Limmud FSU, a branch of the the volunteer-driven worldwide Jewish learning
experience aimed at revitalizing Jewish communities and culture in the countries
of the former Soviet Union, is a unique phenomenon. Indeed, its seminars and
activities sometimes has a greater impact on us lecturers and volunteers than
they do on the young Jewish adult participants.
Limmud FSU’s fifth
gathering in Israel, held in Upper Nazareth on August 30, was an “Olympics”
festival dedicated to Israeli and Jewish sport and athletes, and commemorating
the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre. Over 500 young Jewish adults from
the former Soviet Union participated.
In the early evening hours, I
hosted a talk with Holocaust survivor and former Olympian Ben Helfgott.
Helfgott, who at 82 still looks and functions like a 41-year-old, represented
Britain as a weight-lifter in the 1950 Olympic Games, and was also a member of
the British team for the Munich Olympics. He knew fellow weightlifter Yosef
Romano and weightlifting judge Yosef Springer, and had met with them at the
Olympic village the day before they were murdered.
Our conversation, in
front of a Limmud audience, was amazing, both for them and for myself.
had planned to speak a little bit about the early days of Upper Nazareth,
through the experiences of my uncle, Moshe Itzak. My uncle, too, was a Holocaust
survivor, and was later exiled to Siberia by the Soviet government on account of
He made aliya with his family in the 1950s.
my lecture plan went by the wayside as Helfgott began to tell his story.
Speechless and spellbound, I could only sit and listen.
and upbeat at 82, told us the story of his life between 1939-1945. He shared his
experiences as a young child, and those of his family, in the polish Ghetto. He
described the murder of his mother and little sister by the Nazis, his and his
father’s struggle to survive, the hunger, the sickness and the ever-present
mortal danger. He told us how his father was murdered only months before the
Nazis were finally defeated.
Time went by, and the organizers asked us
again and again to wrap it up. However, the young audience refused; they wanted
to hear more.
When we did eventually draw things to a close, as I began
my summation Helfgott requested to be allowed to add two or three closing
sentences of his own. “It’s important,” he told me. Never mind, I thought to
myself. The mayor can wait.
What he had to say astounded me.
Jew, who had been made to suffer so much at the hands of others; whose parents
and sister were murdered for the sole crime of being Jewish; who for six
terrible years went to bed on an empty stomach and woke to face a new day of
terror; this Jew who should have been enraged at the world, consumed by a desire
for revenge against the Nazis and their accomplices, said: “I feel no anger or
resentment. I love people. After surviving the Holocaust, I decided to spend my
adult life fostering the love of people for one another. To spread the lessons
of the Holocaust, lessons at the center of which are the rejection of hatred and
violence and the obligation to love, to respect differences. Democracy and
peace,” he said, “are what is important in the world. Without them, our world is
not a world.”
I asked him, as a member of the British delegation to the
Munich games, what was his stance after the murders.
“I felt great pain,”
he said. “I shed not a few tears, but it was clear to me that the games must not
be stopped. The Olympic spirit of brotherhood between nations, of friendship and
tolerance and democracy, must endure. It cannot be allowed to
Reflecting on the events afterwards, I realized that here was
our uniqueness as a nation. Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) isn’t just a
slogan for us. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is, for us, not just some quote.
For us, the Jews, they represent the entire point of existence on this
My uncle, too, one of the founders of Upper Nazareth, who himself
experienced great suffering, from Nazi persecution to the frozen wastes of
Sobibor, also couldn’t find it in himself to hate. He, too, sought no revenge.
He, too, only sought to get on with his life, in a uniquely Jewish manner;
caring for others.
Ben Helfgott, who is still with us, and my uncle
Moshe, who died many years ago, both remind me of the words of Rabbi Nachman of
Breslov: “Every child that comes into the world knows that the Holy One, Blessed
be He, decided that the world could not continue to exist without
him.”The author is a strategic advisor to President Simon Peres.
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