This past day is the saddest day in Jewish history. Two temples were destroyed – one for idol worship and the second for Sinat Am which literally means hatred of others without cause. The expulsion from Spain in 1492 was on Tisha B’Av. There are many, many events that fall on this day. It is actually the culmination of three weeks of mourning in the Jewish calendar which starts with the 17th of Tammuz and the breeching of the walls of Jerusalem by the Romans. We do not listen to music, eat meat, drink wine or rejoice through weddings or wear freshly laundered clothes or wash for pleasure from the start of the month of Av as our mourning is intensified to the 9th of Av and until midday of the 10th of Av.
Last night I went to the Yeshivah Shule on Hotham Street because two Shoah survivors were speaking there. The first man recounted his story briefly. Then a man called Nossan Werdiger spoke and it was hard to hear without tears and even more difficult for him to speak of the unspeakable. He prefaced his talk with “I bring you greetings from Gehenoim.’ Geheniom is hell. He spoke about his experiences in the death camps and how he survived barely. He was in the death camps of the Nazi monsters – one should never call them animals as animals do not do to their own kind what the Nazi (may their names be cursed and erased from this world and the next) soulless monsters did to other human beings. They created a hell on G-D’s earth the likes of which we should never see again.
I came away shaken to the core, thinking may no generations to come have to see the world through the eyes of this man’s suffering and of his fellow Shoah survivors those with us and those who are not. His story and the stories of his fellow prisoners must be recorded and they are our few remaining witnesses to a soulless political ideology that decided a group of people should be exterminated as if they borne no human kinship to the beings that ran the death camps and the army that rounded them up to work and die.
Werdiger spoke of his survival throughout the harshest conditions in the camps, little sleep (they had roll call at 4am in the morning in the freezing snow) starvation rations, inadequate clothing and forced labour. He recalled the work he did painting and the fact that he was one of the few people with a good pair of shoes. Emotion cracked his powerful voice when he spoke of those whom he had lost in these dreadful days – a little brother, a sister, his mother and others of his family. Death is not easy, we all die, but to die under those conditions and not be allowed to mourn those you love – your friends, your family and relatives and not to give them the proper burial rites and even not to know them on their last day that is a pain never erased. You last glimpse a mother, child or elderly parent or grandparent as they are separated from you and then the camp inmates who have been there longer tell you where they go; children and mothers and the elderly or infirm – to the gas chambers and then the crematoriums whose smoke drifts and hangs heavy in the sky – dark with the blood and ash of your loved ones and everywhere there is death and destruction of morals and humanity and dying is happening everywhere around you.
He talked of his survival after the war when he had already become a Musselman. A musselman was the term given not just to people who were on the verge of death, but to people whose very neshama was in such shock at the horror that they had witnessed that they gave up hope to live. They were walking dead – their souls fled into hibernation and searched for escape from the hell that they had been placed in. Werdiger was four years in hospital after the war and nearly died but for the friends that he had in the camps some of whom survived and some are still with us and some have sadly gone to the next world.
What can we say to a person who has witnessed such hell and survived? To say that they have had a normal life would be wrong. One can only stand in awe of their emotional strength and their endurance of the pain which they carry to their dying days. Can we promise them that we and the next generations will not let them or what they have suffered be forgotten and can we say NO and raise our voices in protest should the beginning of such a thing should ever, ever happen again. (G-D forbid)
I learnt of the Shoah or Holocaust from some of the very first books I read as a child. Our family members are great readers. There was no TV when I grew up and we read and read and read everything we could get our hands on. My two uncles and my father as did my paternal grandfather had extensive libraries on holocaust literature. There were a lot of books put out in the fifties and sixties especially on the atrocities of Europe. I grew up in houses that had book shelves lining the walls. We also have anti Semites in our family, who would prefer to forget that they are descended from Rachel Aaron a yiddishe maidel whose father Josef was deported to Australia with his wife and children coming in steerage. He stole something I believe and came as a guest of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Once he has worked off his fare he settled down in Australia. I do know that Rachel married out as John Lead who changed his name to Leeds was not Jewish. Josef Aaron was from Hamburg in Germany originally. Family talked about them being Danish or from Holland. But no such luck. I still have to keep 6 hours between meat and milk instead of one. They only passed through Holland. They were originally from Hamburg and probably came there from Spain or Portugal if you could trace it back.
My mother is also from Jewish stock but again I have neither the time nor the money to investigate. Her father was Jewish supposedly because his mother was a Czechoslovakian Jewess and her mother I do not know as I never knew her nor do I have the means to trace her family back. Who knows what one can find if one searches long and hard enough? This I do know that as the grandchild of someone Jewish, it was enough to end up in the camps if caught up in the Nazi machine. The Germans had a unique system of classification. Anyone of mixed blood was declared a Mischlinge of either 1st or 2nd degree and Hitler himself apparently reviewed files of people who were asking for reclassification so they could be declared of Aryan enough. There were many converts from Judaism to either protestant or catholic religions and some Jews were irreligious. The topic is an extensive one and I am not going to judge those who disavowed their Judaism to remain alive in the European infernos. I prefer to stand in awe of those who remained proudly Jewish despite the horrors of the Shoah and rebuilt their lives and families and adhered to G-D and Jewish observance. Nor will I ever stand to condemn those who did not keep their Jewish faith close. Who knows how and what those who did endure felt about themselves after the Shoah when all those they had known and loved passed over in the furnaces. Who is to say how one would act when placed in their shoes and have to walk the miles that they walked in the conditions they had to trudge.
After the testimony of the holy survivors, I went to hear the words of Rabbi Meir Yaakov Soloveichik who was addressing the Mizrachi shule. I arrived late but still was able to hear the greater part of his historical analysis of the destructions of the Beis Hamikdash and he was in one word, amazing. He summed up the difference between the Empire of Rome and the Kingdom of Judea as one worshipped power and might of the warrior and the other was a religion of faith. When the Beit Hamikdash was destroyed, the Menorah was no longer lit in the Temple, it was lit in Jewish homes in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people and we adhered to our faith and we knew now and know now and will know just who we are. It was uplifting to hear this learned Rabbi talk and I was glad to have been present at both the testimony of Reb Werdiger and also to hear the words of Rabbi Soloveichik.
The might and power of Rome may have destroyed a temple that was G-D’s physical dwelling place on this world, but it could not touch the spiritual home of the Jewish nation and we need to realize that each part of us is a part of the whole nation. When we realize that and join our hearts and souls together and serve Hashem in a peaceful way and with prayer and mitzvoth, we shall defeat even the most powerful, richest and greatest of the nations, because we have compassion and kindness, firmness and righteousness as our heritage and we have the Torah to guide us and it is the contract from Hashem – an everlasting one that will with G-D’s help and our own mitzvoth bring Moishiach to this world and to create peace and goodness in this world.
Let the Temple be rebuilt first in our spiritual growth, our hearts and our homes and then, we should see the physical manifestation of the Third Holy Temple and the Cohenim and Levi’im returning to their holy ovada and all Am Israel will journey to be blessed in Jerusalem.