Sunday, November 25, 2012

Interval Four - God is on Trial

So Itzhak declares that God is Dead. He can see no other explanation for what happened.  Indeed, God did not raise His mighty arm to slay those engaged in the wholesale murder of His chosen people. Why didn’t God intercede in the face of such evil?  

The conclusion by Itzhak and many others is that He must be dead.  This was a widely accepted belief in the early post-war years.  But soon we heard the words:  “God is back—and He’s mad!” And the Jews went on believing, despite what had happened. They acknowledge the Holocaust in their services:  their liturgy and hymns speak of “the smoke of the chimneys,” and in their prayers and in the songs of the Cantors, they mourn deeply.  Yet they worship.  It appears that God is indispensable to them. 

Another conclusion is presented in the movie God on Trial, which is reviewed further on in this Interval Four—the conclusion that God exists, but that He no longer has a covenant with the Jews as his chosen people, but  a covenant with  another people, the people of Nazi Germany.   This bitter conclusion is brilliantly examined in the movie God on Trial which we offer to review further on.

Now let’s examine another facet of the Jews—their ability to find humor in their misfortunes, no matter how appalling they may be.  Itzhak told of this, as shown by this excerpt from Episode Three we read last week--

           Itzhak: And do you know what happened when they herded us into that chamber of death? My brother made a joke--he was always joking, my brother. [A flicker of a smile lights his features, but is quickly gone.]
           Rabbi:  Itzhak…
           Itzhak:  They all laughed--laughed in the face of death--laughed! [His voice becomes a thread of sound.] My brother’s joke wasn't a very good joke, not one of his best, something about “complaining to his travel agency.” But they laughed! Was there in all the terrible history of this world ever so gallant a people who could so laugh in the face of death?

   This ability to find humor in misfortune has enabled the Jewish people to survive for over two thousand years. (That, and their belief in God, of course.) Jewish humor is a wry, self-deprecating humor personified by the popular comedians who have made untold millions of us laugh—Zero Mostel, Bert Lahr, Sid Caesar and Jack Benny, to name a few.   To cite a widely known example:  Jack Benny was known for being tight with his money. He is accosted by a robber with a pistol who said: 

 Robber: “Your money or your life.” 

     A prolonged silence

 Robber:  “Well? “  

 Benny: “I’m thinking…I’m thinking.’’

God On Trial

God On Trial is a short motion picture that has become a classic.  Elie Wiesel told of such a trial in his book The Trial of God, and it was converted into a screenplay by television writer Frank Boyce. It first appeared on BBC/WGBH Boston and was shown on PBS—the Public Broadcasting Service. It featured an outstanding cast of English actors, including Antony Sher, Rupert Graves, Jack Shepherd, Stephen Dillane, and Eddie Marsan.   You can see it now on YouTube, and it is well worth a watch. It is briefly reviewed in these Interval Four pages as being so outstanding that it is worthy of it's own interval. (And please, tell us your opinions, too.).The language is a little “rough” in places.  It is controversial, yet also well worthy of deep consideration and comment. That it is controversial there is no doubt, especially in view of the final scene where the Rabbi announces that God—Adonaiis not good. 

God On Trial begins with a view of a tour bus pulling into Auschwitz.  As the passengers leave the bus, a brief flashback shows what they would have experienced 68 years ago if they were Jews—guards yelling at them, vicious dogs barking and straining to get at them.   As the tourists go between exhibits, an elderly Jewish man remarks: “There is a story here that the prisoners held a trial with a court, and they charged the one they held most responsibleGod, and they decide to put him on trial.  The charge:  breach of contract.”  

The tour guide leads them into a long narrow room and describes the use of the room—for the “selection. “ The guide says that the  prisoners are required to run naked toward a “doctor” who decides who is to live—if he gestures to their right, they live to be a slave laborer; if he gestures to their left, and they go to the gas chamber. The reason? The barracks are too full. Space is needed.

Life, or death, awaits the runners
(Women prisoners were similarly selected)

The prisoners now return to their barracks.

The prisoners, most of of whom had been sent “left” and  condemned to death (or, were they?),  considered God—“Adonai”— responsible for their terrible condition, and decide to put Him on trial in absentia. A full complement of able jurists was on hand, including a professor of criminal law who “knows how to run a court,” a lawyer, and many other learned prisoners, to argue the case for or against God.   It was to be a rabbinical form of court, with a senior judge and two other judges. There was also “an inquisitor.”

 Rather than report on the play in any detail at this point, it is best to convey its message by transcribing some of the “lines” of the play, and do it in this Interval, and in Intervals to come.  Obviously, many of the lines are from scripture. Many of the words are inspiring and beautiful—in fact, the whole play has a terrible beauty.  In short, it is a masterpiece.  Here are just a few of the lines of dialog--

Did you go right?
 No. Left.
 It was nice knowing you.

This is a terrible place. But if we help each other, we will endure it. The day of liberation gets closer every day. The war will end, and with God’s help, we will see it. 

(Responding the claim that a trial of God would be blasphemy) In fact it would not be blasphemy. Abraham haggled with God over Sodom.  Jacob wrestled with the angel. The name Israel means “He that striveth with God.”

The judge said:  ‘What is the charge?”  The response:   “What is the charge?  Are you blind?  Murder! Collaboration!  Murder!"

 Suffering is part of God’s plan. If we take happiness from God’s hand. Must we not take sorrow, too? 
So suffering is God’s work! In other words, Mengele is working for God; Hitler is working for God. Is that right?  Answer: It is unpalatable, but it is possible.  If Hitler is doing God’s work, then to stand in Hitler’s way, is to stand in God’s way…to take arms against Hitler is wrong. Now, does anyone here believe that?  Is there any way that that can possibly be true?  Isn’t that insane?     The Judge:  Who are you addressing?  We must keep order here.

 “Adonai should be able to outwit him.  No evil man overcomes Him. I shall crush his enemies   before   him; strike his enemies dead.”   Well…has He kept his promise?  Answer, murmured:   No!

The judge: So God reserves the right to punish the wicked. That is in the Covenant.  The point is:   why did he choose to punish this good man here, and not for instance, Hitler. Does anyone have an answer?  In law, the punishment has to be proportionate to the crime. What crime could justify a punishment like this?  Our children.  There are children in the camp…. What punishment does a little child deserve? 

So, you see:  We must not despair. Our suffering is a privilege if it is a part of God’s plan. We are    fortunate to be purifying the people through our pain. Do not let them take your faith.  If it is strong, it will grow. Small fires are put out by the wind, but great fires only grow greater.  Hitler will die.  The war will end.  The people and the Torah will live!

The Doctor enters and says to a new group of Jews from Poland that has just come in. “This is a well-run place. Yes, there were complications caused by the early arrival of your transport, which is why your induction is not yet completed. (He grins)  My apologies for the inconvenience.  Auschwitz is not a rest home.  You work, or you die.  The choice is yours. 

But perhaps you would like see the play in its entirety.  If now’s the time, just click on the title that follows.   To quote Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar:  If you have tears, prepare to shed them now!

No! No! Oh, NO!
Episode Five of the play A Ball for Genia will be published on Monday, December 3.  

And little Genia is gone—gone from Wachter’s protection.  And remember, Gestapo headquarters are just down at the end of the street where Genia was chasing her yellow ball. So many other children were lost in the Holocuast; little Genia must not be one of them! 

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Sunday, November 18, 2012

Episode Four

A word to the sensitive reader:  It is impossible to write about the Holocaust without at some point uncovering the underlying horror of it. Itzhak’s story is one of those. By a miracle, he escaped death in the gas chamber; his family and millions of others did not. So please be aware of what is to come, as you may wish to skip parts of this episode. But in tribute to him and to those millions, read at least part of his story. 

And please read the end for sure, for it reveals that Genia and all of those in the house are coming into a time of terrible danger. 

In the last Episode, Episode Three, Itzhak and the Rabbi were quarreling about God, and whether God exists. In this Episode Four, the quarrel continues as Itzhak explains why he believes that God is dead, and gives harrowing justification for his belief. To preserve continuity, the last two bits of dialog in Episode Three are repeated here--

Itzhak said:  “Ah, now we're going to have the Talmud. Give us some of your fool wisdom, Rabbi, the wisdom of a dead God.
       The Rabbi responded by giving Itzhak a stinging slap. Maury and Wachter rush to separate them.
The Rabbi said: “Disbelieve if you will, but do not mock my God! [Then he is struck with remorse.] Itzhak, forgive me!”
Now, let’s carry on--

Itzhak:  Forget it. I deserved that. And I apologize. You are not a fool, Rabbi. You just don't know what is going on out there.
Rabbi:  Why…what's going on?
Itzhak:  You believe that if we're caught, they’ll send us to a work camp, described as a very pleasant place. That's what you believe, isn't it?
Rabbi:  Yes. This is a civilized country. These are civilized people.
Itzhak:  Not so, Rabbi. Let me tell you a story, and at the end, you tell me whether God is dead.
Rabbi:  I’m listening.
Maury:   Perhaps we should not go into all this….
Wachter:  Let him speak, Maury. But first let us make sure the doors are closed--and speak softly. [They check doors, closing those that are open.] Go ahead, Itzhak.
Itzhak: It was a day just like this. To quote your words, Rabbi-- "…a beautiful day, cool, with fluffy white clouds." But the day wasn't starting well.
Wachter: Where was this?
Itzhak: Auschwitz.
Wachter:  Oh… 
Itzhak:  You know?
Wachter:  I've heard some…some disturbing things.
Itzhak: And you Maury. Do you know?
Maury:  I too have heard…things. But we don't know, for sure, do we.
Itzhak:  Well I know for sure--I was there. And you don't want to tell them--the others?
Wachter and Maury:  [Answering together.] No!
Itzhak: But I must tell someone--don't you see that?
Wachter: Yes. But only us. Not the others.
Itzhak: They drove us out of our homes with clubs and dogs. They herded us like animals into cattle cars, I, my family, and a thousand others. We were in those stinking cars for three days without food, with only an occasional bucket of water. No toilets, of course, so we stank. Destination-- Auschwitz. They herded us like cattle out of those cars. Left behind were at least a hundred dead of starvation and suffocation, including many of the children crushed underfoot.  They herded us like cattle into filthy barracks where they kept us for weeks. Then one fine day--a day like this, Rabbi, with beautiful white clouds--they drove us out of those barracks. They made us undress—told us that we were to be "disinfected." As they herded us toward a concrete chamber, they said: "Breathe deep, it will be good for you” All at once it came to us, except perhaps to the children that they were going to kill us.

Genia:  No!  No!  Oh, NO!

 Rabbi:  [Half whisper.] No!   
Itzhak:  Oh yes, Rabbi. We knew, as sure as if they had told us is so many words, that we were going to be dead very soon. [Itzhak’s face is still a mask. but it is obvious that he is in the throes of a terrible grief, a grief made more terrible by its suppression.]
Rabbi:  Itzhak…
Itzhak:  And they all laughed--laughed in the face of death--Laughed! [His voice becomes a thread of sound.] My brother’s joke wasn't a very good joke, not one of his best, something about “complaining to his travel agency.” But they laughed! Was there in all the terrible history of this world so gallant a people who could so laugh in the face of death?  
     There is a long silence as the agony of Itzhak becomes more visible. He is crying inside, yet tries to suppress it.  
Maury   But you escaped…
Itzhak:  Oh, yes, I escaped. I turned and ran. They swung at me with their clubs, shot at me, but I got away. As I ran, and before the doors closed on that chamber of death, I heard them singing--singing like this…I couldn't make out the exact words, and I didn't hear it very clearly, running as I was. [He sings the first few words of the Kaddish] “Yitgadal v’yitkadash s’mei Rabbia…” I forget the rest.
Rabbi:  [Taking up the refrain] “…Rabbia b'al-ma di-vra chir-u-tei…”
Itzhak:  What is it, Rabbi?
Rabbi:  The Kaddish--the prayer for the dead. "Magnified and sanctified by the Glory of God … Hear our voice O Lord….” But surely you know the Mourner's Prayer, Itzhak?
Itzhak:  Not I, Rabbi. I never learned it. Didn't want to learn anything about that sort of thing.
Rabbi:  You are an unbeliever--an apikoros?
Itzhak:  Yes. Yes, I am. And even more so, now. But they…they sang it, this prayer of yours.
Rabbi: There was no one to sing it after them, so they sang it for themselves--the soon-to-be-dead.
   There is a moment of silence which Maury breaks to distract Itzhak.
Maury   Itzhak… Itzhak?--how did you escape?
Itzhak:  I ran like a hunted animal right into a latrine--a big pit of excrement with a plank at each side for sitting on. As I sunk in, I hoped I could hide there.
Wachter: Lieber Gott!
Itzhak:  [Barking a mirthless laugh.] Any old port in a storm--right? I lowered myself into that hellish pit and kept still.
Maury:  Couldn’t they see your head?
Itzhak:  My head was not visible.  I wore a helmet of flies. The worst of it was I was not alone in there. There must have been half-a-dozen others, some of them children put there by their parents before they were sent to the gas chambers. 
Wachter: Yet you escaped. How?
Itzhak:  All day and night I stayed quiet in that gehenna.  Just before the sun came up—up on another beautiful day, Rabbi, a line of trucks went by, headed out of the camp. I crawled out of that pit like some kind of hideous bug and got onto one of those trucks, I don't know how. I fell on a pile of naked bodies apparently on the way to burial pits. I must have slept. I was awakened by the red rays of the sun shining on the faces of my joking brother, and one of my sisters. The others—father and mother--must have been deeper in that pile … I tried to reach them, to pull the bodies off.  Why I didn't go mad right then, I don't know. I don't know now.
Rabbi:  Itzhak…
Itzhak:  I'll make it short.  The trucks slowed, I got off, ran into the woods, was found by a peasant woman--bless her, bless her--cleaned up, given clothes, helped to escape. Herr Wachter found me. End of story. But don't talk me of God, Rabbi. He is dead to me. He didn't "rise up in His wrath and smite the oppressor," did he? Perhaps He was out to lunch?--maybe taking a long vacation?
Rabbi:  For God's sake, Itzhak: cry, weep!--get rid of this terrible grief!
Itzhak:  I can't, Rabbi. If I ever let go, I would never stop…I think would die of it.
Rabbi:  Itzhak, Itzhak, say no more. I can't answer you now, Itzhak. I must think about this. I didn't know… didn't know.
Itzhak:  The world doesn't know, either. Someday it will--if enough of us live to tell it.
Maury:   [Briskly.] Well, now--that's our job, now, isn't it--to live? So let's get to work. Itzhak, go help Marek.  He is creating new papers for Lusia and Genia.
Rabbi:  I shall prepare for Sabbath. I…I must change my sermon.
    Itzhak and the Rabbi find themselves going out the same door. There is a momentary hostility. Then the Rabbi puts his arm around Itzhak's shoulder, and they exit together.
    The sound of hammering is heard overhead.
Maury:  Herr Wachter, will you accompany me to the roof?--there seems to be the problem of an unstoppable leak. Perhaps you will have some ideas.
   The flushing of a toilet is heard, followed by triumphant cries.
Maury: Ah, I feel Shakespeare’s Macbeth coming over me! [He becomes the grandiose actor] Act Two, Scene 1--“Is this a dagger I see before me, its handle toward my hand! Come, let me clutch thee!” 
     The toilet is heard again.
Now, a slight change in the script:  “Is this a toilet I see before me, its handle toward my hand?  Come, let me flush thee!”
Wachter: [suppressing a laugh] M-a-u-r-y!
Maury: Come, Herr Wachter. On to the roof, except for a slight diversion on the way.
       They exit.  The door to the kitchen opens with a bang and a cloud of smoke roils out, followed by Mrs. Winkelman, waving her apron.
Mrs. Winkelman: Ach! [She opens the front door and flaps her apron to drive out the smoke. She then returns to the kitchen, leaving the front door open.]
  Genia enters from right-stage doorway. She is bouncing her yellow ball. The doll Rivke is peeking from her pocket. Genia trips and the ball leave her hands and bounces out the door.
Genia:  [Runs to the door, cries out in alarm.] My ball! It's rolling down the hill! [She runs out.]
                                                     End of Episode Four


Little Genia is gone!—gone chasing her yellow ball out the door, and with Rivke in her pocket.  Will she be found?  She’s never been out of the house—when she and her mother were found by Wachter, night had fallen. And remember, Gestapo headquarters are just down the street from Wachter’s house. If they find Genia and force her to talk, death will come to all of them.

 In the meantime, the Playwright would like to make a comment, perhaps even an apology: That nonsensical bit with Maury playing Macbeth and the toilet is to establish the fact that Maury is a fine actor, one in the classic tradition. When he acts the role of Macbeth, his voice is a growling thunder, as was Macbeth’s, and very much unlike Maury’s regular speaking voice. And remember, please—Maury is a superb mimic.

                                           The cap of an SS General

Another comment: You may recall that Itzhak questioned the Rabbi: “You believe that if we're caught. They’ll send us to a “work camp,” described as a very pleasant place. That's what you believe, isn't it?”

  That the camps were a “pleasant place” was a lie promulgated by the Nazis to ensure a pacification of those who were about to be transported to the camps such as Auschwitz. Carefully crafted letters were sent back home to relatives-- presumably by those transported there - that stated that “they had good food, that the work was light and pleasant, and that they were enjoying themselves.”  The probability was that the “writers” of such letters were already dead.

   But that it was convincing ploy as shown by the fact that the majority of the Hungarian Jews and others destined for Auschwitz-Birkenau went peacefully to the camps.  But what a horrible realization it must have been for them when they arrived at the camps and learned the truth! 

  Incidentally, any camp prisoner who tried to send a letter of warning from the camps was hanged at the camp gates. That is what happened to the four women who tried.

Another  word to the sensitive reader:   As noted in the first words of this Episode, it is impossible to write about the Holocaust without at some point uncovering the underlying horror of it. So from now on, the image of little Genia holding her ears will be used to herald any revelations that might offend the sensitive reader. 

No. No! Oh, NO!

Now, Back to the Play.  Genia is gone from the house.  Will she be found?  The odds are against it.  But there is always hope.  Until then, please go to the blog Interval Four, which will be published on Monday, November 26. There we’ll review God On Trial, one of the finest short movies and with the finest actors that you will ever see on the Internet.  The characters are condemned to the gas chamber and debate the question as to whether God has broken his covenant with the Jews and abandoned them to a horrible fate. To seek an answer, they form a judicial court and actually put God on trial. It is a gripping story, deeply moving and unforgettable. 
So—goodbye, until we meet again on Monday, November 26.