We've been spending a lot of the summer hosting and meeting friends and relatives from abroad, which we love doing. Cousin Esther who I only got to know through the family history stuff I started three years ago was here with her family. Because we've been talking about going to Poland together, she arranged for us to meet up with Henia, which we did in the National Gallery cafe.
Henia is 81. She grew up in the village of Sadowa-Wiszniya in Galician Poland, where my mother's mother and Esther's dad came from. Only now it's Sudovaya Vishnaya in Ukraine. Henia is one of the very few people sent to Belzec who survived. She did this by managing to jump off the train on which she was being deported for death, and then by living on sundry false papers in Poland and even Germany, till the end of the war. Only 3 people who actually reached Belzec survived. None of the large number of our family who were deported there from Sadowa-Wiszniya, Krakow and sundry other places in Poland survived.
Henia is absolutely amazing. She is tiny, still quite beautiful, with huge dark eyes and a 700 volt smile. You see me at my best, she says, I fight depression every day. I don't believe in anything, says Henia.
But Henia has devoted years of her life to promoting Jewish life and learning. She's endowed a lectureship in Jewish studies at the University of Oxford. She gives talks on her wartime experiences, though she says she's stopping doing that now because she doesn't feel she can keep telling it as if it was a freshly told story. She's just spent several years getting a memorial plaque put up in Sudovaya Vishnaya (as it now is) to the murdered Jews. Getting this done was a huge feat which she accomplished virtually solo, but which she helped along by donating a clock and some money for the restoration of the church in this former shtetl. This earned her the eternal gratitude and the friendship of some of the key people there, including the mayor, and a local historian who has records of everyone who ever lived there. Thanks to her we will meet him when we visit.
I've been talking for years to Jews who say "I'm not religious because I don't believe in God". Because they feel they "don't believe", they then proceed to exclude themselves from any involvement in Jewish life, or sometimes they feel they can only assert their identification as Jews by standing up "as a Jew" for an anti-zionist campaign. But actually, "believing in God" as the acid test is a purely Christian thing. It's the acid test of Christianity, not Judaism. Jews in the Christian diaspora tend to internalize this Christian way of thinking about what faith or religious commitment is without being aware of this. Another way to look at it is to be aware that when you're in a plane that's going to crash, you are very likely to discover that you do believe in God, after all. A more serious way to look at it is to recognise that Jewish traditions share with Freud some scepticism about what we think our conscious motives and beliefs are. What we do is what counts. A fully observant Jew will always ask of another Jew not "Does she believe in God" but "Does she keep Shabbos?". Meanwhile, Lisa at on the face has a typically wonderful surreal story about this very topic.