Why I Wore My Father’s Medal Today.

Why I Wore My Father’s Medal Today. 

April 11 2015

Amichai Lau-Lavie


On April 11th 1945 Buchenwald was liberated and my father Naphtali, 19 year old Jewish prisoner, was liberated, along with his younger brother Israeli, age 8.

In all the years since, April 11th has become my father’s celebrated birthday, a quiet opportunity for a drink with the family, a few words of gratitude.

This year is the first time we are marking this day since his death, just five months ago. The 11th falls on the last shabbat of Passover, leaving us with the taste of liberations ancient and more recent, and also with the knowledge that this year – and with each passing year and the passing of survivors, the memories fade and it becomes the responsibility of the next generations to keep the stories, symbols, rituals, alive.


But why, exactly?

For me, April 11th is not just about remembering the horrors of the Holocaust, and the human brutality that creeps in through doors of racism and  sexism, ethnic or religious divides. Now it’s also another way to remember my father. But there’s more. April 11th is the shared code-word for many I’ve met in past years – with similar stories. Some are children of other Buchenwald survivors, some had fathers who liberated the camp. This date has become a private but increasingly public marker of the power and the possibility of radical hope and of persistent faith that freedom will prevail and the injustice will be met with firm resistance and resolve.  This date has become a placeholder for belief that beyond our solitary existence, greater truth and loyalties exist and matter, worthwhile living for, surviving for, fighting and waiting for.

Somehow, sub-human, starving and freezing, my father and his brother survived to see the Americans drive through the gates of Buchenwald on April 11th. When I asked them about what helped them cling on to life without knowing that redemption had a date, my father pointed at his brother and said that it was the sense of responsibility. He promised his parents that he will take care of his brother and continue the family’s rabbinic line. My uncle first said ‘jam’ – every once in while he got a teaspoon of it. In later interviews he spoke of faith.

So I wore my father’s medal today. This medal of honor my father received when he went back to Buchenwald in 2005 to mark the 60th anniversary of liberation. He joked about it after – ‘look! I got a medal for surviving!’ but he kept in his desk with the rest of the memorabilia. In the days following the shiva, as we began to sort through and re-organize the house, there was the medal, and I asked to keep it. I wore it once so far, at a recent event honoring the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.



Today I wore the medal as I went to recite the mourner’s’ kaddish in my his memory, in a local shul nearby. Then I wore it to a special performance  – James Lecesne’s astounding one man play about the life and death of a gay teen struggling for dignity. This preview was presented for The Trevor Project national youth counsel – offering LGBT teens a hot-line and lifeline to keep on believing that it will get better and that they should be loved exactly as they are.  I wore it to remind myself and others that there are reasons to hold on to hope.

Those (few, this IS NYC) who asked about the medal were told about its story and held my hand, a meaning making moment in the middle of our lives.

In an article published this weekend in a North Carolina newspaper, just ahead of Holocaust Commemoration Day that falls this year on April 16, this question caught my eye:

“Will the Holocaust still matter at a time when widespread killing around the world has become old news?”

Every day brings horror stories of recent atrocities around the world. Rwanda and Darfur, Yarmuk or Yazd are just a few names of unspeakable genocides and inhumane realities – some happening right now. Anti semitic attacks and domestic abuse, terrorism and gun violence are just more horrors on the never-ending list of human-made evil.

So why still focus on what happened to our people 70 years ago? Menachem Rosensaft, son of survivors, lawyer, community leader and editor of From the Ashes, a recent book containing the stories of 88 children and grandchildren of survivors – myself included, has a reply: “The Nazi death camps, Rosensaft said, which necessitated the complicity of industries, governments and millions of ordinary people, remain “symbols for the potential of evil.

Equally true, he said, is that the survivors of those camps – and their children and grandchildren – are also symbols. The hope, he said, is that they will continue to inspire the world, especially today’s victims.

“It would have been extremely easy in 1945 for Holocaust survivors to give up on the world,” Rosensaft said. “Instead, within weeks or months of liberation, they returned to life with a vengeance.” Read the entire article in the Charlotte Observer  


On April 16th, at Temple Emanu-El’s Skirball Center in NYC,  I will have the honor of joining Menachem and a few other distinguished writers and local leaders, all children and grandchildren of survivors, to keep the legacy alive. Who knows, I may again wear my father’s medal in his honor.


On this day I pause to hope that all memories live on as in us as blessings, tools salvages from our histories to make our world a better place – for all.



3:15PM Why Counting Omer on Holocaust Memorial Day is My Small Act of Defiance

At 3:15 pm on the 11th of April 1945, the American Army’s 9th Armored Infantry Battalion stormed through the barbed wire gates of the Buchenwald Concentration Camp in Germany, freeing, at least in body, some 21,000 prisoners. Among them my father Naphtali, age 19 and his 7 years old brother, Israel. Steven Fenves, a young man from Hungary, was liberated there as well. 69 years later his granddaughter Molly would come to work with me at Lab/Shul – a shared legacy uniting us across the generations.


Twenty years ago I interviewed my  father and uncle about the day of liberation, which for our family had become an official celebration, a day of re-birth. ‘How did you hold on? ‘ I asked them. “With no known end date in sight – how did you not lose hope?’


‘Jam’, my uncle responded. ‘Every once in  a while one of the Russian prisoners would take pity on my and give me a bit of jam to lick. I waited for those moments all the time.’ My father pointed at his brother: “I had to make sure the kid survives. Every day was another victory. I survived for him.”


This Sunday, April 26, is Yom Ha’Shoah – Holocaust Remembrance Day, observed in Israel and in many Jewish communities around world. Today’s date – the 27th of Nissan, was chosen by Israeli law makers for its proximity to the launch of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but also to Passover and to the Israeli Days of Remembrance and Independence, just a week ahead. The choice places the memory of those who fought, perished or survived during the Holocaust on a continuum of historical Jewish destruction and renewal.


But there’s also another connection to the calendar that comes up each year as we who bear witness and perpetuate the memory light another candle and pause to honor a

nd reflect. This memorial day always happens during the Counting of the Omer, this 50 day period on the Jewish calendar that reminds us to make each day count, to count our blessings, and to look forward to the revelation that awaits at the summit  – the end of this intentional journey – each year again. 

My father and his relatives and friends did not have a date in mind when they counted each night and were counted each morning, mere numbers on some German chart. They had no tangible release date to hold on to, no end in sight, just like their ancestors, those Hebrew slaves in Egypt for whom liberation came suddenly on the night of the Exodus.

So tonight, the 13th day since we left Egypt,  almost the end of the second week of the Omer, I count with the intention of appreciation for making each night matter, and honoring every second of the privilege of being here – free in so many ways, not to be taken for granted.

I count today, as I light a memorial candle, honoring the memory, and looking ahead to reaching Shavuot again, the summit of Sinai, for the renewal of my vows with all that’s sacred and all that can help me be a better person, more aware, more helpful, a co

Shavuot Prayer in Buchenwald 1945

-creator of a better world. Is that not, at the of the day, what the Torah is about? Why we got it? What God wants of us?

37 days to go until we stand again at Sinai – looking God eye to eye and renewing our vows to be partners in creation. What will that look like this year? How will we walk this talk?

This year’s counting of the Omer is for me a kick-off for a year full of focus on release from old patterns and an attempt to reboot our system towards a healthier, more sustainable and just world. Next year’s Shmita year is the sacred seventh, offering us a chance to seriously step up our commitment to a world more free of excess, greed, and attachment. Those are not, perhaps, the main ingredients in what makes genocide and war happen – but they are not minor elements either. I pray that with this year’s intentional counting of the Omer and next year’s dedication to a year of more release and intention, we who take these actions seriously can take a collective step together towards a world less cruel and more kind.

On Shavuot 1945, a moving prayer service was held at the former SS mess hall in Buchenwald, led by the recently deceased American Chaplain Rabbi Herschel Schecther. My father and uncle were there – recognizable them in the famous photo, tiny, skinny faces in a sea of survivors who made it from Egypt’s slave camps to the Sinai summit, a bittersweet celebration of continuity and reconnection.

The clock above the gate at Buchenwald stays frozen at 3:15 – the moment of freedom. But for us the mythic clock keeps ticking, another night of counting, another day of memories, another year, another shmita – an  eternal cycle, full of powerful reminders to always remember that we were once enslaved in Egypt and that we must do what we can to not let that happen to anybody again. Our clock’s not frozen in history – it never stands sill –  it may not be: This is the defiance or this disciplined daily count: here and now – AND – looking forward to the future. We pause today to count our dead and count our blessings and continue on our journey to make this world a little better, one honest step at a time.


May the memory be  a blessing.

Two People, One Talit: Protest at the Wall

. שנים אוחזין בטלית
.בראש חודש אייר האחרון לא עצרו אותנו הבוקר ברחבת הכותל
    הצטרפה אלי נעמה, חברה ללימודי הרבנות, ועמדנו  יחד ברחבת המבקרים, טלית אחת פרושה על שנינו, סידור אחד וכוונה אחת לתפילת אמת ושלום במקום הזה שכה מעורבבים בו קודש וחילול
למה? כבר ראשי חודש רבים שנינו באים לפה לתמוך בנשות בכותל ובקריאה למרחב דתי שויוני – ומתקשים להתפלל באמת. לנעמה אסור ללבוש טלית, כמנהגה, ואני מאחורי מחיצה, ולשנינו אסור להתפלל יחדיו, כמנהגנו. שנינו תלמידי רבנות מסורתית ורוצים להתפלל יחדיו, במנין, עם טלית, ושואפים ךפתרון מכבד את הבריות – כולן

למה היום? היום ה11 באפריל הוא היום בו שוחרר אבי מבוכנוולד
הבוקר התפללתי הלל בהודיה על חייו וחירותו ובתפילה לחירות ושחרור של כל אדם בכל זמן – שחרור משנאת חינם, פחד שווא, קטנות מוחין, חרדה והדרה

נהיה שם שוב, אם תרצה השם, בראש חודש סיון, יחדיו, שנים מתעטפות בטלית, עד שתתקבל הצעה מכבדת ומכובדת על כל הצדדים.כולנו אוחזין בטלית
מוזמנות ומוזמנים להצטרף. חודש טובה

PEACEFUL PROTEST AT THE WALL FOR COED PRAYERS: The new moon of the month of Iyar just happened this past Thursday, April 11, and I spent it at the Western Wall, protesting the lack of equality for women and all non-orthodox Jews. Since women are not allowed to wear a talit in the kotel – they get arrested for violation of ‘local customs’ I invited one of my friends and fellow rabbinic students, Naamah Levitz-Applebaum, to stand with me, under my talit, and pray together, away from the either/or men/women section, and just, pray, together.
We did. And for the first time in many new moons as we’ve both been attending these protests – we could actually focus and pray. for peace. and justice, for equality, and much more.
We want to support the creation of a third section, co-ed, egal, open to all – and situated in a dignified, accesible and respectful location along side the current location of the wall. Such a plan was just unveiled this past week but is still a long way from approval or acceptance.
It was a bit hard to focus on prayer with all the commotion around – women wearing talit were being arrested, ultra orthodox men and women were shouting curses at them, and many photographers filled the scene. When they got a look at us – an usual co-ed, peaceful praying ‘couple’ – they pounced.
The good news: We were NOT arrested or even detained. The police people looked at us with funny looks and didn’t quite know what to do with us, so they had other issues to deal with. The media loved it – our photo and intentions were circulating on blogs, Facebook, Israeli TV and some newspapers.
Here is one link:
Here is the Israeli Channel 10 news hour – we’re at 35:07:
 Naamah Levitz-Applebaum wrote on her FB feed this morning: 
After contemplating what to do this morning, I decided to go to the Kotel with Amichai and daven together, with one tallit (as I couldn’t wear mine). For the first time since supporting this cause I was actually able to concentrate on my tefilla and enjoyed singing hallel together. Until there is an actual concrete solution, we will continue to come every month and support, pray together and hope that we are able to make even a small change in this complex Israeli reality
 Next new moon we intend to be back – with another minyan of co-ed prayers, he and she, sharing a talit. I suspect it may get to some same sex couples but that’s a whole other story of inclusion and justice. Thank you for your blessings and good wishes! This fight is right and will be won.