Rabbi Ephraim Oshry conducting a memorial service at the Ninth Fort, where tens of thousands of Jews were murdered by the Nazis, Kaunas, 1945. With him are four Jews who succeeded in escaping from the fort in 1943: (left to right) Pinia Krakinovski, Israel Gitlin, Berl Gempel, and Władysław Blum (?). (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Eliezer Zilberis)

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Oshry, Ephraim

(1914–2003), rabbi and halakhic authority, known primarily for his book She’elot u-teshuvot mi-ma‘amakim, a collection of halakhic rulings issued in the Kovno (Kaunas) ghetto during the Holocaust period. Ephraim (Efroim) Oshry was born in Kupishok, in the district of Panevėžys (Ponevezh) in Lithuania. He studied in the finest yeshivas in Lithuania—Khelm, Ponevezh, and Keneset Yisra’el in Slobodka. Oshry discussed halakhic issues and the clarification of Talmudic passages with prominent authorities, including Ḥayim Ozer Grodzenski and Avraham Duber Shapira, with whom he maintained a particularly close relationship.

In the Kovno ghetto during the Nazi occupation, Oshry taught in the Yeḥezkel Kloyz and in Tif’eret Baḥurim, lecturing before the community at large on such topics as the place of science in the Gemara. Throughout the Nazi occupation and immediately thereafter, he was the source for answers to questions raised by Jews who wished to follow Jewish law even under the most extreme conditions. Some of the questions had been directed to Shapira, who was ailing and who consequently redirected them to Oshry; many other questions were sent directly to him. Oshry recorded the queries and answers on scraps of paper that he buried in containers in the ghetto; these writings were found following the liberation.

With the final deportation from Kovno beginning on 8 July 1944, Oshry and 33 other Jews concealed themselves in a hiding place they had carefully prepared in advance. On 1 August, the Russians liberated them. Oshry then served for some months as the rabbi for the remnant of the Kovno Jewish community, working at rehabilitating Jewish life. Among other things, he provided Jewish burial to about 2,000 Jews who had been executed, and identified children who had been concealed in monasteries and hidden with Christian families. After leaving Kovno, Oshry established yeshivas in a number of refugee camps in Austria. In 1946, he arrived in Rome and established—with other rabbis—the Me’or ha-Golah yeshiva, which he then headed.

In 1950, Oshry and some of his students moved to Montreal, and in 1952 he settled in New York, where he served as rabbi of Beth Hamedrash Hagadol on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. From then until his death he devoted all his energies to his congregation, to Jewish education, and particularly to writing about the Holocaust and perpetuating its memory. He headed an association of rabbis who were concentration camp survivors, and often expressed his views on issues related to the Holocaust. He opposed the normalization of relations between Jews and Germans.

Oshry’s uniquely important work is his four-part She’elot u-teshuvot mi-ma‘amakim (1959–1976), in which he collected the halakhic rulings that he had issued during the Holocaust and immediately thereafter. (A much shorter work, Divre Efrayim . . . Kuntres me-‘emek ha-bakha’, appeared in 1949 in New York.) This work is the most comprehensive collection of responsa from the Holocaust period, containing invaluable historical material about daily life in the Kovno ghetto, especially concentrating on its religious dimensions. As Oshry himself states, he draws “a comprehensive and striking picture of a deeply rooted and creative Jewish community standing on the brink of destruction . . . but nevertheless all of its thoughts and concerns are directed to matters of Torah and religion, matters of spirit and eternity” (vol. 2, p. 3). It should be noted that some of the questions may never have been actually asked, but rather were composed by the author (for example, vol. 1, no. 27, describes how the Nazis used Jewish women for institutionalized prostitution, the historical truth of which is in question).

Suggested Reading

Abraham Fuchs, Ha-Sho’ah bi-mekorot rabaniyim (Jerusalem, 1995); Leib Garfunkel, Kovnah ha-yehudit be-ḥurbanah (Jerusalem, 1958/59); Itamar Levin, Otiyot shel esh: ‘Eduyot mi-tekufat ha-sho’ah ba-sifrut ha-hilkhatit (Tel Aviv, 2002); Ephraim Oshry, The Annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry, trans. Y. Leiman (New York, 1995); Efroim Oshry, Responsa from the Holocaust, trans. Y. Leiman, rev. ed. (New York, 2001); Irving J. Rosenblum, The Holocaust and Halakhah (New York, 1976).



Translated from Hebrew by David Strauss