Shemot: Building an Ark

Then Pharaoh charged all his people saying, “Every boy that is born you shall throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”
A certain man of the house of Levi went and took to wife a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw how beautiful he was, she hid him for three months. When she could hide him no longer, she got a wicker basket for him and caulked it with bitumen and pitch. She put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the bank of the Nile. And his sister stationed herself at a distance to learn what would befall him.(Shemot 1:22, 2:1-4)

After the men were dragged away
to slavery or death, by edict
of another, crueler pharaoh,
how many mothers, how many sisters
stared helplessly in silence,
then gathered strength
to build a hiding place;
a fragile ark?
With trembling hands
and thumping heart
and one last, snatched lullaby
they set it on the stormy waves
with precious cargo tossed inside,
and prayed it might draw near to land
intact, and catch
a noble woman’s eye.


In her book, The Five Books of Miriam, a Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, Dr Ellen Frankel addresses Jocheved’s act of courage in setting her baby son adrift on the Nile in his reed basket. She adds a contemporary note, “It’s hard to resist drawing parallels between this story and the Holocaust, during which one million Jewish children perished under a different pharaoh’s deadly edict.” Dr Frankel points out that of course, both women and men tried to hide their children from the Nazis, and some succeeded. But she adds that once the men were rounded up and deported, the women were left to use their ingenuity to try and save their children.
With regard to the suggestion that it might be a woman who would save the child, as in the story of Moses, in an article by David P. Gushee, from the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 548 (November 1996): The Holocaust: Remembering for the Future, the author lists the factors that proved not to be significant, and they include age, gender, occupation, social class, politics, and religion.

A personal note: my maternal grandmother had family in France during WW2. Paris was overrun by the Nazis and a cousin named Giselle, whose husband had already been deported, was rounded up one day with her baby son, Georges. Thinking swiftly, she handed the child to a woman who was passing by, and begged her to take the child to his grandparents, quickly relaying the address. Giselle did not survive to discover that the passerby fulfilled her request and Georges was raised by his grandparents, all three somehow surviving the war.

Let us move back one step, to the phrase, “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman”. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that the couple’s names are not given, but he says the significance of the house of Levi is already known to us. He reminds us that in Parashat Vayechi, Jacob, when dying, curses the anger of (Simeon and) Levi. But he adds that we are also shown what deep spiritual worth can be found in this passion when correctly channeled. Rabbi Hirsch directs us to Jacob’s words about Simeon and Levi, “Achalkem beYaakov ve’afitsem beYisrael – I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel”. This, he teaches, means that when the people were strong and powerful, (in victorious “Israel mode”) Simeon and Levi’s impetuosity and volatility could be dangerous because they might ignite the people. Then they were to be scattered among them to dilute their influence. However, when the people were weak and in exile (in “Jacob mode”) Simeon and Levi would be divided among them, imparting some of their energy and passion and a feeling of belonging. So Rabbi Hirsch says, “The Levite spirit which was to be the saving spirit in times of oppression, was the very one that was called for in such times as were then ruling. According to tradition, the midwives themselves were also from “the house of Levi”. In such conditions, courage was required to become a father and a mother.” Thus, he points out that the verse says that the Levite man “went and took” which emphasizes the courage necessary in taking such a step. The text also tells us subsequently that the couple had already been married (because there were older siblings) so, as the Midrash teaches, this man who had separated from his wife because of the king’s cruel edict, now resolves to return to her to defy this order and build again.
In an article on a website called Not Even Past, https://notevenpast.org/normal-pictures-abnormal-times/ the author David F Crew displays an archival photo of a newly married couple, posing with members of the wedding party shortly after the ceremony. What is stunning, on close inspection, is that at least four of the members of the wedding party are wearing yellow stars. Crew comments, “They, and presumably all the other Jews in this picture, have already become the victims of Nazi racial persecution and most, if not all, of them will not survive the war. The single detail of the Jewish star injects a chilling note into the private happiness recorded here.”
Crew describes his surprise when he found the photo, not imagining that Jews would still be getting married in Nazi-occupied Europe (or having photographs taken to commemorate the event). He found the picture in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s photographic archive.  “A search in the museum’s online data base for photographs of Jewish weddings produced 496 responses.  The Holocaust Museum archive has photographs of Jewish couples getting married in many different occupied European countries, in foreign exile in Shanghai and Kenya, and in transit camps such as Westerbork, the Dutch way station on the deportation route to Auschwitz, and even in the Warsaw ghetto.”*
He continues, “The fact that these Jewish wedding photographs exist at all is quite remarkable. We would probably not expect Jews to be getting married despite Nazi occupation, and the threat of deportation and annihilation. Marriage presupposes an expectation of some kind of future, even in the darkest times. We know that many of the people in these pictures would not survive. Did they have no idea what might soon happen to them? Were they deluding themselves that they would survive?” Crew cites captions on several of the photos which inform us that the couples pictured, and sometimes all of those portrayed, perished.
Crew says, “…knowing what happened after these photographs were taken makes it difficult for us to understand what the pictures originally showed. When we look at photographs of Holocaust victims who are still alive in a Polish ghetto we already know that they will soon be murdered, but most of the victims probably did not know their fate. Life in the ghetto was seen as a gamble with the future, a desperate attempt to stay alive long enough for the war to end. We know that this gamble would not succeed. The Jews in these photographs did not.
“Recognition of the distance between our “now” and their “then” can allow us to understand why these Jewish couples and their relatives are smiling and why they devoted so much effort and ingenuity to finding the wedding gowns and all the other accoutrements of a “proper” wedding under the extreme conditions of wartime scarcity and Nazi persecution. These Jewish wedding photographs can be seen not as attempts to deny the horrible reality of the Holocaust but as conscious efforts to defy its grotesque abnormality by claiming a small scrap of normality, a tiny hope for the future.”

*In Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List, there is a portrayal of a true episode in the life of Joseph Bau, a graphic artist who was incarcerated in the Krakow Ghetto and in 1943 was transferred to the nearby Plaszow death camp near Krakow. There he fell in love with Rebecca Tannenbaum, whom he married in the death camp. She was later deported to Auschwitz but ultimately they both survived the war and came to Israel in 1950 with their older daughter who was then three. The Joseph Bau House in Tel Aviv is testament to his life and work.

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