Friday, April 13, 2018

Yossel Rakover's Appeal to God

Jews captured during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Warsaw, Poland, April 19-May 16, 1943. 
(National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.)

Yesterday was Holocaust Remembrance Day which corresponds to the 27th day of Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. It marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Soon after the end of World War II, Zvi Kolitz wrote an imagined prayer of a faithful Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Holocaust reaffirming his faith in God and Judaism in spite of all. It is quite haunting, but also, in its way, hopeful. Here are some excerpts:

. .. I believe in You, God of Israel, even though You have done everything to stop me from believing in You. I believe in Your laws even if I cannot excuse Your actions. My relationship to You is not the relationship of a slave to his master but rather that of a pupil to his teacher. I bow my head before Your greatness, but will not kiss the lash with which You strike me.

You say, I know, that we have sinned, O Lord. It must surely be true!  And therefore we are punished? I can understand that too! But I should like You to tell me whether there is any sin in the world deserving such a punishment as the punishment we have received!

You assert that You will repay our enemies? I am convinced of it! Repay them without mercy? I have no doubt of that either! I should like You to tell me, however – is there any punishment in the world compensating for the crimes that have been committed against us?

You say, I know, that it is no longer a question of sin and punishment, but rather a situation in which Your countenance is veiled, in which humanity is abandoned to its evil instincts. But I should like to ask You, O Lord – and this question burns in me like a consuming fire – what more, O what more, must transpire before You unveil Your countenance again to the world?

I want to say to You that now, more than in any previous period of our eternal path of agony, we, we the tortured, the humiliated, the buried alive and burned alive, we the insulted, the mocked, the lonely, the forsaken by God and man – we have the right to know what are the limits of Your forbearance?

I should like to say something more: Do not put the rope under too much strain lest, alas, it snap! The test to which You have put us is so severe, so unbearably severe, that You should – You must – forgive those members of Your people who, in their misery, have turned from You.

. . . I tell You this because I do believe in You, because I believe in You more strongly than ever, because now I know that You are My Lord, because after all You are not, You cannot possibly be after all the God of those whose deeds are the most horrible expression of ungodliness!

. . . I die peacefully, but not complacently; persecuted but not enslaved; embittered but not cynical; a believer but not a supplicant; a lover of God but not blind amen-sayer of His.

I have followed Him even when He rejected me. I have followed His commandments even when He has castigated me for it; I have loved Him and I love Him even when He hurls me to the earth, tortures me to death, makes me the object of shame and ridicule.

. . . God of Israel . . . You have done everything to make me stop believing in You. Now lest it seem to You that You will succeed by these tribulations to drive me from the right path, I notify You, my God and God of my father, that it will not avail You in the least!  You may insult me, You may castigate me, You may take from me all that I cherish and hold dear in the world, You may torture me to death – I shall believe in You, I shall love You no matter what You do to test me!

And these are my last words to You, my wrathful God: nothing will avail You in the least. You have done everything to make me renounce You, to make me lose faith in You, but I die exactly as I have lived, a believer!

Eternally praised be the God of the sea, the God of vengeance, of truth and of law, Who will soon show His face to the world again and shake its foundations with his almighty voice.

Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.
Into your hands, O Lord, I consign my soul.

– From Out of the Whirlwind, A. H. Friedlander, ed.
(There actually was a Yossel Rakover who died in the Holocaust)

Saturday, April 7, 2018

The Holy Abandon of Maria Yudina

I watched the movie, The Death of Stalin, last week. It is a grim, but intelligent and funny comedy about the scramble for power–and survival–by his inner circle of scheming toadies like Beria, Krushchev, and Molotov. It highlights the corrosive effects of totalitarianism and government by fear and death. It reveals the pettiness and small-mindedness of the people motivated by fear and the pursuit of power. And it shows the potency of any kind of groupthink while mocking how absurd such thinking looks from the outside.

In the midst of all of this, but also living outside of it, there is one character who does not play the game, who is not motivated by fear or the desire for power. She is the pianist, Maria Yudina. At one point, Krushchev asks Yudina if she is afraid–as he believes she should be. Like he and everyone is. She says she is not because she has faith in God and believes in everlasting life. That baffles Krushchev. But, if frees her. Free from fear she is also  free to speak the truth, even to Stalin. She lives by a different set of rules, a different narrative, a different pattern. As St. Paul encourages in his letter to the Romans, she is not conformed to the pattern of this world, but has been transformed by the renewing of her mind. In short, she demonstrates a sort of holiness.

Several years ago I read a book in which the shape of Maria Yudina’s holiness is told. What follows is from The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest which I highly recommend.

It was Maria Yudina’s fate to live through the Russian revolution and its aftermath, seeing many of her dearest friends and colleagues disappear into the Gulag. A fearless Christian, she wore a cross visibly even while teaching or performing in public – an affirmation of belief at a time when the price of a display of religious faith could be one’s work, one’s freedom, even one’s life. She lived an ascetic life, wearing no cosmetics, spending little on herself, and dressing simply. “I had the impression that Yudina wore the same black dress during her entire long life, it was so worn and soiled,” said Shostakovich.(50) [this and other references are from Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich, Solomon Volkov, ed.]

For Maria Yudina, music was a way of proclaiming her faith in a period when presses were more carefully policed than pianos. “Yudina saw music in a mystical light. For instance, she saw Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a series of illustrations to the Holy Bible,” said Shostakovich. “She always played as though she were giving a sermon.”(51)

She not only performed piano works but paused during concerts to read the poetry of such writers as Boris Pasternak, who were unable to publish at the time.

She was notorious among friends for her inability to keep anything of value for herself. “She came to see me once,” Shostakovich recalled, “and said that she was living in a miserable little room where she could neither work nor rest. So I signed a petition, I went to see various bureaucrats, I asked a lot of people to help, I took up a lot of people’s time. With great difficulty we got an apartment for Yudina. You would think that everything was fine and that life could go on. A short time later she came to me again and asked for help in obtaining an apartment for herself. ‘What? But we got an apartment for you. What do you need another one for?’ ‘I gave the apartment away to a poor old woman.’”(52)

Shostakovich heard that friends had made a loan to Yudina of five rubles. “I broke a window in my room, it’s drafty and so cold, I can’t live like that,” she had told them. “Naturally, they gave her the money—it was winter. A while later they visited her, and it was as cold in her room as it was outside and the broken window was stuffed with a rag. ‘How can this be, Maria Veniaminovna? We gave you money to fix the window.’ And she replied, ‘I gave it for the needs of the church’”(53)

Shostakovich, who regarded religion as superstition, didn’t approve. “The church may have various needs,” he protested, “but the clergy doesn’t sit around in the cold, after all, with broken windows. Self-denial should have a rational limit.” He accused her of behaving like a yurodivye, the Russian word for a holy fool, a form of sanctity in the eyes of the church.

Her public profession of faith was not without cost. Despite her genius as a musician, from time to time she was banned from concert halls and not once in her life was she allowed to travel outside Russia. Shostakovich remembered:

Her religious position was under constant . . . attack (at the music school in Leningrad). Once [some officials] rushed into Yudina’s class and demanded of Yudina: “Do you believe in God?” She replied in the affirmative. “Was she promoting religious propaganda among her students?” She replied that the Constitution didn’t forbid it. A few days later a transcript of the conversation made by “an unknown person” appeared in a Leningrad paper, which also printed a caricature—Yudina in nun’s robes surrounded by kneeling students. And the caption was something about preachers appearing at the Conservatoire. . . Naturally, Yudina was dismissed after that. (54)

From time to time she all but signed her own death warrant. Perhaps the most remarkable story in Shostakovich’s memoir concerns one such incident:

In his final years, Stalin seemed more and more like a madman, and I think his superstition grew. The “Leader and Teacher” sat locked up in one of his many dachas, amusing himself in bizarre ways. . . . [He] didn’t let anyone in to see him for days at a time. He listened to the radio a lot. Once Stalin called the Radio committee . . . and asked if they had a record of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, which had been heard on the radio the day before. “Played by Yudina,” he added. They told Stalin that of course they had it. Actually, there was no record, the concert has been live. But they were afraid to say no to Stalin, no one ever knew what the consequences might be. A human life meant nothing to him. All you could do was agree, submit, be a yes-man, a yes-man to a madman.

Stalin demanded that they send the record with Yudina’s performance of the Mozart to his dacha. The committee panicked, but they had to do something. They called in Yudina and an orchestra and recorded that night. Everyone was shaking with fright, except for Yudina, naturally. But, she was a special case, that one, the ocean was only knee-deep for her.

Yudina later told me that they had to send the conductor home, he was so scared he couldn’t think. They called another conductor who trembled and got everything mixed up, confusing the orchestra. Only a third conductor was in any shape to finish the recording.

I think this is a unique event in the history of recording-I mean, changing conductors three times in one night. Anyway, the record was ready by morning. They made one single copy in record time and sent it to Stalin. Now that was a record. A record in yes-ing.

Soon after, Yudina received an envelope with twenty thousand rubles. She was told it came on the express orders of Stalin. Then she wrote him a letter. I know about this letter from her, I know that the story seems improbable. Yudina had many quirks, but I can say this – she never lied. I’m certain that her story is true. Yudina wrote something like this in her letter: “I thank you, Joseph Vissarionovich, for your aid. I will pray for you day and night and ask the Lord to forgive your great sins before the people and the country. The Lord is merciful and He’ll forgive you. I gave the money to the church that I attend."

And Yudina sent this suicidal letter to Stalin. He read it and didn’t say a word, they expected at least a twitch of the eyebrow. Naturally, the order to arrest Yudina was prepared and the slightest grimace would have been enough to wipe away the last traces of her. But Stalin was silent and set the letter aside in silence. The anticipated movement of the eyebrows didn’t come. Nothing happened to Yudina. They say that her recording of the Mozart was on the record player when the “Leader and Teacher” was found dead in his dacha. It was the last thing he had listened to.(55)

Shostakovich found Yudina’s open display of belief foolish, yet one senses within his complaints both envy and awe. In a time of heart-stopping fear, here was someone as fearless as St. George before the dragon, someone who preferred giving away her few rubles to repairing her own broken window, who “published” with her own voice the poems of banned writers, who dared to tell Stalin he was not beyond God’s mercy and forgiveness. She had a large and pure heart. No wonder her grave in Moscow has been a place of pilgrimage ever since her death.
[The Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forest, p. 99-103]

May we, in our day, have the faith and courage of Maria Yudina and live with the holy abandon in light of the Truth and Love that sets us free.

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
(Romans 12:1-2)