Jewish Journal

The Best Holocaust Novel You Never Read

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

April 29, 2014 | 7:23 am

I have spent the last almost four decades years of my life in an intensive journey through higher Jewish learning.

I had thought that I had heard of every Jewish thinker and every Jewish philosopher.

But I had never heard of Otto Weiss, and Otto Weiss turned out to become one of my profound teachers.

Except almost no one knows about him.

I first “met” Otto Weiss through my colleague, Rabbi Walter Rothschild of Berlin, Germany. He told me about a manuscript called “And God Saw That It Was Bad,” written by Otto Weiss. In 1941, Otto Weiss, his wife, and his daughter Helga were deported from Prague and interned in the infamous “model ghetto” of Theresienstadt. Every day, Otto would write a little bit of the book, and then get the pages to Helga to illustrate. He was like a Jewish Scheherazade – telling one more story to keep her alive.

Otto Weiss died in Auschwitz in 1944. Helga managed to survive Auschwitz by eluding none other than Joseph Mengele. And God Saw That It Was Bad was published by Yad Va Shem in 2010, edited by Ruth Bondy. http://www.amazon.com/And-God-Saw-That-Was/dp/9653083465The illustrations are by Helga herself, now known as Helga Weissova-Koskova. 

In And God Saw That It Was Bad, God wonders why fewer prayers than usual have been reaching Him (forgive the gender specificity, but it will become relevant). And so, God comes down to earth to see what is happening to the Jews. God disguises Himself as a Jewish man, and takes the name Aaron Gottesman -- Aaron, the man of God.

God/Aaron comes to Theresienstadt, and the ghetto policemen take him into custody, and he winds up living in the ghetto. There, God/Aaron sees what is happening with the Jews -- “And God Saw That It Was Bad.” God/Aaron contracts typhus, and dies, and Aaron Gottesman’s name winds up on a rabbi’s kaddish list.

The whole idea that God can come to earth and become human -- well, it would give Maimonides a posthumous heart attack.  

And that God would suffer, and even die? Doesn't this sound, well, Christian?

Don’t get distracted by those theological messages. Instead, focus on the real point of Otto Weiss’s fable.

Otto Weiss was saying: “Helga, do you think that we are utterly alone here in this ghetto? The world might have abandoned us, but God has not abandoned us, and God will never abandon us. God is with us here in Theresienstadt. God is with us in our pain, in our suffering, and in our vulnerability.

Otto Weiss goes one step further. When we suffer and when we are in pain, God also suffers. 

Otto Weiss did not invent this idea. It was there all along, hidden like a gem in our sacred literature. When someone is in pain, the Shekhina, the female presence of God in the world, says: "My head is too heavy for me; my arm is too heavy for me!" (Talmud, Sanhedrin 46a)

Moreover, when we went into the ghettos and the camps, we did not go alone; God went with us.

When we went into slavery in Egypt, we did not go into slavery alone -- God/Shekhina went into slavery with us. When the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, we did not mourn alone -- God/Shekhina mourned with us. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, we did not go into exile alone -- God/Shekhina went into exile with us. (Talmud, Megillah 29a)

What does it mean that God is in exile? It means that God is somehow not at home in the world. The Hebrew poet Chayim Nachman Bialik imagined that God comes to synagogue, and frequently finds no one there, and God is lonely.

I alone am left to find myself beneath the broken wings of God’s Presence.
God’s Presence hides in a corner of the synagogue, sitting in a shadow.
And what will happen afterwards, after the synagogue and the house of study
Are completely empty and there is no one left?
What will God do afterwards?

And in the future, God/Shekhina will be redeemed with us as well.

So, if you want to be part of the great cosmic mission of bringing God back from exile and into the world – here’s what you do: You pray. You study Jewish words and ideas. You do mitzvot that affirm that human beings are created in the divine image.

Or, as Bialik would have understood it: you keep God company. You heal God’s loneliness.

Otto Weiss was no Emil Fackenheim, or Elie Wiesel, or Richard Rubenstein, the radical Jewish theologian who trafficked in a uniquely Jewish version of “death of God” theology.

Otto Weiss was just a humble yid who died in Auschwitz, and who wrote a charming story for his daughter.

It turns out, though, that he might have been contemporary Judaism’s most profound theologian.

How many other theologians were consigned to the fires? How many other works of theology and modern midrash died before they could even rest upon the printed page?

Alas, we will never know.

Perhaps God knows – literally.

Perhaps God, even now, is studying those unwritten works and is teaching their words to the angels.

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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