Using the Lessons of Our Gibborim (Heroes) During a Pandemic

Using the Lessons of Our Gibborim (Heroes) During a Pandemic

 Nance Morris Adler – 27 Nisan 5780 – Yom HaShoah u’HaGevurah – 21 April, 2020

Yom HaShoah u’HaGevurah is Israel’s – and by extension the Jewish people’s – day of remembrance and commemoration for those murdered in the Shoah. Most people use the shorthand “Yom HaShoah” and don’t include, or perhaps even know it exists, the last half – u’HaGevurah.” This is particularly interesting as the date was selected to fall a week after the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising – gevurot was clearly on the mind of those who created this national holiday in Israel. Despite this, I was among those who did not know the full name for many years. Then I discovered the stories of Jewish Partisans and the Gibborim– the Heroes – became a core part of my teaching and my learning. These stories are now an integral part of my curriculum in multiple grades and in my wider teaching to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences about how to inspire Upstanders. 

It is vitally important that we never forget those who were murdered for no other reason than the facts of their birth. Their lives, cut short by the Nazis and their collaborators, deserve a permanent place in our consciousness. Recalling this dark and unimaginable time in history is absolutely necessary to continue the work of assuring that it does not continue to repeat – not just for Jews – not for anyone. But, while these memories and this commemoration remind us why we must be vigilant – it is the stories of the Gibborim that teach us how to be vigilant, how to work together, how to stand up to tyranny and to hatred, to sacrifice for the good of the community, to withstand more than we thought we could and get up and do it again the next day. How to be an Upstander even when we just want life to be “normal” again. 

The Bielski Partisans, the Ghetto Fighters of Warsaw, The Jewish Avengers of Vilna – Abba Kovner, Vitka Kempner, Ruzka Korczak and their comrades – these are the big names that come up when we think about the Jewish Heroes of the Shoah. But there are countless less well known stories of men and women, God I love the women partisans, who decided “If I was going to die, I was going to die a fighter, not because I was a Jew.” (Sonia Orbuch – JPEF interview) 

Some fought back without weapons. The amazing Oneg Shabbat archives that were recovered from the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto are a testament to the wisdom of Emmanuel RIngleblum and his compatriots and of their bravery as well. And the information within the archive shows, in all too real detail, how people lived, and, far too often, died in the Ghetto. Acts of compassion, sacrifice and humanity, alongside “choiceless choices” that no one should ever have to make, show how these Jews dug deep into their reserves of gevurah and kept themselves and others alive as long as they could. It shows how they retained their humanity, their sanity, and their Jewishness in the face of overwhelming hatred and violence. 

The Jewish Partisan Educational Foundation has a lesson that I love to use with my students. It is called “Eight Degrees of Gevurah” and is based on Rambam’s Ladder of Tzedakah. This lesson has students learn about how acts of gevurot – heroism/bravery – are like acts of tzedakah – acts of righteousness to help others –  and think about what particular acts would be equal to each of the eight rungs of Rambam’s ladder. This equating of the acts of Jews fighting both for their own lives and for the lives of all Jewish people to acts meant to help those with less than us or in difficult circumstances can serve to put the need for armed resistance into perspective. 

Frank Blaichman providing arms and training to young Jews who had escaped shtelach or ghettos and wanted to join partisans in the woods of Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine is the highest level. Partisan groups only took those with a weapon that they knew how to use. Having weapons and training also allowed them to form their own groups and not rely on the uncertain welcome of Soviet or Polish partisan groups. 

The Bielski’s “family camp” allowed 1200+ Jews of all ages to walk out of the Naliboki Forest on July 8th 1944. Tuvia insisted on helping all Jews regardless of age, gender or ability to fight. His brother Zus, fighting with the Soviet Partisans, provided them with supplies and protection. The Bielski brothers did not know all the people they saved, but those saved all knew that it was the Bielskis who enabled them to survive. This is step five on the ladder- receiving help and knowing who is giving it but the giver doesn’t know who is receiving the help. 

Today we are all “hunkered down” to some degree or other due to the Covid19 Pandemic. We are days, weeks, a month or more (I am on week five) into quarantine or “stay home, stay healthy” confinement in our homes. We are scared. We are facing an “enemy” that we know little about and is easily spread. We don’t know what news or advice to follow. We want to see our friends, our family, our students and colleagues. We face weeks of teaching remotely, questions about the school year and even next year. Our students are stressed and miss their friends, their routines and, though they may be loath to admit it, their school and teachers. How can we use the stories of these Jewish Gibborim from the Shoah to help them cope? When I share these stories with my students, they often say “But I could never do that!” My response is twofold – “God forbid you should ever have to know if you could do that.” And “You won’t know until you have to know what you are truly capable of doing.” 

This pandemic is in NO way equivalent to the challenges faced in the Shoah, but for our students it is most likely the first time they have felt truly unsure and scared about the future and about the ability of the adults in their lives to provide assurance and to “fix” things. Having them look around to find the acts of gevurah being performed is a way to have them focus on the good being done and the ways that they too can contribute to making everyone safer. Some examples are the healthcare workers and first responders who are working tirelessly, often without proper personal protective equipment; employees of stores and restaurants working, also often without masks and gloves, to be sure we can all eat and have the other necessities of life; neighbors reaching out to help each other; those shopping and caring for the elderly and infirm; business which have swapped out their production lines from making haute couture or just regular clothes to making masks and gowns for healthcare workers. 

There are many other examples if we all look around (hint – teachers working hard to both support their students emotionally and help them continue to learn and be engaged in the wider world). Be sure your students think about things that their family members have perhaps done to help make all the time together more enjoyable and create positive memories in this difficult time. You might have them write them out like the strips included in JPEF’s lesson plan and rank them according to degrees of gevurah. This focus on “the helpers” as Mr. Roger’s called them, is a good way to reassure your students that positive things are happening and that people are working together to control the spread of Covid19 and help those who are sick.
The memory of the perished reminds us to continue to work for a better world where Anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry, and hatred of any kind have no home. The individual stories of those whose lives were terminated show us what was lost. They prove the Jewish teaching that “to destroy a life is to destroy an entire world.” The actions of the Gevurot prove the second half of this saying from Pirkei Avot “to save a life is considered by the Torah to have saved the entire world.” Ghetto fighters, partisans and others who took up arms, or pens, or song to fight back against the Nazis were doing so to save the Jewish world. They were choosing to give their, quite likely, death meaning and importance, dying a fighter, not just because they were a Jew. Their acts of bravery should inspire us to likewise give our lives meaning and importance by working for the greater good of all humanity. May the memories of all those who perished, along with those who fought and survived and have since passed, be for a continued blessing as we work to inspire our students towards lives of meaning.

Edited from an essay written for Prizmah

Arguing for the Sake of Justice – William Cooper and Kristallnacht

Arguing for the Sake of Justice – William Cooper and Kristallnacht

In the story of Sodom and Gomorrah  Abraham has the holy chutzpah to argue with God about God’s plan to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah along with all of their inhabitants. Abraham bargains God down to an agreement that 10 righteous people will save the cities. We learn from this story that we need to speak up, that we need to be brave to face those in power when we feel they are planning unjust actions and that even if we feel completely powerless – either in relation to those whose actions we are questioning – like God – or perhaps because we truly are – we cannot be silent in the face of injustice.  In my classroom, this awareness is fostered so that my students learn to be Upstanders – rather than bystanders. I have been teaching towards creating Upstanders for 12 years and this summer I was brought to Perth, Australia through a grant from the US Department of State, Office of Cultural Affairs to speak about what and how I teach to create Upstanders. This grant was awarded through We Are Here! Foundation for Upstanders, which was founded by Eli Rabinowitz for the purpose of promoting my work and the Partisan’s song as tools for inspiring Upstanders. For my speaking tour, where I would be speaking mostly to non-Jewish audiences, I wanted to have an Australian angle to my presentations and so looked for an Australian Upstander. I would like to share about this Upstander today.


In my 8th grade Jewish History class I teach my students about the Emancipation of Jews under Napoleon. They learn that almost immediately after the Declaration of the Rights of Man awarded the Jews of France equal rights, they had to fight to keep the rights they had just won.The Jews had to prove that they deserved these rights and to show that they were ready to be French Jews, rather than just Jews who lived in France.  We look at the questions posed to the Jewish Notables by Napoleon to determine if they were worthy of being full citizens of France and possessors of equal rights. Students work to answer these questions on their own and then we look at the answers given to Napoleon by the Paris Sanhedrin. We learn that they got to keep their rights, then lost some of them, and then got them back again.


After we learn about French Jews getting and, eventually,  getting to keep their rights – and about the spread of this equality across Europe as Napoleon built his empire, we then turned to our “going further” portion of our unit – I teach using an Inquiry model and this penultimate step in the Inquiry Cycle is about taking your learning and applying it in a new way. For this unit we skip ahead to today’s world and look at the rights we would all like to have – the rights we are meant to have -the rights proclaimed as “universal” in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This document lays out 30 articles giving all humans rights meant to guarantee them a life of dignity and a world where all of one’s needs – not wants – are met in a way that does not cause embarrassment or require feeling beholden to anyone. This document was produced after WWII and the horrors of the Holocaust and was meant to work towards a world where “Never Again” was a realtity for all populations. We review this document and the students are meant to mark any article that they feel is not being “upheld” in today’s world – and I make it clear that I do not mean not upheld in developing nations where one might expect a lapse in full human rights, but right here in their affluent Seattle or Bellevue communities.


When my students ask how this project connects to our learning or to Jewish history, I remind them that once we have rights, it is our job to make sure others have them as well and to work towards making the world more equal and kind. It is one thing to think about the rights of others when your own are secured. It is yet quite another to make a stand over the treatment of or loss of rights by another group when the group you belong to has not yet won its own rights – or is even considered fully human. I teach my students that it is their responsibility to fight for the rights of others EXACTLY because they have them and enjoy the benefits of being full citizens. But to belong to an oppressed group, a group deprived of their ancestral lands and still not viewed as equal and full citizens in a nation created on territory where their people have lived for millenia and to go and fight for the rights of others is quite extraordinary.


Kristallnacht – or the November Pogrom as it is also called – happened November 9th – 10th, 1938. It was meant to look like a spontaneous popular uprising against the Jews remaining in Germany and Austria in response to the shooting of a minor Nazi diplomat in France by a Polish Jewish teenager. “Regular” Germans were meant to be the main participants in this action and the official Nazi party and SS were meant to be less visible. Evidence from Nazi Party documents shows that this “spontaneous” uprising was carefully planned and carried out according to detailed instructions from the Nazi leadership. Who and what could be attacked was specified in a way to make it so that it was a German issue – no Jews from other countries were to be touched, nor was their property. The goal of keeping other countries out of a German issue was very clear in the instructions. That it was also supposed to be carried out in every town, village and rural corner of Germany was also clear. All the plan was waiting for was an excuse for it to be “spontaneous” and the shooting provided this cover. In addition to millions of Deutsche Marks worth of damage to Jewish businesses, homes and houses of worship, around 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up in the first mass arrest of Jews and taken to Dachau and other concentration camps. Thousands of Jews were beat up and at least 100 died. The Jews were billed 1 billion Reichsmark to clean up and repair the damage done by others to their properties! The message “you are not welcome here” was now heard loud and clear and those Jews who had remained to this point realized that they needed to leave and as quickly as they could. In our own congregation there are several people who left Germany within days of Kristallnacht. My husband’s family only left then, urged on by the arrest of his great- uncle Paul. It was a clarion call that no, you are not “more German than Jewish” and no, this will not “just go away.” News of the events in Germany were reported around the world and the message of the dire situation in Germany was clear to not just the Jews living there.


The news found its way to Australia and reached even those in the Aboriginal community. One of the people who read about these events was William Cooper. Cooper was a leader in the Aboriginal Rights movement and had spent much of his adult life advocating for recognition of the Indigenous population of Australia as humans, as citizens and has having equal rights and equal access to a productive and meaningful life. He had petitioned the Australian Parliament and even wrote a letter to the King of England because, while he was not recognized as a citizen of Australia, he was still a subject of the English Crown. William Cooper was a leader of the Australian Aboriginal League and was a member of a people who had suffered much at the hands of white settlers in Australia. Much like the native peoples of North America, the Aborigines were victims of attempted genocide, cultural genocide, loss of land and were viewed as unequal to white Europeans. I was horrified as I read about the treatment of Aboriginals by European settlers and the continued oppression of them. That they were classified as “flora and fauna” – literally equivalent to rabbits and other pests that could be shot if they were on your land – up until the year I was born – actually until just 8 days before I was born – is mind boggling. While state laws in the early 1960s had given the Indigenious rights in parts of Australia, the 1967 Referendum, is seen as giving them full status as Australian citizens, and was passed on 27 May, 1967. I was outraged as I read about their struggles for their rights and recognition as human beings deserving of equal treatment.

William Cooper learned about the events of Kristallnacht and assumed that there would be a protest in the white European community. He waited to hear what would be said and done to get Germany to stop their oppression of the Jews. But there was no outcry. So, on December 6th, 1938, William Cooper  tried to present a resolution condemning the actions of the Kristallnacht to the German/Nazi Consulate in Melbourne. He had made an appointment but when he arrived with a group of protestors and was discovered to be Aboriginal, he was refused entrance. Cooper left the letter at the Consulate and, despite some press at the time, the story was quickly  forgotten until a few years ago.


So, why did this man and his fellow Aboriginal activists take this action? Why did they write a letter and then walk 7 kms from Footscray to downtown Melbourne to try and present it to the German consulate? Shouldn’t their concern for their own fight for rights have taken all their focus? How did they have energy to fight for others when they were still deep in their own fight? They had suffered much of what the Jews had experienced over centuries in Europe and what they would go on to suffer at the hands of the Nazis in the next seven years. They were able to see beyond their own suffering and humiliation to recognize another group similarly suffering and to speak out on their behalf. They knew, all too clearly, the atrocities that are committed against those with no rights and who are seen as less than human. They did not want this to happen to anyone else. This is the empathy one would hope that suffering creates in one, but it is often hard for those still actively oppressed have the ability to step outside their own fight for justice to fight for others. They just don’t have the energy or time or bandwidth. Even more rare when those others are thousands of miles away, and when even those who should be raising an alarm are not doing so. While many other groups in Australia went on to raise concerns and call for a stop to the inhumane treatment of Jews by the Nazis, that the first group was Aborigines is quite astonishing and worth investigating and honoring.


In learning about the history of white, European settlement of Australia, it is clear that the Aboriginal population were seen as racially inferior and dispensable. The parallels between their experiences over 150 years and those of the Jews under Hitler are startling. These similarities give rise to the idea that perhaps the appeal on behalf of the Jews by William Cooper was also a call to give attention to the treatment of Aborigines in Australia. Perhaps if people could be directed to give their attention to pending genocide on the European continent, they might have their eyes opened to what was occuring on their own. Encouraging Australians to protest the treatment of Jews could lead to a confrontation about their attitudes towards their own minority that was being oppressed and eliminated. This brings to mind the story from King David’s life where Nathan the Prophet gets David to see his crimes against Uriah by telling a parable about a rich man with many sheep who steals and slaughters the one sheep of his poor neighbor rather than one of his own for an unexpected guest. David – who had stolen Uriah’s wife and had Uriah killed – declares this man should be harshly punished and Nathan says “This man is you.” Perhaps Cooper and his colleagues hoped the same could be accomplished with the Australian government and society.  It is also common that those who have suffered come to the support of others who are suffering the same oppression – Jews were allies of Blacks in the fight for Civil Rights in the US, and also involved in the work to gain rights for Aborigines in Australia. But this is usually after the first group has freed themselves from oppression – It is easier to work for others when you feel secure – so much braver and harder when you don’t yet have that security of equality before the law.


Viv Parry, an amazing Australian woman who uses art therapy with Aboriginal men who are in recovery, learned the story of Wiliam Cooper and decided to make a film about it.  Viv is Jewish and she was already using the lessons of the Holocaust to help counter prejudice in her clients. Having them hear the stories of Holocaust survivors was impactful as they connected to the commonalities of experience. She brought Alf Turner- known as Uncle Boydie – who is William Cooper’s grandson – and Moshe Fiszman – a survivor from Poland together to talk about their experiences and the histories of their two people. In the film “The Ties that Bind” – Moshe  tells Uncle Boydie, that he can’t believe that the Aborigines would come down and protest at the German Consulate when they themselves were “not treated as others by the Australian government.” Moshe continues “The Aborigines could feel it – because they themselves were subjected to a lot of problems…” This film is a record of a meeting between these two men in 2016 to discuss their experiences and the parallels in them. Moshe shares his story of survival and the miracle that he is alive and “here” to have this conversation. Uncle Boydie reaches out to pat Moshe’s knee and tells him “Well, I am glad you are here mate.” It is the place in the movie that got a response from every audience I shared it with in Australia – from middle schoolers to adults – they all loved this moment of human connection between these two survivors of hatred and oppression.


Uncle Boydie, as a young boy, went with his grandfather and the others on that march from Footscray to the German Consulate – a walk he has since re-enacted as seen in the film. He shares in the film, and also told me when I was privileged to get to speak to him by phone while in Melbourne, that he “knew my grandfather would do this – that was the man he was – he was not fussed a bit to go down there and protest. I lived with him for 8 or 9 years and I knew he would do it.”  Moshe Fiszman compares Cooper to Gandhi in terms of a fighter for the rights of his own people, and for the Jews.


When a group is being oppressed, it often relies on the help of those not in the group to survive and escape persecution. During the Holocaust, Jews in many countries were helped by their non-Jewish neighbors and friends – and often by complete strangers. These people were motivated by many things – religious conviction that what was being done was wrong and needed to be resisted, friendship and love, a shared humanity that made not helping not even a possibility, past favors being returned and a shared resistance to the Nazis, Hitler and fascism in whatever form it was in their country. These individuals have earned the distinction of “Righteous Gentile” or “Righteous among the Nations” from Yad Vashem. To earn this title, one must have acted out of altruism – this means that there was no reward, or payment for what they did. These people almost always acted at great risk to themselves and their families. If caught, they, along with the Jews they were helping, would be likely shot on sight. The vast majority – in fact almost all – of these Righteous lived in countries were the Holocaust was happening. They were giving material aid to Jews in their country, town, village, neighborhood. Some were from countries not directly impacted, but were serving in a diplomatic capacity in those countries – Ambassadors Sugihara and De Sousa Mendes come to mind. Each of these men wrote hundreds of illegal visas so Jews could escape to a safer place.


William Cooper is a Righteous Gentile. As he did not live where the Holocaust was occurring and did not provide direct aid to Jews, he cannot officially be given this title by Yad Vashem, but I have little doubt if he had lived there, he would have acted in a way that would earn him that title – as Uncle Boydie said “He wasn’t fussed a bit to do it.” He was honored at Yad Vashem by the establishment of an endowed Chair of Resistance Studies in the International School of Holocaust Studies at Yad Vashem. The Jews of Australia were not many, and they were not at risk. It is William Cooper’s actions, as an individual, as a member of a disenfranchised group himself, that have earned him his place in history. While other groups in Australia may have spoken out and called for Germany to cease its inhumane treatment of Jews, they were usually motivated by a connection to those being persecuted – and all of them, other than the Aboriginal League – were full citizens, with full rights in their country. Unions protested the persecution of unions, communists and other political groups – which likely included Jews but they were not the first concern. Discussion of providing a haven for Jewish refugees is peppered with mentions of their hard working attitude, assumed wealth, and the benefit they would have to Australia as settlers in all that open land – likely taken from those Cooper represented. That Cooper and others from the Aboriginal community took it upon themselves to protest is a striking display of their sense of a shared fate with the Jews of Europe. Of their awareness of what could happen when you were seen as less than human. Of their desire to prevent the Jews from suffering what they themselves suffered. William Cooper stood to gain nothing from his actions. He had no connection to the Jews of Europe. But he knew what it was like to be persecuted based on one’s racial or ethnic identity and did not wish that on anyone else. We should all be so inspired by the sufferings of our people to work for all who are at risk.

Dancing with the Remnants – My Reflections on The Bielski Partisan Gathering

Dancing with the Remnants – My Reflections on The Bielski Partisan Gathering

Dancing with the Remnants 

Marking the 75th Anniversary of Liberation from the Nazis with the Bielski Partisans

Nance Morris Adler

Shabbat Shuva 5780 


Shomer Yisrael, Sh’mor Sh’erit Yisrael

V’al yovad Yisrael, ha-omrim: Sh’ma Israel.  


Guardian of Israel, guard the remnant of Israel; and preserve the people of Israel, who proclaim: “Sh’ma Yisrael. 


Shomer Israel is one of my favorite pieces of liturgy. I love singing it each Sunday morning that I lead minyan. As a student and a teacher of Jewish history, I know far too much about our remnants and the importance of remembering them. This summer I was privileged to be invited to attend the first ever reunion and gathering of the descendants, and one surviving brother, of the Bielski Partisan brigade. These truly were the remnants – children and grandchildren of the less than 10% of Polish Jews who survived World War II and the Shoah. While we were in what is currently Belarus, Naliboki and Novogroduk were in Poland at the start of the war and the residents of those places would be counted as Poles. 


I have taught about the Bielskis – brothers Tuvia, Zus, Asael and Aron and their partisan brigade – for 10 years – really since I first learned about them at a workshop of the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation – and before they were made “famous” by the movie “Defiance”. It is because of this that I was encouraged to attend by the organizer of the event, Tamara Vershitskaya, who is the main historian of the Bielskis and Novogroduk. I have proudly worn my shirt with the image of Zus Bielski on it on every trip I have taken to Israel with my 8th graders, usually on the day we go to Yad Vashem. My students learn about Jewish Partisans and Ghetto Fighters and know that there are Jews who fought back. Never did I imagine that I would be able to visit the Bielski Camp – a place that I try each year to describe to my students, using a crude map that was drawn after the war, and GoogleEarth images of dense Eastern European forests. That I would sit and eat breakfast several mornings, as well as lunch and at least one dinner, with Aron Bielski – the youngest of the four brothers – and become friends with children and grandchildren of Tuvia, Zus and others of the Bielski clan – never ever could I have imagined this. And I am sure that Tuvia and Zus never imagined that I, a Jewish history teacher from Seattle would help their grandchildren hang a mezuzah on a tree in the Naliboki Forest – Forest Jerusalem – in the middle of the site of the Bielski Camp. But this summer I got to do these things. 


The city of Novogrudok was multicultural and there were good relations between its Jews and Gentiles. When WWII broke out, it was firmly in the part of Poland that had been given to the USSR in the secret Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. When later the Nazis invaded and came to Novogrudok, neighbors helped neighbors. It was this many years of cooperation and relationships that contributed to the events that followed. The arrival of the Nazis meant that a ghetto was of course formed and the Jews were put there. As time passed and it became clear that the ghetto would be liquidated and what that meant, the leaders in the ghetto decided that something must be done. They decided to build a tunnel. They had contacts outside the ghetto and they knew that if they could get out they could get to the Bielski Camp and have a place to be safe. This history of good relations was evident still today in the welcome that this gathering received both in Novogroduk and in Naliboki. The gathering began on the 75th anniversary and the same dignitaries and nonagenarians with their chests covered in Soviet war medals that were at the commemoration in the center of Novogroduk were present at and participated in the welcoming ceremony for the Bielski reunion. In a land where Jews visiting the sites of their ancestor’s homes often return with stories of stony silence and a less than friendly reception, we were greeted like long lost relatives and friends. 


One example of actions of the citizens of Novogroduk is the Kozlowski family who sheltered over 500 Jews over the occupation. When someone was able to get out of the ghetto or was passing from another village or town through Novogroduk to the Bielski Camp, the Kozlowski’s would hide them for a few days until it was safe to travel and then send them on their way. I met Lola Bielski and her two grandsons. As a very young child Lola was hidden in Novogroduk by a Polish family during the occupation. She shared her story with us at breakfast one morning, including photos from an earlier visit when she went to see the house where she had been hidden. The two ladies who worked in the kitchen of the hostel where we were staying were so excited by these photos. They knew the house, they knew the people. They knew the family that had hid Lola. They knew her friend, or at least his children, who had kept her company when she was a hidden child. They were so excited to see the photos and hear Lola’s story.


Back to the tunnel – so the tunnel was dug. It was hard work – hard to dig – hard to hide the digging -hard to hide the dirt. But 203 meters later, they were sure they were past the ghetto wall and were ready to plan the actual escape.  120 people successfully escaped from the Novogroduk Ghetto – it is the most successful escape from a camp or ghetto in the entire Holocaust. They were able to survive because they had help outside the ghetto and a place to go – the Bielski Camp where Tuvia Bielski was known for his policy of accepting every Jewish person -men, women, the elderly and children – into the camp and keeping them safe. Tuvia believed that every Jewish life saved was a victory over Hitler.  100 of the escapees went to the Bielski camp. 


At the reunion, when I would meet someone new the usual greeting was “Partisan or Tunnel?” I would answer “Neither.” The person would generally look confused and then ask why I was there. I would explain I was a teacher and had been teaching about the Bielskis for 10 years. This slowly turned me into a bit of a celebrity and instead of “Partisan or Tunnel” by day 2 the greeting was “So, I understand you are a famous American historian who knows everything about the Bielskis.” To which I would reply, “I am sure you have the wrong person.” (Apparently they didn’t) But it was a bit less awkward than being quizzed so I learned to say “well, not quite, but yes.” This at least made me feel like I was no longer crashing someone’s family reunion and more like the second cousin no one met before. 


And in reality by this time, I did feel a bit like family. I was staying at the Catholic Hostel in Novogroduk and Aron Bielski and his wife were also there along with Lola and her two grandsons and Bella Bielski Rubin and her two sons and other Bielski relatives. This meant we spent a lot of time together visiting and sharing meals and a few l’chaims. Aron and I had become buddies the first night over l’chaims with the priest. Shahar and Uriyah Rubin and I spent a lot of time talking and they, in my mind, most truly embodied the spirit of their grandparents and the partisans. Shahar lives in the Carmel Mountains in Israel and teaches survival skills. He was clearly at home in the woods and very much in his element here where his relatives had provided a haven for the Jews who could reach them. 


Aron spoke to this the first evening – very briefly – public speaking was not his favorite activity. What he said, says a lot about the realities of Polish Jewish life in this area – a Jewish world that was lost and is not really understood today. 


“When the Nazis came, our father told us “Go to the woods and live.” And we did. And we survived not because we were the smartest, the most educated or most worldly. We weren’t. We were country folk. We knew the woods. We knew how to take care of ourselves. We knew how to survive in the woods. And so we lived.” 


The Bielskis were the only Jews in their village. They ran the mill. The boys ran wild and were – as lovingly described by Uriyah “hooligans” – they survived because they were tough and knew how to get by. Their Polish was perfect without a Yiddish accent. They passed as Polish and were able to move about in the towns and villages finding Jews who needed their help. They were tough as nails and had to make tough choices to protect those in the camps – but also saved 1200+ Jewish lives because that was the right thing to do. We forget that Jews in Eastern Europe were as or more likely to be millers and farmers than urban intellectuals. This awareness is part of what was lost in the destruction of Jewish life village by village by the Nazis. 


On the second day we went to the “Forest Jerusalem” – the Naliboki Forest where the Bielski camp was located. On the way there we stopped in the village of Naliboki where we were greeted again like returning heroes. The mayor, the head of the local Communist party, and a troupe of traditional musicians/singers greeted us in the Main Street. The Mayor presented us with a beautifully decorated loaf of bread – the traditional greeting in this area – and the group sang. A downpour began in the middle of this and it did not stop the welcome or the singing. The local villagers were all going about their morning and were also welcoming and friendly. Uriyah joined a group in the bus stop and asked me to take a picture.  This “what might have been” snapshot is one of my favorite pictures from the trip. The same troupe welcomed us back after our visit to the Forest and the locals provided our group with a “Partisan’s lunch” which featured local produce and lots of homemade vodka. The head of the local Communist party was preaching love and togetherness of all peoples facilitated by “more vodka” as she worked the room filling (to the top) people’s cups with her peace-making liquid. And yes, I did finish all of mine. 


We then moved on in a long caravan of vans and cars and locals who joined in as we headed into the forest. There is a sign at the entrance to where the camp was and I was thrilled to see the familiar map of the camp that I and my students look at each year as I teach them about how developed the camp was – with a bakery, hospital, school and various workshops as well as ziemlankas – underground bunkers covered in logs and branches as camouflage – for living in. I wandered off into the woods on my own as the speechifying went on a bit long – there was a representative from the Israeli Embassy to Belarus there as well as other dignitaries. In the quiet of the woods I wandered through looking for signs of the camp, indications of where bunkers might have been dug into the ground. It was an amazing feeling walking through this place that I have tried to imagine and then describe to my students for 10 years. I reached a point in the path where a tree had been used to make an arch over the pathway and entered a wide meadow. Past this meadow I went off the path and into the woods. I found what appeared, and was confirmed later, to be a small storage ziemlanka/bunker that was still intact. I continued to meander back towards the group and found others exploring on their own as well. These were the children of those whose lives had been saved in these woods and, based on my own emotions,  I have to imagine this was a very emotional experience for them. 


When I rejoined the main group, many were standing in the deepest of the remaining ziemlanka depressions. Some metal artifacts from the camp had been found and people were looking for others. We then all moved back towards the center of the space where Shahar had determined that we needed to dance. Fiddles were brought out and a circle made. The Bielski children and grandchildren joined in the middle of the circle and danced as everyone else clapped and sang. I was standing next to the daughter of Asael Bielski – born the day he died and named Asaela in his honor. Watching the children and grandchildren of those whose lives were saved in this very spot was an amazing experience. I wept both for joy at their being alive and here and in sadness for those who were not there. The sheer joy in their faces and the sense of vindication and victory over Hitler, the Nazis and their collaborators was overwhelming. Dancing with the remnants of the Jewish community of Novogroduk and Naliboki was a spiritual experience and I felt so blessed to be part of it. 


After the dancing Sharon, the granddaughter of Tuvia, wanted to put up a mezuzah she had brought with her. She had brought it on her first trip to the camp years before but the weather had prevented her being able to hang it. I offered to help with the blessing and rituals of hanging a mezuzah and set off with Sharon, her cousin Matty (Zus’s grandson) and a few other Bielskis. They picked a tree to the side of the path and began to look for something to pound in the nails. Before we hung the mezuzah, Matty put on his tefillin and said the Sh’ma. He was wearing them as he hammered in the nails using a thick branch – this felt very authentically “Partisan style” way to hang a mezuzah. I have amazing photos of him putting it up and then Sharon saying the blessing and the Sh’ma. This was also an incredible experience – to be marking these woods, this camp that kept safe 1250 Jewish lives during the Shoah, as a Jewish home was so significant. Lola brought over her grandson to kiss the mezuzah as well. This sense of reclaiming the woods, of making it a Jewish place, of honoring those who lived and died there 75 years before was quite holy to me. It might have been the Bielskis and the other partisans who were physically guarding the remnant here during the war, but the sense of the Divine was clear to me in those woods. They were and are a holy place where the sanctity of Jewish lives was not dependent on the ability to fight or having shown up with a weapon that could be used to kill Nazis. Tuvia made sure that every Jewish life that could be saved, was. Those who joined him and supported this mission did their part to keep safe women, children and the eldery. And the non-Jews who helped, protected, fed, and hid their Jewish neighbors were all doing holy work as well.  To be able to celebrate this with the descendents of those who were saved, or did the saving, was truly inspiring.


I teach my students about the partisans to show that Jews did fight back, they resisted and they helped each other survive – what that looked like was not always as impressive as the Bielski camp and the lives they saved, but each act of resistance was done by – to quote Eli Wiesel – those who were “beaten, starved and tortured” and whose ability to resist was almost nonexistent. I want my students to know these stories so they can feel pride. So they are inspired to also be Upstanders and help when they can – even when they themselves might feel powerless. Being able to bring back to my classroom this experience, the pictures, the stories, to tell a boy who made a copy of the camp map for a project last year – “I stood right here” and point to a place on his map and see the look on his face is so powerful. I danced in the Bielski Camp in the Naliboki forest on the anniversary of their liberation – and even though it is not my story or my history – even though I am not “Partisan or Tunnel” it will count as one of the most emotionally powerful moments in my life – a moment when God was close – perhaps even dancing with the remnants as well. 

Eulogy for My Sister


Eulogy for Colleen Ann Morris Cashell 30 November, 1965 – 21 March, 2019

Delivered 27 March, 2019 Clear Spring Maryland by Nance Morris Adler


Colleen was taken from us all far too soon and suddenly and we are all still struggling to understand what happened last Thursday morning. While we are shocked and devastated by her Death, in this space we want to focus on her life and share what made Colleen Colleen. I know there are people here from many parts of her life and all of those parts go together to make up a full picture of her life. We hope that in this room we can create a circle of love and memory to celebrate Colleen.


I always looked up to my big sister and wanted to be like her. Our mother told me that as soon as Colleen started school I wanted to be in school and had to be put into a part time pre-school so I would be happy. We are only 18 months apart in age and only two grades apart – Colleen started school young so that we wouldn’t be only one. We were great friends growing up and often mistaken for best friends rather than siblings as teenagers. We shared friends and hobbies and spent many winters ice skating and summers roller skating together at North Park.


Colleen and I both loved music from infancy – her first album was a Johnny Cash album – which is why he is our soundtrack today – and mine was Glenn Campbell or Cher. We stayed up late to watch the tv shows of all three of those entertainers. Colleen and I shared multiple memberships of Columbia House records and fought over who got to pick which records to play on our father’s stereo each Saturday morning growing up. She introduced me to British New Wave music when she brought home albums from a friend of hers in high school – Echo and the Bunnymen are still one of my favorite bands and when I saw them recently I thought of her bringing home that album. Colleen also introduced me to Punk rock when she went to college. Many of my favorite bands to this day are ones Colleen introduced me to and my “birthday” song is from this album (hold up Colleen’s copy of The The Soul Mining) – we found her copy in her house yesterday – that she shared with me in 1984.


Another area where Colleen was a huge influence on me was on the need to be involved and make the world a better place – to see the issues beyond your community and recognize the world is all connected. Colleen became very involved in a number of causes in college and it was her activism that encouraged me to become involved as well. As a high school student hearing about her work to end Apartheid and forward the cause of peace and human rights, I couldn’t wait to go to college and get to do important things like she was doing. While she moved on to other focuses in life, working for many of those same causes are still a vital part of my life and I never forget that it was Colleen who first lit that fire in me. I have often reflected on how dedicated she was in college and how it is me that has carried on the work. I always give her credit for that part of my life.


Colleen has always loved animals. She always had whatever pets our parents would let her have. Dogs, cats, hamsters, rabbits, turtles. In college Colleen spent much of her allowance on caring for her pets and would come home with worn out shoes because her rabbits needed their nails trimmed or the cats needed something. Caring for others – even animal others – always came first. In Clear Spring she adopted I don’t even know how many feral kittens and cats and I hope someone else takes up feeding them all now. Her love of cows developed during our years living on a farm and raising calves for 4H. Her desire to be a veterinarian developed early and it is unfortunate she was not able to achieve that. Her love of animals got in the way of her desire to care for animals and the demands of veterinarian school did not sit easily with her after choosing to become vegetarian in college. She switched her major to Dairy Science, and that led her to her work here in your community the past 20 years and for a total of 30 years with the Dept of Agriculture. Her love of Holsteins was never more clear than at her wedding where every decoration was cow themed. I had been told to wear something western and in black and white. When I saw the theme I said “I didn’t mind the black and white, and even the western was easy (I lived in Montana then) but if I knew I was being made to dress like a Holstein I might have complained!”


“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” Corinthians 13:4-8


As I am sure all of us in this room know, these words describe how Colleen lived life. It did not matter to her that others did not live by these same values – Colleen was endlessly giving and kind. She was eager to help anyone who she saw was in need of a helping hand. She always felt things would turn out well, and worked with that as a goal. I have heard from many of her friends and coworkers in the past week on Facebook and in messages about how helpful she was, how kind she was, how she helped their career, or spent time with their family. I have heard from our friends from high school who remember her as someone who was always smiling, was kind and friendly to all. I chatted Sunday evening with our friend Jim who Colleen and I convinced our parents to take in when he needed a place to live. He remembered her care for him when he was in need and is grateful to this day for that help. She had hope and she gave others hope as well.


Colleen, my dear sister, you are a child of Earth and starry Heaven. You are loved by many – both those here and those who could not be here but send their love and thoughts – may all that you gave to others in this life be given to you in your soul’s next journey.


We know that many of you know Colleen in settings we, her family did not, and we look forward to you sharing your memories of Colleen so that we can add them to ours.


(Allow others to share)


Closing –


In Judaism, when a loved one dies, and on the anniversary of their death, it is traditional to wish that “their memory be for a blessing”. It is believed that it is in the memories of those that we leave behind that eternal life is most easily found and that as long as the memory of a person persists, so does their influence and blessing on the world. Thank you for sharing your memories of Colleen with us – Colleen’s life was a blessing to many – and may all of our memories of her be for a blessing and may her influence live on for many years.

The Command to Remember


The Command to Remember

Creating Collective Memory as a Moral Imperative

By: Nance M. Adler

Originally published in HaYidion March 2014

We have all heard the adage – “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.” I would like to add to it “Those who don’t remember their people’s history are doomed.” Much of how we are to behave as Jews is based in our remembering. Both God and our own modern experience exhort us to “Never forget” – we are to remember what was done to us and work to keep it from happening to others.  If we don’t know what was done, we can’t participate in this work to better the world. In the Torah we are reminded numerous times to “remember that you were strangers (or slaves) in Egypt” and as a consequence of that memory we are to treat others better than we were treated. We are to care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger in our gates. We are to treat others as we want to be treated and we are to remember it was God who helped us escape and be faithful to God as a consequence of this memory.  The study of history – or even the idea of history – comes late to Judaism. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his book Zakhor differentiates between “collective memory” and history.  Yerushalmi points out that memory is a religious commandment in Judaism. The root zakhor appears 169 times in Torah. What God commands in the Torah is collective memory. It is looking at an experience as if it happened to you rather than in its proper historical setting.  The best example of this is the Pesah Seder. We do not say “The father of my ancestor was a wandering Aramean.” We say “My father was a wandering Aramean.” We say God took “me” out of Egypt. The Pesah story is told as personal memory. It is also the most widely observed Jewish ritual. Secular, unaffiliated, otherwise totally assimilated Jews hold and attend seders – this collective memory experience speaks to them and reminds them of who they are and how they are supposed to be in the world.

For Jews, as Yerushalmi points out, up until quite late, all of history was seen as collective memory. It was all seen as a playing out of God’s plan for God’s chosen people and all connected no matter how far apart in time events occurred. In my sixth grade Jewmanities class I combine teaching the stories of Tanach with the teaching of history. We look at the early kings of Israel as the Jewish archetypes they have become – memory – and then we look at them in their historical setting and as real people. We look at the prophets and their warnings of divine punishment and then learn about the Assyrians and the historical events of the conquering of ancient Israel and the destruction of the First Temple. By seeing our story both as history and memory, connections can be made and lessons learned beyond what doing it as one or the other allows. One of the most valuable things, in my opinion, about the heroes of the Tanahk is that they are real people. To learn about Solomon as only wise and to not see that he also made bad decisions, mostly connected to women, makes it hard to connect to him as a role model. Knowing that our problems were also the problems of our ancestors makes their experiences and lessons apply to our experiences. This is the power of collective memory. Knowing how your people have handled problems – how Jews handle problems – allows you to make Jewishly informed choices in all areas of life.

Our history teaches us what it means to be a Jew – the good and the bad of it. Much of Jewish history is depressing and awful. It is regularly debated just how appropriate it is to even teach it to various age groups. Parents ask me why I want to make their kid hate being a Jew by teaching about the Shoah or the Inquisition or other dark episodes of our history. A seventh grader recently asked why we always learned about such depressing stuff. He wanted to know when we were going to learn something “sunny” about Jewish history. Unfortunately, seventh grade JSS is 70 CE – Middle Ages, so, other than the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry and Babylonian Jewry, there isn’t a lot of sunshine. But, there are still lessons to be learned here that should make students value their Judaism and want to cling to it as strongly as their ancestors, who did so often at cost of life. How much in life today is worth dying for? To Jews in Ancient Israel, Spain, Babylonia, the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Europe, Germany and so many other times and places, the meaning and value of being Jewish was clearly a prize worth protecting and nurturing even when the cost was high. Loss of privilege and loss of life were not enough to dissuade Jews from being Jewish in those places, but today not getting to attend a concert on a Friday night is enough to make a kid wish he wasn’t Jewish. So, how do we inspire a deep and abiding love and value for being Jewish? For me, it is through the teaching of Jewish history and memory; in creating a sense that all of Jewish experience is part of my Jewish experience and figuring out how to understand that so I can be a part of making the world a place where some of those experiences will never again occur. Sharing in the collective memory of one’s people allows one to partake in the ongoing history of that people in a way that will hopefully one day allow “never forget” to become a true “never again.”  By remembering and teaching our students to remember as well, we can perhaps one day place those events in the historical past where they belong.

Full Immersion Learning – JCAT


(Originally printed in RAVSAK journal HaYidion in Spring 2013 – No longer online on their site)

Each fall, the seventh grade students in my Jewish Social Studies (JSS) class begin the year by participating in The Jewish Court of All Time (JCAT) online simulation. JCAT is an innovative learning adventure that is a joint venture of the graduate programs at the University of Michigan School of Education and the University of Cincinnati and is supported by RAVSAK. JCAT is a virtual trial that is moderated by graduate students and whose participants are middle school students at Jewish schools around North America. Participants select a historical persona whom they will portray for the duration of the trial, which takes place at a virtual Masada. Students, in “character”, consider, and gather, evidence, post responses to questions and proposals and get familiar with each other’s points of view. Justices are then nominated and must gather votes of confidence from fellow participants before they can rule on the case. At the end, participants are asked to reflect on their experience and on the decision of the court. Participating schools are asked to work on JCAT two periods a week. I usually do one period of learning related to the topic and one or more of the students online completing assigned tasks related to the trial process.

This may all sound rather dull, but, done well, it is anything but. The experience of watching my 7th grade students fully engaged and excited about their learning as the events of this past fall’s JCAT trial unfolded was amazing, and anything but dull.  Each year, the JCAT coordinators select a timely and Jewishly relevant dilemma to be considered by the students. This year’s trial was based in events in France related to a law forbidding the wearing of “ostentatious religious items” in public schools. The co-plaintiffs were a Muslim girl and a Jewish boy who had both been expelled for wearing religiously required items to school. I began the unit by doing several lessons about the situation in Europe related to Muslim immigrants and the wearing of the hijab by young Muslim girls. We discussed the pressure from observant or fundamentalist Muslims for all girls to wear it and related this to pressure in other religions as well for everyone to meet a certain standard of observance. We also learned about the history of secularity in France and their commitment to both freedom of and freedom from religion in the public realm.  Armed with this knowledge, and a better understanding of the subtleties of freedom of religion and freedom of expression in a country dedicated to secularity, the students were ready to participate in a meaningful way in the JCAT trial.

Character selection is a tricky thing. Students all want to be someone famous and deciding for which of the five kids who want to be Anne Frank or Lady Gaga you are going to list that as one of their choices is not an easy job. Students often make the mistake of thinking representing someone popular will be easy and it is my job to help them make good choices. In a trial related to freedom of expression, Lady Gaga might be an excellent choice; in a trial about reparations to survivors of the St. Louis, last year’s topic, she might not.  Once they have their final assignment, it is their job to get to know their person well enough to be able to speak to the issues at hand as their person would have responded. They write a “resume” or letter of introduction, as I call it, and post this online so that others can learn about their opinions and experiences, and they begin to build alliances. The personal opinion of the student becomes unimportant, as their job is to present the opinion of their assigned identity. Some students choose to play against their views and do well with this, others find choosing someone closer to their own view more comfortable. Being the “odd person out” can be fun if you have the self-esteem and independence for it, or disheartening if you don’t. I have seen both in my class.

This year’s trial was especially exciting as a movement to unseat the “host”, Benazir Bhutto, developed over Thanksgiving break. The rationale was that a Muslim woman should not be hosting the trial of a Muslim girl. Students returned to find a putsch underway and not much time to respond. Within days, Bhutto was out and a cohort of strong minded leaders – Napoleon, Charlemagne and Rasputin to name a few – had taken power under the leadership of Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician who is rabidly Islamophobic. This group froze the trial, raised the number of votes of confidence needed and added their own members to the list of justices.  I carefully presented this new reality to my class and then set them loose to respond. It was amazing to see them fly into action. Quickly groups formed and alliances were made. Leaders were chosen, goals set and strategies outlined for getting Bhutto back or at least getting rid of Geert. Revolt Against Geert (RAG) was formed by a group of girls in my class and RAG became the group to rally around for all the JCAT participants who wanted to restore order.  A day of protest was allowed for a Wednesday, which happens to be a day I don’t have this class. I invited students to come in during their lunch and recess and the RAG group showed up in force for 50 minutes of high powered action and strategizing. It was truly a teacher’s proudest moment to see these students scrambling to be successful in their plan to unseat Geert and his cronies. I trust them to save the world when the time comes after seeing how hard they worked and how well they planned for something related to a virtual trial in their JSS class.

JCAT offers students an opportunity to think outside the box – even outside their own brain as they participate as someone else. My students reflect on this aspect of JCAT and find it one of the most challenging and rewarding parts. They learn new things, see new perspectives and experience someone else’s thoughts. Interacting with the other people out of history also allows an opportunity to learn about people who they might never otherwise encounter. I find JCAT to be an amazing experience for my students, and this year in particular it offered learning experiences for which I could have never written a lesson plan. I watched quiet and timid students find their voice and see its power and I know that they will never be the same. To feel that your actions might change the outcome of something important, and to be motivated, at 13, to get up early to check online and see what has happened since the previous night in a school project – it’s not what is expected in middle school, but JCAT makes it happen.

Why I Teach the Shoah in Fifth Grade


(This article appears to not be available online at the site of the journal it was published in, so I am posting it here)

Why I Teach the Shoah in Fifth Grade


Nance M. Adler

The controversial nature of teaching the Shoah (Holocaust) to Fifth Graders was not well known to me when I was asked in 2006 to teach in this grade. I knew it had been taught previously but not by the most recent teacher. The Head of Judaics wanted me to teach it and so I began to do some research and I found that there were strong opinions on this topic. “Pedagogically unsound” and “developmentally inappropriate” were words that I repeatedly heard as part of these discussions. Considering all the gore and violence our students are exposed to on a daily basis on TV, in video games, movies and books, I found it hard to believe that there was not a way to teach the Shoah to Fifth Graders that would be both pedagogically sound and developmentally appropriate. Armed with the concerns of my colleagues but equally with my conviction, I began to put together a curriculum for my classroom that would teach my students about this important time in Jewish History and help to create in them the sense of urgency necessary to insure that such crimes would never be repeated.

For me, teaching about the Shoah isn’t just about teaching the horrific history of what happened in Germany and Europe during the Third Reich. It is about creating young people who understand that it can be a few short steps from name calling to genocide, that prejudice isn’t harmless and that propaganda and a good orator can lead people to do horrible things. With this in mind, I knew that I needed to teach about the history of Germany from 1933 -1939 as this is the time period during which history could have changed but didn’t. This decision was affirmed when I took the “Holocaust and Human Behavior” course through Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) the summer of 2008. To hear that I had focused on the right historical period confirmed what I already knew from the work of my students – understanding what happened to create a world where the Shoah could occur was vital if we are to keep it from occurring again. I also learned from FHAO the idea of creating “Upstanders”. An Upstander takes action when a wrong is being done rather than being a bystander and allowing it to happen unchallenged. This is now a byword in my class and a goal of my Shoah curriculum – to create Upstanders who, based on their knowledge of this history, will work to assure that it is not repeated.

We begin the year reading Vive La Paris by Esme Raji Codell as a read aloud. This is the story of Paris, a young African American girl in Chicago, and her Jewish piano teacher, Mrs. Rosen. This wonderful book not only introduces the Shoah through the eyes of Paris but also shows the prejudices she faces. We discuss the similar experiences of Blacks and Jews, the evils of prejudice and how life experiences impact faith. We then read stories of child survivors from a book called Survivors: Stories of Children Who Survived the Holocaust. The students then chose a book for an individual book project. This brings me to my main guideline for Shoah stories read in my class – the main character has to survive. This is based on the concern that forming an attachment to a character and then having them be killed is too hard emotionally for Fifth Graders. This means that Anne Frank’s diary would not be allowed to be read for a book report in my class even though many of my students have already read it.

My students keep a Shoah Journal where they write their thoughts and/or questions or to respond to my pre-reading prompts for these stories. These journals are our private conversation and are not shared without the student’s permission. It is here where real growth and understanding develops on these hard topics and it is here that I see beautiful evidence of the deep thinking of my students. They write questions, poetry, gut reactions or draw illustrations for the story that they have just heard. Some students write pages and others are so dumbstruck by the story that they can’t write much of anything. I have had conversations about faith, human nature and what it took for these people to survive. Responding to each journal is a time consuming but extremely worthwhile and important part in achieving my overall goal of creating Upstanders.

The next step is a lesson on the power of hate which I do so that the students are able to process the events they are about to study in an informed manner. I use the Pyramid of Hate to teach about the various levels of hate and show just how few steps there are between prejudice and genocide. Armed with this frame of reference, the students are then able to study the events of 1933 – 39 and see the unfolding climb up the Pyramid of Hate towards genocide. At the FHAO seminar I learned that a frog will jump out of a pot of boiling water but if placed in a pot of cold water that is slowly heated it will allow itself to be boiled to death. This is an apt illustration of what happened to both Jews and Germans during these years. Having this framework allows the students to see the slow boil and perhaps understand why the Jews didn’t leave earlier. It doesn’t excuse but helps to explain why Germans went along with a leader who, step by step, dehumanized the Jews and created a society where the Shoah occurred largely unquestioned. Having this framework helps make the study of these events relevant and interesting. Another way that I make this history accessible and interesting to my students is by using the writings of young people who lived through this period. We read diary entries and story excerpts as we study each time period thus allowing the students to form their own impression of both the events and what it was like to experience them. All of this leads to our culminating activity – the Shoah Character Narrative.

The Shoah Character Narrative is based on an assignment that was created by the Head of Judaics at my school. The character each child creates only experiences the events of 1933-39 and not the camps and mass killings of the 1940’s. In keeping with my requirement for stories which we read in class, the character must survive and many of the narratives are written as memoirs. Characters are created using a “reverse identity circle.” We start with a blank circle and create the pieces of each character’s identity. Students give their character a name, parents, birthplace and date, siblings, a school, level of Jewish observance, hobbies and economic class. They have fairly free reign in this process other than that their character must be Jewish, live in Germany and be at least eight in 1933. They then write a “back story” to introduce their character and show what their life was like prior to the election of Hitler in January 1933. Their character then lives through 1933-39 and experiences formative events such as the election of Hitler, early laws affecting Jews, The Nuremburg Laws, Kristallnacht and wearing the Yellow Star. While the minimum requirement is 14 paragraphs, most students write much more. They create a whole world and life for their character which is then impacted by the realities of being a Jew in Germany during this time period. The resulting stories show a command of the history, an understanding of what it was like to live through these events and a sense of not wanting this for anyone else. This assignment creates a memory for the student writer – a memory of living in Germany in the 1930’s. It is this memory that I have now come to believe will most help these young people grow into Upstanders working to make our world a more peaceful and equitable place.

So, how did I come to this belief? I was asked to be the guest speaker at my synagogue this past spring on the Shabbat after Yom HaShoah. The parsha was Tazria and I had no desire to speak on skin diseases and decided to speak about Yom HaShoah instead. I was working on writing my d’var as my students were watching “Paperclips” on Yom HaShoah when an idea came to me. The previous week I had taught my students about the difference between the two sets of Ten Commandments in the Torah. (In the Torah we are given the Ten Commandments twice; the first time by God at Sinai and the second by Moses in his farewell speech. There are major and minor differences between them.) As I thought about the experiences of the non-Jewish children in “Paperclips” and heard them speak about the stories that were shared with them and the “memories” they were safeguarding, my thoughts turned to my own thoughts on the difference between the two sets. In the first set of Commandments we are told to “zachor et yom hashabbat” (remember the Sabbath). Remembering can be very passive, requiring little action or real effort. The next forty years prove that the Children of Israel are not so good at remembering and so we can understand why God and/or Moses feel that making this commandment a bit more active might be a good thing. In D’varim we are told, by Moses, “sh’mor et yom hashabbat” (guard/preserve the Sabbath). This is an active and participatory commandment and makes our observance of Shabbat much more intensive than it might have been had we just had the first version. It is my belief that, much like Shabbat, which, as it is said “more than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews”, the Shoah requires not just remembering but guarding. Guarding as an active remembering, guarding as forming our own memories of events we did not live through so that when those who did live through them are gone we do not forget what they suffered. On Passover each year Jews say “My father was a wandering Aramean” and “I went out of Egypt.” Jews today no more did those things than my Fifth Graders lived through the Shoah but by guarding the memory in an active and personal way we have made Passover the most universally observed Jewish Holiday. Using this same technique, of creating personal memories of historical events, we can make the lessons of the Shoah part of the mindset of every young Jew. Guarding these memories by planting them in our own psyches will keep the lessons of these horrific times alive and relevant for future generations.

Teaching the lessons about what went wrong in a given situation and discussing how things might have been different is an activity without age boundaries. It is done with Kindergarteners when speaking about problems during recess and it can be done in relation to the Shoah in Fifth Grade in a way that is both age appropriate and pedagogically sound. My students love learning about the Shoah; for many it is their favorite subject. Even those who find some of the stories hard to hear know that what they are learning is important and meaningful and therefore are eager to learn more. Guarding our younger students from the horrors of the Shoah – the pictures of dead bodies and stories of the camps – does not preclude us from teaching them the lessons of this difficult period of history. Done with care and planning, teaching the Shoah to Fifth Graders can sow the seeds of concern for our People and our world and create a generation of Upstanders. It is with this ultimate goal in mind that I will continue to teach this history to my students and hope that others will follow suit.

(This article was originally printed in Jewish Educational Excellence – Volume 8:1 – Fall 2009 and is reprinted here by permission.)

Love, Justice and Religion


Love, Justice and Religion

D’var on Shabbat Ha-azinu 5779

Nance Morris Adler

This d’var is given with gratitude to all those who helped make a summer without a “formal” learning trip to Europe into my most interesting, educational, and wonderful trip yet – Simonas, Michał, and Alan in particular, with many others also having a role in its success and of course much appreciation to Steve for supporting my need to learn and travel. It is no small coincidence that a d’var about love and unity was made possible by lots of love and international unity. Simonas and I in Vilnius before visiting the US Embassy to discuss a grant proposal for me to come to Lithuania and teach about Jewish Partisans. Michał and I outside the Polin Museum in Warsaw, Poland

Alan and I at the Anti-fascist Punk Music Festival in Potsdam, Germany

Over the summer i was in Berlin for a few days. While there I was invited to attend an anti-fascist Punk music festival with a emphasis on footballer culture. My German friend Alan, who invited me- is all of those things – a punk, anti-fascist and a footballer – he is also a high school teacher and a strong supporter of Israel. He does an exchange with Israel every year with his students – they go there and Israeli students come to visit their school in Eppingen. Alan is not Jewish – nor are his students. I have known Alan for five years and consider him to be a tremendous mensch. We were joined at this festival by two friends of his from Serbia – Pagan, so named because of his staunch anti-religious views, and Zeka – who was just as staunch in such views. Considering that these two come from a region that has been repeatedly torn apart by wars and crimes against humanity fed by religious differences, I can hardly say I blame them. Nationalism also contributes to the issues in the Balkans and so their anti-fascist stance is also not so surprising. Attending this event in Potsdam – a suburb of Berlin – was quite fascinating. We were greeted at the entrance by a “No Nazis” sign and it was chilling to realize they meant literal Nazis and not some hyperbolic use of the term. Inside every t-shirt had an anti-fascist, pro-humanity and pro-music message. My favorite, and I still want to find one of my own, was “I love music and hate fascists.”

During the evening, Zeka and I had a number of conversations. He realized during these that I was actually a “believer” as he might put it. He was stunned. I seemed so enlightened and intelligent. What could be going on? So, he began, with apologies if he was getting too personal or invasive, to question me about religion, God, and myself. All of his questions were answered with some version of “to be a better person” “love” “to remind me of my job to make the world a better place” “rules to live by so I make the world a better place” “reminders of the work I have to do”. He finally realized that this really was my reason for being “religious” – love, being a good person and knowing my job here on earth was to make it better than I found it. He was stumped by my lack of condemnation of other religions, judgement, desire for miracles or any other of the stereotypical answers he had heard or believed he would hear. He walked away. After about 10 minutes he came back and looked at me with deep respect and said “You are the first person in 20 years of asking that question who has given me an answer I can accept.” I laughed and said “I am sure the fact that I do this for a living might have helped me.”

I certainly don’t believe I am the only person who could have given Zeka that answer, but the fact I was the first was significant for him. I hope that he is able to be more open to those who do believe and who use that belief to do good. Current events in the Balkans make it hard to hold out too much hope, but every bit helps.

When in graduate school and multiple times since I have heard the advice to ask those who don’t believe in God about the God that they don’t believe in. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein says “I probably don’t believe in that God either.” I think it is equally important to think about the God YOU do believe. R. David Hartman talks about a God who hates lies and a God who demands justice, decency and compassion. His son, R. Donniel Hartman, states that he believes in the God of Sodom and Gomorrah, and not the God of the Akedah – the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. Many teach that the core of Judaism is love – from Hillel on one foot stating that we are to “do to others as we would have done to us” and that the rest is commentary, to the prophets who call on us to treat the most needy well and to create a world filled with tzedek. The God I believe in is the God of love and justice – but also the God who gave humans free will. Which means that the enacting of love and justice here on Earth is our job – not God’s. I always tell my students that God gave us the guidebook, gave us wise teachers, parents, community members, and other role models to show us the way to treat each other. Sadly these role models often fall short, or the rewards of behavior not full of love or justice are more fulfilling.

R. Jonathan Sacks writes in “Not in God’s Name” about the “almost irresistible drive towards tribalism” that religion leads to – something my friends Zeka and Pagan are well familiar with. Catholic Croats kill Serbian Orthodox who kill Bosnian Muslims – who are ethnically the same as Serbs and Croats and descended from Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule – but are perceived as literal descendants of Ottoman Turks – who killed both of the other two. The threat of a new civil war or worse lingers in Bosnia as the Republika Srpska hints at a desire of independence and land. A Serbian friend sent me a picture from Croatia of a “Serbian family reunion” that would be recognizable in our country as a tree hung with “strange fruit”. R. Sacks speaks of the impulse in religion to feel that God’s love is finite and if God loves your religion, God must not love the others. He speaks of a need for religious leaders who “embrace the world in its diversity and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.” We often hear the argument that your freedom to practice your religion can’t limit my freedom to practice mine – or my lack of one. When we see the purpose of religion, and God, as love – when we see our connection to God and to humanity through love – when we remember that Judaism teaches all humans are made in the image of God – not just some of them – then moving to a practice of Judaism centered on love, justice and equality becomes the next logical step. A Judaism that makes the world better for all – one where righteousness and uprightness are the focus of a “religious” life and being observant doesn’t involve “bean counting” of mitzvot observed, but rather making sure everyone has their just share of beans – will help people to reconnect and find meaning in tradition and want to be closer to God because it will mean being closer to their fellow humans.

R. David Hartman states that “God would no longer be found in miraculous intervention, but in the materials of everyday human life. It is for this reason that the Talmudic Rabbis, and their successors, so tirelessly dedicated themselves to finding new opportunities to tie mitzvot to daily activity. We fill our lives with mitzvah in order to cultivate the habit of mind that we live within the encompassing presence of God.” I see this idea as seeing the mitzvot as opportunities to do good and to make the world more just and to create equality and fill the world with love. R. Hartman continues – “We cannot know God, but we can know how to live with God. We can know, for example, that God requires decency, compassion, and justice. For Maimonides, the lived experience of that imagery constitutes my understanding of God. I always relate to halakha with that question. Does halakha, which structures lived experience, bring me into ever-deepening contact with a God that wants me to act justly?” If the answer is no – then R. Hartman – and many others – would question the validity of that halakha. In his book he takes on the Orthodox on no lesser topics than agunot – women trapped by the lack of a get – a Jewish divorce – and unable to remarry while their former husbands are free to do so – and conversion in Israel – particularly the status of immigrants from the former FSU and their children who fight and die for Israel but are refused Jewish burial.

In a world where religion is equated with decades of pedophilia, war, genocide, patriarchal views and practices, homophobia, racism and other unjust and unloving behaviors – it really is no wonder that one might question why an educated person would participate. Judaism thankfully is not a religion that asks you to mindlessly obey, it demands your intellectual engagement. Judaism does not have one answer – there is little dogma and much discussion and disagreement. One of my favorite things about Judaism is the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) – our yearly time for taking an accounting of our soul. The fact that I am given the oblitunity each year to assess my past behaviors and figure out what I need to fix and that I have to fix them – no one else can do my work – is such a gift. Confronting my sins and the sins of the community in the prayers of these days makes escaping self reflection impossible. The expectation of both the seeking of forgiveness, and the giving of it – the clear guidelines of what actually constitutes true t’shuva – all of these make me have to confront where I have fallen short and how I am going to do better in the future. This year much of my reflection has been on how I can be sure I am making the best use of my skills and opportunities to make the world better. As a teacher, I am fortunately in the position to impact the way young Jews think about Judaism and approaching the world Jewishly. I try to instill in them the sense that being a Jew isn’t about just religion or just culture – I try to show how it should influence their life choices on a daily basis and big picture. We talk about tzedahka – about tzedek – about being upstanders – about living one’s values every day. I teach prayer as a conversation with self as well as with God and quote R. Zaiman – and others I am sure – when I say prayer should make us different.

Practicing a religion – or non-religion – of love is always important and should be the goal of all humans always – but the state of the world today makes it all the more necessary. We are being swallowed by hate and division and those who truly believe in love and unity need to speak loudly and often. This summer I also traveled through Lithuania and Poland and heard stories of those who saved Jews and never told their stories or wanted to be acknowledged – I explained to a grandson in Vilnius why his grandparents had likely never told anyone but family their story and helped him realize that it wasn’t that Jews weren’t grateful – but that the Soviets and perhaps his grandparents’ neighbors were murderous. I then thanked him. I saw shock on the face of Polish teacher I had spent a whole day with touring churches and Polish sites as he realized I was a Jew. “She’s a Jew?” he asked my friend Michał in Polish. I explained to a Polish teen, a student of Michał’s, whose first question to me was “do I feel safe in America” that as a white woman I felt pretty safe. But as a Jew I felt a little less safe though far safer than others at this point. I then went through the various groups who didn’t feel safe and we talked about racism and guns and police violence in the US. It gave him a lot to think about. Again in Lithuania, I visited WWII sites where a very thin tightrope was walked between memorializing murdered Jews and honoring LIthuanians who fought the Soviets after helping kill some of those same Jews. My friend and guide in Lithuania, Simonas, is proud to be Lithuanian, but wishes his fellow Lithuanians were more enlightened and able to see the shades of gray necessary for moving forward. He often assures me he is not a “casual Lithuanian”, meaning his views are not those of the ordinary Lithuanians or “homo Sovieticus” as he refers to them. Michal, while guiding me in Warsaw was openly angry at the Poles who insist on calling attention to their suffering in the middle of the area where the Jewish Ghetto had been. I was sure his ranting about the “holy suffering of Poles” was going to get us lynched on the train. All of the tension in these situations is due to division and hatred based in religion, ethnicity, and race. Do I know if we can overcome this impulse in humans? I don’t. But I know we need to try if we want to survive.

Ha’azinu – the parsha this week – is Moshe’s last message to B’nai Israel – it is not a cheery one. It begins with a declaration of God’s perfection and faithfulness – “The Rock! God’s deeds are perfect, Yea all God’s ways are just; a faithful God, never false, true and upright is God.” God is just and wants us to be just – but the rest of Ha’azinu makes clear that already, after 40 years in God’s daily presence in the desert, human beings – b’nai Israel – will fail to be faithful to God. Despite being “fed honey from the crag,and oil from the flinty rock, curd of kine and milk of flocks; with the best of lambs and rams of Bashan, and he goats; with the finest wheat…” we cannot be faithful to God. God threatens vengeance on those who stray. Life today is not lived in the daily presence of God – God’s bounty is not easy to find in many places. Daily miracles are no longer found – but we can make them. We are meant to be partners in perfecting this world. We are the hands to do the work to bring about peace and prosperity for all. Staying engaged and focused on being godly – bringing love and unity into the world – is hard. It was hard in the desert, it is even harder today. R.Donniel Hartman in “Putting God Second, Saving Religion from Itself” urges us to live as God wants us to live, rather than to live FOR God. God wants us to be love, to create justice, and care for each other. This is our guiding torah – and if following it does harm – then we need to revisit the first part and make changes. Our world depends on it.

Hungarian Jews and the Dangerous Allure of Assimilation D’var Shabbat Shuvah 5778 (2017) 


Hungarian Jews and the Dangerous Allure of Assimilation

As many of you know, from past divrei Torah, I travel each summer with Centropa – an organization that is dedicated to documenting the Jewish history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the 20th century. This history is then used by teachers, like me, in classrooms all over Europe, Israel and the US – we use it to show how one person can make a difference, what happens when Civil Society falls apart, and the lessons of some of the darkest hours of history so that our students know to work to assure that they are not repeated. This summer I traveled to Budapest, Hungary and Belgrade, Serbia.

Hungary was different than Poland or Germany or Austria – other places I have visited and spoken about. Hungarian Jews had a very different experience – and I learned that this just didn’t start with World War 2. There is much about Hungarian Jewry that is a bit different than other Jewish communities in Europe. And it really begins with emancipation in 1867. Jews in Hungary were expected to say thank you for their rights by fully assimilating into Hungarian culture and pretty much ceasing to be recognizably Jewish. Within 40 years, the percent of Jews who spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue was 20% higher than among Catholic Hungarians. By the end of World War I, Jews were fully accepted as Hungarian – they were “Jewish Hungarians” or “Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith”. Intermarriage was rampant and a unique brand of Hungarian Judaism – Neologism – had surpassed Orthodoxy in number of adherents.

After World War I and the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the government of Hungary moved ever rightward and this collapse of liberalism was felt by the Jewish community. Jewish veterans of the war – who considered themselves Hungarian patriots and heroes – were not shielded from the rising anti-Semitism and increasing difficulty for Jews in finding work. Previously prejudice was directed at the Orthodox Jews from Galicia who retained traditional practices and attire and were easy to spot and harass. Modern, assimilated Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith were not used to feeling its sting. Those in the upper classes of power and wealth foolishly continued, past 1938’s Anti-Jewish laws, to believe that their Hungarian patriotism and clear assimilation would protect them. In the Centropa film “The Mayor Who Worked in Hell” there is an amazing photo of Hungarian Jewish WWI Veterans in their uniforms and medals in the Dohany Synagogue on Rosh HaShana in 1943. It was their belief that these uniforms would save them.

And for some time, even after Hungary joined Nazi Germany in the battle against the Soviet Union, Hungary did protect “her” Jews – foreign Jews were deported, but Hungarian Jews were not. The men were rounded up for labor and many perished in the harsh conditions – but they were not in camps or being shot in large numbers or gassed. But even this ended when Nazi Germany invaded in 1944. Eichmann found, in the Arrow Cross fascists, Hungarians even more eager than his Nazis to deal with the Jews. One lecturer I heard this summer said that if the Hungarians had just done nothing – dragged their heels, refused to cooperate, stalled a bit – that the Jews of Budapest in particular would have survived. But, unfortunately, the Hungarian fascists were eager to be rid of their Jews.

Hungarian Jews felt they were fully Hungarian – they spoke the language, they Magyarized their names, they sent their children to state schools and they served proudly in the Hungarian Army. They embraced being Hungarian and minimized what made them Jewish. This was particularly true in Budapest. As a reward for this loyalty, synagogues in Budapest – unlike in other European cities – are large, on main streets, and are clearly Jewish. This equality with churches made Jews feel fully accepted. Dohany Synagogue is a massive structure on a Main Street with many Jewish symbols on the outside. Interestingly, this monument to the assimilation and full acceptance of Hungarian Jews is built on the property where the family of Theodore Herzl lived and where he was born. The man who dreamt of a state for the Jews was born into a community that felt it did not need one – it had one – Hungary. This may explain why I was shocked to find out he was from Budapest as he is always described as Austrian!

Neolog Judaism exists nowhere else and is a uniquely Hungarian expression of Judaism – it is a response to their history and patriotism as Hungarians. It was created by those Jews who said “We are Hungarians who are Jewish.” These Jews did not need a homeland. They were home – this really made me think about American Jews – and that of Budapest made me think particularly of Seattle Jews. As I toured Budapest and listened to a man in his 30s talk about growing up Jewish in Budapest and describe the Jewish community in Budapest today – I was struck by how similar it sounded to Seattle – low affiliation rate, cultural focus not religious, intermarriage, Jewish values being important and social action being a focus – the struggle to fill synagogues and schools – the lack of cohesion in the various parts of the community and the relatively young age of the community. Hearing about their current right wing government and rise in anti-Semitism as well as anti-refugee sentiment, made me think about the changing winds of our own country and my worries that our assimilation isn’t going to save us either. It made me think about how major political protests are all on Shabbat and the posts I have read begging the progressive community to have just one protest on a Sunday so observant Jews could attend. It made me think about having to choose between my Judaism and the rest of my identity and values when confronted with issues like this. I personally would most likely choose to participate, but what about those whose Jewish observance does not allow them to feel that they can make that choice? It made me think about the anti-Israel stream that runs through the progressive community and do i decide to participate despite this or do I remove myself? Do I break Shabbat to protest with those who then ask me to not include my Jewishness in my expression of outrage?

Truth is I don’t want to divide myself up – human/Jew/American/woman – it’s all me and I want to be able to act in way that is reflective of this. But it often leaves me adrift from true community, a fellowship of likeminded people, a place I feel fully myself but also fully a part of a larger whole. I find myself withdrawing from groups where I feel that some part of me isn’t welcome or accepted. And following the recent events in our nation, withdrawing from feeling welcome here at all. I know that we are a long way from where I should be panicking, but I also know that that distance can be travelled very quickly. A recent discussion online about whether or not violence against Nazis or Fascists was always ok reminded me how many people just don’t get how quickly. I was told that I should “wait till they are rounding you up to get violent.” I pointed out that if they were actually rounding Jews up, it would be far too late for a preventative violent response to be useful. That would mean there was a plan, and a place to send us. That this would not be the “beginning” as the person seemed to imply, but the “beginning of the end.”

I study and teach the history of the Holocaust and other genocides. I spend a lot, probably too much, of my time reading and discussing these events and the forces that allow them to happen. I know that the elimination of genocide is far more difficult than the saying “Never Again” seems to imply.We say that over and over as genocide continues to occur in multiple places. To end atrocities such as these, to end racism and homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia, sexism and on and on – requires us to all be fully aware of our humanity and that of others. To be fully aware that we are – in the ways that truly matter – all the same – and that the differences are what makes life interesting and makes us each a unique gift.

Judaism teaches we are all made in the image of God – b’tzelem Elohim – and each contain a spark of the Divine. The Rabbi shared a midrash where the angels decided to hide that spark in each person because they would not find it there – but I think in reality we have a harder time finding it in others than in ourselves. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks defines a mensch as someone who looks for and connects to that spark of the Divine in each and every person they meet. This similarity is what we need to see in all others – but without discounting what makes them unique.

By giving up our differences we would lose what makes us special and makes the world beautiful. But, by seeing only the differences, we will destroy our world. History shows – in Germany where Jews were highly assimilated, in Austria, and in Hungary – that you giving up what makes you different will not protect you from those who refuse to quit seeing that difference even when you have quit showing it. By being fully human, fully ourselves -by maximizing the uniqueness in each one of us – while also recognizing the vital sameness of us all – we can make a world where acceptance and love replace bias and hate. Working for this world is the t’shuvah (return to God/godliness) I am resolving to work on in the coming year. I hope you will join me.

D’var Shabbat Shuvah 5777 – Two Modes of Reconciliation with a Difficult Past – Terezin and Berlin


Terezin or Berlin – Two Models for Reconciling with a Difficult Past
Shabbat Shuvah 5777 – Parshat Vayelekh
Nance Adler
I hadn’t originally tied my d’var to the Parshat this week – I was focusing on the theme of t’shuva for Shabbat Shuvah – but was struck by these verses as the Torah was being read this morning. I will read these two verses and leave them there – they will make sense later.
“Gather the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 31:12-13

This summer I participated in my third Centropa Summer Academy. Centropa is an organization with its headquarters in Vienna, Austria that is working to document Jewish life in the 20th century in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans – that of the “Jews who went home after the Holocaust” as I refer to them. I use their materials heavily in my classroom and do many projects in collaboration with other Centropa teachers in Europe, Israel and other US schools. This year’s trip was to Vienna, Prague, Terezin and Berlin and focused on the experience of refugees. But I am not here to talk about refugees – though I could.
Today is Shabbat Shuva – the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – a day focused on the theme of return, repair and fixing the past as best we can. We are focused for these 10 days on tzedahka, teffila and t’shuva. But can we always fix the past? How do we repair what is broken when the break is so severe and those who were wronged are no longer here? How do we return to a point where “normal” life can continue in places where huge ruptures have occurred? Not individual ruptures or breakage – but cultural/national/regional ruptures that are not easily healed over. How do we dwell in the places where these things have happened and obtain a sense of normalcy again? Can we?
I would like to think about this question in relation to two places I visited this summer and then try to bring these analogies down to the personal level. I will start with a short blog post I wrote on the bus immediately after visiting Terezin.
“Terezin – Today I visited Terezin – Theresenstadt – the fortified city that became a Jewish ghetto during World War II. Prior to the 1940s and, again since then, Terezin was an actual town. First for the military and then for civilians as well. Walking through Terezin as visitors to a “museum” of the Ghetto, it was jarring and upsetting to be shaken out of the past by cars careening down the streets with their stereos blaring. The former housing and associated buildings used to imprison tens of thousands of Jews now house hair salons, bars, shops and even a pension – a small inn near where Jews would be loaded into trains for the trip to Auschwitz. The man in his speedo on the deck of this inn was really the final indignity. I personally can’t imagine living on the site of a Nazi created ghetto – a place where 33,000 people died from illness, starvation and poor treatment. How do you give your address? How do you invite people to visit you at your home? The atmosphere in the town is heavy with history – it was hard being there two hours – how does one live there? On the edge of “town”, just past the quaint little pension, there is a directional sign to the crematorium. I cannot imagine driving daily past this sign on my way in and out of town. Yes, evil and awful things happen/have happened in many places in the world, but some places are more tainted with this evil. For me, the idea of living in such a place is unthinkable. To try to have a normal, mundane life with the daily reminders of ultimate evil all around seems absurd. Perhaps the blaring radios and unsafe speed for streets full of museum visitors are just symptoms of this insanity.”
At Terezin there is both a memorial and museum to the past and an attempt to have life go on. They are side by side. There is no seeming connection between the two. Normal life goes on – or tries to – shoulder to shoulder with groups touring a place where people were starved and worked to death because they were Jews. I get that the Czech citizens living there now are not the descendants of Nazis who ran the camps. I get that it was on occupied territory and run by the occupying government. But, still, how does one wake up in the morning and start your day positively if part of your commute includes driving by sites of mass murder? How do you disconnect your reality from that reality?
Berlin – In Berlin we visited the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Let me repeat that name – its official name –Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There are no punches being pulled here. No euphemisms or soft selling of the fact of what happened and that this was the capital of the government that made it happen. It is a visually moving memorial with an equally moving and powerful “information center” built directly underneath it. This memorial is made up of different sized stelae or cement pillars. There are walkways between them which are uneven and give you the feeling of being off balance. Being in the center of it, where the pillars are tallest, is a whole body experience and very disorienting. While on the outskirts of the memorial – which is not well marked and very open to the public – people are not really aware of where they are, in the middle of it, it is hard to not be impacted by the experience.
When we entered the Information Center – it is not referred to as a museum – Ed Serotta – the founder and director of Centropa – spoke to our group before we toured the exhibits. Ed is not a man known for filtering his opinions or moderating his views – one of his more endearing features in my opinion. He said “When I first came here, before it opened, I went through looking for places where they had pulled their punches or been less than truthful. I found none.” To me this was a very high recommendation of the place – Ed is always quite happy to find where more could be said to take full responsibility for the crimes of genocide. As I went through the Center, I found that I was in agreement with Ed. Those of you who know me, know that the Holocaust is my specialty and I have spent a lot of time touring museums, reading books, going to seminars and otherwise immersing myself in this most horrible chapter of our history. The Information Center of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the most brutally honest and upfront presentation of the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Final Solution that I have seen. That it exists in Berlin, near the Reichstag, in what was the center of the Nazi Reich, is amazing to me. There is no ignoring of the past. This is an airing of what was done, with no excuses being made. The crimes of the past are presented. Those guilty are named. There is no attempt at normalcy – the whole construction of the surrounding memorial is made to throw you off kilter and not allow you to feel normal or on firm ground. This is a place for coming to terms with the sins of the past and, even more importantly, educating those who visit about the importance of not repeating that past.
Other memorials in Berlin are similarly present and hard to miss such as the “Stumbling Stones” in the sidewalk outside homes lived in by Jews and the “Missing House” in the old Jewish Quarter, a plaque honoring homosexuals murdered and imprisoned on the wall of the UBahn Station in the part of town where these men would have likely lived. I know that for many Germans, particularly those living in Berlin, these constant reminders are perhaps too much. Airing one’s dirty laundry is not fun and having it constantly in your face, and also on display for all who visit, can be exhausting and embarrassing. I found Berlin to be one big museum – the outline of the former Berlin Wall is marked on the ground, the Stumbling Stones, the memorial for the Book Burning – it would be hard to live in Berlin and not have the mistakes of the past firmly in mind. The German Government works hard to show it has learned from this past – the acceptance of tens of thousands of refugees this past year is one proof of this. The final step of t’shuva is to not repeat a behavior and Germany, or at least their chancellor,, is working hard to show that Germany has truly learnt the mistakes of its past and does not plan to repeat them. Like in Terezin, life goes on around all of these memorials, but it was a very different experience than the frenetic experience in the ghetto. History is respected, not ignored.
In our own lives, when there is a rupture are we in Terezin – side by side with the reminders but doing our best to drowned them out with music and fast living? Or are we in Berlin – respectfully admitting our guilt and accepting the consequences – and becoming a better person for having done so? Do we allow others to view our past transgressions, but ignore them ourselves? Or, do we use those “stumbling stones” of our experiences to keep ourselves in line and move forward positively? Do we say “I wasn’t responsible, but just a bystander – this has nothing to do with me” and not concern ourselves with the wrongs done around us? Or do we use the errors of others to teach us to be better people as well?
As a student and teacher of history, I know that the power of learning history is to explore the mistakes of others and NOT need to repeat them ourselves. Seeing the patterns of history, the warning signs of future trouble, makes one able to step in and try to prevent that trouble. The USHMM has a Genocide Early Warning team, there are known steps that lead to genocide, known behaviors or events that can lead to mass atrocities. Knowing these allows us to prevent a repeat of humanity’s darkest hours. Yet, genocide continues to happen around the world and we continue, as a society, to not take such signs seriously enough. A speaker I heard this summer said “Knowledge isn’t power – until it leads to action.” Our knowledge of past trouble should lead to actions to prevent future ones.
Seeing the warning signs of trouble in our own lives can be just as hard – but we need to use our past experiences to help us move into the future more positively and more aware. Burying the past may make moving forward easier – but it also makes repeating the past more likely. As painful as facing difficult experiences head on may be, this type of accounting will help to prevent additional painful experiences in the future. We say “Never Again” while all the while genocide and crimes against humanity continue to occur. “Never Forget” is more realistic and will hopefully eventually bring us to a true “Never Again.” Facing our mistakes, fixing what we can fix, mending relationships and rebuilding community and then resolving to keep that experience in mind is what brings us to the final step – not repeating the action. I don’t mean an obsessive fixation on the wrongs – but an awareness that lack of attention can lead to trouble. Whether that trouble is a broken friendship or much larger, an awareness of the impact of our behaviors that is informed by our past experiences – and those of others we know – will help us to minimize the damage or avoid it all together.
I wish for us all the ability to fix the ruptures in our lives and to move forward wiser for the experience. Our world needs citizens aware of history and unafraid to face it and use it to know when our present or our future is about to repeat it. G’mar hatimah tovah. May we all be sealed for a good year.
Nance Adler
Edited to add in edits made during delivery
Note – I had several people come and tell me that I was wrong and people did not live in Terezin – they had been there 10 years or more ago and no one lived there then – I can assure you that all of the businesses I listed and attempts at “ordinary” life were there when I visited this summer.