After time spent progressing through the painful experience of Polish Jewish history – endless ghettos, death camps and mass-graves – we arrived in the more hospitable environment of Italy. The very scope of the slaughter that took place on Polish soil – so vast it cannot be fully comprehended by the human mind – weighed upon us like a dark, menacing overcast.
As we headed south where I was to speak for Chabad of Venice, the gloomy recent history of Lodz, Krakow and Warsaw were replaced by the beauty of the serene city, with its watercolor structures and coral-blue canals. The museums of Nazi death scattered throughout Poland were in Florence substituted by the artistic wonders that line the walls of the Uffizi, the Galleria Borghese and Galleria dell Accademia.
But the pain of Jewish history can’t be escaped anywhere in Europe. Italy has its fair share of tragedy. Italy was one of the first nations to ally with Hitler in the run-up to the Second World War, and many of the country’s Jews had shared a similar fate with their brothers in Poland.
In Venice, Florence and Rome the Jews were rounded up before being sent to their deaths. Of course, there is also the terrible history of the Jews in the time of ancient Rome, where legions were dispatched from Italy to wreak death and destruction upon the Jews of ancient Judea – a tragedy famously enshrined in the Arch of Titus.
Still, in light of the sheer devastation of Jewry in Poland and Eastern Europe, the Jews of Italy fared far better. Until the occupation of northern Italy by German troops in late 1943, there were no mass killings or deportations carried out by the Italians. Between 1941 and 1943, thousands of Jews would escape from Nazi occupied Greece and France into the Italian mainland, where many would survive the war. At one point, Italian authorities even helped save 4,000 incoming Jewish refugees.
There are over 30,000 Jews living in Italy, with tens of thousands of Israeli tourists. Venice alone, according to the incredible and highly successful Chabad emissaries living there, hosts about 300,000 Jewish tourists a year.
Oddly, though, one can struggle to find Jewish tourists on the streets of Europe.
France and Germany, with Jewish populations of 310,000 and 230,000 respectively, felt the same. The Jews are there.
You just can’t see them. Due to the rise in antisemitism, even the Orthodox have stopped wearing their kippas.
Secular Jews too, generally choose not to display any outward tokens of their Judaism, such a necklace with a Star of David.
I can’t judge them. But Jewish visibility must return to Europe and Jews have to stop fearing being noticed.
Here’s why: In the 21st century, two great and opposing visions were laid out for the future of the Jewish People.
The first was that of Theodore Herzl who said that Jews would never be accepted among the world’s nations. In a journal entry from 1897, he summed up the pivotal lesson of his life: “Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to ‘combat’ antisemitism.” Jews would be hated wherever they lived, and therefore, it was incumbent upon them to build a home of their own – a Jewish state. It’s a theory built fundamentally on the idea of centralization.
The Holocaust tragically proved so much of what he said.
Yet there was another vision launched some 50 years afterward by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson. Far from calling on Jews to leave their smaller, local communities for the more established communities in the United States and Israel, the Rebbe did the precise opposite. He sent emissaries – primarily from the United States and Israel – and into these smaller communities throughout the world, in an attempt to strengthen Jewish communities wherever they’re found.
It was a theory based not on the centralization of Judaism, but on its proliferation. For the Rebbe, the Jews were not only a persecuted minority in need of a home, but a “light unto the nations” with an obligation to expose all of mankind – even non-Jews – to the majesty of Jewish values and spirituality. The Rebbe sought to strengthen Jewish communities wherever they are found.
On my trip through European Jewish centers I have been blown away by the success of Chabad in so many of these communities. In Budapest I watched 300 Jews enjoy Shabbat meals at Rabbi Shmuel Raskin’s. In Venice I witnessed the same with Rabbi Rami Benin. And in Florence, I was the guest of the Rabbi Eli Borenstein.
Herzl’s towering vision founded the modern Jewish state. And the Rebbe’s universal vision has ensured global Jewish religious continuity. So whose vision has won out? Both. And they must be complimentary and not contradictory.
I count the State of Israel as the great love of my life and I have taken immense pride seeing my children serve in its military. Israel is the eternal homeland of the Jewish People.
But Jews also have a universal mission. It warms my heart to see the continued success of Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich, rebuilding Jewish life where six million Jews were murdered, and I was moved to my core to see the enormous new synagogue in Munich where 80 years ago Hitler came to power, run by Rabbi Shmuel Brodman. No reader of this column should wish to see Europe become a continent empty of Jews.
I have heard many Jewish and Israeli leaders write off Europe. But tell that to the tens of thousands of Israeli tourists who visit there every year. Should they remove their Magen Davids when visiting? Should they have no place to pray on Shabbat? Should they remove their kippas, as so many are already doing? Why, when it comes to establishing robust embassies of the Jewish faith throughout the world do we suddenly cower down and obscure ourselves from the world? This past Friday night, I was walking with my wife and two young Chabad rabbinical students through the streets of Florence. Two young Dutch women approached us. We were the first Jews they had ever seen in their entire lives.
And yet, Anne Frank is the most famous Dutch personality of modern times.
It was then that I realized the tragedy befalling European Jewry – namely, that we’re becoming invisible. This from a nation that, for thousands years, has had a larger impact on the world than any nation before it. And Jewish tourists don’t help when they conceal their Jewishness.
Everywhere you go today in Europe you see Muslim men, women and children of great visibility, proudly sporting the dress of their faith. Yet we Jews hide our own.
As I stood in front of the most famous sculpture on earth, Michelangelo’s David, it hit me then just how much we as a people – and a small one at that – have given to our world.
We ought to make sure it stays that way; that people all over the globe remain exposed to the whole Jewish People – not just the ones made of stone.
The author, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post calls “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international bestselling author of 30 books including his most recent The Israel Warrior. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.