Her friend Rabbi Goldie wrote that she was struck by how the Jews managed to retain their dignity as they were led to execution. “I was especially impressed by Hannah’s courage and her ability to look her executioners in the eye and tell them that she was proud to be Jewish.”
After the war, Hannah Hart, who survived, and later became a member of the Anglo-Jewish spiritualist movement, would share her experiences with the few who asked. “I remember vividly the terrible, ghastly smell of the bodies as they were left for the dogs to eat,” she said.
Over the years, Hannah Hart has become a powerful force in the community. She has been called a mensch. “A mensch is a person who has a sense of mission,” said Rabbi Robert Silverman, the head rabbi at the Williamsburg Jewish Center, which is named for Rabbi David Hart, the father of Hart’s husband, Bob. “She has been a very important mensch in our community.”
She is credited with encouraging the community’s women to support the building of a new synagogue, to which she donated an endowment. She once spent some of her last dollars to buy a plaque for the memorial to the Jewish soldiers who were killed during the Battle of Monte Cassino in 1944, the bloodiest battle of World War II. The names were etched into the memorial, and it can be found today in the church of the Theological Institute of the Americas in Manhattan.
Hannah is, in rabbinic eyes, a paragon of female self-assertion. To be without goodness is to be without the protection that righteous people can afford. To be without goodness is to be naked and vulnerable to the wicked. And to be stripped naked is to be open to the assaults of a cruel world. Though Hannah’s story does not end with a flashback to her wedding night, it ends nonetheless in a protracted scene of shame. The Torah is particularly harsh with those who presume on the good faith of others.
Another account goes that a man was ordered to strip naked and then whipped by a Jewish judge. When the judge ordered a second flogging, the man says he committed suicide. The judge then ordered the man’s widow to be stripped naked and then shot.
I know there are many who will find this an indictment against the Jews for not working harder to escape the Nazi camps. But there are people who might find it a comfort to have been stripped of their possessions, stripped of their identity, stripped of whatever ability to work, to succeed, to survive. Who would not prefer to be stripped of their attempt to hide their true nature, and stripped of any hope to do better?
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