between May 1943 and April 15, 1945, between 36,400 and 37,600 prisoners died in Bergen-Belsen. More than 13,000 former prisoners, too ill to recover, died after liberation. After evacuating Bergen-Belsen, British forces burned down the whole camp to prevent the spread of typhus. During its existence, approximately 50,000 persons died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp complex including Anne Frank and her sister Margot. Both died in the camp in February or March 1945. Most of the victims were Jews.” (Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).

6 After the Holocaust the Bells Still Ring by Joseph Polak, foreword by Elie Wiesel (Jerusalem, New York: Urim Publications, 2015).

7 See Maimonides (Rambam) Hilkhot Deot, II:3 and his commentary on Avot IV:4. Cf. his Shmonah Prakim, Eight Chapters on Ethics, Chapter IV, for a more attenuated position in which he counsels the middle position—“the mean between two equally bad extremes, the too much and the too little”—for the exercise of all characteristics.

8 Lev. 19:33-34 and also see Bava Metzia 59b.

9 Related to me by Lilian Broca; this is what her parents used to say in Bucharest, Romania before the war.

10 A statement first coined by Yehuda Leib Gordon (1830-1892), a Lithuanian-Russian scholar and Hebrew poet of the Haskalah, Jewish Enlightenment.

11 “People Lie for a Reason: Three Experiments Documenting the Principle of Veracity” by Timothy R. Levine, Rachel K. Kim and Lauren M. Hamel, Communication Research Reports, Vol. 27, 2010, Issue 4, pp. 271-285; Liespotting, book and online presentations, by Pamela Meyer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2010); “9 things you should know about liars” on Science of People website; and “UMass researcher finds most people lie in everyday conversation”, University of Massachusetts at Amhert; among others.

12 Ex. 23:7; also see Gen. 18:23; Ex. 20:16 and 23:1; Lev. 19:11 and 19:16; Deut. 25:1 and 27:25; Ps. 119:29, etc.

13 “How Nazis used personal names to spawn the Holocaust”, Ideas Program, CBC Radio and online: November 27, 2020. The episode featured University of Cologne professor Iman Nick and her work on forensic onomastics—the scientific study of personal names. For further reading on anti-Semitic trolling of Jewish sounding (((names))) see parentheses. Also see “The Etymology of Hate”, article in the Baltimore Jewish Times, August 13, 2020. For an even more comprehensive list of this constantly evolving hate base, visit “The Racial Slur Database”

14 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

15 United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

16 Ibid.

17 “When a person has reason to cry, and he wants to cry, but is not able to cry—that’s the greatest cry of all.” — Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859).

18 An active debate among historians questions how much Germans and others, in Europe and around the world, knew about the Holocaust while it was being carried out. Opinions range from it being an open secret, to active collaboration in the events with intimate knowledge of the mass murders, to claims by others of only hearing some rumours but knowing nothing about actual killings. (See the Wikipedia article “Knowledge of the Holocaust in Nazi Germany and German-occupied Europe”.)

There were also a series of reports from credible sources during the war but they were often treated as exaggerated and seldom inflamed the Allies to take specific action, outside of the ongoing war effort, in an attempt to prevent the murder of millions of civilians and prisoners of war. See “What did the World Know?” on Facing History & Ourselves website, and Holocaust in the Name of the Fuehrer by R. Gordon Grant, pp. 55-56 (Trafford Publishing, 2003). Also see the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibit “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda”, and their entry on “Frequently Asked Questions about the Holocaust”. As for the complicity of the German Army: Although there were a small minority who spoke out against participating in such atrocities, after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, an estimated 1,500,000 Jews alone were shot to death by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing squads) in what has become known as the Holocaust by Bullets.

10 “The extermination procedure in the gas chambers,” Auschwitz-Birkenau Memo[1]rial and Museum webpage.

20 Encyclopaedia Judaica. Volume 8, pp. 854 – 856 (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1972).

Wosk at Jewish Community Centre event April 5, 2022

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