Familiar Words and Sounds

Embed from Getty Images It is 2014. I am in my 90’s. So why do I hear words and sounds that remind me of the words and sounds I heard in the 30’s in Europe? As an eyewitness to history, I feel compelled to share my memories with you, my readers.

It all started with words. Hitler declaring that German-speaking Austrians are thirsting to unite with Germany. After immense pressure on the Austrian government, Hitler got consent for the Anschluss (unification). Then followed Czechoslovakia, where allegedly the Sudetendeutschen expressed their desire to unite with Germany. Then followed the Munich agreement with Chamberlain, who accepted the breakup of Czechoslovakia, the most democratic country in Europe at that time. Said Chamberlain upon his return from Munich “I believe it is ‘peace for our time. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” I don’t know about the British, but I am sure that Hitler had a good night’s sleep after listening to this.  And he woke up with an appetite to incorporate eastern Prussia into Germany, and for that purpose had to attack Poland, which had a corridor leading to the Baltic Sea.

We all know the rest of the story.  Hitler’s pact with Stalin included a secret agreement to divide Poland. When Hitler attacked Poland in September, 1939, half of Polish Jewry fell under the control of the Nazis.  Eighteen months later, in June of 1941, the Germans attacked the Soviet Union, and within a few days the Germans arrived in my hometown in the vicinity of Minsk, the capital of Belarus.  This was the beginning of “hell on earth” for my family and for millions of other Jews, a time in which I witnessed acts of cruelty that are so inexplicable that when someone today says “I understand,” I can only respond that the experience of those who were witnesses is completely beyond human comprehension.

There are so many familiar words and sounds resonating in the present situation that I have become alarmed. I am in no way implying that the current Russian government can be compared to the Nazis. These are different times. But one would expect a member of the UN Security Council to avoid creating flashpoints such as the situation in the Ukraine. It seems to me that Russia is failing to live up to its leadership responsibilities and contribute to peace.

There is no substantive evidence that Russian-speakers are being harassed or discriminated against in Ukraine. Words of hate and fear lead to death and destruction. I hope and pray that sanity will prevail, that we will remember the lessons of history, and that there will be a truly peaceful resolution to this crisis.

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Memories preserved, observed and transmitted

Recently my neighbor, 35, Jewish, asked me “Are you growing a beard?”

“No,” I replied.

“So why aren’t you shaving?” he asked me.

“It is the nine days before the 9th of Av (on the Jewish calendar), when Jews mourn the destruction of both the first and second Temples.”

“When was the Temple destroyed?” he asked quizzically.

“Two thousand years ago,” said I.

He looked at me puzzled. “How does growing a beard contribute to the remembrance?”

“It is a symbol of mourning. And in our days, there is plenty mourning to do, which moves one to despair,” I explained. “So the least one can do is resort to symbolism.”

A number of years ago, a fellow congregant came to my synagogue to say Kaddish after one of his parents had died. After he completed the required eleven months, I didn’t see him for a few weeks. Then one morning he showed up again and stood to say Kaddish. I asked him “Gilbert, who are you saying Kaddish for?” He replied “For my niece.” “When did she die?” “Sixteen years ago” he replied.

I looked at him, puzzled. “There’s no one who remembers her,” he said.

On July 6, twenty two children and their teacher were murdered by Islamic extremists in northern Nigeria simply for attending a secular school. The daily murder of civilians in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other places are driving me to despair, frustration and boiling anger against world international bodies, governments, and heads of religious movements, all of whom are notoriously inactive making them complicit in these atrocities. Many of these victims are nameless to us, and even the ones whose names we hear are often remembered only for a single news cycle. But on her sixteenth birthday, Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban for the sin of advocating education for herself and other girls, spoke to the United Nations General Assembly saying “I don’t want revenge on the Taliban, I want education for sons and daughters of the Taliban.” It is those like Malala, who speak out so fearlessly, who give me hope.

In our synagogue, we read each day the names of those who passed away on that particular date. Some of those names go back nearly 100 years, to the founding of our congregation in 1917. Sometimes there is the name of someone we knew personally, other times it is just the family name that we recognize. And yet we continue to read all of the names, even when no one from the family is present.

Rituals insist that we transcend the plague of forgetfulness. Anyone who lives only in the present has an anemic future. They will live only in this day, without having roots in the past to provide a basis for moving forward.

I daily feel helpless and frustrated as I observe the violent events of the present. But my willingness to observe the mourning ritual of allowing my beard to grow during the days leading up to the 9th of Av roots me in the past, reminding me not only of disasters too large to comprehend, but also the ways in which we have transcended those disasters. And my own observance of the ritual prompted my non-observant neighbor to spend at least a short moment learning about the past.

As always, a willingness to speak up in the face of evil, even if that “speaking” is only the public observance of a ritual, has an impact on those around us.

(This posting written together with my executive editor, Cindy Harris)

Why Wait for Tragedy?

Newtown, Connecticut, December 14, 2012.  The massacre of schoolchildren and teachers is an act for which there are no words in human vocabulary, a day which will remain an open wound in those directly involved but also a day of pain and shame for all of us.  The only bright spot was an interfaith service held the following Sunday in memory of the victims.  Representatives of all faiths took part in the mourning.

How sad it is that we can mourn together, but cannot seem to come together to make peace.