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The Wandering Maggid

Elie-Wiesel

Elie Wiesel

In the communities of Eastern Europe in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, and even beyond, there were certain people who would make their way from community to community, weaving stories and teaching lessons. They were itinerant preachers, who, in some cases, rose in stature to become folk heroes. Such a person was called a Maggid. This past Shabbat, not only the Jewish world, but all of humanity, lost a great man with the death of Elie Wiesel, alav hashalom, who liked to describe himself as a “wandering Maggid.” Writing on Saturday night in The Forward shortly after Professor Wiesel’s death, Rabbi Professor Michael Beranbaum wrote of this giant:

More than any other human being I know, he was responsible for changing the status of Holocaust survivors from victims and refugees to witnesses with a moral mission not only to remember the past but to transform the future. . . . A wandering Maggid going from community to community, from venue to venue, from synagogues and universities, gatherings, demonstrations, national capitals and political forums, speaking to an ever-changing global audience. His message was: “Remember the Holocaust. Remembrance must shape our character and has the capacity to transform the future.”

There have been many tributes and eulogies since Elie Wiesel’s death on Saturday, both in conventional publications and on social media. I think we would all do well to read as many as we can. I did not have the pleasure of knowing Professor Wiesel personally, though a number of my colleagues did. Yet, I feel as though he spoke to me, and indeed, to each of us, in an extremely personal and searing way. Those of us from Union Temple who went down to Washington together in May of 2006 heard him speak at the rally that he cosponsored with numerous Jewish organizations, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, prominently among them. The rally was in support of the victims of genocide and brutality in Darfur. Professor Wiesel spoke to us calmly, and with dead seriousness. His mission, of course, was “Never Forget,” specifically with regard to the Holocaust. But he then reminded us soberly that “Never Forget” is meaningless unless we made it our business to stand up in the face of the genocide that was happening at that moment, and of all genocides wherever they happened. More than an author, a teacher, indeed, a “wandering Maggid,” he became one of the most tireless and outspoken human rights advocates of the modern era, and he touched the souls of all who ever heard him speak, or read his writing. “I’ve gone everywhere,” he said, “trying to stop so many atrocities: Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. The least I can do is show the victims that they are not alone. When I went to Cambodia, journalists asked me, “What are you doing here? This is not a Jewish tragedy.” I answered, “When I needed people to come, they didn’t. That’s why I am here.” When asked what was the most important commandment in the Bible, he responded, “Thou shalt not stand idly by.”

Some years ago I became acquainted with a rabbi from The Netherlands who was a visiting professor for a year at Adelphi University. Both the rabbi and his wife survived the Holocaust as hidden children. They had chillingly similar stories to tell, each having been hidden in a suitcase, and transported to different families. One afternoon I had the pleasure of driving the rabbi home after a conference. When he told me he knew Elie Wiesel quite well, I asked him what Wiesel was really like. I said that Wiesel seemed to me to have a rather depressive affect, and I asked the rabbi if he thought that Wiesel actually had the capacity to live a happy life. He told me that he understood my reaction to Wiesel’s affect, but that Wiesel did, indeed, enjoy great fulfillment from his wife and family, his writing, his teaching, and his work in the world.

In this light, I was particularly struck by a portion of an interview that Oprah Winfrey did with Elie Wiesel a few years ago, after Wiesel took her to Auschwitz. . . .

“You can’t hear Elie’s story without wondering: ‘Can he live through that kind of hate and not become a hater? Can he still be capable of love? Can he find any reason to be grateful?’ When I talk with Elie about these things, he tells me that he has few answers and many, many questions – yet even in his questions I hear hope that the human spirit can survive anything. Anything.”

Of all that Elie Wiesel taught us in his words and in his deeds, perhaps it was his bearing witness to the human capacity to love, and to hope, that was the most important of all. Zecher Tzaddik Liv’rachah – may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

Making His Way Around the Broken Glass

Semone Grossman

Semone Grossman

On Tuesday, November 9, 2010, Peggy Lebenson, Union Temple’s own Charlie Rose, interviewed Semone Grossman, Holocaust survivor, at our Commemoration of Kristallnacht, the concentrated attack on the Jews of Germany on this night seventy-two years before.

Peggy’s format enabled Mr. Grossman to sit comfortably in our midst, speaking his harrowing story without having to stand and deliver a speech. He traced his early history as a boy in a small town now in Poland that had been at times a part of Germany. He took us with him on his journey from ordinary living through the growing privations and dangers of the early Nazi period. Semone described the gradual loss of freedoms for Jews as Jewish children were deprived of attending public schools, as they were no longer allowed to sit on park benches, eventually not allowed to leave their homes after an early curfew, and deprived of an adequate diet. Ultimately the Jews of his town and neighboring towns were rounded up and sent to slave labor or death camps.

The reasons that Semone Grossman survived to tell his story are many. First and foremost was his mother’s observant eye. As the family stood in line during the round-up, she watched the selections, the very young and the old ordered to the left, the stronger adults ordered to the right. When someone in the line fainted, distracting the selection officer, she pointed to the right, ordering her son, “Run, run.” His mother’s vigilance and his obedience of her command was the first in a series of chance events that enabled him to live. The other children and the elderly who went left were transported to their deaths.

Semone thus became the youngest member of the various labor camps that he inhabited during the years of his captivity. Perhaps his young age protected him from the worst of the back-breaking work, as apparently he was assigned work less arduous than the older prisoners. One of his jobs was tending to the camp commandant, cleaning his quarters and delivering him meals. He would pile on the food for the commandant and sneak some for himself and some of the other inmates. As Semone, now in his eighties, spoke, we could imagine him as the hungry boy he was describing. As he answered questions, his child-like mischievousness, his inherent likability, and his wiliness became clear to us.

That night I was aware, as many of us were, that we are nearing the time when we won’t have the chance to ask questions of a person who has come through this experience and lived to tell about it. No longer can we take this privilege for granted.

Semone’s upbeat tone seemed especially remarkable, and our questions reflected our amazement at such resilience in the face of the enormity of what he lived through. The first questions tried to elicit how his parents explained what was happening, as the restrictions on the Jews became more and more harsh. He had no way to grapple with these questions even though asked three different ways. Peggy later intuited his inability to address this question: his parents were from a culture with little recognition of the psychological lives of children and were absorbed in the tasks of surviving and providing enough food for themselves and their children.

Several questioners asked how he felt about Germans. He responded in a way that seemed unlikely: he seemed willing to forgive and even to forget what had been perpetrated by the German people. He had, after all, been given many lucky breaks. He gave the example of the good guard who gave Semone his address in a village outside of Munich. The guard had offered to help Simone after the war if he could make his way to Germany. In fact Semone did get to Munich, looked up the guard, who then found Semone an apartment. The Germans he met in Munich were also kind to him. He expressed no bitterness, held no resentments, to the amazement of many of us.

Eventually in 1949, through the help of a cousin living in America, he immigrated to the U.S. He figured he’d sleep in a park but instead this young, resourceful, and lucky man found an apartment and then a job, working in a gas station. He was given the task of parking cars and came to realize the money that could be made in owning land where cars could be parked off the street. How he came to own a group of garages throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn is yet another chapter of this man’s lucky, lucky, lucky life.

Peggy asked the last question, “What advice could you give us, could you give to my young daughter, sitting over there?” Again he avoided the question.

“I have a 17 year old and 22 year old daughter. I know they won’t listen to my advice.”

Yet we came away with a sense of being in a room with a man whose life and resilience teaches us more than any sentence he might utter. One sentence stayed with me: “I live every day like it’s the first and last day of my life.”