Saturday, March 03, 2007

Dying Alone: The Holocaust's Last Victims

From time to time, I've been called upon to perform a funeral for someone who has no one. More often than not, the deceased is a Holocaust survivor, who, because the Nazis wiped out their family, has no relatives. (These survivors are often without friends as well; their psychic scars leave them without the requisite social skills for friendship.) I had a funeral like that this past week, which got me thinking about Vincenzo Riccardi, and about the first funeral I had like this, when I arrived in Montreal.

The following is a piece I published here 9 years ago, about the first time I went to funeral like this.

Sadly, these deserted funerals are the final farewell we give to the last victims of the Holocaust.

Broken Tablets

Funerals make me uncomfortable. Like most people, I find it difficult to encounter death, and confront the pain of a grieving family. However, unlike most people, I attend 35 funerals a year; as a rabbi, performing funerals is one of my responsibilities. Although I go to a lot of funerals, each one is still discomfiting, a clear reminder of my own mortality.

But there is also something special, even uplifting about funerals. There is a certain spiritual feeling pulsating underneath all the grief and pain and tears. I was never able to put my finger on what this feeling was, until I went to the smallest funeral of my career. The smallest funeral of my career was attended by five people. Two cousins of the deceased (let us call her "Leah"), along with myself, our synagogue's cantor, and the funeral director attended the graveside service. Leah had a story that was not too unusual. She had grown up in Eastern Europe before World War II, and had survived the holocaust. Most of Leah's extended family were murdered during the war. Leah and her cousin were the only family members to survive. Unfortunately, her experiences in a concentration camp left deep emotional scars. After the war, she did not marry or hold a job, and was dependent on her cousin to take care of her. Leah had lived the last fifty years of her life as a broken person, unable to fulfill the potential of her youth. Leah's cousin had died before her, and it was her cousin's two children who attended the funeral. A Rabbi's job at a funeral like this is a bit complicated. Jewish Law, or, Halacha, requires that a eulogy praise the deceased (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 344:1). That's the easy part. Halacha also requires that the eulogy tell the truth about the deceased (ibid). In some cases, it is difficult to find anything that is both honest and laudatory. The problem I faced at Leah's funeral was: What sort of honest praise could I say about her? What can be said about someone who lived most of her adult life as a broken person? It occurred to me that there is a Talmudic statement that was appropriate for this situation. The Talmud writes (Berachos 8b) that one must honor a talmid chacham (Torah scholar), who has forgotten his learning. The reason given is this: The first set of Tablets that were broken by Moshe received the same honor as the second (and unbroken) set of tablets, and both were placed in the Ark of the Covenant. The Talmud explains that similarly, a Talmid Chacham, even if he has forgotten his knowledge, still deserves honor, just like the broken tablets In many ways, Leah's life was a story of broken tablets. Her life had potential and purpose, until it was destroyed during the holocaust. Her tablets may have been shattered by the Nazis, but she was no less deserving of our honor. She had a tselem Elokim, G-d's divine image, and inside her there was a spark of holiness. This is what I said about Leah's life, in front of G-d, Leah, and four other people.

It was at Leah's graveside that I got to see what the essence of a funeral is. There is a great deal of pain and grieving that takes place at a funeral, as it is difficult for us to part with people we love dearly. But there is something deeply spiritual at a funeral, as well. By showing honor and dignity to each and every person, even if their lives were only broken tablets, we declare our belief in the innate dignity of man. We assert that every person is important, every person is holy, and that every person has a tselem Elokim, G-d's divine image. As much as I hate funerals, I find this feeling to be uplifting.