“Antisemitism makes no sense, but it will never disappear. We need to confront it while knowing that the Jews today have a homeland.”
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL, May 12, 2020 /24-7PressRelease/ — Yesterday, May 10, to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, Limmud FSU International, an organization that mounts peer-led gatherings of Jewish learning that specifically reach out to Russian-speaking Jews around the world, held the first in a planned series of e-learning opportunities –”eLimmud”- hosted by Limmud FSU president, Aaron G. Frenkel.
These talks complement a huge variety of e-learning opportunities on Jewish, general – and coronavirus – topics that are being regularly held by the volunteer organizing committees of the Limmud FSU festivals around the world, from Moscow to the US West Coast, and from Europe to Israel. The e-Limmud FSU project was initiated by Limmud FSU founder Chaim Chesler and produced by Limmud FSU Public Affairs director Natasha Chechik.
All these virtual study gatherings, explained Frenkel, are an opportunity for Russian-speaking Jews to learn – and be – together virtually, when physical gatherings cannot take place. “We will continue to mount such learning opportunities over the next few months,” he said, “on topics that are, in one way or another timely. In this gathering, we remember that the war – and the Holocaust – ended 75 years ago.”
Rabbi Lau, who survived the Holocaust as a child, thanks in no small measure to the resourcefulness of his older brother, Naftali, noted that for him, the last day of the war was actually April 11, 1945, “the day of our liberation,” when US troops arrived at the Buchenwald concentration camp. At first, he explained, the prisoners were not sure if the US soldiers, dressed in a different uniform from the Nazi troops, were another enemy. “But the chaplain of General Patton’s forces, Herschel Schacter, went from barrack to barrack and, speaking warmly in Yiddish, told us ‘Jews, you are free.'”
Lau fast forwarded 60 years, to a Jewish Shabbat he spent in Seattle. “I visited the city’s small Holocaust museum, and when I came out, a good-looking elderly man came up and said: ‘It is important for me to shake your hand. I saw the last day of the war in Buchenwald; for the first time I saw people dying; I saw how weak you were, and I understood that we, the liberators had come too late. We had to have arrived earlier to liberate you all. Before I give up my soul to the Almighty, I need to ask forgiveness from the survivors for arriving late.”
Retired Justice Elyakim Rubinstein recounted how most of his father’s family, who came from a small village on the Belarus-Polish border, were, in August 1942, together with the other members of the community, taken out of the village and shot into a mass pit. His father was a Polish army prisoner of war in the Soviet Union and survived.
Both speakers framed their remarks within the wider context of antisemitism. There is no logic to antisemitism they stressed: Rabbi Lau noted that in some countries in Europe, Jews were despised for being different from the general population, while in neighboring countries they were hated for being too much the same as the wider community, while Justice Rubinstein pointed out that at the heart of antisemitism is a distorted image of Jews. “Antisemitism can never be completely erased,” he said, “It is too much a part of Christian history and other histories at large.” He discussed his involvement in the 1980s in setting up an Israel government task force to monitor the issue. “There are three ways to address the phenomenon,” he suggested: “diplomatic and political channels, education, and legal,” while both speakers, in talks peppered with biblical references, suggested that memory is also critical in the fight. “Memory is in our DNA,” said Justice Rubinstein. “It helps us continue with our life and in the fight against antisemitism.”
The issue of memory, noted Rabbi Lau, is central to Jewish life after the Holocaust. The center of Weimar, one of Germany’s leading cultural centers, is, he noted, a mere eight-minute walk from Buchenwald. “The US troops brought people from Weimar to the camp, but all they could say was that they had no idea, how could it be. The smoke billowed out of the crematoria 24 hours a day,” he noted; “How could they not have known?”
When asked by Frenkel for a personal perspective on the Holocaust, Lau discussed the question of forgetting and forgiveness. “When I first came to Buchenwald in January 1945 I did not come as a rabbi or a person; I was prisoner number 117030. When I visited in an official capacity to mark the 50th anniversary of the liberation, some suggested that now, when I came with a name, a personality, as a citizen of an independent country, it was a good time to start a new chapter. But I am not authorized to forgive. The last words my parents said to me were to remind me to continue the unbroken chain of 37 generations of rabbis in the family. They did not say forgive or forget, and so I cannot forgive, and I am not able to forget.”
Yet both speakers stressed also the importance of the existence of the State of Israel – it was established a mere two and a half years after the end of the Holocaust, noted Rabbi Lau, while Justice Rubinstein pointed out that Jews can immigrate to the country 24-7. “It is Pikuach Nefesh,” he said, referring to the Jewish religious law that saving a life overrides almost all other laws. “Even though we cannot uproot antisemitism, we must continue to combat it,” he argued, reminding the audience of the line from Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Today, he concluded, we fight antisemitism within the context of the existence of a Jewish homeland, a land, he said, quoting the prophet Amos, “from which we will never be uprooted again.”
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