I remember, I remember, how, when I was small, Isca, my mother, would come to say goodnight and I would beg her, ‘Tell me about your childhood.’
Isca will be a hundred tomorrow.
She would tell me about the huge family gatherings in Frankfurt on festivals, when there’d be poetry and plays and she and her sisters would talk so much they had to be allocated numbers to give them all a chance to speak. Later, when the Nazis came to power, she’d put her head under the pillow each night and pray no harm would reach her.
She told me how she spoke English on the street so that they wouldn’t be stopped, and how, once they reached the British Consulate, they were treated as humans once again. On Kristallnacht her sister Ruth made them all darn socks to keep calm.
She spoke of the Micklem family, who took them into their home in Boxmoor, five refugees. The family were wonderful, but so bad at washing up that she’d creep downstairs while they slept and clean the dishes again.
Being a child of refugees has formed me more deeply than I will ever understand.
But I was lucky, not just because we were safe and prosperous. The horrors of life under the Nazis, and of World War II, were communicated to me in stories in which goodness and kindness proved stronger than hate. (In my father’s family the silences were deeper, the losses greater.) The message I absorbed was that hate is combatted through generosity and love.
Tomorrow is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Memory. Judaism is full of positive memories, the Exodus from slavery, the wonder of creation. But on Shabbat Zachor we recall evil: ‘Remember what Amalek did to you, attacking your stragglers and you were weak and weary.’ Shabbat Zachor always precedes Purim, when we read the final round of this long conflict between Israel, guided by Esther and Mordechai, and Haman, the descendant of Amalek.
The commandment to remember Amalek is the Biblical equivalent of the famous words dubiously attributed to Edmund Burke: ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.’
Amalek as a nation no longer exists, as the Talmud long ago established. Yet it remains as a concept, the embodiment of hatred and vengeance. As such, it knows no geographical boundaries, and no one is immune from its impact. An astute Hasidic insight rereads the Torah’s injunction not just as a warning against what Amalek can do to us, but against Amalek can turn us into: Don’t let cruelty make you cruel, or hatred make you hate. It’s easier said than done.
I’m troubled more than usual as we approach this Purim amidst so much violence, including in Israel and Palestine. Immediately before telling us to love our neighbour, the Torah commands us not to bear grudges or seek revenge. Yet across the world we witness how hatreds fester over centuries.
It’s unclear who originated the saying that the world will be healed not by sinat chinam, gratuitous hate, but by ahavat chinam, love which seeks no other reward than doing what’s compassionate and kind. This feels more like a prayer than a reality.
Yet there are countless people who, despite everything, manage to live like that.
Isca used to tell me that when she lay with that pillow over her head, hoping the family would find some route to safety, she determined that she would use her life to help other people become able to help themselves.
That’s exactly what she’s achieved. Her hundredth birthday marks one person’s remarkable and courageous triumph over hatred.