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.



Is This Blowout 90th Birthday Bash a Blessing?? Ask Babs. Word 37.

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.






Naphatli Lau-Lavie (Israeli Counsel General in NY) and Shimon Peres (Prime Minister), plotting, 1984

Happy birthday Mr. President!

JFK got Marilyn to sing to him and blow out the candles (and then some.)

Peres got Barbara Streisand, Bill Clinton and a bunch of other VIP’s to come celebrate his 90th birthday with him in Israel this week . Babs will sing.  Jerusalem is yet again a traffic nightmare.

Look,he’s great and all, deserving love and praise and blessings, cakes and songs and adoration of the public, including Sharon Stone, but more and more Israelis are looking at this blowout with some suspicion. This feels more monarchic than ever, with an obvious national agenda/propaganda. This old man’s birthday, all over billboards and TV ads, has become the talk of the town. Is it Peres we are celebrating or some nostalgic vision of an Israel that no longer actually exists? The line up of guests is impressive, but not a single Arab leader is expected to attend – and what does THAT say about us? So much for the Noble Prize winner for Peace’s talk about the New Middle East.

Some grumble about the cost of this affair. the 11 Million NIS celebration is funded by private Jewish funders, we’re told. Great. It’s not like income tax didn’t just go up, again, and next year’s government budget, up this week for vote, preserves most of the wrongs that got us into the streets in protest, just last summer. is this expense really the right way to mark this milestone?

I heard a man on the radio yesterday suggest that instead of a celeb-glitz Peres should have invited every 90 year old person – and older – to his mansion for a dinner and a medal. Share the blessings – esp. with so many seniors in bad financial health, among them many struggling Holocaust survivors.  A little more humility and a lot less media buzz.

I like that idea. Let Streisand sing to the ones who built this country, not just those who can fork up a minimum $350 for her sold out shows. (I was really really tempted, btw.)

But I got other birthdays to deal with.

Peres isn’t the only senior celebrating  this week. My father, Naftali, an old friend and colleague of Peres ( I have memories of Peres calling our home phone and asking for my father at odd hours. He’s always say ‘ It’s Shimon’ in his heavy smokers voice and Id know to go find my father..), a brave Holocaust survivor and builder of this state, turns 87, and this week’s Torah portion, Balak, is his old Bar Mitzvah chant.

Balak is all about a curse that turned to blessing  , and, perhaps, about how blessings can sometimes be found in disguise. And vice versa.

Balak is a king that is an enemy of Israel, sending Balaam, a one-eyed wizard, to curse the nomads on their journey to their promised land.

God intervenes, through dreams and a talking donkey, and instead of cursing, Balaam spews forth poetry that has become the gist of prayers and songs, with one of them a daily prayer (Does Streisand have a cover?): Ma Tovu “How beautiful are the tents of Israel. “

The word ‘blessing’ shows up over and over in this week’s text, competing with the toasts and wishes that at least two elder statesmen that I know of will receive this week.

Turning curses into blessings is an ancient alchemy of hope, a persistent attempt at going beyond the negative to honor the good in everything, and strive for more.

My father’s autobiography, from the ashes of the camps to his peace work at Camp David is focused on this theme and aptly named “Balaam’s Prophecy” – a compelling and highly recommended read.

So in that spirit.

Let’s bless our elders:

Mr. Peres. May your vision of peace in this promised land survive and be your lasting legacy, and grow, and nourish many dreamers and become reality for many many more. May you enjoy the love you’ve always wanted from so many adoring fans.

And to my beloved father: Days of kindness, little smiles of simple joys, as healthy as possible and protected from all worry and all harm.  You are the blessing for us all, a source of inspiration, pride and purpose.

Got blessings for these gentlemen? please share.

Mazal Tov and 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

The Names We Don’t Remember. Word 13

WORD: A Word a Week from the World’s Best Seller. Follow the Annual Torah Re-Run Series with Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Newest Year-Long Blog. To subscribe via email click here. To listen to the audio version click here.


Names  שמות

Memorial Wall, Breed St. Shul, LA

I didn’t remember her name. But I knew her face and stopped to say hello, and we stood there talking she with her two children, me with my father, in a wheel chair, in the Katamon park, at dusk. We hadn’t seen each other in over a decade. Osnat now works for Yad VaShem, in charge of a unit that collects the names of unidentified Holocaust victims. Of the estimated 6 million only 4.2 names are actually listed by name. In recent years, as the youngest survivors  are aging, they have increased the department’s operations, adding a Russian team and a Haredi team. She asks my father whether he had reported names of the deceased that he personally knew of, back in the day. he shrugs, probably. But maybe he can review the list. She promises to look into it and call us tomorrow, and the sun sets and its gets cold and stroller and wheelchair roll home.
Osnat calls the next morning. Records show that my father, back in 1961, listed only 2 people – his mother and brother. Would he be open to a visit from her or one of the interviewers in her department to get more names? It has to be people you know for a fact perished during the war. Eye witness evidence is best. He agrees. My mother calls Sonye – my father’s Haredi cousin, in her 80’s, to invite her over. They talk in Yiddish, on the speaker phone for my father to hear. She may have other names. it was a big family. They’ll arrange a meeting.
I talk about this with a friend later. She worries that it will upset my father to recall all those names. And, besides – It’s a noble enterprise, this gathering of names — but- what’s really at the root of this obsession  with memory? with lists? what’s this  anti anonymity project really about?
I suggest that maybe its a post traumatic stress reaction and it goes way further than WW2 and all the way back to Egypt. Our first collective host turned hostile – it’s where we lost our names for the first time. We’ve been fighting to be named for who we are in the world ever since.
The opening chapters of Exodus, this week’s Torah tale are a bitter reminder of what being a  powerless minority can be like: nameless slaves. strangers in a strange land. In true Biblical irony, this second of the five books, Exodus, has a Hebrew name – ‘Shmot’ – ‘Names’ – although it lists less than 100 names in all its chapters. The majority of the people in the story, our history – are unknown, un-named, clustered in tribal affiliations, tattooed slaves, so many forgotten. Anonymous ancestors.
Even the first verses of the book points at the invisibility that sometimes comes with history:
These are the names of the sons of Israel, who came into Egypt with Jacob; every man came with his household:(Ex.1:1)
Not a single woman of the entire clan is  mentioned. No names.
So many missing names in our stories. And our desire to fill the blanks with known names and histories is our first desire to never be unnamed again.  to add things up.
‘But you know, not every body had a name’, my father tells me when we walk again around the park two days later. ‘remember I told you about Hillel, that man that I worked with in Buchenwald? We had to pick up bodies and carry them to the piles. He would mumble over each body, ‘abraham son of abraham’ before adding to the pile, so that they wont go to the grave without a  name. Any name.
But I’m not so sure how many names I now remember.”
These are the names. We make lists to remember, count our gains and losses, to make sense of the far too vast, and to try and make it all add up.
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