There is no doubt that Rabbi Israel Meir Lau’s life is in itself miraculous. He was one of the youngest survivors of Buchenwald Camp, the descendent of an uninterrupted line of 38 generations of Rabbis and against all odds, he himself became a Rabbi, eventually becoming Chief Rabbi of Israel. A startling story.
What makes this book so special is that Lau has told his story with tenderness and awe, and while there are moments where readers will have to pause in order to recover their composure, as a whole this autobiography tells of the wonderful capacity of the human spirit to survive, of the value of connections with others and the intensity of the faith in the Divine. I was struck by Lau’s commitment to learning and the way that he navigated through so many lonely obstacles because he believed in continuing his father’s legacy. The enormous empathy that he gained as a result of his experiences is clear – especially when he recounts his relationship with the late King Hussein.
There were many stellar moments in this book and I have chosen only one to encompass Lau’s personality and life experiences. Lau gives this speech at French convalescence home where he and his brother, Naphtali, went after Buchenwald was liberated. The event occurs when a group of people come to visit the orphans staying there, and amongst them is an adult survivor who wants to address them. All he manages to say are “only three words in Yiddish: ‘Kinder, taiyereh kinder …’ (Children, dear children)” before he bursts into tears. Lau’s response to this scene is recorded below:
“If you will allow me, I would like to say a few words on behalf of my friends. We would like to thank you. Not to thank you for coming, because we did not want this visit. Not to thank you for the gifts, because we do not want them. We want to thank you for the greatest gift of all, which we received from you just a few minutes ago, and that is the ability to cry. When they took my father and mother, my eyes were dry. When they beat me mercilessly with their clubs, I bit my lips, but I didn’t cry. I haven’t cried for years, nor have I laughed. We starved, we froze, and bled, but we didn’t cry. For the past few months, before and since the liberation, I have had the feeling that I am not a normal person, nor will I ever be. That I have no heart. That if I can’t cry when I am supposed to, I must have a stone in my chest instead of a human heart. But not any more. Just now I cried freely. And I say to you, that whoever can cry today, can laugh tomorrow, and he is a mensch, a human being. For this I thank you.”
While this book has left an indelible impression on me for many reasons, there were several moments where I felt uncomfortable with the way that Lau was seeming to give himself accolades – this was most obvious when he gave an account of his position as Chief Rabbi and all the people he met and things that he did. Compared to the tone and nature of the early Lau, as told in this narrative, this part of the text rang hollow for me …
Nonetheless, I was riveted to the end and my overall feeling is that here is a man worth listening to:
“Moshe Chaim is the first candle in the private Hannukah menorah I have been privileged to create. My wife is the base of that menorah, from which the candles, our eight children, went out into the world and I am the gabbai, whose role is to help those candles that they will spread their light and proclaim, each in a special way, the miracle of the victory of eternal Israel.”