refuge in hell

Yesterday I finished Refuge in Hell, recommended to me by one of my Melton instructors (and University of Maryland Hillel executive director) Rabbi Ari Israel. Ari brought up the book during the Melton lesson about Yom HaShoah; we were discussing the post-war debate by Israel’s Knesset about whether to designate a day as “Holocaust Remembrance Day.”

Hard as it is to imagine in the early 21st century, when the Holocaust is generally considered *the* defining Jewish experience of the 20th century (rivaled only perhaps by the non-unrelated event of the founding of the state of Israel), there were members of the Knesset who spoke out against establishing such a day. For some, the issue was choosing a day to be symbolic of the extermination, as many Holocaust survivors rightly considered every day of the war to be “Holocaust Day.” Others argued that the victims of Nazi genocide should be remembered on the traditional Jewish day of mourning, Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of the First and Second Temples.

Ultimately, the Knesset decided to designate the 14th of Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising (April 19, 1943), but this was problematic because the 14th of Nisan is the day immediately before Pesach. The date was finally moved to the 27th of Nisan.

During our class, the discussion wound its way to the commemoration of Holocaust, when Ari brought up the fact of Berlin’s WWII-era Jewish hospital — which had potential to become a symbol of Jewish survival but never did. In fact, most people don’t even know its story.

Daniel B. Silver’s book would seem to be the definitive history of the institution (in English at least). Silver is an attorney, not a historian, who just happened upon his knowledge of and interest in the hospital, which inspired him to write the book — but his account is obviously exhaustively researched and documented (including interviews with former hospital employees). The story begins a little slowly, and is slightly repetitive at the outset, but overall Silver presents a detailed view of Jewish life in Berlin from 1938 to 1945, during which time the hospital survived as the one, improbable outpost of Jewish life in the headquarters of the Third Reich.

One of the most interesting details that Silver uncovers is the role that intermarriage played in the hospital’s survival. Pre-war, German Jews were among the most assimilated in all of Europe, leading to a much higher rate of Jews’ marrying Aryans than in neighboring countries. Although Nazi racist ideology would, all other factors’ being equal, have not considered these Jews to be any different than less assimilated Jews, German ideals about the sanctity of marriage trumped (for a while) the Nazis’ ability to dissolve these family ties through deportation and arrest. Thus, Jews in what were deemed “mixed marriages” (although in many cases the participants themselves might not have considered them so) were afforded more privileges than other Jews. And many members of these mixed marriages worked, or came to work, at Berlin’s Jewish Hospital. So while intermarriage in descried in the United States in the 21st century as a threat to Jewish life, in Nazi Germany it might have contributed to its survival.

And herein lies the main reason that Silver posits for the obscurity in which the hospital has languished, in historical terms: It is admittedly difficult to seize upon, as a symbol of Jewish survival, an institution that may well owe its existence to intermarriage and assimilation.

Silver concludes the book with an afterword, in which he notes the current locations and occupations of the hospital employees. I was struck by how . . . ordinary their post-war lives war. Almost all emigrated from Germany and then found fairly pedestrian employment in their adopted countries. Perhaps the routine and quotidian was by then a siren call, after years of living on the brink of hell. But I think the post-war stories also serve to underline the fact that it was ordinary people, pressed into extraordinary circumstances, who contributed to the survival of a Jewish institution — and therefore many Jews — in the heart of the Nazi regime.

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