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How do I explain the Holocaust to my child?

by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman


Library » History » Holocaust | Subscribe | What is RSS?


Every human being struggles to understand suffering. We seem to think, "If I could make sense of this, it wouldn't hurt any more."

But that is what suffering is: Something that makes no sense to us. And it is here, and it is real.

We can explain it away with all sorts of answers--but none will be complete. And there's only so long we can fool ourselves.

So the only answer you can really give your son is, "I don't know. Nobody knows. G-d is more than a little smarter than us. If we could understand G-d, we would be Him. But we believe in Him, and we trust that whatever He is doing is good. If we didn't believe that, there wouldn't be much point in living."

You can provide a vivid example: Imagine you are an aborigine from the Australian outback and you have no idea of surgery or surgeons. Imagine you walk into an operation room where an open-heart surgery is being done before your very eyes. You see a body lying on the table, men and women perched over it with knives, blood everywhere. What would you think of these people? Would you imagine that they are involved in an act of kindness? Or that they are cruel sadists?

If we would understand suffering, we would do nothing to heal it.
In that case, the aborigine and the surgeon are both human beings with the same human brains, just with different experiences. Yet nobody would imagine that the aborigine will come to understand what is happening on his own. How much more so when we are discussing us puny creatures attempting to understand the doings of our Creator, who created the human brain to begin with. The fact that we can understand anything at all is the greatest of miracles. It's no surprise that there are things we cannot understand.

The real question is, "Why did He create a world where we cannot understand suffering? In His Torah, He explains all we need to know to heal the world. Why not tell us His reasons for creating suffering to begin with?"

This is one answer that is obvious: If we would understand suffering, we would do nothing to heal it. And that is our main job in this world: To sweeten its bitterness and heal its wounds.

The horrors of the holocaust shouldn't be any easier for us to understand than the suffering of an infant or any other seeming injustice. The holocaust simply makes it more obvious that we have no real answers. And that is what He meant for us: Not to give nice answers, but to fix the world so it can never happen again.

I'm sure you will find the words to express this to your son.


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Posted by: Anonymous, Philadelphia, PA on May 12, 2005

I do not pretend to come close to knowing what G-d's purpose is for anything, particularly the horrors of the Holocaust. What I can see, however, are the effects such suffering has on humanity. We are less complacent because we have witnessed the potential for human evil beyond comprehension -- blind trust in leadership gives way to a demand for accountability. The passion, compassion, charity, chesed, determination, strength, and plain raw human emotion that follow tragedy have a profound impact. All of the madrush deadlines on September 11 evaporated as we gazed in front of our computer screens in shock as thousands were murdered before our eyes. Is it good that these events occurred? No. But does true human suffering force us to be the type of people we are meant to be? I saw an article discussing whether the Holocaust would have happened if the Jews had Israel. But would the fight for Israel be as fierce without the Holocaust? I don't know, but I'm certain G-d does.


Posted by: Chester Huff, Lamesa, Texas on Jun 21, 2005

Could it have anything to do with Leviticus Chapter 26 or Deuteronomy 28?

Editor's Comment

Who are we to know if the Holocaust is a fulfillment of these passages of the Torah? Unfortunately, these passages have been visited upon the Jews over and over again throughout their difficult history -- Nachmanides states that the passages in Leviticus were fulfilled with the destruction of the 1st Temple and the subsequent Babylonian Exile, and the passages in Deuteronomy are a reference to the ravages brought upon Jerusalem and its inhabitants during the 2nd Temple Destruction Era -- Unless a prophet makes the connection, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly which tragedies are fulfillments of which verses. The Lubavitcher Rebbe would refer to the victims of the holocaust as "Kedoshim" (holy ones).


Philosophy » Pain and Suffering » Holocaust

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