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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