By YORAM DORI
Limmud FSU, a branch of the the volunteer-driven worldwide Jewish learning experience aimed at revitalizing Jewish communities and culture in the countries of the former Soviet Union, is a unique phenomenon. Indeed, its seminars and activities sometimes has a greater impact on us lecturers and volunteers than they do on the young Jewish adult participants.
Limmud FSU’s fifth gathering in Israel, held in Upper Nazareth on August 30, was an “Olympics” festival dedicated to Israeli and Jewish sport and athletes, and commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Munich Massacre. Over 500 young Jewish adults from the former Soviet Union participated.
In the early evening hours, I hosted a talk with Holocaust survivor and former Olympian Ben Helfgott. Helfgott, who at 82 still looks and functions like a 41-year-old, represented Britain as a weight-lifter in the 1950 Olympic Games, and was also a member of the British team for the Munich Olympics. He knew fellow weightlifter Yosef Romano and weightlifting judge Yosef Springer, and had met with them at the Olympic village the day before they were murdered.
Our conversation, in front of a Limmud audience, was amazing, both for them and for myself.
I had planned to speak a little bit about the early days of Upper Nazareth, through the experiences of my uncle, Moshe Itzak. My uncle, too, was a Holocaust survivor, and was later exiled to Siberia by the Soviet government on account of his religion.
He made aliya with his family in the 1950s.
However, my lecture plan went by the wayside as Helfgott began to tell his story. Speechless and spellbound, I could only sit and listen.
Helfgott, lucid and upbeat at 82, told us the story of his life between 1939-1945. He shared his experiences as a young child, and those of his family, in the polish Ghetto. He described the murder of his mother and little sister by the Nazis, his and his father’s struggle to survive, the hunger, the sickness and the ever-present mortal danger. He told us how his father was murdered only months before the Nazis were finally defeated.
Time went by, and the organizers asked us again and again to wrap it up. However, the young audience refused; they wanted to hear more.
When we did eventually draw things to a close, as I began my summation Helfgott requested to be allowed to add two or three closing sentences of his own. “It’s important,” he told me. Never mind, I thought to myself. The mayor can wait.
What he had to say astounded me.
This Jew, who had been made to suffer so much at the hands of others; whose parents and sister were murdered for the sole crime of being Jewish; who for six terrible years went to bed on an empty stomach and woke to face a new day of terror; this Jew who should have been enraged at the world, consumed by a desire for revenge against the Nazis and their accomplices, said: “I feel no anger or resentment. I love people. After surviving the Holocaust, I decided to spend my adult life fostering the love of people for one another. To spread the lessons of the Holocaust, lessons at the center of which are the rejection of hatred and violence and the obligation to love, to respect differences. Democracy and peace,” he said, “are what is important in the world. Without them, our world is not a world.”
I asked him, as a member of the British delegation to the Munich games, what was his stance after the murders.
“I felt great pain,” he said. “I shed not a few tears, but it was clear to me that the games must not be stopped. The Olympic spirit of brotherhood between nations, of friendship and tolerance and democracy, must endure. It cannot be allowed to disappear.”
Reflecting on the events afterwards, I realized that here was our uniqueness as a nation. Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) isn’t just a slogan for us. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is, for us, not just some quote. For us, the Jews, they represent the entire point of existence on this earth.
My uncle, too, one of the founders of Upper Nazareth, who himself experienced great suffering, from Nazi persecution to the frozen wastes of Sobibor, also couldn’t find it in himself to hate. He, too, sought no revenge. He, too, only sought to get on with his life, in a uniquely Jewish manner; caring for others.
Ben Helfgott, who is still with us, and my uncle Moshe, who died many years ago, both remind me of the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov: “Every child that comes into the world knows that the Holy One, Blessed be He, decided that the world could not continue to exist without him.”
The author is a strategic advisor to President Simon Peres