A time to keep silence and a time to speak

Standing as close to her as he could, my grandfather surreptitiously pushed his elbow into my grandmother’s ribs: ‘Say nothing; don’t react.’ He involuntarily imitated the action as he recounted the incident to me decades later. He’d seen the Gestapo officer watching them as they passed the poster with its typical Der Stuermer caricature of Jews.

That was Frankfurt in 1938. ‘There’s a time to keep silent,’ wrote Ecclesiastes. If ever there was such a time, that was it.

There are many kinds of silence and many different reasons for maintaining them. Mercifully, many have more to do with compassion than repression. Through life one tries to learn to discern when words are an impediment to communication, when it’s important not to interrupt, how to let listening deepen, how to avoid obscuring with words the heart’s intuitive alertness to the unspoken, when not to break the communicative silence.

But, as Ecclesiastes also says, there is also a time to speak out.

I’m mindful of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, because we will read it in synagogue tomorrow, on the Shabbat of the festival of Succot. It has no obvious connection with the season, except perhaps for its ‘autumnal tone’ with its chorus line ‘vanity of vanities’, as if it were translating the leaf-fall of the forests into the world of human society: What’s left when all the paraphernalia of life is stripped away? What’s life’s heartwood?

But I’m also thinking of Ecclesiastes because of that line ‘There’s a time to speak.’ Of course, one has to be cautious, because words, once spoken, can never be dissolved back down into the expressionless ether.

But there’s a time when truths must be spoken and across the world it appears that this time is now.

I therefore respect Jonathan Freedland, the staff of the Royal Court Theatre and those who spoke out, in particular the members of my own community Luciana Berger and Dr Tammy Rothenberg, to create his play Jews In Their Own Words, naming and calling out often denied forms and foci of antisemitic hatred and abuse.

Across the world, it is impossible for those of us who have lived in freedom to come anywhere near to appreciating the defiant courage of hundreds of thousands of young people in Iran, especially women, who, despite knowing they may be beaten, shot, seized, and made to disappear, cry out against unbearable repression, impoverishment and degradation.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize marks an essential moment in the moral history of humanity. It was a wise decision to award it to two organisations, Memorial and the Ukranian Centre for Civil Liberties, and one individual, Ales Bialiatski, who, despite imprisonment and all the armamentarium of totalitarian states, persist in telling truth to power. It expresses on behalf of us all our solidarity with those who refuse to succumb to the politics of lies and fabrications. It gives recognition, in a world in danger of becoming inured to fake news with its narratives of falsification and suppression, to the supreme importance of truth.

Memorial was established by Andrei Sakharov in 1987 to document the horrors of Stalin’s regime. In the recently published volume My Father’s Letters, Correspondence from the Soviet Gulag, Irina Scherbakova, a founding member of Memorial, concludes her preface by quoting from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate:

Neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State…has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings… In this alone lies man’s eternal victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that ever have been or will be.

‘The world stands upon three things, truth, justice and peace,’ Rabbi Shimeon ben Gamliel observed nineteen hundred years ago. Without truth, there can never be justice and without justice never ultimate peace.

Therefore, in Ecclesiastes’ words, we need, no less that the wisdom to understand when to keep silent, the courage to know when to speak out.

Two teachers who’ve shaped my life…

Two moments have marked my week.

I didn’t expect to find myself emotional while waiting at Luton airport. I was simply standing at arrivals holding a sign.

The flight from Warsaw had landed half an hour ago; the bags were now in the hall. I held up the board with the names higher and stepped into the middle of the walkway so that the Ukrainian family wouldn’t miss me, and felt suddenly moved.

I soon realised why. Who was the person who’d held up such a sign eighty-four years ago, when my mother landed with her parents that 9 April 1938 at Croydon Airport, they too arriving in a country in which they had never imagined they’d be forced to seek refuge?

Of everything my mother has ever said to me it may be this which has stayed most firmly in my mind. When she left the family who hosted her in Boxmoor during the war, she asked the lady of the house, ‘How can we ever thank you?’ ‘Don’t thank us,’ she replied. ‘One day you’ll do for others what we tried to do for you.’ I’m sure that’s what led me, with my wife Nicky’s encouragement, to be standing here at Luton with this sign. Look, that must be them…

The other moment which shaped my week in fact occurred earlier, when I learnt of the death in Jerusalem of my teacher in Torah Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky.

For five years after I graduated as a rabbi from Leo Baeck College, I went to Israel regularly to learn Torah daily from him and his Hasidic friend Reb Dovid. Despite the good rabbinic education I’d received I felt (and still feel) wanting in Talmud and classic Jewish texts.

Rabbi Strikovsky taught me Bameh Madlikin,the chapter of Talmud which treats of the lights for Shabbat and Chanukkah, and which contains that beautiful passage about the awe of God: whatever one’s learnt, if one hasn’t got a spirit of reverence and wonder, it’s likely to turn to dust.

I never knew the story of Rabbi Strikovsky’s life. But whenever he taught me a Hasidic text, and he introduced me to the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav and the teachings of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto who was murdered at Trawniki in 1943, – whenever he expounded these teachings, he would weep, his words coming slowly through his tears from his heart.

He belonged in spirit to that pre-Holocaust culture of complete immersion in learning and piety. He lived in the spiritual universe of Jewish knowledge and devotion, in that other-worldly, timeless discourse with the sages of all lands and eras about the service of God.

Yet tradition did not prevent him from courageously doing what he knew was just and right. It was at his initiative that to’anot rabbiniyot were introduced into the rabbinical divorce courts, women lawyers and para-rabbis to put the cases of wives and mothers before this daunting all-male enclave. He did not stop there: despite the entrenched establishment position, he gave semichah and ordained at least two women as rabbis, subsequently supporting them in their careers.

One day, too, after requesting to meet Nicky and our young son Mossy to bless him, he gave me his smichah too. I have it here, near me, with the signature Aryeh son of Baruch Strikovsky. May the memory of his righteousness be for a blessing.

A verse from Proverbs connects these two moments in my week: ‘Listen, my son, to the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teachings of your mother.’ (1:8) (One’s Torah teacher is also understood, metaphorically, as one’s father.)

I hear that verse sung beautifully in our synagogue by a small family choir at the bnei mitzvah of their children. Right now, the words leave me feeling chastened by the loving trust and deep responsibility they bestow.

Between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut

When I was compiling the synagogue’s shivah book for prayers in the house of mourning, I came across this short teaching by the Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noach Barzovsky (1911 – 2000)

A broken heart…

must always belong to the world of building

not to the world of destruction.

Moved by these words, I included them in the short section on Hasidic teachings at the back of the book. By mistake they were moved by the printers to the front page. I left them there, where they stand as an introduction and a motto.

This Shabbat finds us between Yom HaShoah, commemorating the Nazi Holocaust, and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, marking the creation of the State of Israel. That in the wake of so much horror people could find the courage, energy, initiative and vision to establish a new country is remarkable.

I have only to think of my father. It’s his Yahrzeit on Yom Ha’Atzma’ut. How I wish I had asked him more questions, listened to him more and thought more carefully about his life while he was with us! The family fled from Germany to Jerusalem in 1937, where he became a main breadwinner for his parents and three sisters in the difficult years of the war and the even harder, uneasy and impoverished times between 1945 and 48.

Family letters explore the empty spaces after the Holocaust: Is there any news of Mama, the family matriarch, my great-grandmother, last heard of in Theresienstadt? A handful of Jews have returned to Holesov in Moravia, from where she was deported: is it worth travelling there to ask? What about my father’s aunt Trude, and her husband and son? Or Sophie, always elegant, who hoped she could live the evil times out in Czechoslovakia? There is no news. The gaps cannot be closed; the silences remain. None of them will be coming back.

Yet at the same time the surviving family participated in an extraordinary intellectual life and the building of the country. My father’s uncle Alfred was offered the directorship of the National Library and considered as a candidate for the Supreme Court. He travelled length of the land, teaching:

We saw another part of our beautiful countryside, the whole strip along the coast is like one flowering, fertile garden…We’re working hard at the preparations for the Jewish State. I’m responsible for the department of religious, family and inheritance law.

Tragically, he was killed in the convoy to Mount Scopus in the War of Independence on April 13, 1948.

I hear from so many other families too about this determination to build a new future after the Shoah: ‘My parents met in the DP camps in ’46; all they wanted to do was start a fresh life.’ ‘My mother lost everyone; nothing mattered to her so much as creating a new family.’

This capacity to ‘belong to the world of building’ despite so much loss, heartache and trauma is brave, visionary and extraordinary.

Faced today with the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and so much stress, trouble and stalemate across the world, that courage, hopefulness, creativity, imagination, determination, and zest for life is exactly what we all now need.

Holocaust Memorial Day – and our duty to care

From time to time, I get a call on my mobile; the line’s often bad and it’s hard to hear, but the message is always the same: ‘I didn’t get a voucher this month.’ I note down the phone number and pass it on to the asylum seekers drop-in. They’d been supporting about four hundred people; during Covid it’s gone up to a thousand each month. That monthly voucher may be all these struggling people get on which to survive.

Once I was called by a woman who was already at the check-out: ‘The money didn’t come through to my card and I can’t pay for these few bits of food.’ I asked her to pass me to the cashier; for all I knew she or her child might be hungry right now. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘we’re not allowed to accept card payments over the phone.’ I’d hoped I could save the woman the humiliation.

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. A surprising series of connections left me thinking about it in an unexpected way. There’s a baby blessing in our community tomorrow:

‘The English name is Sidney,’ the parents explained, ‘So he’ll be Sidney Bloch, after our father’s lovely relative of that name.’

‘Sidney Bloch!’ I exclaimed, ‘After the Sidney Bloch who wrote No Time For Tears? I taught from that book just an hour ago!’

That beautiful book, full of charm, wit, and wisdom, describes growing up in a rabbinic household in the impoverished East End in the 1930s. In a chapter titled ‘One Man Alone’ Sidney recounts how his Uncle Julius toured the poor suburbs of London in the wind and rain addressing whatever audience could be mustered, begging people “to accept a refugee before Hitler did”:

“Any couple who leaves this synagogue hall tonight,” he would say, slowly and precisely, “without a commitment, is sentencing a child to an unknown fate…like death” he would add softly.

His words reminded me of a letter from my father’s aunt Trude, after she, her husband and their only son had been deported from their hometown of Poznan to a village near Lublin after the swift Nazi conquest of western Poland. On 31st October 1941 she wrote to her brother Ernst in the then still neutral United States:

Have you had any news in the meantime from [our relatives in] San Francisco? Maybe you can write to them again, so that they remember that we still exist…

By then it was anyway too late; Trude was taken east a year later, probably to Treblinka.

In Jewish law no form of tzedakah, giving for social justice, takes precedence over pidyon shevu’im, the redemption of captives. Distributors of charity funds are, in an absolute emergency, theoretically permitted to divert to this purpose moneys collected for any other cause without consulting those who gave it.

‘Captive’ today can mean unable to escape the grasp of a murderous power. One thinks of families desperate to get out of Afghanistan, or Uygur people with relatives in Xinjiang they haven’t from for years.

Inscribed on the eastern wall of our synagogue are the three love commandments in the Torah. On either side are ‘Love your neighbour’ and ‘Love the stranger’. These are not alternatives; we have an unceasing obligation to care for our near and dear, as well as Jewish people in trouble and any persecuted or suffering people wherever they are.

In the middle, above the holy ark, is ‘You shall love the Lord your God.’ We cannot love God if we don’t care about that part or spark of the divine which lives in us and within each of our fellow human beings.

75 years since the liberation of Bergen-Belsen

In the mystical understanding of the counting of the Omer, the fifty days which connect Pesach, the festival of freedom, to Shavuot, the giving of the Torah, the eighth day focuses on the quality of Hesed shebiGevurah, lovingkindness within strength. There is little we have greater need of now than precisely that courage of resilience coupled with a warm and open heart towards each other. I am deeply grateful to everyone who exemplifies this in our society, from our nurses and doctors and medical researchers to those who stack our shelves, deliver the post and call their neighbours to check if everyone’s alright. Thank you!

Through much of yesterday, the closing day of Passover, I had two books in front of me. The first was The Survivors, the account by Reverend Leslie Hardman of how, on precisely these days seventy-five years ago, he entered Bergen-Belsen as a chaplain with the British Army. This is what confronted me on 17 April, he writes: starvation, typhus, the dead and the living dead.

His testament, like that of Rabbi Isaac Levi, his Senior Chaplain who joined him at Belsen, is searing and shocking. But it does not solely engender despair. We are ‘the instruments of the first repudiation’ of the evil done to these people, he tells a fellow British officer, as he, like Rabbi Levi, spares no hour, no atom of energy, and sometimes no subterfuge to bypass the slow protocols of the military administration, to get water, food and medicine to the thousands on the border between life and death.

But the greatest repudiation comes from the survivors themselves: the resurgence of spirit as people slowly return to health, the tenacious hold onto life, the determination to find loved ones, heal the sick, care for children, build a new country in Palestine and create a new world of hope and faith.

My second book was the Machzor, the festival prayer book. I didn’t open my usual machzor; I needed to take out and hold in my hands the old family volume, printed in Breslau in 1830. With trepidation, anxious not to damage the venerable binding, I opened it to the page of the haftarah, the reading from Isaiah, chapter 11:

[God’s servant] will judge with justice for the poor and demand fair treatment for the humble of the earth. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb…They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.

I do not know how this book survived the First World War, from which my father’s uncle returned a hero, twice wounded, followed less than twenty years later by the flight of the family from the very country it had served. I don’t know in the depth of what boxes it lay, on what shelves it gathered dust.

But its words preserved their power, garnered their strength. They survived war and mass murder, contradicting their horrors even as Isaiah himself had defied the might of Assyria twenty-seven hundred years earlier, to express from their still strong pages a different ideal: that one day such a deep awareness of the presence of God, of the need for justice, of the wonder of life, of the preciousness of each moment, will take hold not only of the hearts of individuals, but of the spirit of nations, and we will hurt and destroy no longer.

Like many of us, I sense that such a spirit is abroad in our world today, despite the pain of so many deaths, despite the injustices, the flaws and faults in our systems. An ancient vision, God-inspired, garnered in prayer books, nurtured in the human soul across faiths and over millennia, is touching our hearts and calling us, when lockdown ends, to work for a different world.

 

75 years since the Red Army reached Auschwitz

My father’s grandmother did not survive long enough in Birkenau to see the four young Russian soldiers on horseback whom Primo Levi describes with that astute, understated eloquence which characterises his testimony:

they seemed oppressed not only by compassion but by a confused restraint…It was that shame…the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist. (The Truce)

‘Liberation’ is an inadequate word to describe the arrival of the Red Army at Auschwitz on 27 January seventy-five years ago. For most who survived, freedom brought the unbearable confirmation that the world they had known, the community, teachers, family, loved ones had ceased to exist: they were all murdered.

My tears fell…they did not soak into the dust, but remained like round clear crystals, and that was all I could think of in that great hour (Gerda Weissman-Klein: All But My Life)

Today we remember not as rote or ritual, not as homage to the past and not because we are unable to forgive and forget. The wounds are still with us. They are there in the sorrow and trauma of survivors and their children. They are present as absence in the immense loss of wisdom, vitality, music, humour, poetry, love of life. They manifest in the injuries to spirit and psyche of all the peoples affected, the Jewish People, the Sinti Roma, every group which was ever a collective target, the terrible legacy of genocide which impacts not only on the victims but also on the descendants of the perpetrators and upon all humankind.

These wounds to the very body and soul of humanity, joined by the cries from Cambodia, Rwanda and elsewhere, call out to us today. They demand our vigilance. What Prince Charles said yesterday at Yad Vashem is only too true: ‘Hatred and intolerance still lurk in the human heart, still tell new lies, adopt new disguises, seek new victims.’

That is why we must challenge any act of wanton degradation, any law, bureaucratic obfuscation and collective action or inaction which causes gratuitous suffering to any individual or group, especially if targeted at their race, nationality, gender or religion. That’s why Lord Dubs, himself a Kindertransport ‘child’, is right in insisting that we must not abandon child asylum-seekers. [1] Many of our parents were once children like them, hoping some country somewhere, anywhere, would let them in and allow them to live.

Those wounds also weep. They seek our healing and our heart. They show us how precious life is, how vulnerable and tender; they weep for our compassion, gentleness, thoughtfulness and love.

It may seem strange, but each time I have been to Auschwitz-Birkenau I have had a similar experience: a call to silence before this unfathomable enormity, an unspoken instruction to say nothing, to listen not just to their deaths but to the living voices of those killed there, their hopes and loves.

To remember the Holocaust is to heed the unceasing appeal to our deepest, most comprehensive, most courageous and most compassionate humanity.

At the request of the Council of Christians and Jews I wrote the following prayer:

Holocaust Memorial Day 2020

There inhabit over Birkenau seventy-five years afterwards, over the remains of electrified fences, over the wooden huts, shacks which testify to cold, disease, starvation and dying, over the cracked concrete floors and broken-down ceilings of the gas chambers;

There inhabit not just the enduring, ineradicable hauntings of the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, Jewish people, Russian prisoners of war, Sinti Roma people, courageous enemies of Nazi ruthlessness and hate;

There inhabit in that space full of spirits the thoughts, longings, dreams of teenagers, grandmothers, human beings, who had families, neighbours, friends, made music, prayed, worked, loved and blessed each other, like Gerda whose Papa put his hands on her head in benediction when they were forced to part:

‘My child,’ he managed. It was a question and a promise. I understood. I gave him my most sacred vow: ‘Yes, Papa.’

In the quiet, which extends into the flat fields and birch trees past where relatives of survivors, pilgrims, visitors wander bewildered; in the silence which spreads over the marshes where the ashes were poured, there inhabit the disembodied voices of the murdered, calling without words, in languages only the heart can interpret, calling to God, calling to the presence of God within us:

Are you there? Do kindness, love, humanity exist?

Where are you now, in a world once again hate-filled, full of refugees, replete with disregard?

Is God there?

E’l De’ot, God who knows,

God who says Immo anochi betzarah, ‘I am with you in your troubles’,

Be with us, instruct us, guide us.

Give us eyes to see, ears to hear, a heart to care.

Discomfort our conscience, dispel indifference.

Demand of us the determination to name and call out hatred, in ourselves, our society, the world, anywhere, everywhere.

Prevent us from despairing of the power of goodness, compassion, courage and faith.

Imbue us with loving kindness to cure the wounds with can be healed and tend with gentle understanding those beyond our repair.

Open our hearts to the intricate, destructible wonder and fragile privilege of life.

[1] It is not too late to write to our MP in support. Please see this link and what I’ve written on Facebook

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