October 13, 2008

Briefing from Asher Ostrin - September 26, 2008

Below is a briefing from Asher Ostrin, Executive Director of JDC Programs in the Former Soviet Union. Here he shares a story from JDC's past, a first-hand account from Stanley Abromovitch, working with survivors of the Holocaust.

Dear all,

The following is a timeless piece written by Stanley Abramovitch. It tells of events in which JDC was involved more than 60 years ago. But it is appropriate to call the piece timeless.

It happened then, but similar things have happened to JDC staff in other places at other times. Wherever there were Jewish survivors, or refugees, in the last 100 years, JDC was there. Our staff worked with Poles and Iranian Jews in Vienna, North African Jews in France, Soviet Jews in Italy, the Jews of Sarajevo and of Transdeniester, and of course Jews of every sort fleeing their birthplaces for refuge in the State of Israel.

I would imagine that every JDC staff member involved in such an effort sees those events as the last of their kind. The upheavals in Jewish life during the Second World War were to mark the end of anti Semitism and forced Jewish wanderings. The anti Semitism of Gomulka forced Jews into "exile", but it was a final hurrah for government sponsored anti Semitism. The fall of Communist regimes would mean the end of uprooted Jews searching for a safe haven. And yet, the scenario repeats itself over and over. Perhaps the Jewish refugees from Gori this summer mark the end of Jewish flight. But if history teaches us anything, it is not to be sure on that account.

This story takes place in the aftermath of a tragedy. It is a quintessentially Jewish story because even in the midst of pain and what should be total despair, there is hope. It raises profound issues- and sets the stage for the kinds of things we should be thinking about as we examine our behavior and commitments during the past year, and resolve to address issues in the coming one.

Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement)
Stanley Abramovitch

Yom Kippur day in October 1945, I spent in the Displaced Person Camp in Landsberg in Bavaria. The liberated Jews who were imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp and those who worked in ammunition and other factories in Bavaria were gathered into Landsberg and Feldafing camps both of them in Bavaria. The Germans also forced many Jews from other concentration camps to march to this part of Germany where the American Army freed them.

In Landsberg were a spacious army barracks confiscated by the American Army for housing some of the liberated Jews. Food and medical care were provided by the army through UNRRA, the U.N. Rescue and Rehabilitation Administration set up with the help of the U.S. government. The Jews elected a committee, which assumed responsibility for internal camp administration. Synagogues were organized for the High Holidays by different groups, often on the basis of the origin of the participants. There was a synagogue for Jews from Poland, another for Hungarian or Lithuanian Jews. Smaller groups, Hassidic Jews or those stemming from Marmarosh, an area on the border of Rumania spilling into Hungary and Slovakia had their own prayer places.

I attended morning services in the synagogue for Polish Jews. The prayers were charged with emotion, very moving, very painful. The tears shed came from the depth of their hearts, mourning those that were lost, murdered in the camps. It was rare to find among those present individuals who survived with siblings or more distant family members. The older generation was not there. They were the first victims since the Germans did not see in them future laborers. Nor were there any children who survived in camps. Children were quickly annihilated not to be a burden on the concentration camp administration. The survivors prayed, remembered, wept and found a little comfort in those tears.

After morning prayers, I decided to visit other synagogues and spend some time with other groups. I left the synagogue and walked across the half empty streets. There were many people who remained in the street and refused to attend services. They were angry at G-d. Among them were formerly religious, observant Jews who could not accept the apparent indifference of G-d to the suffering, the torture, and the tragedy they witnessed in their homes, in the camps. They could not reconcile their former beliefs and convictions of an All-Merciful, Almighty Divine being with the catastrophe that had struck their communities. They would not pray.

When they heard the recitation of the Kaddish, the special prayer of mourners, expressing praise of the Lord, they reacted angrily that G-d did not deserve the Kaddish. They were broken in their spirit; they could not reconcile recent events to which they were witnesses and the contents of Hebrew prayers. These Jews roamed the streets. They wanted to express their anger, to show G-d that they defied Him, as he seemed to have abandoned them. Some of them ate their food on the fast day publicly in the streets, as a gesture of defiance – of revolt.

In one of the streets, I saw a large group of people standing in a circle. I approached nearer to find out what was going on. In the middle of the circle stood a seven-year-old girl, embarrassed, perplexed. She could not understand why all these people stood around her. She, of course, could not know that they were surprised to find a Jewish child. They had not seen Jewish children in the camps. None were there. They had not seen Jewish children since liberation. Someone must have come from Eastern Europe and brought this little girl with him. So they stood silently and just looked at this miracle of a Jewish child in their midst. They could not tear themselves away from this one child who said nothing and to whom they said nothing. They just stood and gaped at the girl.

A special prayer is normally recited on Yom Kippur, for the departed members of one's family, Yizkor – the memorial prayer. As these people looked at the little girl they all remembered their children, or their younger brothers and sisters, the nephews and nieces who at one time were their pride and joy and who were no more. Each one of them looked and remembered, recalled the beloved children who were cruelly exterminated. They looked and remembered. And as they remembered, they recited without any words the Yizkor, the memorial prayer for all those who were part of their lives and were gone forever. This was a silent, most moving Yizkor, without words, without prayer books, recited in that street in Landsberg, by a group of Jewish survivors, watching a little bewildered Jewish girl. It was the most moving, most eloquent, most heartfelt, most silent Yizkor I have ever heard.

Warm wishes for a good and sweet year to you and your loved ones, and the whole House of Israel.


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