Does suffering always have to engender more suffering, or can the legacy of trauma lead to the capacity to bring healing?
My synagogue recently hosted members of the refugee community from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We had met individually, through work with asylum seekers. I’d also signed an open letter by Rabbi David Mitchell calling on the government to mobilise world opinion to halt the violence devastating the DRC. I realised that a communal invitation would express a deeply needed welcome in their difficult exile in London. I recalled what it had meant to my grandfather, a refugee rabbi from Nazi Germany, when he and hundreds of German Jews were made welcome in the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in 1939, where they held services with familiar melodies and a sermon in their mother tongue.
We decided to commemorate National Holocaust Memorial Day together. With the aid of photos, I outlined the history of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. They brought a troupe of young actors who portrayed in vivid vignettes the killings, rape and seizure of young children by militia which make life so violent and terrifying in Congo. Up to seven million are estimated killed. It was a grim evening.
The positive outcome was the warmth which developed between our communities. We resolved to meet again, this time to celebrate, with food, music and stories.
“Hundreds will come,” we were told. “You don’t know how much this means to us.” We worried about accommodating such numbers, yet it was essential the party take place in the synagogue. It meant that a different faith community cared, and was opening its doors. Our kitchen was busy from dawn to dusk. Perhaps never before has Congolese food been prepared according to the strict laws of kosher, or served with falafel. One lady who had volunteered in Israel regaled us with Shalom Aleichem, “Peace be upon you”. Both communities attended in large numbers.
One feature, though, was not as we’d envisaged. The main Congolese song was “Genocide in Congo”. The story-telling emerged as a plea to heed the sufferings of the country known as “the world capital of rape”. I asked one guest about his family back home; he turned his face to the wall. I put my hand on the elbow of another; it was no elbow beneath the jacket but an artificial limb. Only the dancing to Congolese music was truly joyous.
The impact of the Nazi Holocaust is ongoing for survivors, their families, and the Jewish People. However, the events themselves are over. For the people of the DRC they are not. Even now there is fierce fighting between M23 rebels and government soldiers. This newspaper recently pictured a long line of refugees trudging towards Goma, their few possessions wrapped in bundles. Human Rights Watch reports rape, killing and trafficking in slave labour among government forces as well. There’s no clear international process likely to bring these terrible sufferings to an end.
Jews have long experience of being marginalised, lampooned, exiled, and worse. We’ve lived with the legacy of trauma and the struggle to create new lives, communities and, recently, our own country. There is always the understandable danger that such experiences make us insular and protective of our own vulnerability. Yet many use the sensitivities so painfully derived to stand at the forefront of advocacy for refugees, campaigns against racism, protests against genocide, and action for the homeless.
The Talmud recounts how the 3rd century rabbi Joshua son of Levi wants to meet the Messiah. He asks Elijah where to look. “Among the poor at the gates of Rome,” the prophet replies. “There are lots of them,” the rabbi objects. “You’ll find him,” Elijah assures him. He travels to the entrance of the great city and sees numerous destitute people taking off and putting on their many bandages. One man, however, removes only a single bandage at a time before replacing it, saying, “Maybe I’ll be needed.” That’s the Messiah.
I’ve witnessed many people make of their pain a profound capacity to support others suffering likewise. People often say to me, “If you know someone going through what I’ve been through and feel I can help, put him in touch.” I doubt if this takes the pain away, but it can transform its meaning and make it a source of new, perhaps even redemptive, purpose.
We’re all needed. One of the deepest manifestations of our humanity is how we use the wounds we’ve experienced, personally or collectively, to care for the sufferings of others.