Candles and cliches aren’t enough. Let’s reach for something deeper today, Yom Hashoah 2020.
The standard commemoration rites have value: the small flame paying tribute to those murdered, and of course, we are all determined that it should never happen again.
These themes were given powerful expression when world leaders gathered in Jerusalem in January to mark the International Holocaust day, but Yom Hashoah, an innovation of the Jewish state, has always been about how we relate to the Holocaust as Jewish people.
So today, I find myself thinking about the men and women who I feel have given me a glimpse deep into the soul of the Jewish People: the brave and inspirational Survivors who live among us.
Many of them are men and women who heard cries of Shema Yisrael from the gas chambers. When I first had Survivors recount this to me, it made me reflect on the meaning of these words.
Shema means “hear,” and it struck me that even before *_declaring_* the basis of our faith, we prepare ourselves, and each other, to *_listen_*. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” The prayer that I always thought of as a proclamation – which I talked and talked about for so often as a teacher and parent – now offered me a lesson about the importance of listening.
True listening isn’t easy. How many of us have been on Zoom calls in recent days, zoning out as others talk because we’re just waiting for our turn? We’re particularly bad at listening to anyone, Survivors included. We commonly expect them to give us our dose of history – a few minutes of Holocaust – and end their story around the end of the war. Done.
Which is sad. Because when they start talking about their life post-war I have found it is so often to share with us what it means to be authentic people.
In a world of superficiality, virtual interactions, and augmented reality, these are people who have lived with life stripped of much of that which many of us sometimes think makes life worth living. And they came out of it with a strong sense of what it is that truly makes a remarkable life worth living.
They have seen a world where people tried to remove dignity, love, and humanity — and fought back to restore these things in their own lives and in their surroundings.
As part of JRoots I have had the privilege to interview hundreds of Survivors and invite many to accompany our journeys to Poland. Auschwitz survivor Leslie Kleinman has told me on many occasions that the Nazis tried to turn him and others in to animals; his response has been to champion the opposite – to share the transcendence of decent human values at every opportunity. Wherever he goes Leslie relates that the Auschwitz authorities tattooed the number 8230 on his arm, a number with which they wanted to further their ideology of hate. After many years as he read the number, he worked out its numerical value in Hebrew of gematria, realised that the number 13 corresponds to the Hebrew word for “love,” ahava, and whenever he looks at his arm, he thinks and talks to others about love.
The life lessons Survivors teach us, if we just stop to listen, may be tattooed on their arms, they may be contained in a long story they tell, or they may be gleaned from comments made in everyday conversation. They may even be contained in an attitude that you can’t quite put in to words, but that in itself reflects the almost palpable authenticity that I have grown to value and respect so deeply in each of the heroic Survivors by whose feet I have sat.
Whenever I meet with Josef Levkovich, a nonagenarian Survivor who rescued 600 Jewish orphans, helped to capture the notorious Nazi Amon Goeth, before testifying against him prior to sentencing and hanging in the summer of 1946, at his request, we drink a l’chaim.
With the simple emotion that he expresses in the word l’chaim, “to life,” is a whole lifetime of wisdom about the value of life, the joy of life, and the value of the continuity of Jewish living. His l’chaim attitude, elevating life, follows him wherever he goes. It followed him on his aliyah, from Canada to Jerusalem aged 89, and it has followed him even to the darkest spots of Europe.
A few years ago as we stood together at the gates of Dachau whilst filming The Survivors Revenge, he suddenly cried out “Am Yisrael Chai” — the Jewish People lives — and I asked him if he feels anger. He replied: “Anger and worry are like a rocking chair. People think they’re moving but it doesn’t get you anywhere!” And as I accompanied him to the Landsberg prison, where he ensured that Goeth got his comeuppance, he started singing “Tov Lehodot,” a traditional Shabbat song about the importance of appreciation of the good bestowed upon each one of us.
Nobody has taught me perseverance and determination like Survivors. Eva Newman told me in detail about her experiences at the end of the war on the infamous death marches from Auschwitz into Germany. How, I asked, did she keep going? “one foot in front of the other,” she said, emphasising the importance of continuing even when things seem overwhelming. And then she said something remarkable. She confided that the real reason she thinks she kept going was because there was an older woman walking by her side ( she mentioned aged 40!) who needed her help in order to keep walking and that she had always been brought up to help others. To live, in her mind at this hard moment, was to give. Survivor Pearl Benish used to use a similar mantra “To live is to give! As long as I live I wish to give. A life not giving is a life not worth living!”
What a lesson for today! When we sit at home, entire countries in lockdown. Some young and fit people wonder whether these steps, mostly taken to protect the elderly and weak, are worthwhile. Lives, they say, have ground to a halt. Not if we listen to Mrs Newman’s and Mrs Benish’s logic. By confining ourselves to home for the sake of others, however challenging it is proving — by giving — we’re truly living.
As I spend time with these people, I wonder about that which is expected by many to be their greatest legacy: their testimony. Those who began the task of collecting Survivors testimony largely thought of it as an inoculation for humanity against Holocaust denial. However, I have learned that encounters with Survivors are about so much more than that. Listening to them isn’t just about preparing ourselves for a fight against deniers, or ensuring we are never overtaken by evil again. It’s a privilege. And I suspect that their greatest legacy won’t be clips that will be used to call out fake history, but the values and virtues that live on in us.
Naftali Schiff is Founder and Chief Executive of Jewish Futures – a family of educational organisations of which JRoots is a member