Rabbi Dan Ornstein: An Intimate Conversation With God In Hell | WAMC

Rabbi Dan Ornstein: An Intimate Conversation With God In Hell

Apr 21, 2020

What did Artur Berlinger say to God in his makeshift synagogue at #17 Dlouha Street, in the Terezin concentration camp? 

Berlinger was a Jewish educator, musician and artist who lived and worked in the large pre-War German Jewish community of Schweinfurt.  He and his wife, Berta, were later deported to Terezin, the “model” concentration camp used by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. 

After coming into possession of some high-quality art materials, Artur Berlinger quietly decorated a small shed with prayer quotes and frescoes containing brightly colored Jewish symbols.  He had brought with him some religious books and ritual objects, and later he received a few more from the Nazis when they decided to make Terezin look pretty for International Red Cross inspection.

There, in the midst of evil, where all faith in, and worship of, any kind of God could have easily been rejected, Artur Berlinger ran a synagogue.

Some years ago, I stood in Berlinger’s synagogue, a tiny, nearly airless room in a courtyard. Onto its walls, he had painted the excerpts of selected Jewish prayers.  Their colors, bleeding bright reds and oranges, though now cracked and fading, flooded the room. I wonder if Berlinger and his congregants who knew they were soon to die heard the walls moaning those familiar words of prayer and hope of the faithful.

I left #17 Dlouha Street, bewildered by what Berlinger chose to write on the walls.  If I could, I would ask him, “Surely, if you were looking to create a bright, quiet space of respite from suffering for yourself and your fellow Jews, you could easily have done that.  Draw rainbows, draw animals.  Instead, you carefully drew supplications, assurances of hope, requests for forgiveness.  Which God did you think would be listening to you and your pious congregation of the damned?  Did you really think that God was listening to you at all in your little corner of hell?”

I think of my own praying to God.  Some of the time, I linger over the words and I feel the depth of their poetry. Some of the time, I want to explode emotionally and soar to God on the wings of those prayers, but doubt, cynicism, and fear get in the way. Sadly, too much of the time, my prayer is a lukewarm affair, a mechanical uttering of formulas that I check off the “to-do” list of religious obligation as I rush to more important daily matters.  I wonder if I were a starved, broken victim of the Nazis incarcerated at Terezin, whether I would have even entered Artur Berlinger’s synagogue at #17 Dlouha Street, let alone prayed there? Would prayer have been my last, saving remnant, or would I have seen those words from the prayer book painted by Berlinger as a cruel joke?  Would I have taken a chisel to the walls and scraped off all the heavenly letters, screaming at him as I did, “Idiot, don’t you see that God has abdicated all mastery of this world to Satan?”

Artur Berlinger was no idiot.  He knew well the face of the Devil that peered out from SS uniforms every day that he languished at Terezin.  I cannot know for sure what he was thinking or what he believed when he lovingly drew all that religious art for his synagogue.   All I can do is imagine listening to his dialogue with God on the day that he completed his work:

Master of the universe, the monster all around us has gorged Itself and grown so huge that, today, I declare You, God, shrunk against Your will into this tiny space I have prepared, and to which I welcome You.  Both of us are trapped here by the hand of the enemy.  But the prayers I have written to You on these walls are not some display of my bitter sarcasm or a caricature of foolish piety about Your power to save us.  No, they are my dying gasp of hope that You will ultimately vanquish evil’s willing agents. What else do You and we have, except for this desperate faith that good will not be wiped away forever, that despite all this, we will not forget Your name.  All fear of You has been abandoned for now by those who would play God. Yet we will not abandon You, the One who made us in Your image, for better and for worse.  Abandoning You while in the mouth of this monster would mean allowing It to rob us of our dignity and turn us into monsters.

Having stood inside #17 Dlouha Street, I don’t know if I can now pray more devoutly, like Artur Berlinger.  All I now know is that, for me, not to pray has ceased to be an option.

Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom in Albany, NY.  He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama. (Jewish Publication Society, 2020)

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