90 Years Since the Birth of Anne Frank

Last Wednesday was the 90th anniversary of the birth of Anne Frank, 75 years since the last birthday she reached before she and her family were betrayed.

I have in front of me a small book, really a pamphlet, called Kinder der Naechte, Children of the Nights. I’m sure I’ve written about it before. On the front is a picture of letters, maybe a name, carved into what looks like a cellar wall, with the date, 1940. The booklet was published in the 1960’s, in Frankfurt, Anne’s place of birth, ‘for pupils of 13 and above’.

I almost threw this meagre item away when clearing their bookshelf after my grandparents died. Fortunately, I chanced to open it and saw that a note had been pasted in: Otto und Fritzi Frank, mit sehr herzlichen Gruessen.

Anne’s father must have given it to my grandparents after the war. The families knew each other from Frankfurt, where both Anne and my mother were born. Only, Anne’s family fled to Holland. Who ever imagined it would be overrun in mere days? My family reached England. Who knew then that it would survive, at first little aided, but uninvaded, and win the war?

I’m ashamed to say that I never read the book – until now. On page 32 there’s a letter from 12-year-old Bernard, dated Paris 18.7.1942

They’re looking for me. Yesterday morning they took Papa and Mama away. I’d gone to get milk; when I came back a neighbour quickly pushed me into his cellar. He told me that every evening he’ll bring me food for the whole day. He’s going to try to get me to his brother in the country. Jojo, if something like this happens to you, don’t lose courage. I promise you I’m not sitting here with my head hanging low…

Jojo is Bernard’s 16-year-old cousin in Toulouse.

At a gathering hosted in Parliament, Tim Robertson, chief executive of the Anne Frank Trust, reminded us that it was not the words of a politician, religious leader, general, financier or celebrity which had most deeply touched the heart of the world, but that of an ordinary, gifted, articulate teenage girl:

I will make my voice heard, I will go out into the world and work for mankind. (April 11, 1944)

Anne could not have known the sad manner in which her voice would reach the lives of hundreds of millions. But reach us it has; and it’s up to each of us to hear.

Our community should be proud of the work of The NNLS Destitute Asylum Seekers Drop In, (and other ways such as Refugees At Home or OSH, Our Second Home) in which we listen and offer support to those whose experiences of persecution are beyond our knowledge and imagination. Still, we need more financial support and fresh volunteers.

Most of all, we need more compassion. Of course, every country has limited capacities for absorption and a primary duty of care to its own citizens. But that does not mean that unaccompanied children should be left destitute, desperate and in danger; or that thousands with well-founded fears of persecution and death in their countries of origin should find no resting place, no heart open to their suffering and no chance to build a future.

The coming days, 17 -23 June are Refugee Week, with its theme of You, Me and Those who Came Before.

A Christian couple helped my mother’s family when they fled to Britain from Nazi Germany. We now, the great majority of us, have safe homes. We have the capacity to assist.

Generation after generation, refugees have sought the hands of others – and not always found them outstretched. Who knows what the future will bring, whose great-grandchildren may need help from whom? Perhaps the ancestors of those whose hands our descendants may need are right now stretched out in hope towards us?

In words given prime-time in the Jewish year, the morning of the Day of Atonement, Isaiah stated simply: ‘Lo tuchal lehit’alem – You are not at liberty to hide yourself away’.

 

D-Day and a Torah of Life

Torat Chaim, – a Torah of life’: these words keep going through my mind as I think of yesterday’s commemorations of D-Day, and of the world and its needs today.

BBC Radio 4 news was absolutely right to conclude its broadcast with the words of veterans: ‘My friends who were hit lay in the water, face down. We could do nothing to help them. I’ll never forget them’.

It’s simply true: they died so that we could live. They risked their lives, poured out the irreplaceable ‘sweet red wine of youth’ and lost their lives in the cause of life itself, fighting a culture at the core of the ideology of which was death: the mass murder of millions deemed ‘unworthy of existence’. One thinks of how Ann Frank marked the advance of the western allies, for so many critical weeks so painfully slow, on the family’s map in the secret annexe. Would life or death reach them first?

Last Sunday was Yom Yerushalayim. I remember as a boy of nine my father phoning his sisters in Jerusalem, overhearing him repeat ‘They’ve sent the children home from school’. I’m still in touch with the two boys of my age whose parents sent them to stay in London, because they feared the worst. Many, only a few years older, gave their lives in that city, may the day come soon when it is surrounded by true, enduring peace.

For years, I took groups from Noam camp in France to see the Normandy beaches. We would go to a small cemetery, hard to find in the narrow lanes connecting the villages and farms behind Sword beach. I’ve always been moved by the words on the graves of soldiers whose names could no longer be identified: ‘Known unto God’. This simple phrase expresses the refusal to consider any life ever as without value.

On one grave in the British military cemetery at Bayeux, where yesterday’s main commemorations were held, I saw just the one word ‘Mitzpah’. Considering the Biblical context, I think it meant ‘I, your wife, will treasure your memory forever; and you, look after me from heaven’. Our dog of that name was in the car. ‘Maybe that soldier loved dogs’, Nicky said, and we stood there thinking not just of the violent death that young man had encountered but of the life, the fun and joy of life, which had been stolen from him.

So today, we who have inherited life, freedom and the trusteeship of a world for which so many died: what do we owe? How can we duly, truly honour life?

The close of Shabbat will usher in Shavuot, celebrating the giving of the Torah of life. This Torah opens with a poem, a paean, a celebration of creation, from the first unfolding of light, to the trees, birds, animals and human. Each and every element, from land and water upwards, has its natural integrity; each and every human being carries the innate dignity of bearing the image of God, creator and lover of life.

Our generation too must fight for life, in every sphere of existence. We need to challenge hatred, racism, anti-Semitism and the denigration of others wherever and in whatever sphere we encounter them. We need to value and care about one another’s lives, from refugees from terror to whoever lives in our street. We need to care for the homeless and destitute and those who feel no hope. We must cherish and rewild our landscapes and our world, so that we stop killing off the millions of plants and animals with whose future’s our own continued existence is inextricably intertwined. We need to consider and change our habits of unreflective consumption which are poisoning the very elements, of creation, water, air and earth.

It is such a beautiful world. So many who died so young would have given so much just to stare at a hillside, to see their children bathe their feet in a stream. All the Torah of life asks us to do is to love life and respect it, in faithfulness and service.

 

75 Years Since D-Day

Like all of us, I am mindful today of the great courage of so many hundreds of thousands who fought on D-Day and across Europe for our freedom.

I’ve been many times to the Normandy beaches and visited the military cemeteries. I’ve stood by the graves marked with a Magen David and looked up in the carefully kept record books the short entries about the lives of those soldiers. Many were refugees from Nazi Germany, advised to change their names before going on active service so that, if captured, they would be treated as British prisoners of war, not as Jews.

I’ve thought often about the inscription ‘Know unto God’ and of the families who never received the small comfort of knowing at least when and where their sons died.

The American memorial on Omaha beach, where the bitterest battles were fought, offers an especially moving film. It doesn’t only feature the bravery of the landings. Rather, through interviews with families of soldiers who were killed, it focuses on the lives they would have led if they had survived to return to their homes.

The familiar words are simply true: they died so that we, our grandparents, parents and children, could live in freedom.

Earlier this week was Yom Yerushalayim. I remember my father waking me in the night to tell me that the Old City, where several of his friends fell in 1948, had been captured.

For those like me who never served in an army, the courage and resilience of those who fought for the freedom of others, risking death and terrible injury, is unimaginable.

We must never take for granted the peace and freedom for which so many died.

 

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