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In Search of Comfort

Yom HaShoah Service – April 28, 2006

by Harold M. Schulweis

 

We have come together to search for comfort. We see so much evil, so much injustice, so much sorrow in the world. Is there a person with eyes and ears to the world who is not ashamed? Is there a person that is not embarrassed by the violence, hatred, libels against religions, races, ethnicities?

Religion has let us down. The impotence, the lethal silence, of world religions have broken our hearts, and we have come together for solace, for hope. How can we comfort each other? How can we find a sliver of hope in the darkened world, which is filled with xenophobic anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, and the world in which the evidence of genocide is met with yawns

  • Where Rwanda suffered the loss of 800,000 of its people slaughtered in 100 days …
  • Where in Darfur 400,000 human beings were destroyed…
  • Where women are raped and children neglected and villages pillaged?

We have seen over and again the evidence of bloated stomachs which come from hunger and starvation, we have seen it recorded. The infectious flies dancing on the eyeballs of little children who are too weak to brush them aside.

The opposite of goodness is not ignorance. It is apathetic knowledge. Ignorance is no excuse. We know. We know. But we know without heart.

Bertrand Russell once wrote: "The mark of a civilized person is that he or she can add a column of numbers and cry." Knowledge that has no tears and no cries of outrage is dumb.

There is despair in our hearts. In Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, Ivan cries out his anger: "It is not God who I cannot believe; it is His world that I cannot believe." People say it is easier to believe in God than to believe in man. But we as religious people cannot love God and hate His creation. God cannot be segregated from the world and from the crown of His creation. God cannot be isolated in Heaven. He has created the world.

I must confess that when I find myself despairing, disillusioned, dispirited, I turn to the unsung heroes, those tens of thousands of Christians who risked life and limb and treasure to rescue the hunted and the tortured of my Jewish family. I think of those ordinary people who turned their lives into hiding places. They are my deepest comfort, the validation of my faith. I sift through the ashes of crematoria to find the embers of their goodness. I have, myself, met many rescuers and have read of many more. I owe them my love and deep respect. They have saved a remnant of my people.

They must not be forgotten. Goodness must be remembered, and the children of the church and the children of the synagogue must know moral heroes, or else the stone of cynicism will weigh heavy on their heart. The good have faces.

A moment, please, to remember one man – Father Pierre-Marie Benoit, a black-bearded, brown-robed Capuchin monk, who understood that the opposite of goodness is indifference. That the opposite of goodness is silent betrayal.

One man. Transformed his monastery at Marseilles, 51 rue de Regier, into a passport mill. His monastery was not just for prayer or meditations. Day and night, he and his brothers and sisters in faith issued hundreds of false identification cards; hundreds of false certificates of baptism given to unbaptized, to save not their souls but their lives. And because of one man, hundreds of Jews were smuggled into Spain and Switzerland.

The Nazis pursued him, threatened him, shut down his monastery. Father Benoit would not surrender his sacred mission – to protect and save those innocent from the jaws of the killers of the dream. He fled to Nice, and they organized escape routes to enter the Italian zone. One man, not of our faith, rescued 50,000 French Jews, and saw to it that they would find refuge in Morocco, Algiers and Tunisia.

Father Benoit was arrested, tortured, and warned. But Father Benoit moved his underground activities to Italy, where he was known by the name "Padre Benedetti." After the war, he said he had assumed many names in his life – "Father," "Padre," but his favorite nickname was "Pere des Juives" – Father of the Jews.

Father, you comfort me. You lift the stone from my heart. You restore my faith in God's world. You and thousands of others have taught us a lesson that must never be forgotten. There is always an alternative to passive complicity. There is always the dignity of saying "no" to the predator, and "yes" to the innocent who knock on our doors.

Godliness can be revealed in a piece of bread, in a cup of water, a shelter in the attic, a sewer or latrine.

We are committed to remember the evil that was done, and that is being done. To deny evil is to pretend blindness . . .to feign deafness . . .and to remain mute.

We need heroes for ourselves and our children, and especially heroes from the other side, from another faith. Heroes who are not our color, and who do not recite our catechism or our liturgy or our rituals, but heroes who have lived out the highest ideals of their religion, who protested torture and extermination and put their bodies on the line between the frightened infants and the sadistic murders.

We must comfort each other with tears--not of fear but of joy. Tonight we cry out of hope, and not out of despair. Who are we who come from synagogues and churches? We are the arms and legs and mouth of God. We are children of one Father who looked at us and the world. "And God saw the world and said 'It Is Good.'"

Tonight, we recognize the goodness of His image in all of us. Be comforted. Let light penetrate the darkness.


 


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