It is often said that the holocaust is now passing from memory to history. Jewish children all over the world will soon grow up having no acquaintance with survivors and not even having parents and grandparents who experienced the Second World War and remember it. To keep alive consciousness of the greatest tragedy in our history and the greatest crime in all history the March of the Living was instituted some years ago. Participants march from Auschwitz 1 the largest concentration camp built by the Nazis to Auschwitz Birkenau the deadliest extermination camp built by them. This takes place on Yom Hashoah on 27th Nisan just five days after the end of Pesach in each year. Tens of thousands of people have taken part in this march over the years from all over the world.
In 2014 it was decided to add a Ride for the Living; a commemoration with a very different twist. Participants visit Auschwitz Birkenau and then cycle the ninety kilometres from Birkenau to the ancient city of Krakow former capital of Poland and home before the war to a thriving jewish community and to many of the great sages of Ashkenazi Jewry. There was an added incentive this year as one of the cyclists Marcel Zielinski was himself a survivor of Auschwitz, liberated by the Red Army in January 1945. An extraordinary man with an extraordinary story, he walked to Krakow after the liberation in the vain hope of finding members of his family who had survived. Discovering the complete void which was all that was left of Polish Jewry and the world in which he had been brought up, he left Poland, went on Aliyah to Israel, married another holocaust survivor and ended up as a paterfamilias in Montreal.
Ten years old at the time of the liberation in January 1945 he was eighty three when he participated in the ride this year though that was hard to credit when one saw him cycling and overtaking much younger cyclists. For all the drama in his life in person he is very understated, soft spoken, modest and not given to dramatic gestures. He could not say that we were retracing his exact steps after liberation as he could not remember them he was too young.
Marcel’s life and his extraordinary achievement were symbolic of the trip which was not so much about commemorating the Holocaust as about celebrating Jewish survival and moving forward; the future not the past. It attracted a number of high profile guests not only Rabbi Michael Shudrich the Chief Rabbi of Poland but also Paul Jones the US ambassador. There were many other non-Jews as well. At the end we were given a VIP Police escort as we climbed almost the only hills on the ride to finish with a spectacular view of the historic city.
The ride was timed to coincide with the beginning of the 27th Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow one of the oldest and largest Jewish festivals of its kind in the world and recent recipients of an award from the European Festivals Association. All over the city there were signs advertising events at the festival, just as throughout the year there are adverts of tours of Jewish interest including trips to the camps. Questions of taste are naturally raised by this but there is no escaping the fact that in that part of the world there is huge interest in the Jewish contribution to Poland and surprisingly in view of the tragic nature of Polish Jewish history being Jewish is regarded as cool.
For me it was enough to arrive in Krakow in time for Shabbat dinner with the community. The next day I was privileged to daven and to read the Haftarah at the shul of the Remah-Rabbi Moshe Isserlis – founder of Ashkenazi Jewish halachah- courtesy of our own Jonathan Webber temporary gabbai of the shul. Jonathan, who grew up in HGS and has family here, is doing valuable work in restoring the traditions of this ancient community. The theme of his work just like that of the ride is to celebrate the rich history of Polish Jewry not just to mourn its destruction – a message we ourselves should take to heart.
Much publicity has been attracted by the controversial joint statement issued to the Times just over one hundred years on 25th May 1917 by David Lindo Alexander QC , then President of the Board of Deputies and Lucien Woolf, then Chairman of the Anglo Jewish Association(AJA). In their letter they stated that Zionism was of little interest to the mass of world Jewry, who just wished to remain loyal citizens of their own native countries.
The background was the intense struggle of the First World War. The British government ,perhaps overestimating the importance of world Jewry, was anxious to enlist the support of American Jews to persuade their government to enter the war, and of Russian Jews to persuade their government not to leave it. British Jewry was represented by the Board who in matters of foreign policy co-operated with the AJA. They did this through an organisation known as the Conjoint which represented the anti-Zionist views of the Cousinhood- the Anglo-Jewish establishment and resented the Zionists efforts to lobby the Foreign Office . A statement from two leaders of such standing was a serious blow to Zionist aspirations.
The sequel was however even more interesting. At the next meeting of the Board a motion was proposed censuring the President for signing the letter. Alexander’s response was to announce that he was treating the motion as one of confidence thus throwing the full weight of the Presidency against the motion. Nevertheless it was passed by a majority of fifty six to fifty one votes. Alexander immediately resigned as did some of the other honorary Officers to be replaced by Deputies who while not all Zionists did not share Alexander’s rabid anti Zionism or that of his friends from the Cousinhood.
The vote was passed on 17th June. A day or so later the Foreign Office wrote to Lord Rothschild, the President of the Zionist Federation, and to Chaim Weizmann already then a leading Zionist figure asking them for their proposals regarding a Jewish homeland in Palestine. The road had been opened for the Balfour Declaration.
The Declaration which took the form of a letter from Lord Balfour, the Foreign Secretary, addressed to Lord Rothschild was issued barely four months later. Rothschild in addition to being President of the Zionist Federation was also Senior Vice President of the Board thus preserving the Board’s role. More important it is hard to see the Declaration being considered let alone issued had it not been for the vote of censure passed by the Board in June 1917. This was not the result of a mass conversion of the deputies to Zionism. Historians have shown the complicated reasons underlying the vote. Indeed it was some decades before the Zionists could claim to have taken over the Board. The vote did however reflect the independence of the Deputies, their refusal to buy in to the anti-Zionism of the Anglo-Jewish establishment or be bound by its views.
Critics of the Board have made much of the letter but unaccountably have glossed over the much more important vote. Its consequences for our time are massive and its implications should not be overlooked.
I have set up this blog to record thoughts which I have about current issues or experiences which I would like to share. I also want to use it to develop my thinking and in that regard it is primarily directed towards my children. Two of them have graduated in the last month.The first from Cambridge with a BA the second from Mapledown School which caters for pupils with severe learning difficulties. I was very proud on both occasions. It is easy to see why I should have been proud of Ronit. The Master of the College commented to me not only on her academic success -she got a double First Class- but also on her participation in College life.But why should I be so proud of my son Yair? He hasn’t achieved anything while at the school. He is still non-verbal.The greatest battle has been to get him actually to attend school which after a couple of years he does sometimes with apparent enthusiasm. Yet I am proud of him in any meaningful definition of the term and the reasons why would take another blog to record.