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Jewish Journal

In Praise of the Righteous Enemy

by Rabbi Harold M. Schulweis

April 8, 1999 | 8:00 pm

Once again, the anniversary of the Holocaust is upon us (April 13), and, once again, the commemoration taunts me. "Go preach the goodness of God." "Go praise the crown of God's creation made but little lower than the angels." "Speak to the world of faith and hope in the wake of the terrifying knowledge: 1.5 million children murdered because of their Jewishness, nine out of every 10 European rabbis slaughtered, one third of a people decimated."

In the wake of such unspeakable atrocity, the judgments of Machiavelli, Hobbes, Nietzsche and Freud about human nature seem indisputable. Man is little lower than the beasts.

"The only difference between man and other beasts," Tennessee Williams writes, "is that man is a beast who knows that he will die..., the only honest man is an unabashed egoist...the specific ends of life are sex and money, so the human comedy is an outrageous medley of lechery, alcoholism, blasphemy, greed, brutality, hatred and obscenity." Which honest man or woman can deny his sorrowful verdict?

In this sense, the Holocaust mocks me and my faith. I would counter this baleful judgment upon humanity with even few flashes of human decency, to somewhat balance the disproportionate weight of evil with gestures of human kindness. Someone advised that if you would search for sparks, you should sift the smoldering embers in the crematoria. I look among the ashes. I search not for grandiose acts of superhuman heroism but for simple acts of goodness, a boiled potato, a piece of bread, a mashed strawberry given to the forlorned. I reread the section from Primo Levi's great book, "Survival in Auschwitz." Levi, a survivor of Auschwitz, speaks of Lorenzo, a Christian Italian civilian worker who brought a piece of bread and the remainder of his rations to the starving Primo every day for six months in the concentration camp. Levi reflects on his Auschwitz incarceration. "I believe it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me, by his presence, by his nature and plain manner of being good, that there still exists a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt and savage...something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good but for which it was worth surviving. Thanks to Lorenzo, I managed not to forget that I myself was a man."

It is important to know that Lorenzo was not alone. There were many citizens of Italy like Lorenzo, but this knowledge is, sadly enough, muted. Let it be known in the sanctuaries of the Synagogue and the Church that 85 percent of Italy's 50,000 Jews were helped to rescue by the extraordinary deeds of ordinary Italian men and women, including many priests and nuns who in their lives fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah: "They turned themselves into hiding places from the wind and shelter, from the tempest." It must be remembered that while the Vatican was a neutral state during the war, many Catholic monasteries, convents and buildings became havens for Jewish refugees. In Rome alone, more than 150 convents and monasteries offered hiding places to Jews. No Jews were deported as long as Italy was a sovereign nation.

Particular mention must be made of the Italian army, which, from 1941 to 1943, saved thousands of Croatian Jews and Serbs from certain death at the hands of the murderous Croatian Utashe. The post-Holocaust world must remember Gen. Mario Roatta, who, with his staff, persistently sabotaged Mussolini's decree to turn over the Jews to the Nazis. The Italian military, in all ranks, ignored and defied the Nazi orders to round up and deport Jews. Italian diplomats wrote thousands of false documents to save Jews from the sinister final solution of Nazi Germany.

We must recall priests such as Father Don Arrigo Beccari and the people in villages near Medina who rescued 110 Jewish orphans who had escaped to Italy from Germany between 1941 and 1943.

In no other occupied Catholic country were monasteries, convents, shrines and religious houses opened to fleeing Jews and their needs attended to without any overt intention to steer them away from their ancient faith.

The children must be taught the courage and conscience of Giorgio Perlasca, the Italian business man who posed as a Spanish diplomat and falsified papers for 10,000 Jews in Bulgaria.

Goodness must not be forgotten. On Friday evening, April 16, at 8:15 p.m., Valley Beth Shalom will be celebrating a Sabbath service in recognition of goodness, in honor of those citizens of Italy who risked life and limb to protect the victims from Nazi predators. At that service of gratitude and courage, the consul of Italy, an Italian rescuer and an Italian Jew rescued will reveal their testimony. The Congregational Choir will chant the music of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, an Italian Jew forced to flee his beloved city of Florence because of the fascist racial laws of 1939.

The entire community is invited to this evening. In this post-Holocaust era, we are mandated to both remember the evil and never to forget the good. This is the sacred double memory that we must carry into the 21st century.

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