‘It was that shame we knew so well, the shame that drowned us after the selections, and every time we had to watch, or submit to, some outrage’: thus Primo Levi described the restraint and confusion on the faces of the four Russian soldiers on horseback who loomed out of the mist on this day sixty-seven years ago and who were part of the liberation of Auschwitz. It was that shame ‘the just man experiences at another man’s crime; the feeling of guilt that such a crime should exist, that it should have been introduced irrevocably into the world of things that exist’.

We sensed some of that shame last night in our congregation when we remembered together, we the Jewish community and approximately eighty members of the Congolese community (some of whom had travelled from as far away as Newcastle specially to be with us). We heard shocking and heart-rending testimony.

Dani, a charming lady who was hidden as a young child in Paris during the Holocaust, described how the visits by her mother, made lovingly but at great risk to them both, become rarer and then stopped. ‘Why had her parents abandoned her?’ she wondered after the war was over. What crime had she committed, what had she done wrong? Finally she was told, ‘But no, your parents adored you; they never abandoned you!’ ‘Then where are they? I want to see them!’ ‘They’re dead!’ I will never forget, she said, the hope and despair of that moment.

Children who have been traumatised, she went on to explain, can be helped to share their feelings rather than being told repeatedly to ‘forget’. But one doesn’t forget; the pain stays with one all one’s life.

Young people from the Congolese community acted out harrowing scenes which happen repeatedly in their country: ‘Why am I in this mine, working as a slave below ground with just a hammer and a torch? They killed my family then they kidnapped me. I miss my family so very much.’ ‘You want to be a soldier? Then you shoot her!’ ‘I can’t do that! She’s my sister!’ ‘Shoot her, or I’ll first cut off your ears and then…’

A young woman stood up and testified: ‘They killed all the guards outside. A bullet came through the window and hit my husband in the shoulder. He said, ‘Hide under the bed’. They came in and killed him in front of me. They took me away. I was raped twice. But I’m happy my children are alive, and I’m alive.’ The lady shook as she spoke, just as Dani was shaking as she told us about her ‘childhood’.

I expect we all went home with the same question pulsing in our consciousness: ‘What to do? What do we do?’ Such suffering exists in our world this very moment; such deeds are being perpetrated even this minute.

There are specific answers and we need to learn more about them: Our Drop-In centre helps (please support it); caring for those who survived the Shoah is an essential responsibility. There must surely be more we can do to bring healing to the trauma of countless children.

There is also a general answer: our existence is justified solely by serving life, by loving others, by listening to, caring about and striving to lessen suffering.

A small handwritten letter

On Monday I was sitting with my father’s cousin looking at family letters. She was showing me the correspondence her father had sent to the Czech government in 1992 after the Velvet Revolution concerning their aunt Sophie who had been living in Holleschau with her husband and mother until their deportation. In between the various typed papers I noticed a small handwritten letter, dated 14 January 1943. It was from Sophie to her brother Alfred in Jerusalem:

We’re leaving here on the 18th of January… we’re being gathered in a school and after three days sent to Theresienstadt. Whether we’ll stay there or be sent on further to Poland remains very uncertain. All Jews have to go…. It’s not clear if Josef is going to remain with us. Hopefully dear mama will be able to go to an old age home in Theresienstadt in Bohemia and meet up with our dear aunts from Berlin.

In this manner we want to say farewell to you all and tell you, my dear ones, where you may be able to look for us after the war.

There follow the addresses of the two properties they own, with whom they have left their silver, jewellery and other precious possessions, and the details of their bank accounts. They were a well-to-do couple. Sophie continues:
We pray to God that he will allow us successfully to overcome this test which has been placed upon us and that we will see each other again in peace.

At the bottom of the letter is a short note from her mother, my great grandmother, whose husband Rabbi Yaacov Freimann had died in 1937 and was buried there in Holleschau:
My Dear Children, Today I took my farewell from your beloved and good father; may his spirit hover over us in these difficult times.
When she was due to be transported on from Teresin to Auschwitz a relative offered to go in her place. She refused, ‘You are younger, but I am old and my life’s work is done’, she explained. She added that her faith remained with her wherever she went. I have the card she sent from Theresienstadt in November 1943, prior to this final deportation.

I stared at Sophie’s letter, at the neat handwriting, and tried to think about the circumstances in which it had been written. I have a picture of Sophie; she was beautiful, an elegant lady who loved to travel. In one of the last conversations I had with my father he told me how she had visited them in Palestine in ’37 or ’38: “We told her ‘Don’t go back; stay here; don’t return toCzechoslovakia’”.

I also have Sophie’s letters from the summer of 1938 onwards, how she made jam and bottled fruit, how she looked at the weather before deciding what to do about the washing, things my father used to do, matters I discuss with Nicky. Even in ’41 she was writing hopefully, describing how she was able to send food to her sister Trude in Posen. She too perished with her family.

Next Friday is National Holocaust Memorial Day. In a step which is new for us, we are holding a commemoration together with members of the Congolese community, whose land has been ravaged and whose families have often been murdered. Please join us.

It is one of the few things we can do in the name and memory of our relatives, to support our people and live our own faith with renewed vitality and passion, to strive to protect the dignity and sensitivities of human life everywhere, and to protest with all our power whenever and wherever the sanctity of life is profaned.

The joy of argument

Hava amina’, ‘La kashya’, ‘Veha icca lemiphrach’, – I love all these crazy, wonderful-sounding phrases. They all come from the Talmud: ‘I might have thought’; ‘There’s no contradiction here’; ‘that argument can be broken apart’. But my favourite of all is‘inni’ – ‘Is it really so’, which is invariably followed by a demonstration that it isn’t, though the alternative is never the whole truth either. In short, we as a people love to disagree, and this discourse of theory and rebuttal, proposition and doubt, of shouting each other down, but then faithfully recording the very words with which a moment before we so vehemently disagreed, is the very stuff of Judaism’s greatest text – so long, of course, as it is all for the sake of Heaven! God, we’re even told, enjoys it too. 

In just one day in America I’ve seen two wonderful examples of this culture (I’m here as a guest of Limmud New York and promise to report back fully on whether it’s as good as – it can’t possibly be better than – Limmud UK. I also promise to try to import any really good ideas I come across.)

The first example comes from the community of Agudath Israel in Caldwell, with which we’ve had a warm relationship for many years. They too have just completed their new building; it is of course bigger than ours – but we’re equally buzzing with life and have more olive trees in our courtyard (and a smaller deficit with the bank). But right now I’m thinking of their amazing library, to which one couple have recently donated five thousand books, all carefully researched and organised. It has wifi too, and people are already seeing it as a comfortable centre for research and study. Our Bet Midrash, our house of study, is going to be like that too! We’ll fill it not only with more wonderful books, but even more importantly with people, all of us, young and old, studying what we love most about our Judaism, from cook books to Talmud and from ‘Paddington goes to Shul’ to Bachya ibn Pekuda’d ‘Duties of the Heart’.

Then I visited Mechon Hadar for the first time, that amazing Bet Midrash, open, pluralist, non-dogmatic, egalitarian, full of committed young people devoting a year or more to the study of Torah at the most serious level. Within minutes I was engaged; one couldn’t help but be lifted by a sense of energy, by the feeling that engaging with these texts was vital, engrossing, a matter for great passion, fun. A sentence carved into the glass in the window read: ‘Tradition isn’t just what you receive from others’; here were people thoroughly enjoying making it their own. The core group attend from 7.30 in the morning till 9.00 at night; they even have their own cook to keep them in the building. I tasted the tofu and rice; –  – the debate about whether you’d rather live in a country which has both a Chanukkiah and a Christmas tree in the public square, or which bans them both in order to be scrupulously fair was better.

My point is that this is Judaism, this is Torah – this learning, this debate, this constant persistence of the opposing point of view, this openness to ideas, this affirmation of the value of the other, this assertion that everything matters, every word, every moment, every opinion, every person.

The more, the more joy and energy we find in it, the better!

Sadness and shame

Stephen Lawrence’s parents Doreen and Neville wept when they heard the verdict; many others wept too. I heard one of the most telling comments on the radio: Stephen was eighteen when he was murdered in that disgusting racial attack in Eltham in1993; it took more days to bring his killers, and then only some of them, to justice than he ever lived on this earth.

‘All I now feel is relief that these racist men can no longer think that they can murder a black man and get away with it’, said Doreen outside the Old Bailey.

But it was a very long road indeed to reach that relief. As Stephen’s friend Duwayne, who was with him at the time of the attack but managed to run away, said, from the first moment everything went wrong. Stephen lay bleeding to death on the pavement, but people walked away. The ambulance didn’t come for a long time. He had to tell the police again and again that this was a racist attack; he was virtually left feeling as if he, and not the attackers, were the accused.

The history of the case is familiar: the police delays in seeking evidence and making arrests; the failed prosecution; the courageous campaigning by Mr and Mrs Lawrence; the establishment of the enquiry by Jack Straw (his ‘single most important’ decision as Home Secretary) and the eventual publication of the Macpherson Report with its seventy crucial recommendations all aimed at ending institutional racism, not just in the police, but, in a profound sense, in the country as a whole.

I wanted to find a Jewish way to mark the verdict and those long eighteen years, but wasn’t quite sure how. So I took down the relevant volume of Maimonides’ 12th century code of law, the Mishneh Torah and turned to Hilchot Shoftim, Laws relating to Judges: ‘It is a positive commandment that judges conduct the process of judgment in a righteous manner’. One plaintiff may not be allowed to sit, while the other stands; one may not speak at length while the other is told, ‘Be brief!’ One may not wear rich clothes, while the other is dressed in rags, but the judge must say to the former: ‘Either dress your fellow litigant in garments like your own, or wear rags like him’. (Hilchot Shoftim, 21:1-2) If there has to be equality in dress, how much more so must there be equality in that which no person can ask another to change, the colour of our skin, whether we are black or white, Asian or Jew.

I remembered too how the rabbis understood the instruction in Deuteronomy to establish ‘judges and officers…in all your gates’ to mean that every tribe must be represented in the police. (Deuteronomy 16:18) One assumes that the reason is the same as that given in the Macpherson Report: only thus can there be trust across the whole population that every ethnic group will be treated fairly and equally before the law.

I remembered too how each of my parents spoke about the institutional hatred they encountered in Nazi Germany. That’s why any kind of racism is always a Jewish issue, always everyone’s issue.

Later today I’m going to write to Mr and Mrs Lawrence on behalf of the community to express our solidarity with them.

But more than anything else I still feel anguish; pain that they have been made to suffer so terribly; sadness and shame that the kind of hatred which lead to their son’s death should exist at all, that it should enter anyone’s heart and ruin the lives not just of Stephen but also of those who attacked him; determination that we should live out in our own values and actions that basic Biblical teaching that all people are created in God’s image and that every life is therefore both equal, sacred and unique.

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