Thursday, April 16, 2015

Choosing to Act, Here and Now - remarks at the White Sands Missile Range Holocaust Commemoration on April 16, 2015

    Mr. Mann, Executive Director; Colonel Winbush, Colonel Michelson and Directors and all who are here today for this gathering of remembrance:  
    It is an honor to have the opportunity to offer reflections in the presence of all of you who work to preserve and defend our country and our freedom.   On a recent trip to Philadelphia for my annual rabbis convention, I was reminded of the significance of that freedom with a visit to the Liberty Bell and a viewing of exhibits at the National Museum of American Jewish history. One of the most significant displays there featured a well-known letter written by newly elected President George Washington to the Jewish congregation in Newport, Rhode Island. Echoing sentiments expressed to him during a visit to Newport by the congregation’s leader, Moses Seixas, Washington characterized the approach of our nation towards its increasingly diverse population: “It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent n
Memorial Candles lit at Temple Beth-El Las Cruces on  April 15, 2015
atural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”   We know in retrospect how much was yet to be done at that time for the United States to further overcome bigotry and persecution in all respects, an effort that continues even today.   Whatever we do to move towards treating our fellow citizens with greater respect is founded on Washington’s words in 1790.   In the late 18th Century, compared to other nations across the ocean, that American brand of affirmation and acceptance was unique and, as Washington often noted, worthy of imitation.
  1900 years ago, two Rabbis were debating what verse from the first five books of the Bible, the Torah, was its most essential teaching.   One rabbi, Akiba, declared that Leviticus Chapter 19, verse 18, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” was the most fundamental principle in the Torah. His colleague, Ben Azzai, had a different idea. He quoted Genesis Chapter 5, verse 1 as an even greater teaching: “This is the story of humanity: when God created us, God made us in the divine image.” A later rabbi explained that, because of Ben Azzai’s statement, we need to be careful not to put anyone else to shame, because, if we do, we put ourselves to shame as well, since we all came from the same place and there is a spark of God in each of us.
   This last week has featured anniversaries of past events that offer a glimpse into how well people see that divine spark in one another’s eyes and hearts.   150 years ago this past Tuesday, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by a man who was dedicated, along with others, to the cause of denying humanity to many people who were brought here against their will and had lived and worked in this country for decades.  68 years ago yesterday, Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers for the first time, enduring whatever hatred was expressed during that season to demonstrate that he and other African-American baseball players belonged in the Major Leagues.   Next week will mark the hundredth anniversary of the widely recognized tragedy of the deaths of Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire which, in some political arenas, still strives to find mention and recognition.   One year ago yesterday, 219 schoolgirls were abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria and they still have not been found. One year ago this past Monday, Frazier Glenn Miller, Jr. embarked on a personal mission to kill Jews in the Kansas City area, not far from where I was born and raised.   Miller murdered a grandfather and a grandson in the parking lot at the Jewish Community Center in Overland Park, Kansas. He then went to a nearby retirement home, Village Shalom, and murdered a woman who had just visited her mother there. The grandfather and grandson were Methodist. The woman at Village Shalom was Catholic. Miller could not imagine, in his twisted mind, that Jewish facilities might actually serve the greater community, in the spirit of the vision expressed by President Washington.    His violent act had the unintended consequence of bringing closer together people of different faiths in the greater Kansas City area.   
   And 70 years ago, this past Saturday, American soldiers liberated the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, an act that constituted a major part of a movie, released earlier this year, which was screened on the HBO Network. In “Night Will Fall,” director Andre Singer told the story of a lost documentary that the Allies intended to show to the German people as a reminder that, after World War II, it was their task to create a society that gave “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”   British Film producer Sidney Bernstein, then a government official, solicited assistance from director Alfred Hitchcock in making that film which was to be called “German Concentration Camps: A Factual Survey.”  The project was eventually shelved for reasons not fully known, likely driven by the politics of post-war Germany and Great Britain and the desire to have the German people fully participate in the work of reconstruction and de-Nazification. The plan was that the “Factual Survey” would bring together 1945 film footage of the liberation by Soviet troops of Auschwitz in January, the liberation of Buchenwald by American soldiers on April 11, and the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops on April 15. In each camp, specially-trained soldiers filmed the interaction between liberators and survivors. They caught on camera the arrest of Nazi camp leaders and workers who had remained rather than escaping, believing they were in no danger and likely thinking they had done nothing wrong. The film that was taken visually chronicled the horrific results of the Final Solution in those three camps: thousands of bodies of the dead not yet buried, and countless belongings of those brought to the camps piled high in storage facilities more than one could even imagine.   Most of this footage found its way into a film released in 1984,  “Memory of the Camps,” screened on Public Television at that time.   In recent years, the staff at the British Imperial War Museum found more of the footage and, last year, the “Factual Survey” documentary was released as it was intended to be shown, along with its carefully crafted narration. Andre Singer’s film “Night Will Fall” about the restoration process of the “Factual Survey” documentary featured interviews with survivors, soldiers, and some of those who were behind the camera.   The title of Singer’s film came from a line in the documentary’s narration, “Unless the world learns the lesson these pictures teach, night will fall.”   British film critic Peter Bradshaw commented about the power of Singer’s film: “It shows images which I have certainly never seen before. It exposes once again the obscenity of Holocaust denial. This is an extraordinary record. But be warned. Once seen, these images cannot be unseen."
   In considering the topic, “Choosing to Act,” it would be common to focus on rescuers, partisan fighters, leaders of revolts in the ghettoes and concentration camps, and all those who helped others survive. I believe that the staff at the British Imperial War Museum and director Andre Singer demonstrated a modern day choice to act on behalf of the memory of all of those victims for whom candles were lit a few moments ago.   That choice goes beyond recalling those who died, because the remaining survivors, soldiers, and eyewitnesses who saw all that happened may not live too much longer.   To tell the story of the Shoah, the Holocaust is a choice that empowers us to share with the entire world the principle of giving “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
     That choice to act and the responsibility to tell these stories has now become all the more crucial for the descendants of survivors.  Menachem Z. Rosensaft, founding chairman of the International Network of the Children of Jewish survivors, published a book earlier this year that brings together the reflections of children and grandchildren of Jewish Holocaust survivors from around the world. In considering the theme “Choosing to Act,” I knew that Rosensaft’s book, GOD, FAITH AND IDENTITY FROM THE ASHES, would include wisdom from its contributors about the lessons we can learn from the Holocaust that can lead us to action in the here and now. It was inevitable that those expressions would suggest how we can, today, help people all over the world discover and uncover the best of their humanity.
   Rosensaft, the son of survivors of the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, was born in May, 1948 in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen in Germany.   He comes by his reflections on the lessons of the Holocaust from a deep personal experience.  He stated in the introduction to his book, “We…have a moral responsibility not to stand idly by…while human beings anywhere in the world are oppressed or persecuted. We have no right to criticize the world for not coming to the aid of our parents and grandparents during the 1930s and 1940s unless we do everything in our power to fight all forms of contemporary racial, religious, or ethnic hatred and to prevent contemporary genocides, whether in Darfur, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, or elsewhere. If we learn only one lesson from the cataclysm known as the Holocaust, it must be that the ultimate consequence of silence and indifference to the dire plight of others was embodied forever in the fires of Auschwitz and the mass graves of Bergen‑Belsen.”
    Included in this book was a contribution from Andre Singer, director of the film “Night Will Fall.”  He had extended family who died in the Holocaust, and his Jewish mother was sent in the 1930s from Vienna in Nazi-controlled Austria to the relative safety of London.   Singer focused his reflections on how we deal with difference in our world and why that is crucial to how we choose to act.  He commented: “Many of us take our identity for granted. We are born into it, grow within its cocoon, and have no need to question it. It gives us comfort, protection, and an indelible sense of recognition about where we stand in this tumultuous world and thus how we should behave, not only toward our peers but also towards others whose identity is different.  For many, this is where the trouble starts. It seems an almost universal reaction that the members of one group, one identity, are suspicious of members of another. They may look different, speak differently, eat different food – and believe in different gods. This suspicion can be neutralized by education and familiarity. But sometimes it intensifies into resentment and then hatred, and when accompanied by power and brutality, into acts of barbarism that change the course of history….[However] if I have learned one lesson from this intense involvement in the experiences of others during the Holocaust, it is that our species has an astonishing spiritual resilience in adversity.”
    Clarence Schwab had one grandfather who was saved by a fellow prisoner from a death march in Germany in 1945 which led to his liberation by the British.  Schwab’s other grandfather was caught in Stockholm while doing business there in 1940 when the Soviets invaded Latvia.  He brought his family from Latvia to Sweden, and he supported rescue efforts during the war that involved the celebrated and tireless work of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.  Schwab piece in Rosensaft’s collection offered this wisdom from his experience as the grandchild of survivors: “What matters most, I tell my children, is not someone's appearance, or intelligence, or strength, or wealth, but whether, when presented with an opportunity to do so, that person helps another in time of need-even or especially at personal cost or risk.”
   Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, whose survivor parents met in a displaced persons camp near Munich, wrote in Rosensaft’s book about the challenge of dealing with the role of God at that dark time. “All too often the question "Where was God [during the Holocaust]?" is asked of rab­bis by so many to justify their loss of faith. This is a red herring. In effect, you want to know why the God you didn't believe in didn't reveal itself during the Shoah. The tragedy of the Holocaust is pre­cisely not in the Divine realm, but rather in the failure of human beings to behave in the image of God.”
    Rabbi Judith Schindler’s grandparents, father and aunt were separated for a time when her grandfather had to leave Germany when the Nazi’s sought his arrest as an enemy of the state.  They were all finally able to leave Germany by mid-1938, reuniting in Switzerland and immigrating to the United States.  Judith’s father, Alexander Schindler,  completed high school in America and then served in the United States Army’s Tenth Mountain Division and fought Hitler’s forces in World War II.  He was wounded in Italy, earning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star.  Alexander Schindler eventually was ordained as a Reform Rabbi and, for 23 years, he served as president of the Reform Jewish movement of which I am a part.   Rabbi Judith Schindler was profoundly influenced by her family’s experiences. In her entry in Rosensaft’s anthology, she explained,  “My grandfather's voice calls to me, saying, ‘Never be complacent. Be vigilant about hatred. Speak out against injustice, no matter what the cost.’ When I hear of rhetoric or legislation built upon racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, or any other bigotry, I cannot be silent. Even in the face of those who seek to intimidate and threaten me, my past enjoins me to act. My grandfather's voice does not allow me to look the other way when inequities permeate our society and prejudiced voices echo in the air. Acting with moral courage is the message I teach, preach, and aspire to fulfill.  The call of our biblical prophets such as Amos to bring righteousness and justice to the world is a primary Jewish legacy I choose to embrace. My role as a rabbi is to comfort the disturbed, to disturb the comfortable, and to bring God's vision for justice to the world.  The Holocaust taught us that human good is not a given. Free will demands that when free will fails humanity, we must act.”
    Judith Schindler explained that choosing to act is beneficial not only to those who are oppressed, but also to those who believe that oppression is their only choice.  Quoting 20th Century Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, she offered this exhortation to take on a new perspective: “In calling upon us to shatter the walls of segregation [at the height of the civil rights movement], Rabbi Heschel wrote, ‘The tragedy of Pharaoh was the failure to realize that the Exodus from slavery could have spelled redemption for both Israel and Egypt. Would that Pharaoh and the Egyptians had joined the Israelites in the desert and together stood at the foot of Sinai!’  Heschel teaches us that oppression of any people is oppressive not only to the victim but also to the oppressor and the bystander. It stains our souls, constrains our spirituality, and destroys our sense of peace.”
   I will conclude my words in a few moments with a poem by Chanah Senesh, who left her native Hungary in the 1930s to live in the British Mandate of Palestine, joining other Jews there to build a new society in relative freedom.  However, when the opportunity came to attempt to rescue Jews in Hungary, including her mother, she jumped at the chance to join a parachutist unit which would work behind Nazi lines.  Senesh was captured, tortured and put to death by the Nazis at the age of 23.  I have been telling that story for years, but I didn’t expect that to see an entry in Rosensaft’s book from Chanah Senesh’s nephew, David Senesh.  He told of being an Israeli soldier in the 1973 October War between Israel, Egypt and Syria which is known as the Yom Kippur War.   The younger Senesh was captured near the Suez Canal and taken to a prison in Cairo, where he experienced brutal treatment.  He spoke of the strong connection he felt to his courageous aunt as he endured his own challenges:  “In October 1973, I felt myself, like Chanah , to be in the midst of a deadly vortex. There was no way of knowing who would survive that dreadful Yom Kippur and who would perish, who would die by water and who by fire, who by bullet and who by shrapnel, who by wound and who by imprisonment. Chanah 's story ended all too prematurely and tragically. She joined a small group of youngsters in Palestine who volunteered to go on a mission conceived by the Haganah and the British army to cross enemy lines into Nazi-occupied Europe. Chanah 's plan was to go back to Hungary to organize and attempt to rescue the Jews there. However, in March 1943, after Chanah  and the others had parachuted into Yugoslavia, Hungary was invaded by Germany. Against all odds, Chanah  nevertheless continued her mission but was immediately captured upon crossing the border. Tortured by the Gestapo, she refused to talk even when her interrogators confronted her with her mother, my grandmother, to make her cooperate and disclose classified military information.”   David Senesh is now a psychotherapist who works with people who have faced trauma  so that they can heal, recover their own humanity and tell their own story.
     We can choose to act out of a sense of solidarity with all people, seeing in them a spark of God, that divine image that calls us to reach out to our fellow human beings in a spirit of decency, cooperation, respect, support, and, finally, love.    In his contribution to  Rosensaft’s book, Rabbi Abie Ingber quoted one of his teachers, well known singer-songrwriter Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who once said, “, "If I had two hearts like I have two legs and two arms, I could love with one and hate with the other, but God gave me just one heart and I choose to use it for love."
    As the flames of memory that were lit earlier continue to burn before our eyes, let us hold in our hearts all of those who were put to death because one leader and his followers begrudged them their humanity and existence.  We can act now on behalf of those today who have no one to save them and thereby, in some small way, redeem the memory of those who died 70 years ago and before.   The fire that we light in our hearts can lead to goodness, love and peace and preserve inside each of us a sense of renewal and optimism that can spring eternal.   Here is Chanah Senesh’s timeless poem that can accompany the flickering of the candles before us:
“Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the secret fastness of the heart.
Blessed is the heart with the strength to stop its beating for honor’s sake.
Blessed is the match consumed in kindling flame.”  
     For the memory of those who died, for the courage of those who lived and taught us to reach our highest potential for goodness, may we choose to act so that more and more people in our world will know acceptance, fellowship and freedom.  This task is now ours – and may we do it with honor, with courage, with strength and with hope. 

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