Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Some Thoughts On Yom Hashoah

Yom Hashoah,

Rabbi Jack Riemer

We Jews are commanded to remember the Shoah. But what exactly is it that we are supposed to remember?

One of the Hassidic rabbis pointed out that the mitzvah on Pesach is NOT to remember the suffering that we endured in Egypt. The mitzvah is to remember THE GOING OUT from Egypt. For if we focus only on the suffering in Egypt, we will become warped and bitter and angry, and that will do us no good.

And so I would suggest that what we need to do on Yom Hashoah is not to dwell on the Hell that our people endured. For if we do that, we will lose faith in the sanity of humanity. We ought to focus instead on the sparks of goodness that appeared during that time of darkness. And so let me tell you the story of one such spark.

I read about it in a memoir by Ted Roberts, a writer on Jewish affairs, who lives in the Jewish metropolis of Huntsville, Alabama.. To the best of my knowledge, Huntsville, Alabama, is not a great center of Jewish learning, though I may be wrong. It is a center of  research into rocketry and missile science, and so there may be more Jews there than I am aware of. I know that there is at least one synagogue in Huntsville. And, as the old joke goes, if there is one synagogue there, there is probably a second one, a breakoff from the first. But this is the story that I read by Ted Roberts of Huntsville, Alabama, that I want to share with you today in honor of Yom Hashoah.

Ted Roberts says that he was once in the doctor's office in Huntsville, the place that he calls 'the buckle of the Bible Belt'. He did not have much time to browse in the magazines in the waiting room before the nurse came and called him into the doctor's office.  The doctor-let's call him Dr. O'Neil checked him out. And then, as he was dressing, the doctor noticed the Jewish Community Center T shirt that he was wearing underneath his shirt..

"Oh, you're Jewish," the doctor said. "I'm Irish."

I imagine that Mr. Roberts could probably have figured that out by himself, just from his name: O'Neil. But he sensed that the doctor wanted to say something more, and so he waited quietly, kind of curious as to what it was the doctor wanted to tell him.

"Yeah," he said. You know, a rabbi blessed my Daddy just before he died, and a Jewish boy who rose to be the president of Midwest Grain came to my Daddy's wake."

"Here it comes," said Ted Roberts to himself. "I can feel a story coming.  If I have to listen to it, I hope it is an interesting one."

It turned out that it was.

Dr. O'Neil said: "We lived in a dusty little town that you have never heard of twenty miles from Galveston. My Daddy was the head accountant---I guess you could call him the office manager---for Midwest Grain Company. It was a good job in the late 30s---you didn't make much but you could always take home food for the family.

Anyhow, in our town there was an old Jewish guy. I would often see him on the street, dressed all in black, with a great big gray beard. Instead of a Stetson, which is what everybody else in our town wore, he wore a wide-brimmed black hat. Can you imagine somebody walking around in a black suit in a hot South Texas Town, the kind of place where the river dries up in the summer? I never understood why he did that.

Well, seems like most every weekend, Daddy would go visit this fellow with the beard. Me and my brother and sister, we'd stay in the car and listen to the insect noises that filled the air. Daddy would stay in the house for about an hour. He never said what they talked about in there, but one thing I remember is that, when he came out, Daddy always carried a handful of papers.

In those years, you know, it was hard for Jews to get into the USA. They had to have a sponsor and a bona fide job waiting for them or else they were not admitted. My Daddy, we found out years later, was working with this Jewish Rabbi---I've forgotten his name---arranging for Jews from Germany or Poland or some such place to immigrate to America. Jobs were a prerequisite  and so Daddy, in his official capacity as office manager, hired seventeen Jewish boys and brought them over.  Seventeen!

In a happier time it would have been a comic scene out of a Marx Brothers movie. Seventeen office boys falling all over themselves. speaking Yiddish or fractured English. Midwest Grain must have given their Galveston Region Manager a huge corporate wink when they saw what he was doing. He had more office boys on the books than invoices, though I think that most of these guys didn't stay with the company very long. Once they got some English under their belts and learned their way around, they headed off to find a job that was more suited to their talents somewhere else. Daddy and that old Jew in the outlandish hat somehow worked it out between them. But one of those office boys stayed, and eventually he became the president of Midwest Grain.

And that's how come the President of Midwest Grain and a Rabbi in a black suit came to my Daddy's funeral." Dr. O'Neil paused for a moment and you could tell that he was going back in his memory to that wake in South Texas, a room full of Irishmen and two Jews. And then he said---half to me, half to himself: "Damn! Those Nazis were sure mean!"

My guess, says Ted Roberts, is that he was probably repeating words that he had heard as a child as his father sat in the living room and read the newspaper. But Ted Roberts says that the words that came to his mind when he heard Dr. O'Neil talk about his father were:
"Cheez! This guy must have been a Texas Schindler!"

And then Mr. Roberts said to himself: this man may have been more of a mentsch than Oscar Schindler was. His actions may have been more praiseworthy since he was so far away from the catastrophe, and so totally disconnected from what was going on. Schindler was there-and saw up close what the Jews were going through---and so he was moved to act. This man was miles away and never saw what was happening to anyone and yet he was moved to action. Schindler knew many Jews. He had grown up with some of them; he had worked with some of them. So it is no wonder that he felt an obligation to help them if he could. But this man had probably never laid eyes upon a single Jew in his life until he met the rabbi with the black suit and the big beard. He never saw the broken lives; he never heard the widows' cries. And yet he brought over seventeen people! He must have been some guy!

Ted Roberts said to himself as he buttoned up his shirt in the doctor's office: "just goes to show you. Life can throw you a curve ball when you least expect it, but life can also send you a soft ball right over the plate some times when you least expect it.  Here I came into this office to find out what the lump on my neck was all about, and look what I got. In half an hour I got the news that the lump was nothing, and I got it cut out just the same, just in case. And I got a story that makes me feel a whole lot better about my fellow human beings.  Three blessings in one visit-that's not bad!"

Ted Roberts ends his memoir by writing that when he walked out of the doctor's office that day he was tempted to write a letter to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and tell them about this man from Texas whom he had heard about. They have a garden there---many of you have been there and seen it---they have a garden there where they plant trees in honor of those brave gentiles who saved Jewish lives. Most of those people lived in Germany or Poland or Norway or somewhere else in Europe. I bet that they probably don't have any trees there in honor of someone who lived in Galveston, Texas. But maybe they should.

I share this story with you today in honor of Yom Hashoah. And I share this story with you for our own spiritual health. For there is a real danger that remembering the Holocaust will make us suspicious of all gentiles and may make us feel that the whole world is against us. And that is not true. And that is not a healthy way to live. I share this story that I learned from this memoir by Ted Roberts with you today so that we may realize and understand that not all non-Jews are anti-Semites, and that not all non Jews are out to get us.

I share this story with you because the Hassidic Rebbe was right: the mitzvah is to remember the going out of Egypt, not to wallow in memories of the suffering that took place within Egypt.

Here was a man who lived somewhere deep in the heart of Texas. Here was a man who knew nothing about Jews or Judaism, who seldom, if ever, had even seen a Jew until he met this rabbi or whoever he was who came to him for help in rescuing Jews who were in trouble. And yet this man came through WITH SEVENTEEN AFFIDAVITS, with seventeen jobs, so that seventeen Jews could escape from Europe and come to America. And he did it, not for praise, not for publicity, not for money, and not for honor. He did it just because he knew that it was the right thing to do. He did it just because he understood that the Nazis were damn mean.

And his corporate headquarters looked the other way and let him do it. And, as a result, one of those seventeen young Jews whom he saved, stayed with the company long enough to become the president of Midwest Grain! And the two of them, the rabbi and the president of the company, came to this man's funeral. They were the only Jews who were present at that funeral. I guess the other Jews who had been rescued had long since moved away to other places and better jobs. But these two came, for they were Jews and Jews are grateful people. Jews are people who believe in hakarat hatov, in gratitude as a mitzvah. Jews are people who believe in remembering those who do good for them.

So let us do what these two Jews did. On Yom Hashoah let us remember, not only the men and the women and the children who perished. And let us not only remember the vicious and the brutal and the savage people who murdered them. But let us also remember the people in Europe, and in America too, who reached out and tried to rescue as many Jews as they could, who often failed, but who sometimes succeeded in saving Jewish lives.  Let us remember these good people, the ones who taught their young children to say: "Damn!  These Nazis are mean!" and who taught their young children, by example, which is the only way that anyone ever teaches anything, who taught their young children by example that human beings are supposed to care for one another and to reach out and help one another whenever they can.

I hope that Ted Roberts remembered the promise that he made to himself when he walked out of the doctor's office that day, the promise that he would nominate Dr. O'Neil's father for a place in the Garden of the Righteous, the Gan Le'chasiday Umot Ha'olam, at Yad Vashem. I hope that he remembered his promise because I think it would be nice, if in the midst of those trees that grow there, the trees that have been planted in honor of people from Poland and Holland, from Norway and Belgium, from Germany and Russia and Rumania, that there was a tree that proudly bore a sign that expressed our gratitude to a good man from Galveston, Texas. For it is good to know, it is heartening to know that there was an Oscar Schindler. He did much to redeem our faith in human beings. And it is also good to know that there was a Schindler in Texas, who, even though he did not see the atrocities up close, and even though he did not know many, perhaps any, Jews, nevertheless did what he could to save Jewish lives and to redeem our faith in human beings.

May the memory of the Texas Schindler be a source of blessing to us all, and may we remember him, together with all the martyrs and all the victims whom we recall today, on Yom Hashoah. 

From Malcolm and Eleanor 

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