Jewish Survival: Making Music With What Remains
The great Jewish historian Salo Baron objected to the “lachrymose” version of Jewish history — the overemphasis on Jewish suffering. Instead, Jewish history should be told, according to Baron, as the dynamic relationship between Jews and their surroundings.
While Baron is surely correct in wanting Jews, and the world, to see in Jewish history more than an endless series of persecutions, it is undeniable that Jewish history bears a terrible burden of pain. I would argue, however, that the lessons learned from that history are what has ennobled Jews and instructed anyone willing to learn.
Eli Wiesel, the eloquent spokesman for all those who survived the Holocaust — and those who didn’t — never wore gold. He remembered the moment when Jews were rounded up by the Germans. Most had hidden whatever gold and precious objects they had in their clothes and coats. When the first Jews, who claimed they had nothing, were shot dead on the spot, the rest quickly emptied their belongings and remained with only the clothes on their backs. Forever, Wiesel kept the image in his mind of his father adding the little gold he had onto the pile with trembling hands, saying, “For this, I toiled?” In memory of his father, Wiesel said he never wore gold.
The lesson Wiesel learned was the true and profound value of human life, and the relative insignificance of possessions. For him, human life and relationships over materialism was a truth he witnessed in the crucible of Jewish history.
Rabbi Yisroel Zeev Gustman was a rabbi from Vilna who survived the war and became the head of a yeshiva in Israel. One of the people who attended his classes was Professor Robert Aumann, who was to become a Nobel Laureate in economics years later. During the Lebanon war of 1982, Professor Aumann’s son died in combat. Rabbi Gustman attended the shiva. The rabbi told the professor that he too had lost a son, who died in the Holocaust. He said that his son died because he was a Jew and was helpless to save himself or anyone else, whereas Professor Aumann’s son died defending the Jewish people and the land of Israel.
Rabbi Gustman said: “I never had the opportunity to sit shiva for my son. Let me sit here with you a little longer.” Professor Aumann said: “I thought I could never be consoled, but Rabbi, you have comforted me.” From the Holocaust to modern Israel, the pain of one man comforted the other and bound them together in an indissoluble union. Their lives stand as a lesson in moral courage through their shared experience of the tragedies of Jewish history.
Yitzhak Perlman is another shining example of the Jewish ability to triumph over suffering. He was stricken with polio at a very young age, and was able to move about with the aid of braces, crutches, and a wheelchair. In spite of that disability, he became one of the greatest violinists of his generation. One night during a concert, a string of his violin broke. Instead of stopping the concert and asking for another violin, he continued to play on three strings. After completing the concert and receiving a much-deserved standing ovation, he spoke and said: “It is our task to make music with what remains.”
That moral courage and strength in the face of adversity may again be necessary as we witness a resurgence of antisemitism worldwide, with all the ugliness and danger that it implies. We cannot know what awaits us, but we can draw inspiration from those who preceded us.
Salo Baron was right: Jewish history is a great deal more than pain and suffering, but from that experience we can learn the steadfastness and determination that will sustain us. Previous generations drew on extraordinary resourcefulness in the face of unimaginable adversity. They showed the way and inspire us still.
Dr. Paul Socken is Distinguished Professor Emeritus and founder of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of Waterloo.