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.



Saying God is Great isn’t Always Such a Great Idea. Word #11

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GOD  אלהים

“It was God’s will” is a terrible thing to say to the bereaved no matter the intention. Piety is sometimes simply wrong. But that’s what we hear over and over on the news this week, from religious leaders, politicians and pundits, talking to/about the  parents, friends and shocked neighbors in Connecticut.  Does this kind of faithful lingo ultimately help or hurt?  What does this form of soothing do to our souls, to our minds, to our ability to try to heal and fix our world? 


Some things are best left unsaid. Even, sometimes, truths.


The  claims by some to know what is God’s will when bad stuff happens are pure heresy and very bad taste. Stephen Prothero, one of my favorite writers on religion wrote  on this yesterday: “Much better to say there is no God or, as Abraham Lincoln did, “The Almighty has his own purposes,” than to flatter ourselves with knowing what those purposes are.”


What I’m left with, beyond the frustration with this abusive  and violent God language (did I mention “God hates fags” and “God loves guns”?)  is the big messy question of faith: Trying to make sense of the incredible human yearning and at times, capacity, to create comfort in times of crisis, to make meaning of loss, to get up in the morning and find ways to hope and cope and strive for better. Is all that grounded in the thought-out mental leap of faith that everything happens for a reason? Or are we just on auto pilot because the other alternative is too horrid to live with: that chaos rules our lives? 

I am struggling with faith, with the courage to believe or not, to trust that there is possibly a plan in motion and that there’s reason for whatever happens, even when it makes no sense and worse.


But sometimes, often,  it all feels like a mass manipulation.  Like a pious lie. 


The longest night of the year, coming up this Friday, let alone the big question of what will or won’t happen as the Mayan calendar ends only adds to the rumble in our collective belly: The solar systems circle on, but is anything in charge? 


And so I wonder – when did this notion of the “Big Plan”  start? I may be wrong but I think that this week’s Torah text, Va’yigash,describes the first such bold theological assumption in the Bible: Joseph comes out to his brothers as that Hebrew boy they once sold as slave. “But it’s all good, my brothers”, he assures them: “how else could I have saved you now? It is all God’s bigger plan. ” Gen. 45:5  

This may be the first time that God (here referred to as Elhoim), gets full credit by a human for the running of the show.

The brothers are silent with shock:  A reasonable reaction. 


Really, Joseph? Hindsight  is 20/20. 22 years after the pit, this ruler of Egypt has perspective and trusts the Higher Power. But can one hold to this type of faith when deep inside the pits of grief and trauma? Did he, like Job, bless God inside the pit and had faith in the big plan or did he lose it as so many of us do when it hits the fan? 


Perhaps the brothers, in their silence, got it right.

They were not just shocked to see their brother – they didn’t know what to make of his claim that every little plot twist is the work of God.

And even if, let’s say, this IS the Truth – even then: Some truths,  are better, sometimes, left unspoken. Words of faith, spoken at the not so perfect timing,  can hurt instead of heal, close the heart instead of opening it to the possible.  

Even if one is 100% sure that there is a plan and horrors have a reason – saying this at moments that are too raw is rarely helpful. The ability to deal with these big questions is an intimate act, and it deserves the bravest of attentions, quietly, with some healthy distance from the wound.

Faith is not an auto pilot nod. It’s a private work in process. 

“You gotta have faith” Paul Rudd tells me in the back of the cab this morning, “and  also – you need a backup plan.” It’s an ad for a play on Broadway called ‘Grace’ that I hear is awesome but what sticks with me when I get out of the cab on Union Square is this simple not so simple message: Have faith in something bigger than us all, but pull in your own weight.  In other words: Whether there’s a big plan or not, and no matter what happens this Friday – how we each take care of each other, comfort the sad, make each day count more is all about us. And sometimes the humble honest thing is just to hug and not say much, and be grateful for what we’ve got. Maybe that’s what helped Joseph get through his ordeal. Maybe that’s what will help the the good people in Newtown. It isn’t much, and there’s still the big question – but for now, that’s good enough. 

Shabbat Shalom


Amichai Lau-Lavie is the Founder and Executive Director of Storahtelling, Inc. creating sustainable solutions for life-long Jewish Learning since 1999. storahtelling.org