I was born in a Displaced Persons Camp in Germany, and our family came to America in May of 1951. Upon arrival we were “adopted” by a very kind Jewish-American family. They got us a nice apartment and arranged a good job for my father in Schenectady, New York. Mrs. Dubb took me to the Riverside Public School and registered me in the first grade as “Martin.” She told me it would be much easier for people to pronounce than Menachem.
One day some of my classmates asked me to join them that evening “trick-or-treating.” I looked forward with excitement to joining my friends in this new ritual. My father came home and said I couldn’t join them, that I was Jewish and that Jewish children didn’t trick-or-treat. Until then our Jewishness had meant little to me. I was bewildered by my father’s refusal and stormed out onto our stoop. I sat there with tears in my eyes watching my friends delighting in their costumes and bags of goodies.
I think at that moment my father realized that if he stayed in Schenectady, America would swallow up his children. Almost immediately he moved us to Brooklyn, registered my brother and me in a Hasidic yeshiva and started praying in a small Hasidic synagogue. Gradually, he resumed the Hasidic practices of his pre-war youth. I was sent to yeshivas where the Holocaust permeated everything around us. The schools were named after Jewish communities destroyed during the Holocaust. My classmates were all children of survivors. Most of my teachers had been in the camps just a few years earlier. And yet the Holocaust was never mentioned. The threat it posed to our faith was just too great.
My mother went along with my father’s Hasidic ways despite her own unresolved crisis of faith. She told me how she had prayed the entire first night she went to Auschwitz. She was certain God would immediately destroy this evil place. Morning came and the chimneys were still smoking. She decided then and there that she would really give God a piece of her mind when she met Him in heavenly judgment. Despite her anger, she never completely gave up on Him. Before her death, as her mind was being eroded by Alzheimer’s disease, she thought every day was the Sabbath. Her greatest fear was that she might, God forbid, forget to light the Sabbath candles or recite the Sabbath prayers.
I am grateful to my parents that I inherited some of my father’s faith and some of my mother’s skepticism. For years I tried to reconcile the two by interviewing numerous observant survivors in an attempt to understand their continued faith. I gradually realized that survivors themselves are at a loss to explain God’s silence. Almost unanimously, they reject all theological explanations for the Holocaust. Though disappointed in not finding answers to the big questions, I discovered that survivors who kept the faith have a surprising degree of religious tolerance. As a close Hasidic friend of my father told me, “It is much easier for me to understand my friends who abandoned faith after the Holocaust than it is to explain to you why I remained.”
I am sympathetic to survivors’ attempts to protect post-Holocaust faith and pass it on to future generations. It is an overwhelming challenge and, amazingly, one at which they have largely succeeded. At the same time I am leery of all those who attempt to bolster faith by demeaning the “other.” Faith after the Holocaust requires us to live with unanswerable questions. That humbling recognition must lead to a faith that builds bridges rather than barriers between all people.
— Menachem Daum
(Statement courtesy of P.O.V.)
Menachem Daum, Producer/Director
Menachem Daum is co-producer and co-director, with Oren Rudavsky, of the Emmy nominated A Life Apart: Hasidism in America. For years he has been conducting an oral history project among elderly survivors of the Holocaust and has written extensively on the subject. Also research director of the Brookdale Center on Aging at Hunter College for more than 12 years, Daum produced and directed In Care Of, also Emmy nominated, about the dilemmas facing families caring for the elderly, and Stay Tuned: The Challenge of Hearing Loss for the National Institute of Health. Early in life, Daum pursued Talmudic studies at Mesivtha Tifereth Jerusalem. He went on to receive a master’s degree from Fairfield University and a PhD in Educational Psychology from Fordham University. He and his wife, Rifka, have lived in the Hasidic neighborhood of Boro Park, Brooklyn, for the past 36 years.