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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Righteous Jews, Righteous Gentiles

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 5, 2010


            At this cold and dark December time of year, when it seems as though we can measure the hours of sunlight in minutes, it becomes too easy to bemoan the fading of the light. Perhaps, in many of us, that winter tiredness, that weariness of flesh and spirit has begun to set in. As I have said before, I don’t think it is a coincidence that so many of the religions of the world have some kind of festival of light at this time of year. Of course, one of the most important of these, in Western culture, is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

 

            For eight consecutive nights during Hanukkah (which began at sundown last Wednesday evening this year) candles are lit in Jewish homes around the world. These symbolize the eight days of rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem in 137 BCE. It is a time when the Jewish people are asked to remember all that a dedicated few were once able to accomplish against a mighty empire.

 

            One of the traditional Jewish prayers for Hanukkah goes like this:

 

            “Creator God, on this festival of Hanukkah, we recall the heroism of the Maccabees who first taught the Jewish people—and through them the whole world—the meaning of religious freedom. We thank thee for their inspiration. By kindling these candles, we keep alive the flame of their zeal. We dedicate ourselves to carry on in their spirit. We pray that these tiny candles may bring the light of thy blessing into our homes and our hearts.”

 

            This is why, I think, it is fitting and proper for all of us to take time during the rush toward Christmas to mark the festival of Hanukkah as well: To remember the righteous Maccabees and their story, for it is a precious legacy to all of us, whether we are Jewish or not.

 

            The victory of the Maccabees represents more than the triumphal conclusion of a long, drawn-out military campaign. More importantly, Hanukkah represents the victory of freedom, religious freedom in particular. Hanukkah doesn’t celebrate the Maccabees’ superior military tactics or skill.  Rather, Hanukkah celebrates their commitment to a sacred cause, which inspired a few dedicated souls to persevere, and eventually to triumph, in the face of overwhelming odds and great difficulties. That’s a story written not just in ancient scripture, but deep upon the human heart.

 

            It is easy in mid-December to bemoan the fading of the light. It is easy, too, simply to repeat the sad litany of human folly that litters the chapters of our human sojourn upon this Earth.

 

            But we have to remind ourselves—and perhaps this is another reason that we have celebrations like Hanukkah and Christmas—that just as the light returns in spring, so the human spirit (and human history) have their spring times, which are often lying in wait, as well.  For just as surely as we have seen the face of evil in human existence, so, too, we have seen the remarkable face of compassion and empathy and love there as well; the very face of divinity, some of us would say.

 

            In recent days, I have become fascinated (my wife would probably say obsessed) with the stories of some of the “unsung heroes” of the Holocaust—men and women often described as the “Righteous Gentiles”: those who, at great personal risk, and sometimes even at the cost of their own lives, defied Hitler and mounted an open opposition to the Nazi regime. Oftentimes, too, these “Righteous Gentiles” took it upon themselves to shelter and hide Jews and other so-called “undesirables”, to ferret them out of Nazi-occupied Europee

            I’ve shared some of their stories with you already: Sophie and Hans Scholl and the White Rose student resistance group in Germany in the 1940s; Franz Jagerstatter, a simple Austrian farmer and church sexton, declared a martyr by the Catholic Church because of his opposition to the Nazi takeover of his country; Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian, leader of the opposition “Confessing Church” in Germany during the Second World War, who was executed at the Flossenburg Concentration Camp for his role the plot against Hitler.  Then there is Irena Sendler, a social worker in Polandd, who saved thousand of Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto. And there’s Waitstill and Martha Sharp, who founded the Unitarian Service Committee in Prague in 1939, and helped hundreds of Jewish men, women, and children escape Nazi occupation. A couple of years ago, the Stoughton No Place for Hate Committee commemorated Aristides de Sousa Mendes e Abranches, a Portuguese diplomat in the south of France, who between June 16 and June 23, 1940, defied the orders of his own government and issued Portuguese visas free of charge, to an amazing 30,000 refugees seeking to escape the Nazi terror-- 12,000 of whom were Jews. As part of my personal Advent devotions, I am now reading the prison writings of Father Alfred Delp, a German Jesuit priest, executed in 1945 for his opposition to the Nazi regime.

            The list goes on and on. They were in a tiny minority compared to the population as a whole, true; but nonetheless, there are more of these Righteous Gentiles than we realize, and keeping their stories alive has become something of a cause for me.

            One of the most fascinating, and most heroic, of all these stories concerns the people of a little village in the south of France

            It is said that the winter in Francee in the year 1940 was unusually cold and bitter. Perhaps to the French people, that winter seemed especially bitter, too, because the Nazis had just occupied the northern part of their country, and had installed a puppet government under Marshall Petain in the south. In the small village of Le Chambon, the snow was piled in large drifts, and strong winds blew incessantly. So it was that, late one cold, stormy night, the local minister’s wife, Madame Magda Trocme, was startled to hear a knock at the front door of the parsonage. Years later, Madame Trocme told of the experience:

            “A German woman knocked at my door. It was in the evening and she said that she was a German Jew, coming from northern Francee, that she was in danger, and that she had heard that in Le Chambon someone would help her. Could she come into my house [she asked]. I said, ‘Naturally, come in, come in.’”

            This German woman would be the first of hundreds of refugees who would be sheltered in Le Chambon during the course of the war, most of them Jews.

 

            Why did she do it? Why did Madame Trocme say yes to the woman at her door? “I have a kind of principle,” she explained later, after the war. “I am not [really] a good Christian at all… I do not hunt around to find people to help. But I never close my door, never refuse to help somebody who comes to me and asks for something… When things happen, not things I plan, but things sent by God (or by chance), when people come to my door, I feel responsible. During the war, many people came, and my life was therefore complicatedd.”

            Rev. Andre Trocme, the local pastor, shared his wife’s commitment to help those in need. Trocme had grown up in the city of Saint-Quentinn in eastern France. Saint-Quentin was a place surrounded by barbed wire and occupied by German invaders during the First World War. It was only a few miles from the Western Front, only 20 miles from the battlefields of the Somme, where 3 million men had engaged in a fight to the death, and where nearly a million of them had been killed, wounded, or taken prisoner.

            One day, after the Great War had just ended, Andre saw in the streets of Saint-Quentinn a disarrayed column of wounded German soldiers. In the front of the line were three heavily bandaged men. The head of the middle man was completed wrapped in cloths; he was blind, and was being led forward by his two comrades. When they came closer, Andre saw that the man’s lower jaw had been completely blown off. He was a hideous site, and with a feeling of awful pity, Andre realized, in a flash of insight, that these German soldiers were not his real enemy. No, he realized, he said, that the true enemy of all humanity was war itself. The true enemy, Trocme came to believe, was “man’s inhumanity to man”. From that day on, he committed himself to a life of non-violence and service. When the hierarchy of the Reformed Church in France, in which he had been ordained, issued a dictate forbidding its ministers from preaching pacificism from their pulpits, Trocme resigned from the larger church he was serving, and came to the small town of Le Chambon. There, in this remote mountain village, Trocme hoped to be able to preach openly the dictates of his conscience.

            In August of 1940, the Vichyy government launched a wave of persecution against its Jewish citizens. Jews were forbidden from holding public offices; they were barred from the civil services, from practicing law, and from service in the military. Next, a census of all Jews throughout France was ordered—as a first step toward their deportation to the concentration camps.

            But as the government passed more and more unjust laws, Rev. Trocme led the people of Le Chambon in acts of defiance. The resistance began quietly at first. At the “Peacee Academy” Trocme had founded in the village, students refused to give the stiff-armed fascist salute. Teachers refused to sign loyalty oaths. Then, the refugees began to arrive…

            “A family of refugees might come to town in winter,” writes Philip Halle, “and the morning after their arrival, they might find a wreath of holly leaning against their front door, with no hint of the identity of the giver. A little boy would come to Miss Maber’s door, screaming in a high-pitched voice so that the whole neighborhood could hear, that the English teacher had better hide Henri because the police were after him… Miss Maber would calm the boy… then go straight to the house of a mousy little [neighbor] who was known to have an empty room. She would ask the tiny woman if she would hide Henri, and the woman would answer immediately, ‘Yes, there is a room downstairs, and the door opens into the woods. If the police come, he would have time to get away…’”

 

            The police didd come to Le Chambon, of course, but the townspeople knew how to handle them. In the course of searching a farm for “illegals”, a police lieutenant, all handsome and bright in his new fascist uniform, might “just happen” to walk over the rotten planks covering the cesspool. Apparently, no one thought to warn him that there was a cesspool there!

            When asked about Jews hiding in their village, the townspeople would stair at each other incredulously and ask, “What would Jews be doing heree in this God-forsaken place, officer? Have you seen any Jews? They say that Jews have crooked noses, you know. No, there are no Jews here, officer…”

            Yet, there weree Jews in La Chambon—everywhere, throughout the village. They were in pensions, in private homes, in the barns of outlying farms. “In the course of the summer, we have been able to help about 60 Jewish refugees in our own house,” Trocme wrote in a letter smuggled out of the country. “You can imagine what struggles with the authorities—what real dangers—this means for us: threats of arrest, submitting to long interrogations… it is [at first] by tens, [then] by hundreds, that the Jews are being sent to Le Chambon.”

            Who were the people who sheltered these hundreds of Jews? Some were pacifists; others were not. Some, like Rev. and Mrs. Trocme, were committed Christians; others, like Madame Eyraud, whose boarding house became a shelter for adolescent boys, had no religious affiliation at all. Yet, all were bound together in service to their fellow human beings. And each had his or her own job to do. Some in the village became experts in forging fake ration cards and identification papers for the new arrivals; others became experts in gathering clothes, shoes, food, and everything else these refugees would need. Some of the refugees remained only a few days, until they were whisked away into neutral Switzerlandd; others remained in Le Chambon for the entire course of the war.

            Working together as one, the people of the village saved hundreds and hundreds of lives. But they didn’t think of themselves as heroes. They were simply unamazing, unassuming, decent people who, like Madame Eyraud, “quelque chose de bienn”—who wanted to do something good. Or who, like Madame Trocme, faced with a shivering woman who needed help, didn’t stop to ask what religion or race she was, didn’t ask for her identification card, but simply replied instinctively, naturally, straight from the heart, as one person to another: “Come in, come in.

 

            At this season of hope and expectation, may the stories of these righteous men and women—who were, more often than not, unremarkable men and women like you and me—inspire us to remember the better angels within our human nature, within the souls of all of us, May they help prepare us to do the right thing, whatever the future holds. If called upon, may we, too, stand willing to light our own candle in history’s bold menorah, so that the defiantly hopeful lights of Hanukah may still shine forth, for all the world to see.

 


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