D’var Shabbat Shuvah 5778 (2017) 


Hungarian Jews and the Dangerous Allure of Assimilation

As many of you know, from past divrei Torah, I travel each summer with Centropa – an organization that is dedicated to documenting the Jewish history of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans in the 20th century. This history is then used by teachers, like me, in classrooms all over Europe, Israel and the US – we use it to show how one person can make a difference, what happens when Civil Society falls apart, and the lessons of some of the darkest hours of history so that our students know to work to assure that they are not repeated. This summer I traveled to Budapest, Hungary and Belgrade, Serbia.

Hungary was different than Poland or Germany or Austria – other places I have visited and spoken about. Hungarian Jews had a very different experience – and I learned that this just didn’t start with World War 2. There is much about Hungarian Jewry that is a bit different than other Jewish communities in Europe. And it really begins with emancipation in 1867. Jews in Hungary were expected to say thank you for their rights by fully assimilating into Hungarian culture and pretty much ceasing to be recognizably Jewish. Within 40 years, the percent of Jews who spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue was 20% higher than among Catholic Hungarians. By the end of World War I, Jews were fully accepted as Hungarian – they were “Jewish Hungarians” or “Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith”. Intermarriage was rampant and a unique brand of Hungarian Judaism – Neologism – had surpassed Orthodoxy in number of adherents.

After World War I and the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – the government of Hungary moved ever rightward and this collapse of liberalism was felt by the Jewish community. Jewish veterans of the war – who considered themselves Hungarian patriots and heroes – were not shielded from the rising anti-Semitism and increasing difficulty for Jews in finding work. Previously prejudice was directed at the Orthodox Jews from Galicia who retained traditional practices and attire and were easy to spot and harass. Modern, assimilated Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith were not used to feeling its sting. Those in the upper classes of power and wealth foolishly continued, past 1938’s Anti-Jewish laws, to believe that their Hungarian patriotism and clear assimilation would protect them. In the Centropa film “The Mayor Who Worked in Hell” there is an amazing photo of Hungarian Jewish WWI Veterans in their uniforms and medals in the Dohany Synagogue on Rosh HaShana in 1943. It was their belief that these uniforms would save them.

And for some time, even after Hungary joined Nazi Germany in the battle against the Soviet Union, Hungary did protect “her” Jews – foreign Jews were deported, but Hungarian Jews were not. The men were rounded up for labor and many perished in the harsh conditions – but they were not in camps or being shot in large numbers or gassed. But even this ended when Nazi Germany invaded in 1944. Eichmann found, in the Arrow Cross fascists, Hungarians even more eager than his Nazis to deal with the Jews. One lecturer I heard this summer said that if the Hungarians had just done nothing – dragged their heels, refused to cooperate, stalled a bit – that the Jews of Budapest in particular would have survived. But, unfortunately, the Hungarian fascists were eager to be rid of their Jews.

Hungarian Jews felt they were fully Hungarian – they spoke the language, they Magyarized their names, they sent their children to state schools and they served proudly in the Hungarian Army. They embraced being Hungarian and minimized what made them Jewish. This was particularly true in Budapest. As a reward for this loyalty, synagogues in Budapest – unlike in other European cities – are large, on main streets, and are clearly Jewish. This equality with churches made Jews feel fully accepted. Dohany Synagogue is a massive structure on a Main Street with many Jewish symbols on the outside. Interestingly, this monument to the assimilation and full acceptance of Hungarian Jews is built on the property where the family of Theodore Herzl lived and where he was born. The man who dreamt of a state for the Jews was born into a community that felt it did not need one – it had one – Hungary. This may explain why I was shocked to find out he was from Budapest as he is always described as Austrian!

Neolog Judaism exists nowhere else and is a uniquely Hungarian expression of Judaism – it is a response to their history and patriotism as Hungarians. It was created by those Jews who said “We are Hungarians who are Jewish.” These Jews did not need a homeland. They were home – this really made me think about American Jews – and that of Budapest made me think particularly of Seattle Jews. As I toured Budapest and listened to a man in his 30s talk about growing up Jewish in Budapest and describe the Jewish community in Budapest today – I was struck by how similar it sounded to Seattle – low affiliation rate, cultural focus not religious, intermarriage, Jewish values being important and social action being a focus – the struggle to fill synagogues and schools – the lack of cohesion in the various parts of the community and the relatively young age of the community. Hearing about their current right wing government and rise in anti-Semitism as well as anti-refugee sentiment, made me think about the changing winds of our own country and my worries that our assimilation isn’t going to save us either. It made me think about how major political protests are all on Shabbat and the posts I have read begging the progressive community to have just one protest on a Sunday so observant Jews could attend. It made me think about having to choose between my Judaism and the rest of my identity and values when confronted with issues like this. I personally would most likely choose to participate, but what about those whose Jewish observance does not allow them to feel that they can make that choice? It made me think about the anti-Israel stream that runs through the progressive community and do i decide to participate despite this or do I remove myself? Do I break Shabbat to protest with those who then ask me to not include my Jewishness in my expression of outrage?

Truth is I don’t want to divide myself up – human/Jew/American/woman – it’s all me and I want to be able to act in way that is reflective of this. But it often leaves me adrift from true community, a fellowship of likeminded people, a place I feel fully myself but also fully a part of a larger whole. I find myself withdrawing from groups where I feel that some part of me isn’t welcome or accepted. And following the recent events in our nation, withdrawing from feeling welcome here at all. I know that we are a long way from where I should be panicking, but I also know that that distance can be travelled very quickly. A recent discussion online about whether or not violence against Nazis or Fascists was always ok reminded me how many people just don’t get how quickly. I was told that I should “wait till they are rounding you up to get violent.” I pointed out that if they were actually rounding Jews up, it would be far too late for a preventative violent response to be useful. That would mean there was a plan, and a place to send us. That this would not be the “beginning” as the person seemed to imply, but the “beginning of the end.”

I study and teach the history of the Holocaust and other genocides. I spend a lot, probably too much, of my time reading and discussing these events and the forces that allow them to happen. I know that the elimination of genocide is far more difficult than the saying “Never Again” seems to imply.We say that over and over as genocide continues to occur in multiple places. To end atrocities such as these, to end racism and homophobia, anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia, sexism and on and on – requires us to all be fully aware of our humanity and that of others. To be fully aware that we are – in the ways that truly matter – all the same – and that the differences are what makes life interesting and makes us each a unique gift.

Judaism teaches we are all made in the image of God – b’tzelem Elohim – and each contain a spark of the Divine. The Rabbi shared a midrash where the angels decided to hide that spark in each person because they would not find it there – but I think in reality we have a harder time finding it in others than in ourselves. Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks defines a mensch as someone who looks for and connects to that spark of the Divine in each and every person they meet. This similarity is what we need to see in all others – but without discounting what makes them unique.

By giving up our differences we would lose what makes us special and makes the world beautiful. But, by seeing only the differences, we will destroy our world. History shows – in Germany where Jews were highly assimilated, in Austria, and in Hungary – that you giving up what makes you different will not protect you from those who refuse to quit seeing that difference even when you have quit showing it. By being fully human, fully ourselves -by maximizing the uniqueness in each one of us – while also recognizing the vital sameness of us all – we can make a world where acceptance and love replace bias and hate. Working for this world is the t’shuvah (return to God/godliness) I am resolving to work on in the coming year. I hope you will join me.


D’var Shabbat Shuvah 5777 – Two Modes of Reconciliation with a Difficult Past – Terezin and Berlin


Terezin or Berlin – Two Models for Reconciling with a Difficult Past
Shabbat Shuvah 5777 – Parshat Vayelekh
Nance Adler
I hadn’t originally tied my d’var to the Parshat this week – I was focusing on the theme of t’shuva for Shabbat Shuvah – but was struck by these verses as the Torah was being read this morning. I will read these two verses and leave them there – they will make sense later.
“Gather the people – men, women, children, and the strangers in your communities – that they may hear and so learn to revere the Lord your God and to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching. Their children too, who have not had the experience, shall hear and learn to revere the Lord your God as long as they live in the land that you are about to cross the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 31:12-13

This summer I participated in my third Centropa Summer Academy. Centropa is an organization with its headquarters in Vienna, Austria that is working to document Jewish life in the 20th century in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans – that of the “Jews who went home after the Holocaust” as I refer to them. I use their materials heavily in my classroom and do many projects in collaboration with other Centropa teachers in Europe, Israel and other US schools. This year’s trip was to Vienna, Prague, Terezin and Berlin and focused on the experience of refugees. But I am not here to talk about refugees – though I could.
Today is Shabbat Shuva – the Shabbat between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur – a day focused on the theme of return, repair and fixing the past as best we can. We are focused for these 10 days on tzedahka, teffila and t’shuva. But can we always fix the past? How do we repair what is broken when the break is so severe and those who were wronged are no longer here? How do we return to a point where “normal” life can continue in places where huge ruptures have occurred? Not individual ruptures or breakage – but cultural/national/regional ruptures that are not easily healed over. How do we dwell in the places where these things have happened and obtain a sense of normalcy again? Can we?
I would like to think about this question in relation to two places I visited this summer and then try to bring these analogies down to the personal level. I will start with a short blog post I wrote on the bus immediately after visiting Terezin.
“Terezin – Today I visited Terezin – Theresenstadt – the fortified city that became a Jewish ghetto during World War II. Prior to the 1940s and, again since then, Terezin was an actual town. First for the military and then for civilians as well. Walking through Terezin as visitors to a “museum” of the Ghetto, it was jarring and upsetting to be shaken out of the past by cars careening down the streets with their stereos blaring. The former housing and associated buildings used to imprison tens of thousands of Jews now house hair salons, bars, shops and even a pension – a small inn near where Jews would be loaded into trains for the trip to Auschwitz. The man in his speedo on the deck of this inn was really the final indignity. I personally can’t imagine living on the site of a Nazi created ghetto – a place where 33,000 people died from illness, starvation and poor treatment. How do you give your address? How do you invite people to visit you at your home? The atmosphere in the town is heavy with history – it was hard being there two hours – how does one live there? On the edge of “town”, just past the quaint little pension, there is a directional sign to the crematorium. I cannot imagine driving daily past this sign on my way in and out of town. Yes, evil and awful things happen/have happened in many places in the world, but some places are more tainted with this evil. For me, the idea of living in such a place is unthinkable. To try to have a normal, mundane life with the daily reminders of ultimate evil all around seems absurd. Perhaps the blaring radios and unsafe speed for streets full of museum visitors are just symptoms of this insanity.”
At Terezin there is both a memorial and museum to the past and an attempt to have life go on. They are side by side. There is no seeming connection between the two. Normal life goes on – or tries to – shoulder to shoulder with groups touring a place where people were starved and worked to death because they were Jews. I get that the Czech citizens living there now are not the descendants of Nazis who ran the camps. I get that it was on occupied territory and run by the occupying government. But, still, how does one wake up in the morning and start your day positively if part of your commute includes driving by sites of mass murder? How do you disconnect your reality from that reality?
Berlin – In Berlin we visited the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.” Let me repeat that name – its official name –Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There are no punches being pulled here. No euphemisms or soft selling of the fact of what happened and that this was the capital of the government that made it happen. It is a visually moving memorial with an equally moving and powerful “information center” built directly underneath it. This memorial is made up of different sized stelae or cement pillars. There are walkways between them which are uneven and give you the feeling of being off balance. Being in the center of it, where the pillars are tallest, is a whole body experience and very disorienting. While on the outskirts of the memorial – which is not well marked and very open to the public – people are not really aware of where they are, in the middle of it, it is hard to not be impacted by the experience.
When we entered the Information Center – it is not referred to as a museum – Ed Serotta – the founder and director of Centropa – spoke to our group before we toured the exhibits. Ed is not a man known for filtering his opinions or moderating his views – one of his more endearing features in my opinion. He said “When I first came here, before it opened, I went through looking for places where they had pulled their punches or been less than truthful. I found none.” To me this was a very high recommendation of the place – Ed is always quite happy to find where more could be said to take full responsibility for the crimes of genocide. As I went through the Center, I found that I was in agreement with Ed. Those of you who know me, know that the Holocaust is my specialty and I have spent a lot of time touring museums, reading books, going to seminars and otherwise immersing myself in this most horrible chapter of our history. The Information Center of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is the most brutally honest and upfront presentation of the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Final Solution that I have seen. That it exists in Berlin, near the Reichstag, in what was the center of the Nazi Reich, is amazing to me. There is no ignoring of the past. This is an airing of what was done, with no excuses being made. The crimes of the past are presented. Those guilty are named. There is no attempt at normalcy – the whole construction of the surrounding memorial is made to throw you off kilter and not allow you to feel normal or on firm ground. This is a place for coming to terms with the sins of the past and, even more importantly, educating those who visit about the importance of not repeating that past.
Other memorials in Berlin are similarly present and hard to miss such as the “Stumbling Stones” in the sidewalk outside homes lived in by Jews and the “Missing House” in the old Jewish Quarter, a plaque honoring homosexuals murdered and imprisoned on the wall of the UBahn Station in the part of town where these men would have likely lived. I know that for many Germans, particularly those living in Berlin, these constant reminders are perhaps too much. Airing one’s dirty laundry is not fun and having it constantly in your face, and also on display for all who visit, can be exhausting and embarrassing. I found Berlin to be one big museum – the outline of the former Berlin Wall is marked on the ground, the Stumbling Stones, the memorial for the Book Burning – it would be hard to live in Berlin and not have the mistakes of the past firmly in mind. The German Government works hard to show it has learned from this past – the acceptance of tens of thousands of refugees this past year is one proof of this. The final step of t’shuva is to not repeat a behavior and Germany, or at least their chancellor,, is working hard to show that Germany has truly learnt the mistakes of its past and does not plan to repeat them. Like in Terezin, life goes on around all of these memorials, but it was a very different experience than the frenetic experience in the ghetto. History is respected, not ignored.
In our own lives, when there is a rupture are we in Terezin – side by side with the reminders but doing our best to drowned them out with music and fast living? Or are we in Berlin – respectfully admitting our guilt and accepting the consequences – and becoming a better person for having done so? Do we allow others to view our past transgressions, but ignore them ourselves? Or, do we use those “stumbling stones” of our experiences to keep ourselves in line and move forward positively? Do we say “I wasn’t responsible, but just a bystander – this has nothing to do with me” and not concern ourselves with the wrongs done around us? Or do we use the errors of others to teach us to be better people as well?
As a student and teacher of history, I know that the power of learning history is to explore the mistakes of others and NOT need to repeat them ourselves. Seeing the patterns of history, the warning signs of future trouble, makes one able to step in and try to prevent that trouble. The USHMM has a Genocide Early Warning team, there are known steps that lead to genocide, known behaviors or events that can lead to mass atrocities. Knowing these allows us to prevent a repeat of humanity’s darkest hours. Yet, genocide continues to happen around the world and we continue, as a society, to not take such signs seriously enough. A speaker I heard this summer said “Knowledge isn’t power – until it leads to action.” Our knowledge of past trouble should lead to actions to prevent future ones.
Seeing the warning signs of trouble in our own lives can be just as hard – but we need to use our past experiences to help us move into the future more positively and more aware. Burying the past may make moving forward easier – but it also makes repeating the past more likely. As painful as facing difficult experiences head on may be, this type of accounting will help to prevent additional painful experiences in the future. We say “Never Again” while all the while genocide and crimes against humanity continue to occur. “Never Forget” is more realistic and will hopefully eventually bring us to a true “Never Again.” Facing our mistakes, fixing what we can fix, mending relationships and rebuilding community and then resolving to keep that experience in mind is what brings us to the final step – not repeating the action. I don’t mean an obsessive fixation on the wrongs – but an awareness that lack of attention can lead to trouble. Whether that trouble is a broken friendship or much larger, an awareness of the impact of our behaviors that is informed by our past experiences – and those of others we know – will help us to minimize the damage or avoid it all together.
I wish for us all the ability to fix the ruptures in our lives and to move forward wiser for the experience. Our world needs citizens aware of history and unafraid to face it and use it to know when our present or our future is about to repeat it. G’mar hatimah tovah. May we all be sealed for a good year.
Nance Adler
Edited to add in edits made during delivery
Note – I had several people come and tell me that I was wrong and people did not live in Terezin – they had been there 10 years or more ago and no one lived there then – I can assure you that all of the businesses I listed and attempts at “ordinary” life were there when I visited this summer.

Poland 2015 – Centropa Summer Academy


Have you ever suppressed a memory? Or perhaps a part of your identity? Kept a secret locked away, hoping it would never see the light of day? How long could you do it? At what cost?


What if “you” were the Polish nation and that memory was all that had happened in your country and to your countrymen – Poles and Jews – between 1939 and 1946? What if the piece of your identity was that you, and now your children or even grandchildren as well, were Jews? What if you kept it hid – either by choice or by governmental threat or fear of death – for 40 years? What would it take to finally open the door on that secret, unearth – quite literally – those memories and talk about both the crimes done to, and by, your countrymen?


Prior to my planning to travel to Poland with Centropa this summer, and despite my considerable Holocaust education, I had no idea that under the Soviet regime the events of ’39-’46 had not been discussed. To imagine the trauma endured on Polish lands during those years – by its Jewish inhabitants, but also by its Polish non-Jewish ones as well – and then to imagine the ongoing psychological trauma of just pretending it never happened is, quite frankly, mind blowing. To think that in the country where the Nazis placed all of their death camps, no one was talking, learning, or openly confronting this horrific past is hard to imagine. And that doesn’t even begin to address the lack of accounting for actions perpetrated by Poles during this time. Those who were caught up in the zeitgeist and acted on age old hatreds, those who began as rescuers and became, for a whole variety of reasons, murders, those who after the Nazis were defeated were not happy to see surviving Jews return to perhaps try to reclaim their rightful property and made sure they knew they were not welcome. Millions of Ethnic Poles were also murdered, by the Soviets and by the Nazis. They were also declared untermenschen and slated for complete extermination when the Jews were dealt with. Their country split up, invaded and then invaded again, occupied, used as a location for the murder of Jews that was not fit to happen in a civilized nation such as Germany itself, and after the war handed over to Stalin. That is a lot of national trauma to sweep under the proverbial carpet and try to keep there for 40 years.


While we were in Poland we marked, on July 10th the anniversary of the murder of the Jews of Jedbawne by their Polish neighbors. Not the Nazis, but Poles who brutally beat and then burnt alive their fellow townspeople of the Jewish faith. This crime lay forgotten, despite a trial after the war. And this was not the only village where this happened. There is evidence of a month long rampage through the Bialystock district in July 1941. Germany had replaced the Soviets as occupiers and the Poles, foolishly they would learn, welcomed them. Jews were viewed as collaborators with the Soviets and this was used as one reason for their murder. Greed was clearly another as their bodies were still warm when their houses were looted. Jan Gross’s book Neighbors blew the lid off of this ugly secret and really opened the national conversation when it was published in 2000. Gross’s book Fear: Antisemitism in Poland after Auschwitz continues to pry at scarred over memories of post-war pogroms and, despite the idea Jews were favored by the Soviets, institutional anti-Jewish policies. To stay in Poland after the war, for that minuscule number of the 3.3 million Polish Jews who had survived, meant giving up your Jewish identity. Those few who tried to hold on to it, were run out of the country in 1967-8 after the Six Day War in Israel as the USSR was an Arab ally.


So how did this all play out during my visit? In Kraków we met a woman, about my age, part of “The Unexpected Generation” – Poles who learned in their teens or twenties that they are Jews during deathbed confessions or other opportunities to reveal the long buried family secret. Jewish life is on the upswing in Poland. Jewish festivals abound and cemeteries, synagogues and Jewish neighborhoods being revived and rebuilt. We visited the Polin Museum in Warsaw, a joint public/private venture that documents the 1000 year history of Jews in Poland. Poles have realized that the Jewish story is their story. Even with so few Jews left in Poland, Jewish culture is again valued as part of Polish culture.


Outside the Polin, our group was approached by an elderly man. He was curious about the nature of our group. He began to tell his story, in Polish. I called over a colleague from Poland who translated for me. This man was Polish. He had been sent by the Nazis to Germany to a work camp for two years. It was awful, but, he admitted twice, saved his life. “I would have died of starvation here.” And then there was the two guns he and his brother found that had them thinking about running off to join the Partisans – the second way his life was saved by being sent away. Just as a part of his story he mentions “My mother hid three Jews until it was too dangerous and she had to tell them to leave.” How I wished I spoke Polish! “Leave? Where did they go? Did they survive?” My mind reeled with questions I could not ask. He also told us about the creation of the ghetto in Warsaw. How early on you could go in and out, later for a bribe and finally not at all. He spoke of the brutality of Nazi guards who would klop you with their club at the slightest provocation. Here was history standing there in front of me sharing a piece of the story. Imagine his need to tell his story, imagine suppressing it for 40 years? Were we the first group he had approached?


Teaching this history – teaching the importance of not allowing these events to repeat – the need for Civil Society and our role in this undertaking is still a fraught undertaking for many of my colleagues in this area of the world. A Polish teacher I worked with deals with colleagues who long for a return to communism and don’t see the benefits of freedom. His students are concerned with bettering their own lives and can’t be bothered with working for the common good. How to teach a unit on the Solidarity Movement and the fall of Communism and the need for building a Civil Society? My Ukrainian colleague lives in a country under attack and at risk. We were privileged to have a speaker from the front lines of the protests in Maidan, Ukraine during the Academy.   A teacher from Greece said he has students who support the Fascists in Greece who have support from a major chunk of the population. How to teach these ideas there? My friends from Serbia, Bosnia and Croatian are still struggling with their own recent troubles and tensions reached new heights while we were in Poland with the UN and EU opposite rulings about Srebrenica during the annual marking of that genocide.


What a complex and troubled mess we have made on this “nice planet” as our guide at Auschwitz refers to our world. Tomasz said this phrase – this nice planet – at least 20 times during his pre-visit lecture and our tour. It is said with a serious dose of cynicism and disdain. Our planet isn’t nice at all. Well, at least many of the humans who inhabit it. Tomasz – or Dr. Cebulski, as he is more correctly known – just finished his PhD on Auschwitz. In his view the murder of the Jews of Europe by the Nazis was an industry – the main industry of Germany during the war. He refers to Auschwitz as a “technologically advanced, constantly updated, meticulous and perfected death machine.” Wow. This is what we do to each other on this nice planet. I am not sure if this intellectualization of genocide makes it easier or harder to stomach. As we walked through Auschwitz I, the work camp and center of the sprawling 48 camp Auschwitz system, with Tomasz’s narration in my ear, I was wrapped in this insulating layer; it provided distance from the horrors that had happened there. But it was not to fully protect me from being gut punched by the reality of Auschwitz.


In one of the barracks there are the well-known displays of the shoes – thousands of them – the hair – blackened and decaying, barely recognizable – the pots and pans, hair brushes and shoe polish containers. But before any of these, there is a display of tallisim – prayer shawls – white with black stripes, barely touched by age – just a few of them, draped over a long box. They appear to have been just left there. Perhaps taken off by their owners at the end of services and draped there while they went to enjoy lunch. I wear a tallis. It is a distinctly Jewish item. Shoes, brushes, hair – these are universal. They need not have been left by “my” people. I know people who own prayer shawls identical to these. They are the quintessential Ashkenazi tallis. I can picture the men – they would have been men here – who left them. All of this registers in nanoseconds and I am overcome with emotion. I stand in front of this display and weep openly. In my ear I hear Tomasz continue on about the reliance of Germany, especially late in the war, on the items taken from the Jews as they arrived at Auschwitz. The needs of Germans for household items, clothing, shoes, were met by the looted belongings of murdered Jews – primarily Hungarian at this point. The hair was made into fabric. And these prayer shawls – valued for their high quality woolen fabric – were destined to become undergarments for Nazi officers. Clearly this all registered despite my emotional state, I just typed it here, but all I could think about was the religious Jews who once wore these while praying. After this, shoes, suitcases, brushes, and even the controversial display of hair, did not faze me. Too many, too aged and unreal, too universal. I will admit I did not look at the display of baby clothes. That would have surely been too much.


My overall impression of Auschwitz I was that it was so small. The displays are mostly very clinical and make emotional connection hard. The Yad Vashem display is excellent and an exception to this. The reproductions of children’s drawings from the walls of camps were heartbreaking – first in their innocence and later in how they show that children were not protected or ignorant of what was going on. The one real crack in Tomasz’s emotional remove was in the last room of this barrack. This room holds the Book of Names. Tomasz said “If Auschwitz is the largest cemetery or mass grave, albeit without bodies, on “this nice planet”, this book is the marker.” On this tombstone I was able to find the name of my husband’s grandfather.


We then went to Birkenau – the main sub-camp of Auschwitz. It is at the “back of Birkenau” (another of Tomasz’s turns of phrase) that the two main crematoria of Auschwitz were located. There had been a major wind storm the night before and we were not able to tour all of Birkenau but walked down the center strip where the train tracks run. That was enough to be overcome by how endless and sprawling this camp was. Seeing row after row of ruins of barracks, primarily the brick chimneys, running off into the distance was overwhelming. We walked to the end, the liminal space between Birkenau – the labor camp – and Auschwitz the death camp. It is this combining of the two that was a “tactical error” on the part of the Nazis according to Tomasz. The other death camps left few survivors, few witnesses – less than 100 between the four – and were almost entirely demolished and hidden before the end of the war. The fact that Auschwitz was primarily a labor/concentration camp and a death camp only towards the end of the war is why we have survivors, witnesses to what the Nazis did there. Thank God for this tactical error on the part of the Nazis or the deniers would have an easier time.


I am writing this while flying to Washington DC for the second half of my Fellowship at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. One of our topics will be how to use sites like Auschwitz in our teaching. I am looking forward to this as I am not sure what to do with this experience. How to process the emotions, the learning, the sheer unrealness of the depths of evil we are capable of on this nice planet. How do I use my experience of this to create a world where that phrase can be said with honesty and pride rather than cynicism?

Article in HaYidion Issue on Talking about God


Fresh off the press is “The God Issue” of  HaYidion, published by RAVSAK. I am honored to have an article in this journal about my God Talk program that is a key part of my 8th grade Theology course. I am copying the article below (well, my original file of it) and also a link to a PDF for the whole journal which is full of great articles about God. RAVSAK is the Jewish Community Day School Network and this is the third article I have had published in HaYidion.

Talking about God with 8th Graders


My favorite part of my job is reading my 8th graders’ Theology papers and especially their God Talk Responses. God Talk is a speaker series that I run as part of Theology. It was not my idea, but I have worked hard to make it a powerful part of my course. Eighteen or so times during the year I welcome a speaker into the class to share their spiritual journey with my students. The speaker might be Jewish, about half the speakers are, or perhaps Wiccan or Bahai. The speaker might actually not walk into my class, but rather be sitting on their porch in Bat Ayin or their living room in Sarajevo and join us via Skype. Whoever, or wherever, my students are sitting attentively, ready to take notes and ask questions.

One speaker, a Chabad Rabbi, doesn’t think that I should invite non-Jews to speak as it is a temptation. Despite this, he continues to come and share his beliefs and humor with my students. And, just like with the Wiccan and the Bahai and the Lutheran, my students are able to clearly and insightfully speak to what they share with this Chabad Rabbi and where their beliefs part ways. Middle Schoolers are curious. They want to know about other religions and people. They will find out about other faiths. I prefer they do it in my classroom, from speakers I have vetted, and who I know are coming to speak in an effort to inform and share, not convert.

My first year I finished off with a fantastic Sufi Muslim speaker who fascinated the students by showing the connections between Islam and Judaism. They listened to every word of the prayer he said before speaking and loved that they could understand some of the Arabic. I was so thrilled with this interaction that I blogged about it and was questioned by parents who wanted to know when I was going to have the “real, fatwah issuing Muslim” in to speak. I was grateful for the opportunity to clarify that I, like my speaker, taught theology and not politics. My goal is to foster connections between my students and people of other faiths. I want them to know where we are the same and where we are different. I trust that they know who they are and will not decide that being Methodist sounds so great that they want to leave Judaism.

And my students don’t disappoint. Week after week they tell me “of course I don’t believe in Jesus like the speaker, but I find it interesting we both agree on…” A student this year wrote this in his paper on our Wiccan speaker “It would be pointless to mention the things that I disagree with Stephanie about regarding our religious beliefs because we follow completely different religions, so I will talk about the concepts in Wicca that I think hold value and should apply to everywhere outside of religion as well. One of these concepts is doing whatever you want as long as it does not cause harm.” Students also show high level thinking and make amazing connections, as in this recent reflection:

I really liked when Pastor Katie said, “God is water and Methodism is the cup.” I think that this means that the cup, Methodism, is a belief that holds inside it God. This quote really expresses her belief of God and her religion. I say this because when you have an empty cup it is without use and when you have water without a cup you can’t drink. Without God, her religion doesn’t have a meaning, and without Methodism, God doesn’t have a place to go. When Pastor Katie said that God is always changing makes me wonder if this could relate to the glass metaphor. I think that it could mean the content in the glass is always different, it could be whatever you want it to be depending on the way you view God…

In addition to introducing my students to other religions, the variety of Jewish speakers who participate helps to show that there are many ways to be Jewish and many types of Jewish communities. Hearing rabbis and lay people from Secular Humanistic Judaism through Chabad shows them the various ways people make meaning out of Jewish text and tradition and can surprise them in what makes sense. One year I had a number of students eager to meet the Secular Humanistic speaker – sure this was where their beliefs would fit. They were surprised to find that they realized that, regardless of one’s personal belief, Judaism with God made no sense to them. They pressed the speaker to help them understand the difference between a “gratitude” for bread and “hamotzi” and an “appreciation” for wine and “Kiddush”, but were not able to get an answer that made sense to them. This made them rethink their assumptions and their ability to do so showed the value of this program.

Discussing God can be hard and providing just one point of view dangerous. My God Talk program allows my students to discover for themselves the many ways to encounter God, as a Jew and as a human. It encourages them to think deeply, view the world differently and respect the beliefs of those around them – Jew or Gentile. It shows them that there is a place in the spectrum of Judaism for them, regardless of their observance, belief in God or connection to traditional views. It allows them to feel pride in seeing the influence of Judaism on other religions, but also know where we are different and why. Despite the fears of my Chabad friend, I remain convinced that my God Talk program makes my students stronger and prouder Jews rather than weakening their connection to Judaism.


D’var for Shabbat Shoftim 5774 – Education as Justice

D’var for Shabbat Shoftim 5774 – Education as Justice

D’var on Shoftim

Aug 30, 2014, 4 Elul 5774

Nance Adler

(This d’var was inspired by my Fund for Teachers Fellowship in Sarajevo with Centropa and my training as a USHMM Teacher Fellow)

צדק צדק תרדוף למען תחיה וירשת את הארץ אשר יי אלהיך נתן לך

Justice, Justice shall you purse, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

Our Sages teach that no word in the Torah is extraneous – they all have meaning and the repetition of tzedek – justice – must mean something. Is it just emphasis – you will surely pursue justice – does it indicate the way that we will pursue it – through courts as Rashi interprets it or perhaps in a just manner – the ends don’t justify the means but the means must also be just. This verse is found at the end of a commandment exhorting b’nei Israel to set up courts and appoint magistrates and officials for each tribe when they are in the land. It states that judges will not take bribes and will judge impartially. Is the pursuit of justice merely the purview of courts?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks would say no and I agree. In his d’var on Shoftim from a few years ago, Rabbi Sacks speaks about the unique nature of Judaism which commands a social order without a political structure to support it. Jewish law is followed without a government to enforce it, without a nation to even practice it in for 2000 years. The observance of Jewish law – and pursuing Justice through the application of that law – is the responsibility of each Jew and is assured through education. To show the efficacy of this, Rabbi Sacks shares a story from Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev:

Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev once said: “Master of the universe, in Russia there is a Czar, an army and a police force, but still in Russian houses you can find contraband goods. The Jewish people has no Czar, no army and no police force, but try finding bread in a Jewish home on Pesach!”

Rabbi Sacks continues by speaking about Moses leadership and its impact on Jews throughout time:

“What Moses understood in a way that has no parallel elsewhere is that there are only two ways of creating order: either by power from the outside or self-restraint from within; either by the use of external force or by internalised knowledge of and commitment to the law.

How do you create such knowledge? By strong families and strong communities and schools that teach children the law, and by parents teaching their children “when you sit in your house or when you walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise up.”

Of course, as a teacher, the idea that education is the key to a just society is both appealing and not, at least to me, news. As many of you know, an area of passion for me is teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. I, of course, teach these because it is vital that my Jewish students know this important, and tragic, episode of our history. But I also teach it with a much deeper and, to me, important goal. We all say “never again” but we say it knowing that there is genocide occurring in the world as we are speaking these words. Never again has yet to be assured – just ask the Yazidi or Rwandans or Sudanese, or Bosnians. All of these people have experienced genocidal violence or are experiencing it right now. When I teach about the Holocaust I begin by teaching the steps – 8 or 10 depending on who you ask – that lead to genocide.  Knowing these steps and what they each entail allows genocide experts to predict where genocide is likely to happen and work to help prevent the escalation of violence.

This summer I was honored to have been selected as a United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teacher Fellow. As part of our training, we heard a lecture from Susan Benesch who specializes in the area of genocide build up connected to language and incitement of violence. We are all familiar with the idea of hate language or speech and the debates about whether or not it is a crime or is protected by the First Amendment. Susan actually goes further to classify some language as “dangerous speech” and sees this type of speech as moving a society towards genocide. There are five variables that Susan has determined for judging if speech is dangerous and they are:

  • a powerful speaker with a high degree of influence over the audience
  • the audience has grievances and fear that the speaker can cultivate
  • the speech act is clearly understood as a call to violence
  • there is a social or historical context that is propitious for violence, for any of a variety of reasons, including longstanding competition between groups for resources, lack of efforts to solve grievances, or previous episodes of violence
  • and there is a means of dissemination that is influential in itself, for example because it is the sole or  primary source of news for the relevant audience

Susan told us about how detecting the use of this type of speech and countering it with positive speech and education can actually avert violence. An example of this was an election in Myanmar. During the previous election cycle there had been dangerous speech used during campaigning and when the results were announced there was serious violence. When this dangerous speech began during the next election, an intentional counter campaign of “positive speech” was undertaken. The elections were held and despite things looking quite dicey, there was no violence. This was seen as an indication of the role that counter speech can play in preventing a society from becoming violent and potentially genocidal.
Imagine if in Germany in the 1930’s academics in Germany had stood by their Jewish colleagues and spoken out against the Nazi propaganda machine rather than abandoning them to it? What if teachers had refused to teach “racial hygiene” and other information that ran counter to what they knew to be true? It is my goal when I teach the Holocaust and genocide that I am helping to educate my students to be people who will stand up, who will recognize dangerous speech and engage in counter speech to keep violence from happening. One cannot be expected to pursue justice if one does not know what injustices are occurring. Sadly we live in a world where finding injustice is far too easy– tracking on all that is going on in the world can be overwhelming and difficult for an empathetic person. Feeling impotent in the face of such violence and hatred is depressing and disheartening. So, how do we all help to do our part to create the just society that God commands us to work for? How do we pursue justice, justly?

I turn back to education – something I am passionate about both as a provider and consumer. This summer I was in Sarajevo as part Centropa’s Summer Academy which was made possible by a Fund for Teachers Fellowship. Prior to my trip I did a lot of reading to prepare. I read 1941: The Year that Keeps Returning – a history of the Ushtasha and the genocidal violence aimed at Serbians by the Croats during World War 2. I read about the siege of Sarajevo in the ‘90’s and the crimes against humanity that occurred elsewhere in Bosnia then. Then I went there. Driving into Bosnia from the border of Croatia to Sarajevo was a journey through a war zone despite the passing of 20 years. Bombed out remains of houses sat next to intact homes with well-tended gardens. It was surreal and upsetting. Sarajevo is full of newly renovated or rebuilt buildings next to those still pock marked with bullet and rocket holes. In the middle of Sarajevo, next to a major church and in the shopping/tourist district sits a hollow frame of a formerly beautiful building. There is a tree growing out the top of the ruins and flowers in the cracks and crevices. I was told its ownership is in dispute and so nothing can be done with it.

This building became an icon for me of the situation in Bosnia. The three groups who live there – Bosniaks who are Muslim, Serbs who are Orthodox  Christians and Croats who are Catholic- were divided by ethnic/religious status and, by order of the Dayton Accords which ended the war in the 90’s, this national identity determines the schools they attend. This means that children in these communities attend different schools. They are not learning together, they are not playing together and they are like this building – stuck in a legal wrangle that makes their future unsure. In addition, no one is learning about what happened in the 90’s – teachers are being asked to begin teaching about it, but don’t have a curriculum and if they did – Bosnians would learn a Bosnian narrative and Serbs a Serbian one. This will not help anyone learn to live together. Centropa, the organization that I traveled to Bosnia with, brought together teachers from these three communities for the first time and asked them to work together on a lesson plan for teaching the Holocaust. This was inspiring to watch and fraught with difficulty. Just being together was difficult. Just being in a majority Bosniak city was difficult for the Serbs. Visiting sites connected to the war in the 90’s was emotional and traumatizing. It also provided a teaching moment about the dangers of language.

We visited the museum of the Tunnel of Life – a tunnel dug under the runway of the airport in Sarajevo so that life sustaining supplies could be brought into the city and people could get out. This museum is private and staffed by the family whose home was at the end of the tunnel. As we learned later, the father usually gives the tours and is humorous and friendly. When we visited the son, who was about my age and lived through the siege as a young man, gave the tour. It was clear he was still very angry and had a great deal of trauma and aggression that he had not dealt with. He spoke about the actions of the “Serbians” whose goal it was to kill the Bosnians. His anger and hatred were clear and because of this I did not really give much credence to what he said. However, to the Serbs in our group, some of whom were only children in the early 90’s, his words were a personal attack accusing them each of being murderers and leaving them visibly shaken. When we returned to our bus one of the Serbians spoke to our group about what he had just experienced. He and I then spoke about the role of teachers in helping to educate so that people knew how to differentiate between the “Serbian Army of Milosovic” and Serbs who had no part in what happened and did not support his actions. There were Serbs who stayed in Sarajevo and suffered during the siege. You would not know that from our guide’s talk. We also had an hour long discussion as a whole group when we returned to the conference room. Each Serbian in our group and one Bosnian spoke about their feelings and concerns and helped us all to work through this situation and realize the power of words and the importance of using them carefully.

My experience in Sarajevo and my conversations with the Serbians and Bosnians convinced me that these people – these dedicated teachers – want their students to know how to live together but are not sure or in agreement about how to teach about the past in a way that will make a unified future a reality. It is important to know that during the 50 years between 1941 and 1991, under Tito and Communism, these three groups did mostly live in harmony. There was evidence all over Sarajevo and in the story of the siege that shows this unity is not unattainable. In “Logavina Street”, a book that tells the story of the residents of this street during the siege, it tells how prior to the war people intermarried and that everyone celebrated everyone else’s holidays along with them. We visited the public cemetery in Sarajevo where Muslims, Catholics and Orthodox are all buried together, literally on top of each other. There is a story from during the siege of a young couple known as the “Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo”. She was Bosnian Muslim and he was Serbian Orthodox Christian. He stayed in Sarajevo with her at the beginning of the siege and then they tried to leave to go to his family. They were shot, despite being promised safe passage – no one knows by who and both sides blame the other – and they are buried together in the same grave. It seems to me that in a city that is half Hapsburg Austrian buildings and half Ottoman Muslim buildings and where a Muslim and an Orthodox Christian can be buried in the same grave, unity and coexistence are clearly possible. But how when the very system upon which a just and unified society is built – the education of the youth – is unable to create the foundation for that existence?

It is my hope to be able to take part in helping the teachers of Bosnia create curriculum that will allow them to, as my Bosniak friend Asmir put it “Teach their history even if it makes them cry.” Teaching my own students to try to create a more just future is one thing, but participating in helping these teachers to educate the children of an entire country in a way that will move them towards a more just future would be amazing. I was fortunate to meet a woman at the USHMM who volunteers with a group that is working in Rwanda towards this same goal. She mentioned that the group is hoping to expand their work to Bosnia. I hope to be there with them – working to assure that 1941 or ’91 does not repeat – not for Jews, not for Bosnians, not for Serbs – not for anyone.

Leaving a Piece of My Heart in Sarajevo


(This was written on 17 July,  2014 as I was leaving)

As the plane rises above Sarajevo, I think about all I have seen in this most fascinating of cities.  From the mix of building styles and materials,  to the mix of buildings old and new,  to the mix of women in hijab and dresses to those barely covered,  churches, mosques and even two synagogues – Sarajevo seems like a place where differences don’t matter. It looks like a place where East and West have met and agreed to get along.  When one looks closer and sees the bullet holes and bomb scars on walls, the decaying facades of formerly grand buildings, and the many residents similarly faded and scarred, the truth becomes clearer. While harmony may be the first impression, and is the goal of all who I met here, it has not been the reality.


I have to admit I am a bit in love with Sarajevo. This faded beauty of a city located in the valley of the Miljacka River has won my heart.  The people are funny and welcoming, the food delicious and, for an American, quite cheap. Gelato is .70 a scoop! It may not be Scotch flavored from Aldo’s, but it is good and cheap. Jacob Finci, a prominent member of the Jewish community is, despite all he has experienced,  witty and full of positive energy. Eliezer Papo, our scholar in residence, was hysterical and full of sexual inuendos. His knowledge of the Jews of Sarajevo, and Sepharad in general, was so helpful.  Eliezer and I discovered a common love of Russian literature and similar standards for judging all writing against Dostoevsky. All of the teachers I met from the former Yugoslavia,  whether Serb, Croat or Bosniak, were comitted to a future where their students will build a better future for their countries and for the whole area of the Western Balkans.


Yesterday I walked the length of Logavina Street, an ordinary road made famous in a book of the same name. I felt like I had walked it before and that I knew the people there. Seeing familiar names on the plaques, commemorating those who died during the seige,  outside the school near the top made me recall the stories of their lives and deaths. The cemetery with so many graves with the same year of death – 1993 being most common, was overwhelmingly sad. The mixture of new homes with old and war scarred buildings forced me to think about what the ordinary residents of this street endured for three years. So many reminders, and not in some country overseas that I might never visit, but on their homes, at the top of their street, around each corner. This makes the work of teaching young people to love, not hate, so much harder. Or does it make it easier? Are the lessons more easily remembered when the evidence of the high cost of ignoring them is right there, every day? Only time will tell. I hope to be able to come back and see for myself. I wish only peace for this lovely city that has stolen a little piece of my heart.



The Power of Words and the Damage They Can Do


This morning I was privileged to learn an important lesson about the necessity of using proper terminology and language when discussing divisive issues. This was a painful lesson for those whose feelings were trampled by the poor use of language and I am grateful to them for sharing their pain to help all of us learn it.

This morning the Centropa Summer Academy visited the Tunel (sic) Museum or Tunnel of Life Museum. This is a family run museum at the end of the tunnel which was dug under the runway of the Sarajevo Airport in 1993. This tunnel was used to bring in gas, electricity, food, people, medical supplies and other necessities during the siege. It was completed on the 30th of June 1993 and was 800 meters long, a meter wide and 1.6 meters high. It was often filled with water, gas, electricity and artillery and it is amazing it didn’t blow up at some point. We were able to see the last 20 or so feet of the tunnel as the rest of it collapsed after the war.

When we arrived at the location, we were shown to a space to watch a video. Prior to the video a man spoke to introduce the video and speak about the tunnel. I did not know this at the time, but he is part of the family whose house was at the end of the tunnel and his family runs this museum. His father usually does the tours and is, as we were told, quite funny and not biased in his presentation. The son, however, clearly has much anger and hatred still about the war and his words were very hurtful and not carefully chosen. A little history to help understand why what he said –

The war in Bosnia was fought between Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Serbia is now its own country and there are Serbians and Bosnian Serbians. At our conference we have Serbians from Serbia and Serbians from the area of Bosnia Herzegovina known at Republika Srbskia. The tour guide spoke of “Serbs” who kills Bosnians and laid the guilt for the war at the feet of all Serbs rather than those Bosnian Serbs who gave into nationalism and decided to kill their former neighbors. As Ed Serrotta said “Those who woke up one morning and decided the Muslim Bosnian living next door was actually a Turk and an oppressor and occupier and needed to die.” That was not all Bosnian Serbs let alone all Serbs.

After we returned to our bus, the Serbians on our bus, who are here to work together and educate their children towards a better future for all peoples, felt awful and were moved to speak to those of us on the bus. They stressed that there were victims on all sides and “victims are victims”. The Israelis on the bus expressed that they know the feeling with the divide of “Jews and Arabs” in Israel and an assumption that all in each group are the same. We had another discussion with the whole group when we returned to the conference room and all of the participants from Serbian areas spoke quite powerfully about their feelings and experience of this presentation.

Before the Serbians spoke, Ed Serrotta – the director of Centropa, spoke passionately about the work that Centropa is doing and why they invited teachers to this seminar, in Sarajevo, from various Balkan nations, Ed said that this has not been done before, and they knew it would be hard for these teachers, but that Centropa is about working without borders. Ed said that for people from the former Yugoslavia, coming to Sarajevo is always difficult. He spoke about the need to face the past and how no one likes to do it and that really very few countries are good at it. He mentioned Nelson Mandela’s quote about no one being born hating and that hatred needs to be taught and, according to Mandela, that it is easier to teach love. Ed disagrees with the second part, and said that it is much easier to teach hate and that it is hard to teach love. Ed’s history reporting on wars might have something to do with this, what some would see as, cynical view. He also quote Vaclav Havel who, when the leader of Germany visited his country, spoke about not blaming a language for what is said in it. “Nazis identified their affairs with the affairs of Germany…a language cannot be blamed for the tyrant who speaks it…to hate a language (and he is implying all who speak it)…is to assign collective guilt and to do so is to weaken the individual guilt of those who actually committed the crimes.”

The first Serbian to speak is a soft spoken woman who works for the Ministry of Education – she had also spoken on our bus about victims of all nations. Next Marko spoke, he is a passionate young man who feels very strongly about what was said by the guide. He is working with teachers in Serbian areas to help them use Centropa’s materials and to help them work together for a better future for this area. He spoke of the “normal, honest people who did not want war but rather wanted to live in one country, go to the coast, buy a new car, travel with their red passport…that this was all they wanted and that politicians and crazy people made an awful situation.” He emphasized that now we are together and must work to make a better future – a normal future. That the way that we, as teachers teach our students will determine that future. When Marko and I were speaking on the bus this morning he said to me “We, teachers, we are the most powerful people in the world. What we teach our students determines the future.” I laughed and said, “Yes, but you wouldn’t know that from how we are paid.”

One of the most moving pieces from the Serbians was from a young woman who said that after hearing the tour guide she asked herself “Who am I?” She shared that her parents were originally from Serbia, but both came to Bosnia. They met in Bosnia and she was born here and lived here for 13 years. When war came, her family went back to Serbia.l She wondered if that made her a “Bosnian Serb” and was she responsible for the war? I spoke to her later in the afternoon and told her how powerful I found this and how much it meant to me that she had shared it.

This to me is the real issue with words. This woman, who was 13 in 1992, was made to wonder if she was responsible for genocide because of the careless use of language by another person. Tying her identity to Bosnian Serbs versus “normal” Serbs leaves her with a question of guilt. Perhaps we need to be sure to add “aggressors” or “perpetrators” after Bosnian Serb to make it clear that we know there were Bosnian Serbs who did not participate in the war. There were those who stayed in Sarajevo and died alongside their Muslim neighbors, or lovers. After the tunnel we went to the Sarajevo Public Cemetery where we visited the grave of the “Romeo and Juliet of Sarajevo”. This young couple, a Muslim girl and Serbian boy, were shot by snipers trying to leave Sarajevo. They had been together 7 years. He stayed in the city with her and she was now leaving with him. They had been promised safe passage, but were shot. Their bodies lay in no-man’s land for days as it was too dangerous to retrieve them. Surely one cannot assign collective guilt when such things show that not all were guilty.

My final reflection on the day is about the cemetery. Here in a city and in a country that has been torn apart repeatedly along religious lines, I was shocked to find that the public cemetery contains graves of Muslims, Catholics and Serbian Orthodox – and a Jew or two according to our guide though I did not see any Jewish graves – all mixed together. Literally Muslim beside Catholic beside Orthodox. Our two lovers are buried in the same grave – Muslim and Orthodox. The symbolism provided by the hodgepodge of graves in this hodgepodge of a city – Hapsburg style buildings next to Ottoman markets and mosques – is quite striking and gives me hope that the living can learn to live together as well as the dead seem to be doing.