Module 3: Religion & Culture

Faith and Shoah

Just as religious observance served as an act of resistance to anti-Jewish persecution, so too could it be challenged. Depending on people’s levels of religious observance before and during the war, as well as personal convictions, there were many religious understandings of the Holocaust. There were some Jews who could not reconcile what had happened, or happened after the war, with the existence of a just and righteous God, so they abandoned their faith. Others felt that Jews had sinned and that the Holocaust was a punishment, for which repentance and tighter observance of Torah were the only solutions to prevent this sort of tragedy from happening again. No matter the response, faith played a central role in how Jews understood and made sense of the Holocaust, as well as their trauma.

Oral History: Maxwell Smart

“Cursing God”

Alone in the forest for months, separated from friends and any support, Maxwell curses God.

Oral History: Anka Voticky

“No God”

Anka and her husband, Arnold, lost many family members in the Holocaust. Faith in God and religion became impossible.

Oral History: Felix Opatowski


Going all the way back to his experiences in the Lodz Ghetto, Felix lost his faith in God, but given all the horrors he survived, he wonders if maybe there was someone looking after him.

Oral History: Pinchas Gutter

“Faith Kept Me”

Although his experiences during the Holocaust challenge his belief in God, Pinchas never completely loses his faith.

Holocaust Responsa

Holocaust responsa are powerful primary sources that provide intimate access to the conditions that observant Jews faced during the Shoah. Holocaust responsa are part of the rabbinic literature known as Rabbinic Responsa which collects questions, posed to rabbis, on matters of Jewish law that are unprecedented. These responsa from the Shoah reveal how deprivation and persecution left observant Jews in horrifying and uncharted territory, unsure how to ethically or practically proceed. Many of these responsa, including those by Rabbi Oshry, whose responsa are some of the most well-known from this period, were hidden and only retrieved after the war. What is most striking about these responsa is the extraordinary compassion that the rabbis exhibited in their responses. Using their broad and deep understanding of Jewish law and scripture, these responsa reveal rabbinic creativity and profound human insight as they found ways to provide practical guidance and comfort in extreme times.


Oral History: Lisa Cohen

In her oral history, Lisa Cohen describes the importance her son’s brit milah (bris) held for her grandparents.

Interactive Map

To learn more about the Lisa’s family history, press on the menu button on the top left of the interactive map below. You will then be able to scroll down and click on the different icons.

This interactive map was created by Nicola Woodhead, a PhD candidate in History at the Parkes Institute at the University of Southampton, UK.

Assigned Reading



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