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Legacy of Memory

Yesterday I spoke at the State Capitol in Sacramento. I had the privilege of giving both the invocation as guest chaplain and giving the keynote address at a special session to remember the Holocaust.  Many survivors and their families were invited and honored guests.  The Assembly members also honored many World War II veterans who were the liberators of the camps. It was very moving to meet them and to hear their stories.  The program was arranged by Assembly members Ira Ruskin and Marty Block.  And the survivors sat on the Chamber floor.  A bill was introduced and passed to proclaim a Genocide Awareness Week and the members of the Assembly spoke so passionately about the need for education of our young people about the many genocides in recent history and the ones still happening around the world. 

Below is my invocation to the Assembly and then following are my remarks given yesterday. 

Invocation for the California State Assembly

April 19, 2010

Rabbi Denise L. Eger

Founding Rabbi Congregation Kol Ami, West Hollywood, CA and President of the Southern California Board of Rabbis

Holy One of Blessings, we call You by many names. On this spring morning we ask your abundant blessings upon our great state of California and all of its inhabitants. This Golden State is filled with Your glory Holy One from our stirring mountain vista to our ocean panoramas to our velvet desert landscapes. As the book of Psalms (24:1) teaches us: The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof the world and they that dwell therein.   Bless our land in these difficult economic times.  When our California residents struggle to maintain our way of life, to care for their children and families, to find access to health care, jobs and meaningful work -bless these legislators who work hours on end to find solutions to our state’s woes.  Help them work together in the spirit of cooperation across the partisan aisle. Help them to see that their actions or inactions create success or suffering in our state.  Help them to serve with compassion and fairness.

As this House of the Assembly attends to the work of government, let each of our elected leaders govern with distinction and merit.  Let each member bring her or his wisdom and heart to the work of California and its citizenry.  Let each know that they are making a positive difference in the lives of millions each day. 

Bless their families, their children and grandchildren, partners and spouses with the special patience and love that it takes to support this work.  As the prophet Malachi (4:6) teaches: Turn the heart of the parents toward their children and turn the hearts of the children toward their parents.    

 Dear God on this day-be near to each person here, our legislators and their families, the many who work in this Capitol and fill them up with strength and clear thinking, good health, and Your abundant blessings.  Let them attune their spirits and souls this holy day with right intentions and right actions to fill Your world with an ancient gift of peace-shalom. Amen.

A Legacy of Memory

Mr. Speaker and Distinguished Assembly members and staff, honored guests and families:

            I thank you for the invitation to speak with you this morning.  On this afternoonwe have gathered to honor Holocaust Memorial Day and Remembrance Week.  The Jewish calendar calls it Yom Hashoa v’hagvurah- Holocaust Memorial and Heroes Day. Today is a legacy of memory.  This day we must learn lessons to guide our lives.  This is a time not only to memorialize the dead but pay tribute to those who survived.  We honor those who fought so valiantly against the evils of the Nazi and Axis regimes. We honor those who served in the military and those who rose up in ghettos and camps to fight back.

Why do we mark this day?   April 19, 1943 was the beginning of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.  The Nazis had marched into the ghetto that they had made. The ghetto was a desolate and dark place where they had forced the Jews of Warsaw to live. It was a place of disease and destruction, starvation and danger at every corner. The Nazis as part of the Final Solution- proceeded with plans to liquidate the ghetto of its 50,000 (down from more than 550, 000) residents through death and transfer to concentration camps. On that April 19, 1943 – 57 years ago today-the Nazi’s entered the Ghetto only to find it deserted. The residents had built over the course of several months underground bunkers to hide and fight back against their Nazi terrorists and murderers. And fight back the residents did.  For three weeks they engaged the Nazis in a fierce guerrilla battle-street to street, building to building. Stymieing the Nazis in the first couple of days, the young Jewish fighters of the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) held them for nearly three weeks. Until the leadership was killed on May 8 at their headquarters at Mila 18.

And so on this morning in our Capitol, in this Special Session we come together to remember all the victims of the Nazi terror and to honor the lives of the dead, to honor the lives of the survivors and to salute all those who fought to restore human dignity, human civility and life.  We gather this morning to remember that six million Jews were targeted and died by Nazi hands. We gather this morning to remember that the Nazis targeted so many groups that did not fit their image of perfection—they went after anyone who was different or they perceived as a threat.  In addition to the Jews of Europe, the Nazis targeted the physically and mentally disabled,  Jehovah’s Witnesses, Labor Organizers, Gay Men and Lesbian, The Roma people known as Gypsies, political prisoners, Communists, more than 2 million Polish gentiles and Slavs.  More than 15 million people were murdered by the Nazis and their killing machines.  In California terms that is like murdering everyone in the Los Angeles, Long Beach and Santa Ana metropolitan corridors. It is hard to imagine that many people.  It is hard to imagine their children and grandchildren who never came to be because of the murderous hands of the Nazis

Today our commemoration helps us be reminded that this kind of human evil-the mass murder and destruction of our fellow human beings must always be stopped.  We cannot sit idly by the blood of our neighbor.  Today in our world there are still genocides happening.  In Uganda there is a proposed bill targeting gay men and lesbians. It would proscribe the death penalty for even saying you are gay. This is kind of hatred fomented by the religious right wing here in America is nothing short of a kind of targeting.  In other parts of Africa, Darfur and the Congo entire groups are being targeted and murdered, raped and disfigured as government militias roam the countryside routing out and killing all who are of a different faith, or a different tribe.  This Holocaust Memorial Day –we pause to remember and reflect. Ours is a legacy of memory now.  And this legacy-must guide our lives..

But today in this Chamber we also honor those who survived.  Here with us this morning are courageous and strong people; people who are the living testimony to those who would falsely claim that the Holocaust never happened.  We honor their tenacity, their fortitude and endurance.  We also honor this morning those who fought in the Allied forces to liberate Europe and the Pacific from the hands of the Axis troops; those who liberated the concentration camps and torture centers.  They worked through grueling and often inhumane conditions to restore humanity to the world.  We thank you for your service to our country, and to the world as a force for good. Your actions and heroism are a legacy for us.

I close with a powerful story of memory and how it can keep us moving forward in life.  For that is the essence of this Holocaust Memorial Day—move forward to a full life—conscious of our duties to our fellow human beings; Conscious and fully aware that genocide, ethnic cleansing, and injustices must be addressed by individuals and yes, by governments.

 This is a Chasidic tale retold by Yaffa Eliach based on an interview with Kalia Dingott with Anna in May 1976.[1]

Anna was among the tens of thousands who succumbed to the typhus epidemic in Bergen Belsen. Her friends gave her up for dead and told her that her struggle with death was useless. But Anna was determined to live. She knew that if she lay down, the end would come soon and she would die like so many others around her. So, in a delirious state, she wandered around camp, stumbling over the dead and the dying. But her strength gave way. She felt that her feet were refusing to carry her any farther. As she was struggling to get up from the cold, wet ground, she noticed in the distance a hill shrouded in gray mist. Anna felt a strange sensation. Instantly, the hill in the distance became a symbol of life. She knew that if she reached the hill, she would survive, but if she failed, the typhus would triumph.

Anna attempted to walk toward the hill, which continually assumed the shape of a mound of earth, a huge grave. But the mound remained Anna’s symbol of life, and she was determined to reach it. On her hands and knees she crawled toward that strange mound of earth that now was the essence of her survival. After long hours passed, Anna reached her destination. With feverish hands she touched the cold mound of earth. With her last drop of strength, she crawled to the top of the mound and collapsed. Tears started to run down her cheeks, real human, warm tears, her first tears since her incarceration in concentration camps some four years ago. She began to call for her father. “Please, Papa, help me, for I cannot go on like this any longer.”

Suddenly, she felt a warm hand on top of her head. It was as if her father stroking her, just as he used to place his over her head every Friday night (for the Sabbath) and bless her. Anna recognized her father’s warm, comforting hands. She began to sob even more and told him that she had no strength to live any longer. Her father listened and caressed her head as used to.  He did not recite the customary blessing but, instead, said, “Don’t worry my child. You will manage to survive for a few days, for liberation is very close.”

This occurred on Wednesday night April 11, 1945. On Sunday April 15, the first British tank entered Bergen Belsen. When Anna was well enough to leave the hospital in the British Zone where she was recovering from typhus, she returned to Bergen Belsen. Only then did she learn that the huge mound of earth in the big square where she spent the fateful night of April 11 in her combat with typhus was a huge mass grave. Among thousands of victims buried beneath the mound of earth was her father, who had perished months earlier in Bergen Belsen. On that night when she won her battle with death, Anna was weeping on her father’s grave.

The memory of her father’s blessing helped Anna summon the strength even through her fever.  That is a legacy of memory.  So too on this Holocaust Memorial Day –the legacy of memory helps us summon strength to face the future.  May the memory of the millions of lives murdered by the Nazis inspire us to action around the world and in our homes.  May hatred be erased from our existence and instead the milk of kindness and humanity influence our days.

May the memory of those who died in the camps and ghettos and murder fields of Europe and all those who have been the victims of genocides around our globe inspire in us right action and mindfulness of each person’s dignity and humanity. Zicronam livracha—may the memory of the righteous live for a blessing in our lives.  And may you the survivors and liberators be blessed with continued strength, and health and the joys of life.  Ken Yehi Ratzon. So may it be God’s will.

[1] “A Hill in Bergen Belsen”, Hasidic Tale retold by Yaffa Eliach based on an interview by Kalia Dingott with Anna, May 1976, Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul, edited Canfield, Hansen and Peretz, (Health Communications Inc, Deerfield, Fl, 2001)