At Bo and Herbie’s B’nei Mitzvah rehearsal, their dad, Jason, shared a remarkable fact with me. His grandmother grew up opposite a park where each Sunday a man would come and stand on a soap box to preach his rather mad ideas. His audience was small to begin with but grew over time. In fact it grew well beyond the park from where Bo and Herbie’s great grandma could hear him shouting. It grew to encompass the Third Reich. That man was Adolf Hitler. It wouldn’t normally be my go to topic for a joyous occasion such as a double B’nei Mitzvah, but connecting to this part of your family history Bo and Herbie, has taken up my last week.
I have just returned, as many in the congregation will know, from a trip to Poland known as the March of the Living. Much of it had nothing to do with living, as we travelled from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, through the town of Markova where we learnt stories of righteous gentiles who took risks beyond anything we could imagine, and sacrificed everything. We went to Lublin and the great yeshiva where the practice of Daf Yomi – reading a page of Talmud a day – was first invented, and to the forests where unspeakable acts were committed, against my own family as well as so many hundreds of thousands of others.
The latter part of the trip took us to Krakow, and from there to what is perhaps the most iconic symbol of the Shoah, the Holocaust, Auschwitz-Birkenau. On Wednesday we toured the site, and on Thursday we took part in the March of the Living – beginning at Auschwitz 1 – a Polish barracks at the start of the war, built of brick rather than wood. Together with around 2000 people from around the world (pre-Covid this was closer to 12,000) marched together, sometimes arm in arm, often singing, through the streets to arrive just over a mile down the road at Auschwitz 2, or Birkenau. We walked along the train tracks that delivered so many from all over Europe to this place of darkness, and many of us placed wooden plaques between the rails – remembering loved ones who survived, or naming those we never got to meet. Some wrote prayers or quotes. As we walked, there was a huge shift in mood. From the somber nature of the day before, it felt like an act of defiance, of resilience, of holiness to be there, alive, and although we were not all Jewish, largely we were there keeping Judaism and the Jewish people alive.
Holiness was a word that came up in our tour bus a lot. And it is a part of the name of our torah portion – kedoshim. I had the enormous privilege of being invited onto March of the Living as a part of a bus of interfaith leaders – Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and Muslims joined with Jews for this special trip. The Sikh participant and I struggled together over whether the ground we stood on at Treblinka – a site created only to despatch, not to house prisoners, was holy. She felt the sanctity of life, so cruelly stolen from so many there, was held in the ground and perhaps she shouldn’t be standing on such holy ground. I couldn’t associate anything holy with these places, and yet the language so often used in the memorials is of korbanot, sacrificial offerings, or Kiddush Hashem – martyrs whose death sanctifies Gods name. I struggle with terms that sanctify what was done in any way – of course their lives were sacred, but their deaths were the most unholy possible. The places feel evil to me. At Treblinka I was asked to follow a recitation of El Malei Rachamim – the memorial prayer – by reading a Psalm. I couldn’t get through it without weeping – ‘my cup runs over, surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life’… how could I utter such words when they feel like such a lie in the face of the Shoah.
From each of our faiths we saw that which was holy to us, inverted by Nazism. For a Methodist minister it was the sanctity of each individual death being acknowledged. For our Sikh friend, the piles of hair – holy to Sikhi’s and never cut, collected together at Auschwitz. Our Hindu colleagues reflected on the inversion of the holiness of cremation, and for our Muslim participants – fasting as they travelled with us, this holy act was turned into neglect and agony. I have often found that I am affected by the sight of desecrated holy objects – burnt and ripped torah scrolls, collected prayer shawls and tefillin confiscated from their users. They somehow embody the absence and holiness of a life cut short.
We witnessed another form of holiness, one that chimes with the lessons of our Torah portion which asks us to care for the vulnerable and the poor. This holiness was performed by Polish citizens of all kind – peasants who themselves had next to nothing, and businessmen like the well known German – Schindler. In Poland (unlike anywhere else in the Reich) helping or hiding a Jew was a crime punishable by death. And yet all over Poland righteous gentiles (as they came to be known) risked everything, and sometimes sacrificed everything, to help Jews – sometimes their neighbours, sometimes strangers. My husband Gary and I have often discussed volunteering with Refugees at Home to offer a room to a refugee, even before the current Ukrainian crisis (of which there was a lot of evidence in Poland where the population has increased by 10% this year!) But we worry about only having one small bathroom, and whether a person damaged by war is safe around young children, and where we put all the stuff that’s in the spare room…. It feels pretty pathetic in the face of the holiness of these people who risked their entire families to save one or two or 10 Jews. When faced with risk to one’s own loved ones, it takes incredible courage to still do what is right – such holiness I’m not sure I could ever achieve. Every life saved wasn’t just that life but the lives of all their descendants. We saw this first hand on our first night when we attended a ceremony honouring the families of two Polish Righteous Gentiles who worked together to save the life of Max Ostro. His son, Maurice Ostro, and grandchildren, gathered together to give thanks for their bravery and to present them with a certificate from Yad Vashem honouring them as Righteous among the Nations. Descendants who wouldn’t exist without their bravery. As both the Talmud and Quran say, ‘Whoever saves one life, it is as if they saved a whole world’.
This morning we heard Bo and Herbie leyn an instruction manual for what it meant to be Holy as a society 3000 years ago. I’m sure today we might think of a few different things, but many of them we would still value, from feeding the poor to respecting our parents, being honest in business, and not going out of our way to trick or trip someone up, physically or metaphorically. Holiness is something that carries nuance, and means different things in different contexts – but universally understood and appreciated for thousands of years are some of the basics of living together well – acts that make us holy as much as religious worship might, perhaps more. When that is turned on its head for the benefit of one group over and above all others, holiness is turned on its head.
Bo and Herbie are here, as am I and many of you, in defiance of a madman whose philosophies, shouted at first to just a few, were able to build on centuries of anti-Semitism to create a movement of a hatred that became an obsession. Marching through the most notorious of the Nazi death camps this week alongside survivors was a powerful way of answering his hatred. More harm was done than can ever be measured, and it must never be forgotten. But we must also remember in order to challenge hatred and the particulars of antisemitism. We remember so that we might add to our understanding of what it means to be holy the importance of being an upstander and not a bystander. We were not defeated, but there is still much to do. Bo and Herbie, I am so comforted to know you are on this journey of living as adult Jews alongside us, bringing your compassion, empathy and incredible minds to the ever evolving beauty that is being a Jew, and being fully human.
 Sanhedrin 37a and Surah 5:32