Where Nazis Met, Jews Now Dance

Josh Nass Public Relations Executive
Font Size:

Ninety years after the Holocaust, Judaism is alive in areas no one thought it ever would be again.

Last week, Rabbi Dovid Hofstedter, the founder and leader of Dirshu, a global Jewish educational initiative, traveled to Vienna to participate in a siyum which is a celebration to mark the completion of study of a complex area of Jewish law. There were approximately 400 participants, most of them European.

This historic event took place in a hall where Orthodox Jews had two major meetings prior to the Holocaust. Unfortunately, this same hall was used for Nazi events, but this week, the hall was flowing with Hebrew and discussion of the Talmud, which was written by Jewish scholars many centuries ago to interpret the Torah.

The entire Jewish community was brimming with excitement prior to the event. Even as recently as the 1980’s when a former Nazi, Kurt Waldheim, was elected as the president of Austria, it seemed an impossibility that there could be such a large gathering of observant Jews.

Prior to the war, four percent of Austria’s population was Jewish and approximately 10 percent of Vienna’s residents were Jewish. Now approximately 9,000 Jews live in Austria and around 7,000 of them live in Vienna.

Rabbi Hofstedter, himself a son of Holocaust survivors, not only traveled to Vienna for a celebration but also to show support to the Jewish community there. The Jews of Europe have faced difficult times in recent years. There have been terrorist acts and populist groups who are against immigrants and treat Jews as outsiders, even though there has been a Jewish presence in Europe for over a thousand years.  Moreover, many Europeans talk of outlawing Jewish circumcision and the method that animals are slaughtered for kosher food.

When Rabbi Hofstedter founded Dirshu, he was cognizant of the fact that in the early 20th century Jews were able to study throughout Europe at a very high level of learning. He has spent much of his adult life bringing that level of study back to Jews throughout the world, including throughout Europe.

While reaching out to Jews in Vienna, Rabbi Hofstedter and other Dirshu representatives had the opportunity to travel to Bratislava, previously known as Pressburg. The Jews of Pressburg had a complicated relationship with the various people who ruled the city from the Middle Ages through the 20th Century. However, it is beloved by Haredi Jews because Rabbi Moses Sofer, an 18th and 19th century scholar, established the Pressburg Yeshiva there. For hundreds of years, the city was the center of Central European Jewry and the Yeshiva educated hundreds of Jewish leaders who ended up greatly influencing the Orthodox and Haredi movements in Judaism.

However, Vienna and Bratislava weren’t the only cities on Rabbi Hofstedter’s itinerary. He went onto Budapest to meet with Dirshu students. Hungary has special meaning to Rabbi Hofstedter since that is where his family lived before WWII and so many relatives of his perished in the Holocaust. He went to reach out to those Hungarians who were starved of Jewish learning during communist rule. The Jewish community there, which is very heterogeneous concerning both levels of observance and Jewish knowledge, greeted him with opened arms and he was honored to be able to speak before them.

For Rabbi Hofstedter, supporting Jewish education in Europe is not just a way of preserving the Jewish people, but it is an act of defiance against those who would rather forget the murders committed in the Holocaust. In addition to the rising anti-Semitism in Europe, there have been many instances in recent years of “influential” Europeans saying that it is time to move on and that the Holocaust was not as bad as the Jews like to make it seem. Such statements are another kind of murder; they murder the memories of those who were slaughtered.

Nothing could express the joy that Rabbi Hofstedter and the other representatives of Dirshu felt as they were able to partake in the inauguration of a Dirshu branch in Berlin which was one of their last European stop. Jews now will be able to study the works of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen, better known as the Chofetz Chaim who wrote about Jewish ethics and how one should not spread gossip. After WWII nobody could foresee that there would ever be a Jewish community in Berlin again.

The Nazis sought to not only wipe out the Jewish people, but to wipe out any trace that Jews had existed. But the Jewish people survived, as did their texts and millennia of rabbinic discussion and interpretation.

Josh Nass is Founder and CEO of Josh Nass Public Relations

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.