Preservation of Jewish Culture During the Holocaust

By Joey Elkins
Boca Raton, Florida 


The Holocaust was a horrifying period when cruel and inhuman acts were committed by the Nazis in Europe. These acts took the lives of millions of people, and their culture met the same demise. The Jewish people were targeted as victims of Nazi persecution, and were put through hellish and unbearable circumstances, most of which ended in death. There was a resistance, through, and it hoped to preserve shreds of the culture and life the Jewish people once possessed. In the Ghetto and concentration camps, Jewish victims engaged in many activities to keep their culture alive, participating in secret underground organizations, networks of schools, and other acts of religious resistance.

Though life in the Ghetto was filled with terror and hunger, people still engaged in cultural activities. Some brave individuals created "clandestine" organizations under the guise of Jewish Social Self-Help groups, which were accepted institutions. The most famous was YIKOR, begun by Menahem Linder and others (Kermish 433). YIKOR was officially known as the "Yiddish Culture Organization" because one of its primary focuses was to establish the status of Yiddish as the official language of Ghetto life. It also participated greatly in various fields of work, making a point to deliver culture to all the people of the Ghetto. Lectures were given on Saturday mornings that would draw audiences in the hundreds. The purpose of these lectures was "not just to deepen the interest in science, Jewish history or sociology, but also to strengthen the sense of national dignity and the will to offer resistance" (444). In the Ghetto, there also existed a preservation of artistic culture, including both artists and the performing arts. Places of entertainment were set up, such as cafes, cabarets, and concert halls. Satirical, social, political, and even humorous topics were presented there (436). Purim festivals were created for the entertainment of refugee children (443). YIKOR called this theater movement a "new and additional link in the chain of Jewish culture". Jewish artists first appeared in a coffee house in 1940 (436). A committee was set up to undertake the establishment, and eventually became a professional organization of Jewish artists. Its membership was over 250 people, and its activities were to regulate working conditions for artists (437), and to hold expositions of work by Jewish sculptors and painters (435). It was not easy for an artist to work under the horrible conditions of the Holocaust, though. This is evident in the case of Alfred Kantor. He made hundreds of sketches in Auschwitz, but destroyed them for fear of being discovered. Following his liberation he says in The Book of Alfred Kantor, "My commitment to drawing came out of deep instinct of self preservation and undoubtedly helped me to deny the unimaginable horrors of that time" (qtd. In Langer 54). The fear that Kantor felt was widespread. The consequences if caught committing an act such as his would have resulted in immediate death. One way of being caught was to be turned in by the judenrat. The judenrat were Jewish men chosen by the Nazis to patrol the Ghetto, and often took this position as a chance for survival (Benbasat). News traveled fast in the Ghetto and people often became fearful of their own neighbors and "Any trifling rumor will immediately bring every activity in the entire Ghetto to a dead stop" (Kermish 503). Although the consequences were fatal, many still continued to try to preserve their culture in whatever way they could.

To the Jewish people, one of the most important values was the education of the next generation (Benbasat). This was done through secret networks of schools (Kermish 463). In disgusting apartments, previous schoolteachers would give lessons in history and religion. Since death was the result for this, the location would change often to avoid suspicion (Benbasat). The most applied method of education was hiring a private tutor for pennies a day, making this the chief weapon against illiteracy (Kermish 503). Education started in kindergarten for a privileged few and then moved on to elementary courses. The Jewish Social Self-Help established a system of courses to learn trades that were useful in the Ghetto. Between 1940 and 1941, 3,694 people passed through these courses: locksmiths and electricians for men, and seamstress classes for women. By the end of 1941, courses were offered for: mechanics, turners, confectioners, chemists, dyers, commercial artists, draftsmen, and clerks. Agricultural courses were also very popular. They were established by the Society for Supporting Agriculture Among Jews, which used the empty lots in the Ghetto to grow food and train workers for agricultural industries (450). All the educational programs helped tutor the prisoners in cultural learning and Ghetto life.

Tora studies were very common in the Ghetto. Countless groups assembled to learn from the torah’s ancient wisdom. Dr. Leo Baeck, a rabbi of the Jewish Berlin community, says the Jews "revealed super-human steadfastness by secretly assembling in the… night in order to study Torah… We would assemble in pitch darkness. To light a candle or even a match would have brought immediate disaster upon all of us" (Berkowitz 11-12). YIKOR also had an influence in Torah education. It set up the Patronage for Torah Students, which comprised of 2000 young people (Kermish 417). Torah studies were usually done with no texts available. "Oral Torah" was taught during times such as on the roads to the work places (Berkowitz 8). Torah study and education for the next generation was vital to the Jews’ survival, as a culture, and as a people.

In the Ghetto and concentration camps, ways existed to keep religion alive. Holiday ceremonies were still held, even though the prisoners had only their faith to hold on to. One account comes from Yaffa Eliach.  She records that in Bergen Belsen, on the eve of Hanukkah, a random selection took place, with hundreds of men killed and beaten. This was how the Nazis welcomed the Jewish holiday. The prisoners had no ceremonial tools for Hanukkah, so they had to improvise. A wooden clog was used as a menorah, string from the uniforms became wicks, and the camp shoe polish was used as oil (1). A rabbi performed the ceremony, and when questioned how he could thank God when millions were being massacred, he replied by saying, "I noticed that behind me was standing, a large crowd of living Jews, their faces expressing faith, devotion, and concentration…I said to myself… God, blessed be He, (who) has such a nation…at times like these (2) (Silverman).  Another service on record is for the recitation of the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead. It comes from survivor Alexander Kimel, who says, "I stopped saying the Kaddish and glanced at the mourners. Looking at those broken people who…recited the sacred prayer…gave me a glimpse of the indestructible Jewish soul, the source of our strength and weakness" (3). An additional account comes from a Hungarian girl. She smuggled in a prayerbook, and on Passover arranged a Seder with friends, the customary dinner for that holiday. They had none of the ingredients or tools that were required, but each recalled the Seder as they had celebrated it at home (Berkowitz 19).

Even in the face of death and starvation, Jewish traditions were still upheld. Prisoners would designate a day as the Sabbath, the day of rest and religious observance, and after counting seven sunrises and sunsets, they would celebrate it again (Benbasat). A survivor in Auschwitz tells of a Jew who "On the Sabbath… would go out but only pretend to perform actual work…Not many had this kind of attachment of Jewish religions practice" (Berkowitz 3). Some prisoners even kept kosher during their confinement. Holocaust documents say, "We undertook an educational program among the refugees on keeping kosher…there can be no doubt that it aroused some of the refugees and stimulated them to keeping kosher" (Kermish 417). Another followed Jewish tradition was the burial method. Jewish custom says to wrap the body of the deceased and bury it as soon as possible. Some Ghetto inhabitants would take the bodies of loved ones, wrap them in whatever scraps of cloth were available and lie earth on top (Benbasat). Another act of religious resistance was done by Moshe Borochowicz. Hiding in a bunker he worried that the world would remain without a siddur, the Jewish prayer book. He worked for months, writing a siddur in his hiding place, in memory of his lost family (Berkowitz 5). All of these acts, from holding holiday celebrations to keeping kosher, are acts of religious resistance. They gave fragments of hope to those who participated in them and offer glimpses of how enduring the Jewish spirit is.

Although the Holocaust was a terrible and tragic time, the Jewish people tried to find a spark of light by preserving their culture. Through "clandestine" underground organizations such as YIKOR that tried to maintain spoken and artistic culture, systems of schools that provided the learning necessary for the next generation, and acts of religious heritage and resistance, such as observing holidays and following tradition, people exhibited the power of the human spirit. By keeping their culture alive, the people of the past created a pathway of cultural knowledge and awareness for the future.


Works Cited


Benbasat, Joan. Telephone Interview. 22 February 1999.


Berkowitz, Eliezer. With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Deathcamps. New York: Sahhedrin Press, 1979.


Kermish, Joseph, ed. To Live With Honor and Die with Honor!… Jerusalem, Israel: Menachem Press, 1986.


Kimel, Alexander. Home Page. 18 February 1999.


Langer, Lawrence L. Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.


Silverman, Philip. Hanukkah in Bergen Belsen. 18 February 1999. 



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