Chief Rabbi Lau: ‘Even if you want, you won’t forget’ the Holocaust

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau explains why he participates every year in the March of the Living and what it means to remember and not forget.

April 16, 2015 17:22
Yisrael Meir Lau at Auschwitz

Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau stands at the gates of Auschwitz.. (photo credit: REUTERS/MICHAL LEPECKI)


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TWENTY SEVEN years ago, former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, himself a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp, was asked to lead the first March of the Living – a three-kilometer walk from the extermination camps of Auschwitz to Birkenau, ending with a memorial ceremony in front of barracks bombed during the Second World War. The impetus for the march was to make a statement of presence in the very spot where an attempt was made to annihilate the Jewish people.

“We wanted to emphasize: ‘We’re here,’” says Lau. “On the route that our forebears walked as the march of death – we wanted to walk the march of life.”

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Lau was asked to lead the ceremony in three languages – Hebrew as the language of the State of Israel, English as the international language, and Yiddish in memory of the dead as well as for the survivors who still spoke the language. Along with him were then Education and Culture Minister Yitzhak Navon and seven MK’s who were also themselves Holocaust survivors, including Dov Shilansky and Shevah Weiss.

Along with these special guests, the project brought together 700 young people – half from Israel and half from other countries.

“The suggestion was to have each group walk behind the flag of their country, with the Israeli delegation leading the way,” recalls Lau. “I said: no way. Jews died here for being Jews, not for being Canadian, French, or American. This isn’t the Maccabiah [Jewish Olympics].”

The march was instead opened by a group holding 18 flags of Israel – representing in gematria – Jewish numerology – the equivalent of the word “chai,” or “alive.” The memorial service itself included the traditional prayers – Kaddish and El Male Rachamim. After the event, everyone returned to their countries of origin and thought that the whole thing was over. It wasn’t clear that anyone would want to come back to Auschwitz and do the whole thing again.

“In 2005, Israel sent a delegation with [former] Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of 18,000 youths,” says Lau. “Fifty countries participated – including Hong Kong and China.”

Lau had been asked on several occasions what this experience gives the young people who take part. He answers that it’s for our memory – to keep conscious of the Holocaust experience. He also believes that it has a transformative effect. Jews who join the march from the Diaspora return to their countries a little more Israeli than they were when they left, he argues, better able to appreciate the State of Israel. While Israelis return to Israel with a deeper consciousness of being Jews.

“During my speech there I said one thing that’s important in this context,” he recalls. “This place – Auschwitz-Birkenau – is the largest cemetery on this earth. It proves that we know how to die together. There are no divisions between Sephardi and Ashkenazi, between secular and religious, between enlightened and ignorant, rich and poor. They were all killed as Jews. The time has come for us to leave here with a message that we also have to know how to live together. The secret of dying together is not enough. We have to find the secret of living together.”

Lau emphasizes this point now, 70 years after the end of the Second World War, and what he calls the conclusion of the chapter of the Holocaust in the history of the Jewish people. This message is underline by Lau’s own experience as a survivor – and his rise to a position of prominence in the Jewish world and Israel.

He recalls a meeting with Fidel Castro in February 1994 during which the Cuban leader asked him how this rise could happen.

According to Lau, Castro said to him: “I know your whole history. I know your brother put you in a sack and brought you into the [concentration] camp. I know everything but I don’t understand one thing. If you’d come to Cuba at the age of eight, without father or mother, without home or language, you’d have been on the street and turn into a petty criminal exploited by larger crime bosses. In time, you would have either been killed, or you’d have grown into the leader of a criminal gang. How is it that, at such an age, you came to Israel, without parents or language, and became the Jewish pope. Explain to me how this happens.”

Lau responded that just a few years before, in June 1992, he’d heard the exact same question, just without the Cuban element. It had come from Yitzhak Rabin just 10 days before he became prime minister. Rabin was visiting Lau at his home along with his wife Leah and then Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat with his wife – and asked how a child arrives at the age of eight without an alphabet and becomes Chief Rabbi of Israel.

“To both I gave the same answer because it’s the truth,” says Lau. “That same brother who carried me into the camp, Naphtali Lau-Lavie – who had been a night editor at The Jerusalem Post and later consul-general of Israel in New York – reminded me that our father, who was murdered in Treblinka, was the 37th generation of a rabbinical dynasty that had existed all throughout Europe. My father’s last will and testament was to continue the chain so that it remained unbroken. My brother was already 19 years old – the Holocaust interrupted his studies and it was difficult to start all over. Considering that I was a small child, and my studies were not interrupted, I was at an age where I could start from the beginning. So I started my studies of Judaism with an internal drive and the knowledge that I was to continue the chain – to carry the torch I received from past generations.”

This sense of mission is also why Lau goes to March of the Living every year: “to contribute to the memory of those holy ones who fell in the Holocaust.”

For Lau, this kind of commemoration comes with personal memories, which are not always simple to face. He says that he approaches this personal aspect through two phrases in the Torah.

The first is “Zechor” – remember – and the second is “Lo Tishkach” – don’t forget. He comments that at first it seems like the Torah is saying the same thing twice and that it begs the question of why we need both. “If you remember, you don’t forget, and if you don’t forget, you remember.” But he suggests that there is a difference. “Zechor” refers to actions we take to remember such terrible catastrophes as the Holocaust – Yad Vashem, March of the Living, Holocaust Memorial Day. Where as “Lo Tishkach” tells us that we will never be able to forget.

“It’s not a command,” he says, “it’s a pronouncement – a promise and a threat. I tell you: you will never forget, and even if you do, you’ll always be reminded by others. The appearance now of anti-Semitism all over the world makes it so we don’t forget the days of the Holocaust. But also, you won’t be able to forget because the experience is so deep, that it will never be erased.”

Lau says that at the moment he closes his eyes he sees images from the Holocaust: screams, voices, commands in German, dogs barking, trains passing, even the boots of the Gestapo. He recalls the time that he was hiding with his mother in the attic of an abandoned building – he was 5 years and 4 months old. When the Germans had just entered the Polish town of Piotrków Trybunalski, where Lau’s family had lived until then, his mother had prepared a batch of honey cookies to take with them into hiding. At critical moments, when the Gestapo entered the abandoned building to see if any Jews were hiding there, she would shove these cookies into his mouth so that he wouldn’t speak, cry, or scream.

“The minute I close my eyes,” he says, “the taste of those cookies is in my mouth. Even if you want, you won’t forget.”

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