July 3, 2015 admin

Light out of darkness

I am writing from the old Jewish Quarter in Prague, from round the corner from the remarkable exhibition of Czech Jewish life in the beautiful Maisels Synagogue. This will be the Shabbat before the three weeks known as bein hametzarim, between the troubles, which lead from the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, this Sunday, until the fast of the Ninth of Av. I have taken a brief absence from the group I’m accompanying here, leaving one of our members watching the modern screen showing in rotation photographs of all the old synagogues of the Czech lands, because he suddenly saw a picture of the shul of the small town his family came from, and wept, and is now waiting for that image to reappear so that he can capture it on camera, and fix its image in his heart.

Later we will go to Holesov, which my family have always known by the German spelling of Holleschau. That’s how it’s written in Hebrew too, because it was an important Jewish community on a key trade route through the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There my great-grandparents lived twenty happy years as Rabbi and Rebbitzen of the town. ‘Always listen to your wife in household matters’, my great-grandfather wrote in his Torah commentary to the words in Genesis ‘It is not good for man to be alone,’ before proceeding to quote the Talmud, ‘even if she is short and you have to bend down’. I have a photograph of the couple: she was at least eighteen inches smaller than was he.

From there too my great-grandmother and great aunt were deported, first to Theresienstadt, then onwards further east to their deaths. My great-grandfather died in 1937; one might say it was a mercy. His grave lies undisturbed amidst the long grass of the old Jewish cemetery in the town. 

I think the service we shall conduct in the sixteenth century Shach Synagogue (the ‘New’ Synagogue, dedicated by my great-grandfather in 1893 was burnt to the ground by the Nazis; there was an internal struggle over who should benefit from the proceeds from the sale of the re-usable metalwork and bricks, but the Jews were given the bill for clearing up.) I think it may be the first Shabbat service held in the town since Reinhard Heydrich, second in command of the SS to Heinrich Himmler, ordered the closure of all synagogues on Simchat Torah in 1941. The Nazis knew what dates would hurt the most.

Creation, destruction: the battle continues.

Nicholas Winton will be commemorated here today with a gathering by the statue of him in Prague’s main railway station, from where the trains with the children departed for Britain, safety, and, for most, eternal separation from their loving, beloved parents. He saved 669 lives, maybe more. He found those children homes in Britain too.

But Tuesday brings ten years since the 7/7 London bombings. I asked a class of teenagers I was teaching what it was that could make people murder innocent citizens. ‘Could it happen again?’ one of them asked. It was clear the group were afraid. I wished I could have taken away their fears. As a response, we studied the famous Mishnah (c. 200CE) ‘Whoever destroys a single life is as if they destroyed the whole world. Whoever saves a single life is as if they preserved the entire world’. We analysed it literally: One person may become the ancestor of many; a killer kills the victim’s children too. We analysed it figuratively: isn’t every person also an entire world and the way he or she perceives, experiences and appreciates everything utterly unique?

We are in this world to value, cherish and care for life. Life is of incomparable value for its own sake, even more so since God is in all life.

I admire most profoundly those who manage, not to turn life into death – which is no great feat, but those who turn grief and death into a force for life – which is extraordinarily, loving and courageous. Such people exist among the families of those murdered on 7/7 and 9/11. When John Hyman was dying, I was asked to talk to him in his last hours. I said, because in memory of their daughter Miriam who perished at Tavistock Place the family created a hospital for restoring sight to blind children, ‘You have literally brought light out of darkness and joy from pain’.

May that become the pathway of all humankind.

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