The Journey of Redemption: Bogdan’s Journey: Kielce’s Journey

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Yesterday, I saw an amazing documentary film about the journey of teshuva – Hebrew for repentance or redemption – of an entire community, Kielce, led by a Polish born non-Jewish Prophet, named Bogdan Bialek.

 

This last week in synagogue, we read the chapters that speak about Abraham’s encounters with G-d: One of them is the story of how Abraham bargains with G-d to save Sodom and Gomorroh – two cities that have become the symbol of evil that according to G-d require total destruction which was carried out in the Bible.

What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorroh? There are several back stories contained in the Jewish books we call “midrash” which many of the commentaries to the bible base their ideas on. I came across this interpretation in Tablet magazine yesterday.

In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah—recounted in the Torah in Parshat Vayera, which will be read this Shabbat—the Bible addresses the question of ethics head-on. These towns represent a human society so thoroughly corrupt that it is beyond the possibility of repair. There are other stories in which God finds human behavior to be abhorrent, but there is usually some redemption (as in the story of Nineveh in the book of Jonah), or a remnant remains that holds the potential to rebuild (like the living things in Noah’s ark). Only here does an entire place get annihilated with fire and brimstone.

What was the sin of Sodom and Gomorroh?

…The prophet Ezekiel brings it up in one of his warnings to the kingdom of Judah in the sixth century BCE:

Only this was the sin of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility; yet she did not support the poor and the needy. (Ezekiel 16:49)

Centuries later, the ancient rabbis fleshed out Ezekiel’s charge in a midrash—a snippet of biblical interpretation. Here is a passage from Genesis Rabbah, a collection of commentaries compiled in the third century CE:

There was an incident concerning two young girls who went down to fill pitchers with water from the spring.

One of them said to her friend, “Why is your face so sickly?”

The other said to her, “Our food is all gone and we are about to die.”

What did the first one do? She filled her pitcher with flour and switched the two, each girl taking what was in the hand of the other.

When [the people of Sodom] became aware of this, they took her and burned her.

The Holy Blessed One said, “Even if I wanted to keep silent, the judgment in the case of the young girl does not permit me to keep silent.”

This midrash paints a terrible picture: A young woman burned to death as punishment for an act of compassion. And her burning was not the work of hooligans. God uses legal terminology—“judgment” and “case” —implying that the people of Sodom took the compassionate girl to court for sneaking food to a starving neighbor. She was tried and convicted under the law of the land. In Sodom, feeding a hungry person was a criminal act that carried the death penalty. The act that forced God’s interference was a legal one.

Does not this account of the midrash remind you of the State of Nazi Germany, in our time, where to offer any compassionate help to Jews was a legally criminal act subject to the death penalty!

The crimes of the Nazi State continue to be an open wound to both Jews and non-Jews. However, In this film, Bogdan’s Journey, we see Bogdan and the town of Kielce attempting to come to terms with a massacre of Jews on Polish soil (in Kielce) in 1946.  In spite of almost total denial by almost everyone living in Kielce, Bogdan initiates and continues his crusade for awareness, healing, and reconciliation, showing that yes, a collective group, can come to repent, to address these issues voluntarily, and to transform itself into an aware and caring empathetic entity.

It is a must see movie for anyone who has had any connection to the Shoah or indeed to any horrible uncontrollable traumatic events whether personal or collective.

To watch the movie for institutional or private screening go to Bogdan’s Journey. I believe you will thank me! I look forward to hearing your feedback.

Postscript: After the screening, the producer, director, and several guests from Poland including Bogdan himself met at the Tel Aviv restaurant across the street from the Sherman Oaks Laemmle movie theater. After I wrote this blog I sent him the link and here is what he wrote to me:

On Nov 27, 2019, at 7:19 AM, Bogdan Białek <naczelny@charaktery.com.pl> wrote:
Dear Abigail,
Thank you very much for your beautiful and touched text on your blog. If
you agree, I would like to use it on Jan Karski Society site. The
meeting in the Sherman Oaks was very interesting. For the first time I
was in so great home and so excellent company. I hope that we will have
other possibilities to meet each other. Of course, if you will be in
Poland remember about my the warmest invitation to Kielce.
I will try to buy a book, which you reccomend.
Best regards
Bogdan
Dear Bogdan,

I have been thinking about your response below and would like to add your letter to my post, and to also add a link to your Jan Karski website.
Best regards,
Abigail 

Dear Abigail, I am in Israel now. I’m so sorry for the silence. Of course, you can use anything you want. I am very grateful for your text. It will stay in my heart for a long time.

Regards

Bogdan

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Wiadomość napisana przez askabigail <askabigail@me.com> w dniu 11.12.2019, o godz. 06:17:

 

8th Day of Chanuka: Review for 2019 & Prayer for 2020

Today is the 8th day of Chanukah and the 30th of December 2019 – a good time to take stock of the last year and think about the one to come.

For myself, this has been a very fruitful year. In June 2019, I visited Warsaw, Krakow, Tokay, Kereztur, Niregyhaza, Munkacs, and Uzhorod/Ungvar, (Poland, Hungary, and the Ukraine) – part of my research for my current film project regarding Chazzan Moshe Kraus and the experience of Hungarian Jews over the last century. My next stop was Jerusalem, Israel. And, I ended up spending several months learning with Yehudis Golsheveky and others at Shiviti, Yeshiva for women which has greatly enriched my life and my appreciation of Jewish history and Jewish thought.

I am now in Montreal, January 9th 2020. This holiday period has been marked by serious  antisemitic attacks on Jews in New York and New Jersey and the rocket attack on and death of Quasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds force; uncontrolled fires in South Wales, Australia, and serious flooding in Israel, with some unfortunate deaths along the coast: And some positive events as well: Celebrating Chanukah for one, and also, thousands all over the world got together to celebrate their completing seven years of Talmud study – one page per day over seven years. In Israel, there was even a celebration of thousands of women who had completed the same study!!! Talmud study previously had been relegated to the realm of men in Jewish society.

Since it has been mostly cold and grey here in Montreal, I have been surfing the internet, listening to the CBC and other media, and mulling over what to make of all these competing voices.

Rabbi Jonathon Sacks has a video addressed to the current divisions among Jews called Seven Principles for Maintaining Jewish People hood. These principles if applied to the world would have the potential for “bringing the messiah” which in Jewish thought refers to the condition of peace among all peoples – a time when the “lion will lie down with the lamb” Isaiah 11:6.

The first principle that Rabbi Jonathon Sacks enumerates in his video, and which I think is the most important one in the face of all these events: “Keep Talking – Those who keep talking will eventually make peace, And he notes, “Jews are ferocious arguers, and that’s part of our strength… but it was the inability to keep talking with each other that caused the three exiles of the Jewish people.”

And here are the other six principles which he quotes to guide our talking.

Principal #2: Listen Israel – “Listen to one another, hear what your opponent is saying. We are great arguers but poor listeners. Listening by itself is profoundly therapeutic.”

Principal #3: Work to understand your opponents’ point of view – “Try to understand the people with whom you disagree… This is why in conflicting opinions, in the Talmud, the Talmud always goes according to the opinion of Hillel, because Hillel always presented and studied Shammai’s, his opponent’s argument before his own.”

Principal #4: (This is my favorite) NEVER SEEK VICTORY – NEVER EVER SEEK TO INFLICT DEFEAT ON YOUR OPPONENTS. IF YOU SEEK TO INFLICT DEFEAT ON YOUR OPPONENTS YOUR OPPONENT MUST, BY HUMAN PSYCHOLOGY, SEEK TO RETALIATE – TO INFLICT DEFEAT ON YOU. THE RESULT IS YOU WIN TODAY, YOU LOSE TOMORROW AND IN THE END EVERYONE LOSES.

Principal #5: IF YOU SEEK RESPECT GIVE RESPECT – He quotes from the Book of Proverbs: “As water reflects face to face so does the heart of man” – as you behave to others so they will behave to you. If you show contempt for other Jews they will show contempt for you.

Principal #6: It’s not about agreement but caring – “The ultimate rule of Jewish people-hood: when one Jew is injured we all feel the pain. We are a family – if you disagree with a friend today, tomorrow they may not be your friend, but if you disagree with your family today, tomorrow they will still be your family. All Jews are responsible for one another.” (another principal of Torah).

Principal #7: Remember that G-d Chose Us as a People – “God chose us not as individuals but as a people. He didn’t choose only the righteous or only the saints or only the very very holy people – he chose all of us. It is as a people that we stand before G-d and it is as a people that we stand before the world. The world doesn’t make distinctions… anti-semites don’t make distinctions… we are united by a covenant of shared memory, of shared identity and of a shared fate… even if we don’t share a faith… Therefore next time you are tempted to walkaway from some group of Jews you think have offended you, make that effort, that gesture, to stay together, to forgive, to listen, to try and unite, because if G-d loves each of us, can we try, and do anything less…”

Now that you have reviewed these principles, I think you will agree with me that if the world were to take notice of these principles, we could actually come to achieve peace for all mankind, and we could easily solve all the challenges facing us – challenges of poverty, racism, climate change, and anything else that might come up.

And this is my prayer for the coming decade – that we learn to keep talking to each other, to keep listening, even through the most painful events, and to keep trying to understand the other, and to care for the other, and thereby create the one united world that G-d wants us to create.

Happy New Year World!

The Story of Jews in the Twentieth Century and Why It Matters

The horrors endured by Jews during WWII have often been told, but the deeper questions of how did it happen? Where did this madness come from? and what was the Jewish response? These stories have not been addressed.

In the course of studying and researching the life of Moshe Kraus (1922 – present) for a documentary film project, I came to grapple with the answers to some of these questions.

I have chosen three books that gave me a more nuanced insight into these matters.

The first book is Black Earth The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder. This book talks about the grand “scientific” ideas of the nineteenth and early twentieth century – ideas about race, about overpopulation, and about populist prejudice and fear of Jews,  transformed into  a a political platform. Eduard Adolphe Drumont was the founder of the  Antisemitic League of France in 1889.

It was these ideas that laid the basis for Hitler’s war against the Jews and also against the Roma, Slavs, Poles and anyone who was not of the Aryan “master race”.

From the blurb about the book, Snyder writes:

The Holocaust began in a dark but accessible place, in Hitler’s mind, with the thought that the elimination of Jews would restore balance to the planet and allow Germans to win the resources they desperately needed. Such a worldview could be realized only if Germany destroyed other states, so Hitler’s aim was a colonial war in Europe itself.

In the zones of statelessness, almost all Jews died. A few people, the righteous few, aided them, without support from institutions. Much of the new research in this book is devoted to understanding these extraordinary individuals. The almost insurmountable difficulties they faced only confirm the dangers of state destruction and ecological panic. These men and women should be emulated, but in similar circumstances few of us would do so.

Snyder concludes:

by overlooking the lessons of the Holocaust,we have misunderstood modernity and endangered the future. The early twenty-first century is coming to resemble the early twentieth, as growing preoccupations with food and water accompany ideological challenges to global order. Our world is closer to Hitler’s than we like to admit, and saving it requires us to see the Holocaust as it was — and ourselves as we are.

The second book is With God in Hell: Judaism in the Ghettos and Death Camps by Eliezer Berkovits. This book took my breath away when I read it. It sheds light on  how Jewish values and practices enabled Jews to deal with their plight, even while finding themselves ensnared in the Nazi attacks. It answered many questions for me regarding the “spiritual resistance” that enabled Jews to maintain their integrity in the face of cruelty and brutality; to face death with dignity; and for a precious few, to come out bruised but not broken, on the other side.Their behavior demanded a courage no less great than that of armed resistance.

Berkovitz  discusses the dynamics of life and death in the ghettos and death camps during this period according to halacha/Jewish law. He shares how Jews sacrificed to say early morning prayers, to acquire tefillin, and a shofar: to keep holidays – even difficult ones like Sukkot and Passover: and to continue to consult with their rabbis on ethical questions such as: – is it permissible for me to save my son from execution if I know that someone else will then die in his place? Would I then be an accessory to murder? The Rebbe declined to give a ruling saying this was beyond his expertise…but the hassid/disciple who asked it, said – if you are not answering it’s a yes! – and he did not save his son.

Another hassid asked is it permissible to say the morning blessing thanking G-d for making us free men under these circumstances when one is a slave. The Rebbe answered yes – since we are free in our spirit – it is our captors  who are the slaves! They are slaves to the German Reich, but we Jews remain free spirits, servants of G-d alone. No survivor will deny the hunger, the starvation, the terror, but many who are quoted in this book, survived to share how their memories and teachings which they brought with them, helped them to rise above the dire reality.

Moshe Kraus, born in 1922 in Uzhorod, Czechoslovakia, a grandson of a hassidic Rebbe, was born into the bosom of Jewish learning and life of that time. Because of his tenor voice, discovered at an early age, he was visiting hassidic communities all over Europe performing concerts, and then became a beloved musical prayer leader/a hazzan. He too, like almost all Hungarian men, was enslaved in a slave labor camp and later in Bergen Belson. His personal struggle exemplifies the story of the Jewish people during this period and to the present time.

Antisemitism is a series of ideological lies used as a tool to turn people of all faiths and all nationalities against Jews: Lies that blame Jews for all the evils in the world. “Jews” are maligned for being capitalists and for being socialists, for being stingy and avaricious. Sadly these ideas seem to still have some currency. Over the last several years, we have increasingly been hearing about attacks on individual Jews, attacks against synagogues, and Jewish stores, and they come from ideologues of the right and the left. This is why it is so important to share the truth about Jews and Judaism and to fumigate these lies with the light of truth.

An important book in regard to this is a book by Rabbi Jonathon Sacks, A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World’s Oldest Religion.
Rabbi Sacks claims, for too long, Jews have defined themselves in light of the bad things that have happened to them. And it is true that, many times in the course of history, they have been nearly decimated: when the First and Second Temples were destroyed, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, when Hitler proposed his Final Solution. Astoundingly, the Jewish people have survived catastrophe after catastrophe and remained a thriving and vibrant community. The question Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks is, quite simply: How? How, in the face of such adversity, has Judaism remained and flourished, making a mark on human history out of all proportion to its numbers?

This book, written as a letter to Rabbi Sacks’ daughter on her wedding day, traces the revolutionary series of philosophical and theological ideas that Judaism created – from the idea of covenant (contract) to Sabbath and human rights, to the power of early education – and shows us how they remain compellingly relevant in our time. These ideas are the ones that have enriched secular society and enabled the Jewish enterprise to hold its head high even in spite of all contenders.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Five Memoirs: the Jewish Hungarian Shoah/Holocaust Experience

Personal Testimonies: Memoirs

As part of my work for the Moshe Kraus Project, I have come across these amazing first-person accounts of people’s experiences before during and after the Shoah/Holocaust in Hungary.

1. Budapest 44, by Moshe Holczler 

  • The young Slovakian businessman planned to join his wife in London, but the Nazis marched into Austria and life would never be the same. Mandated by his illustrious father to remain in Europe to help his people, R’ Shmuel Binyomin (Wolf) Frey embarked on a saga of rescue and relief that had reverberations beyond his wildest dreams. Who was the mysterious Raoul Wallenberg, and how did R’ Wolf come to work with him? Why did the Hungarian Minister of Defense have such a startling change of heart? Did the gypsies have any redeemable qualities? Would his fellow Jews really turn him over to the Germans? Where was the safest place for a street child to be at night? What were those Nazis doing in that building across the street? A house made entirely of glass? How long could they fool the communists? Were those nuns to be trusted…? Let us follow R’ Wolf to Hungary, and marvel at the incredible hashgachah pratis, the Divine providence, that followed him through one menacing situation after another. With unshakeable faith, with remarkable foresight and bravery, against impossible odds, he resisted Evil incarnate. He never thought of himself as a hero, but his courage and ingenuity will remain with you forever. Budapest ’44, his story, is an unforgettable tribute to the human spirit.

Budapest 44 by Moshe Holczler gives a wide panorama of all of the rescue efforts organized within Budapest during the Nazi invasion of Hungary, in 1944, including the efforts of Wallenberg, and many Jewish and non-Jewish undercover volunteers. It is a remarkable story that has not been told or shared enough. Much of the detail is astounding, and it is a first person account by Moshe Holczler who is not only a chronicler but also a participant. I found it quite amazing and a must read to understand what actually was happening in Budapest in 1944.

2. Miracle in the Ashes is a first person memoir, by Maurice Lowinger, a Hungarian born Jew from Mezotur in central Hungary, – his valiant efforts to support his family and the Budapest Jewish community. Towards the end of the war, and all through the siege of Budapest, he took over his father-in-law’s position on the committee whose mission was to feed, daily, hundreds, the destitute remnants of Hungarian Jewry via the soup kitchen at the Dohany Synagogue, in Budapest. He and the committee managed to keep it up until the very end of the war – the arrival of the Russian army in 1945.

3. Surviving the hell of Auschwitz and Dachau is Leslie Schwartz’ memoir of his survival as an under-age, under-size, 12 year old. The subtitle is A teenage Struggle Toward Freedom from Hatred, as he recounts his story of the individuals, who came out of the blue, to help him, sometimes with a single glass of milk, or a sandwich, and how he tracked them down one by one, after the war to acknowledge and thank them: And he continues to speak about his experiences both in Germany and the rest of the world.

4. Hassidic Tales of the Holocaustedited by Yaffa Eliach – are first person accounts of Orthodox Jews, as they attempt to flee, and are some times entrapped, and sometimes, miraculously saved, all over Europe.

5. Deadly Carousel, is about Vali Racz, the Hungarian Marlene Dietrich, who during WWII harbored a Jewish family, as well as a Hungarian fascist escapee, and Russian military brass, in her home, in Pest, as told to her daughter, Monica Porter, who is also the author of this book. It’s also a terrific recounting of what actually was going on in Hungary, for both Jews and gentiles, socially and politically, before, during, and after the war, up to 1956 – the Hungarian revolution. The book is written by Vali Racz’ daughter, Monica Porter, who had the opportunity to interview her mother extensively for this book.

Written October 27, 2019 – Parshat Bereshit – which brings the blessing of new beginnings, renewal, starting over – every day of our lives – seeing with fresh eyes.

Written by Abigail Hirsch, social worker, blogger, filmmaker

 

 

 

 

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about the Shofar, but Were Afraid to Ask

Now you are probably wondering what is the meaning of the shofar? The shofar is a ram’s horn, which when blown like a musical instrument,  is reminiscent of human vocal expression, and is supposed to awaken us to do the work of self-evaluation and introspection regarding the world and our place in it, during the month prior to Rosh Hashanah, and also integral to the High Holidays – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services – when in addition to our own introspection, G-d himself is judging our efforts and making decisions about the coming year: “Who will live and who will die: Who will be raised up and who will be brought down and so on….” words of the Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur prayer service…riffed on by Leonard Cohen, the famous Montreal born singer/songwriter. (1)

And by the way, getting a sound out of that shofar is harder than it looks. (Yes I tried and failed). But here are some examples of people who succeeded.

The longest shofar blast.

And a totally new initiative, the shofar flash mob, groups who got together at different places in the world to blow shofar together.

And last but not least, here is an adorable video of my nieces and nephew wishing you all a happy Rosh Hashanah. Shana Tova!

(1)  Leonard Cohen – Who By Fire (Live In London) (Official Video) Lyrics begin at 1:52 Min.

 

Lyrics: And who by fire? Who by water? Who in the sunshine? Who in the night time? Who by high ordeal? Who by common trial? Who in your merry merry month of May? Who by very slow decay? And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip? Who by barbiturate? Who in these realms of love? Who by something blunt? Who by avalanche? Who by powder? Who for his greed? Who for his hunger? And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent? Who by accident? Who in solitude? Who in this mirror? Who by his lady’s command? Who by his own hand? Who in mortal chains? Who in power? And who shall I say is calling? And who by fire? Who by water? Who in the sunshine? Who in the night time? Who by high ordeal? Who by common trial? Who in your merry merry month of May? Who by very slow decay? And who shall I say is calling?