Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
This is a day whose significance cannot be ignored, even if it is a day which has many facets. Officially, on 8th. May 1945, the Third Reich capitulated against the victorious Allied forces represented by Britain (together with its Imperial forces), the United States and the Soviet Union. At the stroke of a pen. Since I come from Britain, live and work in Germany and work also in Poland (even if held geographically distant at present by a new form of Iron Curtain) this is an anniversary that cannot be ignored. As we know – if we bother to listen and learn – this did NOT mean that the conflict called the Second World War was over. (It had become a World War perhaps when America joined in December 1941). The conflict in the Far East continued for another half a year and military planners at the time assumed it could continue for several more years – it was only the horrendous shock of the realisation that one aeroplane with one bomb could instantaneously wipe out an entire city, something which until then had required thousands of men and tanks and shells and months of misery, that jolted some of those responsible into calling a halt. (And even that required a repetition, a duplication before the message was understood.)
As we know, the killing did not stop straight away, nor did the dying – from wounds, from hunger, from exhaustion, from disease, from despair. As we know, many millions of people of all ages and nationalities were on this date displaced refugees, bereaved, lost, traumatised, impoverished, disoriented. Some felt they should return home, some already knew they had no home to go to, some only found this out once they had made the effort to return to the places from which they had been so brutally taken – but which were no longer 'home’. Many found themselves the sole survivors of their family or of their generation or their community. Many were imprisoned, prisoners of war or prisoners of political prejudice. Many were dispossessed, many were maimed. The list of forms of human misery can continue. Stalin, of course, had initially made a secret treaty with Hitler then, when Hitler broke it, demanded aid from the Allies – given at enormous cost in lost convoy ships – and a Second Front and then immediately afterwards changed his tune again, so that for large sections of Europe the Liberation was not, in fact, a true Liberation but merely the replacement of one totalitarian invader by another. Wars rarely have tidy endings. I have seen pictures of how Berlin looked in May 1945 and I have seen pictures of how Warsaw looked in 1945 – I am sure that you will have seen similar pictures – and, frankly, there is little difference and one wonders how anyone, ANYONE could find the strength to start all over again.
Only three quarters of a century later, the war is still not yet really over, it has certainly not diminished in the folk memory even though the last of the active eye-witnesses are leaving the scene. I have spent some of the time in 'lockdown’ catching up on reading, including the memoirs of 'My Rabbi’ Hugo Gryn z’l’ who was 'liberated’ in Austria after a zig-zag odyssey from Hungarian-occupied Czechoslovakia to Auschwitz to Lieberose near Cottbus to Gunskirchen near Linz. I have also been looking through a remarkable work, published in 1981, concerning Hitler’s bizarre fantasy of constructing a gigantic railway line to link Berlin with Kharkov, with Moscow and with Constantinople. Photographs show him, just two weeks before his suicide, gazing wistfully at models of the planned new cities of the Greater European Empire he intended to found, if necessary by destroying the existing ones. Quite fascinating is the way he single-handedly both dreamed of, planned and started the war – and personally caused the German defeat. In early 1941 he told General Paulus, who was worried about supplying the troops in winter, ”Stop talking about winter campaigns, there will not be a winter campaign, I forbid anyone to talk about it.” That winter – the Wehrmacht froze and the Blitzkrieg against Russia came to a halt. Just as fascinating is the way intelligent, experienced, competent men followed him blindly, even when they knew he was wrong, even when they knew the cause was lost, even when it went against the way they had been raised, or the consciences they still (just) had. And if one were to have asked any of the Axis leaders of the time just what it was they really needed, what they personally wanted, what they hoped to gain by moving national borders backwards by several kilometres whilst spilling so much blood and destroying so many homes, I am not sure what they could have told you. Apart from empty rhetoric about 'national pride’ or 'Destiny’.
I have flown often over parts of Europe and the interesting thing is that, when you look down from the window, you can see mountains and rivers and cities and fields – but you cannot see borders. Maps, on the other hand, are dangerous – you do not see mountains and rivers and cities and fields, the evidence of what people have built, you see only blobs and lines writhing over the paper and the sheet divided into different colours. Nations are defined by their place on the map, not their place in the world.
Humans often dream of changing the world, and some even achieve this. It is, after all, a part of being human. They design or compose or write or preach, they persuade people to change their lives, they present them with new opportunities, how to travel, how to grow food, how to heat their houses, how to build, how to heal their bodies against infections, and more. They persuade people to try new forms of social organisation, they persuade them to think of themselves in the universe differently. But this is best done by showing, by teaching and by persuasion – not by force, not by compulsion, not by threat and not by violence. That way leads, sooner or later, to destruction and death.
But some dream differently. They dream of Control. Control of a country, control of a business, control over anyone and everyone. Their psyche seems to need it. I believe that World History would be much better if all those men who dream of playing soldiers could remain content with painted lead models. (Nowadays there are of course electronic video games to take the place, but although these permit faster and more realistic two-dimensional conflict, they also suppress the need and the ability to fantasise.) Some like to build model landscapes and some like to design model railways to run in them. As the creator of a model railway layout one can decide everything, for there is no-one else to have a different opinion, to complain, to object. No-one who needs to be forcibly removed or eliminated…. There are no shareholders to complain about the cost and no passengers to complain about delays. Total control.
What happened in that awful period was that people – maybe, proportionally, only a few – felt they had the right to control whole countries and whole continents; that they and they alone would have the right to decide who might live (and where and under what conditions) and who must die. Proportionally, only a few – but once they had gained or been given power and authority, it is a sad reflection how many others were prepared to help them; How many others were prepared to benefit from the weakness or the losses of others, to exploit them, rob them, dispossess them.
In the Sidra 'Emor’ which (should be) read this week, we find in chapter 25 of Leviticus the command to treat the Land with respect. The land, just like every living creature, needs a rest, a break once in every seven cycles. For a human, or an animal, a cycle is a day, and seven days; for a land, which wakes, flourishes, then returns to sleep, a cycle is a year, and seven years. God says that the Israelites have to learn that the land is not theirs, to do with as they wish, it is God’s, and needs to be cared for. Prior to this, in chapter 23, the Israelites have to create or impose the one-year cycle upon themselves, to count days and months (including the Omer, the period in which we find ourselves), so that each annual cycle can have a proper beginning and a proper end. They also need to learn that they need the Land, more than the Land needs them.
If one looks at what human beings are capable of – and this week’s anniversary is a prime example of this horror – then the Torah with its commands for a modest subjugation to God combined with a regular expression of gratitude and care becomes a very potent symbol indeed, of what our relationship to the land, to the lands and to each other and indeed to time itself could and should be. The Jubilee should come every fifty years, states the Torah. That is as far as one can look ahead, and then all is ”re-set”. There is no mention of a Thousand-Year Reich…..
Shabbat Shalom. Rabbi Dr. Walter Rothschild
P.S. One should mention also at this time, even though it is less fashionable, the issue of Blame. In the past few weeks, as one may possibly have read, researchers in the Vatican Archives (recently opened) have discovered that Pope Pius XII was indeed made aware of the mass murder of Jews in Europe, but was either encouraged by his assistants to downplay it or chose to do so himself. But there is documentary proof of meetings and written submissions and this indicates that the time for blurring this matter or questioning it must be put behind us. Similarly, this very week the Catholic Church in Germany has publicly confessed to the misdeeds of the Church in the Nazi period, with most of its bishops and priests supporting Hitler and the National Socialist Party through a mixture of nationalism, fear of Bolshevism and, one supposes, stupidity and prejudice against all those who were not Catholic. This is an enormous step forwards. Individual priests and others did their best to help or save whom they could, but the Church as an institution failed – as the 'Body of Christ on Earth’ it seemed to have lost or sold its soul. Whilst this blame does not attach to those active today (unless perhaps one believes in inherited sin?) it should serve as a reminder that mixing religion and politics usually corrupts both. It would be helpful if this lesson could be learned, or re-learned today.
Incidentally, one could (tongue in cheek) suggest that the best time ever to have lived in Germany was just after the Capitulation. Despite the land being filled with rubble, mass graves and misery, the one shining point was that, wherever you looked, whomever you asked, there were ABSOLUTELY NO NAZIS!!! If there ever had been, then they must have flown back to Mars. Everyone was Innocent! Truly a form (a strange form) of Paradise…..