In The New Year 2: Thoughts After Yom Kippur

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series In The New Year

One of my grandparents never set foot in a concentration camp.

All four went through the Holocaust and all four lost most of the people they ever knew; but one – my paternal grandmother – managed to spend the war in Poland without being captured by the Nazis.

All such stories are intricate, complicated tales of foresight, luck, and almost always, involve the righteousness of Gentiles.

Nana’s father was an observant Jew in a very small town. From what I know, he was not an urban sophisticate whose social circle involved many non-Jews. But he was a businessman, and consequently had to venture beyond the confines of his community.

The short version of how Nana survived is: one of her father’s friends was a local Catholic priest. When the Jews were being rounded up, this priest somehow found the identification papers of a Polish girl my Nana’s age, who had died. Nana assumed the dead girl’s identity, and the priest took her to an aristocratic Polish family whose servants “adopted” her for the duration of the war.

The daughter of the aristocratic family was my grandmother’s age and they became inseparable. They are still in contact to this day, as are our families.

Many of us in Melbourne exist today because of such righteous Gentiles.

My other three grandparents went through the camps. Their survival – and the survival of others – depended on solidarity. They helped – and were themselves helped by – other Jews.

None of the four could have survived alone. A number of others could not have survived without them.


As Yom Kippur concluded last night, once again, I found myself in Auburn Rd Shul.

Once again, I delighted in the sincerity of Rabbi Gottlieb, and the gracious good humour of Rabbi Link.

Once again, I had no urge to flee.

As important, was the atmosphere generated by the congregation. There was no sense of insularity, no women forensically examining each others’ fashions – only smiles and friendly greetings. Jews whom I did not know greeted me.

Some prayed, others dealt with cute kids who were doing the High Holiday Vilde Chaya (Yiddish: Wild Animal) routine, some occasionally chatted.

I was there with my mother.

She boycotted my childhood shul long before I did, and neither of us could remember the last time we had been in Shul together on Yom Kippur. Every time I lost my place during tfilla (prayer), I had Mum there to point me in the right direction.

One woman walked in with a small child. My mother adores kids and grinned at them. The woman brought the little boy over to us and told him to “high five” Mum. They played around a bit before the woman and child resumed their seat.

“Have you ever seen anything like that in a shul?” I asked Mum. “A complete stranger! Smiling! Bringing a kid to you!”


Before Yom Kippur – the Jewish Day of Atonement – it is customary to apologise to others for having offended them over the past year.

Like any religious tradition, when done sincerely and in good faith, it is quite a lovely fusion of humanity and piety.

Sometimes, however, the fetid stench of hypocrisy lingers in the air long after the words are uttered.

There are so many Jews of good will and good faith in our community. It has been a pleasure to be among them during these High Holidays.

A few others, however, sully themselves and perhaps the name of God, by cloaking their nastiness in pious garb. They speak ill of non-Jews, they speak ill of fellow Jews.

We all know such people: those who claim they observe the minutiae of Jewish law, but who nevertheless indulge in proscribed “lashon ha’ra” (talking badly of others).


Despite what my primary school teachers tried to inculcate in us, I am certain that there is no imminent return of the Holocaust.

There is, however, a great chasm between the Holocaust and a Jewish Australian utopia. There are evils that others might visit upon us, but it is our responsibility to ask what evils we bring upon ourselves.

Our religion demonstrates time and again that although we operate under the canopy of divine will, beneath that canopy still exists human agency.

It is within our power to forge loving bonds with our non-Jewish neighbours. It is within our power to avoid mindless or cruel gossip that might harm other Jews.

Without each other we are nothing. Holocaust or no Holocaust.

Series Navigation«In The New Year: Glimpses of the Future at Auburn Rd Shul
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10 Responses to “In The New Year 2: Thoughts After Yom Kippur”

  1. Failure to Launch says:

    I am blown away by this post. There is the scent of prophecy here. You took me to another time and place, a parallel universe in which wisdom speaks, truth is heard and beauty may exist – if we are wise enough to hear, see and speak it.

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  2. Phill O'Semetic says:

    A nicely written triptych on the themes of Yom Kippur, S.J!
    Hoping we can all be as honest in examining our hearts and intents.
    It is inspirational to read that an act of selflessness and humanity continues to reverberate from those dark years. And how much has that solitary, shining example enabled you to nurture a spirit of forgiveness and hope that otherwise might have been blighted by unmitigated evil?

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  3. Ilana Payes says:

    I agree the spirit of hope and forgiveness are beacons for our generation, but then why must we weigh ourselves, our sin, our deeds,against the memories of the Holocaust?

    My mother’s grandparents were wealthy, secular Berlin Jews. They were popular, carefree and highly cultured with a car, good library, and beautiful paintings. Married in 1935 and with child shortly after, they stayed in Berlin after occupation, believing nothing could happen to them, for they were just like everyone else, non-religious and proud Germans.

    It was certainly due the kindness of gentiles, their neighbors perhaps, which ultimately protected them.

    They had a friend in a Catholic old aged home who somehow (it has always baffled me) hid my Great grandfather (Opi) in an old upright piano. To this day I think about him when I play. My Great grandmother (Omi) was tall, attractive and had bright blue eyes, traits that must have to some extent saved her.

    They got out on the very last boat to Sydney.

    After the war, they were no more observant then they were before. Omi continued to act as a Berliner and a princess, which cost my much more humbled mother and grandmother much strife.

    They simply could not, and did not, believe that the Holocuast could happen. Who could? I am also pretty sure that another Holocaust will not happen, not to the Jews in any case, but who can be wholly certain? Yet what I think is more important, is that we should not live fearing that it will.

    My maternal grandfather’s story is far more harrowing, with an escape from a concentration camp to watching his brothers being shot as they ran through the forest. Incomprehensible to me. It haunted him for the rest of his life, and restricted his children to the crib. No school camps (do you not have a roof over your head), no puppy dogs (the memories of German Shepherds made him rage). He lived daily with shattered memories and war mentality.

    There will always be an inseparable link between the Holocaust and a Jewish Australian identity. For some the link might be a loose rope, for others, an iron chain. My grandfather never bought anything German. But my Great- grandmother spoke of little else. The Australian Jewish identification with the Holocaust is deeply polarised. And subsequent generations ask, Do we let it crush us? or, Do we let it define us?, But I’d rather ask, Are we stronger, and more empathetic for it?

    Perhaps it depends on the stories we’ve heard, or our ability to feel compassion for others. Yom Kippur is a time to consider humanity, and our place amongst every other person on our planet. And for those borne to survivors, it is a time to reflect on the gifts, dedication, and wisdom bestowed upon us by our parents or grandparents — A love of life and Jewish culture — And not what we don’t have, or what we have lost. It should not be a self-mourning process. It wasn’t *us* who lived it.

    This sort of vicarious suffering and victimisation helps only to isolate us further. And in any case, it could really only ever touch the surface of our character.

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  4. Golden says:

    And here I was thinking that you might use this time to apologise to all those you have wronged here!?!

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  5. Eli says:

    Whenever I read stories of Holocaust survival or even of non survival , for me its a vindication of the strength and resilience of the Jewish people. By retelling the stories,invoking their memory, we provide a bookmark to their existence,a signpost to give meaning to to their lives with a continuity to the present. The very things that the Nazi’s wanted to eliminate.

    Every year for the last 2000 years we have invoked the ancient holocaust of Egypt in our Pesach Seder. Our sages understood that without ensconcing the memory of what happened, future generations would simply not understand,not comprehend the lunacy that can envelope even a modern,sophisticated community.

    The Egyptians were the leading nation of their period, as were the Spanish of their time and as Germany was in its’ cultural sophistication. After 500 years of continuous life and intergration the Spanish saw fit to expel, convert or kill every last Jew.

    The Germans and much of Europe also found no hesitation in either helping or turning a blind eye to the events that were to devastate European Jewry. As much as I also thank G-d for the righteous Gentiles and the Jews they saved, the numbers pale into insignificance. Where was the rest of humanity?

    And the rest of the world has its shame, Britain, USA and most of Sth. America were complicit either by deed or non action in the unimaginable loss.

    Many decisions were influenced by Jews themselves. Jews who had come from the so called enlightened Germany, who had shed there Jewish traditions to a barely recognizable stain of their immigrant background. So determined were they to! assimilate that the possibility of hordes poor Jews from Poland and Russia frightened them into convincing world leaders that allowing Jews to immigrate would only serve to increase antisemitism. Even post war they continued their resistance.

    Even Zionists in Israel at the time who had the chance to save thousands of Hungarian Jews, thwarted the efforts of many to save these jews, even with offers from Nazi’s themselves.

    In 1953 a survivor, Malchiel Greenwald, exposed the pact and denounced Kastner (of the Jewish Agency Rescue Committee in Budapest) as a Nazi collaborator whose “deeds in Budapest cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews”
    Greenwald was sued by the Israeli government, whose then leaders had drawn up the terms of the Kastner pact.

    The Israeli Court came to the following conclusion:

    The sacrifice of the majority of the Jews, in order to rescue the prominents was the basic element in the agreement between Kastner and the Nazis. This agreement fixed the division of the nation into two unequal camps, a small fragment of prominents, whom the Nazis promised Kastner to save, on the one hand, and the great majority of Hungarian Jews whom the Nazis designated for death, on the other hand

    So we see that its not a case of being paranoid, or allowing the events of history to determine who we are. It is our solemn obligation to remember, transfer all the living memories to all generations.

    For those Jews who slander and inculcate curses on the non Jewish community, it is they as human beings that are contemptible not Judaism.But they are not the cause of the results but are victims as well.

    For those of us who try to bridge the gap,to educate, to create an understanding we must use
    Judaism to find a way to do so, without disconnecting from our history.

    Judaism like water will always find a way, will always find the smallest crack to seep through
    and provide the nourishment for future generations.

    G-D said, open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and [camels?](Midrash Rabbah, The Song of Songs)

    Yom Kippur demands we ask for the impossible and sincerely expect the improbable.

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  6. TheSadducee says:

    Actually one aspect of the Holocaust which is interesting to consider is the passive acceptance and virtual non-resistance towards their fate of much of Ashkenazic Jewry.

    Perhaps we (Jews, and particularly Ashkenazim) rather than focussing primarily on their fate should also consider that this majority of Jewish society was probably one of the most pacific and non-violent in the history of the world and we should be proud of that fact?

    *I bring this up while considering the recent rash of Jewish empowerment films eg. Inglourious Basterds, Defiance, Munich etc which project or aim to present a resistance narrative trying to potentially fill some psychological need – probably worth a post in its own right!

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  7. Morry says:

    Beautifully written and honest. But there is an element of Black/white in “Despite what my primary school teachers tried to inculcate in us, I am certain that there is no imminent return of the Holocaust”.

    To learn the very many lessons of the Holocaust is very different to assuming it’s going to happen again … it won’t. Nevertheless, to say “the Holocaust began with demonising Jews and people are today demonising Jews”, or “the pogroms began with demonising Jews and people are today demonising Jews” is a far cry from suggesting these things are imminent, only an indicator that we’ve learnt from history that demonising Jews bodes no good and we must be alert and careful. Should we fail to learn that lesson we will remain perennially unprepared for what may come. What has already come is a 50% increase in antisemitic incidents, especially the more violent ones, and huge antisemitic problems for Jews in France, prompting many to leave … undoubtedly also the result of lessons learnt from the Holocaust.

    That brings me to another troubling view of the Holocaust. Walking “passively” into gas chambers was not the result of choice, but the lack of one. That is not what we take pride in. We take pride in the courage and dignity portrayed in that act. These are people who didn’t resist, because they never learnt how, never knew one side of a gun from the other, because they knew if they did, for their one act, many would die. The Warsaw Ghetto revolt came when that no longer mattered, when few were left and all were going to die anyway.

    I’m surprised to see Inglourious Basterds, Defiance, and Munich bundled together, as they are so very different. “Defiance” is a true uplifting story of how Jews who had no idea how to fight to defend themselves quickly learnt to do just that, “Inglorious Basterds” is a silly, meaningless wannabe non-Jewish American fantasy in the “Rambo” genre, and “Munich” is a highly inaccurate politicised account of Israeli efforts to fight a growing terrorist threat from … well, today’s Palestinian Authority, I guess.

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  8. sydyid says:

    From Alex:
    Sydyid, this post was deleted because it read like a group of random, polysyllabic words strung together.

    In future, only those comments comprehensible to native English speakers will be allowed through.

    It is also this site’s policy that content-free comments are deleted This includes sarcastic remarks that have no argumentative or evidentiary components.

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  9. Ittay says:

    and here is another bloggers yom kippur reflection
    worthwhile for all bloggers to reflect upon

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  10. sensiblejew says:

    Phil O’Semitic and Failure to Launch, thank you both for your lovely comments.

    Ilana, what an extraordinary piece of writing! Thank you so much for the beautiful – if harrowing – story of your family’s experience.

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