Two years ago, I had the privilege of traveling to a European city with three other Israelis; all of us victims of terror through losing friends, family or limbs.
This was the first ever gathering of victims of terror from all over the world. We hardly knew what to expect. For myself, the only terror victims I had come to know since the murder of my daughter were people who live in my immediate neighborhood – there are six such families – or other Israelis whom I met through gatherings of bereaved families arranged by One Family, by Bituach Leumi and by other local organizations.
I wondered whether we would find a common language; whether the fear and the pain we have gotten to know in our own lives would be reflected in the lives of others from different places and different backgrounds.
The experience turned out to be a surprising one. Before even arriving in the European city where the congress would take place, and two weeks before it began, a message came from the organizers: Do not come. A delegation of Israeli victims of terror is not wanted, not welcome. This is not for you. If you insist on coming, you can pay the fee at the door and take a seat like everyone else, but you will not be recognized officially, you will not be treated as representatives of a participating country, and you will not be invited to speak. You are persona non grata – do not come.
Naturally, we went.
There were many hundreds of people in the congress hall when we took our seats. Just five minutes before the congress got underway, a local, quite senior politician known for his warm feelings towards Israel, accompanied by one of the local Israeli diplomats, introduced himself to me. He asked if I would be willing to join the opening panel of speakers. I agreed of course, and while it was never completely clear to me how or why he managed to arrange this, I busied myself with jotting down some notes.
Then two minutes later as I walked towards the platform, he tapped my arm again, and said: “But don’t talk politics.”
Five other panelists spoke before me, most of them describing the struggle with terror in their countries in a fairly political manner. When my turn came, I spoke of how Israeli victims try to find strength in their family circles. I spoke of the One Family organization and its work and of the fine work of Bituach Leumi, Israel’s social security administration. And above all, I spoke of the silence that all of us here know so well in our homes – the silence of grieving for a precious life stolen from us by barbarians.
When I sat down, one after another of the ordinary people taking part in the congress – those who did not get invited to speak on the platform – approached me with warm words in a foreign language unknown to me. Their faces, and some kindly interpreters, helped me understand how strongly they were able to relate to the shared human experience which I related. That I spoke – with the help of simultaneous translation – as an Israeli father of a child murdered by hatred was perfectly understandable to them. In their eyes, we were not personae non grata. We were colleagues in a shared experience, traveling along a similar and very difficult road.
Only after I resumed my seat did I become aware that seated in the hall as honored guests while we terror victims spoke were the ambassadors of Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian Authority!
Two days later, an opportunity presented itself for my colleagues and me to meet with the top echelon of foreign ministry officials in that country. The discussion was proper and correct but far from warm, and ended on a strange note. The senior politician present in the room, somewhat irritated , I presume, by several of the things we Israelis said, wrapped up the meeting by saying that in his country, there was real, pure terrorism, with truly innocent victims. We Israelis needed to understand, he generously explained, that our children are being murdered because of a political struggle, by unresolved political problems. We needed to hold our government responsible because our government had to find a political solution and had failed to do this in terms that the international community would accept. His government, on the other hand, was fighting evil and would prevail.
I managed to get in the last word and said that the terrorism of the sort which has cost us so many lives in Israel does not respect national borders and that in this sense we are a tragic kind of canary in the coal mine.
Four weeks later on 11th March 2004, the trains blew up in Madrid. The Spanish government fell in elections three days after that, and the entire mood in Spain, the country which hosted that first congress of terror victims, underwent a fundamental change. No longer was theirs a struggle with Basque separatists but with terrorists, with Jihadists, from another place altogether. The message we Israelis had tried to convey was, I think, better understood in the wake of those dramatic events.
Since that first gathering, I have had the privilege of taking part in two more international congress of terror victims, one in 2005 and one in February of this year, as Israel’s representative. Now Israel is received as a member of this community of shared pain, with something to learn and something to teach.
Meeting other parents from other places, whose experiences are both so familiar to me and so different from the events of my life and the lives of the members of my family, has been extraordinary. We have many things in common – above all, the sense that the painful experience of surviving the murder of a loved spouse, parents, sibling or child is a very long term process.
We all know, even while the pop-psychologists evidently do not, that there is no closure, no moving on, no bringing the pain of loss to an end, none of those cliches. We are in fact in a life-time struggle of trying to make a decent life for ourselves and our families after encountering the most unthinkable kind of violent hatred. By and large, with all of the help that friends, family and community can provide, this remains a lonely, private, intimate and isolating process.
For my wife and me, one of the sources of great wisdom in this has been a figure from the recent history of our great and troubled people – a figure who remains, even today, relatively unknown and under-appreciated.
Harav Kalonymus Kalman Shapira z”l, known as the Esh Kodesh, was the Piasetschner Rebbe. He is better known today as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. His writings come to us because of an astonishingly heroic act. He buried his shiurim and writings in a milk can which emerged from the dirt of Warsaw only in the nineteen fifties, long after he had been turned to dust by the Nazis.
These rediscovered pages give voice to an experience that is almost unique in Jewish history or any history. Rabbi Shapira, the Esh Kodesh, led his people at a time of unimaginable suffering, of contradictions and challenges of the most profound, the most incomprehensible kind. And in the end, the Esh Kodesh – a year before his life ended in a Nazi work-camp – fell totally silent.
In his commentary on the Parshah of Shabbat Nachamu, Rav Shapira writes:
It is not our own loss that causes us pain. It is the knowledge – in the face of so many brachot in the Torah which emphasize this – that we are promised arichat yamim… something which our children were not granted. Their lives were snuffed out like a candle, ended in the prime of their lives. What sort of comfort can there be for this, if they are not alive? Nachamu nachamu ami – says the pasuk. But where is it to be found, this comfort (this nechama)? The pasuk continues: Yomar Elokeicheim, meaning, the Esh Kadosh explains, through techiyat ha-metim.
What is the comfort for the untimely and cruel loss of the life of one’s child? Nothing. There is none. None. Only Hashem by means of techiyat ha-metim (the promised resurrection of the dead). Nothing less will serve as a comfort for a parent bereaved of a child. The Esh Kadosh knows this. He experienced loss of this kind himself and in his community in the Warsaw Ghetto. His writings, inspired by the events of his life, are uniquely powerful, filled with insight.
One Family and its founders, its staff, its volunteers, its supporters play a role of the utmost importance. They achieve so much simply by being attuned to the struggle that each of us is conducting within our own families, and with the society around us.
With notable exceptions, we – the community of victims of terror – will not recover… because we are not sick. It is not sickness. A refuah shleimah is not what we need.
In his commentary on Parshat Hukat, the Esh Kodesh says:
In order to arouse compassion in Heaven upon Israel, and to sweeten the strict judgments, we must all arouse in our hearts compassion for other Jews. Not only must we give all we can to them [in a material sense] but the very feeling of compassion which we arouse in our own hearts has a positive effect in Heaven.
צריכים שלא להתרגל בצרות ישראל, כלומר ריבוי הצרות לא יטשטשו בקרבנו ולא יכהו את הרחמנות על ישראל. אדרבה, צריך הלב כמעט להיות נמוג ח”ו מצרות כאלו
We must not become accustomed to the suffering of Jews. To the contrary, our hearts must melt from such bitter troubles.
To its very great credit, One Family has taken upon itself the responsibility to sensitize the Family of Israel to the suffering of Jews. This compassion, the melting of hearts in the face of such bitter troubles, is indispensable to the process of arousing the mercy of Heaven.
Thank you, One Family.