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Rabbi Wittenberg's Weekly Message

Erev Shabbat 19 Cheshvan 5770
Friday 6th November 2009

Dear Community,
 
‘So where’s the dog?’ they asked me when I arrived at the monthly lunch time gathering of ‘children’, the youngest now not less than in their mid-seventies, who came to this country on the Kindertransport. They had invited me to speak about the event ‘The kindness of Strangers’ which we are holding in our community this Sunday (see below), and about my planned walk (with the dog) from Frankfurt, via Hook van Holland and Harwich, back to London. What a remarkable, wonderful and welcoming group of people.
 
‘Take your child’ says God to Abraham, ‘the one you love’. The theology and ethics of this appalling demand have been debated in Judaism ever since. But no one can dispute that through the long and painful course of Jewish history the bonds of this most powerful love of all, of parent for child, have often been cruelly tested. ‘If one has a child who labours in Torah it is as if one does not really die’ taught Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai, referring to the verse in this week’s Torah portion in which God commends Abraham for teaching his values to his children. When I feel anxious I sometimes go into one of the children’s rooms at night to be calmed by the sound of their quiet breathing. What parent does not do likewise?
 
So what does a person do when the only way to save the children is to send them away, to an often unknown country, amidst strangers, with the threat of impending war, wretchedly aware of the probability that he or she will never ever see their beloved boy or girl again? This was the reality faced across Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, and beyond, in 1939. (Such sufferings are all too present in our world today. I shudder inside when I hear asylum seekers say, ‘I haven’t heard from my children in years. I don’t even know if they are alive or dead.’)
 
The love, wrote C Day-Lewis, is in the walking away. But what must that lonely walk home from the station have been like, the children travelling away, their room empty? No doubt there was deep consolation in the thought that at least this child should be safe. But still.
 
That’s why I think so often about the letter written by Vera Gissing’s mother on the 1st of January 1943, and delivered to Vera and her sister Eva, who came as children, by a faithful neighbour after the war:
And now, my dear children, on behalf of your father and myself, I wish you – not only for the new year, not only for Eva’s birthday, but for the rest of your life… Be happy, be brave. We gave you love, we gave you the foundations of life, we wanted to give you more, so much more… remember your home and us, but do not grieve. Your whole life lies before you, life which you will build at the side of your husbands. I give my blessings to them and to your children; I shall be watching over you from Heaven…’ [1]
 
Shabbat Shalom
 
Jonathan Wittenberg
wittenberg@masorti.org.uk
 
1.      From Vera Gissing: Pearls of Childhood