Sunday, June 28, 2009

Holocaust Memorial Day 2009 (1)

This Tuesday, April 21, is Yom Hashoah, the day designated as Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel and across the Jewish world. Originally intended as the day on which people uncertain of the dates on which their loved ones died could say Kaddish together as a community of grieving survivors, the day has slowly become the focus for a people trying to comprehend a tragedy of almost incomprehensible dimensions. We haven’t done the best job. There is no agreed-upon liturgy for the day, no widely (let alone universally) agreed-upon additions to any of our daily prayers. I am unaware of any effort to designate a specific Torah reading for the day or to provide the day with a special haftarah. As befits the effort to imagine the unimaginable, there are no rituals to go with the observance of Yom Hashoah other than the custom many have adopted of lighting a yellow yahrtzeit candle in memory of the martyrs. And even that is more a way of nodding to the uncountable number of people who died during the Shoah without leaving any among the living to light a candle for them than it is a ritual specifically designed to give voice to the feelings Jewish people bring to their contemplation of the Holocaust and its horrors.

One thing I have learned over the years is how important it is to approach the unfathomable by scaling it down to a size that people somehow can comprehend. It is almost impossible to imagine the deaths of a million and a half children, after all, but it is impossible not to be moved by the story of one single girl or boy who perished in the camps or who was brutally murdered by one of the Einsatzgruppen. I can demonstrate how true that is with reference to my own story: I have read hundreds and hundreds of books about the Shoah over the years, most of which have blurred into each other in my mind over the decades. But I can still remember clearly the effect reading Anne Frank’s diary as a teenager had on me, and I haven’t forgotten the way that single experience permanently altered my sense of what it was going to mean for me to be a young Jewish man in the world. (To be more precise, it was actually the triple experience of reading Anne Frank’s diary, Elie Wiesel’s Night, and Andre Schwarz Bart’s The Last of the Just—all three the stories of teenagers facing the truly unimaginable–that cemented my sense of myself as a non-survivor member of the survivor generation, a kind of self-appointed honorary member, a concept that would probably be hard to explain outside the boundaries of our Jewish world but which I can’t imagine anyone reading this not easily understanding.)

At my congregation, we have a Holocaust Memorial Garden and, facing it, we have a small window containing the grimmest of all Holocaust artifacts available for any Jew’s doleful contemplation: a Torah scroll with its own Shoah back-story. But where it came from, few know. I actually do know where its origins lie and how it came to us, and I would like to tell you its story today as part of my effort to focus our grief through the story of one single destroyed community.

Long before there were Horowitzes and Horowitzes and Hurwitzes and Urwitzes and Gurviches and Gorwitczes and Guroviches and Gorowitzes, there was just Horovice, the medieval Bohemian town now in the Czech Republic that lent its name to one of the largest and most distinguished of all Jewish clans. Indeed, for almost the entire medieval period, Horovice was a large Jewish center distinguished by many famous sons and daughters, most prominent among them Rabbi Isaiah ben Avraham Halevi Horowitz, author of perhaps the most richly elaborate compendium of pre-modern Jewish piety, the Shenei Luchot Haberit. Eventually, the community dwindled to just a few, but then there was an unexpected renaissance of Jewish life towards the end of the nineteenth century and the first synagogue to be built in Horovice for centuries opened on Valdecka Street in 1904.The rest of the story, you can imagine. The Nazis occupied Horovice in 1939. The Jews were rounded up, then deported, then murdered. The synagogue was closed, its treasures either destroyed or sent to a central collection point in Prague. Needless to say the synagogue was not re-opened after the war. The Germans had used it as a supply depot, but the building, having legally become the property of the Czech government, ended up being sold to a Hussite church and remains open to this day as a Christian place of worship. The Torah scrolls from Horovice, of which there were a total of ten, joined the other 1,800 scrolls stolen by the Nazis from the synagogues of Bohemia and Moravia to serve as part of a museum in Prague that was eventually intended to feature artifacts of the wholly annihilated Jewish people. Under the Communist government, the scrolls were stored in a warehouse in the Prague district of Michle. No one seemed quite sure what should happen to them—the communities from which they had been stolen no longer existed and the Czech government had merely inherited them from the Germans without any clear plan of how or whether to return them (not to mention the question of whom exactly to return them to) or what else possibly to do with them. For decades, they languished in storage.

In 1963, a British businessman named Ralph Yablon struck an exceptional deal with the Czech government regarding these forsaken scrolls. And it was as a result of this agreement that almost 1600 of them were sent to the Westminster Synagogue in London for restoration and preservation. The deal, however, precluded the sale of the scrolls and required instead that they be fashioned into a kind of world-wide exhibition that would memorialize the devastated Jewry of Bohemia and Moravia, the central Jewish regions of what now are now the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

There were ten scrolls. One is in the Midway Jewish Center in Syosset. Another is in Temple Beth Avodah in Newton Centre, Massachusetts. A third is in the Dallas Holocaust Museum. A fourth is in Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. The fifth is in the Solel Congregation in Mississauga, Ontario. The sixth is in Temple Beth El in Spring Valley, New York. The seventh is in Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. The eighth is in Temple Beth Emet in Cooper City, Florida. The ninth is in the library at SUNY Albany. And the tenth is in my synagogue, more specifically in the display window facing our Holocaust Memorial Garden. A lovely woman in Dallas, Nancy Fine, has recently undertaken to locate all the scrolls and to procure photographs of them all. It is through her efforts that I know all I’ve told you about the scroll in our display window.

Most of us pass it by without even noticing it. I myself walk past by it several times a day and, although I do try to notice it when I walk by, I don’t do much more than that. Nor is it obvious exactly what I should (or even could) do, other than to take note of its existence, then nod to its woeful demeanor, then think for a moment about the martyrs of that place who died at the hands of the Nazis. That much, I do try to do. Horovice was a small place. It wasn’t a Vilna or a Warsaw, not a major center of Jewish life when the Nazis arrived. It was just a town, just a place on a map, just a single Jewish community among countless towns and villages and shteitlach…but, in a world that takes the murder of even a single child seriously, or claims to, Horovice qualifies as a place of indescribable horror, a place that witnessed the murder not of a child or of several children, but of an entire community. And so I return to my original point: it is almost impossible to imagine the murder of millions, but it is not that hard to think of a small town being overrun by Nazi thugs. We can imagine the Jews of Horovice being marched to the trains, then deported to their deaths. We can imagine the synagogue being looted, its priceless artifacts packed up and shipped off, its less valuable appurtenances—its prayer books and its records, its Chumashim and its frayed tallesim—being pitched into a bonfire in the courtyard to be burnt like so much unwanted garbage. That kind of petty horror, we can all conjure up easily enough. And the point of having a Horovice scroll in our display window is, perhaps, precisely to engender that kind of purposeful introspection regarding the Shoah that leads us to recognize evil itself not as something that exists theoretically in the worldview of philosophers, but as something that exists all too really in the hearts of the wicked.

To stand up as a Jew in the world takes some courage at the best of times. But to live in the shadow of the Shoah, as do we all, and to respond not by fleeing our own identities but by standing up proudly (and just a bit obstinately) requires fortitude that all of us at least occasionally find in short supply. It is to stimulate us to find within ourselves that kind of courage to live as proud members of the survivors’ generation that monitory keepsakes like the Horovice Torah scrolls exist in our world. It won’t take much to let the scroll in our possession work its magic. Slowing down and taking a long enough look to allow the ghosts of the Jews of Horovice to settle for a moment onto your shoulders as you walk past will more than suffice. Perhaps that would be a worthy way for all of us to mark Yom Hashoah this year: not with complicated rituals, but with a slow walk past a window that looks at us and into our hearts no less directly than it exists for us to look into it. (April 18, 2009)

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