Shoah U'Tekumah

Rabbi Deborah Wechsler

Several years ago this Shabbat I was speaking with a colleague in Israel and, in search of an engaging sermon topic, asked him what he was speaking about that Shabbat. “How can you speak about anything other than shoah u’tekumah?” he asked.  It was then, as it is today a unique Shabbat on our calendar, the Shabbat between Yom Ha Shoah ve ha gevurah, Holocaust remembrance Day which we observed on Thursday and Yom Ha Atzmaut, Israel independence day which we will celebrate this coming Thursday.

 The term comes from the juxtaposition of the Holocaust (Shoah) and our national revival (tekumah) and it has been part of an ideological, theological and philosophical debate dating from the 1970’s until today. Academically it addresses the possibility or impossibility of a causal - historical connection between these two events. [1] For our purposes we are using the term as it applies to the calendar, poised as we are between these two profound life experiences of the Jewish people.

 It is difficult to know how to feel at such a time, mired in the painful legacy of the Shoah and anticipating the joy of the establishment of the state. It is a conundrum that has been faced again and again over the decades since 1948.

 In 1961 Adolph Eichman was in Israel’s hands, having been captured and brought there in a clandestine mission. David Ben Gurion, then the Prime Minister of Israel, was worried that a return to the imagery of the Holocaust would be debilitating for the brand new state.  So he instructed the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem to find and honor twenty-four non-Jews who saved Jews at the risk of their own lives.  In their memory, trees were planted in a garden that would become the Avenue of the Righteous which I hope many of you have visited.  But many more than 24 were found and the search continued so that by January 2011 - 23,788 righteous individuals whose actions helped saved Jews during the Shoah had been documented by Yad Vashem.[2]

 This week I learned for the first time the story of one of them. It was told to me by my friend and colleague Rabbi Steve Moskowitz who, as a cyclist himself, became intrigued by the story of an Italian cycling legend who helped save hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. Gino Bartali won the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948 and the Giro d’Italia in 1936, 1937 and 1946. In addition he won the Giro’s mountain stages a record seven times and stood on the winner’s podium over 170 times. He accomplished all this despite the fact that he could not compete during what are considered for an athlete, the most promising years of his career.

It was during those years that he helped to save hundreds of Jews from the Nazis.

 Gino Bartali began working for the underground in September 1943 after the Germans occupied much of Italy. During this time over 10,000 Italian Jews were deported to concentration camps.  7,000 died there. His job was to smuggle documents to a convent that produced false papers for persecuted Jews. And so Bartali rode from his home to the convent, from Florence to the outskirts of Assisi and back again, with the smuggled papers hidden in the frame of his bicycle. He convinced the soldiers guarding the road that he was on a 235-mile training ride. He rode this route at least 40 times. Other times he also rode to Genoa (only 145 miles from Florence), where he would pick up money to distribute to Jewish families.

Florence was liberated in August 1944 so in less than one year’s time he rode over 10,000 miles. His efforts helped to save some 800 Jews. Recently it was also discovered that Bartali had hidden a Jewish family in his cellar during the year of the German occupation.

Gino Bartali remained humble and even secretive about his clandestine, and dangerous, wartime efforts. On one occasion, however, he offered a few words about his remarkable actions. Bartali said, “Good is something you do, not something you talk about. Some medals are pinned to your soul, not to your jacket."

 When you go to Jerusalem and walk through the Avenue of the Righteous, you won’t yet find a tree dedicated to Gino Bartali who died in May of 2000. Yad VaShem is still researching the details of his story in order to determine whether Bartali merits the designation of Righteous among the Nations.

 This morning we read in the Torah of a sacred space. A space where, after years of wandering, the Jewish people might find a home, be comfortable and be in relationship with God and humanity. This Shabbat of transition from Holocaust and Shoah to Israel’s national revival and tekumah, we too celebrate the gift of such a place.  A place where memory is not debilitating but the sacred foundation of a new state. A place where the efforts of a Gino Bartali would not be necessary, but would always be honored. A place where in the words of the Psalmist (Psalm 68:7), the lonely are restored to their homes and the imprisoned are set free. For all who have been personally liberated as we who left Egypt just two weeks ago, there is no freedom and liberty greater than a home, our first expression of independence. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Atzmaut Sameyach.   

[1] Mosheh Mayah, A World Built, Destroyed And Rebuilt: Rabbi Yehudah Amital's Confrontation With The Memory Of The Holocaust, Page 73, footnote 175

[2] Harold Schulweis, Conscience: the Duty to Obey and the Duty to Disobey