Archive for October, 2011

We Must Never Forget

October 29, 2011

The Survivor Torah

This magnificent Torah Scroll, in a display case at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts, is open to the Ten Commandments and to Deuteronomy 6:4:“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”   This is the “Survivor Torah,” and its story speaks to us of the very survival of mankind.

On the external glass frame surrounding the case are etched their names; Helena Tomasova, age 66; Luis Gelber, 42; Zdenek Susicky, 16; Lota Hermina Schifferova, 10; and some 95 others.  They were not survivors.  All members of the Jewish community of Dvur Kralove in Czechoslovakia, they were rounded up and sent to death camps by the Nazis in June, 1942. Of the 350,000 Czech Jews, only 44,000 lived through World War II. None of the survivors were from Dvur Kralove.

The Nazis killed the people, but they preserved this Torah Scroll for their planned “Central Museum of the Extinguished Jewish Race” in Prague. The Torah remained there until 1963, when it was taken to the Westminster Synagogue in London along with 1,563 other scrolls. Many of them, like this one, had been desecrated beyond the point where they could be used in the liturgies.

In 1979, a member of Temple Emanuel obtained this scroll and brought it to America on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Rabbi Samuel Chiel’s service at the temple. Once a year, on Shoah Remembrance Day, the scroll is carried through temple in solemn procession. The names of the martyred faithful are remembered that day, and all through the year.

I feel a profound sadness when I contemplate their earthly fate, and a melancholy that sometimes verges on despair when I realize the depths of depravity to which members of the human race have sometimes descended, as they did during World War II.  I do take a measure of comfort in knowing that the names of Helena, Luis, Zdenek, Lota Hermina, and the Jews of Dvur Kralove will forever live in memory while the names of their captors and tormentors lie buried deep within the ash heap of human history.

Nazis, and their vile cousins who still infest the earth, are thuggish soldiers of the forces of darkness which, I am sorry to say, will be with us until the Last Day. But comforting, too, is the knowledge that even in times when evil is ascendant, there are the righteous among us who take up arms and thwart that evil – ordinary people like Wallenberg, Schindler, Socha, Sugihara, and the most heroic them all, Irena Sendlerowa.

I agree, as well, with the quote from a Shoah victim’s diary that my sister learned of in a visit to Yad Vashem in Israel. A young girl, who died in the camps, wrote that she hoped that somehow the victims would be remembered not by monuments but by the good deeds of people who learn the story of what happened.

Yes, we must learn and we must remember, just as the good people of Temple Emanuel have done.  In the display case is written, “This was their Torah. Now it is our Torah.”

May it be everybody’s Torah.  May we all remember the people of Dvur Kralove, and may we honor them – by knowing their names, by learning the story of what happened, and by courageously speaking the truth to evil. If we do that, we may yet ensure the survival of mankind and the ultimate victory of light over darkness.

Columbus Day: The Rest of the Story

October 10, 2011

Today is October 10, 2011

Cristoforo Colombo

Mythology inevitably takes root and flourishes around the life stories of all of history’s “great people.” That is certainly the case with Cristoforo Colombo of Genoa, Italy, whose voyages of discovery and entrepreneurship we celebrate in many parts of the United States today.

All of us who attended grade school during the latter half of the 20th Century are familiar with the life and legend of the “Admiral of the Ocean Sea,” as historian Samuel Eliot Morison calls him. I would like to mark this occasion by telling you a few things about the man and his patrons that you may not know, and which might give you another perspective on history, that most fascinating of subjects.

  • He was the son and grandson of weavers who had lived in the Genoese Republic for at least three generations. Ruddy-complexioned and with red hair, he was not an Italian in the modern sense. The people of Genova La Superba held themselves apart from and superior to other Italians.  In his writings, Colombo charged his heirs to “always work for the honor, welfare, and increase for the city of Genoa,” and to always maintain a family house there.
  • He learned seamanship on Portuguese vessels, and might have gotten the backing of King Joao of that country had Bartolomeu Dias not returned in triumph from his Africa voyage in 1488. Columbus was in Lisbon to pitch the king the day Dias returned. Discovery of that sea route to the Indies caused King Joao to lose interest in financing a Western exploration.
  • Queen Isabella of Spain first met with him in 1486 and kept him waiting six years for financing. Exactly why, we’re not sure. She was an effective ruler in a number of ways, especially in fiscal matters. She inherited enormous debt when she assumed power and got it paid off. It may have been that she didn’t have the money to spare in 1486. But she gave him a small retainer to keep him around and not take his project to some other monarch.
  • Isabella la Catolica was totally intolerant of other religions. She employed the infamous Tomas de Torquemada as her confessor and first Inquisitor General. She did her best to drive out from Spain, or to convert to Christianity, Jews and Moors (not Moops).
  • Even though she was anti-Jewish, Isabella employed a Jew named  Luis de Santangel as keeper of the privy purse. Santangel was the one who made the convincing argument that the expense of financing the voyage, less than what it would take to entertain a visiting sovereign at her court, would be worth it if the result was the conversion of people of Asia to Christianity.
  • That the queen sold her royal jewels to finance the first voyage is myth. That option was apparently on the table but Santangel arranged for borrowings from other public accounts instead; he also invested some of his own money.  And Columbus didn’t get paid anything until he returned to Spain. It was a good investment by Santangel.
  • The best, and favorite, of Columbus’ three ships was the Nina.Its real name was the Santa Clara, but the former was its nickname because it belonged to the Nino family of Palos.  The Nina went on three of his four voyages. It and the Pinta were caravels; Portuguese navigators favored such ships for their seaworthiness.
  • The Santa Maria, larger than the other two and the flagship of the fleet, was not a caravel but a nao, a ship less suited for long voyages.
  • The New World was first sighted at 2:00 a.m. on October 12, 1492 by Rodrigo de Triana, the lookout on the Pinta. The Pinta let the flagship, Santa Maria, catch up to them. Columbus gave the captain of the Pinta a bonus of 5,000 maravedis.
  • The Santa Maria drifted onto a coral reef during the night of December 24. The crew disobeyed orders to row out with a stern anchor that would keep the ship steady; rather, they rowed to the Nina, which refused to take them on. During that delay the Santa Maria carried further onto the reef and suffered irreparable hull damage from the rocks.
  • Columbus took that wreck on Christmas day as God’s sign that he should build a fortified settlement there. He called in La Navidad and left 21 sailors there, with instructions to convert the natives. He had no shortage of volunteers, because the men had thought they had reached the Indies and that there would be gold aplenty. They met a bad end at the hands of a local chieftain after roaming around seeking gold and women; all the Spaniards were hunted down and slaughtered.
  • He returned to Spain in triumph, and would have been better off – materially, anyway – if he’d taken his payment and retired. But he made three more voyages. Ponce de Leon was one of 1,000 “gentlemen volunteers” on his second trip. Ten ships went on that voyage.  They discovered Puerto Rico, then called Bourinquen in honor of St. John the Baptist. DeLeon liked that island, came back and conquered it some years later and became royal governor.
  • The second voyage was one of discovery, with about 20 new islands mapped out. But Columbus decided to attempt to subjugate the local population of Hispaniola, and he took 30 of the natives, Tainos, back to Spain as slaves.  Columbus and his brothers Diego and Bartholomew were terrible colonial administrators and could not wield authority properly. They mismanaged the trading post of Isabela to such an extent, neglecting to pay their people, that emissaries sent back to King Ferdinand persuaded him to take action on their behalf.
  • On the third voyage, Columbus discovered mainland South America. But the royal commissioner of Hispaniola, Francisco de Bobadilla, seized him and his brothers Diego and Bartholomew and sent them back to Spain in chains to be tried by the royal court. The king and queen fired the Columbus boys from their jobs in colonial government but allowed him to make a fourth voyage.
  • The fourth one was called the “High Voyage.” Columbus explored the coast of Central America down as far as southern Panama. The fleet ran aground and the crews were marooned on Jamaica for a year and had to send a canoe to Hispaniola to ask for a rescue ship.
  •  The natives there were accommodating but stopped trading Columbus and his men food for trinkets. He pulled his “eclipse trick” on them and scared them into giving food again; knowing that a full moon eclipse would be occurring, he told them that the gods were angry at them and would show their wrath that night. The terrified natives caved and the food shortage ended.
  • They were finally rescued, and Columbus returned to Spain, where he had a comfortable if not lavish retirement. He went to his death not realizing what he had actually discovered; he believed he had reached a province of China in addition to the many islands.
  • That’s today’s history lesson.  I hope you enjoyed it. Columbus had many faults and failings, but his skill as a navigator was unsurpassed. His “Enterprise of the Indies,” the idea that the East could be reached by sailing West, was his idea alone. He had the will and the perseverance to see that idea through, even though he made it less than halfway to where he thought he’d been.

With that, I wish you a very pleasant Columbus Day.