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We are Jewish, you know.

November 13, 2016

33rd SUNDAY                  Malachi 3: 13-20         Luke 21: 5-19                 13 November 2016

The first reading and the gospel for this Mass give us the message that this cruel world is going to come to an end, but that good people will receive justice and life from God. It is a very fitting theme for this weekend, when we particularly remember those who have served and died during wars. And that theme of justice and life has certainly made a big impression on me, for a special reason. And the reason is this:

I have only just returned from a visit to Jerusalem, where I was studying for ten days at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. It’s a place where Israel preserves the memory of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis. Hitler undertook to completely destroy the Jews, God’s Chosen People, the very people who are our brothers and sisters in faith. They were the victims of a completely evil system. My time in Israel was an intensely moving experience, and I have come to understand a lot better the reasons, the horrors and the consequences of Hitler’s attempt to annihilate the Jews. And in 1948, for the first time in nearly 2,000 years, the Jews who had survived and managed to get to the Holy Land, set about establishing the modern Jewish State of Israel.

The terrible events of the 20th Century left many Jews struggling with unanswered questions. Why? Why did this happen? These are not new questions. The intensity of the horror between 1933 and 1945 was unprecedented, almost incomprehensible. Yet that first reading, from the Book of Malachi written about 450 years before the birth of Jesus, may help us to understand a little better.

Events 450 years before Christ had similarities to 1948. The Jews had just returned from exile, back to Israel, decades after being exiled from their homeland by cruel Babylonian tyrants. The Jews in the Book of Malachi were re-building their nation, but because of their dreadful experiences at the hands of tyrants, a lot of the people had given up practicing their Jewish faith.

Malachi tells us what they’re saying: “It’s useless to serve God, what’s the good of keeping his commands?” After The Holocaust, similar sentiments were again heard on the lips of many Jews.

Malachi goes on to say, “We have reached the point when we call the arrogant blessed”. So it was, centuries later, when those arrogant, obsessed Nazis, had mercilessly persecuted the Jews for 12 long, horrific years, with a complete and utter contempt for God. And those dying in the concentration camps often asked, ‘Where is God?’

But Malachi points out that, despite all the horrors and evil, God is very much aware of what is happening in the world. It is very difficult for us to explain properly, but God is always present.

I would like to simply read you a story I heard at the Holocaust Museum that highlighted to me the horrors of the Second World War, but also demonstrates the courage of so many ordinary soldiers, fighting their way through Europe to allow us to be free today.

It’s the story of a 15-year old Jewish woman called Gerta Weissmann – of how her ordinary, happy family life was destroyed when Hitler invaded Poland in 1939. And how her life was saved in 1945 by an ordinary soldier from the United States of America.

In 1939 Gerta was brutally deported with other women from her village to work as forced labour in a factory in Czechoslovakia. Throughout, their treatment was harsh and inhumane, deliberately cruel. By 1945 many, many of Gerta’s friends had died of starvation and exhaustion. And at the end of it all, as defeat loomed for the Nazis, she was forced, together with the few surviving Jews, to go on a 300 mile ‘death march’ across Europe.

Liberation for Gerta came when US Army troops entered the Czech town of Volary in Southern Bohemia near the German border on 7 May 1945. The wicked guards ran off. Gerta was trying to get some water for her dying friends. This is what she said:

“My very clear view of freedom and liberation came that morning when I stood in this doorway of that abandoned factory. And I saw the car coming down the hill. And the reality of that came when I saw the white star on its hood and not the swastika. And there were two men in that car. One jumped out. I remember the awe, the disbelief in daylight to really see someone who fought for our freedom. For my ideals. And he looked like God to me.”

The soldier who jumped out was Kurt Klein. He said,

“I saw some skeletal figures trying to get some water from a handpump. But over on the other side, leaning against the wall next to the entrance to the building I saw a girl standing, and I decided to walk up to her. And I asked her in German and in English whether she spoke either language. And she answered me in German.”

This is what she said,

I knew what I had to say. And I said to him, “We are Jewish you know.” For a very long time, at least to me it seemed very long, he didn’t answer me. And then his own voice betrayed his emotion. He was wearing dark glasses, I couldn’t see his eyes.”

He said, “So am I.”

Then he said, “May I see the other ladies?”

Gerta was astonished. She described how it was a form of address she hadn’t heard for six years.

“I told him most of the girls were inside, they were too ill to walk. And he said to me, “won’t you come with me?” I didn’t know what he meant. So he held the door open for me and let me precede him. And that was the moment of restoration of humanity, of humaneness. Dignity of freedom.”

What Gerta didn’t know was that Kurt was a German, born in Walldorf, Baden-Wuertenberg. In 1937, when he was 17, his parents had sent him to the United States. His parents and family, just like Gerta’s family, were all murdered by the Nazis.

Kurt the refugee returned to Europe seven years later as a lieutenant in the United States Army.

On 18th June 1946 Gerta and Kurt got married in Paris. They settled in Buffalo, New York, and had three children together. They spent the rest of their lives trying to bring peace and reconciliation into the world by speaking and writing about their experiences of War.

Many, many didn’t survive that War. This weekend we remember them in our prayers.

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