Finding Inspiration In The Darkness Of The Holocaust

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As the sun sets on Sunday evening, Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, begins. On this somber day, we remember the 6,000,000 Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. We know how important it is to remember the horror of the Holocaust and so I ask each of us to pause at some point Sunday evening and/or during the day on Monday to remember and to commit ourselves to doing whatever we can to ensure that “never again” is not just a phrase we say, but a call to action that we never ignore.

While Yom HaShoah is a dark day, it is important for us to pay attention to many of the inspirational stories that come from the Holocaust – stories that remind us of our incredible ability to persevere through the darkest of darkness and the power of loving acts of kindness that were ignited by this darkness.

Back in January, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I shared the story of Francine Christophe at Kabbalat Shabbat services. Francine was born in 1933 in France. In 1944, she and her mother were deported to Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp. The remarkable story she shares reminds us that by showing compassion and kindness to others, we can truly conquer hate – we can save the world. On this Yom HaShoah, may we remember the darkness, but may we also live the love captured in Francine’s story and, in turn, fill the darkness with light.

You can listen to Francine’s story by clicking on the image below. She speaks in French, but there are subtitles. Please note: Every noun in French has a gender. “Bébé” (baby) is masculine and in the subtitles it is translated as “he.” However, when Francine speaks in French, she is not referring to the baby as a boy. She does not give the baby a gender.

Screen Shot 2017-04-21 at 10.13.32 AM Click on the image above to hear Francine’s story.

The Miracle of “Am Yisrael Chai”

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As the horrific plan to exterminate the Jews began to unfold, Hitler’s troops entered a Polish town charged with rounding up the Jews and sending them to a ghetto. As the Nazi soldiers began forcing the residents of this town out of their homes, two very brave and wise sisters, ordered their daughters, Rose and Gusta, to run away. Rose and Gusta did as they were told. While their mothers would perish in the Holocaust, Rose and Gusta survived. After running from their town, they were taken in by strangers and hidden from Nazis until the nightmare ended.

Tomorrow afternoon, Rose’s great-grandson, Jacob Albright, becomes a bar mitzvah here at Ramat Shalom. As Jacob takes hold of our Holocaust Torah and carries it around the sanctuary during his service, we will all get a chance to see a miracle unfold before our eyes: a great-grandson of a woman who amazingly survived the barbaric attack on European Jewry, carrying a Torah that remarkably found us after its community was murdered by the Nazis. Given the horror that swept through Europe and killed 6,000,000 and destroyed countless communities, it is truly miraculous that Jacob and our Holocaust scroll will come together 70 years after the end of the nightmare.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The invariable mark of wisdom is to see the miraculous in the common.” While Jacob carrying a Torah around our sanctuary as he becomes a bar mitzvah might appear to be “common” – once you know the backstory it is anything but “common”. It is a miracle.

Making this miracle even more powerful is that, in addition to Jacob, we also celebrate the bar mitzvah of Todd Levan this weekend. Seventy years after WWII, not one, but two young men stand proudly on our bimah, leading their community in prayer, proving that Judaism is alive and well.

On top of this, commemorating the Holocaust at Auschwitz yesterday were two of our own students, Grant Besner and Zoe Giardina. Not only is Judaism alive and well, but our children have it in their hearts to return to one of the darkest places on earth to honor and remember the 6,000,000. This is miraculous.

And, as if this is not enough, I received word this week that many of our college students are taking on Jewish leadership positions on their campuses, becoming powerful voices for the Jewish people and Israel. Mazal Tov to many of our students including Julie Cole who was elected President of Washington University’s Hillel, Lindsey Sigal who was elected Secretary of FAU’s Owls for Israel and selected to be the Tikun Olam Intern at FAU’s Hillel, and Emily Bernstein who continues to be a leader at UF Hillel. I am also extremely proud of and excited to learn that so many of our college students will be traveling to Israel in the coming months.

Yesterday was Yom HaShoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day. We stopped to formally remember the horrors of the Holocaust that we never will forget. Today, with the help of Jacob, Todd, our teens on the March of the Living and our college students taking leadership positions on their campuses, we appreciate the fact that “Am Yisrael Chai”, the Jewish people is very much alive. And, after all that we have been through, this is a beautiful miracle.

Remember 6,000,000 – Remember Kolin

I recently received

My Town Kolin, a newly published English translation of the story of Kolin, Czechoslovakia.  There are many moving and incredible aspects of this book – but one that sticks out to me is the list of close to 40 Torah scrolls from Kolin synagogues that were stolen by the Nazis and now safely at home in synagogues across the world.  Right in the middle of the list is Ramat Shalom.  As so many of you know, we are so blessed with our 300-plus year old Holocaust Torah scroll from Kolin.  To see our community’s name in print, linked to the story of Kolin and its Jewish community is so powerful.

A chilling aspect of My Town Kolin is reading the stories and seeing the photographs of Kolin.  The book gives us names and photographs of her residents, Jews who most certainly came in contact with our Torah scroll – Jews whose lives were destroyed by the Holocaust.  The book also shares poetry and other writings of people from Kolin, including this poem from writer Camill Hoffman who was born in Kolin on October 31, 1878 and perished in Auschwitz in 1944:

Bells

 

How strangely, from the depths to afar they chime,

As if a dream of fairy tales in them slept,

The old bells in the hometown of mine!

Many a man in wonder shook his head.

In the rotten belfry suddenly

The dark gold sounds…and in the evening,

Later, through the quiet valley,

Grim song carries on fluttering.

When abroad, at midnight

A pain, suddenly interrupts my dream,

I can hear the chime in the distance, faint…

As from a town, sunk in depths and quaint,

At sea, a swimmer hears the bells’ flight.

And nobody knows how it saddens him.

After reading Mr. Hoffman’s words, every time I see our Holocaust scroll, I hear the bells.  And, as I do, I feel the sadness, the pain and the loss.  But, at the same time, I see the faces of our b’nai mitzvah students who carry our Holocaust scroll through the congregation during their service.  As I do, I can’t help but imagine that Mr. Hoffman (whose picture is in the book) would smile as he watched one of his Torah scrolls being held by the next generation of Jews.  And, I believe, that with the help of our b’nai mitzvah, the sound of the bells is evolving into a sound of hope.

This Sunday, we mark Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day.  We will be having a special community-wide service Sunday morning followed by a presentation by our member, Hannah Temel, who is a survivor.  Tonight, we will talk more about Kolin and My Town Kolin.  Please join us.

Shabbat Shalom and may the memory of all of those we were lost in the Shoah be the blessing of our future.