Blogging for The Washington Post on Monday, historian Andrew Apostolou cited a voice, now stilled but once clarion clear, that was well known to many of our readers.
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, an Englewood resident who led Temple Emanu-El there for many years, was an internationally known historian and writer, particularly about Israel and Jewish concerns. (He was also, as many would attest, a man of strong opinions who brooked no dissent.)
“Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura (The day of remembrance of the Holocaust and the Heroism),” writes Apostolou, “is an occasion for speeches that seek to derive meaning or a lesson from the murder of Europe’s Jews. For some, however, it is also time for an alternative commemoration: silence.”
Apostolou, who helped Hertzberg edit his memoir “A Jew in America,” relates a story from that book, leading up to it by noting that Aharon Rokeach, the rebbe of Belz who was the leader of a chasidic dynasty, “managed to escape from the Germans, but his wife and children did not survive the Holocaust.”
The young Hertzberg, who was related to Rokeach, visited him in 1949, writing of the encounter many years later: “He was totally silent when I mentioned my mother’s father and her brothers, who had been his disciples until they were murdered during the war. I was upset. This strange behavior was later explained to me by his principal assistant: The rebbe had not once said any of the prescribed prayers for his wife and children, because those who had been killed by the Nazis for being Jews were of transcendent holiness; they were beyond our comprehension. Any words about them that we might utter were irrelevant and perhaps even a desecration of their memory. The rebbe did talk about the school that he had just begun to establish in Jerusalem, to teach young people the ways of his sect; this task was self-evident, and the effort would succeed.”
Apostolou comments, “The rebbe of Belz was still in the face of calamity. He would only discuss the future.”
Past, present, and future all converge this month, as we mark the Holocaust, celebrate Israel’s independence, and work and pray for Israel’s future – as well as that of the whole world.