May 24, 2019

Torah Portion

The Nazis took my uncle Henry at the beginning ofthe war. He survived more than five years as a slave. Young andstrong, he was a carpenter, and they needed carpenters. At first,they moved him from camp to camp, including a stay at Pleshow, whereSchindler’s people were kept. And, finally, Auschwitz. A slavelaborer, he built parts of the camp. When the Allies advanced, he wastaken on the infamous Death March from Poland into Germany. He wasliberated from Buchenwald by the U.S. Army in 1945.

For as long as I can remember, my uncle neverspoke about these experiences. We knew that he had been in the camps– from the numbers on his arm and from his peculiar personal habits(for example, the way he slept so still, as if he were still hiding).But he would never reveal to any of us where he’d been.

My aunt, who returned to school once the childrenwere grown, took a course in Jewish literature. Among the booksassigned was Elie Wiesel’s “Night” — Wiesel’s account of his time atAuschwitz. My aunt left the book on the living-room coffee table, andmy uncle picked it up one afternoon and began to read. He knew allthe characters and places in the book. He had witnessed all theevents Wiesel described.

Later in the semester, Wiesel came to lecture atthe university, and my aunt and uncle went to hear him. Following thelecture, they approached Wiesel. My uncle asked him about people andplaces he hadn’t recalled in more than 40 years. Wiesel questioned myuncle about his own experiences and memories. They stood together inthe deserted lecture hall for more than two hours. Finally, Wieselasked my uncle, “Have you told your children?” And my unclesheepishly replied that he could not. “You must,” Wiesel saidadmonishingly, “for if you do not, they will never really believe ithappened!”

At a Passover meal, some months later, he sat usdown and, for more than three hours, told us his story: thedeportation, the brutal separation from his family, the camps, themarch, the liberation. When, at last, he finished, we sat in silencefor some time. We finally asked him why he’d waited all these yearsto share this. He looked at us with an embarrassed expression andsaid: “Because I was afraid you wouldn’t understand. How could youunderstand? You grew up here, in freedom and safety. You don’t knowhunger or fear or hate. How could you understand?”

So, then, why tell us now? “Because Wiesel isright. If you don’t hear it from me, you’ll never really believe thatit happened, that it was real.”

Now I understand Exodus. I can imagine ageneration of ex-slaves caught in my uncle’s dilemma: How can Idescribe realities that you can’t possibly imagine? You know nothingof slavery, of degradation, of fear and hatred. But if I don’t tellyou, you’ll never believe it was real. If you don’t hear it from me,you’ll think of it in terms impersonal, theoretical, abstract. Youmust know that these things happened, and that I was there. Asinadequate as this may be, I tell you this story so that my memoriesmay become your own.

On Passover, the whole meal isn’t marror — thebiting bitter herb. We take just a taste — enough to bring tears andshorten the breath. But it’s always mellowed with the sweetness ofcharoset — the joy of liberation. For the story’s end ishope.

Today, my uncle tells his story to high schoolkids up and down the Eastern seaboard, particularly in inner-cityneighborhoods. This is his personal fight against despair. So it wasfor our ancestors. We know that God has purposes in human history.We, who crossed the sea, saw history turned transparent. We perceivedGod’s presence and the triumph of hope.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom.

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