Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Stirring Eulogy to an Auschwitz Survivor

Bs"dMonday, Jan 28, 2008

A tribute to Auschwitz's 'angels of life'BY RABBI YOSSI REFSON
The following article originally appeared in the Sunday edition of the Charleston Post and Courier
Today marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the largest of some 15,000 concentration, extermination and forced-labor camps established by the Germans during World War II. It is estimated that, at minimum, 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz between 1940 and 1945; of which at least 1.1 million were murdered.
As a rabbi in this community here in Charleston and a grandson of one of those fortunate to have survived the horrors of Auschwitz, much about this dark chapter in human history informs my personal and professional life.
My late Bubby (Grandma) Bluma was 13 when her mother, five older siblings and their children were exterminated under the orders of Josef Mengele, aptly referred to as the "Angel of Death."
Upon her recent passing at the age of 76, I took the opportunity to reread Bubby's memoirs. In four different instances, my grandmother had stood — amid the smoke of the crematoriums, the barking dogs, the trampling boots and swinging clubs — on the infamous "selection line" at the head of which Mengele and his minions stood, pointing left and right, sentencing some to back-breaking labor, and sending others to the gas chambers. In each of those instances, somebody would come along and say or do something that would change Bubby's fate from certain death to tenuous life. In one such incident, she already had been sent to the line of those marked for death when a man appeared as if from nowhere, physically removed her from that line and shoved her into the other, without saying a word.
Indeed, the miracles and the mysteries of the events of those days abound along with the horrors and the tragedies. In contrast to the vile actions of the "Angel of Death" were the noble and heroic actions of many "Angels of Life" who stood ready to risk their own lives for the sake of saving that of a stranger.
It is thanks in no small part to "Angels" like these, who stepped out from behind their own misery and grief to come to the aid of others, that generations now live on to tell the story. How clearly we see the infinite ripple effects of single acts of kindness and compassion, even if accomplished in a split second.
As incredible and haunting as her story is, I find that the most powerful lessons of Bubby's Holocaust experience are not those found in the words themselves, but those that come piercing through between the lines. Everything about this woman's life — her faith, her dignity, her regal stature, her loving demeanor — makes a bold statement: There shall be no victory for the Nazis and their ilk. I can hear her saying: "Physically, they may have beaten and burned, tortured and maimed us, reducing us to subhuman conditions, but spiritually, there is something within us that they could not touch — not them, not the many others that have tried; not then, not now, not ever."
If Jewish history has proven one irrefutable fact, it's that the soul of a faithful people cannot be vanquished by those driven to destroy that which is good and right in this world. The forces of evil and tyranny are ultimately no match for those of goodness and sanctity.
The matriarch of a family of four children, 25 grandchildren and 35 great-grandchildren, all raised and educated with the values and traditions of her ancestors, Bubby lived to witness the victory of her convictions and the resounding historical defeat of those who sought to bury them. She established for all time the most meaningful memorial of all to those who perished in Auschwitz, a living, dynamic, eternal memorial: the continuity of a proud and resilient people.
It is to the perpetuation of this living memorial that my wife, Sarah, and I have now devoted our own lives. With every individual or family in this community helped, educated or infused with a spirit of pride in their heritage as a result of our humble efforts, another nail is hammered into the coffins of Hitler, Mengele, Eichmann and the rest, even as their victims are brought to life in our midst.
We are blessed to have established roots in Charleston. The city remains true to its long and rich history of kindness and benevolence toward the Jewish people. Dating back to the days of the Revolutionary War and even earlier, Charleston was a city that readily provided refuge and haven to Jews fleeing religious persecution in Europe. Indeed, the charter of the Carolina Colony expressly mentioned the granting of "liberty of conscience" to Jews, among others.
It is on this compassionate soil that Sarah and I now seek to promote the ultimate lesson of the Holocaust, for Jew and gentile alike: Whereas evil and selfish acts fade into nothingness, acts of goodness and kindness march across the expanse of time and space, forever illuminating the landscape of human history.
A U.S. serviceman who participated in the liberation of one of the concentration camps recounted how before his platoon entered the camp, the men were briefed by their commanding officer. "What you are about to see is like nothing you have ever seen before," he said.
Referring to the food supplies the soldiers were given to provide to the hungry inhabitants of the cities they had captured, including Hershey chocolate bars for the children, the officer forewarned against giving any of the food to the camp survivors. "You must know that these people have not eaten anything in years beyond scraps and morsels. As much as you may want to load them up with food; as much as you may want to give the children those Hershey bars, you must not. Their systems would not be able to withstand it, and they could die as a result. They will have to be slowly nourished back to health."
As they entered the camp, they were looked upon by the prisoners as if they'd been sent from heaven. A child of skin and bones, barely alive, came up to this soldier and begged him for some food. His heart began to break. A starving, dying child, and he couldn't pull out what was in his pack to give him what he was asking for.
"I don't have any food I can give you," he said, "but you know what I can give you? I can give you a hug."
In describing what happened next, he said, "I put my arms around this child, and he put his thin bony arms around me. Tears began flowing down my cheeks. And then, an incredible thing happened. Hundreds of these children, barely alive, began flocking toward me, asking if they too could have a hug. Before long, there was a long line in front of me. They were standing in line, not for a chocolate bar, but just a hug. After all the hatred and cruelty they'd encountered all those years, just a little bit of love and tenderness from a feeling and caring human being. And then the adults came, too. They waited for a hug; for someone with some strength who could show them just a bit of humanity. We all cried together."
Even when we don't seem to have the answers or the healing people need, there's always something we can do to help. We can share a smile, a caring word, some human connection and understanding; a hug. If we can lighten their burden only a bit, who knows what a world of good we might accomplish.
In a world that, 63 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, is still threatened by forces of evil seeking to destroy innocent human lives, where impulses of hatred, narcissism and greed still wreak havoc upon societies, it behooves people of conscience to counter these with simple acts of kindness. For any selfless step we take to benefit another creates one of those magical ripples.
Auschwitz showed us that just as man can sink as low as the basest animal, so can he rise to the level of angels.
Rabbi Yossi Refson heads Chabad of Charleston and the Low Country.

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