Duty to remember, duty to reconstruct

Typically, I leave the house at the crack of dawn as Strasbourg sleeps, without being able to say goodbye to my family. This time, my train was at 9:59.

Typically, after two or three planes, I still have 2-5 hours in the car on roads that do not have names. This time, in Kherson, the hotel is 14 minutes from the airport.

Typically, when we speak about survivors, we think of those who survived the concentration camps. This time, I have met two Jewish women who escaped shootings and mass graves.

Typically, when we speak of a synagogue, the witness points at a vague area where a long time ago, a synagogue was erected. This time, we have found two synagogues, still empty and devastated, but the walls and structure are still standing.

Typically, the Yahad-In Unum team finds witnesses who speak of their memory of the war, but without a feeling of duty. This time, the two ministers who accompany us speak of the duty of memory.

Ephraïm, the minister who descends from Jewish ancestry, thinks that Ukraine cannot face its challenges, reestablish growth and a place among nations without reexamining its past. Recognizing its responsibility in regard to Jews is essential in order to be able to advance and grow.

At the end of the day, when he invited us to dinner–inviting me to eat entire cucumbers out of respect for my rules of Kosher–he initiated a discussion that I did not anticipate.

During the day, he mentioned his desire to restore a synagogue and to make it a place of worship. But it didn’t seem sufficiently serious to tell him that a synagogue cannot be transformed into a church. At present, he asks me if I know a local rabbi to whom he can address his questions for his project of the transformation of the synagogue. I certainly put an end to his hopes, making him aware of the impossibility of the project.

It was then that he questioned me on a more reasonable aspect:

  • Mendel, what do you feel when you see a synagogue in that state?
  • I feel the devastation of men more than of walls. You are shocked when you see an empty synagogue, but what do you think of the Jewish colonies emptied of their souls?

I know that my response is a bit brutal. First of all, he never said that he was insensitive to the death of men, quite the opposite, and I am certain that his question was in good faith. For the souls that cannot come back, however, we can give them back a life in those walls.

  • I understand, but restoring a synagogue is a duty for us, people need to know that there were Jews and a synagogue here. It’s important for us, it’s important for our children and it’s important for our country.
  • What you say touches me deeply, I think, like you, that it is important for the young generation to know what it was like before and to reclaim this past. But I think that the duty of reconstruction, we must do it where the Jewish community is located today and that’s what we are doing. I will speak to the rabbi of the region about your project and I hope he will help you.

In my head, this jostles around, he speaks to me about the duty of memory and me, I speak of the duty of reconstruction. Are we speaking about the same thing? Of complementary things? Does everyone have his own duty? And what would be the role of everyone?

They who take care of the duty of memory by educating the future generation and assuring that “never again” isn’t a slogan but a reality and we who take care of the duty of reconstruction. After all, our capacity is to reconstruct, this force of resilience, we have it genetically in us, at least through the force of things and the disaster of human history.

We certainly have an intersecting duty that engages us to exchange our duties, to share them, even to synchronize them. Without judgment, a certainty is born, that to work together and to exchange our responsibility in terms of a peaceful future.

My thoughts take me back to a discussion I had with the spouse of a friend who asked me if, during the research trips, I took advantage of the proximity of the sites to say Kadish (prayer for the lifting of a soul) or a psalm?

  • No, I say nothing, I have nothing to say. How can I come to speak or say something for these people?
  • But Mendel, you’re a rabbi, you know very well that the Kadish is important. Why this silence?
  • It’s not silence, it’s a type of dignity. You see, for me, it’s a story that has no place in a logical sense, if the madness of men is completely responsible, I think that the victims are the Kedochim, the saints. In front of them, I have nothing to say. If God let it happen, it wasn’t because he was absent, but because he was present. But how to make sense of all that?
  • Yes, I see.

That’s all you can say? So, I take what is in front of me and I pursue my reflection aloud.

  • In this temple, there was the Saint of Saints, the son of Aharon approached him there the day of its inauguration and they died. After this, the instruction was unequivocal: “Only go there one day of the year,” the day of Kippor. But did you ask yourself how to maintain this site if it was forbidden to penetrate it? How to remove the dust? Imagine that there were maintenance men who could enter it as much as necessary. Only the technical function was authorized. On the other hand, entering it for spiritual reasons was possible only once per year.

I just put down these words in a tone that is sometimes not well understood in exercising my mission in this organization, Yahad-In Unum, taking care of the technical dimension and Hala’hique (Jewish law) of this mission and leaving that of the spiritual to the Great Priest of the Saint of the Saints.

One way of considering the victims are as souls that are beyond the reach of a simple prayer by a man.

Listening to the testimony of a female Jewish survivor, I heard in her quiet and pain-filled voice the account of a Ukrainian woman who did not lack for courage: upon the arrival of the Germans in her village, she hid her baby in the bucket of a well, lowered it down into the obscurity of the well, then locked it with a key. When the Germans arrived, she pretended to have lost the key so as to avoid opening the well.

I thus understood that even in the deepest of shadows, the soul can always make light spring forth. It is enough to believe it can and to have the courage to do it!

Decidedly, this trip has taught me more than I could have imagined.

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