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The Ghosts Between Us and God

On Yom Kippur, reconsidering the Book of Psalms in light of those who were murdered in the Holocaust

Menachem Z. Rosensaft
September 21, 2023

The Kotzker Rebbe famously asked, “Where is God?” before answering his own question: “God is wherever you let God in.”

But what if we have quarrels with God? How do we manifest our uncertainties, our reproaches, even a deep sense of abandonment, of betrayal? How can we let Adonai in when unresolved anger prevents us from letting Adonai in?

In the introduction to his translation of The Book of Psalms, Robert Alter called it “the most urgently, personally present of all the books of the Bible in the lives of many readers.” At a papal audience on Oct. 14, 2020, Pope Francis said that psalms “are invocations, often dramatic, that spring from lived existence.” In the psalms, he went on, “suffering is transformed into a question. From suffering to questioning.”

As we sit in our synagogues on Yom Kippur, as is the case throughout the Days of Awe, we recite psalms and are meant to be comforted by the timeless beauty of the liturgy. But we do not sit there by ourselves. Sitting with us, hovering over us, are ghosts who force us to reconsider our prayers against the realities of Auschwitz and Treblinka, of Majdanek, Babi Yar, Ponary, and Bergen-Belsen.

​Again and again, we are told that Adonai is and always has been merciful and compassionate, that Adonai is our rock, our fortress, our redeemer, acting with lovingkindness and protecting us from evil and evildoers. “Tzur yisrael,” fortress and rock of the people of Israel, we recite before the silent Amidah, the central prayer of the morning service, “kuma be’ezrat yisrael,” arise to the assistance of the people of Israel. And yet, we know that no such divine intervention, no such divine assistance was forthcoming, that no divine lovingkindness manifested itself at Auschwitz or Treblinka, at Majdanek, Babi Yar, Ponary, or Bergen-Belsen.

Ve ahavta et Adonai,” and you shall love Adonai, we are commanded on Yom Kippur and in our daily prayers during the year. But such love must, by definition, be reciprocal. And we are left to contemplate whether starving Jews crowded together in a Birkenau barrack or Jews dying of typhus at Belsen believed that they were still loved by Adonai.

Burning Psalms are my attempt to cast the 150 biblical psalms in the context of the Holocaust. They reflect the perspective of a son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen whose families were murdered in the Holocaust. I wrote them as a Jew who believes—or wants to believe—in God, but who is unable to reconcile the presence or absence of God during the Holocaust with the essence of God, of Adonai, as portrayed in the Book of Psalms.

To a certain extent, the Burning Psalms were sparked by the following two incidents that occurred in 1943, while the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau were operating in full force. My father was deported to Auschwitz in late August 1943 and found himself in a Birkenau barrack together with Jews from the Polish city of Zawiercie, including the highly respected rabbi of that city who was known as the Zawiercier Rov. In mid-October of that year, during the festival of Sukkot, my father smuggled a tiny apple into the barrack where the inmates had gathered to pray so that the Zawiercier Rov could recite the blessings after a meal. Throughout the prayers, my father recalled, the aged Rov stared at the apple, obviously conflicted. At the end of the clandestine service, he picked up the apple and said, in Yiddish, almost to himself, “Un iber dem zol ikh itzt zogn, ‘veakhalta ve-savata u-verakhta et Hashem Elohekha …’” And over this, I should now say, “And you will eat, and you will be satisfied, and you will bless your God …” “Kh’vel nisht essen,” I will not eat, he said, “veil ikh vel nisht zat sein,” because I will not be satisfied, “un ikh vill nisht bentchn” and I refuse to bentch, to sanctify God. And with that, the Zawiercier Rov put down the apple and turned away.

The Zawiercier Rov never lost his faith in God. Like the Hasidic master Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, however, he was profoundly, desperately angry with God, and this anger caused him to confront God from the innermost depths of his being.

One evening around the same time, my father and a group of Jews from Zawiercie were sitting in their barrack when the Zawiercier Rov suddenly said, again in Yiddish, “Der Rebboine shel-oilem ken zein a ligner,” the Master of the Universe can be a liar. Asked how this could possibly be, the rabbi explained, “If God were to open His window now and look down and see us here, He would immediately look away and say, ‘Ikh hob dos nisht geton,’ I did not do this.” And that, the Zawiercier Rov said, would be the lie.

The following six Burning Psalms are meant to be an atonal counterpoint to the Yom Kippur liturgy. In Burning Psalm 18, I imagine my 5-1/2-year-old brother saying in the Birkenau gas chamber, “in my distress I called to You Adonai but the ground did not tremble … You did not roar, did not even whisper,” and asking, “what did I ever do to deserve Your silence, Your indifference?”

Burning Psalm 42 transposes the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, directed at Adonai as our parent and sovereign, into the heart of the genocide of European Jewry. In Burning Psalm 71, three Yom Kippur refrains—”do not cast me away in my old age,” “as my strength fails, do not forsake me,” and “do not distance Yourself from me”—are recast as dissonant outcries on Auschwitz-bound trains. Burning Psalm 86 echoes another verse featured prominently and repeatedly in the Yom Kippur liturgy: “Adonai Adonai El rachum ve’chanun erech apaim ve’rav chesed ve’emet”—Adonai, Adonai, compassionate and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth. Burning Psalm 106 juxtaposes the expectation in the “Hu ya’aneinu” litany, that the One who performed miracles for our biblical ancestors would do so for us as well, against the reality that no such miracles, no such lifesaving divine interventions, were forthcoming for the Jews facing annihilation at the hands of Nazi Germany and its accomplices. And the theme of Burning Psalm 136 is the pervasive, morally and theologically overwhelming absence of Adonai’s lovingkindness in the eternal darkness of the Shoah.

Burning Psalm 18

Benjamin Prejzerowicz, my mother’s son, was 5 years and 8 months old when he was murdered in a gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau on the night of Aug. 3-4, 1943.

a song from the dead for the dead, for the shadow, fading reflection, of Benjamin who spoke these words to Adonai on the day that Adonai did not save him from the hand of all his enemies

and he said
I once loved You Adonai
I believed
I was taught
You were my strength
my rock
my fortress where I would be safe
my salvation
Adonai, Adonai
I believed
I was taught
You are compassionate
abounding in lovingkindness
in faithfulness

in my distress I called to You Adonai
but the ground did not tremble
the world’s foundations remained unshaken
You did not roar
did not even

You did not bend the heavens
did not come down from Your palace
to lift me out of the suffocation

what did I ever do
to deserve Your silence
Your indifference?

was david
who seduced bathsheba
who sent uriah to his death
whom You did not allow to build Your temple
more faithful than I
more righteous
more blameless?
and yet You rescued david from his enemies
but left me gasping for air
gas filling my lungs
on a cold cement floor
as the cords of death choked me
overwhelmed me
dragged me to Your sheol

no Adonai
You did not protect me with Your shield
Your right hand did not sustain me
You did not set me free
did not hold me
cradle me
comfort me
therefore You will not light up my eyes
or revive my heart
not even with a rainbow
and I will not sing to You again

Burning Psalm 42

For Adonai, an elegy from the depths

no deer runs free through birkenau
no streams of clear water
no distractions to take away the certainty
that tomorrow
is an illusion

I stopped yearning for You long ago
when I heard a german scoff
“where is Your God?”
he was right
You are not here
You were never here
now all I want to know is
do You know I am here
we are here?
do You
ever look down
even for an instant
and see me
see us
have Your tears
ever become
Your bread?

these things I will remember
how I walked slowly
oh so slowly
among weeping thousands
into a sepulcher of the doomed
deafened by screams
for help
for mercy
for You
until the gates closed behind me
not the gates of heaven
the gates of the righteous
that You did not open
but the gates of death

Avinu Malkeinu
here You are not king
You were never king
You never will be king
here the oppressors are king
their voices
their curses

Avinu Malkeinu
they wear warm uniforms
we wear torn rags
they eat hot meals
we receive turnip soup
stale bread
they sleep in beds
we lie on filthy lice-infested straw
in leaky wooden barracks

Avinu Malkeinu
because we are
Your people
we have been inscribed and sealed
in the book of death

Avinu Malkeinu
asphyxiating gas
engulf us
destroy us
before we become dust

Avinu Malkeinu
You did not hear our voice
You did not favor us
You did not spare us
You were not righteous to us
You did not treat us with compassion

Avinu Malkeinu
You did not save us

Burning Psalm 71

Hungary, May-July 1944

You did not shelter them
You did not rescue them

more than 430,000
taken at gunpoint to trains
they believed in You
called out to You
“my God, deliver me
from the grasp of the unjust”
You did not come
You sent no one
a rabbi
beard flowing
in his white yom kippur robe
carries a Torah scroll
cradles it
kisses it
“do not cast me away in my old age”
he is thrown into the cattle car
with the rest
rich jews
poor jews
“O God, do not distance Yourself from me”
“You are my rock and my fortress”
“You are my hope”
147 trains
after day
after day
all in one direction
all to the same place
the same ramp
a finger pointing
to the left
to the right
“my God, hasten to my aid”
one final walk
huddled naked
each alone
totally alone
a cacophony
Ribbono shel olam
oy Gotenyu
into an atonal concerto
voices ever weaker
by spreading zyklon-b
“as my strength fails do not forsake me”
then silence
absolute silence

You did not revive them
You did not raise them
from the depths of the earth

Burning Psalm 86

Adonai Adonai El rachum ve’chanun erech apaim ve’rav chesed ve’emet

Adonai, Adonai, compassionate and merciful God, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness and truth

Adonai Adonai

my enemies have seen
that on the day of my distress
I called You
but You
did not answer me

El rachum

You have not shown compassion
to Your faithful
painfully branded
like cattle
with blue numbers
on their arms


You were not merciful
to infants
thrown screaming
into pits of fire
to the innocent
forced to inhale
choked by
carbon monoxide

erech apaim

You were far too slow to anger
against those who

ve’rav chesed

You have not been kind
are not gracious
to the millions of souls
You did not save
from the nethermost depths


having sparked the first flame
Creator of not being
of blackness before and after light
You may not disavow
unburied ashes
of Your only lie

Burning Psalm 106

no hallelujahs from me
after auschwitz
I cannot give thanks to You
for goodness You withheld
at majdanek
for lovingkindness You did not show
at ponary
for mighty deeds You did not perform
at babi yar

remember Your people
whom You did not favor
at belzec
whom You did not save
for Your name’s sake
at sobibor

remember all the innocent
whom You did not redeem
from the hand of their enemy
at chelmno
whom You did not lead
out of the depths
at jasenovac
who never saw Your salvation
at terezin

You did not
see them in their distress
at dora-mittelbau
hear their anguished prayers
at mauthausen
recall Your covenant with them
at buchenwald
show them mercy
in the eyes of their captors
at ravensbrück

You may have answered
isaac on mount moriah
but You did not answer
janusz korczak and his children
at treblinka

You may have answered
hagar and ishmael in the desert
but You did not answer
regina jonas or edith stein
at birkenau

You may have answered
joshua in gilgal
but You did not answer
anne frank or hélène berr
in bergen-belsen

You may have answered
joseph in his egyptian prison
but You did not answer
charlotte salomon or horst rosenthal
in gurs

You may have answered
daniel in the lion’s den
but You did not answer
simon dubnow in riga
or itzik wittenberg in vilna

You may have answered
chananya, mishal, and azarya
in the burning furnace
but You did not answer
menachem zembia or emanuel ringelblum
in warsaw

You may have answered
jonah inside the fish
but You did not answer
walter benjamin in portbou
or szmuel zygielbojm in london

You may have answered
mordechai and esther in shushan
but You did not answer
hannah szenes in budapest
or enzo sereni in dachau

no hallelujahs from me
I cannot bless You
after auschwitz
the dead will not say

Burning Psalm 136

I cannot give thanks to You
will not acclaim You
for lovingkindness
You did not show

jeering mobs
tearing torah scrolls
spitting on rabbis
cutting off their beards
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

starving children
begging for bread
in ghetto streets
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

jews forced to undress
before they are shot
at ponary
babi yar
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

janusz korczak and his orphans
walking to the cattle cars
murdered at treblinka
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

the ss doctor
on the birkenau ramp
pointing with his finger
to the left
to the right
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

my five-and-a-half-year-old brother
led into the gas
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

a blue number
tattooed on my mother’s arm
to replace her name
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

screaming infants
incinerated alive
in pits of fire
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

my father
flogged with 250 lashes
in block 11
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

hannah szenes
tortured and executed
in a budapest courtyard
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

anne frank
ravaged by typhus
in a belsen barrack
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

You watched parents
watch their children die
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

You did nothing
to stop the slaughter
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

Your strong hand
did not strike down
our killers
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

You did not remember us
in our distress
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

You did not ease
our anguish
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

You did not rescue us
from our enemies
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

You did not
stretch out Your arm
to bring israel
out of the abyss
where was Your lovingkindness
in that?

You gave us
eternal darkness
as our inheritance
where is Your lovingkindness
in that?

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.