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Machshavot | Parashat Bereshit

October 10, 2018 Andrew Shaw
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It was a very strange week.

On Tuesday, I was dancing with my children and hundreds of others as we danced and sang with Sifrei Torah at Simchat Torah.

On Wednesday, I was speaking to hundreds of non-Jewish 6th form students by the gas chambers in Auschwitz Birkenau.

Yet there was a very beautiful link between the two.

The link was powerful even before I received a Whatsapp video last Sunday, although the connection after that video is incredible – let me explain – and it may take a while!

Whenever I go to Auschwitz I always tell them the words to a song called ‘The Man from Vilna’ which are as follows:

‘I met a man last Sunday; he was on his way back home, from a wedding in Chicago, and was traveling alone.

He said he came from Vilna, a survivor I could tell, And I helped him with his suitcase-

He could not walk very well

A steward gave us coffee as we settled on the plane, I asked him why he bothers – at his age there’d be no blame

“No simcha is a burden, although I miss my dear late wife”, And then he shared with me the story that has changed my view of life

I remember liberation, joy and fear both intertwined, where to go, and what to do, and how to leave the pain behind

My heart said, “Go to Vilna”, dare I pray yet once again, For the chance to find a loved one, or perhaps a childhood friend?

It took many months to get there, from the late spring to the fall, And as I, many others, close to four hundred in all

And slowly there was healing, darkened souls now mixed with light, when someone proudly cried out, Simchat Torah is tonight

We ran as one towards the shul, our spirits in a trance, we tore apart the barricade, in defiance we would dance

But the scene before our eyes shook us to the core, Scraps of siddur, bullet holes, and bloodstains on the floor

Turning to the eastern wall, we looked on in despair, there’d be no scrolls to dance with, the Holy Ark was bare

Then we heard two children crying, a boy and girl who no one knew, we realised no children were among us but those two

We danced round and round in circles as if the world had done no wrong, From evening until morning, filling up the shul with song

Though we had no Sifrei Torah to gather in our arms, in their place, we held those children

The Jewish people would live on

We danced round and round in circles as if the world had done no wrong, From evening until morning, filling up the shul with song

Though we had no sifrei torah to clutch and hold up high, in their place, we held those children
Am Yisrael Chai’

(https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iEh_XxmekFo)

The reason I tell them the words from the song is to stress to them the eternity of the Jewish people and to explain to them what they are coming to see has not died and not been forgotten but is a living breathing way of life. I say to them, ‘The Nazi’s could destroy our bodies, but they couldn’t destroy our souls – Am Yisrael Chai’ (I translate Am Yisrael Chai).

So there I was, the day after Simchat Torah with this song – which would have been so relevant but then came another story which I heard just five days ago, sent to me by Rabbi Rafi Garson, one of the other Rabbis who leads the Lessons from Auschwitz trips. It was the true story that inspired the song.

Avraham Fuksman was hidden by his nanny during the Holocaust. She baptised him and raised him as a Catholic as Henryk Stanislaw Kurpi. After liberation, his parents had to reintroduce their son to his family and to his heritage.

His father waited four months to take him, a five-year-old child, to a synagogue for the first time.

On the way to shul they passed a church, the little boy crossed himself, they met a priest and he kissed his hand – he was properly trained!

The first service he was taken to was …… Simchat Torah 1945.

You can just imagine, Simchat Torah, the year of liberation! Jews celebrated life and the little boy loved it!

They sang and danced in that shul and a Russian officer came over to the boy’s father and asked if the boy was Jewish, he was blond and blue eyed. The father said, ‘Yes, my son is Jewish’. The officer then said: ‘I have travelled thousands of kilometres as a Russian officer and I have never seen a Jewish child of this age… alive, can I please dance with your son?’ The father agreed, and the officer took the boy on his shoulders and danced with him.

It was after this that the boy told his father he wanted to be Jewish and was the beginning of his life as a Jewish person.

Avraham Fuksman – eventually moved to the USA where he was better known as Abe Foxman who for almost thirty years headed up the Anti-Defamation League and is currently the head of the Centre for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

However, that wasn’t the end of the story. The officer Leo Goldman moved to the United States and became a Rabbi in Detroit where he continued to lift Jews from all walks of life.

In 2007, Abe Foxman told the story at Yad Vashem. There, an Israeli researcher embarked on a quest to find the dancing man in uniform. She discovered the song by Abie Rotenberg who had credited the Rabbi as the inspiration for the song.

So in 2010 little Avraham/Henryk met the officer – Rabbi Leo Goldsman for the first time since they had danced together 65 years earlier on Simchat Torah in Vilna. If a picture could speak 1000 words – this is one of them

So, what did I tell those students? I told them to realise that not only are we are an eternal people but what Abe Foxman – the child in the story has been fighting all his life for – they are all part of that same struggle.

I quoted the remarkable Rabbi Sacks speech from the House of Lords (http://rabbisacks.org/antisemitism-hate-become-dangerous-three-things-happen-rabbi-sacks-speaks-house-lords/ )

I told them that they must stand up against the hatred coming from Corbyn and co as they now can see by coming here to see first-hand the horrors of the Shoah and to realise where hate can eventually end if it is not stopped.

Dancing with my kids on Simchat Torah and educating non-Jewish students at Auschwitz are linked by a remarkable person, a remarkable story and the dual message that we are an eternal people but must always be prepared to fight against those who wish to harm us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Andrew Shaw

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