Most people in the world live in a climate not of their own making. They are a product of circumstances outside of them. They live in a society and are dominated by its prevailing spirit, by its values, its ambitions, its’ character. But here and there are rare people who, by some mystic alchemy within them which has never been adequately analyzed or defined, succeed in creating an atmosphere and aura about them; it is in a sense a climate which is the extension of their own personality that comes into being. Wherever they go they are the people who inspire you with a sense of their presence, even when they are silent. Something radiates from them that fashions an atmosphere and climate. Very often these people are of such modesty that they are not aware of the power they possess and of the impact they exert upon others. No wonder the great and beautiful Jewish legend has it that the world exists by reason of thirty-six gentle people who live in withdrawn areas, who are not known to the great multitudes, and who themselves are unconscious of the fact that they are among those who by reason of their tenderness sustain the entire world.
As I reflect on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day which falls tonight and Thursday, I recall 14 years ago this month when I officiated at the funeral for Helen Navi, a resident of Sacramento for many years who was a Holocaust survivor. I have often felt that Helen belonged to this rare company of people who helped to sustain the world. This noble, gentle woman walked in light and dignity and grace; and wherever she came, a climate came into existence. Those of us who were privileged to know her knew that we were in the presence of an extraordinary woman.
Do not, however mistake gentleness, dignity and grace for weakness. She was a woman of rare courage and real inner strength. To be the only one in her family to survive the horrors of the Holocaust and re-establish and go forward with her life, marrying the love of her life, her David from Jerusalem who resides in Carmichael, and raising three wonderful daughters, seeing the blessings of four beautiful grandchildren come into the world.
I shall never forget the words she shared at a dinner honoring her and her husband twenty years ago. She said: “Had there been an Israel when I was growing up perhaps my family and hundreds of thousands of Jewish families might still be alive.”
Everyone present at that dinner could personally feel the depth of her anguish in the inexpressible tragedy which she suffered; but even then in the very valley of despondency, she was firm. At that dinner she told us: “Even during the most dreadful days while I was in the concentration camp of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, the belief that I’ll survive and see my parents and brother again must have given me strength and will—to make it through one more day.”
Before her funeral I met with her family and they shared with me that Helen grew up in a small town in Poland, the same town that Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel was from. I contacted Professor Wiesel who was kind to fax me a letter of condolence to Helen’s family asking if I would read it at her funeral:
“I remember Helen. I remember her well. We met in the 80s at a gathering of Holocaust survivors. Naturally, we spoke of Sighet, the town of our childhood — and of our lost illusions: once upon a time there was a blossoming Jewish community of 12 to 15 thousand Jews in Sighet. They were all shipped off to Auschwitz in one week. Now there is hardly a “minyan” in the only shule left.
I knew Helen’s family, the Fishmans. One of them was a Heder friend. Helen evoked him with melancholy. There was deep melancholy in her when she spoke and when she was silent. In a mysterious way, part of her remained in Sighet.
Now, as she was about to leave this world and ascend to the world of eternal truth, she will tell the celestial Tribunal the rest of the story — our story. May her memory be a blessing.
At Helen’s funeral I shared that Helen taught us to:
“Live each day to the fullest.
Strive to reach your goals.
Make your dreams a reality.
Hold onto your memories and never let go.
Share your stories.
Listen and learn from others,
Learn from your experiences.
Focus on the present and look ahead to the future.
Make each day count.
Make the impossible possible!”
Helen’s words will forever be indelibly etched into my memory and heart. It is imperative for everyone, no matter what their origin or background, to recognize that the Holocaust has shaped the entire present of humanity. May we remember the words of Elie Wiesel: “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”