Le Chambon: A Potential Teaching from the Past

Surfing the Net the other day Tim, my son, ran into the Travel website of the BBC which to his surprise contained an article on the little town of Le Chambon in the Cevennes mountains of south central France where my family spent five years. The article whose address I’ll share with you at the end of this blog is worth your reading because it is enlightening with regard to the immigrant crisis that we have been living with in this country for months under Mr. Trump’s regime.

While I must have shared with our congregation Beth Israel, here in Asheville, some of the highlights from our five year long adventure there, let me share some of this with you here in trying to whet your appetite for purchasing the new book about Le Chambon or reading the older classic one that tells the story best. Here are the authors and titles I am referring to, respectively: Peter Grose, A Good Place to Hide and Philip Hallie, Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed.

The BBC Travel article by Anita Isalska (August 7, 2018) reports about a small museum recently built in Le Chambon, commemorating the town population’s heroic anti-Nazi non-violent resistance during WW II. Naturally, I was thrilled to see this article, having known the Chambon Christian heroes personally, most of whom are no longer among the living.

The Chambon story deserves to be read because of the unprecedented migrations nowadays of people fleeing their own countries in huge waves in search of safe havens from deadly dangers and horrible living conditions. While a good many relatively small countries in Europe initially opened their doors to refugees, the huge influx of these people on the run and their human needs turned out to be overwhelming and necessitated reconsideration. The enormity of the modern migration problems impacting the globe will only be solved by joint international action. Whether such action will be agreed and acted upon remains, of course, a big question.

The US shameful response to refugees from Latin America is familiar to us Americans. Trump’s border cruelty of separating children from their parents in order to discourage illegal immigration and force our financing of “his southern border wall” construction, is a moral outrage. While the disgraceful children-parent separation was eventually canceled under pressure from the population after having caused terrible suffering to thousands of parents and children, the act itself and the following incompetent and to this day only partial reunification of families remains a test of our national character. The damage was done and probably became irreversible to all these innocent folks. Shame on us who did not stand up united as a nation early enough to prevent this president’s ordered sham action!

And this is precisely where the lesson from Le Chambon confronts us. When during WW II refugees in large numbers from Germany and Nazi occupied countries arrived in Le Chambon, the small town of approximately 3,000 people offered these Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution and death, food, clothing and shelter in terms of a hiding place. By so doing, the Chambonais jeopardized their own lives. How so? Because they themselves lived under Nazi occupation both under the Vichy German puppet government, as well as under later direct German rule. There were German soldiers and para-military units in and around Le Chambon when under their very noses Jews lived in hiding.

The heroic behavior by the Chambonais, primarily members of their local church affiliated with the Eglise Reformee de France (Reformed Church of France), as well as a few Roman Catholic households and a group called Darbistes (named after a British missionary by name of Darby), saved approximately 3,500 Jewish lives on the run from Hitler.

The story of these heroic very humble women and men deserves to be remembered, retold, celebrated and learned from. This is the story of persecuted people under pressure, helping and saving the lives of women, men and children even more vulnerable than they.

It is shameful that we, a country of immigrants who live in a safe country of vast unpopulated expanses behave so shamefully.

I often wonder whether Mr. Trump, a self-proclaimed evangelical Christian, ever read the Bible and its mandate to welcome the stranger. I often wonder whether Mr. Trump ever read the US Constitution and its Amendments. I wonder whether Mr. Trump understands the meaning of the torch in the hands of the Statue of Liberty in the New York harbor.

And I wonder whether he will get away with it all. A test of our national character!

Finally, please go to http://www.bbc.com/travel/story/20180806-a-french-village-committed-to-deception.

The death of Icarus

How foolish can the president’s wife be? Very foolish indeed, it seems, unless what recently was reported and I witnessed on TV is totally misunderstood by me. On her trip to “inspect” a recently government created detention camp for children separated from their undocumented refugee parents and would be immigrants, Melania Trump wore a jacket with the inscription on the back, “I really don’t care. Do U?” Is this a statement suggesting that she does not care what reporters write about her fashion choices, or her disregard for the plight of the detained children and their desperate parents? While I think this is probably meant for the photographers and reporters, I find the choice of the inscription unbelievably stupid.

It was an interesting coincidence that Gail and I, the other evening, watched a TV reportage about the famous Dutch artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569) whose painting entitled “Landschap met de val van Icarus” or “Landscape with the fall of Icarus” addresses Melania jacket’s scribbled inscription. In a way it also addresses our president and his dedicated collaborators and followers who, in all probability, prefer to think about children’s forced separation from parents in the more Trumpian literary form of “I don’t give a damn. Do U?”

Just in case you do not know the ancient Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, here is a brief summary.

In Greek mythology Icarus is the son of an Athenian creative genius and craftsman by name of Daedalus. The latter created the labyrinth near king Minos’ palace at Knossos to imprison the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster born of his wife and the Cretan bull. King Minos imprisoned Daedalus in the labyrinth because he gave his daughter Ariadne a ball of string in order to help Theseus, the enemy of Minos, to survive the labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur. Daedalus and his son Icarus try to escape from Crete by using artificial wings made from feathers, held together by wax. The father cautions his son of the danger of flying too low or too high. If too low, the sea’s humidity might clog the feathers; if too high, the sun might melt the wax. The two take off and Icarus the son, emboldened and giddy by their success, ignores his father’s advice. Soaring into the sky, he gets too close to the sun, loses the wings as the wax melts, falls into the sea and drowns. The area where the tragedy supposedly occurred is called the Icarian Sea near Icaria, an island southwest of Samos.

As we watched the TV program, it occurred to me that during my five year stay in Brussels, Belgium, long ago, I bought a few reproductions of Bruegel’s paintings one of which was Icarus’ fall, now hanging in our dining area. Quickly I got it from its place on the wall and reacquainted myself with its content.

While there have been many attempts to make intelligent guesses of what Bruegel meant by giving us his painted interpretation of Icarus’ fall and death, I came to the conclusion that master Bruegel, predating by roughly six centuries our own recent catastrophic events of children being ripped from their parents at our southern border by US law, carries a lesson for us all.

If this is of interest to you, use our phenomenal electronic wizardry and make Bruegel’s picture appear on your computer screen. I will try to guide you.

The scene is taken from a hilltop. In the left lower corner in the foreground a man behind a plow pulled by a horse prepares furrows for planting. This takes all his attention. In the far distance we see outlines of a city on the shore of the sea which stretches toward the horizon. Below the plowman graze a bunch of sheep. The shepherd stands with his back toward the sea as he looks into the sky as if in deep meditation. The sea holds several sail boats and two ships, one of them, the larger one, is seen in the right lower corner of the picture, as it is sailing into the harbor. Between that ship and the peremptory where the plowman works and the shepherd below gazes upwards, there is a narrow sea passage. Looking carefully into that area in the lower right of the picture, beyond a fishing fellow sitting on the shore, one can see two legs of a partially submerged drowning individual – obviously those belonging to Icarus, fallen from the sky and drowning in the sea.

No one knows what master Bruegel had in mind when he painted the picture. As I read its meaning, it suggests the sad reality that relatively few people pay attention or desire to pay attention to tragedies happening in their close purview. We close our eyes and ears so as not to hear; so as not to get involved; so as not to be drawn into the tragedy ourselves. The plowman sees nothing nor does the shepherd. The fisherman watches his line and disregards the man plummeting from the sky and drowning.

The word compassion literally means “suffering with.” Thus, having compassion means to participate and to share in the suffering person’s lot. This, in turn, means that to be compassionate means taking risks. We all know that words are cheap compared to actions which can be dangerous and costly.

The recent and ongoing crisis of children being separated from their refugee parents at our southern border and the public outcry against this practice heard throughout the land – yes, even among some of our Republican fellow citizens – and the subsequent forced backpedaling by the president who rescinded this inhuman practice demonstrates clearly that when there is the will to resist injustice perpetrated by even the highest authority in our land, things happen and the will of the people prevails.

My congratulations go the United Methodist Church for censuring their member, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for his directing I.C.E. to carry out these inhuman activities.

Let us not turn a blind eye to other human being’s suffering, and remember Hillel’s teaching, (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a):

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.”

Where have all the (genuine) Evangelicals gone…

One of my favorite songs during the Sixties was Pete Seeger’s “where have all the flowers gone, long time passing….?” I first heard it sung by Joan Baez and fell in love with it instantly. As an alumnus of Oberlin College’s Graduate School of Theology, it made me proud that Pete Seeger sang it first at Oberlin College, one of my alma maters. As we all know this was a protest song against our involvement in the Vietnam War.

Once again we live in a situation when our government engages in activities that are clearly immoral. The quite recent separation of children from their refugee parents at various points at our southern border is, to say it mildly, scandalous. What holier relationship is there than the relationship between parents and their children? This has been violated to the extent that several thousand children have by now been taken away from their parents and placed into fenced-in areas, detention camps, where they live like incarcerated criminals.

Yesterday, Trump, contradicting his most recent declarations about the importance of separating children of refugee parents, cynically echoed by Jeff Sessions, the US Attorney General whose behavior has now FINALLY been censured by the United Methodist Church to which he belongs, reversed himself and by executive order revoked the separation policy. When will the separated children be reunited with their parents? The government ‘s answers are vague.

The separation of children from their refugee parents at the borders is just one of many Trump government activities that are despicable and disgusting that needs to be protested against.

My question is: where are the so-called Christian evangelicals whose mandate is to speak up against immorality in the name of Jesus wherever it occurs? Where are the Jewish leaders in our country who should be speaking up against the violations of biblical values such as lying and bearing false witness?

As it happens now, most of the religious leaders in this country have been remaining silent. What comes to my ears most often is, “Well, we will just have to wait and see what happens.” If we dare to remember what happened in Europe before and during the Nazi years it is that the Jewish voices were silenced by the fences of concentration camps and the murders that took place within those fenced-in areas. And the Christian voices? Sadly enough, most of those jumped on Hitler’s bandwagon and joined in the murderous chorus of so-called German Christianity.

But not all Christian voices remained silent! And it is here that the “Barmen Declaration” needs to be read and its founders and members remembered and praised.

Representatives of the Reformed and Lutheran traditions in Germany met at Barmen in May 1934 and proclaimed a common confession of faith. The occasion for this courageous proclamation was the rise of the Third Reich and German Christianity. The declaration was born in a tense time in the midst of a struggle to maintain morality and decency in Germany. Some have called Barmen a battle cry. While the Barmen Declaration is not a detailed statement of faith, it expresses the one thing that needs to be said at a crucial time to those who claim to be evangelical Christians, “The genuine Christian must listen to Jesus Christ and to Him alone.”

Because I, as a Jew, respect both the Jew Yeshua (the Hebrew name of Jesus) and much of his teaching simply because it is to a great extent genuinely Jewish teaching once it is filtered through the net separating his genuine words from those the nascent Christian faith in a polemical spirit put into his mouth after his death, I feel very strongly that now is the time for the churches and synagogues to speak up and set the record straight. It is high time to state unequivocally that lying is wrong, racism and antisemitism to be condemned, misogyny to be made away with, name calling and insulting of others who disagree with one, to be ended. The list is too long and this is not the place to enumerate in detail the president’s shameful behavior and our present government’s despicable attitudes.

While this is a pluralistic country and many of us are not affiliated with any religion we should be able to agree that the ugly attitudes enumerated above, while to be condemned by both Christianity and Judaism, are also among the unacceptable and deplorable attitudes in the moral sphere of secular humanists and in the minds of ordinary decent people.

For lack of space, let me indicate here just one excerpt from Article 4 which makes it clear how far the genuine evangelical church of Germany went at Barmen: “We repudiate the false teaching that the church can and may, apart from its ministry, set up special leaders [Fuehrer] equipped with powers to rule.“ When one realizes that the German Christians not only remained silent during Hitler’s murderous rule but even expressed their adoration for him, the above cited text represents a slap to Hitler’s face whose title was the Fuehrer.

For the Barmen Declaration and other anti-Nazi literature circulated, for courageous sermons and truly evangelical leadership many members of the so-called Bekennende Kirche or German “Witnessing Church” paid with their lives. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one of these heroes.

In recognition of such bravery, I can only say kol hakavod! “All due honor!”

So then, “Where have all our evangelicals gone, long time passing?” in this country and at this time?

Refugees, illegal immigrants and Cities of Refuge (Part I.)

I remember!

My mother Anny (z”l) was one of seven children, five brothers and one sister. Ernst, one of her older brothers, was a non-practicing medical doctor who had married Gerda Kohn, daughter of the owner of a large leather factory in our town and subsequently switched his professional orientation from medicine to making leather. The two had a daughter, a very pretty girl, whose name was Hanne, a germanized form of the Hebrew Channah. Ernst and family were our “rich” family members. They lived in a fancy villa close to the river and owned a Chrysler automobile, driven by a chauffeur with a real chauffeur’s cap on his head. We, cousins of Hanne, considered it an honor to be invited to the villa on her birthday to an afternoon fancy, formal snack, to play with their little dog Quickie and some playing ping-pong on a real ping-pong table in their lovely garden.

The good life came to an end with Hitler. As the rumors of a war with Poland became ever more audible and believable, many of our Jewish population fled east toward the interior of Poland. So also uncle Ernst and his family left for the city of Lwow, German name Lemberg, now a city in the Ukraine, renamed Lviv.

Our nuclear family remained in Teschen (previously Cesky Tesin) because my father, highly educated, cultured but also naive as he was, felt we had nothing to fear from the Nazis, basing this totally erroneous attitude on the illusion that he, having studied law in Vienna, Austria, would be exempted from Nazi persecution of the Jews. Having stayed in town, we lost track of those who fled.

Our nuclear family survived the Holocaust. A few of those who had fled east were also lucky enough to survive. It is they who, after the war, told us what happened to uncle Ernst, Gerda his wife and Hanne their daughter, in Lemberg, the German occupied Polish city of Lwow.

Ernst, presumably, had purchased a set of Aryan identity documents, (in German: Ariernachweis), for the family. The GESTAPO, ever eager to hunt down Jews, often closed certain streets that were forbidden to Jews and then demanded identity documents from the folks who now were caught in their dragnet.

Despite uncle Ernst’s possession of Aryan identity papers, he had given to his wife and daughter a capsule of cyanide poison, just in case they were caught in a totally unexpected life threatening event. Just such an event did happen as all three of them found themselves in a street that had been closed, in which the GESTAPO stopped and demanded these so-called Ariernachweise from the pedestrians.

Uncle Ernst, for reasons unknown, carried with him both his Jewish and his Aryan papers. When forced to show his identity papers, he mistakenly presented the Jewish ones. With just enough time to signal his wife and daughter to swallow the cyanide, he was shot on the spot and both Gerda and Hanne, having swallowed the pill, died instantly.

Why tell you this terrible story?

Because I do not like uniformed men to stop folks in the street, demanding to see their identity documentation. When this was the case in fascist/Nazi lands, it was done by profiling on the basis of pseudo science elaborated by pseudo scientists, like Hitler himself: short or tall? hair color: dark or blond? hair texture: Caucasian, African or Jewish? shape of nose: straight Nordic or “crooked” Jewish? Skin color: white or colored? Etc. etc. Nazi pseudo science even insisted that the ratio between cranial longitudinal and lateral measurements of Jews showed a specificity connected to their “race” when, in fact, Jews are a religious-ethnic group and can not be identified by any racial specificity at all.

But this is what profiling is all about.

And this is also what refugees or first generation immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa are exposed to now. Mr. Trump’s refugee and immigrant phobia and love for walls has brought this about. Our judiciary, by definition an independent governmental organ of our United States tri-literal governmental structure of executive, legislative and judiciary has surrendered its independence and has fallen prey to the president’s pseudo-scientific orientation and consequences.

Thus I.C.E. ( Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is doing just that: stopping people in the street or invading peoples’ home privacy, looking for illegal immigrants, and when found, taking them into custody and deporting them.

Because I remember my uncle and his family’s death, I cannot help but remember.

And when I remember, it makes me feel very uncomfortable because the methods now employed resemble those of Nazism/fascism.

I don’t like police – our American police – to profile innocent folks in the street or to search for innocent illegal immigrants in private homes. These kind of actions are methods of a police state. This is not the kind of country the Statue of Liberty and the inscription underneath it represents.