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.

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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.

Etty’s Legacy: Our One Moral Duty. Word #27

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בחוץ

Monday morning,10am, siren pierces the sky –  Holocaust Commemoration Day and everybody stands still for 2 minutes of honoring the victims’ memory.  Not everybody. I stand on my balcony in Abu Tor, right on the border between East and West Jerusalem, see some neighbors, like me, standing quietly on balconies and in their windows, but on the street, walking up from the Palestinian side, are four women, dressed in chic-Muslim wear, ranging in age from 20-50’s, chatting, giggling, ignoring the siren. One of them looks right at me and walks on. 
Really? I want to ask them, run after them, inquire. This isn’t just about slain Jews, it isn’t about Israel or the occupation – it’s about women, men and children, millions of them, brutally tortured and killed. It’s about people. It’s about my grandparents, aunts and uncles, countless relatives. It’s about empathy. 

If it was the other way around, I wonder, if we were a minority in a Muslim land where a moment was taken to remember a national loss – would all Jews care enough to stand?  Do we care now? Or are the walls that divide us already as thick as the ghetto walls that  split up so many  European cities during WW2? 

There are, I’m pleased to know, exceptions. Walls, at times, dissolve, and caring happens. 

The night before I attended a unique Holocaust Memorial Ritual, held at Tantur, an ecumenical center, on the road to Bethlehem. Led by Israeli Jews, Palestinian Muslims, and German Christian peace activists, this ritual was based on the teachings of Etty Hillesum,  a Dutch Jewish artist who died in  Auschwitz, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy of art, writings, and spiritual inspiration -dedicated to peace, within and beyond. 

During the ritual, Dina, a Palestinian, read her favorite quote, in English and in Arabic. Anya, from Germany, chose hers – translated into German ‘to redeem that language, my beloved language, here, today.’ Nachum, a settler from nearby Gush Etzion, leader of a movement for peaceful negotiations between the local neighbors, spoke about his vision for forgiveness, reconciliation and Hillesum’s faith in humanity’s triumph, despite it all. Many of us wept as they all spoke. 

I am perfectly aware that the few dozens gathered in Tantur are, for now, a dedicated anomaly. The rest of us living here are trapped in divisions – mine/yours,  friend/enemy, my pain/your loss, real fences and wall divide us. The boundaries of compassion are all too often withdrawn. 

I live  – chose to live – on the border – and as this siren blasted and my neighbors walked on by I felt a wave of rage, hurt, sadness and a growing distance. How can we ever make peace if we ignore each other’s pain? It goes both ways. Few are innocent in this regard. 

But can divisions and separations sometimes be essential to heal the wounds? the way a band aid separates a cut from air for times of quiet mending? 

In the sacred texts I find a possible remedy, a recipe for healing that demands divisions – of space and time.
This week’s Torah, Tazria Metzora is about healing. Physical discharges, skin infections, mold and other mutilations of normal health to one’s body or home are treated with a mixture of sacrificial remedies, priestly procedures and a heavy dose of faith. Not everybody makes it. The treated victims wait for seven days in seclusion, often outside the camp, beyond the boundaries of norm, as a quarantine that should render health and healing – for all. Divide – to heal. 

“For seven days…one  shall dwell alone; outside the camp shall one’s dwelling be. ” 

This notion of ‘outside’, a health provoked ‘time out’ can easily create a society where lepers are outsiders and those inflicted with a pain are perceived as weak and lesser valued. Other becomes threat, enemy, projection of all fears. 

But from the big span of history – it’s a roller coaster. Today I’m outsider and tomorrow it can be you. Victims can take turns on this cycle of venom – or – maybe, sometimes, rarely – get beyond the hate. 

Maybe we’ll rise up for each other’s painful moments when we all remember that we were once the outsiders, lepers out of camp, victims, fleeing, fearful, mad. 

The work begins within our selves – to judge less, and reclaim more moral ground. Etty, a victim of our terrible tragedy, reminds me, us, of what it’s all about: 


Amen. 

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