The Jewish people have the most marvellous tradition when
someone dies of sitting shiva. The idea
is that, once the dead has been buried, which has to happen (by tradition)
within 24 hours of the death, the family then return home to sit and receive
guests for several days. These guests
drop by at any time, usually with food, and talk about old times and better
times; in the evening there is usually a short prayer service, when the house
is likely to be crowded. It was at one
such event, the shiva which was being sat after the death of my Jewish
father-in-law only 4 years ago, that an elderly lady came up to me and
introduced herself. “Do you know why I
am here?” she said. I replied that I did
not; and she told me the most amazing story.
She had been in Auschwitz during the war and had somehow managed to
survive to see the end of it; liberation came and they were overcome with joy
when the troops moved in. But, and this I
had not thought about before, the reality soon hit them: what next? They had no money, no possessions, often even
no clothes and perhaps most sinister of all, few had any relatives. They were free, but they had nowhere to
go. Several weeks passed before a Red
Cross officer came running up to her and asked her surname. She replied; and he gave her a parcel with
£50 in it – untold riches in those days and especially in her situation. It turned out that the father of my
father-in-law had sent bundles of £50 via the Red Cross to every living Jew in
the camps who bore the same name as him.
This old lady finished off by telling me “Since then, I have thanked him
every single day of my life; and I
now come to pay final respects to his son”.
The liberation of Auschwitz took place 70 years ago
tomorrow. Now married to a Jewish wife,
I have seen and heard many awful things about it. I remember the first Jew I ever met with the camp
branding on his forearm – he was revered by his fellow worshippers at synagogue,
but re-lived his experiences every day.
I remember seeing my wife’s family tree – it was completely decimated by
relatives described simply as “killed in the camps”. I remember, too, visiting the Sydney
Holocaust Museum on my own shortly after we got married. It was, as one can imagine, pretty
horrific. Anyone who has ever seen
Schindler’s List or visited a concentration camp will know that feeling when
you leave of not wanting to have any contact with anyone for several hours –
one feels almost a deep shame to be human.
It turned out that this museum was manned solely by holocaust
survivors. At one point I was sitting in
the corner of the museum watching some old black and white footage of one of
the camps, when a finger came over my shoulder and I turned to see a woman of
about 80 pointing at the screen, her eyes ablaze and with one word on her lips:
Auschwitz. We talked for about an
hour. It turned out that she had been in
the camp, as had her twin sisters and her parents. Her parents had perished there, and her twin
sisters had been taken off by Josef Mengele to be experimented on for his
medical purposes – only one of those twins returned, but such a mess were her
insides that she was never the same again.
As I listened to her, I could not decide whether or not to tell her that
I had married a Jewish girl. There are some
Jews who would not countenance “marrying out”, holding dearly to their customs
and long held beliefs, and there are others for whom wartime experiences simply
destroyed their faith in God altogether.
When I did tell her, though, she could not have been happier; she
explained that the only way to defeat such hatred and despair as she had
witnessed in her life was by love and intermarriage. The reason she had spent all of her life, every
single day, reliving the awful events of all those years ago, was to keep
reminding herself and others that love alone can overcome the most awful things
that life can throw at us. This woman,
who had more reason to hate than anyone I had ever met, was the most kindly,
loving, gentle, forgiving and determined person imaginable.
It is, if nothing else, incumbent upon us to remember
tomorrow; please do learn about what happened, grim though the subject matter
is. No generation should ever forget it.