Sermon: Rosh Hashanah 5771 by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

Memory and Responsibility

Rosh HaShana 5771

8/9 September 2010

Beth El Congregation, Harrisonburg, VA

Temple House of Israel, Staunton, VA

This summer Nurit and I traveled into the future and into the past. We visited places of dreams and nightmares. We walked along sun-drenched streets and delighted in watching cyclists and pedestrians and families with their children and dogs. And we trudged through the rain along paths that led to torture and death.

This summer, Nurit and I were privileged to accompany one of the NFTY L’Dor v’Dor trips through the Czech Republic and Poland. The young people with whom we traveled spent the next three weeks experiencing Israel with Israeli peers.

Since our return, I have been trying to find words to speak about this trip, to reflect upon what it means to travel into the heart of the world that was destroyed by the Holocaust, the Shoah.   I have been thinking about what it means to create and sustain memory—and wondering about my own “memories” of places I have never been, and events that I did not directly experience. What does it mean to visit a place that has appeared in our worst nightmares? What frames and mediates such an experience? How does the experience—and the memory of it—change as time passes? And what do we take away from claiming such memories?

Our trip began in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. This vibrant city of 1.3 million people has been the cultural, political and economic center of the Czech people for over 1000 years, and Jews have been a part of this history. In the early 18th century, more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in world. In 1708, Jews accounted for one-quarter of Prague’s population. However, across Europe, Jewish fortunes were often tied to the whims of rapidly changing political climates, and the Czech Jews experienced expulsion, re-patriation, and then became embroiled in what we now call culture wars between the Czech-speaking middle class and the German-speaking members of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. On the eve of World War II, over 92,000 Jews lived in Prague, making it one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish communities in Europe, with a well-developed system of schools, synagogues, and youth and service organizations. Tragically, the majority of Czech and Slovakian Jews, numbering more than a quarter of a million children, women and men, were murdered in the Nazi Holocaust.

Today, visitors come to see monuments to Prague’s vibrant Jewish past. We visited four synagogues in Josefov, the historic Jewish quarter. The historic AlteNeuschul (Old-New) synagogue is one of the oldest synagogues in Europe still serving as a regular place of worship. Among the distinctive features of this shul are the Hebrew verses inscribed on the vaulted walls. However, these verses are written in what we might call Mosaic Code: each of eight phrases appears with the first letter of each word, beautifully calligraphed with crowns, like those written on a sacred Torah scroll. Indecipherable and mysterious to the outsider, these phrases serve as focal points and inspiration for the knowledgeable worshipper.

On the Eastern wall, on the left hand side of the aron hakodesh, the ark that holds the Torah scrolls, is inscribed daled/bet/mem/aleph/ayin, the first letters of the words: snug v,t hn hbpc gs Dah bifnei me atah omed—Know before whom you stand.[1] This phrase is often written in the front of synagogues.[2] It reminds both worshippers—and those who serve the congregation as leaders—to remember that they stand both before the Holy One and before each member of the holy congregation. .

On the same wall, on the right hand side of the ark is written: Shin/Hey/Lamed/Tav,

the first letters of shn, hsdbk wv h,huJ

shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid: I place God before me always. These words, from Psalm 16:8, often form a calligraphy or artpiece called a mizrach, which is hung on the eastern wall of any room in which Jews meditate or pray and assists individuals in orienting themselves towards Jerusalem.

As we stood in this unique sanctuary, I did not realize that these two phrases, both of which remind me of my place in the world, would accompany and continue to challenge me on my journey through Europe and beyond.

Later that morning, we visited the Pinkas Synagogue, a memorial to the Jews of Moravia and Bohemia who were murdered by the Nazis. Lovingly and perfectly inscribed on each of the walls of the restored building we encountered the names of 80,000 individuals, listed by town and by family. What do those names reveal, and what do they hide? If we think about how we read and regard names on memorials here, in this sanctuary—some names bring tears to our eyes, some make us smile. Each name in the Pinkas synagogue represented a life, with a unique inheritance and a particular trajectory of growth and accomplishment, love and loss. For too many of those names, there is no one left to tell those stories. We walked through the building in silence, and emerged into the bright June day, overwhelmed by beauty and sadness.

We continued from Prague to Cracow, which was first settled by Jews eight hundred years ago. During times of tolerance when Jews could live and travel throughout the area, the Jewish population increased, shrinking during periods when Jews were banned from settlement and commerce. In spite of increasing anti-Semitism following WWI, nearly 60,000 Jews lived in Cracow, making it a spiritual and political center of Polish Jewish life. When the Nazis occupied Poland in 1939, one fourth of the population of Cracow was Jewish. Cracow was the first home of Oskar Schindler’s munitions factory, where Schindler “employed” and ultimately saved the lives of one thousand Jews.

In the old Jewish neighborhood of Cracow, we gathered at The Tempel Synagogue, one of the few remaining Reform Temples in Eastern Europe. The magnificent Moorish building, originally constructed in 1862, was used by the Nazis as a storehouse and stable. We circled the large, beautifully restored center bima and began to sing. Our voices filled the beautiful dome, and the strains of Am Yisrael Chai seemed to call upon the souls who had courageously come together as Reform Jews, modernizing Judaism by embracing innovation. I wondered: what memories were we creating as we sang and danced together in this reclaimed sanctuary? What responsibilities come with the privilege of encountering history first-hand?

Professor Alison Landsberg of George Mason University has written a provocative book exploring what she calls “prosthetic memory,” the creation of memory of times through which we have not lived, events that we apprehend through experiences including film, museum exhibits, or visiting historical sites. Landsberg contends that our connection and identification with these memories can become so much a part of us that we viscerally feel loss, much as amputees sense the absence of a lost limb.[3]

On this trip, the organizers and leaders worked to establish both individual and collective frameworks through which our teen participants could both apprehend and then organize information about events in the Jewish past. Taking these young people on this trip intentionally called, “L’dor v’dor: From generation to generation,” we were attempting to create memories, prosthetic memories, as Landsberg calls them. She writes about the fact that prosthetic memory is particularly important in a time when so many of the world’s people have experienced the disruption of migration, robbing many of us of a sense of home, place, and nation. In our twenty-first century of globalization and trans-nationalism, the creation of memory presents particular challenges. As I prepared for our visit to Auschwitz, I was struck by the fact that in our group of 120 youngsters and leaders, few of us were the offspring or the direct heirs of those who had perished in concentration camps. Rather, we reflected the full range of the American Jewish diaspora, where the boundaries of Jewishness and Judaism are more flexible and permeable than ever before in Jewish history. Many of our participants had only one parent who was born Jewish, and many had grown up in households where Judaism was not regularly practiced or observed. Several came from non-European backgrounds. Our small group reflected the history of migration that both preceded and followed the European Shoah, even as we reflected other aspects of contemporary Jewish multiculturalism.

We were intentionally constructing a scaffolding for memory, and such effort brings with it a range of questions and responsibilities. In addition to striving towards intellectual honesty and transparency about sometimes contradictory sources, we were also conscious of providing emotional and spiritual care to our charges. We understood that there might be a range of responses, both at the time of our visit to the camps and in the days and weeks following the trauma of encounter. Throughout, I was mindful of how we spoke about the connection between the near-destruction of European Jewry and the establishment of the state of Israel.

After spending three days traveling through one thousand year of European Jewish history, we readied ourselves to visit the actual sites of torture and murder, I prayed that I would be able to be present to the many conflicting thoughts and feelings that might well up for me. And I hoped that I could also be present for my young companions. As we stood together and confronted this great tragedy, I hoped that we would be watering the seeds of compassion that had been planted and tended by parents and teachers throughout our teens’ lives. I prayed that I could translate loss into love.

And it was evening, and it was morning, the fourth day. Under grey and threatening skies, wearing layers of clothes to insulate ourselves against the unseasonable chill, we boarded buses to travel to Birkenau, also known as Auschwitz II. We entered the vast camp next to the railroad tracks that were built specifically to deliver human cargo directly to the gas chambers. When the Nazis realized that defeat was imminent, they attempted to destroy the camp. We spent hours walking through intermittent drizzle through emptiness--vast fields dotted with reconstructed wooden barracks, abandoned, empty stone barracks, and the rubble of crematoria. When we paused, the young Israelis who served as our madrichim, counselors read survivors’ testimonies relating to each place we stood. We concluded our visit with additional readings and by reciting the kaddish together.

We then boarded our buses and continued on to Auschwitz I. There we divided into small groups and were assigned to one of the official Museum guides. Our guide was a kind and competent retired local Polish schoolteacher. She told us that she was devoting her retirement to educating against hate.

Rooms that had served as barracks now house enormous cases filled with thousands of articles taken from the prisoners: suitcases, eyeglasses, piles of childrens’ dolls, shoes, kitchen utensils, prostheses, and an enormous case of human hair, now al brittle and grey. The exhibit rooms were hot and stuffy. The tour ended with a visit to one of the few extant crematoria. We lit a candle and said kaddish one last time before we boarded the buses.

Few of us spoke as we drove to the only remaining synagogue in the town of Oswiecim. Now part of the Auschwitz Jewish Center, this tiny, restored sanctuary is rarely filled with the voices of Jews in prayer. We crowded into the tiny space and stood close together before the open ark, singing the Sh’ma as if with a single voice. The walls reverberated with the energy of one hundred young Jews affirming hope in the shadow of death. On the right of the ark, the aron kodesh, there was a small, recessed stone, a remnant of the original structure. I read the chiseled words: shn, hsdbk wv h,huJ

These were the same words—in the same place—as on the vaulted walls of the Alteneuschul in Prague. “I place God before me always…” In that moment, I knew that we were echoing the faith of the psalmist who had originally written these words, and of so many who had perished just miles from here with the name of God on their lips.

The week after I returned from this trip, Leonard Fein, who had been my teacher in the sixties, published an article in The Jewish Forward challenging trips like ours. He wrote, “This is the single most manipulative experience to which we can expose our young. …It is designed to maximize the participants’ vulnerability and then, when they are defenseless, to offer them the approved answers.” He continues, “It is now 65 years since the end of the Holocaust, and no one who has sought to confront it claims to understand it. It was and remains a mystery, understood only in its fragments, perceived only through questions that dangle miserably, questions that have not been, perhaps cannot ever be, answered.”  He concludes, “the entire experience is built on (an) official answer: Israel. ‘From ashes to rebirth,’ we say…sorrow, then exultation. This is neither good history nor acceptable pedagogy…”[4]

I was deeply troubled, but also challenged by Fein’s words. As I reflected on our experience, I knew that we had worked hard to avoid offering simple answers to the imponderable questions posed by the Shoah. As an ohevet Zion, a committed lover of Israel, I was delighted that the teens with whom we had traveled had continued from Europe to Israel. And we had prepared them by speaking honestly about the many challenges Israel faces. The insights of Avraham Burg helped me to articulate my response to Fein’s accusation. better frame my understanding of why making this journey and creating these prosthetic memory matters:

  • The particulars of our history must be studied and committed to memory.
  • This essential Jewish journey into the heart of darkness teaches that both our texts and our history mandate justice and care.
  • And those lessons must lead us to active engagement in the never-ending work of fighting ignorance and prejudice, building bridges of understanding between the people with whom we live in the world.

In his brilliant and provocative book, The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes, Avraham Burg writes,

“Wherever the Nazi turns off the light, the Jew comes to turn it back on. Just as our call ‘Let my people go’ is echoed beyond history whenever and wherever people demand their liberties all over the world to this day, the term Jew can identify anyone who refuses to bend in the face of discrimination, evil, and persecution.” [5]

Leonard Fein is right to warn against building what is, finally, a flimsy bridge from the Shoah to Israel. But he vastly underestimates both our young people and their teachers. Though they live in a world of instant communication, they know that much that is essential cannot be shared in an instant, or with words. And Fein misses that perhaps the most powerful takeaway from such a visit is not to doubt the existence of God, or to despair because of the extent of human depravity and cruelty. Rather, we can come away from Auschwitz marveling at the resilience of the human spirit, singing Am Yisrael Chai and  Sh’ma in reclaimed and restored synagogues, and determined that Never Again applies to all people, everywhere. I hope that those of us who traveled together this summer will claim memories that lead us towards this messianic—and achievable—goal.

The eastern wall of the Alteneuschul is adorned by two Hebrew inscriptions. After my visit to Auschwitz, I realize that these two phrases mirror one another. Together, they challenge every one of us:

snug v,t hn hbpc gs

Dah bifnei me atah omed—Know before whom you stand.

shn, hsdbk wv h,huJ

Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid --I place God before me always.

When I see God in every human being, I know before whom I stand.

When I know before whom I stand, I stand before God.

This is my prayer for the new year:

As I continue my life’s journey, may I open my mind and my heart to each soul I encounter. May I honor the living and the dead, the stranger and the familiar, you who are close and you who are distant. May I have patience and compassion for every soul who struggles, as do I, to walk with dignity in the world. May memory of loss lead me to love. May memory of pain lead to kindness. May I pursue justice for each individual, remembering always that each of us is created in the image of the Holy One, the Source of Compassion, the Creator of Justice, the Author of Love.

Ken y’hi ratzon. Amen.

The following websites helped me reconstruct my trip: Sites

[1] Both the Talmud (Berachot 28b) and Avot de Rabbi Natan (Chapter 19) present this quote in the plural: ohsnIg o,t hn hbpk Ugs. I have not been able to determine the history of its transposition into the singular, or why the lamed was transposed to a bet on the Prague vault.

[2] Abraham Joshua Heschel deconstructs and interprets this phrase in Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), pp 59-64. His citation led me to Avot de Rabbi Nathan.

[3] Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (NY: Columbia University Press, 2004), 2 ff. I am indebted to my colleague Amy Schwartzman for pointing me to this source.

[4] “The Manipulative March,” The Jewish Forward, 9 July 2010.

[5] Avraham Burg, The Holocaust is Over: We Must Rise from its Ashes (NY:Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 144.- Rabbi Sue