Home      MEDITATION 2015


Rabbi Norman R. Patz

Memorial Service

Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews

March 8, 2015 / Adar 24, 5775


In the secular calendar, today marks the 71st anniversary of the murder of the 3792 Czech Jews held captive by the Nazis in Family Camp BIIb at Birkenau. In the Jewish calendar, it was erev Purim. 

Together with the execution four months later of the family camp inmates who had been brought to Auschwitz-Birkenau in December 1943 and May 1944, this was the largest mass murder of Czech Jews in all of World War II. 

In 1946, just two years after the erev Purim slaughter, the Joseph Popper Lodge of B’nai B’rith here in New York organized a memorial to those who had been murdered. This is the 69th annual service of commemoration. In later years, the Holocaust Survivors of Slovakia joined in sponsoring the service, and from its founding in 1961, the Society for the History of Czechoslovak Jews has been an organizing participant as well.

As we mourn them, we mourn for all the victims of Nazi race-hatred, their fanatic Rassenhaas, who were murdered simply because they were Jews.

And there was no one to save them.

That absence, the tragic lack of rescuers and rescue, is highlighted by another anniversary. One hundred years ago, in 1915, Gustav Meyrink published his novel Der Golem in an edition illustrated by Hugo Steiner-Prag, whose design for a machzor appears on the cover of our memorial service booklet. Meyrink’s retelling of the Golem legend made a mishmash of the story, but his book became an instant bestseller in Germany, causing an anti-Semitic backlash in that second year of World War I. Laced throughout with Kabbalah and Madame Blavatsky’s theosophy, it also inspired one of the greatest silent movies ever, the horror film called Der Golem: Wie er in die Welt kam – The Golem: How He Came into the World.

The origins of the Golem story are shrouded in mystery, but the basic story is this: The gret 16th century Rabbi Yehudah Loew, the Maharal of Prague, using kabbalistic magic formulas, conjured up a human-shaped figure out of clay from the banks of the Vltava/Moldau River. The Golem was a figure of enormous strength, lacking only the faculty of speech. He was created to protect the Jews of Prague from attacks by Christians who accused Jews of killing Christian children in order to use their blood for baking matzah. We know how crazy an accusation this is, but too many gullible Christians believed it, from the time it first surfaced in England, in the 12th century, until its most recent manifestations in the 20th century, not very long ago.

So the Golem story, even in a distorted retelling, has been very appealing to our people, especially when they felt imperiled or desperately needed rescuing from murderous mobs.

No Golem appeared to save our parents and grandparents, or our brothers and sisters during the Second World War, and although anti-Semitism and Jew-hatred seemed to abate for a while in the decades after the war ended, we see that it’s back, and “never again” seems to be turning into “ever again” at the hands of Islamist terrorists and their supporters on both the extreme right and the extreme left.

In the face of this renewal of ancient hatreds, we can see how the Golem story speaks to our people’s hope for security and safety. The legend says that when the Golem went out of control, like the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Rabbi Loew caused the Golem to cease functioning, laid the inert clay in the attic of the Altneushul in Prague and forbade entrance to the attic on pain of excommunication. “It is believed that the Golem is still lying there, buried deep under a heap of torn leaves from old prayer books, and only waiting for the coming of the Messiah, or for the time when new dangers appear to menace the existence of Israel, to rise again and smite the foe” (Jan Munk, “The Golem of Prague”) 

A sad story, all in all. The truth is more accurately presented in the megillah, the Scroll of Esther we read on Purim earlier this week. The Jews of ancient Persia are saved by Mordecai and Esther. God does not appear in the story at all. Esther and Mordecai do it on their own, using their own resources, relying on coolheaded plans and equally careful actions. The lesson: It’s up to us to do the best we can, as they did. No Golem. No messiah.

And along with these efforts, to grieve, never to forget, but also to move forward and rebuild good lives. We pray for the souls of our dear ones and trust that the God we praise indeed exists, and that before the end, in the end, or after the end, it will all come out right.