Recently I was in the depth of a bitter winter in the Czech Republic guiding a group of teens from the Mt. Scopus Jewish day school in Melbourne Australia for JRoots. The trip to the Czech Republic is part of their Israel “Ulpan” trip. The students take a few days off their Israel experience to embark on an odyssey to explore the pre and post Holocaust world of Europe first hand and think about their own Jewish identity and connection to the Jews of Israel and the diaspora.
Prague is a beautiful city, “The City of a Thousand Spires.” Yet through the Jewish lens things look very different. The Josefov Jewish quarter has an impressive amount of stunningly preserved synagogues and collections of Jewish interest. The only thing missing…are the Jews themselves. There is a minuscule Jewish community, a mere shadow of the massive pre-Holocaust Jewish community. 77, 297 Czech Jews, whose names are inscribed on the wall of the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague, were murdered. The “Mifgash” (informal peer meeting) that was arranged for the Australian Jewish students to meet their Jewish peers from the Lauder Jewish High school in Prague was symptomatic of the dire Jewish situation in post-Holocaust Prague. Of the four lovely students who came, only one was Jewish. One of the girls mentioned that there were only two Jewish students in her grade!
When one visits Europe one senses the enormity of the loss of the Holocaust even more than seventy years later. To see the richness of the pre-war Jewish life and to realise that it all vanished in the blink of an eye. In the words of Bialik’s powerful Epic poem “in the City of the Slaughter” written after the Kishniev pogrom of 1903:
You’ll cry out for the kindness of the nations, and pray for the pity of the Goyim. Just as you’ve been schnorrers before, you’ll be schnorrers again.
A visit to Europe helps us try and grapple with the enormity of what we the Jewish people lost. It also helps us appreciate what it means to live in the era of an independent Jewish homeland.
One of them most moving experience of our trip happened at the end of our visit to the Theresienstadt ghetto. We had spent time wandering through the streets of the former ghetto that is today disturbingly a regular banal Czech town with very few sign of the horror of that transpired and the tens of thousands of our coreligionists who died of disease and starvation on those very same streets, or the scenes of terror of the deportations from the Ghetto to the killing camps of the Nazi Reich. We concluded our visit on the banks of the river where in the closing phases of the war, as the Soviets were approaching, the Nazis ordered the Jews to empty into the river the thousands of containers of ashes that had been carefully preserved by the Jews of their cremated brothers and sisters in the hope that they would receive a proper burial after the war. As much as the Nazis were determined to wipe out their names, so the Ghetto underground was determined to keep their memories alive.
At the ceremony a couple of students movingly recalled words from their family who were interned at Theresienstadt of their memories of the liberation. The school principal Rabbi James Kennard spoke of the gratitude we have for living in the time of the State of Israel and the ceremony concluded with the students holding lit candles symbolising both flames/souls that were snuffed out and the light of hope for the future. We sang our national anthem loudly and clearly with all of our Jewish pride, together as one, into the dark night. The profound text culminates with the words,
The hope of two thousand years to be free people in our land, the land of Zion, Jerusalem.”
We sung a song of hope in a place of despair. In a place of death we sung a song of the rebirth of the Jewish people in our land.
Like the mythical Phoenix arising from the ashes of Europe, our State arose and was reborn. Nobody handed us our State, in the words of Chaim Weitzman, “on a silver platter.” It rose because of the selfless courage of generations of selfless young boys and girls who were and still are prepared to step forward and “walk the walk.”
For just as in the previous century the young Chalutzim (Pioneers) recreated a brave new Jewish land by planting our land one tree at a time and revived our language one word at a time and restored our sense of self-worth one defender at a time, so today we are blessed with a generation of young boys and girls who represent a strength that will never be extinguished. They stand for what it means to have our own country where Jews do not to rely on the pity of their host nations. We all know that the culmination of that “pity” was the Shoah. Now we Jews are once again in charge of our own destiny and “never again” means NEVER AGAIN! Am Yisrael Chai!