Amichai Lau-Lavie, Jerusalem, July 2012
Half way through his lecture, the Czech professor, 83, starts to sing, quietly, but with feeling, a melody he remembers from a night in Birkenau, 68 years ago. This is happening at an academic conference, and the singing is a bit weird and some people are clearly uncomfortable, and look around, surprised. But this is Yad Vahsem, and we are sitting in a crowded conference room on the second floor of the Museum’s research center, with a beautiful view of the Jerusalem forest. The international conference is about Theology and the Holocaust, with prominent theologians and thinkers from around the world. The Czech professor is lecturing about socio-psychological matters – but he is also, we just found out, a survivor, and the invisible academic rules bend. So he sings, and it’s weird, but sort of fantastic, and is my highlight from this conference.
The theology of suffering, particularly through the prism of the holocaust, has been on my mind for a while now, and is part of my current research. What started off as a very personal project – talking with my father about his questions of faith, now that he’s retired and tired and has the time and bandwidth to ask the questions he didn’t allow himself to ask all these years since his liberation from the camps, has become a personal quest. This “where was God in the Holocaust” question has become a total cliché but I’m hooked and engaged with it, looking for a fresh perspective. This issue probes at something deeper, super relevant and important – way beyond the personal or the Jewish or the Holocasut-obssed. As time passes, the silence and the stock answers begin to stir. I think – suspect – that there’s something here about a new paradigm of religious thinking, and I’m reading and talking and thinking about this a lot – a bit too much perhaps. I heard about this conference and asked to attend as a guest, and here I am sitting in the back of the conference room with my laptop, trying to catch the melody that the old man is singing and trying to capture the facts and the feelings and the dazzlingly deep data that is coming my way in so many ways.
The morning sessions were fascinating. The historian Prof. Ehud Bauer surprisingly funny, presented three key ultra-orthodox Jewish approaches to the question of divine providence, including some controversial correspondence between the late Lubavitcher Rebbe and Chayka Grossman, the very left wing Israeli politician and former partisan. His view – on one foot – there is spiritual benefit emerging from the horrors that can’t be understood but can’t be underestimated. No wonder Grossman was enraged. Next, my new friend Erin Leib Smokler walked us into the ruins of Jerusalem and Warsaw, combined, revealing the haunting subtexts in the writings of the Warsaw Ghetto’s Rebbe, author of the ‘Holy Fire’. After all that I badly wanted a break but didn’t want to miss the third lecture with the promising title: ”Emerging Theology among adolescent prisoners in Auschwitz-Birkenau.”
The Czech professor, Tomas Radil, is a senior scientist at Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague. He started off the lecture, heavily accented but with good English, using a powerpoint presentation of diagrams and facts. In the spring of1944, approximately 1000 Jewish teens, ages 15-17 were crammed into a single barrack in the ‘gypsy camp’ area of Auschwitz-Birkenau for no clear reason. Most of the boys were recent arrivals from Hungary. Eventually, through a series of selections, most of them were gassed. It’s all very cut and dry, information, data, the way a lot of harrowing details get discussed in such contexts of historical or sociological analysis. He describes one such selection, and how the strongest boys were pulled out of the group and sent off to work – to life. “I was one of those boys”, he suddenly says, sort of as an aside, and the room rustles as people turn to the person next to them with questioning looks – Yes, it seems he is not just presenting a scholarly paper on theology. Prof. Radil, it appears, is also a survivor of the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp. The setting, in some subtle but important manner, changes.
And when he sings, a little bit later, describing an extraordinary night and an amazing story – it’s not just an old song, it’s a haunting testimony.
The group was composed of both secular and religious boys – from various parts of Hungary and the surrounding areas. Many of the Chasidic boys were chanting the Kaddish, non-stop, over and over again, on the night before they knew another selection was coming. But there were those who didn’t believe in God and didn’t want to pray. One of them was a boy who was half Jewish, raised by a Catholic grandmother and devout in his faith. While the Kaddish went on he taught some other boys a song, which became their hymn, their ‘cannon’. Radil doesn’t remember the words – it was in Hungarian – he only knows the tune. He sings it for us and later says that he asked several people about it and some think it’s from Hayden or perhaps a folk song.
After the boy teaches them the song he tells them that he plans to escape through one of the windows. There’s a good chance he’ll be shot but he prefers that to being taken to the gas. Before he jumps out he takes out his remaining piece of bread, breaks it into tiny pieces and hands them to some of the boys in the barrack: ‘This is my body’, he tells them, ‘eat this and live’. Then he jumps out and is never heard from again. Radil says that he kept looking for him, to no avail.
He goes on to tell about the rabbis who were smuggled into the barrack to give the boys hope but were unable to provide any real answers. They urged the boys to survive at all costs – to perform the Mitzvah of Survival. At all costs. He doesn’t describe the ‘costs’ but talks about one boy who refused to eat anything but bread because of kosher laws and wasted quickly before their very eyes.
Somehow he survived. One more story frames this moment of awareness. A day after the camp was liberated he was standing in one of the rooms in the gate building next to the famous “arbeit macht frei’ sign. The room stored the musical instruments that the orchestra was forced to play daily as the inmates marched in and out of the camp. There was a bit of snow on the ground, and Radil, looking outside the window sees a German solider, walking alone, dragging his rifle behind him in the snow, exhausted, finished. That was it – the moment of realization, the knowledge that he had survived. And now what?
There was another boy with him, a ‘bochur’ – a yeshiva student who told him – “I don’t know what to do next – I don’t know what to believe anymore. But I know this: My grandfather was a rabbi, and my father was a rabbi, and I am going to be one too – and I am going to ask God for help, for mercy – because I lost my faith and I need to gain it back.
He spoke way beyond the allotted time but nobody said anything. Partly out of respect and partly because there no stopping his rambling memory trail, his testimony, paradoxical presentation of the life of faith or not and loss and doubt.
His story sticks out for me, out of more than a dozen presentations by scholars and sages, lost books and speculations about the absence of God. Something in the blur between lecture and monologue, something about the obscuring of boundaries, the non-stop kaddish, the communion, the empty room of musical instruments, the haunting song.
Slowly, like a giant jigsaw puzzle, pieces come together. First the corners, then the pieces that are simply cast aside for being right perhaps – but not for me. I hope, with time, and patience, to better understand the questions – and, perhaps, come up with answers of my own.
More, coming soon.