Wednesday, May 11, 2016

In thy blood, live

"And when I passed by thee, and saw thee wallowing in thy blood, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live; yea, I said unto thee: In thy blood, live;" (Ezekiel 16:6)

It's a strange time of year to be in Israel, plumbing the depths of pain and the heights of elation. A few friends asked me today how people here do it. How they can be mourning the loss of thousands of our finest men and women while preparing for tonight's celebration of independence. 

How you can go in to a shop today, grief stricken, emotions churning from the very public mourning all around, but the cashier will wish you "hag sameah", happy holidays, in advance of Independence Day. 

The contrast is jarring, even offensive, and yet it is so natural because the two aren't separate, Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut are two sides of the same coin and you cannot have one without the other. 

You can't have the joy of Sukkot without the sombre reflection of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

You can't celebrate our freedom on Pesah without recalling the terrible suffering of our slavery in Egypt. 

You don't have the celebratory joy of a wedding without breaking the glass and remembering the destruction of ancient Jerusalem and the Temple, and the terrible loss of Jewish life and freedom those events led to.

It's a very Jewish perspective of the balance of life and of acknowledging the cost of our freedom and thanking those who sacrificed before allowing ourselves to celebrate that freedom. There is no completely unbridled joy, but by the same token there is no mourning without hope. Even as the biblical prophets describe the horrors about to be inflicted on Israel they speak also of the comfort of the redemption that will come too. 

While it can feel wrenching for someone to be thinking of tomorrow's holiday even as you yourself are in the depths of today's mourning, that is part of the message. Our mourning isn't pointless, our losses were not without meaning.

Religious Jews add something important between Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut, a special prayer service which adds perspective to both. Before eating we say a blessing over our food, before celebrating our independence after centuries of harsh exile we thank God for this miracle of national rennaissance and pray for those who perished in its realisation. 

I often hear my American friends saying "freedom isn't free" and bemoaning the way that they feel their nation fails to acknowledge the price paid for their independence and comfort. 

In Israel it's built in to the culture, not just because we still have a draft, not just because our nation remains threatened by hostile neighbours 68 years after our battle for independence, but because of this link between our Memorial Day and Independence Day. Every schoolchild knows that you don't celebrate Israel's birthday without first honouring and thanking those who sacrifice to keep us safe.

It's all one package. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Never Forget

My grandmother had an album where she kept photos sent to her and her aunt by her sisters'-in-law in what was then Poland (today Ukraine). These are some of the 60 members of my grandparents' family who were murdered by the Nazis - men, women, children and babies. Some murdered in the forest by local Nazi sympathisers, others in the Belzac death camp.

 We know what happened to them because another cousin managed to survive the war by pretending to be a Polish Catholic. She spoke fluent Polish, wore a cross, attended church regularly, memorised Catholic prayers and was able to pass as a Polish Catholic woman. Unable to rescue any other family members she witnessed their fate, including the murder of her own husband and baby.

They are ordinary people taking ordinary family photos with no idea that this would be all that remained of them because they themselves would be turned to ash and dust by strangers who hated them simply because they were Jews.

They were not "collateral damage", their deaths were not an accident of war or plague or natural disaster or famine but cold calculated murder by the Nazis and their allies who devoted huge resources from their formidable war machine to the erradication of these peaceful civilians simply because they were Jews.

The mind cannot fathom the meaning of 6 million human beings let alone the mass murder of 6 million human beings. It doesn't have to though. Look at these children and parents, these are the faces of the 6 million, the silent testimony to the evils some of the most technologically advanced and supposedly civilised nations on Earth carried out against some of the most productive, hard working, learned and peaceful people on Earth. .

These are the family I will never know, the great-aunts and uncles and cousins who exist only as photos because they were exterminated by Hitler's henchmen. The children who are forever children, reminding us of the children they never bore, the generations of cousins who never were, the gaping hole in our family.

They have no voices, we must be their voices, voices which refuse to let the world forget or twist the memory of the Holocaust.

If you hear people question, if you hear Holocaust deniers or belittlers, supposed academics who question whether it really happened, don't be silent. Keep these photos in your mind, remember these faces of those murdered in the Holocaust, remember them and their suffering, their horrific deaths.

Etch the warning in to your soul - even the most civilised, rational and scientific men and woman are capable of the most heinous crimes against their fellow humans. Do not let others say "it could not happen today", "it could not happen here". Never forget so that it may never happen again.