Looking for Positives…

 

Looking for Positives…

 

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

If there is anything positive to emerge from the current, gut-wrenching television coverage of Nazi flags and slogans, swastikas and Heil Hitler salutes, torch parades with uncovered faces, and violence in the streets of America, perhaps it is this: that our millennial generation will begin to understand how manipulated hatred — grounded in fear, racism, and bigotry — can spread like a cancer through an unsuspecting population. Maybe they will understand why there must be a State of Israel.

Fortunately, there are gentler ways to teach about the Holocaust and its ramifications, as “Schindler’s List “and many other fine films have demonstrated – so that hopefully it will never happen again. Learning about the history of that time from the lips of those who experienced it is irreplaceable, of course, but there are fewer survivors now every year.

One such survivor – in that he escaped Germany on the cusp of the Holocaust – was the esteemed, late Rabbi Gunther Plaut. More than four decades after World War II, I met him in Toronto, Canada, where he had been the longtime rabbi, soon to become Rabbi Emeritus, of the highly regarded Holy Blossom Temple.* During the 15 years I lived in that city, I was a member there. I consider myself blessed to have attended Rabbi Plaut’s Torah Study classes each week..

Photo credit: http://www.aodeadpool.org/archives/updates/2012/assets/slugs/gunther_plaut.jpg

It was the late 1980s, and I was deeply honored when he asked me to direct a reading of his one-act play about the Holocaust. Although he had written it long ago, he had kept it to himself for many years. Now he wanted to open his experience as a young man in Nazi Germany to his congregation.

The play was called “The Train.” It portrayed the painful, dislocated feelings of a new Doctor of Laws graduate from the University of Berlin in 1934, forced to leave his native Germany after the restrictive Nuremberg Laws (first introduced on September 15, 1935 but not enforced until after the 1936 Olympics in Berlin) prevented him from practicing law. Even worse, Jews were stripped of their citizenship.**

The young lawyer represented in the play was, of course, our esteemed rabbi, Gunther Plaut. The conflicted feelings expressed were his own as he left family, friends, his now denied means of making a living, and the country he once loved for America. Luckier than most, he had gained sponsorship to rabbinic studies in the U.S. There he would study Jewish law.

As the war came to a close in 1945, Rabbi Gunther Plaut would be among the army chaplains who participated in liberating the concentration camps, the death camps, in Europe. It was an experience he would never forget. And he would go on to become a great rabbi, one of the pioneers of the Reform movement in Canada and regarded internationally as a highly erudite author. His landmark book, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, is still widely used today.

When we mounted Rabbi Plaut’s play, he was truly thrilled to be cast as the Narrator (he had thrown out a few hints that he’d like to do it!), whose commentary was a hallmark of the play. Thespian members of the congregation filled the other roles, and one of the congregational members was a talented harpist who played in the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. When the soft cadences of her harp accompanied his narrations, shivers went up and down my spine. The play was extremely moving for the audience. For Rabbi Plaut, I think it was cathartic to have the feelings of his younger self, buried for so many years, enacted on the stage – and shared with the receptive, loving members of his congregation. The audience – the auditorium was packed — watched the performance with tears in their eyes and gave it a standing ovation when it ended.

When he retired, the Law Society of Ontario awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree, a thoughtful and sensitive replacement for the degree he was forbidden to use as a young man in Nazi Germany.***

 

The Holy Blossoms refer to the tender young shoots, the students who study Torah.

 

** Prior to the passing of the antisemitic Nuremberg Laws, The Law for Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, which passed on April 7, 1933, excluded non-Aryans from the legal profession and civil service. The Nuremberg Laws two years later codified the racial theories and ideology of the Nazi party. The first two laws passed in 1935 were the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor. Jews (defined racially rather than religiously) were stripped of their citizenship, and the new laws had a devastating economic impact on the Jewish community as well.

 

*** The following is a narration from the dramatized The March of Times radio series about the Munich Crisis, Sept. 16, 1938:

 

NARRATOR: “Tonight, hour after hour, by short-wave wireless through the ether and along the cables undersea, the news piles up from the capitals of Europe…world-shaking, momentous news that sends Britain’s grave Prime Minister flying to Adolph Hitler and President Roosevelt hurrying back to Washington…the grim, portentous news that Sudeten Germans are in armed revolt, and behind every dispatch the mounting fear that the field-gray German regiments, mobilized and ready, may march into Czechoslovakia. All this week, day after day, and every hour of each day, the news poured in…and tomorrow and all next week, news will come from London, from Paris, from Prague, from Berlin. And as the headlines record each flying fact and rumor, United States citizens watch and wait and try to understand” (“The March of Time: Munich Crisis, Sept. 16, 1938,” Generic Radio Workshop Script Library (http://www.genradio.com/show.php?id=0079c4704cd5da4).