Redemption (On A More Bitter Note)


This seems apropos to Passover, and to the Easter story as well –the the death of Rabbi Herschel Schacter, who was the first American Jewish military chaplain to enter Buchenwald after the liberation of the camp. This article appeared in today’s New York Times. Among other things, the report records a conversation with a seven year old boy. It says something to me about liberation and the limits of liberation.

[Schacter]  was led to the Kleine Lager, or Little Camp, a smaller camp within the larger one. There, in filthy barracks, men lay on raw wooden planks stacked from floor to ceiling. They stared down at the rabbi, in his unfamiliar military uniform, with unmistakable fright.

“Shalom Aleichem, Yidden,” Rabbi Schacter cried in Yiddish, “ihr zint frei!” — “Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free!” He ran from barracks to barracks, repeating those words. He was joined by those Jews who could walk, until a stream of people swelled behind him.

As he passed a mound of corpses, Rabbi Schacter spied a flicker of movement. Drawing closer, he saw a small boy, Prisoner 17030, hiding in terror behind the mound.

“I was afraid of him,” the child would recall long afterward in an interview with The New York Times. “I knew all the uniforms of SS and Gestapo and Wehrmacht, and all of a sudden, a new kind of uniform. I thought, ‘A new kind of enemy.’ ”

With tears streaming down his face, Rabbi Schacter picked the boy up. “What’s your name, my child?” he asked in Yiddish.

“Lulek,” the child replied.

“How old are you?” the rabbi asked.

“What difference does it make?” Lulek, who was 7, said. “I’m older than you, anyway.”

“Why do you think you’re older?” Rabbi Schacter asked, smiling.

“Because you cry and laugh like a child,” Lulek replied. “I haven’t laughed in a long time, and I don’t even cry anymore. So which one of us is older?”

There’s a basic confusion here. The boy Lulek turns out to be Rabbi Yisarael Meir Lau, who was chief Askenazi rabbi in Israel between 1993 to 2003 and is now the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv. As reported in the NYT article,  Rabbi Lau understands his liberation to have been the liberation from death into life. But, to me, the words of the 7 year old child strike a more skeptical cord about historical trauma and the limits of liberation.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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