There's God now, up there: 7-26/27-14
The religious roots of WWI: 7-29-14

Timeless survival stories: 7-28-14

A week from tomorrow evening Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I (pictured herewill speak at the Detroit area Holocaust center about our book, They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

Cukierkorn-tammeusMy friend David Crumm, former religion writer for the Detroit Free Press and now editor of, asked me to write a piece for RTS explaining why, almost five years after the book's publication, we're still out speaking about it.

It's a reasonable question. So I wrote a piece that is to appear on the RTS site today. But you can read it right here:

In 2004, when Rabbi Jacques Cukierkorn and I began work on They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust, we knew that in some ways the book would be timeless.

It has proved to be exactly that from the time the University of Missouri Press published it in late 2009. Why? Because unlike books about, say, theological trends or how Pope Francis is affecting the Catholic Church, our book contains stories of what individuals went through to survive the Holocaust, and what each person went through is by now as complete a story as any can be.

The book, in essence, shines a light on a small part of the whole bitter Holocaust experience and, in doing that, seeks to honor both those who survived and those who helped them avoid Hitler’s machinery of murder.

So Jacques and I continue to give talks about the book, and we suspect we will do that for years to come.

One of our talks will happen the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 5, at the Holocaust Memorial Center in suburban Detroit. And we will dedicate that evening to Zygie Allweiss and his family. Zygie is a Detroit area resident who survived with his brother Sol, now deceased, thanks to help from the Dudzik family, who provided places for the boys to hide on their Polish farm.

Eventually Zygie and Sol came to Detroit and ran service stations there for years.

We are at or near the final years of life for the last of the Holocaust survivors, even many of those who were just children at the time. Indeed, Zygie has had several health issues since I last visited him in 2011, when I came to Detroit for a conference. And several of the 20-some survivors whose stories we tell in our book have died since the book was published. So it was important that we started when we did to spend several years on research, interviewing (in the U.S. and in Poland) and writing. Had we waited much longer some of the stories would have been lost.

It is both an honor and a burden to have become in some ways the voice of the Holocaust survivors in our book — and others as the people in our book in turn represent many other survivors who made it through because of people whom Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial authority, names as “Righteous Among the Nations,” or, more informally, righteous gentiles.

If the post-Holocaust phrase “never again” is to have meaning, we must not forget the reality of the German regime’s plan to destroy Europe’s nine million Jews (more than three million of whom lived in Poland at the outbreak of World War II). Hitler’s “Final Solution” resulted in six million Jewish deaths, many of them in the six extermination camps that the Germans built in Poland.

And so it falls to people like Jacques and me, who are by trade simply story tellers — me as a journalist, Jacques as a rabbi who tells sacred stories — to make sure the world remembers.

And this is not simply an act of nostalgia. As Alvin H. Rosenfeld, founding director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University, notes in his 2013 book, Resurgent Antisemitism, hatred of Jews around the globe is dangerously on the rise again for many reasons.

Anti-Judaism (a theological position) and modern antisemitism (more a racial stance full of character stereotyping) are old phenomenon. In fact, David Nirenberg, in his 2013 book, Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, traces this bigotry back to ancient Egypt.

In our book, we tell stories of people who for many reasons — a few of them seemingly irrational — stood against that deep tradition of antisemitism and anti-Judaism and risked their lives to save Jews in Poland.

There is, of course, no silver lining to the Holocaust, which at base is a story of death and death and death. But here and there people who found themselves in the midst of it spoke life and life and life into the face of that death. And part of Jacques’ and my responsibility today is to tell the story of such brave people and of the difference they made in the lives not just of individual Jews but also the history of flawed (but sometimes glorious) humanity.

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Pope Francis detoured from his script Sunday to issue a stirring appeal for peace in the Middle East even while noting the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. "Please stop," he said. "I ask you with all my heart, it's time to stop. Stop, please." Ah, if only it were that simple.

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P.S.: My National Catholic Reporter article about the 40th anniversary of the "irregular" ordinations of the first female Episcopal priests now is online here.


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