A Rabbi Goes to Auschwitz: Rabbi Walter Rothschild’s reflections on his journey to Auschwitz

L’italiano segue l’inglese

A Rabbi goes to Auschwitz : Reflections on January 27th, 2002.

written For ‘Jerusalem Post’ in 2002. My brother, a rabbi living in Berlin, bearing the name of our grandfather (who was an inmate of Dachau and whose experience there led to his painful early death(, went often to the commemoration events at Auschwitz in order to say kaddish, el malei rachamim; A train buff, he documents the train journey as only he can, and the memorialising of the dead, who do not leave. It is a long piece but very well worth a read. You can find more of his writing on https://www.walterrothschild.de/rabbiner-dr-walter-l-rothschild/rabbi-dr-walter-l-rothschild-english/some-brief-examples

I have never travelled to Auschwitz by the ‘traditional way’; instead, I prefer to take a passenger train. From Berlin – where I live – there are good links by both day and night trains; the only real problem with the latter being that one is woken at the border for the passport controls. But this year, since I work in the Liberal Jewish community in Munich, and January 27th. fell on a Sunday, I had to get a train on Saturday late afternoon – Motzei Shabbat – to Salzburg, change there for a train to Vienna, change stations and catch the night train through to Oswiecim (pronounced “Ozvyenchim”). I travel all over Europe and mostly by train. Despite everything, it is a civilized form of transport and brings you to the city center rather than some scruffy airfield on the outskirts of nowhere. So I am no stranger to night trains.

There is a certain very special and private pleasure each time I buy a Return Ticket to Auschwitz, a pleasure intensified when one sees the old poster in the camp exhibition banning Jews from buying railway tickets on the Nazi “Ostbahn”. It really is the most appropriate way to come here – knowing that each bump in the rail, each old brick building, was passed by others over a half century ago. They, of course, did not know where they were heading, nor (most of the time) what exactly awaited them. For them it was just a slow, agonizing, uncomfortable journey with no facilities and no view….. One wonders. Did those who could get to the grill actually follow the route, did they have enough local knowledge to know where they were headed ?

So from München, the former “Hauptstadt der Bewegung”, the Capital of the Party, I take a train through Bavaria, through Freilassing (junction for Berchtesgaden) to Salzburg. Here there are only ten minutes to change, but a comfortable Austrian Euro-City express takes me past Linz, Hitler’s favourite Austrian city, and then winding through the darkened Wienerwald to Wien.

Vienna sits on the spot where worlds meet. Wien Westbahnhof (West Station) is a part of Western Europe. Here come the luxury trains from Germany, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium…..

Wien Südbahnhof (South Station) comes in two parts at two levels. The “Süd” part is a part of Southern Europe; Here the trains leave for Italy and the Mediterranean, for the Balkans – Slovenia, Croatia…… The “Ost” side, in contrast, is already Central Europe. Somehow, I like it. In its dingy post-war reincarnation there is none of the former Imperial magnificence left, more a flavour of the concrete 1950’s and the Cold War. Here stood my train – the 21.25 “Chopin”, mainly Polish sleeping or couchette through coaches for Warszawa (Warsaw) and for Krakow (Cracow), and even a modern red-white-blue Russian sleeping car for Moskhva (Moscow). (I took one of these once from Brussels to Moscow and back – a very comfortable trip.) On the neighboring track is the evening train for Bratislava – mostly Slovakian coaches, but also an Austrian one and a Ukrainian sleeper for Kiev, with its stove burning coal briquettes, the smell wafting nostalgically under the canopy. Just after we depart, the train of Hungarian coaches from Budapest is due to arrive. Truly this is an international station. One for ordinary travellers, not wealthy tourists.

The couchette for Krakow is almost empty, and I have a six-berth compartment to myself. A blessing, for there is little spare room for luggage. It seems overheated and has the usual semi-faecal and semi-coal-smoke odours of such vintage vehicles. But on a journey like this one does not complain. All things are relative. The Conductor is polite, and notes from his clipboard – “Ah, the passenger for Oswiecim”. He says nothing more, nor do I. There is no need. Who else travels to this place at this time ? He gives me my bedding and leaves me alone.

We set off through the dark over the Donau and along the old Imperial Nordbahn to Lundenburg (now the Czech border town of Breclav), past Strasshof, where the dark engine shed looms – now a museum filled with preserved steam locomotives, it was built with slave labour in the 1940’s and, according to some reports, there are still unmarked mass graves on the site. There is History along every kilometer of this route. But soon it is time to try to sleep……

I awake with a shock. It is 2am., we are at Ostrava (the German “Böhmiches Ostrau”), there is some shunting, then off we go past Bohumin to the border station at Petrovice. Yet more shunting. The platforms are very well lit, there is a busy Police and Customs office on the main platform. Three trains are in at the same time, and our coach is shunted onto another and then back onto a different set – eventually we have a Polish locomotive, two coaches from Prague and two from Vienna; the rest of our coaches have joined various Russian, Czech and Ukrainian vehicles at adjacent platforms. This, of course, will have been the route from Theresienstadt. The Czech and the Polish police come through. Passports, please. Civil. Not threatening. But at 3am. on a dark and very cold January morning, one realizes the coach was not overheated after all – it was just right.

In fact a cold, wet January Sunday is in many respects the best time to visit Auschwitz or Birkenau – there are not many other tourists around, no groups of “March of the Living” teenagers or self-righteous zealots. I am coming here because I have been invited – for the third time – to be “the Jewish representative” at the annual commemoration ceremonies to mark the liberation of the camp on a similar cold January in 1945. The small, elderly and penniless committee of Polish survivors are incredibly grateful that a Rabbi bothers to come – yet it is I who should be grateful for the invitation to perform this mitzvah. Last year my wife and son came too – many of her family, including her father, had come all the way from Westerbork in Holland. Only her father came back, and even that was by foot to Odessa, for repatriation by sea. One doesn’t grumble about overheated sleeping cars in such circumstances. Years ago, in Leeds, after a funeral, I found myself talking to a former sailor on the “S.S. Monoway”, the ship that made three return trips taking refugees from Odessa to Marseilles, and bringing back Cossack former prisoners-of-war, heading for certain torture and death under the Stalinist regime that branded all who survived the war with the Wehrmacht as “traitors”. Whether Soldiers or Slave Labourers, it was classed as a crime to come back alive…… The history of the last century is SO messy. What does “coming home” or “repatriation” mean in such circumstances ?

We crawl now through dark empty stations and past sidings filled with coal wagons; we are running a few minutes late – but then, who wants to rush to Auschwitz ? I am simply glad to be nearly sixty years late. The Polish railways have an enormous backlog of maintenance – truly, those who are afraid of high speeds need not worry here. But they function. At 04.33, six minutes behind schedule after a journey across half of Europe, I am the only one to alight at Oswiecim, a seven-platform junction station with lines heading four ways. Maybe those who criticize that “the railway to Auschwitz should have been bombed” ought to look at a railway map. The countryside is mainly fairly flat and featureless; there are a few bridges over rivers, but nothing that could, even if bombed, not have been repaired within three days under war conditions. This was – and still is – an incredibly busy network of lines, serving coal mines, power stations, a major locomotive works at Chrzanow, a sugar factory….. Far too strategically important, and with far too many loop lines and duplicate routes, to be severed for long. And as for the trains already under way, from Westerbork, from Drancy, from Saloniki – they would have got through, with little delay.

Railwaymen on all sides pride themselves on things like that. The story of British and American railway engineers restoring blasted tunnels and demolished bridges, of restoring blitzed lines and yards, is one of amazing achievement under great pressure. Germans, Poles and Russians – they were no slouches, either. So I really doubt whether a single life would have been saved, whether a single additional person would have been given pause for thought, would have feared that “the Allies know what we are doing”. Sorry if this shatters an illusion – but that’s the way it is, when one bothers to read some history. Apparently the main threat to crippling the Nazi supply lines came with the dropping of mines into the Danube – the loss of barges carrying oil from Romania was severe, and the river was harder to clear of wrecks than any railway marshalling yard.

Even on a Sunday there are some early-morning commuters on the bare platforms. I walk over the windy footbridge to check a hunch, and find I am right – the old black wartime 2-10-0 steam locomotive that had been rusting under a blanket of snow in January 2000, and which I did not have time to check in the foggy January 2001, has indeed gone, vanished. A pity. It would have been an impressive exhibit. In the garden of a railway house is a restored kilometer post: “350 kil. von Wien.” A reminder that this was the old main line, Vienna – Cracow.

At 7, as planned, I meet up with a Polish Catholic friend from Berlin, and we head on foot for the “Auschwitz I” camp, only ten minutes away. The locals are very keen always to point out that they live in “Oswiecim”, that “Auschwitz” was a purely German creation. My friend has a girl friend from this dingy and muddy little town – she hates saying where she comes from. One day, he told me, another girl on the train asked her, and laughed at the reply; Never having had this response before, she asked why? It turned out, the other girl came from the village of Treblinka….. What it mut be, to carry a Brand of Cain on your very birth certificate.

But – for those who come for the first time – it is always a shock to note that this camp, this notorious place, was at the edge of a town, a town that has since expanded almost to surround it.

Like that at Dachau, too. Mauthausen perches on a hilltop, Neuengamme was in the marshland south of Hamburg, Dora in wooded isolated valleys in Thüringen – but here, there are urban buses passing by the gate, and one can understand not only the outrage of those who complain, but also the human needs of those who live here, when from time to time a proposal emerges for a supermarket or a disco in the locality. Of course it is Bad Taste – but what is the alternative? To raze the entire town? For better or worse, people live and work here, too. The bus depot is just up the road.

Red and white Polish flags fly from lamp standards. This is not only the Liberation Day but the Polish National Day of Mourning. The complex of brick two-storey blocks was originally a large garrison, an extensive set of barracks for Galician officers who must have had a frightfully boring existence under the sullen Silesian sky. Barracks, store rooms, a rail siding connection at a strategic junction – it formed the perfect site for the purpose. But the new inhabitants were there to be tortured and starved and humiliated and murdered in myriad and inventive ways.

A small group has gathered. There is a brief ceremony at the Wall of Death. A small courtyard between Blocks, the windows on one side boarded over, the upper windows on the other half bricked up, posts stand there with metal hooks – from here the people were hung by their arms. Including the man who comes forward now with a wreath – an early political prisoner with an early, three-digit number, my friend informs me; somehow he survived, somehow he helped later to organize a group to form a committee to preserve this place when no-one else was interested – at the outset the volunteers had to lodge in Hoess’s former house, use the same bath the Commandant had used…. Brief speeches are made, all in Polish – by people who suffered here, by people whose parents or grandparents were shot here, by a former Kindergarten teacher, two of whose children were shot here…. A trumpet is blown, three drummers beat a rhythm, candles in red glasses are laid; then the wreaths come, scores of them, the wreath-layers formed up in rows four abreast. I notice one on behalf of the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, one on behalf of the city of Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen…..

We clergy are to speak and pray later, but there is time for a quiet Kaddish before we are led to buses and driven the short distance to the Auschwitz-II Birkenau complex, enormous and empty as we march in procession down the main access road, parallel to the ramp, to the sidings, the most famous stretch of railway in the world. At the end, between the ruins of demolished crematoria, the International Memorial rises dark and threatening. Israel’s Ambassador, Sheva Weiss, delivers a passionate and fluent oration in Polish – I understand everything, though I do not understand a word. Then more wreaths, while the cold wind blows. How could people stand still here at Appell for hours at a time, without the benefit of coats and breakfast? Two years ago I watched as three members of the Polish Army Honour Guard, fittest of the fit and in full winter uniform, keeled over during the ceremony and had to be bundled into waiting army ambulances and treated for the cold.

It turns out, the organizer explains, that we “religious” are to say our prayers into microphones on a podium near the crematorium. Will God hear any better? Does it matter now anyway? The survivors are ailing now, many bent, with sticks, and they sit on rows of wooden folding chairs. There will not be many more years before this committee will either vanish or need to be reborn.

So we take our places – a local Catholic priest; my friend the German Catholic layman; myself, a British-born Reform Rabbi; and – and a Polish Buddhist! This year it seems the Polish Protestant bishop and the Orthodox priest could not come. So we step to the microphones.

And the heavens suddenly open. They weep with us. Strong winds nearly blow my siddur out of my hands, I have to clutch my hat. My siddur is soggy within minutes. But somehow I read the Prayer for the Six Million, in German as well as English – very deliberately, for I think it is important that a Rabbi from Berlin should recite Jewish prayers in German here, a place to which so many German Jews came, from the Grünewald and Putlitzstrasse freight yards. German is not JUST the language of Eichmann and Mengele. I add “El Maleh Rachamim”, the wind whipping the words away as I sing, and end with a Kaddish.

It is done. The dead have been honoured, but have not gone away They stay here still, somehow. But the journalists and the TV crews pack up, the elderly survivors shuffle off and disperse, my task is accomplished. There are no more speeches, no air-conditioned buses, no banquet. I may go.

As I have some time I explore a little further than last year, and then walk along the rotting railway tracks from the end past the ramp to the gate, from the gate across the road, and then there is a jungle, knee-high snow and mud, trees growing over and through the tracks. Nothing has rolled over here for years. But I persevere, interested in following the trail. My soggy coat gets covered in burrs and brambles, my shoes are not suitable for this quagmire. Two fences block my way and force a detour along a muddy field. It seems that the owner of Ulica Pivnicza 12 has extended his garden across the disused tracks. The trail is regained and followed through high dead grass to the spot where it joined the main system at the edge of a set of sidings. Here I find “The point of No Return”, the point – Americans would call it a ‘switch’ – which directed the loaded trains onto this short spur, the destination always visible across the fields. I am fascinated by the details – this is a very specific form of industrial archaeology, the industry in this case being Death. The line was laid only in 1944 to increase efficiency – until this point the victims had to march the distance I have just walked, maybe 2 kilometers. The layout of the tracks does not make sense at first, then it becomes clear that a point has been removed, that here was the spot where locomotives would uncouple and here they would have run round so as to be able to haul their trains into the rearward-facing spur. I find the remains of the little cabin where the pointsman no doubt sat on cold days. This was a well-organized and well-constructed system,designed for heavy traffic……….

I have seen what there is to see, and it is not long now, between the rain showers, to the station, passing on the way the spot where the 1.5 kilometer long spur line to ‘Auschwitz I’ used to link to the goods yard – part of the track lies there still, and the buffers at the end, but a road has been built over the section by the station, cutting it off. While awaiting our train, my friend and I discuss Theology. Where was God when Cain killed Abel? Why did God not protect Abel?

What is the point of punishing Cain when it is too late? Is there any point in vengeance, or is it just a preventative measure? Catholics believe in a God who was prepared to watch his own son be nailed to a plank of wood – out of Love. How can Jews relate to such a belief? Or to any belief?

And eventually my train to Krakow comes in – only a humble country stopping train, but that most important of all symbols – the train away from here, away from here, away from here………

 

Rabbi Walter Rothschild

https://www.walterrothschild.de/rabbiner-dr-walter-l-rothschild/rabbi-dr-walter-l-rothschild-english/some-brief-examples/

Un rabbino va ad Auschwitz: le riflessioni di rav Walter Rothschild nel suo viaggio ad Auschwitz     Un rabbino va ad Auschwitz: riflessioni sul 27 gennaio, 2002.

Scritto per “Jerusalem Post” nel 2002. Mio fratello, un rabbino che vive a Berlino, porta il nome di nostro nonno (che è stato prigioniero a Dachau e la cui esperienza lo ha portato alla sua dolorosa morte precoce) e si è spesso recato agli eventi commemorativi ad Auschwitz per dire il kaddish,  el malei rachamim; Appassionato di treni, documenta il viaggio in treno, come solo lui può, e la commemorazione dei morti, che non se ne vanno. È un pezzo lungo ma merita davvero una lettura. Potete trovare altri suoi scritti su https://www.walterrothschild.de/rabbiner-dr-walter-l-rothschild/rabbi-dr-walter-l-rothschild-english/some-brief-examples/

Non ho mai viaggiato verso Auschwitz nel “modo tradizionale”; preferisco piuttosto prendere un treno passeggeri. Da Berlino, dove vivo, ci sono buoni collegamenti con treni diurni e notturni; l’unico vero problema con questi ultimi è che si viene svegliati alla frontiera per i controlli del passaporto. Quest’anno però, visto che lavoro nella comunità ebraica liberale di Monaco e il 27 gennaio è caduto di domenica, ho dovuto prendere un treno al pomeriggio, Motzei Shabbat, per Salisburgo, cambiare lì con un treno per Vienna, cambiare stazione e prendere il treno notturno per Oswiecim (pronunciato “Ozvyenchim”). Ho viaggiato in tutta Europa e principalmente in treno. Nonostante tutto, è una forma di trasporto evoluta e ti porta nel centro della città piuttosto che in un avventuroso aeroporto alla periferia del nulla. Quindi non sono estraneo ai treni notturni.

C’è un certo piacere molto speciale e privato ogni volta che compro un biglietto di andata e ritorno per Auschwitz, un piacere intensificato quando si vede il vecchio poster nella mostra del campo che vieta agli ebrei di acquistare i biglietti ferroviari sulla “Ostbahn” nazista. È davvero il modo più appropriato di venire qui, sapendo che ogni tonfo sulle rotaie, ogni vecchio edificio in mattoni, è stato superato da altri oltre mezzo secolo fa. Naturalmente, non sapevano dove stavano andando, né (il più delle volte) cosa li aspettasse esattamente. Per loro è stato solo un viaggio lento, angosciante, scomodo, senza servizi e senza vista ….. Ci si chiede. Coloro che potevano arrivare all’inferriata seguivano effettivamente il percorso, avevano abbastanza conoscenza locale per sapere dove fossero diretti?

Quindi da Monaco, l’ex “Hauptstadt der Bewegung”, la capitale del partito, prendo un treno attraverso la Baviera, attraverso Freilassing (bivio per Berchtesgaden) per Salisburgo. Qui ci sono solo dieci minuti per cambiare, ma un comodo espresso Euro-City austriaco mi porta oltre Linz, la città austriaca preferita di Hitler, e poi si snoda attraverso il buio Wienerwald fino a Vienna.

Vienna si trova nel punto in cui i mondi si incontrano. Wien Westbahnhof (West Station) è una parte dell’Europa occidentale. Ecco che arrivano i treni di lusso da Germania, Olanda, Svizzera, Belgio …..

Wien Südbahnhof (Stazione Sud) è divisa in due parti su due livelli. La parte “Süd” fa parte dell’Europa meridionale; Qui i treni partono per l’Italia e il Mediterraneo, per i Balcani: Slovenia, Croazia …… Il lato “Ost”, al contrario, è già l’Europa centrale. In qualche modo mi piace. Nella sua squallida reincarnazione postbellica non è rimasto alcunché dell’antica magnificenza imperiale, c’è più il sapore del cemento degli anni ’50 e della guerra fredda. Qui stava il mio treno: il 21,25 “Chopin”, principalmente cuccette o vagoni letto per Varsavia e Cracovia, e persino un moderno vagone letto russo rosso-bianco-blu per Mosca. (Ne presi uno da Bruxelles a Mosca e ritorno: un viaggio molto comodo). Sul binario vicino c’è il treno serale per Bratislava, principalmente vagoni slovacchi, ma anche uno austriaco e una carrozza-letto ucraina per Kiev, con la sua stufa a mattonelle di carbon, l’odore che si diffonde nostalgicamente sotto la tettoia. Subito dopo la nostra partenza dovrebbe arrivare il treno delle carrozze ungheresi da Budapest. Questa è davvero una stazione internazionale. Una stazione per viaggiatori comuni, non per turisti facoltosi.

La cuccetta per Cracovia è quasi vuota e ho uno scompartimento di sei posti letto per me. Una benedizione, perché c’è poco spazio per i bagagli. Sembra surriscaldato e ha i soliti odori semi-fecali e semi-carboniosi di siffatti veicoli vintage. Ma in un viaggio come questo non ci si lamenta. Tutte le cose sono relative. Il conduttore è educato e nota dai suoi appunti: “Ah, il passeggero di Oswiecim”. Non dice altro, né lo dico io. Non c’è bisogno. Chi altri viaggia verso quel posto in questo momento? Mi dà la biancheria da letto e mi lascia solo.

Siamo partiti attraverso l’oscurità sopra il Danubio e lungo la vecchia Nordbahn imperiale fino a Lundenburg (ora la città di confine ceca di Breclav), oltre Strasshof, dove incombeva un capannone sporco di fuliggine: ora è un museo pieno di locomotive a vapore conservate, fu costruito con lavoro degli schiavi negli anni ’40 e, secondo alcuni rapporti, ci sono ancora in loco fosse comuni non contrassegnate. C’è storia lungo ogni chilometro di questo percorso. Ma presto è tempo di provare a dormire ……

Mi sveglio di soprassalto. Sono le 2 del mattino, siamo a Ostrava (il tedesco “Böhmiches Ostrau”), c’è un po’ di smistamento, poi andiamo oltre Bohumin fino alla stazione di confine di Petrovice. Ancora altro smistamento. Le piattaforme sono molto ben illuminate, ci sono indaffarati uffici di Polizia e Dogana sulla piattaforma principale. Sono presenti tre treni contemporaneamente e il nostro vagone viene attaccato a un altro e poi di nuovo su un convoglio diverso: alla fine abbiamo una locomotiva polacca, due carrozze da Praga e due da Vienna; il resto dei nostri vagoni è stato unito a vari vagoni russi, cechi e ucraini su piattaforme adiacenti. Questo, ovviamente, sarà stato il percorso da Theresienstadt. La polizia ceca e polacca arrivano. Passaporti, per favore. Civile. Non minacciosa. Ma alle tre del mattino. in una mattinata buia e molto fredda di gennaio, ci si rende conto che la cuccetta dopo tutto non era surriscaldata, era giusta.

In effetti, una domenica di gennaio fredda e umida è per molti aspetti il ​​momento migliore per visitare Auschwitz o Birkenau, non ci sono molti altri turisti in giro, nessun gruppo di adolescenti di “Marcia dei Vivi” o zeloti ipocriti. Vengo qui perché sono stato invitato, per la terza volta, a essere “il rappresentante ebreo” alle cerimonie commemorative annuali per celebrare la liberazione del campo, in un freddo analogo a quello del 1945. Il piccolo, anziano e squattrinato comitato di sopravvissuti polacchi è incredibilmente grato che un rabbino si preoccupi di venire, eppure sono io che dovrei essere grato per l’invito a eseguire questa mitzvà. L’anno scorso sono venuti anche mia moglie con mio figlio: molti della sua famiglia, incluso suo padre, erano arrivati ​​da Westerbork in Olanda. Solo suo padre tornò, e lo fece a piedi fino a Odessa, per il rimpatrio via mare. In tali circostanze non ci si può lamentare delle vetture letto surriscaldate. Anni fa, a Leeds, dopo un funerale, mi ritrovai a parlare con un ex marinaio della “S.S. Monoway “, la nave che fece tre viaggi di ritorno portando rifugiati da Odessa a Marsiglia e riportando cosacchi ex prigionieri di guerra, alcuni diretti verso torture e morti sotto il regime stalinista, che marchiò tutti coloro che sopravvissero alla guerra con la Wehrmacht come” traditori”. Che si tratti di soldati o di lavoratori schiavi, tornare in vita è stato classificato come un crimine…… La storia dell’ultimo secolo è così disordinata. Che cosa significa “tornare a casa” o “rimpatrio” in tali circostanze?

Ora transitiamo lentamente attraverso scure postazioni vuote e binari pieni di carri di carbone; siamo in ritardo di qualche minuto, ma poi, chi vuole correre ad Auschwitz? Sono semplicemente felice di essere in ritardo di quasi sessant’anni. Le ferrovie polacche hanno un enorme arretrato di manutenzione, davvero, coloro che hanno paura delle alte velocità qui non devono preoccuparsi. Però funzionano. Alle 04.33, con sei minuti di ritardo dopo un viaggio attraverso mezza Europa, sono l’unico a scendere a Oswiecim, una stazione di giunzione a sette piattaforme con linee dirette in quattro direzioni. Forse quelli che criticano che “la ferrovia per Auschwitz avrebbe dovuto essere bombardata” dovrebbero guardare una mappa ferroviaria. La campagna è prevalentemente abbastanza pianeggiante e senza segni particolari; ci sono alcuni ponti sui fiumi, ma nulla che non possa essere riparato entro tre giorni in condizioni di guerra, anche se bombardato. Questa era, ed è ancora, una rete di linee incredibilmente trafficata, che serviva miniere di carbone, centrali elettriche, una grande fabbrica di locomotive a Chrzanow, una fabbrica di zucchero… Troppo strategicamente importante, e con troppe linee ad anello e percorsi duplicati, da poter restare recisi a lungo. E per quanto riguardava i treni già in viaggio, da Westerbork, da Drancy, da Salonicco, sarebbero passati, con poco ritardo.

I ferrovieri di tutte le parti si vantano di cose del genere. La storia degli ingegneri ferroviari britannici e americani che ripristinano tunnel fatti saltare e ponti demoliti, di ripristino di linee e cantieri colpiti, è una delle grandi conquiste fatte in momenti in cui si vive sotto grande pressione. Tedeschi, polacchi e russi, non erano nemmeno loro sciatti. Quindi dubito davvero che una singola vita sarebbe stata salvata, se una sola persona in più avesse avuto una pausa di riflessione, fosse stata spaventata dal fatto che: “gli Alleati sanno cosa stiamo facendo”. Mi spiace se questo distrugge un’illusione, ma è così, quando ci si preoccupa di leggere un po’ di storia. Apparentemente la principale minaccia di paralisi per le linee di rifornimento naziste arrivò con il lancio di mine nel Danubio: la perdita di chiatte che trasportavano petrolio dalla Romania era grave e il fiume era più difficile da sgombrare dai relitti di qualsiasi cantiere di smistamento ferroviario.

Anche di domenica ci sono alcuni pendolari di prima mattina sulle piattaforme scoperte. Cammino sulla passerella ventosa per verificare un sospetto e trovo che ho ragione: la vecchia locomotiva a vapore nera 2-10-0 del tempo di guerra che arrugginiva sotto una coltre di neve nel gennaio 2000 e che non avevo tempo di controllare nella nebbia del gennaio 2001, è davvero sparita. Un peccato. Sarebbe stata un impressionante reperto. Nel giardino di una casa ferroviaria c’è un cartello chilometrico restaurato: “350 kil. von Wien”. Un ricordo del fatto che questa era la vecchia linea principale, Vienna – Cracovia.

Alle sette, come previsto, incontro un amico cattolico polacco di Berlino e ci dirigiamo a piedi verso il campo “Auschwitz I”, a soli dieci minuti di distanza. La gente del posto è sempre desiderosa di sottolineare che vivono in “Oswiecim”, che “Auschwitz” era una creazione puramente tedesca. Il mio amico aveva una ragazza di questa squallida e fangosa cittadina, odiava dire da dove venisse. Un giorno, mi disse, un’altra ragazza sul treno glielo chiese e rise della risposta; Non avendo mai avuto prima questa reazione, le ha chiesto “perché?” Si è scoperto che l’altra ragazza veniva dal villaggio di Treblinka… Che cosa deve essere, portare un Marchio di Caino sul tuo proprio certificato di nascita.

Ma, per coloro che vengono per la prima volta, è sempre uno shock notare che questo campo, questo luogo famoso, era ai margini di una città, una città che da allora si è espansa quasi per circondarlo.

Anche a Dachau. Mauthausen è appollaiato su una collina, Neuengamme era nella regione paludosa a sud di Amburgo, Dora in valli boscose e isolate a Thüringen, ma qui ci sono autobus urbani che passano vicino al cancello, e si può capire non solo l’oltraggio di coloro che si lamentano, ma anche i bisogni umani di chi abita qui, quando di tanto in tanto emerge una proposta per un supermercato o una discoteca nella località. Naturalmente è cattivo gusto, ma qual è l’alternativa? Radere al suolo l’intera città? Nel bene e nel male, le persone anche qui vivono e lavorano. Il deposito degli autobus è proprio lungo la strada.

Le bandiere polacche rosse e bianche sventolano dagli steli dei lampioni. Questo non è solo il giorno della liberazione, ma la giornata nazionale polacca del lutto. Il complesso di blocchi di mattoni a due piani era in origine un grande presidio, una vasta serie di caserme per ufficiali galiziani che dovevano aver avuto un’esistenza spaventosamente noiosa sotto il cupo cielo della Slesia. Caserme, magazzini, un raccordo di raccordo ferroviario in un incrocio strategico: costituiva il luogo perfetto per lo scopo. Ma i nuovi abitanti erano lì per essere torturati, affamati, umiliati e assassinati a miriadi e in modi inventivi.

Si è riunito un piccolo gruppo. Si tiene una breve cerimonia al Muro della Morte. Un piccolo cortile tra i blocchi, le finestre di un lato sbarrate, le finestre superiori dall’altra metà murate, pali si ergono lì con ganci di metallo: qui la gente era appesa per le braccia. Compreso l’uomo che ora si fa avanti con una ghirlanda: un prigioniero politico della prima ora con un numero basso, di sole tre cifre, mi informa il mio amico; in qualche modo è sopravvissuto, in qualche modo ha aiutato in seguito a organizzare un gruppo per formare un comitato per preservare questo posto quando nessun altro era interessato: all’inizio i volontari dovevano alloggiare nella vecchia casa di Hoess, usando lo stesso bagno usato dal comandante. … Vengono fatti brevi discorsi, tutti in polacco: da persone che hanno sofferto qui, da persone i cui genitori o nonni sono stati fucilati qui, da un ex insegnante della scuola materna, di cui bambini sono stati fucilati qui … Suona una tromba, tre batteristi battono un ritmo, vengono posate candele in bicchieri rossi; poi arrivano le ghirlande, decine di ghirlande, stratificate a file di quattro. Ne noto una a nome della Repubblica Federale di Germania, una a nome della città di Wolfsburg, sede della Volkswagen …..

Noi chierici dobbiamo parlare e pregare più tardi, ma c’è tempo per un tranquillo Kaddish prima di essere condotti agli autobus e guidati per la breve distanza al complesso di Auschwitz-II Birkenau, enorme e vuoto mentre marciamo in processione lungo la strada di accesso principale, parallela alla rampa, ai binari di raccordo, il tratto di ferrovia più famoso al mondo. Alla fine, tra le rovine dei crematori demoliti, il Memoriale internazionale diventa oscuro e minaccioso. L’ambasciatore israeliano, Sheva Weiss, offre un’orazione appassionata e fluente in polacco: capisco tutto, anche se non capisco una parola. Poi altre ghirlande, mentre soffia il vento freddo. Come resistevano le persone ferme qui per appelli di ore ogni volta, senza il vantaggio di cappotti e colazione? Due anni fa ho visto tre membri della Guardia d’onore dell’esercito polacco, più in forma e in completa uniforme invernale, collassati durante la cerimonia che hanno dovuto essere raggruppati nelle ambulanze militari in attesa e curati per il freddo.

Si scopre, spiega l’organizzatore, che noi “religiosi” dobbiamo dire le nostre preghiere in microfoni su un podio vicino al crematorio. Dio sentirà meglio? Ora importa, comunque? I sopravvissuti ora sono in difficoltà, molti piegati, con dei bastoni e si siedono su file di sedie pieghevoli in legno. Non ci vorranno molti altri anni prima che questo comitato svanisca o debba rinascere.

Quindi prendiamo il nostro posto: un prete cattolico locale, il mio amico, il laico cattolico tedesco, io stesso, un rabbino riformato nato in Gran Bretagna, e… e un buddista polacco! Quest’anno sembra che il vescovo protestante polacco e il prete ortodosso non siano potuti venire. Quindi passiamo ai microfoni.

E i cieli si aprono improvvisamente. Piangono con noi. I forti venti quasi mi fanno saltare il siddur dalle mani, devo stringere a me il cappello. Il mio siddur è inzuppato in pochi minuti. Ma in qualche modo ho letto la Preghiera per i sei milioni, sia in tedesco che in inglese: molto deliberatamente, poiché penso sia importante che un rabbino di Berlino reciti qui preghiere ebraiche in tedesco, un luogo in cui sono venuti così tanti ebrei tedeschi, dai cantieri merci Grünewald e Putlitzstrasse. Il tedesco non è SOLO la lingua di Eichmann e Mengele. Aggiungo “El Maleh Rachamim”, il vento sferza le parole mentre canto, e finisco con un Kaddish.

È fatta. I morti sono stati onorati, ma non sono andati via. Restano qui fermi, in qualche modo. Ma i giornalisti e le troupe televisive fanno i bagagli, gli anziani sopravvissuti si allontanano e si disperdono, il mio compito è compiuto. Non ci sono più discorsi, niente autobus con aria condizionata, niente banchetti. Forse vado.

Dato che ho un po’ di tempo, esploro un po’ più in là rispetto allo scorso anno, e poi cammino lungo i binari della ferrovia in disfacimento, dalla sua fine oltre la rampa fino al cancello, dal cancello attraverso la strada, e poi c’è una giungla, neve alta fino al ginocchio e fango, alberi che crescono sopra e attraverso i binari. Nulla è passato qui sopra da anni. Ma persevero, interessato a seguire la pista. Il mio cappotto fradicio si ricopre di bave e rovi, le mie scarpe non sono adatte a questo pantano. Due recinzioni mi bloccano la strada e costringono una deviazione lungo un campo fangoso. Sembra che il proprietario di Ulica Pivnicza 12 abbia esteso il suo giardino attraverso i binari in disuso. Il sentiero viene riguadagnato e seguito attraverso l’erba alta fino al punto in cui si unisce al sistema principale al fianco di una serie di binari. Qui trovo “Il punto di non ritorno”, il punto, gli americani lo chiamerebbero un “punto di svolta”, che ha diretto i treni carichi su questo breve raccordo, con la destinazione sempre visibile attraverso i campi. Sono affascinato dai dettagli: questa è una forma molto specifica di archeologia industriale, in questo caso l’industria è la morte. La linea fu posta solo nel 1944 per aumentare l’efficienza: fino a quel momento le vittime hanno dovuto marciare per la distanza che ho appena percorso, forse 2 chilometri. All’inizio la disposizione dei binari non ha senso, quindi diventa chiaro che un tratto è stato rimosso, che questo era il punto in cui le locomotive venivano disaccoppiate e da qui aggiravano i convogli per poterli trasportare nel raccordo a marcia indietro. Trovo i resti della piccola cabina dove l’indicatore era senza dubbio seduto nelle giornate fredde. Era un sistema ben organizzato e ben costruito, progettato per il traffico pesante…

Ho visto quello che c’è da vedere, e non è lungo ora, tra gli scrosci di pioggia, tornare alla stazione, passando lungo il punto in cui la linea di raccordo lunga 1,5 chilometri verso “Auschwitz I” era collegata allo scalo merci: parte del tracciato è ancora lì, i respingenti alla fine, ma una strada è stata costruita sopra la sezione vicino la stazione, tagliandolo. Mentre aspettiamo il nostro treno, io e il mio amico discutiamo di teologia. Dov’era Dio quando Caino uccise Abele? Perché Dio non ha protetto Abele?

Che senso ha punire Caino quando è troppo tardi? C’è un qualche senso di vendetta o è solo una misura preventiva? I cattolici credono in un Dio preparato a guardare suo figlio essere inchiodato su una tavola di legno, per amore. In che modo gli ebrei possono rapportarsi a una simile credenza? O a qualsiasi convinzione?

E alla fine arriva il mio treno per Cracovia, solo un umile treno locale di campagna, ma il più importante di tutti i simboli: il treno che va lontano da qui, lontano da qui, lontano da qui…

Testo di Rav Walter Rothschild

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

Rescuing the children of the shoah, one small community at a time

Shortly before Kristallnacht, Ossie Stroud, son of the first rabbi of Bradford Synagogue, and wealthy mill owner, called together the Reform and Orthodox communities telling them in no uncertain terms, they must provide refuge for Jews from Germany.  “We must put aside our differences and act as one community”. Money was raised; a building bought, furnishings collected, and 26 Kindertransport boys between 12 and 14 arrived at the hostel in December 1938, along with their houseparents. The community continued to look after the “boys” for many years – for of course the temporary refuge turned permanent as it became clear that the families left behind had been murdered, and they were alone in the world.

It was a remarkable story, repeated in communities across England. Ossie organised, pleaded, berated, collected small amounts of money from people with little to give, larger amounts from others. Jews and non-Jews joined the endeavour, helping in whichever way they could. The project was a mundane miracle.

I grew up knowing many of the “boys” and their story. The community absorbed them and in turn they invigorated the community. They were rescued because they were children in danger in their homelands, before anyone understood the enormity of what would become the Shoah,.

I learned about religion in action and what people could do if they worked together.

As we mark the 80th anniversaries of Kristallnacht and Kindertransport, the lesson has never been more important.

Alf Dubs was a Kindertransport child determined that today’s child refugees should have the same opportunity to grow up in safety that he was given. Supported by the charity “Citizens UK”, Lord Dubs has launched the “Our Turn” campaign, calling on Government to resettle 10,000 child refugees over ten years, the same number Kindertransport brought in ten months. Helping 10,000 children over 10 years would mean each local authority taking in an extra 3 children a year.

The Kindertransport was a private initiative, using no public funds – indeed posting bonds of £50 for each child. Faith groups, communities and individuals made it possible, because they decided they had a responsibility to assist children facing persecution across Europe. The Bradford initiative was repeated across the UK. Today, in camps across Europe, vulnerable children require safe passage. To honour those who helped our community, we must pass on the lesson, and give security to other vulnerable children.

To know more about the Bradford hostel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVOLq_OZi7Q

 

written for London Jewish News page November 2018

Yom haZikaron la’Shoah ve’la’Gevurah: The day for remembering the Shoah and for remembering the Bravery.

vati passport 1Tonight we begin Yom HaZikaron la’ Shoah ve’la’Gevurah (יום הזיכרון לשואה ולגבורה – The day for remembering the Shoah and the Heroism.

Around six million Jews and five million others were targeted by the Nazis and were murdered in the Shoah. LGBTQ people, Travellers (Roma), Communists, the mentally or physically frail, Jehovah’s witnesses, the people who opposed the decrees – they too perished simply for being who they were.

From 1933, as German Jews were stripped of having legal and economic status, till 1945 when Hitler was finally defeated, the Shoah was not one large act but a huge multiplicity of smaller and ongoing acts, and the bravery and heroism we also remember was equally often the actions of individuals whose values led them to refuse to partake or support, or to support hidden Jews, or to resist in numerous quiet ways.

My family have, as have many families like us, threads of stories about what happened to us.  The voices to tell the stories are few – we have had to collect and collate information from many different sources, we have had to research and visit places in Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Switzerland… to try to find the streets and the buildings, and rarely the cemeteries, where our family members found some rest for a short while before journeying onwards.  Some stories come from memories recounted to us when we were young and the teller was feeling particularly open or vulnerable, some stories are found in legal documents, in letters, in photographs, in lists of names for deportation.   Some stories are embedded in the names given to us at birth, in recipes, in particular family traditions. My family, like the families of many like us in the UK and America, have made deep roots in a very short time in the new places we live in now, others find themselves unable to come back from the violent uprooting they suffered, and so remain consistently rootless.

The pain we memorialise on Yom HaShoah travels down the generations. The silence of survivors doggedly refusing to tell their stories until almost too late, has been more profound and more powerful than speech. The anguish of families torn apart, with most disappeared or murdered, has an effect on the remnant that survives, be it spoken of or be it suppressed. I can still hear my 87 year old father asking – “but have I got any other family in the world besides the family I created? And “I wonder what my father would have thought of me”

The enormity of the Shoah is too much to process. The pain of individuals is too much to bear.

And yet we must continue to tell the story as best we can. We can tell the stories within our families, we can tell the stories of one community, one street, one house, one person. It comes down again and again to the personal stories, the fear and loss of individuals, the pain and terror of one human being.

And we must alongside tell the stories of bravery and heroism. The family with the same name as a Jewish family living in an apartment block who gave their papers to the Jewish family when the Gestapo came to call. The people who warned small children playing out –“don’t go back home, the soldiers are there, find somewhere else to go but don’t go home”. The people who hid Jews in their homes at their own risk, who faced down authorities and refused to accede to their demands, who gave out visas or forged documents to help people escape certain death.

One thing we learn is that fascism starts small, with many small acts of distortion – seeding fake news, calling out truth as if it is fake, skewing and manipulating public opinion, destroying trust in any source of information, acts of violence that are not confronted, racist dog-whistling, gaslighting – the process of driving a person to question their own sanity through deliberate psychological manipulation. This last – coming from the play by Patrick Hamilton “Gas Light” which premiered 1938 – is done not only by individuals but by governments and nation states. Hitler made promises, asserted facts and then later would act as if this had never happened.  The destabilising effect of what you know to be true suddenly apparently being false or non-existent is increasingly apparent once more in the politics of Trump, of Brexit, of the populist parties gaining power in Europe.

Fascism starts with many small acts of distortion. It is neutralised by clarity, transparency and truthfulness.

It is neutralised too by every act being called out for what it is at the level at which it occurs. Every taxi driver ranting on about a Brexit dividend or with a racist agenda, every dinner guest, every work colleague. Politeness is the enemy of honesty on occasion and allows the hatred to flourish as the hater believes their agenda is agreed.

The small acts of heroism alongside and during the Shoah are what gives me faith in the future, gives me a hope for the present, and also directs my own actions. I cannot stand idly by and hear racism, anti-European rhetoric, anti-Muslim spew. I will not stand idly by.  We must have faith in our own perceptions and our own values and not allow the gaslighting. We must be strong in what we know to be right – human dignity for all, support and care – and resources – for the vulnerable, honesty and transparency in our politics.

The word Shoah probably comes from a root meaning to ravage, to destroy, to devastate and is connected to the word used in the ten commandments – la’shav (do not take the name of the Eternal God La’shav) – meaning empty or vain, desolate or ruin.  One of my favourite glosses on this root as it appears in the third commandment is that we must not damage the world in the name of God, not destroy others – who also hold the reflection of God within them – for a misplaced sense of what God must be like.

I love too the modern midrash on the root Shoah which is made up of the three Hebrew letters Shin, Alef Hei.

The letter Shin has a shushing sound. A soothing sound we make to frightened children, the sound when there is nothing to say except “I’m here with you”

The letter Alef is silent; it reminds us of the silence of Aaron in the face of the sudden death of his sons, the shocked inability to respond at all as we freeze in our horror at the reality of what we are facing.

But the letter Hei, often used to designate the name of God, reminds us that at the end of it all, God is still with us. And it too has a soft and gentle sound, the sound of breathing.  At the end of the Shoah- even after all this time since the end, we can still say nothing to remedy or to heal the dislocation and pain we still endure and live with, but God is still with us, and we are still able to breath and to live, and to look forward in the hope of a life of peacefulness and with all the breath we have to fight the forces that would take that peace away.

 

photo of my grandfather’s reisepass with the red J firmly stamped.

Shemini: When Silence is the only response

One of the saddest moments in bible is found in Shemini – Aaron and his sons have just been inaugurated as priests in a week long ceremony and now the tent of meeting is being dedicated. The first offering is given by Aaron and is accepted as a fire descends from the heavens to consume it. The people bow down and worship. And then Nadav and Avihu the two older sons of Aaron offer a strange fire before God and the fire descends once more from the heavens – to consume their lives.

Aaron’s response – “va’yidom Aharon” – is to be silent. How can this be? To have finally reached the climax of priesthood only to see two children of your children destroyed by the object of that ministry. To be a father twice bereaved yet not to protest and shout out. Why does Torah tell us that Aaron, the man whose speech was smooth and fluent and who would act as the mouthpiece of his brother Moses in Egypt, had no words at this moment?

Words can be so healing – we are taught always to express clearly what we need in order to communicate with others, to use words to acknowledge our feelings be they painful or joyous. From private prayer to modern psychotherapy we are taught about the power of words to change or to complete us. Creation begins with words: God speaks and creation comes about. We transmit our tradition in storytelling, we see ourselves as a people who argue with God, who are not ever silenced – we are a noisy, challenging people who will argue with a text, giving voices to the long dead sages of our tradition. Yet “Aaron was silent” (Lev. 10:3). And this silence is seen in our tradition as a right and proper response – the Midrash Leviticus Rabbah comments on this verse: “Aaron was rewarded for his silence.” Clearly we have to look deeper. Why is the silence of a man so unfairly hit by tragedy seen in our tradition as a response to be rewarded? Why should he not be crying out against a God who did not protect the young men whose only wrong seems to have been an excess of religious fervour, who certainly did not deserve to die?

In the Talmud we find the statement that “the world is preserved only because of those who stop themselves from speaking out in difficult moments of strife” (B.T. Hullin 89a). We also find that it is an attribute of God to be seen to be silent at such times, – a rereading of the verse ‘mi chamocha ba’elim Adonai’ is understood not as “who is like you amongst the Elim – the mighty gods of other peoples”, but rather as “Who is like You, able to be silent?” – “Ilmim” (BT Gittin 66a). Sometimes silence is the only response. Anything else would diminish the enormity of the experience.

In Jewish tradition one does not speak to a mourner until the mourner speaks to you. It is a tradition that understands the depth of grief. When grief is intense any statement is bound at best to be irrelevant and at worst a serious intrusion. That is not to say we ignore a mourner or their grief, we do not cross the street to avoid meeting them nor leave them in their pain – but there is a communication that surpasses language, which any words would disrupt or divert. In mourning that may be simply sitting with and being with the mourner, in shared silence. It may be a warm embrace or a fleeting touch of the hand. It may be a meeting of the eye, a moment of contact which says “I am here and I care”. There is nothing more to offer than the compassionate presence – certainly there is nothing further to say.

There are times in our history when words are not just unhelpful – they might be actively destructive, causing a break in the relationships between us or between us and God. And these are the times when the silence of Aaron becomes understandable.

The text emphasizes that Aaron’s two elder sons were acting “before the Eternal.” Both the offerings they made and their death were “before the Eternal.” The plain sense of the text indicates that, apparently moved by religious fervour, they added an extra incense to the usual incense offering without having been commanded to do so. That is all. One would have thought this is no great crime for young men who have just finished their priestly training and are one day into the work. They are simply intoxicated with the role, acting out of extraordinary piety to add yet more offerings to God. At most they are guilty of what we are told in a later passage in Leviticus – that “They drew too close to the presence of God” (Leviticus 16:1). Surely we could expect for Aaron to respond to their violent and sudden deaths by arguing with God, just as Moses had done on several occasions before this. Surely Aaron could justify the actions of his sons to God and demand some compassionate – even miraculous – response. But Aaron was silent. He made no attempt to communicate his anguish – and surely his anger – to God.

This is unusual in our picture of Aaron, which has been improved in rabbinic teachings so that he becomes an active pursuer of peace (Avot 1:12 etc), a man who advocates peace and who is the earliest practitioner of what we now call “shuttle diplomacy. Yet in this situation his skills are redundant. There is nothing to do, nothing to say. His tragedy is too raw, too personal, too much. Should he speak what could he say? If he is able to put into words even the smallest part of his pain he would surely only create a rift between himself and God – how could he not? And what benefit would his speech produce? God is clearly not going to perform a miracle, turn back time, resurrect his dead. There is nothing, nothing at all, he can say.

This week we will be commemorating an event as raw, as incomprehensible, as painful as the event in Shemini – it will be Yom HaShoah and we will be coming together to be with each other in order to remember. But what will be able to say in the face of the enormity, the singular extra-ordinary time when our people were persecuted and destroyed with terrifying efficiency on a grand scale by national governments? There are those who railed against God, whose words led them to a permanent rift, losing their faith and any possibility of comfort from our Jewish God. There are those who attempted to make sense, who spoke of the implicit guilt of the victims – just as there are those who say that Nadav and Avihu must have been guilty of arrogance or even idolatry. And those whose attempts to make sense of the Shoah lead them to see the State of Israel as having emerged from it as a sort of divine compensation. There are those who are able to forgive God for the silence in the Shoah, but will never forgive people and so live lives of alienation and bitterness. But any response is too small, too diminishing of the event, pointless. Some things require us not to understand, not to argue against, not to justify nor to console – they are things about which the only response is a silence in which we can be. Not a silence that suppresses or ignores, but a silent being together.

During the service of brit milah (circumcision) there is a verse taken from the book of Exodus about the blood of the Passover lamb – God says “va’omar lach b’damayich chayee” –I say to you by your blood you shall live. The Dubner Maggid asks – why the extra word – lach – for you? And answers his own question – this is about the precious blood that is spilled – God will respond, will not leave you in despair. But B’damayich chayee can also be translated a different way – damayich does not have to mean ‘your blood’ but ‘your silence’. Sometimes it is only with silence that we can go on – any other response would be too destructive to us, would drag us into a vortex of pain from which we would be unable to emerge.

I cannot find it in me to believe that the shedding of blood is the call to which God will always respond, regardless of the teachings of our tradition. But I can understand the need for silence, that silence sometimes is the only thing that will allow us to go on, to not be desperately searching all the time for an elusive explanation, for a response that will make sense, for a grand plan in which such terrible sacrifice is given honourable meaning. Like Aaron knew, some things are beyond words, beyond reason, beyond our ability to contain or order their meaning. Sometimes you just have to simply be, to witness, to remember, and to be with the people who themselves experienced the horror in compassionate wordless togetherness.

A talk given at Stand Up to Racism, Unite against Fascism

Michael Rosen wrote a poem called Fascism: I sometimes fear…

“I sometimes fear that people think that fascism arrives in fancy dress 

worn by grotesques and monsters

as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis. 

Fascism arrives as your friend. 

It will restore your honour, 

make you feel proud, 

protect your house, 

give you a job, 

clean up the neighbourhood, 

remind you of how great you once were, 

clear out the venal and the corrupt, 

remove anything you feel is unlike you…

 It doesn’t walk in saying, 

“Our programme means militias, mass imprisonments, transportations, war and persecution.”

I am the child of a man displaced in childhood by the holocaust, the grandchild of a man who died from the results of his treatment in Dachau, a member of a family dislocated from its various places of origin, washed up as refugees a number of times in recent history. My known and documented roots go back in over 600 years to Byeloruss, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, France and Spain, and each time the family story of leaving is one of trying to escape irrational ethnic and religious hatred with only a handful of possessions to start again.

One thing I have learned is that history does repeat itself, and that much as we may protest ‘never again’, the reality is that genocides continue, that racism continues, that hatred for the other continues. I am not a believer in the idea that the more we explain why we shouldn’t be doing it, the more people will stop doing it. It doesn’t happen in campaigns to promote healthy behaviour; it doesn’t help in campaigns against damaging behaviours.

The Talmud asks the question: “Why was the First Temple destroyed?” and it answers itself thus: “Because of three things that occurred in it: Idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed…” But then it goes on to develop its thought -“the Second Temple, where they occupied themselves with Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness, why was it destroyed? Because there was a prevailing practice of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches that baseless hatred is equated with three sins: idolatry, immorality and bloodshed.” (Yoma 9b)

Essentially this 5th Century Document collecting much earlier traditions is telling us that baseless hatred of the other is worse than the three most appalling behaviours it can imagine, all put together – and it destroys everything of value if we allow it to take root.

Abraham Isaac Kook (1865–1935), the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine, commented on this teaching : “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam. (Orot HaKodesh v.3)

It is one of his most famous teachings and is often quoted – if we only treat the world with love that has no base in reason but is simply freely offered, then we will rebuild it and challenge the irrational hatred by our love for the other.

But there is something rather deeper in his work that is not as often explained. He asks why it is that people have an unreasonable and irrational hatred of the other, and goes on to explain that is not, as we commonly assert, because of the behaviour of the other, but the reason and source of our hatred is firmly rooted in our own selves. All of our own selves.

He teaches that while we may give ourselves reasons for why we do not trust others, or hate them, (their clothing, their cooking, their keeping themselves to themselves, their strange belief system, whatever….) actually these are simply created to comfort ourselves and to distract ourselves from a hard truth.

The source of our hatred comes, he teaches, from our own fundamental life force, which is both the important force for our growth and development, and which we need in order to flourish and to thrive – but which is also an important element in our desire to survive, and hence it opposes everything that it experiences as different and therefore potentially threatening to our own ability to succeed in life. In other words, our baseless hatred of the other is inherent in our humanity, a perversion of a necessary trait for our survival.

At first sight this is dispiriting, but it is not impossible to deal with once we decide to recognise it. For the reality is that the fear or hatred of the other which fuels all the racism we see in the world, shares a root with our life force, which includes the love of life, the desire to thrive, to live in a good and nurturing world. They are two sides of one coin, and it is possible to transmute the hatred by seeing the good in what we default to as negative or dangerous, by seeing the humanity in the other.

Elsa Cayet was the only woman killed at Charlie Hebdo, killed because she was Jewish, albeit not a conventionally practising Jew, and while she was not religiously observant, she followed in the tradition of challenging everything she encountered, and demanded an intellectual analysis and response.

Her final article, published posthumously in the magazine, declared:

“Human suffering derives from abuse. This abuse derives from belief—that is, from everything we have had to swallow, everything we have had to believe.”

The point she is making is that all too often we simply swallow the words of others, the perspectives that difference equals danger, or at least a different practise has less value than our way, a person not like us has less humanity than us. She goes on to remind the reader that we have to confront our primal fears and certainties, have to think about them, critique them, take responsibility for them, and not allow them to shape us, to sentence us to unthinking assumptions that may well lead us to hatred of the other.

I stand here, the child of a family whose paternal generations just before mine were almost entirely murdered, because of causeless hatred or indifference to suffering because of a refusal to see the ‘other’ as part of the same life force that supports everyone; whose maternal ancestry experienced the same hatred in other parts of the world in earlier times. I stand here a Rabbi who has worked within the Jewish community, active in interfaith work and intercommunity meetings, because, in part, one of my teachers truly believed (along with Rav Kook) that if we encounter the other in ordinary situations we begin to realise that their humanity is identical to ours, that the conclusion of our life force that difference is dangerous, cannot survive the meeting with such difference. I stand here to say that in our own lifetimes and our own towns and cities, the words “never again” are being drowned out once more by fear and hatred of people who are swallowing the beliefs of their deepest survival instincts without any examination of them. And we must speak out. We must insist that we look for the good, for the shared humanity, rather than focus on the different and see only that which scares us. We must demand that the values of Life – of a commitment to freedom, of valuing difference and diversity, of the inclusion of all peoples in our society, of causeless love rather than causeless hatred take precedence in our worlds.

We stand together against all who cause divisiveness amongst our communities, who shout a rhetoric of hatred, who use the fears and anxieties of people against us and our shared interest. And we stand together against those who seek to control the hatred for their own interests. Let us take on board the teaching of Rav Kook and remind ourselves that we can neutralise the damage working together with causeless love.

Talk Given at Stand up to Racism event at House of Commons 29th January 2015

Parashat Beshallach: lessons to survive national trauma in Holocaust Memorial Week.

Seventy years ago this week, the twin camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated, and no-one in the outside world could ignore any longer what had been going on in territory controlled by Nazi Germany.

The western world is ready to recognise some of its collusion with what happened, but 70 years on is anxious to consign much of it to the history books, and looking at modern world events one can truly say that while some of the responsibility for the Shoah being allowed to happen is being accepted, much of it is not, and clearly nothing is being learned from it which might guide our politicians and their constituents to meaningfully help the oppressed peoples in Europe and beyond who are suffering under harsh and racist regimes today.

The Jewish world is still trying to come to terms with the events of the last century, though the pogroms and persecution are often still too recent and too raw for us to deal with yet, and we are stumbling around in the darkness of the early stages of the attempt to find meaning in what has happened to us. Post the Shoah, the trauma that our people endured, we have to assimilate something of value into our tradition and our ritual if we are to continue choosing to be Jews into the next generations. I don’t have any answers to how one deals with the experience, but reading Beshallach can help to point the way maybe, for it records the trauma of being thrust out from Egypt, the plagues which the Jews almost uncomprehendingly witnessed, the way in which the world changed so totally for them, and all security was gone – even the security of slavery. It records too the continued pursuit of them by the Egyptians, even into the inhospitable wilderness, the hopelessness and helplessness and victim positions of all those who had survived.   We read in Beshallach how the children of Israel turned on Moses, how they wished to be back in slavery in Egypt rather than in the wilderness, how they feared for themselves and their future, how they could not yet cope with what had happened to them, and did not know how to find meaning to guide them. What happened in sidra Beshallach is a paradigm for us to use to begin to deal with the Shoah. The first clue is in Moses’ speech to the people–“Fear not, stand still and see the salvation of the Eternal….for whereas you have seen the Egyptians today, you shall see them again no more for ever”   The removal of fear which comes from the certainty that the persecutors will be disabled and will no longer threaten the victims is a vital beginning to being able to move on from the trauma of the experience.

The second clue must surely be the fact that the children of Israel walked into the midst of the sea upon dry land – as the midrash takes it the sea did not fully part until the first Israelites had taken the risk and jumped in to it, risking at the very least cold and discomfort in the darkness and swirling waters.

The third event of use to us – that there was active and knowledgeable participation by Moses in what ultimately happened to the Egyptian army – God had made their wheels stick so that their passage through the sea was too difficult and they stated very clearly that they wanted to run away from the Israelites and go back to Egypt. It was then given for Moses to choose to stretch out his hand over the waters so that the Egyptians would drown before they could escape.

And finally the fact that the survivors recognised the hand of God in what had happened to them and around them, and “they believed in the Eternal and in Moses God’s servant” – they recognised that God is present in the world, and that his purpose is served through human beings. And they sang a song of praise – they worshipped God wholeheartedly and meaningfully.

Four factors in how the children of Israel dealt with their own pain and their own survival. The removal of the fear of immediate threat, the active choice to survive, the active choice to participate in dealing with the enemy rather than relying on a greater power to sort them out, and the understanding of and communication with Gods presence.

We can take the model and use it – removing the fear and immediate threat of racist oppression by standing out against it where ever it appears, whether directly focussed on Jews or not. Making active choices to survive as Jews, teaching our children, identifying ourselves, playing a part in the Jewish community. Dealing with our enemies directly, facing up to what terrifies us and not expecting them to shelter under the protection of others. And finally through exploring and exposing ourselves with prayer, recognising the place that God has in our lives, and accepting that we have an obligation in God’s scheme of things too.

We can look at what we as a Jewish people are doing post Shoah, and find that much of it fits into the model first offered in sidra Beshallach. We have structures to fight racism and oppression. We have structures to help us make active choices about our Judaism. We have structures to make us a people to be reckoned with, a nation state, and a high profile in diaspora. And we are beginning to develop a ritual and a liturgy to remember the Shoah within our religious identity too. We’re following the pattern, but much remains to be done. We have the structures but we have to really make use of them. We have some prayers but we have to seriously pray them.

Seventy years after the liberation by the Soviets of the Jews who survived Auschwitz, we are just beginning to make a glimmer in the darkness of the pain and the confusion. The generation who physically experienced it are dead or dying and rely on us now to continue their work. We shall not let them down, but will absorb the lessons we can, and be changed as Jews because of what happened to them.

Shemini – The Eighth Day. How to make a new beginning and get on with life

The sidra continues the story begun last week, when Aaron and his sons were dedicated to the priesthood in a ceremony lasting seven days. And now, on the eighth day, it is time for them to begin their work, to offer sacrifices at the altar, to prepare the place and the people for the imminent arrival of the presence of God.

We begin with a verse that has always caught my attention. “Vay’hee bayom ha’shemini, kara Moshe l’Aharon u’le’vanav, ul’zik’nei Yisrael” And it came to pass on the eighth day that Moses called to Aaron and to his sons, and to the Elders of Israel… “ (Lev 9:1)

Why does it catch my attention? Firstly because the eighth day is such a particular description – we have had a full week of seven days of preparation and now here we are with a new beginning. The eighth day always makes me think of the seven days of Creation and then – this day, the first day of the life of the world fully made. It makes me think of the mitzvah of circumcision to be enacted on the eighth day – the day a male Jewish baby is brought into the Covenant. It symbolises to me the moment of starting out, the first steps of independence once the groundwork has been laid.

So it seems right and proper that the priests should be starting their sacrificial work on this day, when the world is somehow shiny and new and all things are possible.

And then the second ‘catch’ – why does Moses call not only Aaron and his sons, but also the Ziknei Yisrael, the Elders of Israel? This is apparently a priestly activity, the instructions specifically for them to do, and yet the Elders are also there.

The Ziknei Yisrael are present at a number of pivotal events in the bible. At the burning bush Moses is told to gather the Elders of Israel (Exodus 3:16), at Sinai (Exodus 19:7) again they are gathered and told what God had said to Moses, in the wilderness after one of the rebellions again God tells Moses to gather them to hear God’s words (Num. 11:16). The Ziknei Yisrael are often the witnesses and the support to Moses at times of change or vulnerability. While they do not speak and seem to have no active or proactive role in the text, their presence is vital to the stability and robustness of Moses’ leadership.

So here we are, a verse denoting new beginnings for the worship system, witnessed by the Elders who have been with Moses every step of the way, and within a short time we have the story of a tragedy. The new beginning has gone badly wrong; Nadav and Avihu, two of the sons of Aaron have died because they have not followed the ritual correctly, and Aaron is unable to speak, and explicitly told that he must not show his grief in a public manner.

And then the dedication ceremony continues, with Aaron and his remaining sons Itamar and Elazar fulfilling the ritual, though it is clear in the text that their hearts are not really in it. They are traumatised and unable to eat the portion marked for the priesthood. And yet, like consummate professionals, the work of the Tabernacle goes on.

I always read this section with a sense of great sadness – the death of two of his sons clearly marks Aaron and the remaining sons forever. It seems unfair that whatever Nadav and Avihu did, the consequences should have been so drastic. Moses comes over as unfeeling and demanding, focussed on the continuation of the process more than on the desperate distress of his family.

And the elders? Well they observe it all, solidly present, quietly linking the past to the future, the witnesses to the trauma of our people

The response of Moses which seems so unfeeling is maybe not as cold as it first appears. He tells Aaron and the surviving sons to continue with the important work they have to do, not to allow themselves to stop and to interrupt all that they have prepared for. They cannot indulge in paralysing grief, but must get on with life. And so they do. They are dejected and in anguish, but they get on with the work of their lives, and so the people of Israel pick up once more and continue in their journey. I am reminded of all those Holocaust Survivors who did not speak a great deal of what had happened to them and to those they loved, but who got on with rebuilding life, defining themselves not by what had happened then but by what they do now. Their response which seemed so odd when I was a child now seems sensible. They were not held back in their grief, they continued to build life. Maybe that is what the eighth day is really about. Whatever happened before there is always a new start, the history may prepare us and shape us, but it can never hold us back if we chose to see ourselves as beginning the next stage of our lives.

 

Taf Nun Tzaddi Beit Hey : May the soul of our dear one be bound up in the bundle of life. Thoughts for Kristallnacht 2013

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ImageIn an enormous, overgrown, forested cemetery in Breslau, lies the grave of a woman who died in that town in the Jewish Hospital in 1940. She had come, as far as we can ascertain, to be near her sister whose husband had roots there. Her parents were dead, her brother moved to another part of the country to be near a different border, all three siblings dislocated from their family and home and all three would die far from the comfort and security they were born to.

Lily’s sister and brother in law fled separately to freedom a few weeks before she herself died in March 1940.  The Jews were deported from Breslau in September 1941 and by 1943 only partners of mixed marriages and some children remained of a community that had numbered 20 thousand in 1933, Almost all those deported perished in the Shoah that began 75 years ago this week, with the infamous Kristallnacht pogroms of November 1938.

Trude, the sister of Lily, escaped to safety in the USA, knowing that her sister was too weak and ill to live much longer, certainly too ill to journey. I can only imagine the last days they were together, the agony of leaving behind a dying sister while knowing that to stay would only mean that both of them would die; and the pain of the woman left in a city she did not know, with relative strangers who nursed her to the end, and who buried her with dignity, marking the plinth of her grave so that one day someone might come back to honour her properly. The grave is at the end of an older line, on a pathway, presumably the easiest place to dig in the bitter winter time for a struggling community. And recently we, her great nephew and neices found it, commissioned a memorial stone, and dedicated it on a cool autumn morning.

The stone reminds the world that here lies Anne Elisabeth Rothschild, Lily’s real name. It gives the dates and places of her birth and death, and the names of her brother and sister. And there follows the acronym found on many Jewish graves:        “ taf nun. tsadi, beit, heh.” (for tehi nishmato/a tzruro/a bitzrur ha’chaim – may their soul be bound in the bundle of life)

The acronym has found its way onto Jewish memorial stones almost  it seems to me as a response to the Christian Requiescat In Pace (Rest in Peace) taken from the liturgy of the Catholic Requiem Mass.

The acronym we have comes to our funeral liturgy through the memorial prayer “El Malei Rachamim”, a prayer which was composed in the Ashkenazi Jewish Rite following the time of the Crusades This prayer was written for the many martyrs who died simply because they were Jews, and is referred to specifically as being recited for the souls of those who were murdered in the Chmielnicki revolts of the 17th Century. We read it as a memorial prayer, asking for the souls of the dead to be bound into the bundle of life, an image I find particularly comforting as I imagine each soul to be one of the threads of a tapestry that is still being woven. Each thread remains important, even if it has come to an end – it keeps in place the others around it, adds to the pattern, anchors the ones to come…. It has always seemed to me a richer and more positive image than that of peaceful resting, while containing within it that desire for eternal calm and serenity alongside a sense of history and continuation.

So when looking at its source I came across the full verse in the book of Samuel, I was rather taken aback when I found Abigail saying to King David

And though someone  rise up to pursue you, and to seek your soul, yet the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with the Eternal your God; And the souls of your enemies shall God sling out, as from the hollow of a sling.” (1 Sam 25:29)

Such a violent image in the second half of that verse, it takes the idea of being bound up with God in a continuing tapestry of life, of having a stake in the future while rooting the past securely and turns it on its head – now the souls of the ones who seek to destroy others are slung out as from a slingshot, to fall onto barren ground and to perish alone and without hope.

Violent and bleak, and yet I can understand why the authors of that prayer took the verse for their liturgy. I can see that while only using the first half with its warm, comforting and life affirming imagery they would have known that their listeners would also recognised the unsaid words. The people who had callously murdered other human beings simply for their being Jews would also not be forgotten by God, their recompense would not have been the certainty of being part of an ongoing tradition and community as was the lot of the victims, but a dislocated lonely and abandoned future.

As I stood with my brother and sister at the grave of my great aunt Lily, looking at the acronym that I have seen so many times in my rabbinic life, it came into focus in a different way, in the way that it must have first been written.

We mourn our dead, we mourn for the way so many lives were cut short, were filled with pain and anxiety, with separation from loved ones and disparagement and fear. But we honour them and we live lives in which the threads of their existence continue to have meaning and purpose, bringing them with us into the future.  And we remember those who brought about such horrors, and who continue to disturb and disrupt the peace and goodness of the world. And we know that somehow, somewhere, God does not forget.

 

 

 

 

 

 

International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Two years ago I visited the Rumbula Forest, near Riga in Latvia, where nearly 28 thousand Jews were killed in just two days in November and December 1941, and where a heartbreaking memorial to them is hidden among the trees. Some of my own family, the brothers and sisters of my great-grandfather and their children are buried in the mass graves marked out on the forest floor. Only three people survived the murder that took place here.

The visit was poignant and it was also infuriating. One reason it had taken so long to build anything here as a memorial is that the inscription on the memorial had become an issue when some Riga officials wanted language that would have obscured Latvian complicity. Eventually an agreed inscription meant the memorial could go ahead

HERE, ON NOVEMBER 30 AND DECEMBER 8 OF 1941 THE NAZIS AND THEIR LATVIAN COLLABORATORS SHOT TO DEATH MORE THAN 25,000 JEWS WHO WERE PRISONERS OF THE RIGA GHETTO – CHILDREN, WOMEN, ELDERLY MEN, AND APPROXIMATELY 1000 JEWS WHO HAD BEEN DEPORTED FROM GERMANY. IN THE SUMMER OF 1944 HUNDREDS OF JEWISH MEN FROM THE “RIGA–KEISERWALD” CONCENTRATION CAMP WERE ALSO KILLED HERE.

And the memorial was finally dedicated on November 29, 2002, more than sixty years after the terrible events it bespoke.

Why so long after the event? Because it was supposed to be forgotten. There was no one who wanted to remember what had happened in Riga, and in many many other places just outside villages and towns in Latvia, Lithuania, and other countries. No one wanted to remember, no one wanted to think about it.

Our guide told us something else about why it took such a long time to build a memorial there – the story was not entirely forgotten, but the exact place in the forest had been lost. No one could admit to knowing where it might be. It took the efforts of an interested botanist, who found plants in a particular area of the forest that needed the kind of nutrition only a well blood-soaked soil could provide, to identify the place of the murder of so many innocent people. Once he had found it, the mass grave pits were identified.

Eyewitness accounts are horrific: On this particular day (30 November 1941), the air temperature in Riga was -7.5C at 7:00a.m. and 1.9 degree C at 9:00 RM. On the previous evening, 29 November 1941, there had been an average snowfall of seven centimetres. On 30 November between 7:00 A.M.  and 9:00 p.m. it did not snow.

“The Mass Shootings outside Riga, 30 November and December 1941.                               

The  actual site of execution lay about five miles outside  Riga in  the direction of Duenaburg [Daugavpils], between the highway and  the railroad, both of which connect Riga and Duenaburg. The railroad tracks and the road there run a near-parallel  course, with  the railroad tracks running to the north of the road.  The site lies in the vicinity of the railroad station at Rumbuli; its  terrain  is sandy and slightly hilly, sparsely wooded,  and forms part of the Rumbuli Forest.

In the centre of this site was a densely forested area; this was the location of the actual execution site, with prepared pits designed to accommodate about thirty thousand bodies.  The approaching  columns of Jews coming from Riga along the  highway between  Riga  and Duenaburg had to turn left from  the  highway onto  a dirt track which led up to the small patch of woods.  In the process they were funnelled into a narrow cordon, which  was formed by SS units, a contingent of the Special Task Unit  Riga, and Latvian units.

 The  columns of Jews advancing from Riga, comprising  about  one thousand  persons each, were herded into the cordon,  which  was formed  in  such a way that it narrowed greatly as it  continued into the woods, where the pits lay. The Jews first of all had to deposit their luggage before they entered the copse; permission to carry these articles had only been granted to give the Jews the impression that they were taking part in a resettlement.  As they  progressed, they had to deposit their valuables in  wooden boxes,  and, little by little, their clothing – first overcoats, then suits, dresses, and shoes, down to their under clothes, all placed in distinct piles according to the type of clothing.

 Stripped down to their underclothes, the Jews had to move forward along the narrow path in a steady flow toward the pits, which they entered by a ramp, in single file and in groups often.  Occasionally the flow would come to a standstill when someone tarried at one of the undressing points; or else, if the undressing went faster than expected, or if the columns advanced too quickly from the city, too many Jews would arrive at the pits at once.  In such cases, the supervisors stepped in to ensure a steady and moderate flow, since it was feared that the Jews would grow edgy if they had to linger in the immediate vicinity of the pits….

 In the pits the Jews had to lie flat, side by side, face down. They were killed with a single bullet in the neck, the marksmen standing at close range-at the smaller pits, on the perimeter; at the large pit, inside the pit itself-their semi-automatic pistols set for single fire. To make the best of available space, and particularly of the gaps between bodies, the victims next in line had to lie down on top of those who had been shot immediately before them. The handicapped, the aged, and the young were helped into the pits by the sturdier Jews, laid by them on top of the bodies, and then shot by marksmen who in the large pit actually stood on the dead. In this way the pits gradually filled.” (Gerald Fleming, pp78-79 in Hitler and the Final Solution, University of California Press 1984)

As I walked around the memorial, which includes stones on which are marked the streets from the ghetto that victims had come from, and stones with the names of some of the victims, I found the names of my grandfather’s cousins, and a stone inscribed with the name of the street in the ghetto which I had visited only an hour or so earlier and from which my great grandmother had emigrated in 1892 to escape a bad marriage and grinding poverty. I called over my sister and cousin and overcome with emotion we stood in silence thinking of those people, named and unnamed, who had died here so horribly, whose story had very nearly been hidden away so that their very existence would have been lost. And then we said the Kaddish prayer.

Looking at the stones inscribed with my maternal family name, it became clear that, while this had begun as a journey to find our roots and see for ourselves the “old country” our family had left, the experience in the forest was also a way of directly encountering what our own past would have been had my great grandmother taken a different route. Going to the forest to see for ourselves was initially part of the search for family, to honour those we had not known, to connect with a community which had once thrived and whose roots were entangled with ours. Yet it was also so much bigger an experience than connecting with a personal past.

We mourned for family we never knew who had died in that strange place in the forest, but this could not only be a personal ache as our visits to other family places had been – our grief and prayers encompassed everyone who had died in that place because of their Jewish heritage.  And even this was not enough to say – the place of the industrial scale process of murder with its belated yet extraordinary memorial prompted us to pray for all victims of genocide. In fact I think it was the story of the large quiet forest and the botanist who identified this site through the nutrient rich soil, and the so-careful wording of the plaque, as well as the long period of time between the event and its public recognition that so powerfully drove us to understand something more about the dirty secrets of genocide wherever it occurs. It is always a dirty secret hiding in full public view, an enormity sitting in plain sight and this is one reason it is perpetuated.

In our siddur is a prayer written for specifically for Yom HaShoah. It includes the lines “we mourn for all that died with them, their goodness and their wisdom which could have saved the world and healed so many wounds. We mourn for the genius and the wit that died, the learning and the laughter that were lost. The world has become a poorer place and our hearts become cold as we think of the splendour that might have been.” (Rabbi Lionel Blue in Forms of Prayer pub Movement for Reform Judaism p388)

This visit might have been a profoundly family moment, a coming face to face with branches of my family tree that had been torn from life and from the future, and it was indeed that, but it was also a profoundly human moment – everyone in such a situation deserves our thoughts, our prayers, our determination never to let anyone have to be in this situation ever, ever again and to do that we have to tell the stories, we have to remember.

While visiting the memorial in the place in the forest so nearly lost forever, I thought of the Chasidic story about remembering:

“When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw misfortune threatening the Jews it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, and the miracle would be accomplished and the misfortune averted. Later, when his disciple, the celebrated Maggid of Mezeritch, had occasion, for the same reason, to intercede with heaven, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again the miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be sufficient.” It was sufficient and the miracle was accomplished.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, he spoke to God: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story, and this must be sufficient.” And it was sufficient.”  Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest, introduction.

And I thought too of Simon Dubnow, the great historian and scholar murdered in the Riga ghetto, who is said to have said “If you survive, never forget what is happening here, give evidence, write and rewrite, keep alive each word and each gesture, each cry and each tear.”

Today, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we do that, and more, we remember all who have been persecuted for their religion, their politics, their sexuality, their ethnicity. We weep for them all. And more than that, we affirm our commitment to combating such persecutions, such demonising of the other, such monstering of other human beings that hides in plain sight in our own world, in our media and our social networks, in the communities where we live and in our wider human society.

From Wikipedia

International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 27 January, is an international memorial day for the victims of the Holocaust, the genocide that resulted in the annihilation of 6 million Jews, 2 million Gypsies (Roma and Sinti), 15,000 homosexual people and millions of others by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. It was designated by the United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005 during the 42nd plenary session. The resolution came after a special session was held earlier that year on 24 January 2005 during which the United Nations General Assembly marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the end of the Holocaust. 27 January is the date, in 1945, when the largest Nazi death camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, was liberated by Soviet troops.

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Tenth of Tevet – the day of remembering those who died in the Shoah

Today is the tenth of Tevet, an historic day of mourning for the Jewish people for it is the date on which in 588 BCE Nebuchadnezzar responded to King Zedekiah’s rebellion and besieged the city of Jerusalem (2Kings 25:1-2), and bible also records that the word of God came to Ezekiel telling him “”O mortal, write for yourself the name of this day, this exact day; for this very day the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem”  (Ezekiel 24: 2).  Exile to Babylon became certain from this date, even though the city held out for some time, falling three years later when on 17th Tammuz the city walls were breached and three weeks after that on the 9th Av the Temple was destroyed. By the time of Zechariah (c520 BCE) the custom of fasting on this day was established.

While this fast was originally a response to the tragedy of the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people from the Land of Israel for seventy years, it was never seen as only the commemoration of an historic response, but also a response to the suffering of the people. Because of this, and because of the Talmudic dictum that “Good things come to pass on an auspicious day, Bad things come to pass on an unlucky day” (Ta’anit 29a), the tenth of Tevet became seen as an appropriate day on which to commemorate all who died in the Shoah, particularly all those whose date of death was unknown. In 1949 the Israeli Chief Rabbinate declared that “the day on which the first churban (destruction) commenced should become a memorial day also for the last churban,” and two years later this became the official date for the yahrzeit of those who have no recorded date of death.

Yet the Government of Israel chose a different date to commemorate the events of the Shoah, “Yom Ha’Zikaron le Shoah ve la’Gevurah” The Day of Remembering the Shoah and Heroism was passed in Israeli law in 1953 and was originally chosen to be observed on the 14th Nisan, the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – clearly the Gevurah, the Heroism, was to be a major component of the observing of this day, a deliberate and explicit way to counter the “lambs to the slaughter” accusations of the victimhood of the Jewish people.

There were a number of problems with this date – the month of Nisan is traditionally a month of joy, associated with redemption and Pesach, and to hold a day of mourning in it cut across customs and norms. Particularly, the 14th Nisan is just before Seder night and so the date was moved to the 27th Nisan, which means that it is now observed the week before Yom ha’Atzma’ut, Israeli Independence Day.

And this is where I become uncomfortable. I have always found the link of a week between Yom HaShoah to Yom Ha’Atzma’ut means that we link the two dates in an improper way. The yearning by the Jewish people for their own land once more is millennia old. The practical developments for this to happen began many years before the Shoah, with the work of the Zionist movement which grew out of growing anti-Semitism in post enlightenment Europe. While the events of the Shoah may or may not have had an effect on the speed the establishment of the State of Israel, it does not rest fundamentally upon it – the ties between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are deeper, longer, and far more complex than it being a response out of the guilt of Europe to solve the “Jewish Question”.  The linkage between the Shoah and the State of Israel has also led to a corrupted narrative that the Jews of the Diaspora were by definition weak and helpless, negating the rich traditions of learning, art, science and being of the Jews who lived in Europe for so many generations.

To have this date on the tenth of Tevet rather than in Nisan would not only realign our observance to traditional timing, it would mean that we would remember all those who died in the Shoah the week after finishing celebrating Chanukah, a festival that grew out of militaristic triumph and that was reinterpreted by rabbinic tradition with the addition of a miracle to become a religious reminder that even in dark times God is with us. To remember our unknown dead, and all those who died at the hands of a great power bent on destroying us just one week after we celebrate the victory of those who fought a great power bent on destroying the particularity of the Jewish people would give us a better sense of perspective. We would be reminded that no battle is ever won for all time and we need to remain aware of the need to combat evil wherever we find it;, that however clever our military strategies we also need to be aware of the reason for our continued existence – that we are a people of God whose work is to increase holiness in the world, just as we increase the level of holiness through the days of Chanukah.