Rescued from the water – from Moses to SOS Méditerranée. A Jewish response to the refugees fleeing to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea

Recently I attended a lecture by Jean-Marc Liling at the conference of the European Union for Progressive Judaism. One of his statements really struck home. Referring to the many migrants rescued from the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, he reminded us of how the greatest leader of Judaism found safety having been first hidden in a basket in the reeds on the Nile and then rescued by a woman in the Pharaonic household. She is the one who gives him his name when she adopts him, She calls him Moses/Moshe, because ““I have drawn him from the water – min ha mayim m’shitihu”

Day after day and year after year we hear of the stories of people who are fleeing their homes because of warfare and violence, and who are looking for safety across the Mediterranean sea. Earlier this week the humanitarian group SOS Méditerranée wrote on twitter that its rescue boat Aquarius had taken in 629 migrants, including 123 unaccompanied minors, 11 other children and seven pregnant women. They would take them to a safe port as usual – but the Italian government refused to allow the ship to dock. Even though the mayors of the port cities such as Palermo, Naples, Messina and Reggio Calabria, said they were ready to disobey Salvini’s order and allow Aquarius to dock and disembark in their seaports, the lack of coastguard meant they could not do so. The ship eventually ended up able to disembark its frightened, exhausted and distressed passengers in Spain, after an agonisingly protracted negotiation and a further period of enduring the stormy seas.

Today The Coast Guard ship Diciotti, arrived in the port of Catania, with 932 migrants on board. They were rescued during 7 rescue operations off Libya, and I read that five of the refugees, four pregnant women and a minor, have already been transferred to Sicilian hospitals. On board the ship there are also two corpses, recovered during the rescue interventions.

As a Jew, as a person born with the privilege of a western passport and life, as a human being, I read the stories of these refugees with pity, compassion and some horror.  I am only one generation away from refugee status. My father came as an unaccompanied minor to the UK leaving behind his family in Germany. His father survived Dachau but died stateless –sans papiers – in Switzerland, days after the Swiss Government saw fit to refuse him leave to stay in their country because he was a refugee. My mother was born to parents who fled the anti-Semitic constraints of living as Jews in Eastern Europe. They had arrived there, so family tradition relates, from Spain – when Jews were forcibly converted or killed or fled from the Inquisition.  I am not remotely unusual in the Jewish world. Scratch most Jews and you will quickly find the story of a refugee.

What does Judaism say to us to help us understand?  Right at the beginning of bible Cain asks the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” He appears to think that he should not have to be responsible for any other human being, but the answer from God is clear and unequivocal. Yes, we are responsible for each other. We are each other’s brothers and sisters,  we have a human link with each other which cannot be dissolved.

Abraham in Hebron, describes himself as a stranger and sojourner (ger v’toshav Anochi) (Gen 23:3-4) and asks to be allowed to bury his wife.

The most frequent mitzvah in bible is to care for the stranger, the refugee and the vulnerable who live among us – for example- “And if a stranger (Ger) sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong.  The stranger that sojourns with you shall be to you as the home born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.  I am the Eternal your God. (Lev. 19:33-34)

And Moses, the one who reminds us again and again to care for the stranger and those who live amongst us and need our help – Moses was drawn from the water having been put there to flee a death sentence which had been decreed by a violent political power determined to ethnically cleanse his country.

In the Yizkor section of the British Reform Machzor is a prayer that speaks of the many lives lost in pogroms and in Shoah. It speaks of the laughter that was lost, the poetry never written, the science never developed, the music never composed. It lists all the things that died when the people who should have done them died. Not just the descendants who never got born, but the ideas, the humanity, the connections and the learning of the people, which never had chance to form.  When I think about Moses being rescued from certain death in the water, whose life hung on a thread after the political powers determined to play out their own warped agenda, I cannot now forget the question asked at that lecture. What have we lost as we allow the migrants to die in the Mediterranean Sea? The United Nations estimates that at least 500 people have already died in 2018 trying to cross the central Mediterranean, following some 2,853 fatalities last year.

What have we lost by not caring enough to help these people? Not just lives, though that would be bad enough but all the things that would have come from those lives.

The bible tells us that God says to Cain, who had killed his brother ‘The bloods of your brother cry out to Me’ (Genesis 4:10) — and rabbinic tradition, noting the plural that the sentence is cast in, read  that it is not only  his blood but also the blood of his potential descendants….The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) continues:  Therefore was the first human being, Adam, created alone, to teach us that whoever destroys a single life, the Bible considers it as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a single life, the Bible considers it as if they saved an entire world. Furthermore, only one human being, Adam, was created for the sake of peace among people, so that no one should say to their fellow, ‘My father was greater than yours….

We are a people whose national and foundational stories are of being refugees. We are a people whose great figures – Abraham and Moses, are themselves refugees, Ivri’im, people who cross over from one place to another, in search of a safe place to be themselves. When, as Jews, we read the stories coming out of the desperate people crossing the sea in leaky overcrowded boats in order to escape a terrible existence – or even death – in their own country, our response has to be practical and immediate. We cannot turn away. We cannot parrot the lines about people being economic migrants or ”just” looking for a better life and absolve ourselves of responsibility.

The boat that docked today in Catania is called Diciotti. It is connected to the word 18. 18 is, in Hebrew, Het Yod – Hai –Life. It seems to me a call to remind us to choose life, not only for ourselves and our families, but for all who need our help for them to also choose life.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild 13th June 2018

Her Britannic Majesty’s Secretary of State requests …..

At the age of ten I went to live with my grandmother in Switzerland for a year. I can still remember handing over to her my shiny new stiff covered blue and gold British passport for safekeeping. She took it and held it, stroked its cover and opened it to the page which informed the world that Her Britannic Majesty requested my safe passage in the world. She told me how lucky I was to possess such a wonderful document and how I must never do anything to lose it.

I remember the scene vividly. We were standing together in her bedroom by the elegant Venetian writing desk she kept there. I remember her voice, the urgency of her words, and something else: something that communicated itself to me and resonates within me almost fifty years later.

At the time it seemed an important conversation and one I should pay attention to but I didn’t really understand why or what it was she was trying to communicate.

Now I do. My grandmother, the pampered only child of wealthy Berlin parents who grew up with all the advantages that money could buy in that cultured elegant world of the late 1800’s fell in love with and married a Jewish lawyer from Hannover in late 1922. With a young son, my father, born in 1924 they should have been set to live a comfortable and happy life together. My grandfather rose in the ranks of the legal system and was becoming a respected Judge, but within ten years of their marriage their idyll was ended as the political situation in Germany worsened and the Nazis, having come to power in January 1933 began to implement their policy of removing all Jews from public office and public service. My grandfather had no job, no position, and life became intolerable. They moved within Germany to another family home in Baden-Baden, suffering a kind of internal exile. My father was sent away to school first in Switzerland and then in the UK and on 9th November 1938 as the synagogue was destroyed by fire on Kristallnacht, and the men of the community humiliated in public, my grandfather was arrested and sent to Dachau concentration camp.

The story continues – of my grandparents fruitless attempts to protect extended family from being transported to the gas chambers. Of my grandmother’s extraordinary efforts to protect her husband and bring him to a family home in Switzerland which she achieved in 1939.Because of this they were stripped of their German nationality and became officially stateless. There are intrigues and horrors galore in the family archives, but the upshot was this. They left Germany having bribed and paid heaven knows what kinds of fines in money and kind, my grandfather desperately ill after the various arrests and incarcerations and beatings, my grandmother frantically learning how to deal with a world she had not been brought up to even imagine, and they ended up in French Switzerland living on favours from friends and from various refugee agencies, moving to ever cheaper accommodation, often with barely enough to eat or to warm themselves with, let alone pay the necessary medical bills. All the time they were uncertain as to how long they could take shelter in Switzerland, their papers were endlessly circulated among bureaucrats, their permissions to stay always temporary and for short periods. The last letter refusing any more extension of permission to stay arrived only two or so days before my grandfather died in 1950. His death certificate describes him as “sans papiers” – a man without papers, with no nationality or right to stay as citizen or even as refugee. His grave, provided by the Jewish community of Lausanne, is so modest that currently even his name is worn away.

My grandmother eventually took Swiss nationality, helped by the fact of a family home and presence in the country. She was grateful to Switzerland for giving her this eventual security. She was desperately grateful that her son had settled in England, been given British nationality and that his children too were under the protection of Her Britannic Majesty’s Government. She wanted me to know, without telling me any details of the story which we only fully uncovered years after her death, that the most basic security that had been denied to her and my grandfather was beyond precious. To be a refugee, a seeker of asylum running from a chaotic government that seeks your destruction is to have nothing and nowhere. It is destabilising, it prevents any normal development or relationship in life, it causes your family to scatter or worse, it means you scream in your sleep as you remember what your waking mind suppresses. To be a refugee and seeker of asylum is to be the most vulnerable kind of human being it is possible to be. Just holding onto identity, to remember the person inside you, not to fall apart into a dislocated existence takes all the energy and resilience one has.

Yesterday I took part in a day of study and prayer with imams and rabbis and priests, in a tent close to Harmondsworth detention centre. We called in Abraham’s Tent. We looked at the texts of our tradition that speak of caring for the vulnerable, the stranger, the one whose world has fallen apart and who looks for help from others. Yesterday we fasted, the coincidence of both Muslim and Jewish fast days with the concomitant introspection they call for gave us yet another dimension in common. I was proud to join with the others to draw attention to the conditions facing many of those who seek asylum in the UK and who find they can be detained indefinitely in what is essentially a high security prison, while the process to accept or reject their application grinds on. They are there not because of any criminal activity or intent, but because they have fled their own country, requested asylum in the UK, and their papers are not in order. We are the only country in Europe with no time limit on how long someone can be kept in detention while the process takes place. The treatment of vulnerable people, many of whom are already traumatised by earlier experiences that caused them to flee their own countries, is against the British values my grandmother so idolised. Tens of thousands of people are put into detention each year, with 30,902 entering detention in 2014 and the rate is increasing.

I am proud to hold a British Passport, and I am grateful. My grandfather died without any passport at all, despite having been an upholder of Justice all his life. I understand what my grandmother wanted me to know – to be stateless and without official identity or secure place to live is to truly have nothing, to be at the mercy of everyone and to feel no mercy at all. Surely in the UK it is time to treat all people with dignity and respect whether they ultimately receive the right to remain or not. It is time to limit indefinite detention to the all-party parliamentary group recommendation of 28 days and to remember that everyone in this system is a fellow human being.       #Time4aLimit

packing abrahams tent

Kristallnacht. November 9th – 10th 1938

The November Pogrom in Baden-Baden.’

 The events of 10.11.1938 in Baden-Baden were described by Arthur Flehinger, a teacher at the Hohenbaden Gymnasium, who subsequently came to Bradford, Yorkshire,  in a report he wrote in 1955: (In Stadtarchiv Baden-Baden 05-02/015). Translated by Rabbi Walter Rothschild.Image

“Until the infamous 10th November 1938 Baden-Baden remained largely sheltered from the worst excesses of the Nazis. This was not because anyone wanted to grant the Jews of the Spa town any especial privileges, but from purely egoistic reasons, because the Spa had strong international connections which had to be maintained; It was, as one said, Germany’s Visiting Card. Any major disruption of the inner peace would have had as an effect a reduction in the number of visitors from abroad and therefore a reduction in foreign currency takings, and the Nazis needed money and more money. Of course all the Nazi Orders (fingerprinting, Jewish forenames etc.) were imposed just as strongly as elsewhere. However, the foreign tourists would not notice any of this. But whereas foreign newspapers were as good as invisible in other cities, in Baden-Baden one could read ‘The Times’ almost until the end, and it was a particular irony of fate that only one day after the Order regarding Jewish forenames was promulgated that the ‘Times’ published an article stating that ‘Sara’ meant something like ‘Duchess’ and that ‘Israel’ meant ‘one who argues with God.’

From Summer 1937 onwards it was noticeable that a different wind was blowing also in Baden-Baden, and that the Nazi poison was eating its way also into the otherwise relatively calm town. The lawn behind the Kurhaus offices was prohibited to Jews. The owner of the formerly famous hotel Holländischer Hof decorated the entrance to his restaurant with the conspicuous lettering “Dogs and Jews Forbidden.’ In the Jewish shops, insofar as these still existed, the Party Members were ever-more ruder and saw it as their responsibility to report to the Party anyone who still had the courage to enter a Jewish business…..

The 10th. November ended any remaining hesitations and illusions of calm, and Baden-Baden also experienced its Nazi ‘Razzia’.

At 7 in the morning a Policeman appeared at our house in the Prinz-Weimar-Strasse 10 and ordered me to accompany him to the Police Station. Since I had been teaching at the Baden-Baden Gymnasium for many years I was known by both young and old and I observed the policeman‘s own embarrassment. It seemed pointless however to enter into any discussion with him and so I walked along with him… maintaining my calm appearance. In the town at this hour it was of course still quiet. If one saw anyone else in the street, it was another victim under police escort. The number of poor enforced early-risers grew, the closer we were to the Police Station. Although in normal times the Season at Baden-Baden would be over in November, there were still some Jews staying in those hotels which were still avaailable to them. Others had settled here since 1933, since this town seemed like an Eldorado compared to the places they had lived in until then.

In front of the Police Station the infamous Supervisor had posted himself like a sort of Gessler and demanded that everyone who passed him had to take off their hat. It would have been pure madness to refuse. About fifty victims were already gathered at the Police Station and more came continuously to join us. The Police were all in their Gala uniforms. It was a Day of Triumph of the Strong over the Weak, and at the same time a dramatisation of Lafontaine’s fable ‘The Wolf and the Lamb.’ Everything was carefully minuted, with German accuracy and efficiency.

Around 10am we were led into the courtyard and here had to assemble ourselves in rows. The fuss with which the vermin of the Third Reich ran around indicated some special sort of Aktion was under way. Around midday the gate was opened, and the column of defenceless men marched off, heavily guarded right and left, and forced to process through the streets of the town. It seemed they had waited until midday to be sure of a crowd of observers. But to the honour of the Baden-Badeners let it be said that the majority of them refused to let themselves be seen on the street. What those who were observing could see, was mere humiliation. There were three teachers who were not ashamed to be seen on the street. One of them, Herr Dr. Mampell, merely let the column pass by him; Whereas another, the Director of the Volkschule, Herr Hugo Müller and his friend Herr Schmidt had gathered a number of young pupils, so that they could call out ‘Juda Verrecke!’ Whether this demonstration really cheered up the spectators is something I strongly doubt. I saw people who were weeping behind their curtains. One of the decent Baden-Badeners is reported to have said: ‘What I saw was not a Christ figure, but a whole column of Christ figures; With heads raised, and not bowed down by any sense of guilt did they march….’

The column neared the Synagogue, where the upper steps of the staircase outside were already filled with a mixed crowd with and without uniform. That was a real running the gauntlet; One had to pass by the mob, and they made sure to howl insults as the sorry procession passed. I myself looked people directly in the eye all the way along the procession and as we reached the top steps someone called down, “Don’t look so cheeky, Professor.’ That was actually less an insult as more a confession of their own weakness and fear.

In Dachau also later I observed that the officials couldn’t stand being stared right through. The mob was less merciful with my friend Dr. Hauser – he was a busy and much-respected lawyer in Baden-Baden, later on he and his wife were taken to Southern France, then to Celle and from there to the death chambers in Auschwitz. The poor fellow got many punches from those who claimed the right to use their fists, and I saw the pitiful chap later fallen onto a tallit that the Nazis had spread out on the floor, so that we had to walk over it.

In the synagogue everything had been turned upside down. The holy floor of the architecturally-so-beautiful Temple had been defiled by vile hands. The House of God had been turned into a playground for black, uniformed hordes. I saw how people were busy upstairs in the Women’s Gallery running to and fro…. These were not Baden-Badener. For the 10th. November the authorities had brought in SS men from neighbouring towns, that is people who were not restricted by even a faint spark of humanity and were therefore in a position to carry out their vile work without any sense of disturbance…..

Suddenly a rude, fat voice called out ‘You will now sing the Horst Wessel Lied’. It was sung in a way that anyone could have expected, and so we had to ‘sing’ it again a second time. So for a second time we had to struggle through their ‘National Hymn’. Then I was called to go up to the Almemor and I was given a passage from ‘Mein Kampf’ to read. In the circumstances a refusal would have only endangered my life and that of my fellow sufferers. So I said, ‘I have received the order to read the following’, and I read quietly enough. Indeed, so quietly that the SS man standing behind me gave me several blows to my neck. Those who, after me, also had to read samples of this fine literary cookbook of the Nazis suffered similarly. Then there was a pause. We were in no way allowed to use the toilets, but had to do what we had to do in the courtyard, with our faces to the wall of the synagogue, and in the meantime received kicks from behind.

From the synagogue we then had to go to the Hotel Central opposite. The hotel owner, Herr Lieblich, who had of course not been warned in advance of the pleasant programme for the day, had suddenly to conjure up food for about 70 people. He managed to achieve this in a masterful fashion. That we managed to get anything at all to swallow down was really a miracle….

There was then a great mystery concerning our future destiny. No-one seemed to know what they planned to do with us. We were fully cut off from the outside world. Our anything-but-quiet discussions were then broken by the Cantor of the community, Herr Grünfeld, who entered the room as white as a corpse and with a bleeding heart said, ‘Our beautiful House of God is in flames.’ The most brutal of the Hitler band then commented on Herr Grünfeld’s tragic news, by adding in a frivolous manner the sentence ‘’And when I had anything to do with it, you would all be there in the flames too.’

The high point of the tragedy had been reached. The hope of being able to see our families again that evening was now replaced by a strong pessimism. When at last those over 60 years old were sent to their homes, we were as good as certain that a sad fate awaited us. There was then a sort of inspection by a high-ranking SS officer, who attempted to add some sort of motivation to the whole event. Also Herr Medizinalrat Dr. Walter, a well-known and active member of the Party, appeared that evening in order to give at least an appearance of humane treatment to those who were to be excluded on health grounds. In reality the files on the fifty or so remaining had already been closed. The bus waited in front of the door, and with it a whole crowd of ‘angry’ citizens. The deportation to Dachau had been already long-planned, only we poor victims didn’t know it. We had to run out to the bus, and whoever didn’t run enough received a firm reminder…. At the station we waited for a special train from the Freiburg district. It brought the Jews from the Upper Baden region. In each compartment sat a guard. Not a single word came from his mouth. As the train turned after Karlsruhe in the direction of Stuttgart, one heard only the horrible word ‘Dachau’.