I was translating one of the letters my great-grandmother sent to her son in New York from Holleschau, in what was then Czechoslovakia, shortly before Passover in 1941:
In the year of ’35 we arrived in Palestine during these very days; the joy of our dear departed Papa when he saw the land from the ship was indescribable.
‘Our dear departed papa’ was her husband, then head of the Bet Din of Berlin. Unfortunately, they did not remain in the Yishuv, the growing Jewish settlement in the country, but returned to Europe, where he died in 1937 and where she was to perish in 1943 or ‘44. Meanwhile she continued her train of thought:
What has happened since that time!
In all her letters I have read, this is one of her very few expressions of anguish or regret.
We stand at this moment of the Jewish year between Yom Hashaoh in commemoration of the Holocaust, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, the celebration of the anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. They are the two most significant markers of Jewish history in the last thousand years, if not more. To say that these dates signify death on the one hand and new life on the other is too simple. I have often felt that it is a sin against those murdered in the Shoah to think of them only as dying. What of the loves which filled their lives, their hopes, struggles, longings, piety, intelligence, music, and their profound engagement with every facet and philosophy of Judaism? Each time I have visited Auschwitz-Birkenau I’ve felt commanded to listen to what the spirits of so many people must be saying and to hear not just so much dying but the tenderness of so many lives. Nor is it right simply to wrap up the Holocaust in a narrative of the total failure of the Diaspora and the triumph of independence.
Undoubtedly, though, the creation of the State of Israel during those same fraught and terrible years is a vast triumph of life, hope, persistence, tenacity, courage and vision. A detail I came across in reading about the displaced persons camps, from which many survivors went to Palestine between 1945 and ‘48, has stuck in my mind. The American commander of one such institution near Munich was puzzled because non-Jewish personnel in the camp often requested supplies of contraceptives, whereas Jews apparently never did. Upon enquiring he was told that the reason was the immense longing for life among those who had survived.
That longing epitomises Israel, for all its complexity and the many problems it faces. The country literally feels young, witness the generally pram-friendly streets, the presence and energy of so many young people. But in a wider sense, it has been driven by an immense creative energy, expressed in the institutions of learning, in science and technology, in architectural construction, in music and art, in an impassioned love of words, free words, angry words, creative and brilliant words, in innovative engagement with Jewish learning and often also in remarkable ways of caring for the vulnerable.
That’s why it feels like a double tragedy when I phoned a friend yesterday to say that I was thinking of him and sending my love on the 13th commemoration of the death of his son in Lebanon, when eager life is destroyed by violence or thwarted by the rhetoric of hate. It is a tragedy whether these are Jewish lives or Palestinian lives. It is as if some great force has taken hold of the fabric of a dream and seeks to soak it in the red dye of nightmares.
That’s why we must pray, and personally commit ourselves to doing whatever lies within our power, so that the vast longing for life, hope, peace and joy which underlies the ongoing creation of Israel can become more and more of a reality for all its citizens.