By this time, I have lost so many family and friends to death that when Rabbi Jamie calls on us for Kaddish names, I can sound off with my Top Ten. Certain spiruitual believers tell us that death is a delusion. Now, we have fake news, and we Jews have one up on that – we have fake death. Yom Kippur stands between fake death and real death. Rabbi Jamie, as he mentioned on Kol Nidre, wears burial clothes, and we don’t eat or drink, and we do an end-run around Divine Judgment by catching up on our sins before God gets the job. We aren’t jolly like the Mexicans on Dia de los Muertos, or fearful like believers in Hell, but we grieve and we remember.
I have, over the years, asked about the experiences of people I know who had survived the Holocaust. It seems that that least five helpers, planned or spontaneous, had to be there in the horror of the moment. The needs were immediate and sometimes at risk of rescuers’ own lives.
Mrs. Rosen, gone now, who used to live in Denver, told me about her rescues. She and others had been outdoors in a temporary holding area set up just outside the Cracow ghetto. The Jews there were awaiting transport. She had given birth to a baby two weeks before and she and her husband handed the tiny girl back and forth. The family’s Polish maid came up to see them, at the enclosure, and Mrs. Rosen pushed the baby under the barbed wires and into a swath of cleared area between that fence and another that separated the area from the civilian street.
The maid was pulling the baby toward her when a guard saw them. He pointed a gun at them. “What’s going on here?”
“I was carrying my baby,” the maid said,” and I got so tired that I had to put her down so I could rest. Unlikely? No… unbelievable.
“Well,” said the guard, “take your goddamn baby and get the hell out of here.” The maid took the baby and brought her to a convent where she, Esther, stayed for the duration of the war.
In the camp, the young couple was sent to a rail-head to work at unloading the corpses of people who had died during transit and to hose out the cars afterward. The rail-yard was stationed a little way away from the camp. A German officer commanded the group, which, because of the work involved, was quite a number.
The officer began to see the prisoners as his responsibility. He worked at separating his people from those of the camp itself, pleading the need as the trains came in constantly. The prisoners took over an abandoned railroad car. Then he started getting them extra food and clothing and providing medicine through a web of lies and bribes to people in the town.
At the end gf the war, when everyone could hear the sounds of artillery getting closer, the officer was ordered to shoot the prisoners. He fired the necessary shots into the ground while the prisoners hid under the trains and waited for the Russians. The Russian officers, not wanting to slow his troops’ advance, took them to an American aid station.
Their little girl, Esther, had been saved at the convent, and was then returned to her parents. Albert and I were at Esther’s wedding. How many people had been involved in saving the three of them?
I’ve been thinking about my own life, and the much more prosaic ways in which I have been helped, and I have begun my own list. I’m astonished at the number and variety of the people on that list. They seem to have appeared at the my need, to encourage me in good times and help me through bad times. We don’t do it on our own, this living business. Recently, a man told me that he had become the great success he was all on his own, by pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. I thought, “How hard that must have been, succeeding while bent over double like that.”
In our services, especially on Yom Kippur, we recall the ill and the dead. Maybe there should be a time when we meditate on all the helpers, big and small, young and old, the people who gave us a chance, who stopped when others walked past, who stood up for us and let us grow. See them walking beside you, living and dead? They are legion.