Memory and Legacy – Yom Kippur 5779

Memory and Legacy

Yom Kippur 5779

Let us tell tales

All the rest can wait

All the rest must wait

Let us tell tales

That is our primary obligation

Commentaries will have to come later

Lest they replace or becloud what they mean to reveal

Let us tell tales

So as to remember how vulnerable man is when faced with overwhelming evil

Let us tell tales

So as not to allow the executioner to have the last word

The last word belongs to the victim

It is up to the witness to capture it, shape it, transmit it

-Elie Weisel

(Read by Sir Ben Kingsley in an interview on NPR about “Operation Finale”)

I heard this poem read by Sir Ben Kingsley in an interview with Terri Gross on Fresh Air.  Ben Kingsley, as you may know, plays Adolf Eichmann in the new and frankly disappointing movie, Operation Finale.  Ben Kingsley is a masterful actor and he shared the very complex process of playing such an evil character. He also told the story in that interview about his meeting with the late Elie Wiesel, who died just hours after my own father in 2016. Wiesel gave Ben Kingsley that poem, “Let us Tell Tales,” hand written on a piece of paper.  

Among the many losses that we have suffered in this community, two very beloved survivors left the world in May and September, Irene Rosenschein and Doris Small.  Many of us, certainly me included, feel that our lives are so much richer for having known these extraordinary, courageous, tenacious women and their departure leaves us impoverished. I feel a little lost without them and without other survivors that I have known, sad that we will not be able to bear witness to their stories anymore. We now have to ask the complicated questions of how to honor their memories, keep their legacies alive and tell their stories for them.  Irene died two days before the date on the Jewish calendar when she and her family arrived in Auschwitz 74 years earlier, the Second Day of Shavuot. On that day, after the awful train journey in appalling conditions on a cattle car, Irene saw her mother and younger siblings for the last time before they were sent straight to the gas chambers. Irene and her three sisters entered the absolute hell of that place where the most brutal face of humanity dwelled. Irene’s unbelievable courage, tenacity and love contributed to helping these four sisters stay together and survive under impossible odds. The stories are unbelievable and inspiring and give us hope. She told the story of surviving the dreaded selections with Dr. Mengele by reddening her face with beet skins to look healthier. One day there was a special selection for strong, healthy, blond women and Irene was picked. She couldn’t stand being separated from her sisters and risked her life by creeping and then running back to block 19 to be reunited. All four sisters escaped block 19 to 17 just half an hour before the whole bunk was sent to the gas chambers.  They all survived and ended up in America and were all alive until only a few years ago. Irene looked death and evil in the face so many times and went on to live a full life well into her nineties. Last Yom Kippur, we were so fortunate, as we had been in previous years, to have Irene bring in the holiday for us by lighting the candles. Even though she was quite frail, so much light shone through her and she blessed us all with her radiant presence. All of us who knew Irene were captivated by the the qualities of beauty, love, loyalty and resilience that remained with were until her last breath, just four months ago. Let us tell tales. Irene’s tales. We cannot forget.

Two teenage girls with no parents and an older brother taken away by the Gestapo and never seen again. Two young girls thrown out of their apartment for being minors, alone in the streets of Berlin in November 1938, witnessing former friends and neighbors caught in a frenzy of hatred throwing rocks, looting, smashing, destroying, burning, killing on Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass.  The younger of these two sisters, Dora or Doris, had no childhood and managed to survive these horrors, escaping by train to London on the Kindertransport. Doris was one of the 10,000 German and Austrian Jewish children refugees given visas by the British government as country after country closed borders, doors and hearts to Jews whose fates were being sealed. Ida managed to get to London too and, after a few miserable years there, Doris and her sister Ida came to New York on the Queen Elizabeth, and years later ended up in Colorado.  Doris loved Bonai Shalom and we loved her back; a woman with no childhood, no education and lasting memories of trauma, survived, built a life, raised a family and managed to have a sense of humor along with her courage and tenacity. Doris died just two weeks ago. Let us tell tales. Doris’ tales. We cannot forget.

Growing up in London with all four of my grandparents born there to Lithuanian, German and Austrian great grandparents, I had never had any part of my Jewish identity connected to the Shoah, not knowing of any relative killed in the Holocaust.  I always felt intuitively that it was important to know about the Holocaust, to teach it, but not to be defined by it. In fact, I was part of a generation of rabbis who wanted to reclaim a vibrant, positive Jewish identity and not one based on a traumatic past.  In May 2016, I travelled with 14 members of my family on my mother’s side to Lithuania. We went to Vilna (known there as Vilnius) and to Butrimonys, the shtetl from which my shoemaker great grandfather Mordechai Eliezer Kushelevich, later known as Marks Louis Kay, escaped in 1885 and came to London.  We walked the two miles that the Jews of the town were forced to march to open pits in the forests, where over 1000 men, women and children were killed between August and September of 1941 by the Lithuanian collaborators. As our researcher worked on the Kushelevich family tree, we discovered 11 members of the family, my mother’s second cousins, who died in 1941, presumably in those killing fields. It changed my understanding of my own history.  Let us tell tales. My family’s tales, your family’s tales, our people’s tales — tales drenched in blood and tears. We cannot forget.

So how do we continue to tell these stories?  As the noble generation of survivors leaves us, how do we honor them and their legacy?  Not, I would suggest, in trite and superficial ways like Operation Finale. It is essential that authentic and honoring artistic expressions continue to be made, to try and capture the essence of these stories. Sometimes the efforts will fail; sometimes it may be enough just to bring public attention to the story.  The uses of film and other media will constantly change as time moves and memory fades. Art has the potential to re-capture memory in a way that pure history does not. As time moves forward, we witness memory become history before our very eyes. The deaths of survivors — the loss of the actual physical holders of memory — forces us continually to find new means of navigating the complex task of memorialization, of witnessing anew. Memory, especially when it is filled with trauma, can be overwhelming.  Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, author of Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, claims that Jewish history is, in its essence, about the power of our collective memories, more than it is about historiography. In a postscript to the book called “Reflections on Forgetting,” he says:

“I will take my stand on the side of ‘too much’ rather than ‘too little,’ for my terror of forgetting is greater than my terror of having too much to remember. Let the accumulated facts about the past continue to multiply. … So that those who need can find that this person did live, those events really took place, this interpretation is not the only one…”

Yerushalmi continues, “Is it possible that the antonym of ‘forgetting’ is not ‘remembering’, but justice.” Justice was the theme of my Rosh HaShanah sermon and I had not considered until now that our commitment to keep the narratives of the past alive, in all of their bloody truth, is a form of justice against the executioner and the forces of hate. There is a reason why on this holiest day of the year, we recite the Eleh Ezkerah in the Mussaf service, recalling the martyrs throughout history. There is a reason why we just recited Yizkor, a service which is all about memory, where we gently invite in the presence of our loved ones and the qualities that they embody for us.Their stories are our stories in how they have shaped us into who we are as a people.

My mother told me that the two Rosh HaShanah sermons she heard in London from two different rabbis were both about anti-Semitism in the UK and whether Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party, is anti-Semitic. Eighty five percent of British Jews think that he is. The leader of one of the two main political parties and a potential future prime minister.  Europe and many regions in the world are resurrecting some of the old myths of anti-Semitism and holocaust denial is alive and well. What is curious is that these trends seem to come equally from the left and the right. We have seen a frighteningly self-confident expression of White Supremacy here in the US with those chilling images of torch bearing white nationalists marching to the beat of “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville last August.  Spike Lee’s BlacKKKlansmen, a much, much better film than the Eichmann one, shows how real those forces of hate for blacks and for Jews were in the early 1970s and still are in 2018. Let us tell tales. The past is in the present and our only hope of it not being in the future is to tell the tales. As William Faulkner said, “the past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” And as the Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously said: “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Of course, one of the greatest ways to honor the enormous legacies of people like Irene and Doris and their forgotten worlds, is to keep alive the values that they most embodied and fought for. They both cared so much about Judaism, about human decency and about this community.  One way to sustain their memories is to ensure that there is a vibrant, joyful and rich Jewish practice, educating our young and our old alike, where we see and transmit the beauty and depth of our traditions, rituals and ideas, as these remarkable women saw in their lost worlds, and to keep that practice alive and sustainable.  This is not an ask or an appeal, but a hope and an idea that however young or old you might be, that if you love Bonai Shalom and its vital place in Boulder’s Jewish community, that you will consider joining our legacy giving circle; that you will be engaged and involved and passionate about Jewish life and help it be relevant, flourishing and alive for the generation of Irene’s and Doris’ great grandchildren and great great grandchildren.

We honor memory through living out a legacy inspired by those who have gone, as well as by the telling of the stories and their continuing impact.

Last night I spoke about Mr. Rogers and now I want to again.  In the same remarkable 2001 commencement address at Middlebury College mentioned last night, he referred to a quote framed next to his office chair from Saint Exupery’s  book, Le Petit Prince:  “l’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (What is essential is invisible to the eye). Mr. Rogers elaborated:

“What is essential about you that is invisible to the eye? And who are those who have helped you become who you are today? Anyone who has ever graduated from a college, anyone who  has ever been able to sustain a good work has had at least one person – and often many – who believed in him or her. We just don’t get to be competent human beings without many different investments from others. In fact, from the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving. So, on this extra special day, let’s take some time to think of those extra special people. Some of them may be right here, some may be far away. Some may even be in heaven. No matter where they are, deep down you know they’ve always wanted what was best for you. They’ve always cared about you beyond measure and have encouraged you to be true to the best within you. Let’s just take a minute of silence to think about those people now.

That was Mr. Rogers’ suggestion to a group of graduates, but it is mine too on this holiest of days. Let’s take a minute to think about them.

Whomever you’ve been thinking about: just imagine how grateful they must be that you  remember them when you think of your own becoming.

That might be the essence of Yizkor and of honoring these memories. I feel proud, even though I have only known Irene and Doris for the fourteen years I have been here, to include them among the people who have smiled me into smiling, who have talked me into talking, sung me into singing, loved me into loving.  Part of memory is honoring the essence of who these people are through the impact they have had on us, even perhaps if we didn’t know them, like our forgotten ancestors in unmarked graves. The end of Elie Wiesel’s poem is:

“Let us tell tales

So as not to allow the executioner to have the last word

The last word belongs to the victim

It is up to the witness to capture it, shape it, transmit it .”

As people who have known and loved survivors and been willing to hear their stories and to have been moved by them, we are their witnesses. We are those obligated to continue the transmission as long as we are able by continuing to love them even after they are gone; to know that this love and this truth is the only weapon we have against the dark clouds of hatred.

Let us tell tales.