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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How human he was

Although it was half a lifetime ago for me, I remember watching the film Dead Man Walking in a high school religious studies class. I also remember that this single film affected me deeply and challenged whatever limited thoughts I had had on the death penalty at that point.

Now that I am currently in Texas, I took the occasion to read this fascinating transcript of a conversation between Debbie Morris, Helen Prejean, and Rabbi Elie Spitz on Krista Tippett’s program On Being.

As the moment of the man’s execution approached, Morris said:

Debbie Morris was abducted and raped by a man who was eventually killed by capital punishment. In the interview, she discusses her ambivalence about his execution and describes her reason for wanting her perpetrator dead as having been motivated more by fear of him than out of a desire for revenge.

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What this Holocaust survivor wants on her tombstone

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.

Making space for marking loss

Eleven years ago today, I was in Berlin embarking on the 10-day March of Remembrance and Hope Holocaust study trip with sixty Canadian students and two survivors.

It is not an exaggeration to say that there has not been a day of my life since that trip that I have not recalled it in some way.

Contending with morality and mortality as a young adult through this trip remains among the most formative and orienting experiences of my life.

One of the first sites we visited is pictured below. As we stood there, we weren’t quite sure what we were meant to see. But gradually, with the help of our guide, this memorial came to life for us.

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With Eyes Open

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.

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Remembrance in the Living Room

In 2010, some friends gathered in a living room to discuss the Holocaust, the testimony of survivors, and its impact on society over time in an intimate and familiar setting.

Since then, this experience has become an annual international initiative called Zikaron Basalon, which means “remembrance in the living room.”

The event usually takes place on Yom HaShoah, Israel’s official date of commemoration for those who perished in the Holocaust.

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