There is a verse in the Book of Sirach that has always resonated with me profoundly that says, “If you see an intelligent person, rise early to visit him; let your foot wear out his doorstep.” (Sirach 6:36)
Likewise, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks has been an example to me of applying this principle concretely.
When he was a university student, he decided to travel throughout America to meet the leading rabbis of the day. All of them insisted he had to meet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson.
Upon requesting the meeting, Sacks was initially laughed at for his audacity. However, some days later he got a phone call informing him, “The Rebbe will see you on Thursday.”
It was on this date five years ago that Elie Wiesel died.
The Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate felt a tremendous responsibility to bear witness to all that he and others suffered.
“If I survived, it must be for some reason: I must do something with my life. It is too serious to play games with anymore because in my place someone else could have been saved. And so I speak for that person. On the other hand, I know I cannot,” he told a New York Times interviewer in 1981.
This evening I re-read Wiesel’s brief Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech from a few years later in 1986.
Recently I have been reflecting on a particular chapter in the last book Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks published just before his death. The book is titled Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times and the chapter that I have in mind is titled “Victimhood.”
Rabbi Sacks opens the chapter with a discussion of Yisrael Kristal, a Holocaust survivor who lived to be 113.
During the Holocaust, Yisrael’s wife and children were murdered. And, after years in ghettos and concentration camps, he weighed just 82 pounds.
We learn that Yisrael remained a religious Jew throughout his life. He married another survivor with whom he had children and they settled in Haifa and opened a business selling sweets and chocolates as he had done in Poland.
Rabbi Sacks goes on to compare Yisrael Kristal to Abraham insofar as Yisrael was able to integrate into his life completely the transformative idea: “To survive tragedy and a trauma, first build the future. Only then, remember the past.”
“There are real victims,” Rabbi Sacks affirms. “And they deserve our empathy, sympathy, and compassion. But there is a difference between being a victim and defining yourself as one. The first is about what happened to you. The second is about how you define who and what you are. The most powerful lesson I learned from these people I have come to know, people who are victims by any measure, is that, with colossal willpower, they refused to define themselves as such.”
Whenever I read about recently committed antisemitic acts in the news, my heart and mind immediately goes especially to Holocaust survivors. What must it be like to survive the Holocaust and then to be witnessing antisemitism in your own city in the twenty-first century?
Two years ago, after the synagogue shooting near San Diego, I visited my friend Faigie Libman. Faigie is one of two survivors with whom I travelled on a Holocaust study trip to Germany and Poland.
In my clip with her, Faigie says that her motto, which she hopes will go on her tombstone is, “If you have hatred in your heart, there’s no room for love.”
Take a look at this clip. It’s such a good reminder that darkness is best combatted with light and hatred is best combatted with love.
I first heard the following story told by the incredible storyteller and guide Michael Bauer during the 2010 March of Remembrance and Hope Holocaust study trip to Germany and Poland.
Shmuel Gogol was a Polish Jew who was born in Warsaw. His mother died and his father was expelled from Poland. For a time, Shmuel was raised by his grandmother before she eventually brought him to Janusz Korczak’s orphanage.
One day, Shmuel saw a boy playing a harmonica and he immediately longed to have one of his own so that he could learn to play it. Janusz Korczak finally gave him one for his birthday.
As I have written about before, Korczak and 200 children of the orphanage were deported to the death camp called Treblinka. However, Shmuel was not among these children because his grandmother had smuggled him out of the Warsaw Ghetto to stay with his uncle in a different Polish town during the war.
However, despite these efforts to protect him, Shmuel still ended up getting deported to Auschwitz.
At Auschwitz, all of Shmuel’s possessions were confiscated, including his harmonica.
Time went on and, one day, Shmuel could hear the sound of a harmonica from within the concentration camp. So intent was he at the prospect of once again having a harmonica that he traded several days of food rations in order to obtain it from the other prisoner.