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Adonai Wept

The voice of Jeremiah, the prophet of the destruction of the Temple, confronts the devastation of the Holocaust

Menachem Z. Rosensaft
September 23, 2022
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
I look: no man is left, and all the birds of the sky have fled.
—Jeremiah 4:25

Elie Wiesel wrote that he understood this imagery “only when I returned to Auschwitz and Birkenau in the summer of 1979. Then and only then did I remember that, during the tempest of fire and silence, there were no birds to be seen on the horizon; they had fled the skies above all the death-camps. I stood in Birkenau and remembered Jeremiah.”

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, the haftarah, the selection from one of the biblical books of the Prophets read following the Torah reading, is from Chapter 31 of the Book of Jeremiah. In his brilliant Jeremiah: The Fate of a Prophet, Rabbi Binyamin Lau referred to this particular section as a “prophesy of comfort and redemption.” Jeremiah, the witness of the brutal destruction of both Solomon’s Temple in 587 BCE and of the Jewish commonwealth, invokes the vision of the Jewish people’s eventual redemptive return to the land of Israel, a prophesy that in turn becomes a source of comfort for Jews in their Babylonian exile.

My mother’s favorite biblical verse is in this haftarah: “Is not Ephraim my beloved son?” Jeremiah quotes God as asking. “Whenever I speak of him, I remember him ... I will surely have compassion on him.” Whenever she heard it, or whispered it to herself, I am certain that she thought of her 5 1/2-year-old son Benjamin, my brother, who was murdered in a Birkenau gas chamber. As Cantor David Lefkowitz sang the verse at her funeral, I sensed Benjamin’s presence. In one of his sermons at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove explained this passage as “​the desire to hold on combined with the knowledge that we must let go, an exquisite and wrenching push and pull embedded at the core of the human experience.”

Martin Buber described Jeremiah’s prophesy as “pure,” that is, “bound up altogether with the historical hour and God’s direct speaking in it.” But what if, like the birds, God also fled from the ghettos, the deportations, the death camps, the death marches in Nazi controlled and occupied Europe? And what if Jeremiah, the pure prophet of the destruction of the First Temple and subsequent exile, returned two-and-a-half millennia later to confront the nocturnal universe that was the Holocaust?

Only this time, Jeremiah’s words are not from Adonai, but addressed to Adonai.

Jeremiah, Chapter 31, Resurgent

So whispered the wind through the trees as Adonai looked away:
The people did not escape
could not escape
from the shadows beyond
found neither mercy nor compassion in the industrialized wilderness
disguised as civilization

When Israel was marched
away from their homes into cattle cars
away from the ramp into death chambers
away from the ramp to barracks
away from camps into snow
never homeward

Adonai did not reveal Himself to them
He withheld eternal love from them
even as they went on loving Him

They waited
they still wait
for You to save them
shelter them
rebuild them
O girls of Israel!
they took up not timbrels
Fanya, Anita, Rachelka
but violins
that played to the rhythm of the not yet dead
walking past them
into never
past vineyards they will never plant
they will never enjoy
that exist only
in hallucinations
in mirages of hills they will never again see
for the day has come when watchmen
proclaim death on the heights of Małopolska
and no one ascended to Zion
to Adonai their God

So whispered the wind through the trees as Adonai looked away:
Cry out in despair for Jacob, Yankele
Rachel, Roszka, Leah, Lea’le
Isaac, Itzikl, Rebecca, Rivkele
Abraham, Avremele, Sarah, Surele
Benjamin, Yumek
thousands and thousands
tens of thousands
hundreds of thousands
a million and a half
children who once played
once sang
once learned
once dreamed
once were loved
who vanished from Your earth
from under Your trees
under Your sky
Your clouds
into smoke
Your smoke
Your ashes

Cry out in despair not to Adonai
but for their parents
grandparents, brothers, sisters
aunts, uncles, cousins, friends
think of the parents
grandparents, brothers, sisters
aunts, uncles, cousins, friends
You did not allow these children to become
scream at the Birkenau ramp
Your new crossroads of the nations
intone requiems of despair

You did not save
Your people
leaving behind only a surviving remnant

They were brought from the north, south, east, west
gathered from the ends of a cursed Europe
the blind, the disabled, the weak in their midst
mothers holding infants
pregnant women
girls who would never become pregnant
grandparents who never harmed
never threatened
transport after transport
train after train

They came pleading
hoping despite the enveloping darkness
in vain
without compassion they were driven
at gunpoint
with whips
by snarling dogs
they were led not to calm waters
on paths where they would not stumble
but into streams of zyklon-b
hearing echoes of teutonic laughter
desperately looking for
calling out to
they were all Ephraim
they were all Benjamin
my mother’s child
they were all His first-born

So whispered the wind through the trees as Adonai looked away:
Hear the cries of the dying
you nations that watched them die
you people who ate breakfast, lunch, dinner
while they starved
as they were suffocated
listen to the cries of the dying
of Benjamin gasping for air
unpoisoned air
at dawn and at dusk
when you wake
when you drift off to sleep
when you dream

So whispered the wind through the trees as Adonai looked away:
He who allowed Israel to be scattered
will never gather them
will not protect them
will not save them.
for Adonai did not ransom Jacob
did not redeem Israel from those
Adonai could not control
would not control

They died while others sang
on the heights of Zion, in Tel Aviv, Haifa
and in the safety of distant lands
New York, Chicago, Los Angeles
Johannesburg, Melbourne, Buenos Aires
able to enjoy the bounty not of Adonai
but of freedom
stores filled with bread and vegetables
children drinking milk and eating fruits
playing with dolls
and toy trains
families eating meals
from sheep and cattle
poultry and fish
they walked through
made love in
watered gardens
young women and men danced and kissed
their parents smoking cigars and cigarettes
drinking wine and whiskey
and only sometimes
thinking of
the still alive who languished there
Birkenau, Treblinka, Majdanek
Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor
Gross-Rosen, Riga, Transnistria
Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Mauthausen
Ravensbrück, Terezin, Jasenovac
mourning turned into abiding grief

Adonai cannot comfort them.
Adonai has no food to give to the hungry
and His people have been abandoned
declared the wind as Adonai looked away

So whispered the wind through the trees as Adonai looked away:
Cries are heard in Birkenau
bitter sobbing
mothers forced to live
refusing to be comforted
aching for their children.
who faded into heaven
as black columns

So whispered the wind through the trees as Adonai looked away:
My elegies merge into your voice
orphans of Israel
orphans of the night
hoarse from crying
the rain drowns in your tears
for there is no end to your anguish

A surviving remnant shall in time emerge
from the enemy’s lands
homes destroyed
families murdered
betrayed by neighbors
Torah scrolls ripped and burned
hope is an illusion
declared the wind as Adonai looked away

So whispered the wind through the trees as Adonai looked away:
Your children shall return to life
in their countries
in other countries
on other continents
but nothing will ever be the same
their dreams will be Your nightmares
forcing You to hear
gas-permeated voices choking
as they cried out to You

The wind hears Benjamin calling to Adonai:
You have forsaken me
and in revenge
I will not forsake You
I know what You did not do
and You know that I know
and that knowledge shall be an emptiness between us
like an invisible wall that blocks out the light
I will not receive You back
I will not allow You to return
as if what happened did not happen
and yet despite all that happened
You, Adonai
are still my God

Now that I have called out to You, Adonai
now that I have heard the wind
whispering through Birkenau trees
Treblinka trees
Belsen trees
I am filled with pain
and my anger risks becoming indifference
but even though nothing has changed
Ephraim remains Adonai’s beloved son
and Adonai is still my Father
even though He has looked away
I still search for Him.
my heart still yearns for Him
and as we approach each other
as Adonai opens His window
opens His eyes
looks down
and sees His children once again
I hear Adonai weeping in the wind

Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia and Cornell universities and is general counsel emeritus of the World Jewish Congress. He is the author of Poems Born in Bergen-Belsen.