Tonight begins Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day - the day when we remember the effort by the Nazis to obliterate the Jewish people -- and how they nearly succeeded in their diabolical plan, murdering ⅔ of the Jews of Europe, approximately 6 million men, women, and children. The Holocaust continues to exert an influence on the life of our community today, as so many of us have family members who are survivors and so many of us have family members who were killed during that terrible era. (Click here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uK5uz7d-Oo to see a video of how Yom HaShoah is marked in Israel today -- with a two minute siren that brings the entire nation to mournful standstill in tribute to those who were killed.)
Many of us gathered at Congregation Bnai Jacob this afternoon for a moving tribute to those who died, including presentations of music by the USH Choir and memorial prayers chanted by our member Rebecca Weitman. Our older Learning Center students in grade 6 and above will have special programs this week focusing on remembering the Shoah.
This Yom HaShoah, I am reflecting on the memories of some people who were connected to our community who died during the past year, whose lives were touched by the Shoah.
Our friend and member Gertrude Grossbard, mother of our friend and member Stan Grossbard and wife of Henry Grossbard z”l, died almost exactly a year ago at age 92. Gertrude grew up in Vienna, where her parents had a business for leather and shoe accessories. She recalled having a happy childhood in Vienna, though starting in 1933 it was clear that things were changing. Her childhood included harrowing stories of stumbling upon a Nazi rally and hearing the most bloodthirsty songs vowing violence against the Jews, and memories of her brothers being arrested. In 1939, when she was age 14, her parents took her by train to Belgium, and with tears in his eyes, her father put her on a boat to the United States,with fear that they would never see her again. She lived with aunts and uncles and cousins in New York while still hoping to see her parents again. Only much later would she find out that they perished at Auschwitz.
In the US, Gertrude was reunited with her childhood friend Esther, through whom she also met Esther’s brother Henry, who had a harrowing Shoah story of his own. Within just two weeks, Henry was asking Gertrude to marry him… and apparently he kept on asking for the next five years until Gertrude finally said yes. Her reason for hesitating? -- How could she get married before she was reunited with her parents? Gertrude finally came to the conclusion that her mother would have approved of Henry had she met him.
Despite the difficulties that Gertrude endured, she would emphasize that she felt so fortunate to have survived and built a wonderful life and family in the United States. She is dearly missed by her son Stan Grossbard, her daughter-in-law Dawn Zimmer, her grandsons Jake and Alex, her daughter Rebecca, and many other relatives and friends.
Also on my mind are Rabbi Herman and Lotte Schaalman, grandparents of our friend and member Joshua Youdovin, who both died this year at age 100 and 102. They were both fortunate to leave Germany during the 1930’s to establish a new life in the United States; the story of Rabbi Schaalman’s immigration process can be found here http://religionnews.com/2017/02/05/schaalman-death-died-refugee/ and in his obituary here http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/obituaries/ct-herman-schaalman-obit-met-20170201-story.html.
Also on our minds this Yom HaShoah is writer and activist Elie Wiesel, who died this year. There have been numerous tributes to Elie Wiesel this year, including these powerful remembrances from friends, relatives and students: https://www.momentmag.com/many-legacies-elie-wiesel/. On Yom Kippur 2016, I told the story of the melody for Ani Ma’amin (“I believe with perfect faith”) that Elie Wiesel learned from the nephew of the Vishnitzer Rebbe. See below for my retelling of the story, and the link to the musical performance at which Elie Wiesel told this story.
With each passing year, the responsibility of sharing and the transmission of the stories of the survivors, the liberators, and the righteous rescuers passes more and more to the next generation. May the memories of all those touched by the Shoah -- those who died decades ago, and those who died this year -- be for a blessing always.
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg
Elie Wiesel's 'Ani Ma'amin'
For Yom Kippur 2016/5777,
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg
Elie Wiesel told the story of how, as a teenager in 1943, he and his mother traveled to spend a shabbat with the Hasidic community of the Vishnitzer Rebbe, in Hungary.
At that time, everyone knew that terrible things were happening to the Jewish community in Germany and Poland - though the magnitude, the specifics, were not yet known. But Jews in Hungary felt safe because the Nazis were not yet controlling Hungary, and the thought that they might gain control in Hungary seemed unthinkable.
That Shabbos, one of the guests around the table of the Vishnitzer Rebbe was the Rebbe’s nephew, who had escaped from Poland. All the hasidim circled around him, eager to get some news from him about what was befalling their brothers and sisters in Poland. What was the situation like? What exactly had he escaped from, and how did he escape?
The Vishnitzer Rebbe’s nephew refused to answer - saying “I cannot tell you.” But over the entire Shabbat, they circled him and asked him over and over to give them some news, to tell them what was happening in Poland.
Finally, in the waning hours of shabbat, as the sun was setting, the Vishnitzer Rebbe’s nephew finally said - “ok, I will tell you.” But he did not tell them a story. Instead, he sang a song - a particular melody of the words of Ani Ma’amin - “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Mashiach, the Messiah - and though the Messiah will tarry, nevertheless do I await his arrival every day.”
[melody at https://www.dropbox.com/s/4p2i2znpcft3m4g/Title1%20-%20Chapter%2016.mp3?dl=0 -- sung by Elie Wiesel, 'Elie Wiesel in Concert,' 92nd St Y, 2010]
The Vishnitzer Rebbe’s nephew did not convey any actual information about what was taking place in Poland. But his message was unmistakable, and all those around the table of the Vishnitzer Rebbe came to some understanding of the magnitude of what was befalling their brothers and sisters in Poland. How the world felt like it was crashing down over them. How they valiantly struggled to maintain faith that the world could still be redeemed, that what they were experiencing was not the utter collapse of the world, but rather that it was yet one more example of the tarrying of the Messiah.
Through the song, Elie Wiesel and those sitting at the table of the Vishnitzer Rebbe gained a window into the horrors of the Shoah.
At that time, none of them realized that within the year, the Nazis would control Hungary as well- and the fate of the Polish Jews would be their fate as well.
We are grateful for the lesson of Elie Wiesel, who died last summer -- for teaching us over and over again that even in the most abominable life situations, we must never regard ourselves as powerless. We must never respond with indifference or resignation to the suffering of others. There is always something we, and others, can do to bring our world closer to redemption.
Ani ma'amin- this I believe; be-emunah shleimah - with perfect confidence.