April 24, 2017

Jerusalem Notebook: Reflections on Holocaust Memorial Day

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by Useful Group

Once a year in Israel, when spring flowers are at their most beautiful, it happens at precisely 10 a.m. At that moment, the wail of an air raid siren suddenly pierces the morning air, and as the whine fades, silence steals across the land for two long minutes.

Cars stop where they are. Drivers and passengers get out and stand quietly next to their vehicles. On Jerusalem’s busy sidewalks, pedestrians halt in their tracks. Housewives, merchants and shoppers turn away from what they’ve been doing, step outside, and stand soberly in the sunlight, lost in thought or unspoken prayer.

This is Yom HaShoah, the Day of the Shoah – Holocaust Memorial Day – when Israel stops and remembers. Nearly everyone embraces some personal recollection of loss, and more than a few hold an entire scrapbook of bittersweet memories close to their hearts.

The night before, a state ceremony will have taken place at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem – the World Holocaust Remembrance Center – where personal accounts and documentation of the Holocaust are carefully guarded for future generations.

As the sky darkens, those attending the ceremony watch as the flag of Israel is lowered to half-staff. The prime minister and president eulogize the terrible historical record. Six torches representing the 6 million Jewish victims of Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution” are lit by elderly Holocaust survivors. Then one of them provides a personal account of both the misery she suffered and her own near-miraculous deliverance.

These days, just about everyone – Jews and non-Jews alike – has heard Holocaust stories. In America and Europe, many have immersed themselves in Elie Weisel’s historical books or wept over Anne Frank’s Diary. Few have missed “Schindler’s List,” stunned by its haunting soundtrack.

In Israel, however, remembering the Holocaust isn’t about a book or a movie. Even seven decades after the liberation of the last death camp, for the Jewish people, the Shoah remains deeply personal and painful. Among my own Israeli friends, several have spoken to me about the loss of family members. Some have lost dozens. Just days ago one friend wrote,

To answer your question about family members murdered during the Holocaust, it took me a while to do the math. It comes to at least 30 individuals whom I know of (great aunts/uncles, their spouses and children). That doesn’t include friends of my grandparents’ I remember hearing about, or friends my father left behind when they fled Europe.

In 2006, among the first people I met in Israel was a family living in Ariel. They were a far cry from the international media’s stereotypical “religious fanatics,” as Jews living in settlements are often portrayed. In fact, that father of three was a defiant and avowed atheist. He had lost 40 family members to Hitler’s Final Solution. He told me that he found it utterly impossible to believe in a God who would permit such carnage.

The faith of some Jews was most certainly a casualty of the Holocaust. But that wasn’t the only response. Some tell a far different story – of indescribable courage and victorious trust in God.

One of my Israeli friends, Tova Davidovics Lebovits, has written a beautiful tribute to her father. I hope you’ll take the time to read the whole article. She began,

“I am the child of Holocaust survivors. I belong to the generation that will always be overshadowed by the calamity of our parents. I belong to a generation of kinless childhoods, where we grew up without grandparents, numerous uncles, aunts, cousins and relatives who had perished, yet whose silent presence loomed in the background.

“I belong to a generation that has to face the horrors of the past, and bridge that past to an uncertain future.

“My father, Shammai Davidovics, taught me to fight for life. He could not speak about what happened to him during the war, nor of his family who perished. He kept a life-long self-imposed silence, which I painfully learned to accept despite my need to know.”

Lebovits continued,

One time in Israel, my brother Shmuel got on a public bus with my father. The driver took a look at my father, became very emotional, got up, hugged him hard, and began weeping and crying my father’s name, “Shammai, Shammai.” He refused to take payment, sat my father in the front seat, and as he drove began telling his tale to the astonished riders.

This bus driver told how my father – disguised as a priest – came and rescued a young chassidic boy, himself.

Apparently, my father’s priestly disguise had become almost his second identity. It enabled him to travel from village to village for weeks at a time on, even entering concentration camps and thus saving lives.

How did this disguise come about? While attending university, he was required to remain in class during Christian prayers and theology classes. He learned his lessons well and was also fluent in Latin. This oddity later saved his life many times, and helped save others. God works in mysterious ways.

My father used his black graduation robe from rabbinical seminary as his priestly garb. He became a traveling priest, the kind that kept a special pouch with various relics and talisman, holy to the Christians and especially the peasants, and he knew how to perform the various rituals. He always had two “altar boys” to assist him, and he would pick them up here and there where he would find lost Jewish children. He would dress them in gentile clothes and teach them their prayers and duties, and they would travel together until he found a way out for them.

This particular bus driver was one of those he’d smuggled out of hell to Israel.

Christians are grateful to cherish their own Holocaust heroes, who are often recalled by Israelis as “Righteous Gentiles,” or “Righteous Among the Nations.” Just months before I arrived in Israel, I visited a “safe house” in Haarlem, Holland. It is the home of the Christian ten Boom family, where hundreds of Jews were temporarily sheltered from the Nazis.

Two young sisters, Betsie and Corrie, were eventually swept up in a Nazi raid for their part in an underground railroad network, helping move hundreds of Jews from one safe house to another until they were out of harm’s way. I was amazed to learn that the ten Booms even provided kosher food for their “guests.”

For their good deeds, the two sisters ended up at Ravensbrück concentration camp, where Betsie died, leaving Corrie to tell the tale; she died in 1983. The family house still stands, and visitors can explore the cleverly designed secret compartment that served as a hiding place.

The sisters’ 80-year-old father, Willem ten Boom, did more than shelter Jews. When his Jewish friends were required by the Third Reich to put on the notorious yellow armband marked with the Star of David, Willem wore the armband too. And despite his friends’ frantic insistence that he save his own skin, he refused to take it off. He said that if his friends were mistreated for being Jews, he would be mistreated with them.

And so he was. He died in a jail cell, awaiting his own transfer to Ravensbrück.

Hearing about the ten Boom sisters’ and the old man’s bravery made me ask myself whether I would ever possess such courage. I could only answer, I don’t know, but I hope so. Perhaps with that in mind, a short time later I moved to Israel.

As Lebovits wrote, facing the Holocaust’s horrors unfortunately bridges the sorry past to an uncertain future. And it seems that the uncertainty of that future is upon us. In January, speaking of the Holocaust, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu emphasized the vulnerability of the Jewish People:

As we remember the victims and this crime, we must never forget the roots of our greatest disaster: the insatiable hatred for the Jewish people. Antisemitism – which is the world’s oldest hatred – is experiencing a revival in the enlightened West. You can see this in European capitals … and few would have imagined that this would be possible a few years ago.

With the resurgence of Jew-hatred continuing to rise and swell in Europe, with threats of “Death to Israel” resonating from Iran, my son and I visited Yad Vashem together one chilly winter day. We made our way through the exhibitions, from one horrifying photograph to the next, from one scratchy, recorded voice to another, from one victim’s recollection, each worse than the one before.

It’s odd how such horrors try to escape us. A strange wall of disbelief – something this evil simply couldn’t have happened – attempts to eclipse the indisputable evidence. How could educated, worldly-wise European humans attempt to destroy an entire race of people?

Yet somehow, as Netanyahu pointed out, that same insane loathing of Jews that brought forth the Holocaust is indeed reemerging exponentially – not only in Western Europe and parts of North America, but even more dramatically in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East.

When my son and I finally exited Yad Vashem that day, feeling disoriented and somewhat despairing, we walked directly into a downpour. A few days later, I tried to find words for that last impression:

Stung by icy rain,
By a bitter slap of wind
We stopped and took one last look
As a tide of sorrow
Seemed to spill through the glass doors behind us,
Soaking the sidewalks,
Drenching our thin coats,
Pouring down our faces.

Even the dripping trees across the way,
Deeply rooted in deeds of righteousness,
Murmured among themselves
Of resurgent dangers, ancient libels, deadly designs;
They rustled with timeless entreaties, echoing our own. 

Our Father who art in Heaven.
Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam
Please. Never again.