Letters from the dead

About a month ago, in a café in Emek Refaim, my one and only cousin Michal handed me a small plastic bag, the sort you wrap gifts in. ‘I found some more letters’, she said, ‘I wanted you to have them as soon as possible’.

I began to look at them there and then. I took out the first couple of pages, the writing turned blue-black with time, the paper thin as tissue, still strangely strong, though no doubt fragile. I looked at the dates, 1938, 1940, 1941. There were photographs too, mostly of Arnold, my father’s cousin, as a baby, as a little boy in a sailor suit. His young life would end in Treblinka. I put the pictures away.

Only now, in these days of Passover, of liberation, have I had time to study most of those letters. They do not add new chapters to the account I wrote in My Dear Ones, my book about the fate of my father’s family during the Holocaust. But they fill in gaps, confirm surmises, add painful details.

There are the last letters sent from Berlin in December 1938 by my great-grandmother and her eldest daughter Sophie who was helping her pack away her things and send them ahead to Palestine, before taking her across the border to her own seemingly safe home in Czechoslovakia. Sophie wrote:

Hopefully everything will go smoothly with the passport, the Unbedenklichkeitsschein (required to prove that one had no debts to the Nazi state), the documents, and – that’ll be the most difficult thing – if dear Mama still has no English visa for here.

Sophie wrote ‘here’, but she meant Palestine. Perhaps at that critical moment she imagined herself there too in the Promised Land, with her brother and sisters who had already made the journey to Jerusalem. She visited them in ’38. ‘We couldn’t persuade her to stay’, my father recalled with sorrow.

Almost exactly a year later the two of them wrote again, from Czechoslovakia. To their immense relief they had just heard from Trude, Sophie’s younger sister, another of my great-aunts. Trude had been living in Poznan, which was occupied by the Wehrmacht only 10 days after they invaded Poland. Within weeks Trude and her family were deported, together with thousands of other Jews:

Trude and her family travelled for 48 hours and then had to walk for 12 hours. They overcame all this in good health. Their suitcases (can’t read the word, but think it means ‘robbed’)

They included her new address, in the small Polish town of Ostrow Lubelski, where thousands of Jews were dumped when the Nazis cleared the Warthe region in the west of Poland of racially undesirables to make way for ethnic Germans. Had I had that address when I went there with David Cesarani and Mossy, I might have known which of the small wooden houses had been Trude’s temporary home for almost three meagre years, until they were all taken to Treblinka.

It’s strangely moving to be back with these letters, with their breath, I do not want to say from the dead, but from the living, – the living, who had such hope and so much love for one another.

A new question has been puzzling me, one of which I somehow failed to think before. My cousin found these letters in a previously unopened cupboard. A cupboard, an old suitcase, a trunk: what part of the memory do they represent? What does it mean to live with such a history in a dusty drawer or unopened compartment in the travelling bag of one’s consciousness? Does one put the contents aside, out of mind, in order to build a new life? Do the dramatis personae of that half-buried past nevertheless inhabit, bodiless, the new landscape of one’s existence? Do they step out at night and enter one’s dreams, or nightmares? Do they say, ‘Remember my fate’? Do they say, ‘I bless your new lands, new lives, and the new work of your hands’?

Or is it we, the now living, who shape the meaning of the words of our dead, our histories?

The most basic freedom – life

There is something more basic even than freedom, – life itself.

I have in front of me a picture of the graves in Khan Seihkun, where more than seventy people including many children died a horrible death, probably from the nerve agent sarin. Assad’s regime is almost certainly responsible, protected by lies from Moscow.

The rough concrete stones in the sandy ground remind me of the cemetery I saw on Lesbos, where lay so many anonymous dead, among them babies, drowned during the crossing from Turkey.

The most basic freedom of all is the freedom to live.

Judaism is categorically on the side of life. From the first moment of human existence, from when God breathes the first divine breath into the first human being, life is sacred. The barest, simplest High Holyday prayer is Zochrenu le’chayyim, Remember us for life. Love of life underlies the Jewish determination to survive in times of persecution, bring healing in times of illness, and celebrate in times of joy. Where life becomes unbearably painful, when life comes to a natural end, it is a matter of sorrow, humility and, if we can manage it, acceptance.

Perhaps the most radical rabbinic re-interpretation of the Torah was to render inapplicable all references to the death penalty. Any death demands accountability. Any killing, except in a just war, demands specific, thorough and impartial investigation, whoever the victim. Any breech in this fundamental law is an offence against humanity and God. God’s image has been destroyed in a unique individual; there is less God in the world.

Life is not just under threat from direct physical violence but from the rhetoric of hatred and contempt. We live in a time of rising xenophobia and incitement, against women, foreigners, Jews, Muslims… One must never say ‘It’s only words’, especially when it comes from public figures. Religious, media and political leaders carry responsibility not only for what they say, but for how it leads others to act. One person’s words legitimise another person’s deeds. That is why the brazen speech of President Trump and the shameless distortions of truth by Ken Livingstone* are so dangerous.

The speech of ISIS and its like is terrifying. The greatest blasphemy is when God’s name is evoked to justify hatred and violence. Where regimes, whatever their professed ideology, instigate policies of calumny, contempt, degradation, and collective deportation the road for some will end in death.

The border between respect for life and the acceptance of killing is a boundary humanity cannot afford to cross. Any civilisation, regime, cult or individual which legitimates and glorifies killing, terror and murder thereby renders itself an enemy of humanity itself and of all living being.

As we celebrate freedom on Passover, we celebrate life: its variety, creativity and potential; its need for liberty, opportunity, compassion and nurture; its beauty; its capacity for wonder, generosity, tenderness, love and joy.

Where we honour life, we honour freedom; where we love life, we love liberty too.

*For a superb analysis of his appalling conduct see this piece in Ha’artz by Colin Schindler

Get in touch...