During Reuven’s visits to his father in the hospital, Mr. Malter speaks passionately about the need to build a Jewish homeland in Palestine. One morning, Reuven raises the topic of Zionism with Reb Saunders. Reb Saunders flies into a rage and screams that the activities of the secular Zionists are sacrilegious because it is profane to build a Jewish home in Israel before the arrival of the Messiah. Danny tells Reuven that if Reb Saunders knew of David Malter’s Zionist beliefs, he would throw Reuven out of the house. Reuven never mentions the topic again in front of Reb Saunders, and Reb Saunders seems to forget the incident.
A few weeks later, while Reuven and Danny are studying in the library together, Danny confesses that one of the main reasons he worries about his brother Levi’s health is that he wants Levi to take over his father’s Hasidic dynasty so that he himself can study psychology. Danny remarks that the day he breaks this news to his father, he will need to have Reuven nearby for support. Reuven tries to change the subject by coyly mentioning Danny’s sister. Danny quietly and peremptorily informs his friend that his sister was promised in marriage at the age of two, and the subject is never discussed between them again.
In August, Reuven and his father again go to their cottage near Peekskill, where his father recovers from his illness. That month, the United States drops atomic bombs on Japan, and the war with Japan ends. That fall, Reuven and Danny enter Hirsch College, and Danny begins to wear glasses.
In Chapter 11, Potok alternates between personal and historical tragedies, showing suffering to exist on both an individual and a societal level. The news of the German offensive is followed by news of Levi’s illness. As the war in Europe intensifies, Danny falls sick with the flu. Roosevelt’s death is followed by Reuven’s fever, and David Malter’s and Reb Saunders’s illnesses. Then the terrible revelation of the concentration camps is followed by David Malter’s heart attack. Although the historical tragedies do not directly cause the characters’ illnesses, Potok links historical events to plot developments to demonstrate that World War II is not merely a backdrop for the novel, but an integral force in its characters’ lives.
Following the news of President Roosevelt’s death, Reuven directly states one of the novel’s themes for the first time. He makes a connection between Roosevelt’s death and Billy’s blindness, saying that both events are “senseless” and “empty of meaning.” Later in the chapter, the discovery of the concentration camps exponentially amplifies this feeling that the world is full of senseless suffering. The news of the Holocaust leads Reuven—as well as all other Jews—to question faith and religion.
Each of the novel’s characters reacts differently to the challenge the Holocaust poses to believing in an all-knowing, ever-present God. Upon learning of the concentration camps, both David Malter and Reb Saunders weep for the loss of millions of European Jews. However, Reb Saunders accepts the Holocaust as God’s will and, according to a strict and conservative interpretation of Jewish tradition, feels that Jews must wait for the Messiah to come to lead them to the Promised Land. Mr. Malter, on the other hand, argues that Jews cannot wait for God any longer; they must rebuild Jewry in America and found a Jewish state in Palestine. Although both men are deeply and profoundly pained by the mass extermination of the Jewish people, their political responses are radically different. Reb Saunders looks to Jewish tradition and its prophecy for comfort, while David Malter would rather create a new homeland than wait for the promises of a tradition—a tradition that the horror of the Holocaust calls into question.