Monday, December 28, 2009

Yet Another Tenth of Tevet

Yesterday was the Tenth of Tevet, an ancient day of mourning which is still unbearably contemporary. Since the Jewish and Gregorian calenders are not fully aligned, last year this day fell on January 6th, two weeks into the Gaza Operation. It was a grim day, as I described then.

As last year so also this year, our synagogue had one of the old-timers tell how he survived the Holocaust. Concurrently, however, in a different room, there was a commemoration event for Nitai Stern - the same Nitai whose funeral I wrote about last year. His grandfather is a member of our congregation. Before going to the main event I chatted briefly with Reuven, Nitai's father. "Let next year be better for you than the last one".

The Holocaust survivor telling his tale this year was Baruch. Baruch, a simple 85-year-old man, has been the chief gabai at this synagogue for decades. The direct translation of gabai is deacon, but my minimal familiarity with church matters doesn't let me say if the translation works. A gabai such as Baruch, at any rate, is the person who makes the synagogue run, the all-purpose-fellow without whom the congregation would grind to a halt. Not only has he been at it for decades, Baruch manages also never to fight with anyone, a feat which is theoretically impossible. So the hall he was speaking in was packed, with hundreds of people from 8-year-olds to sages in their mid-90s.

Baruch has never told his story in public. As the rabbi explained: "Everyone knows Baruch. Whenever I'd ask him to tell, he'd say 'what for. Everything's alright, and we need to keep on going'". What made this year different was that one of Baruch's granddaughters, a woman in her 20s, refused to accept his stubbornness, sat him down in front of a camera and forced him to talk. People in the field will tell you it's often so: Holocaust survivors who refused to talk for generations open up when their grandchildren demand it. So the evening was based on the film, and Baruch himself sat in the front row, surrounded by his children and grandchildren (the great-grandchildren stayed at home).

It started out a simple tale, in simple language. Baruch really isn't a talker. Much of the tale was punctuated by ever-repeated comments that "well, we had to keep on going". Yet it grew ever more riveting, eventually centering on two events. The first, a death march in April 1945, when 2,000 people left Buchenwald, and two (two) were liberated in May by the Russians. Baruch was half of the one tenth of one percent who survived.

The second event was the battle for Gush Etzion in April-May 1948. Baruch had made his way to Mandatory Palestine, found his way to the Gush, and participated in the bloody battles which resulted in the destruction of the Gush on May 14th 1948, at which point he fell into Jordanian captivity and remained there for 10 months. "When we returned to Jerusalem in March 1949 we were received by Ben Gurion who told us our battle had saved Jerusalem by holding off the Arab Legion for those two weeks. Well, and then it was time to keep on going". So he did. And still does.

We all do, as we have been for millennia, pausing each Tenth of Tevet but then continuing. According to Haaretz, in 2009 the number of new immigrants to Israel was 16,244. It's not a very big number, but it's up from 13,859 last year. Sasa, a left-wing kibbutz a few miles south of the Lebanese border, has inched into first place worldwide in supplying armoured vehicles that can withstand anything the Islamists throw at American troops. I recommend the item behind that link: it has some interesting observations in it.


Bryan said...

It sounds to me that the correct translation for "gabai" is "sexton." A deacon is generally someone who helps run the services (or masses) themselves. In Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Orthodoxy, they are ordained but rank below priests, while in Protestant churches, they're generally laypeople. In contrast, a sexton is responsible for the day-to-day activities of the church and churchyard.

As for his story, it is truly remarkable whenever a survivor (especially one with as miraculous a survival as his) opens up to the community. Good for him.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't describe Baruch as a simple man; he is an impressive man, a man of dignity and dedication. He was most kind and helpful to me when I was saying kaddish. I was amazed when he once told me how old he was; I had assumed that he was significantly younger -- and that was before I learned about his past experiences.

Yaacov said...

I didn't mean simple to be denigrating, rather as the a contrast to sophisticated. The synagogue is full of professors, successful businessmen and other worldly types. Baruch is different from many of them. But yes, of course he's diginified and impressive.