Between life and death, future and past

Here we are, caught between creation and destruction. Yesterday was Tu Bishevat, the New Year for Trees; tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day.

Tu Bishevat is a day of planting and celebration, when we’re partners with the God of creation who set the tree of life in the midst of the Garden of Eden.

Many of us were out there yesterday in the bright afternoon, placing rich mulch round the young crab apples and field maples we’d just planted. Trees mean future, long-term thinking, life, hope and joy. ‘We’ve a two-hundred-year management plan,’ explained Craig Harrison, head of Forestry England south.

Tomorrow is Holocaust Memorial Day. I read compulsively about the Shoah and listen to the testament of survivors. I love their company. I admire how they have established new lives, brought up children and go into schools to speak against antisemitism and every form of prejudice. I find it remarkable how little bitterness so many of them bear, how much compassion they embody, how widely they spread warmth and hope.

But the most terrible testimony has no voice: that of the innumerable dead, across Europe, Rwanda, Cambodia, robbed of their homes, loved ones and lives; robbed of their voices which would tell us, if they could, of the sophisticated deceitfulness and cruel cunning of the murderers alongside their drunken brutality.

In the words of the searing Yom Kippur meditation, ‘Eleh Ezkerah – these things I bring to memory before God, who’s supposed to conduct the world in mercy, venaphshi alai eshpecha, and I pour out my soul, I don’t know what to do with myself.’

The theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is the fragility of freedom. It could not be more apposite in this time of war in Ukraine, Israel, Gaza, the Middle East. Whatever ‘side’ we’re on, whatever political views we hold, we must not harden our hearts to the horror faced by the hostages and their families after 115 days of cruel captivity, the fear of parents for the lives of their children on the front lines, the desperate suffering of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians caught amidst the fighting.

To what pain will all this give birth, to what new fears and hatreds, to what hopes, longings and dreams? Beyond whatever particular loyalties we hold, say the Israeli and Palestinian parents of the Bereaved Families Forum, we need to remember that we should all ultimately be on the side of humanity.

So what do we do?

‘Choose life,’ teaches the Torah, be on the side of life!

These, then, are some of the questions which should preoccupy us: How can I find the courage to be truly human? What kindness can I do? Whose life can I make a bit better and not worse? What can I plant for our children’s children’s futures?

This sounds frail; it feels very small scale. But I put my hopes in a minor, often overlooked scene from the Torah. The Children of Israel are thirsty in the desert, but the waters before them are too bitter to drink. Therefore, God instructs Moses to throw into them the branches of a tree and when he does so the waters become sweet.

So let’s plant our trees, figurative trees of compassion, decency, humanity and hope, as well as real trees, maples, rowans, birch and oak. May they sweeten our own lives with a deep sense of purpose and bring a little sweetness to the future of the world.

They still speak to us, the dead we have loved

Sometimes a verse jumps out from the weekly Torah portion, chimes with what we’re living through, meets a spark in our own spirit. That’s how those words from the start of Exodus speak to me now: ‘And Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.’

They’re all gone now, my parent’s generation, all the relatives amidst whose conversations, half German, half English, half refugee, half British, but always deeply Jewish, I grew up. They lie at peace in Hoop Lane cemetery, or rest, like my father’s sisters, on the Mount of Olives.

But they’re not silent, at least not in this world. They speak to us, our dead, they talk inside us. ‘Live!’ they say, ‘Live!’ They put resilience in our bones; they set their playlist in our soul. There’s nothing morbid or spooky about it; the dead who were close to us in life stay near and dear when they’re gone. The loss of them hurts deeply. But they urge us on. ‘Have courage,’ they say, ‘We’re with you all the way. Love life; live it well.’

Two moments come to my mind whenever I say the prayer carved in stone in every Jewish cemetery, ‘Umekayyem emounato lisheinei afar – Keeping faith with those who sleep in the dust.’ Twice my father, deeply asleep in his last hours, raised himself from his pillows, spoke those words into the ether and collapsed back into the semi-consciousness of his final journey.

It never occurred to me otherwise than that he was speaking to God: ‘Be with me in this boundaryless time-space where you’re taking me.’ They were words of trust and fear in equal measure.

But now it strikes me that I was partly wrong; my father was also talking to me: ‘Keep faith,’ he was saying, ‘keep faith through everything.’

So here, at the beginning of 2024, I walk among them in my mind, the departed, who lived through the Holocaust and the war. I try to listen, to draw courage for this current time of troubles, when Israel, Judaism and so much else seem on the line.

Here by the pathway is Jacqueline du Pre. I played a recording of her Kol Nidrei to Isca, my second mother, in her last hour. Isca adored the cello. The melody descends into the soul, says without words like the Psalmist, ‘From the depths I have called unto you,’ then rises, declaring ‘Seek beauty, aspire; always aspire.’ That’s why Isca loved such music.

Here, in the same row as my mother and father, lies Leo Baeck, leader of German Jewry in the terrible years, teacher of Theresienstadt. Nothing crushed his spirit, his faith not just in God but in humanity. Not rarely, he recalled, even in Berlin under the Nazis in ’40 or ’41, there would be an egg or apple secretly left by his door. He taught that God is mystery become commandment: what we know from life’s depths must teach us how to act.

And, Adi, my father, who by the age of forty-one had lost his own father, oldest sister, first wife, and three of his favourite aunts and uncles? He still comes into my room late at night, unexpectedly, as he did when I was in my teens, saying ‘Remember: only what’s in your mind can never be taken from you.’ And, since he was a practical person, I hear him say when a chair creaks or a shelf breaks, ‘Repair it, don’t throw it away.’ And, seeing he lived through the cruel years of Israel’s struggle for independence, ‘Be loyal; always stand by your friends.’

These are the secret ingredients of their strength, which, like the unique recipes for cheesecakes and strudels that they refuse to disclose while they’re alive, our forebears bequeath to us after they’re gone.

With them, we turn with gritty faith, resilient hope, and love of life, to face the year ahead.

Between Yom HaShoah and Yom Ha’Atzmaut

I never know what to write on this Shabbat between Yom Hashoah, Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day for the dead in Israel’s wars, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. Seventy-five years have passed since the bitter battle for Jerusalem so vividly recalled by my father, whose Yahrzeit falls this week.

And this weekend also brings Earth Day, founded in 1970 to inspire love and protection for our planet, which will involve a billion people in thousands of local and global activities. I get notices about it from all around the world, from organisations Jewish, religious, secular and practical every day.

I’ve written my share of difficult things this week (links below). So instead, I’m going to write about love, – love of the earth and its beauty, but as felt by holocaust survivors, and those who’ve struggled for Israel’s land and soul, then and now.

These are novelist Aharon Appelfeld’s memories of his grandparents in rural Bukhovina, before all his family perished, and he, just a child, fled:

The walk to the synagogue is long and full of wonders. A horse stands in astonishment… Not far from them a foal is rolling on the grass. There is astonishment in the dozens of pairs of eyes of the horses, sheep, and goats who are all following the foal’s movements, happy that it’s back on its feet. Grandfather walks in silence, but his silence is not frightening. [In the synagogue] the prayers are conducted in whispers. This is the home of God and people come here in order to sense His presence… (The Story of a Life, p. 9 -10)

This is Gerda Weissman-Klein, writing of her hometown Bielitz in 1940, before she lost everything:

What a lovely sunny morning it was! The buttercups were out, and there were violets down in the moist part of the garden near the pond, along with lilies-of-the-valley. On the afternoon of my birthday a warm, scented rain, so typical of May, fell…(All But My Life, p. 43)

Meanwhile in Mandate Palestine my Great-Uncle Alfred, who would lose his life in ’48, wrote after a holiday in 1943:

We saw another part of our beautiful countryside, the whole strip of land along the coast is like one flowering, fertile garden. If they let us work in peace and quiet…we’d soon have one of the most beautiful countries in the world.

Evidently the trees, lovingly planted by early pioneers as described in the famous poem by Rachel, had taken root and offered shade:

I have not sung to you, my land / or glorified your name

With deeds of valour, the spoils of battle.

There’s just a tree my hands have planted / by the Jordan’s quiet banks,

A path my feet have trod / across your fields.  (El Artsi)

Then here, in 2006, is David Shulman, originally from the States and drawn to Israel through love of the country, after numerous vigils in the hills alongside Palestinian shepherds:

What is real is this moment, these people, the sliver of moon in the summer sky, the Passsiflora tree in the courtyard, the crimson wine, the inevitable sweetness of confusion, the musical murmur of the words, and the profound, ironic happiness of doing what is right in circumstances of rooted, inherent, unresolvable ambiguity…(Dark Hope: Working for Peace in Israel and Palestine, p. 212)

Whoever we are, whatever our views and allegiances, may we work for love of this world and love of life.

 

Towards Yom Hashoah: faith’s unyielding determination

As we say farewell to the Pesach dishes and pack away for another year the memories they evoke, I try to carry with me the words of Isaiah with which the festival readings conclude:

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. (11:9)

It’s my favourite biblical verse. It concludes Isaiah’s vision of a time when nation no longer predates on nation and one sector of humanity no longer devours another, symbolised by the wolf lying down peacefully with the lamb. (But not, as my Bible teacher stressed, every night a different lamb).

If only the world were like that!

But Isaiah’s world wasn’t like that either. His vision is set in a city under siege; the all-powerful Assyrian armies have laid the land waste and are now so close to Jerusalem that he sees them shaking their fists at Zion from the tops of the surrounding mountains. Resistance is surely futile; logic dictates that defeat is imminent.

Yet it’s in precisely those circumstances that the prophet envisages a different reality. He doesn’t abandon hope; he doesn’t renege on the belief in a world governed by God’s spirit, with God-given wisdom, where the cause of the poor is upheld in righteousness.

‘You may say (he’s) a dreamer,’ but what motivates Isaiah is not phantasy but faith. His hope, moral courage and determination are utterly inspiring, and we need them desperately today.

And Isaiah’s ‘not the only one.’ Monday night brings Yom HaShoah, the date set by Israel’s parliament for remembering the Nazi Holocaust. Something made me reach for the writings of Etty Hillesum in preparation.

Born in Holland in 1914, she threw her last letter from a train to Auschwitz on September 7, 1943. She was cultured, perceptive, sensitive, sensuous, generous, life-loving, and, in her dairies, extraordinarily frank. I’d read many times her entry for 12 July 1942 entitled ‘Sunday morning prayer’, when she couldn’t sleep because she saw before her eyes ‘scene after scene of human suffering:’

One thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we must help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well.

What I hadn’t known was that Etty chose to go to Westerbork, the camp in northern Holland from where Jews were sent east, despite several offers to hide her. She refused to be parted from her people; she went willingly because she wanted ‘to give some of those parched thousands just one sip of water.’

‘I love people so much,’ she reflected at the close of one of her days there, telling her friend Jopie:

It all comes down to the same thing: life is beautiful. And I believe in God, And I want to be right there in the thick of what people call ‘horror’ and still be able to say: life is beautiful. (8 October 1942)

The horror was all too real, as her letters from Westerbork prove. But so was the humanity with which she refused to cede to the cruelty around her. So too was the kindness with which she affirmed the preciousness of life. If that counts as beauty, she achieved exactly what she intended.

She certainly lived out Isaiah’s creed of hope and faith, the very core of Judaism, even in what she couldn’t help but describe as ‘hell.’

Together she and he bequeath to us faith’s unyielding determination, the unceasing commitment to righteousness and compassion, the belief that the world should and can be different, and that you and I must help to make it so.

For Holocaust Memorial Day: being ‘ordinary people’

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, established to correspond with the date when the first units of the Red Army reached Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945. The horrors are unspeakable; many, including the second generation, feel more shocked, bewildered and bereft year by year. We live as Jews in solidarity with our own people and with victims everywhere.

This year’s theme is ‘Ordinary People.’ As the home page of the HMD website says:

Ordinary people turn a blind eye, believe propaganda, join murderous regimes. And those who are persecuted, oppressed and murdered in genocide aren’t persecuted because of crimes they’ve committed – they are persecuted simply because they are ordinary people who belong to a particular group (eg, Roma, Jewish community, Tutsi).

I don’t think the Bible has such concept as ‘ordinary people’. A ben adam, a human being, is, without exception, made in God’s image. The Mishnah (c. 200CE) elaborates: every person is yechidi, createdunique. I’ve stood by the broken concrete at Birkenau and wondered: who did each of these people love, for whom did they long, as they were forced toward those chambers?

Yet the words ‘ordinary people’ ring true. We are all other people’s ‘ordinary people’. In an excellent talk, Dr John Launer noted how so many ‘ordinary’ individuals allowed the Nazis to come to power. Then, speaking of bystanders in general, he said with brave frankness that the older he gets the less he feels like the judge, and the more he feels among the judged.

The Torah forbids us to be bystanders: ‘Don’t stand idly by your fellow human’s blood.’ (Vayikra 19:16) ‘If you know that someone intends to threaten another person’s life, you have to speak out,’ explained Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (1816 – 1893), head of the Volozhyn Yeshivah destroyed half a century later by the Nazis.

This is incomparably easier said than done. It leaves the discomforting question: whose bystander, whose ‘ordinary person’, am I?

Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, was famed as a Torah educator. Who am I? he asked, before answering: I am those aspects of my potential self which my experiences have drawn out of me. That’s why it’s essential to live in environments which bring out the best and deepest within us.

He reminds me of when I was a guest of the church in Germany the 1990s. ‘Had the visit left me angry?’ I was asked on my return. In truth, something quite different had gripped me: relief that I lived in a country whose laws prevented me from doing the worst of which I might prove capable. How would I have behaved had I been an ‘ordinary’ Aryan under Nazi rule? How could I be sure? The consciences of so many people were so deeply infiltrated by the vicious yet alluring discourse around them that they failed to perceive they were doing evil.

But today? I’m less confident our society and world is helping prevent the worst in us.

I stress one hundredfold that there is no comparison with Nazi or other such evil regimes. But I fear the atrophy of conscience. Are we supposed to accept homelessness in our streets, the drowning of refugees in the Channel, the indefinite detention of asylum seekers, or mass food insecurity? What’s being done in the name of my own good country? What racism do some utter, profaning the name and true values of my beloved Judaism?

The Torah speaks not of ‘ordinary’ but of ‘holy people’, anshei kodesh. They aren’t priests or anyone special, but you and me. Anshei, from anoosh, indicates open-heartedness, empathy, humility. Holiness means being truly deeply human.

We can’t help sometimes being bystanders. There’s simply too much wrong. But we must never become inured to it, let alone make it worse. We must seek the courage to be, at least sometimes, not just ‘ordinary’ but ordinary holy people.

A time to keep silence and a time to speak

Standing as close to her as he could, my grandfather surreptitiously pushed his elbow into my grandmother’s ribs: ‘Say nothing; don’t react.’ He involuntarily imitated the action as he recounted the incident to me decades later. He’d seen the Gestapo officer watching them as they passed the poster with its typical Der Stuermer caricature of Jews.

That was Frankfurt in 1938. ‘There’s a time to keep silent,’ wrote Ecclesiastes. If ever there was such a time, that was it.

There are many kinds of silence and many different reasons for maintaining them. Mercifully, many have more to do with compassion than repression. Through life one tries to learn to discern when words are an impediment to communication, when it’s important not to interrupt, how to let listening deepen, how to avoid obscuring with words the heart’s intuitive alertness to the unspoken, when not to break the communicative silence.

But, as Ecclesiastes also says, there is also a time to speak out.

I’m mindful of Ecclesiastes, Kohelet, because we will read it in synagogue tomorrow, on the Shabbat of the festival of Succot. It has no obvious connection with the season, except perhaps for its ‘autumnal tone’ with its chorus line ‘vanity of vanities’, as if it were translating the leaf-fall of the forests into the world of human society: What’s left when all the paraphernalia of life is stripped away? What’s life’s heartwood?

But I’m also thinking of Ecclesiastes because of that line ‘There’s a time to speak.’ Of course, one has to be cautious, because words, once spoken, can never be dissolved back down into the expressionless ether.

But there’s a time when truths must be spoken and across the world it appears that this time is now.

I therefore respect Jonathan Freedland, the staff of the Royal Court Theatre and those who spoke out, in particular the members of my own community Luciana Berger and Dr Tammy Rothenberg, to create his play Jews In Their Own Words, naming and calling out often denied forms and foci of antisemitic hatred and abuse.

Across the world, it is impossible for those of us who have lived in freedom to come anywhere near to appreciating the defiant courage of hundreds of thousands of young people in Iran, especially women, who, despite knowing they may be beaten, shot, seized, and made to disappear, cry out against unbearable repression, impoverishment and degradation.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize marks an essential moment in the moral history of humanity. It was a wise decision to award it to two organisations, Memorial and the Ukranian Centre for Civil Liberties, and one individual, Ales Bialiatski, who, despite imprisonment and all the armamentarium of totalitarian states, persist in telling truth to power. It expresses on behalf of us all our solidarity with those who refuse to succumb to the politics of lies and fabrications. It gives recognition, in a world in danger of becoming inured to fake news with its narratives of falsification and suppression, to the supreme importance of truth.

Memorial was established by Andrei Sakharov in 1987 to document the horrors of Stalin’s regime. In the recently published volume My Father’s Letters, Correspondence from the Soviet Gulag, Irina Scherbakova, a founding member of Memorial, concludes her preface by quoting from Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate:

Neither fate, nor history, nor the anger of the State…has any power to affect those who call themselves human beings… In this alone lies man’s eternal victory over all the grandiose and inhuman forces that ever have been or will be.

‘The world stands upon three things, truth, justice and peace,’ Rabbi Shimeon ben Gamliel observed nineteen hundred years ago. Without truth, there can never be justice and without justice never ultimate peace.

Therefore, in Ecclesiastes’ words, we need, no less that the wisdom to understand when to keep silent, the courage to know when to speak out.

Two teachers who’ve shaped my life…

Two moments have marked my week.

I didn’t expect to find myself emotional while waiting at Luton airport. I was simply standing at arrivals holding a sign.

The flight from Warsaw had landed half an hour ago; the bags were now in the hall. I held up the board with the names higher and stepped into the middle of the walkway so that the Ukrainian family wouldn’t miss me, and felt suddenly moved.

I soon realised why. Who was the person who’d held up such a sign eighty-four years ago, when my mother landed with her parents that 9 April 1938 at Croydon Airport, they too arriving in a country in which they had never imagined they’d be forced to seek refuge?

Of everything my mother has ever said to me it may be this which has stayed most firmly in my mind. When she left the family who hosted her in Boxmoor during the war, she asked the lady of the house, ‘How can we ever thank you?’ ‘Don’t thank us,’ she replied. ‘One day you’ll do for others what we tried to do for you.’ I’m sure that’s what led me, with my wife Nicky’s encouragement, to be standing here at Luton with this sign. Look, that must be them…

The other moment which shaped my week in fact occurred earlier, when I learnt of the death in Jerusalem of my teacher in Torah Rabbi Aryeh Strikovsky.

For five years after I graduated as a rabbi from Leo Baeck College, I went to Israel regularly to learn Torah daily from him and his Hasidic friend Reb Dovid. Despite the good rabbinic education I’d received I felt (and still feel) wanting in Talmud and classic Jewish texts.

Rabbi Strikovsky taught me Bameh Madlikin,the chapter of Talmud which treats of the lights for Shabbat and Chanukkah, and which contains that beautiful passage about the awe of God: whatever one’s learnt, if one hasn’t got a spirit of reverence and wonder, it’s likely to turn to dust.

I never knew the story of Rabbi Strikovsky’s life. But whenever he taught me a Hasidic text, and he introduced me to the writings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav and the teachings of Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto who was murdered at Trawniki in 1943, – whenever he expounded these teachings, he would weep, his words coming slowly through his tears from his heart.

He belonged in spirit to that pre-Holocaust culture of complete immersion in learning and piety. He lived in the spiritual universe of Jewish knowledge and devotion, in that other-worldly, timeless discourse with the sages of all lands and eras about the service of God.

Yet tradition did not prevent him from courageously doing what he knew was just and right. It was at his initiative that to’anot rabbiniyot were introduced into the rabbinical divorce courts, women lawyers and para-rabbis to put the cases of wives and mothers before this daunting all-male enclave. He did not stop there: despite the entrenched establishment position, he gave semichah and ordained at least two women as rabbis, subsequently supporting them in their careers.

One day, too, after requesting to meet Nicky and our young son Mossy to bless him, he gave me his smichah too. I have it here, near me, with the signature Aryeh son of Baruch Strikovsky. May the memory of his righteousness be for a blessing.

A verse from Proverbs connects these two moments in my week: ‘Listen, my son, to the instruction of your father, and do not forsake the teachings of your mother.’ (1:8) (One’s Torah teacher is also understood, metaphorically, as one’s father.)

I hear that verse sung beautifully in our synagogue by a small family choir at the bnei mitzvah of their children. Right now, the words leave me feeling chastened by the loving trust and deep responsibility they bestow.

Between Yom Hashoah and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut

When I was compiling the synagogue’s shivah book for prayers in the house of mourning, I came across this short teaching by the Slonimer Rebbe, Shalom Noach Barzovsky (1911 – 2000)

A broken heart…

must always belong to the world of building

not to the world of destruction.

Moved by these words, I included them in the short section on Hasidic teachings at the back of the book. By mistake they were moved by the printers to the front page. I left them there, where they stand as an introduction and a motto.

This Shabbat finds us between Yom HaShoah, commemorating the Nazi Holocaust, and Yom Ha’Atzma’ut, marking the creation of the State of Israel. That in the wake of so much horror people could find the courage, energy, initiative and vision to establish a new country is remarkable.

I have only to think of my father. It’s his Yahrzeit on Yom Ha’Atzma’ut. How I wish I had asked him more questions, listened to him more and thought more carefully about his life while he was with us! The family fled from Germany to Jerusalem in 1937, where he became a main breadwinner for his parents and three sisters in the difficult years of the war and the even harder, uneasy and impoverished times between 1945 and 48.

Family letters explore the empty spaces after the Holocaust: Is there any news of Mama, the family matriarch, my great-grandmother, last heard of in Theresienstadt? A handful of Jews have returned to Holesov in Moravia, from where she was deported: is it worth travelling there to ask? What about my father’s aunt Trude, and her husband and son? Or Sophie, always elegant, who hoped she could live the evil times out in Czechoslovakia? There is no news. The gaps cannot be closed; the silences remain. None of them will be coming back.

Yet at the same time the surviving family participated in an extraordinary intellectual life and the building of the country. My father’s uncle Alfred was offered the directorship of the National Library and considered as a candidate for the Supreme Court. He travelled length of the land, teaching:

We saw another part of our beautiful countryside, the whole strip along the coast is like one flowering, fertile garden…We’re working hard at the preparations for the Jewish State. I’m responsible for the department of religious, family and inheritance law.

Tragically, he was killed in the convoy to Mount Scopus in the War of Independence on April 13, 1948.

I hear from so many other families too about this determination to build a new future after the Shoah: ‘My parents met in the DP camps in ’46; all they wanted to do was start a fresh life.’ ‘My mother lost everyone; nothing mattered to her so much as creating a new family.’

This capacity to ‘belong to the world of building’ despite so much loss, heartache and trauma is brave, visionary and extraordinary.

Faced today with the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and so much stress, trouble and stalemate across the world, that courage, hopefulness, creativity, imagination, determination, and zest for life is exactly what we all now need.

Holocaust Memorial Day – and our duty to care

From time to time, I get a call on my mobile; the line’s often bad and it’s hard to hear, but the message is always the same: ‘I didn’t get a voucher this month.’ I note down the phone number and pass it on to the asylum seekers drop-in. They’d been supporting about four hundred people; during Covid it’s gone up to a thousand each month. That monthly voucher may be all these struggling people get on which to survive.

Once I was called by a woman who was already at the check-out: ‘The money didn’t come through to my card and I can’t pay for these few bits of food.’ I asked her to pass me to the cashier; for all I knew she or her child might be hungry right now. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘we’re not allowed to accept card payments over the phone.’ I’d hoped I could save the woman the humiliation.

Yesterday was Holocaust Memorial Day. A surprising series of connections left me thinking about it in an unexpected way. There’s a baby blessing in our community tomorrow:

‘The English name is Sidney,’ the parents explained, ‘So he’ll be Sidney Bloch, after our father’s lovely relative of that name.’

‘Sidney Bloch!’ I exclaimed, ‘After the Sidney Bloch who wrote No Time For Tears? I taught from that book just an hour ago!’

That beautiful book, full of charm, wit, and wisdom, describes growing up in a rabbinic household in the impoverished East End in the 1930s. In a chapter titled ‘One Man Alone’ Sidney recounts how his Uncle Julius toured the poor suburbs of London in the wind and rain addressing whatever audience could be mustered, begging people “to accept a refugee before Hitler did”:

“Any couple who leaves this synagogue hall tonight,” he would say, slowly and precisely, “without a commitment, is sentencing a child to an unknown fate…like death” he would add softly.

His words reminded me of a letter from my father’s aunt Trude, after she, her husband and their only son had been deported from their hometown of Poznan to a village near Lublin after the swift Nazi conquest of western Poland. On 31st October 1941 she wrote to her brother Ernst in the then still neutral United States:

Have you had any news in the meantime from [our relatives in] San Francisco? Maybe you can write to them again, so that they remember that we still exist…

By then it was anyway too late; Trude was taken east a year later, probably to Treblinka.

In Jewish law no form of tzedakah, giving for social justice, takes precedence over pidyon shevu’im, the redemption of captives. Distributors of charity funds are, in an absolute emergency, theoretically permitted to divert to this purpose moneys collected for any other cause without consulting those who gave it.

‘Captive’ today can mean unable to escape the grasp of a murderous power. One thinks of families desperate to get out of Afghanistan, or Uygur people with relatives in Xinjiang they haven’t from for years.

Inscribed on the eastern wall of our synagogue are the three love commandments in the Torah. On either side are ‘Love your neighbour’ and ‘Love the stranger’. These are not alternatives; we have an unceasing obligation to care for our near and dear, as well as Jewish people in trouble and any persecuted or suffering people wherever they are.

In the middle, above the holy ark, is ‘You shall love the Lord your God.’ We cannot love God if we don’t care about that part or spark of the divine which lives in us and within each of our fellow human beings.

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.

 

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