by Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks
Today, the 27th of Nissan, we are commemorating Yom HaShoah, the day set aside in the Jewish calendar for Holocaust remembrance.
During the nightmare years of the Shoah one moment stands out for what it taught about the human spirit. It concerns a man almost unknown in Britain, the Polish-Jewish physician Janos Korczak.
Early on in his medical career, Korczak was drawn to the plight of underprivileged children. He wrote books about their neglect and became a kind of Polish Dickens. In 1911 he founded an orphanage for Jewish children in Warsaw. It became so successful that he was asked to create one for Catholic children as well, which he did.
He had his own radio programme which made him famous throughout Poland. He was known as the “old doctor”. But he had revolutionary views about the young. He believed in trusting them and giving them responsibility. He got them to produce their own newspaper, the first children’s paper in Poland. He turned schools into self-governing communities. He wrote some of the great works of child psychology, including one called The Child’s Right to Respect.
He believed that in each child there burned a moral flame that if nurtured could defeat the darkness at the core of human nature. When the time came for the children under his care to leave, he used to say this to them: “I cannot give you love of man, for there is no love without forgiveness, and forgiving is something everyone must learn to do on his own. I can give you one thing only: a longing for a better life, a life of truth and justice. Even though it may not exist now, it may come tomorrow if you long for it enough.”
In 1940 he and the orphanage were driven into the Warsaw ghetto. In 1942 the order came to transport them to Treblinka. Korczak was offered the chance to escape, but he refused, and in one of the most poignant moments of those years, he walked with his 200 orphans through the streets of Warsaw to the train that took them to the gates of death, inseparable from them to the end.
Janos Korczak’s actions were not unique; there are many inspirational and tragic stories of similar bravery and determination in the face of such adversity. What draws me to Korczak’s story is that it was about children. The Nazis were determined to not just wipe out the Jews of their generations, but to exterminate the Jewish future.
They failed and many of those children who survived have spent the years since telling their stories, educating Jews and non-Jews about the dangers of intolerance and the need to respect the dignity of difference. These survivors made a commitment to live for what the victims of the Shoah died for.
As a people, we not only share a covenant of faith we also share a covenant of fate. Today, as the number of Shoah survivors sadly declines, the duty of remembrance falls on our generation and on future generations not yet born.
Yom HaShoah is a vital day in the Jewish calendar, providing us with a focal point for our remembrance. We cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can bring their memory back to life and ensure they are not forgotten. We can undertake in our lives to do what they were so cruelly prevented from doing in theirs.
In doing so we make a great affirmation of life. We ensure that out of the darkest night, the light of the survivors and their memories remains. Faced with destruction, the Jewish people survived. Lo amut ki echyeh, says the Psalm: “I will not die, but I will live.”
The Shoah survivors are among the most inspiring people I have had the privilege to meet. Remarkably, despite coming eyeball to eyeball with the angel of death, despite the unimaginable losses each of them suffered, so many of them fulfilled the words of Moses’ great command Uvacharta Bachayim, ‘choose life’ (Deut. 30: 19). In doing so, they chose life not just for themselves, but for their children, grandchildren and all future generations of Am Yisrael.
Yom HaShoah calls on us to remember from the depths of our Jewish soul. Janos Korczak was right. Whilst we can remember the past, we cannot write the future. Only our children, the future of our community, can do that.
(This article was first published in The Jewish News)