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LETTER FROM JEWISH AUSTRALIA No.59

April 22nd, 1998
Erev Yom Hashoah 27th Nissan 5758

The 27th of Nissan is a universal day of remembrance and commemoration of those who perished in the Holocaust. In the lead up to this Jewish communities around Australia have held religious services, discussion forums, exhibitions, talks and book launches.

From now on the Rabbinical Council of NSW is ensuring that, in addition to commemorative services held on the 10th Tevet, Tish B'Av and Yom Kippur, there will be minyans in Synagogues around Sydney as an option for all those who wish to say "Kaddish" (memorial prayers) on Yom Hashoah. This is particularly important to those who regard this day (in absence of a known date) as their "yarhzeit" (memorial time) for loved ones who perished during the Holocaust.

The largest gathering in Sydney is expected at a community evening at the Moriah College Triguboff Auditorium at 7.30pm Wed 22nd April. JOIN is fortunate in being able to share a translation of the Yiddish oration which will be given by Dr Mark Verstandig, a well-known Yiddish broadcaster, public speaker and journalist, author of "I Rest My Case", a widely reviewed memoir of interwar Polish Jewry.


THE STAR OF DAVID
ILLUMINATING THE PATH TO LIFE AND RECONSTRUCTION

by Mark Verstandig

Countless books dealing with different aspects of the Holocaust have been written in any number of languages.

In The Holocaust (1990), Israeli historian, Leni Yahil, writes: "The catastrophe was not of the Jews alone. It was a general human catastrophe...The history of the world since World War II shows that Hitler created a fissure in the moral dam of religion and culture through which a flood of violence and cruelty, stemming from man's most sinister impulses, burst open. Thus our period has been dubbed the Age of Violence."

Though I have lectured and published a number of essays on history I am not a trained historian. Two years ago I published I Rest My Case, a memoir of interwar Polish Jewry, the Holocaust, and the postwar emigration to the New World. A recent review in the Times Literary Supplement remarked that I had made significant observations about the destruction of Polish Jewry.

My book is a memoir by a survivor with a bit of a difference.

I was an outsider in the sense that I was not in a death camp, not even in a closed ghetto. The Jew in a ghetto was busy working, deluded by the belief that his labour for the Germans might save him from deportation. His whole energy and thinking was directed to organizing an extra loaf of bread and some basic necessities to sustain life. He may have felt reasonably safe between one deportation and another. However, he did not have time to think about the outside world. In the death camp, the situation was much worse. But between one selection and another the Haftling, the inmate, may have felt a little safer; if healthy, he or she could hope to survive the next selection, but probably had no time to observe or think about the outside world.

I was an outsider, walking the streets of Warsaw, travelling in trains with a death sentence in my pocket. I faced death at any moment if unmasked. I observed the outside world, that was the Polish world. I watched the so-called shmaltsovnikes mostly young, but also middle-aged people who made it their business to unmask Jews passing as Poles. The anti-Jewish atmosphere in the Polish cities, towns and villages was suffocating. Thousands upon thousands Jews smuggled themselves back into the still-existing ghettos. (Even the antisemitic film-maker Andrzej Waida acknowledged this fact in his film Holy Week showing the Jewess heading back to a burning ghetto.)

Masquerading as Pole I had time, all time in the world, to think. And I asked myself then, as I ask today, 50 odd years after the Holocaust "Why were the Jews abandoned to their fate?"

Yom Hashoah is our Remembrance Day. What should we to remember and how? Our Remembrance Day would be meaningless for Jews all over the world without reflecting on many unanswered questions because on that day we try to identify ourselves with the suffering of our families, with the Jewish martyrs who perished. As an outsider, who was not a direct witness of the killing my main question has been: "Why were the Jews abandoned to their fate?" The defencelessness, loneliness, the feeling of abandonment by our Jewish brethren abroad is expressed or implied in my story.

It is not my intention today to point an accusing finger against any group of leaders. They are all now before the "bejs din shel mahle." But it is incumbent upon Jews all over the world to reflect on some unanswered questions on Yom Hashoah. Otherwise it is meaningless to say : "never again".

I saw unimaginable misery in the shtetls, where the ghettoes were not closed, like Sandomierz, which I described in my book. And on this Day of Remembrance today the Jews should reflect on the question: "Why didn't we receive any food parcels, any aid from our Jewish brethren in the Western World?" I touched upon this subject in my book. I wrote: "Despite a blockade of all European countries occupied by the Axis powers, Germany and Italy, the Allies made an exception for Greece .. From autumn 1943 up until the end of the war, the Allies sent 35,000 tons of food per month for Greece in neutral ships." And I asked then and now, why was there no help for Jews who were starving to death in the street of the Warsaw Ghetto, Lodz ghetto or for the millions of starving Jews in the concentration camps? And I may add now for further reflection, that in the United States the queen of Yugoslavia established a committee headed by Eleanor Roosevelt to send packages to the families of the Yugoslav prisoners of war.

However, when a certain group of orthodox Jews tried to organize food packages (from neutral countries) to the Jews in European ghettos, United Polish Jewry under the presidency of Dr. Josef Tannenbaum, a very prominent establishment personality, organized pickets in front of the offices of that group, pickets carrying placards in English: "Stop sending food to the lands of the Nazi enemy ". Placards in English to show off their patriotism and to denounce other Jews as embargo breakers helping the enemy. (The food packets mailed from neutral countries were duly delivered ) As an outsider I observed that " no people on earth were as helpless and abandoned as Europe's Jews ".

In his first book written in Yiddish, "Un di Velt hot geshwigen", translated later as Night, Elie Wiesel tells us of his arrival at Aushwitz and he repeats this story in his introduction to David Wyman's monumental work, The Abandonment of the Jews . "It was May 1944, three weeks before D-Day. A convoy of Jews from Hungary arrived at a railway station. Someone anounces Auschwitz. Just the name of a place. Nobody knows, nobody can guess, its terrifying implications ... Nobody knows ..... that for the Jewish people this name already means the last stop, the terminus."

For G-d's sake. More that 5 million Jews were already dead. The whole world knew about Auschwitz. In Budapest there were ambassies of neutral countries. Of course the Hungarian Jewish leaders knew about the death camps. But Eli Wiesel, his father, and the Jews of Hungary had not yet heard of Auschwitz.

Yom Hashoah is our Remembrance Day.

We identify ourselves with their suffering on this day of remembrance.

I'll conclude with a few words about a very pertinent incident connected with the photograph on the cover of my book. After the liberation when we applied for identification papers in my home town which was right on the front-line packed with Soviet and Soviet- Jewish soldiers, a Polish official, a former school-mate of mine asked us, who had authorised us to remove our armbands with the Star of David. He instructed us to wait until the Polish Government got around to issuing a law permitting a Jew to walk around without the badge of shame ... Perhaps this low grade official was just an antisemitic imbecile.

Some years later Gershom Scholem, the great Jewish scholar, justified choosing the Star of David for the Israeli flag because the Jews were murdered under this sign. This sign has been sanctified by suffering and has become worthy of illuminating the path to life and reconstruction.


"I Rest My Case" by Mark Verstandig is published by Melbourne University Press (ISBN 0522 84781 1)


[For discussion of this Letter and other topics of Jewish/Australian interest please subscribe and mail to JOIN-TALK@shamash.org]


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