‘I wanted to live:’ thus spoke Sabina, a remarkable nonagenarian Holocaust survivor from Poland, a lady of obvious verve, determination and goodness, when she addressed us on Yom Hashoah last Wednesday evening.
As she recounted how she hid in the forest, took on the identity of a non-Jewish Polish girl, was brought to Warsaw, incarcerated in the Pawiak prison, and finally brought as a farm labourer to Germany, we were struck not simply by the horrors through which she had passed, but by her deep intuition concerning whom to trust, the compassion she encountered alongside the cruelty, and the triumph of life her eventual survival – and her creation of a new existence in Britain with six grand- and six great-grandchildren – expressed.
It could be said that listening to such an account, told with such spirit, is an escape from pondering the brutality of the murder of millions. That is of course true.
Yet there is a particular importance to thinking about life, even in the context of so much death. Nothing reminds us with so much power of life’s importance, poignancy, beauty, opportunity and value. I believe all of us who listened last Wednesday came away valuing and caring about life more deeply.
Next day I was walking in the woods and paused to look up at the tall beech trees with their grey trunks and lucent young green leaves. The lines came to my mind from Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale in which, surrounded by illness and suffering from consumption, he addresses the poem’s namesake who ‘In some melodious plot / Of beechen green and shadows numberless / Singest of summer in full-throated ease’. The bird, as Keats so painfully observes, soon flies away to be ‘buried deep / In the next valley-glades.’ But we must not squander the wonder of that song, while it is ours to hear and appreciate.
The Torah instructs us concerning God’s commandments, which ‘a person shall do and live by them’ (Vayikra 18:5). ‘Live by them, and not die by them’, says the brief, incisive and well-known rabbinic comment, leading to the rule that virtually every Jewish law may be broken for the sake of saving life (Talmud, Yoma 85b). ‘Choose life,’ Moses later repeats in the closing oration of his own earthly career.
Life is easily hurt. We hurt each other, and nature, all the time. Yet, on the contrary, how important it is to cherish life, to protect it for ourselves and for each other, to strive never to wound or harm it, and to do our utmost to nurture it through compassion and generosity at all times.
We live constantly at the meeting place between immense cruelty, with the innumerable wounds humanity inflicts on the innocent, and life’s infinite possibilities for beauty, goodness and kindness. At every moment we choose our direction; those choices constitute the meaning and purpose of our existence.