The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has created renewed interest in the actions of Polish gentiles who assisted Poland’s Jews during the Nazi occupation.
Some rescuers hid individual Jews who managed to flee the Germans’ murderous “aktions” and ghettos while others joined in the Warsaw ghetto revolt, forged identity papers for Jews and participated in other activities that saved Jewish lives. One rescuer, Irena Sendler, managed to save over 3000 Jewish lives but her activities were almost forgotten until a group of rural Kansas students heard rumors about her wartime endeavors and embarked on a wide-ranging research project to publicize her incredible story.
Irena Sendler was working for the Warsaw Department of Social Work when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. The department’s social workers attempted to help the Jews who were displaced and impoverished under the Nazi rule and Irena participated in these activities, expanding on these pursuits as a member of the underground Zagota anti-Nazi organization.
When the Warsaw ghetto was established Sendler obtained forged documents that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. With these documents she was able to enter the ghetto and she brought in whatever food and medicines that she could. Sendler quickly realized that she could increase her effectiveness by helping Jews escape and she decided to concentrate on removing children from the ghetto.
Sendler started smuggling street children out of the ghetto but soon expanded as she tried to bring out children whose parents were still alive. She walked through the ghetto and knocked on the doors of families whose children were still alive to convince the parents that their children’s only chance of survival lay with escape.
More than 50 years after the war Sendler described the agony of those days. “I talked the mothers out of their children. Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn’t give me the child. Their first question was, ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’ I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”
Sendler and her Zagota comrades had several modes that they used to smuggle children out of the ghetto. Some children were sedated and hidden under Sendler’s tram seat, in a toolbox or piece of luggage or in a cart under a pile of garbage or barking dogs. Older children were often walked out through the sewer system that ran underneath Warsaw or through a break in the Old Courthouse that sat on the ghetto’s border.
Once a child was smuggled out of the ghetto, finding a secure hiding place for the child was as perilous an activity as the actual act of smuggling the child out of the ghetto. Sendler and her Zagota compatriots forged documents, identified sympathetic Polish families and transported the children to safe hiding places including at the Rodzina Marii Orphanage in Warsaw and at convents in Lublin, Chomotow and Turkowice. Sendler compulsively recorded the children’s names together with their hiding places, hoping that after the war they could be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with their Jewish community. There “records” were stuffed into glass jars and buried in a neighbor’s garden.
The Warsaw Ghetto revolt occurred in April 1943 and within months no Jews remained in the area. Sendler, whose code name for her underground activities was “Jolenta,” was given total responsibility for the welfare of Jewish children by the Zagota underground. She continued to try to find children who had, somehow, been saved from the transports and mass shootings and move them into hiding.
In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and was brought to the infamous Pawiak prison where she was tortured, but she did not reveal any information about her Zagota comrades or the children’s whereabouts. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but Zagota members were able to bribe a German guard and she was released just hours before her scheduled execution.
In 1999 a group of schoolgirls from Uniontown Kansas heard about Sendler and embarked on an extensive research project about her life. They created a play about her which they performed in a number of locations. This performance happened to catch the attention of the LA based, Jewish run Lowell Milken Family Foundation who allotted them a grant allowing them to create the Life in a Jar project. This project dedicated to spreading the tale of Irena Sendler, now containing a website, book, film and continuous presentations that have currently been performed in hundreds of locations worldwide.
This is one remarkable example of the goodness that can transpire when we are able to see beyond the boundaries that we think define us and reach across those lines with an open hand. May Irena’s story and the actions of those Kansas schoolgirls come to inspire us to see beyond our boundaries for the welfare and benefit of all people.
Yom Hasho’ah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, begins tomorrow evening at sundown. Many of us will light a yahrzeit candle and pause to remember. And many memorials will include the singing of Ani Ma’amin — “I believe.”
The text is fairly well-known: “I believe, with perfect faith, in the coming of the Messiah. And even though he may tarry, I will wait for him.” The context is very well-known. It was this text that some Jews sang on their way to their deaths during the Shoah. The well-known Modzhitzer niggun nearly perfectly captures the longing, the hope, and the horror of those moments on the trains, on the platforms, on the journey to the gas. He tarries…and we wait.
What does it it mean to say “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah” while everything around you suggests otherwise? What does it take to sing it under the most trying of circumstances? Had circumstances been different, were I living there instead of here, then instead of now, would I have been among its singers?
I cannot know, but I can hope. Better yet, I can prepare. I can try to live each moment well, forming habits of the heart and soul that will lead me to do the right thing, instinctively and reflexively, when the chips are down. And as I practice, I come to realize that faith in the Messiah is about having faith in the human capacity to connect to Other, to Self, to God. When we do those things, we bring what our Tradition calls Y’mot Hamashiach that much closer.
Rabbi Eliezer Berkowitz concludes his Faith after the Holocaust with two pieces of testimony from that time and place, seeing in them reason to believe. He tells the story of
Abraham Seidman, the Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto, the kind of Jew whom Judaism produced in every generation in tens of thousands, a pious, modest, hardworking pater familias at the same time scholarly, not in a professional sense, but simply because it was the duty of every Jew to study and know the Torah. He had been taken from the Ghetto to the Umschlagplatz to be sent to Auschwitz. There was still some time before the transport was to leave. How did Abraham Seidman spend the few remaining minutes? He wrote a letter to his children taking leave of them forever and asking them for forgiveness should he ever have offended or hurt them.
And Berkowitz also tells this story, first-told in Rabbi Michael Dov-Ber Weissmandel’s Min Hametzar, regarding Itzik Rosensweig:
Itzik was a Jew somewhere in Slovakia, a Jew like Abraham Seidman in Warsaw. He made a living by raising poultry. One day he and his family were squeezed into the cattle cars, in which hundreds of other Jews were pressed to suffocation. In the car there was despair all around him; outside a celebrating population of former neighbors was jeering at him and deriding him. He begged them: Please go to my house and give food and water to the poultry. They had nothing to eat or drink all day.
Where is the Mashiach for whom we wait? He lives in Abraham Seidman, showing himself to be, for one shining moment, a perfect parent. He lives in Itzik Rosensweig, answering baseless hatred with a display of compassion and wholeheartedness for the ages. He lives in those Modzhitzer Hasidim, singing their faith with full hearts, performing the ultimate act of Kiddush Hashem Barabim, sanctifying God’s Name for all the world to see. He is always at hand. When we are be’emunah shleimah, in a place of wholeness and trust, feeling safe and secure no matter what is happening around us, then Mashiach lives in us.
Ani Ma’amin – I believe.
Be’emunah sh’leimah – with a faith that is whole. With a faith that emerges from my own wholeness, the clear sense of just what is, right now.
B’viat hamashiach – I believe with a faith that emerges from the clarity of this moment, that all moments can be this moment. Clear. Perfect. And I believe that the clarity and perfection is precisely what is called mashiach.
V’af al pi sheyitmah’meyah – And though that clarity is fleeting, though the moments of perfection are few and far between…
Im kol “zeh” – With every moment that passes, every “now,” every “this”…
Achakeh lo – I seek to open to that possibility, waiting, and working, and hoping.
B’chol yom, sheyavo — Every day, every moment, let it come to pass.
Last week, while checking in on the latest articles on the Religion page of the Huffington Post, the following headline caught my eye: Proxy Baptism Seekers Eyed Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel For Posthumous Mormon Rite.
For those who might have missed it the details, in summary are as follows: There is apparently a long-standing tradition of Mormons submitting the names of deceased people for a post-humous proxy baptism into the Mormon church. A researcher found among names submitted via an online site that is accessible to Mormons only the name of Elie Wiesel – still very much alive. Among the names submitted for this Mormon ritual has often been those who died in the Holocaust.
In fact, Mormon church rules mean that one is only meant to submit the names of your own direct descendants. After previous examples of famous Jews being included in these proxy baptisms, negotiations between Mormon and Jewish leaders led to an agreement in 1995 for the church to stop the posthumous baptism of all Jews, except in the case of direct ancestors of Mormons. But researchers have demonstrated that the practice did not stop. The church did apologize for these latest events this past Monday, calling them a serious breach of their protocol.
I was going to dismiss the story as just one of those things that often irk us but are so fringe as to be unworthy of great debate, but I was prompted to pause and think about some of the broader questions that arise from this. Before thinking about matters of the soul, I want to first turn to questions of ownership regarding other aspects of our ‘person’, namely our personal data.
In recent weeks there has been a lot of press coverage about the rights we have to our own personal data and information in the era of facebook, twitter, etc. You might have been aware of some black-out days on some services, like Wikipedia, protesting against new proposed legislation that would make it illegal to post any information online without verification that it is yours to post. It would make the sharing that many of us do on facebook of videos that ‘go viral’ or cute cartoons etc. potentially illegal and would hold the services that facilitated this sharing accountable. This, most agree, is taking ownership of data a step too far, bringing the whole online crowd-sourcing, sharing world of cyberspace to a grinding halt.
However, there are also stories of iphone and Android apps that, without your permission, access your address book and collect the data found there. There are questions about the ways that Facebook makes whatever you are posting available as data for their advertisers, which is why ads that might be more pertinent to you pop up on the right side of your Facebook wall. On the one hand, I rather like that the system is smart enough to only show me things that I might actually be interested in rather than the more indiscriminate advertising I am subjected to every day I turn on my TV. On the other hand, I do have concerns about how my data is being stored and who is getting access to it without my knowledge.
How is this relevant to the ‘baptism by proxy’ story? I find it interesting to contemplate whether these debates about who owns some of our essential data in life can also be carried over to thinking about who might make a claim to our essential souls in death.
If we are horrified by the mormon church story, is it because we find the idea that they believe that they are actually doing something of material impact and worth by these rituals utterly preposterous, or is it that we are truly offended that they should claim the rights to any souls that are not their own? If the whole thing is just ridiculous, then perhaps we should all just buy tickets to the Book of Mormon, and have a good laugh at the strange practices of another faith tradition (its not like we don’t have enough of our own, and Purim is coming so we have plenty of opportunity to make fun of some of our own stranger practices).
But I suspect that most of us aren’t finding this a laughing matter. And I think it might be because, whatever we think we believe about what happens to our souls after death, the idea that another faith group has the right to any part of us suggests that we are somehow deficient in their eyes as we are. In their eyes, there is something about our identity, faith tradition, and the way that we are walking through life that is incorrect and, hence, we need to be saved. That they seem to be especially concerned about the souls of those who died or survived the Holocaust just adds to the insult.
There is an old Jewish morality tale, the source of which I haven’t pinned down (but please provide it in the comments if you know it!, but it is the essence of the message that is relevant here:
A story is told about a pious Jew who boasts to his rabbi that he saved another Jew’s soul. A beggar had asked him for a meal and he agreed, but insisted that first they must pray the afternoon minchah prayers. And before serving him a meal, he ordered the beggar to wash his hands and recite the appropriate blessing, and thereafter to recite the motzi prayer over the bread.
The rabbi showed his annoyance with his pious disciple. “There are times, my son, when you must act as if there were no God.”
The disciple, taken aback by this counsel, protested, “How could I, a man of faith, act as if no God existed?”
The rabbi replied, “When someone comes to you in need, as this beggar came, act as if there were no God in the universe, as if you alone are in the world and that there is no one to help him, except yourself.”
The disciple asked aloud, “And have I no responsibility for his soul?” The rabbi replied, “Take care of your soul and his body, not visa versa.”
We are commanded by God to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; to do what we can to make existence for each other better in this life; to alleviate suffering when we have the ability to do so. When we die, many of us believe in a soul that continues into eternity; a soul that is reunited with the Source of all existence. But what actually happens and where we go, we do not know. We leave it in God’s hands. We don’t need any intermediaries and we respectfully ask that, like our personal data online, that others keep their hands off!
The Exodus from Egypt is considered to be the foundational/orienting event for our sacred history. Many commandments are attached to its memory and it can be argued that our experience there is a source for our ethics and morality. “Do not afflict the stranger because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt.” Morality is not only a product of reason, but of historical experience. Included in our tradition as well is a prohibition to return to Egypt. For some the Biblical source is Exodus 14:13, when just as the People came to the Red Sea and were being pursued by the Egyptians “Moses said to the people, Don’t be afraid! Stand firm and see the Lord’s salvation that He will wreak for you today, for the way you have seen the Egyptians is [only] today, [but] you shall no longer continue to see them for eternity.”
There are a number of explanations offered for this prohibition, but it does appear that the Torah is wary of our returning to the place of intense degradation and suffering. Egypt is the place we left from in order to become a People. Does returning there somehow undo and reverse our sacred history? Should you return to a place of oppression and suffering? Can it ever be home?
We know that this prohibition was not followed and a Jewish community flourished in Egypt since the time of the Second Temple. Traditional commentaries wrestle with this seeming violation and offer a number of justifications for Jews living in Egypt. Indeed our source of so much knowledge of our history was unearthed in the past century from the riches of the Cairo Genizah.
This particular case of Egypt comes to mind for me because last week I spent two days in Berlin with rabbis from Chicago. Berlin is a magnificent city and while many buildings are new, many damaged during the War have been restored. As Jews, it is a city central to modern Jewish history. Berlin is also a city of over 130 Holocaust memorials, many of which were constructed as grass roots efforts by the residents of the city and are scattered in many neighborhoods. There is the striking Jewish museum visited by mostly non Jews. But the German Jewish community that thrived there is no more.
This is not however, the end of the story. Berlin is a city with a Jewish community that is slowly being reconstituted with Jews from the former Soviet Union. There are two rabbinical seminaries, one Liberal and one Orthodox. They are training rabbis to serve throughout Germany. Chabad is there as well. Yet one wonders: is this the place Jews should return to after the horrors of the Holocaust? Even as Germany has recognized itself as the perpetrator of the crime, should Jewish civilization reconstitute itself here?
In 1961, Gershom Scholem spoke in Israel at a program celebrating Martin Buber’s translation of the Bible into German, a project begun by him and Franz Rosenzweig in Berlin before the War. Scholem ended his speech with: “For many of us the living sound you tried to evoke in the German language has faded away. Will anyone be found to take it up again?” On my recent trip the German born Masorati rabbi in Berlin, when asked what it meant to live in a city and country that sought to annihilate us answered: Where else can you read Zunz, Buber and Rosenzweig in the original? And finally when asked why go into the rabbinate in Germany, one of the rabbis responded that they were engaged in the ultimate rebuttal of Hitler.