On the 11th of April of 1945, a young man, Herschel Schacter, was serving as a rabbinic chaplain in one of the divisions of the US army fighting in Germany. That morning, according to the NYT, he heard that it looked like troops would break through the German line around Buchenwald, hell on earth created by the Nazi, a concentration camp. Schacter commandeered a jeep and drove through much of the day across Germany and arrived at the gates of this hell, very soon after the allied forces had entered Buchenwald. In later years, he spoke of how the smoke stung his nose, how the smell of burning flesh was everywhere, how death extended as far as you could look.
Stunned, he asked one of the soldiers who had been there for a while if there was anybody, anybody at all left alive and he was led to Kleine Lager, what amounted to a small camp within the camp. There, in bunks that ran the length and height of the walls of each room of each building, he saw life, still flickering in the eyes of men, women and children who were terribly sick, and hungry, and beaten down, and especially, so terribly afraid. “Shalom Aleichem, Yidden, ihr zint frei”. Peace be upon you, Jews, you are free”. That was the phrase he repeated over and over again, trying to get as fast as he could to each and every room in Kleine Lager where there might still be life. Shalom Aleichem, Yidden, ihr zint frei.
The Times tells that those who were strong enough, got out of their bunks and followed behind Schacter, the crowd swelling behind him as he moved through the camp. I have to believe that in part, they needed to hear that phrase again and again to believe it was possible, let alone true. Peace be upon you Jews, you are free.
In one space where quite literally, the bodies were stacked up, Schacter saw a tiny whisper of a movement out of the corner of his eye and found a little boy crouched behind some bodies. Crying, Schacter bent down to pick him up. He asked the little boy his name. “Lulek”, the child responded. And then Schackter asked his age. The little boy answered, “what does it matter, I am older than you.” That made Shacter smile and he asked him how that could be. And the little boy answered “because you are laughing and you are crying. I haven’t done that in a long time.”
Shacter stayed in Buchenwald for many months. Much of what he did was pretty simple, actually. He held services. Buchenwald had been liberated a week after the Jewish Passover and over and over, Schacter broke and shared Matzoh bread, celebrated Shabbat with the people with the people who were slowly coming back to life.
One night, Luken and his brother were able to say Kaddish for their parents. The Kaddish is a Jewish prayer that exalts God, and is recited at funerals and by those who mourn. Shacter presided at Shavuot, the holy feast in the Jewish tradition that celebrates the day Moses received the Ten Commandments. And he was able to escort Lulek, and quite a number of other young orphans, including Elie Weisel, to Palestine, a few months later as part of the relocation effort he helped to manage. Shalom Aleichem, Yidden, ihr zint frei.
When Barack Obama was in Israel a couple of weeks ago, he met with the retired Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, Yisrael Meir Lau, who told our president this story because, in his words, he need to thank “American people for delivering Buchenwald survivors “not from slavery to freedom, but from death to life”.” You see, Lulek had grown up to be Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau.
I am convinced that most days, we live not believing in Resurrection. In part, that is because the spare and simple story told in all the Gospel accounts is so easily reduced to quaint and pretty pictures. How can any of us put our hope and faith in a single event that happened so long ago?
For those of us who are ever so privileged, it is easy to slip into that “sophisticated hopelessness” called cynicism. For those of us who left behind our home, our family, everything that gave us our identity, the temptation to give in the crass consumerism of our culture is mighty. We resist with everything we are and everything we have, those dark, harrowing moments of hell that come with great loss, deep grief and powerlessness. We are so horribly scared of death.
The insistent voice of God, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, that voice that, through the prophet Isaiah says, “I will make all things new” is the God of Resurrection that through the angel at the empty tomb says, “Don’t be afraid. He is risen.” God’s will has always been that what was downtrodden be lifted up. What was lost be found. What was dead find new life. That is what God has always worked towards and always invited us to participate in. Today, we are reminded, because we so easily forget, that we are called to practice resurrection, to be people of the resurrection. To run from place to place, and say, “Shalom Aleichem, ihr zint frei. Peace be unto you, you are free. (La paz sea con vosotros. Sois libres).