Friday, 9 April 2010

On Stories and Real Heros - Yom HaShoah


Those of you who were at the New London Synagogue communal Seder would have seen me running into a rhetorical brick wall. I was prattling on about how the Seder night inspires us to stand up to the forces of oppression in each and every generation and then I realised that Jack Kagan was among our guests.


Jack was twelve when the Nazi’s captured his Belorussian village. He witnessed his mother and sister being selected for execution and bid good-bye to his father deported, also to his death at the hands of the Nazis. His way of standing up to the forces of oppression was digging, with sixty or seventy fellow inmates, a 250 metre long tunnel out of the camp at Peresika into the surrounding forest. His goal wasn’t to flee, but to find the famous Bielski partisans and join them in standing up to Nazi oppression, despite the odds, despite everything.


‘The date was set for September 26. I felt such excitement. I knew deep down that I was going to survive and I couldn't wait to join the Bielskis. The night finally arrived. It was dark and rainy - it seemed like it was made to order. No-one was allowed into the tunnel until the leaders had broken through the surface and made sure it was safe. And then the line began to slowly move forwards. I felt no fear as I approached the tunnel, just exhilaration. When I was about half way through I heard gunfire outside. Suddenly, I was terrified that the guards would be shooting at us as we came out. But I carried on. When I finally emerged I could see the whole field alive with flying bullets. The adrenaline was so high it is hard to remember what was going through my mind. I just started running. I had to get out of the field as quickly as possible.’


Jack found the Bielskis, he not only survived, he triumphed in the face of bleak horror. I was playing with words. Here, sat dipping the Karpas and enjoying the Matzah was someone who knew what it meant to leave Mitzyrayim, through narrow straights and great confinement. I ran out of words mid-sentence, swallowed, mumbled something about having a great hero in our midst and stopped talking.


This Sunday evening, at 7:30pm, we hold our annual Yom HaShoah commemoration. Karen Pollack, director of the Holocaust Education Trust will join us and we will have the opportunity to experience Julian Dawes’ Songs of Ashes. It’s a highlight of our Synagogue year. It’s not an evening to come you because you want to. It’s an evening to come to because this is part of our narrative, part of how we tell our story. Our experience of freedom, light and joy is sharper and more genuine because we allow ourselves to encounter our national experiences of slavery, darkness and loss.


More information about Jack Kagan can be found at


I hope to see all our members and many of our friends on Sunday.


Shabbat shalom,


Rabbi Jeremy


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