The Complexity of a Soul

On the Seventh Night of Hanukkah, Rabbi YY Jacobson released this video telling the dramatic story of a Jew who survived the Holocaust, became a Catholic priest, and sought to receive a Jewish burial alongside his parents’ graves in Poland.

I have shared this story many times today and gotten a wide range of reactions from friends about it.

The wisest comment, in my view, came from a friend who said, “One has to be somehow ‘living in the hyphen’ to appreciate such a story.”

Instead, the story of “the complexity of a soul” (as Rabbi YY Jacobson puts it) demands a certain openness and receptivity in order to be touched by it. Such complexity may unsettle many of us but we can take comfort in knowing that none of our souls are too complex for God.

My Best Historical Friend

On November 30th, my best historical friend, Etty Hillesum, perished in Auschwitz.

If you have never made friends with someone in a book, your life is incomplete.

Etty used to say this of Rilke and now I say it of her: “[S]he inhabits my life.”

Between the ages of 27-29, Etty, a Dutch Jew, kept a diary through which she demonstrated her incredible openness to reality and profound spiritual audacity.

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At the Gates of Hell

The monument at the entrance to the former Nazi concentration camp Majdanek was designed to be reminiscent of Dante’s Gates of Hell.

Into that secret place he led me on.
Here sighs, with lamentations and loud moans,
Resounded through the air pierced by no star,
That e’en I wept at entering.

– Dante

When I first visited this former camp in 2010, I never expected that I would ever return there. At the time, I did not even know where we were on the map. It seemed that we had been brought to the brink of an abyss, and that even our own existence became more tenuous as we stood there.

I will always remember pressing my hand against that massive, imposing monument and praying: “Lord, etch this experience on my memory and engrave this upon my conscience because I don’t want to ever forget the testimony of the survivors that I’ve heard in this place.”

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A Moment for Anonymous Heroes

I am obsessed with the stories of noble lives and acts of heroism.

In particular, I have been very focused on stories of heroism during the Second World War, particularly in the context of the Holocaust.

I cannot imagine my sustained engagement with the history of the Holocaust if not for the stories of the Righteous Among the Nations, who risked their lives to save Jews, as well as many other stories of courage and martyrdom.

These lights illuminate the darkness, clarify it and, to some modest extent possible, dispel it.

What I have begun thinking about more recently is how many stories of heroism are unknown to us and can never be known.

The stories that we have are a sliver of the humanity that persisted in the most dehumanizing of contexts.

Yet, there are surely many more stories that were snuffed out before they could edify successive generations.

The stories that we do know can help us exercise our imagination about what might have constituted noble and courageous responses in dire circumstances.

Can we let ourselves also be fortified by the confidence that there were also many anonymous heroes?

The facts of their righteousness may be known only to God, but the confidence that they existed can be known to us in hope.

Photo: Wall of Death at Auschwitz

Avoiding Easy Answers

The other day I had my first class called “Post-Holocaust Jewish Theologies and Selected Christian Responses.”

Among the readings with which we began the course, we were given this single page containing the following epitaph:

From the Psalms I learned to pray: “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” (Psalm 19)

From Irving Greenberg I have learned to add:

“May they be credible in the presence of the burning children.”

The rabbi teaching our class also introduced us to some pages of Zalmen Gradowski who gave an eyewitness account of the death camps. Gradowski perished in October 1944 and his manuscripts were found after the war, hidden underground near the crematoria at Auschwitz.

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A memory to sustain you as you suffer

In this clip, Rabbi YY Jacobson tells a powerful story about what saved a certain man when he was forced to undergo a death march as a child after his father had just been murdered.

Here’s that story:

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A jolt of perspective

During my studies in Poland, I learned about a satellite campus of the Catholic University directly across the street from the former Nazi concentration camp, Majdanek.

One of my roommates was studying journalism there and I asked her what it is like to go to school across from the former camp.

She admitted that she no longer thinks about it every time she goes to class. But, she recalled, “One Friday, a professor gave us an assignment just when we all thought we would have a free weekend. Naturally, we started to complain a bit. Then he told us to think about what had happened across the street and take some perspective before we grumble about an assignment, and we all fell silent.”

The Courage of Kolbe

Today is the Feast Day of St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who willingly offered to take the place of a prisoner destined for death in Auschwitz.

For many years this story has permeated my moral and spiritual imagination, and it has always been a great honour to get to share this remarkable story for the first time.

When you visit Auschwitz, it is possible to see the starvation cell in which Maximilian was held and to contemplate this story of sacrifice.

Maximilian’s selfless act was not a moral fluke. It was, to use an expression a friend offered recently, very much “in character.”

Earlier this year I heard another anecdote about Kolbe that I hadn’t heard before. I don’t have the source for it with me now, but from memory I will endeavour to retell it.

It is told that there was a prisoner in Auschwitz who was made to retrieve a corpse from a pile of bodies and move it to another place, probably to be burned. This prisoner, a Catholic man, was so repulsed by the pile of corpses that he could hardly bring himself to do it. Of course, not complying would have its own consequences for him. Fr. Maximilian saw this man’s distress and, looking between this man and then to the pile of bodies, whispered, “And the Word was made flesh.”

At this, a slight brightness returned to the prisoner’s eyes and he was consoled by this word (and the Word) to the extent that he was able to pick up the dead body and carry it reverently.

I am so taken by this story that shows that the Incarnation is a breakthrough. The compassion that God has for man is shown in His willingness to come alongside us and lift us up from the world of sin and darkness.

Will we have the courage, whenever and wherever we see a desecration of persons, to give encouragement and consolation with the poignant reminder that God is truly with us?

Who might have a truth that you need?

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.”

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Cultural Vitality and Human Dignity

A few years ago, I conducted this interview with Juliana Taimoorazy, founder of the Iraqi Christian Relief Council. Since it was not previously published, but contains many worthwhile remarks about why cultural preservation is an important aspect to human dignity, I now post it here.

Amanda: You were once interviewed on CBN about the Iraqi elections and Iraqi Christians. In that clip you said, “In addition to building communities in terms of brick and mortar, their homes, their streets, and churches… there must be real attention paid to building the human person.” What does it mean to build up the human person, in general and in Iraq specifically?

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