Reflections from Rabbi Waxman
Reflections from Rabbi Waxman
Tales for Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day
Today, Thursday, April 16th, (the 27th of Nissan) we mark Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Let me share with you 3 stories.
On the first day of Rosh HaShanah, 5704, September 30, 1943, Rabbi Moshe Pessach, the rabbi of Volos, a northern Greek community of nearly a 1,000 Jews, was summoned to German headquarters and was given 24 hours to produce a list of the Jews in Volos. He requested extra time and was given three days to comply.. Granted the extra time, he quickly consulted his friend, Archbishop Joachim Alexopoulos, the metropolitan of Demetrias and the bishop of Volos. Alexopoulos, who had sources inside German headquarters, who informed Pessach of the impending round-up and handed him a letter of introduction addressed to the priests in villages surrounding Volos, urging them to protect the Jews in every way possible. Through the rabbi’s intervention, and with the help of the mayor, municipal officials and the chief of police, the Greek underground spirited all but 130 Jews (who were later arrested, deported and murdered) into hiding in the surrounding remote mountain villages over a three day period.
Nearly ¾ of the Jews of the community survived, a sharp contrast to the fate of the rest of Greek Jewry, of whom but 15% remained alive at war’s end. Rabbi Pessach would go on to establish a group of partisans who fought the Germans and rescued allied soldiers, for which he was honored by the Greek government after the war. While he survived to re-establish his community, sadly his wife died while in hiding and two of his adult sons were captured and murdered. After the war, as one of the few surviving Greek rabbis, he was selected to be chief rabbi of Greece. He died in 1955, shortly after an earthquake destroyed much of Volos, including his home and the synagogue. There is a personal connection: a son, Dr. Marius Pessah, who lives here on Long Island, was for many years my late father’s physician.
This year the JNF and B’nai Brith World Center in Jerusalem are honoring the memory of Rabbi Pessach in a ceremony held on Yom HaShoah in the Martyrs Forest outside of Jerusalem. This is the 13th year that these organizations have honored Jews whose heroism saved fellow Jews during the Shoah.
Second story. This past Sunday, Chaya Gertman, age 92, died in Israel. Her family perished during the Holocaust, and because of her ordeal at Auschwitz she was incapable of having children. Her adopted family in Holon was fearful that no one would be there for her funeral; that there wouldn’t even be a minyan to say kaddish. Social media to the rescue. The person behind the drive was Sarit Cohen-Toledo, whose own mother Tikva adopted Chaya as her "second mother", and who Sarit knew from the day she was born as "Grandma Chaya" In the end 400 gathered as she was laid to rest. "All the way home, my mother and I could not believe it," says Toledo-Cohen. "How much she was honored - and how deserved it was."
One final story. In January, 2014, then Member of Knesset, Rabbi Dov Lipman, joined an Israeli delegation at Auschwitz. “We marched upright through the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau surrounded by the Knesset honor guard whose members, clad in their dress uniforms, were proudly holding Israeli flags.” He had journeyed to the spot where much of his grandmother’s family was sent to the gas chambers.
He writes in The Times of Israel:
Experiencing the freezing cold of an Auschwitz winter taught me an additional lesson about God and the Holocaust. I called my grandmother when I returned to Israel and asked her how she survived the cold. I explained to her that I was bundled in many layers including gloves, thermal socks and a hat covering my ears and I still lost feeling in my fingers and toes after just a few hours in Auschwitz. I wanted to know how she withstood that same cold wearing far less. She replied that she had “no idea” and she guesses that “it was simply meant to be” that she should survive and mother her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
He concludes his piece thusly:
We must learn from what happened during our worst of times. During our most tragic era we saw ourselves as one people with one lot and also understood the inherent benefits of unifying together. I committed myself to do all that I could to make sure that we apply that same approach as we experience the best of times with our supernatural return to our homeland and the establishment of our own state.
May the memories of those who perished in the Holocaust be a source of blessing for us all. And, as we commemorate Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, may we continue to find inspiration from the remarkable and miraculous stories of individual survivors and our survival as a nation.
Rabbi Lipman’s piece reminds us that 70 years after the liberation of the camps, that we now visit these infamous sites, bolstered by the knowledge that a Jewish state exists and that most Jews no longer suffer persecution. We need to be mindful of this as we transition from the sober commemoration of the Holocaust to the joyful celebration of Israel Independence Day next week.
Chadashot MeYisrael: News From Israel
A Promising Development for Heart Attack Victims:
Growing New Heart Cells in Mice:
A major step in repairing and regenerating heart tissue has been taken by a team of Israeli and Australian researchers. The joint research led by Gabriele D’Uva of the Weizmann Institute in association with the Victor Change Cardiac Research Institute in Sydney stimulated heart muscle cells to grow in mice.
Whereas heart muscle tissue in salamanders and fish regenerate; not so with those in the human heart. Though our blood, hair and skin cells reproduce, human heart cells stop dividing about a week after birth.
The team is optimistic that their efforts will help patients who suffer from heart conditions. “The dream is that one day we will be able to regenerate damaged heart tissue, much like a salamander can regrow a new limb it if is bitten off by a predator, “ said Richard Harvey of Sydney.
According to the Australian researcher, “There are various theories why the human heart cannot do that [regenerate], one being that our more sophisticated immune system has come at a cost.” However, the researchers discovered that by manipulating a hormone called neuregulin, used in the heart’s signaling system, they can stimulate heart cells to divide, thereby leading to regeneration.
The method was successful in both adolescent and adult mice and the replaced tissue made the mice hearts almost as good as new.
Harvey, however, expressed caution about the rate at which their research can have human applications. Though sure that it will stimulate research activities in labs around the world, nonetheless he thought it would take another five years before scientists will know if the same process can be used in humans. “We will now examine what else we can use, other than genes, to activate that pathway, it could be that there are already drugs out there, used for other conditions and regarded as safe that can trigger this response in humans.”
A Comment on the Weekly Torah Portion
The regular cycle of Torah readings resumes this Shabbat, April 18th, with Shemini (Leviticus 10:12-11:32)
11:20 All winged swarming things that walk on fours shall be an abomination for you. (21) But these you may eat among all the winged swarming things that walk on fours: all that have, above their feet, jointed legs to leap with on the ground.
11:21 above their feet, jointed legs. The locust is the migratory phase of the grasshopper. When conditions become sufficiently crowded, the usually solitary grasshopper undergoes a morphological and behavioral transformation during which it flies in huge swarms. The palace reliefs of Sennacherib at Nineveh (now in the British Museum) show that grasshoppers were delicacies fit for a king. A scene depicting a line of attendants carrying food items includes at least one figure with rows of grasshoppers skewered on two sticks (somewhat like corn dogs). (Lisbeth S. Fried, “Sh’mini: Purity and danger in the Sanctuary and the Home,” in Eskenazi and Weiss, eds., The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. Dr. Fried earned her Masters from the University of Michigan. She was awarded a doctorate from NYU in 2000, The Rise to Power of the Judaean Priesthood: The Impact of the Achaemenid Empire. Since 2000, she has been Visiting Scholar in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan and from 2005-2103 she occupied a similar position in the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan. She has written extensively on Judaism in the Second Temple period—many of her articles are available on-line-- and recently published Ezra and the Law in History and Tradition. Her translation of and commentary on the Book of Ezra is now in press.)