Rosh Hashanah and the Rescue of the Danish Jews


A wonderful, healthy, and fruitful New Year to my Jewish readers.

By calendarial coincidence, the Jewish holidays for 2019 fall on or near those for 1943. Around Rosh Hashanah that year, the miraculous rescue of the Danish Jews took place. The following post is an expanded version of an earlier Facebook note.

The Danish rescue was uniquely successful among Nazi-occupied countries because of a confluence of several favorable circumstances.
(1) The Danish Jewish community was fairly small (about 7,500) and
(2) concentrated in Copenhagen, just a short boat ride away from neutral Sweden. (Today, a bridge across the Øresund connects the two countries.)
(3) Moreover, the Nazis regarded the Danes as their racial kin and ran the country as a “model protectorate”, leaving the Danish democratic government in place until well into 1943.
(4) Last but not least, the Danes and the Danish Jews had advance warning from the #2 of the occupation regime, the merchant and diplomat Georg Duckwitz (later honored as Righteous Among The Nations at Yad Vashem).

Duckwitz — an NSDAP member since 1932, but already disaffected since before the war — had learned from his superior, the Nazi plenipotentiary Werner Best, that the roundup would take place on Rosh Hashanah. Duckwitz then tipped off the Danish Social Democrat leader Hans Hedtoft, who in turn passed the word to Jewish community president C. B. Henriques and acting Chief Rabbi Marcus Melchior. The Jews went underground, and over the next few weeks were spirited aboard fishing boats by the Danish resistance (and just general Jeppe Shmø’s) and ferried to neutral Sweden. One well-known rescue group acted under the cover name of “Elsinore Sewing Club”: the Danish city Helsingør/Elsinore, with its Kronborg castle that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, is just two nautical miles across the Ølesund straits from Helsingfors, Sweden.

The famous physicist Niels Bohr (who had a Jewish mother) stepped up to the plate as well, levering the Nobel Prize he had received from the hands of the Swedish king into an audience with the monarch. Bohr pleaded with him for Sweden to publicly declare its willingness to accept Jewish refugees. Sweden had in fact been quietly doing this since 1942 for Jewish refugees from Norway, but now, on October 2, a proclamation welcoming them was read out on the Swedish radio. Whether this was thanks to Bohr’s intercession, to Hans Hedtoft’s similar démarche with the Swedish ambassador in Denmark, or would have happened anyway is a matter of dispute among historians, but Bohr’s effort certainly cannot have hurt.

The Danish rescuers played with an unusually good hand of cards. Still, this would have been for naught were it not for their determination to make the most of it. In doing so, they achieved an incredible result: over 99% of Danish Jews survived the war. (About 500, mostly elderly, Jews were arrested, but owing to pressure from Danish authorities, they were sent to the Theresienstadt Ghetto rather than extermination camps, and emissaries from the International Red Cross were allowed to check on their welfare. All except 52 of the Danish Theresienstadt inmates survived the war.[*])

The role of Werner Best in this whole affair is an enigma. After the war, Best escaped execution by convincing the Danish courts that he had quietly allowed Duckwitz to thwart the deportations. Yet he not only had been informed of goings-on at the Wannsee Conference, but had eagerly organized transports from France before his transfer to Denmark. Why this sudden change of heart where it came to the Danish Jews? I would argue the key lies in a 1942 Best memorandum (published anonymously on account of its explosive contents[**]) titled Herrenschicht oder Führungsvolk? (“master caste or leadership people?”). In the course of an argument drawing parallels with the Roman empire, Best not just pleaded for an occupation policy (at least in the West) based more on persuasion than on coercion and exploitation, but already then posited German loss of the war as a realistic possibility. As I see it, by September 1943 Best probably considered the war lost, and wanted to create himself a ‘life insurance policy’ through quietly giving Duckwitz free rein.[***] (Omission, rather than commission, afforded Best a measure of deniability if Duckwitz were found out and the Gestapo bloodhounds unleashed on him.)

Let us raise a glass of Aquavit to the courageous and resourceful Danish rescuers. Skøl and Shana Tova!

[*] As a sad reflection on the unseen prices paid for any negotiation with such a diabolical regime: unbeknownst to the Danes, other Theresienstadt inmates had been sent to their deaths in Auschwitz to create more room for the Danish inmates. The Theresienstadt ghetto was originally an army fortress town founded in the late 18th century by Habsburg emperor Joseph II (who named itafter his mother, Empress Maria Theresia). It had room for about a brigade’s worth of soldiers and their dependents, but was massively overcrowded with the 40,000+ Jews held there.

[**] The substance of the memorandum was dedicated to comparisons between the Third Reich and the Roman Empire, and how (in Best’s vision) to avoid the same fate as the latter.

[***] He may also have concluded it was a lost cause trying to convince the Danes they had a Jewish problem that could only be solved through deportation.

Purim/Bach Day/Spring Day post: J. S. Bach, “Peasant Cantata” BWV 212

Happy Purim to all who observe the holiday!

But owing to a calendarial coincidence, 14 Adar II this year coincides with March 21 — both the vernal equinox and the birthday of Johann Sebastian Bach. (Some sources have March 23: that is actually the day he was baptised. I saw the original baptismal register at his birth house in Eisenach.)

Picture of J. S. Bach’s baptismal registration (from the website of the EKD=German Evangelical Lutheran Church). Translation: 4. To Mr. Johann Ambrosius Bach, householder, a son. Godfathers: Sebastian Nagel, householder, and Johann Georg Kochen, forestry official of the principality. Given name: Johann Sebastian

In keeping with the playful spirit of Purim, let’s have one of Bach’s more jocular compositions. The burlesque cantata “Mer hah’n en neue Oberkeet!” BWV 212 —Saxon dialect for “We have a new authority!”—is commonly referred to as the Bauerncantata or Peasant Cantata. It was commissioned and written for the 36th birthday of the Kammerherr (Chamberlain) von Dieskau. The full libretto and its English translation can be read here.

As it happens, the late, great lyrical baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau was a descendant of the selfsame Chamberlain von Dieskau on his mother’s side. Here is his performance of Bach’s Peasant Cantata BWV 212. Enjoy!

Repost: Tisha be-Av

[Reposted from last year.] Today marks the fast of the Ninth of Av (Hebrew: Tisha be-Av), the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. On this day, we observe a full 25-hour fast (sundown to sundown) and observe some mourning customs. In the synagogue, the Book of Lamentations is read. Work is not forbidden (I am in fact working today), but in Israel, Tisha be-Av is an optional day off, as many find working (efficiently) difficult owing to light-headedness or dehydration (don’t forget this is high summer here).

Originally, Tisha be-Av marked the destruction of the First and Second Temples, coincidentally on the same day of the Hebrew calendar in 587 BE and 70 CE. Over the years, however, further calamities befell the Jewish people on or near that day. Below follow some of the major ones.

  • August 4, 135 OS (9 Av, 3895): the crushing of the Bar-Kochba rebellion by the Roman occupiers. The last Jewish stronghold at Betar was crushed, the site of the former Temple plowed over by order of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and the land that was hitherto known as Provincia Judea punitively renamed Palestina. [This is, BTW, the first recorded usage of that term, taken from the seafaring people known as the Pelishtim or Philistines who used to dwell in the Ashdod/Ashkelon/Gaza region of the coastal plain.]
  • July 18, 1290 OS (9 Av, 5050): expulsion of the Jews from England
  • July 22, 1306 OS (9 Av, 5066): ditto from France
  • July 31, 1492 OS (7 Av, 5252): Gerush Sefarad: a royal decree gave the many Jews of Spain the choice between expulsion and conversion to Catholicism. Many of those who did convert (Conversos or Nuevos Cristianos) secretly continued to adhere to Jewish customs: these so-called Marranos faced torture or death when caught.  Many others found temporary refuge in Portugal, only to be faced with the same choice five years later. Sephardic Jewish communities around the Mediterranean basin, as well as in some northern European port and trading cities, were founded by refugees who left wherever ships would take them. The oldest synagogue on US soil was, in fact, established in 1654 by Marranos “come out of the closet”.

The Holocaust (Hebrew: Shoah = catastrophe) is itself linked multiple times to this date:

  • August 1-2, 1914 (9-10 Av, 5764): Germany entered World War One. While this did not directly involve or affect the Jewish people as such, the aftermath of WW I created the conditions for the rise of National Socialism, and hence indirectly led to WW II and the Shoah.
  • July 31, 1941 (7 Av, 5701): Reich Marshal (and de facto deputy Führer) Hermann Göring (y”sh) issues a written order to SD-chief Heydrich (y”sh) to “Expanding on your earlier orders […] I order you to submit to me soonest, a comprehensive plan for the organizational, practical, and material preparations for the sought-after Final Solution of the Jewish Question“. [To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time this phrase appears in an official document.]
  • July 23, 1942 (9 Av 5702):  the first deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to the extermination camp at Treblinka took place.

Indeed, some religious Jews favor commemorating the Shoah on Tisha be-Av rather than create a separate memorial day. They had the support of Menachem Begin (prime minister 1977-1983), whose parents and brother had been murdered by the Nazis (y”sh) and who himself had narrowly escaped their clutches. However, this proposal did not gain adequate support, and thus Yom HaShoah, with its more secular complexion, continues to exist side by side with Tisha be-Av.

Finally, it is written in the Talmud (Yoma 9b) that the Second Temple was destroyed because of sin’at chinam — baseless hatred that had Jews too obsessed with factional infighting to be able to form a united front against the common enemy. I have a feeling that if the sages of the Talmud could have been put in a time machine and see the situation in the West today, that they would sadly have nodded in recognition. “Verily, there is nothing new under the sun.”

 

Fiction writing fact-check: Can Catholics ever marry non-Catholics in church?

No, this is not a religious screed, but a fact-checking item for something likely to come up when writing romance novels or romance subplots in other fiction genres. (It has come up in both “Winter Into Spring”, and in two works in progress.)

Full disclosure and disclaimer: I am not a Christian and hence am an outsider to intra-Christian doctrinal disputes. The following text attempts to summarize the actual situation in canon law (see also Canon Law Made Easy) and makes no value judgments. It is assumed in the discussion below that the partner does not convert to Catholicism — otherwise, there is no difference with a Catholic marriage other than the conversion itself and all it entails.

Otherwise, the RC Church distinguishes between two broad categories:

• “mixed marriage“: the other partner was baptized in a way that the Catholic church recognizes as such. This is the case for the mainline Protestant denominations (Anglican/Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian,…) as well as for the Orthodox Churches. The latter are a special subcase because they are not considered “heretic” but merely “schismatic”, and broadly have the same understanding of marriage as a sacrament.

• “disparity of worship“: the other partner belongs to a non-Christian religion, or to a Christian denomination but never underwent baptism in a way recognized as such by the RC Church. (For instance, LDS/Mormon baptism is not recognized; or the partner may have been raised Baptist but never have undergone adult “Believers Baptism”.)

“Disparity of worship” (Canon 1086) is a “diriment” (separating) impediment in canon law: any such marriage is considered null and void unless a “dispensation for disparity of worship” is obtained.

In contrast, “mixed marriage” (Canon 1124) is merely a “prohibitive” impediment: if, for example, a priest were to marry a Catholic-Lutheran couple without dispensation, such a marriage would be “illicit but valid“. That is, the marriage is forbidden unless a “dispensation for mixed marriage” is obtained, but if the priest were to marry them regardless, the couple are considered married. [Jewish law has a similar situation for a marriage between a cohen — a male direct descendant of the first High Priest Aharon/Aaron — and a divorcée or a female convert to Judaism: the marriage is forbidden by the Torah (Lev. 21:7) but if it were to take place regardless, the parties are married in every respect.]

What is a “dispensation“? In plain English, if a rule is imposed merely by ecclesiastical law rather than by (the Church’s understanding of) natural or Divine law, then in cases where its application would create a hardship, the rule may be relaxed ad hoc by “competent authority”,  “for just and reasonable cause”, while it still remains in force for the community at large. In this context, ‘competent authority’ generally means the diocese in which the marriage is taking place.

We have already mentioned two types of dispensation related to marriage: “mixed marriage” and “disparity of worship”. A third that may arise in this context is “departure from canonical form” (Canon 1127), i.e., with a non-Catholic clergyperson (co)officiating at a non-Catholic marriage ceremony. This sample application form illustrates all three forms of dispensation. (The same sample form also states that for Catholic marriage by a priest or deacon, but at a venue other than a Catholic church, a simple request in writing suffices and no dispensation is required.)

For both “mixed marriage” and “disparity of worship” dispensations, the Catholic partner has to undertake in the presence of the sponsoring priest and the other spouse to do everything in their power to raise the children as Catholics.

So what does all this mean, “brass tacks”?

(1) Roman Catholic with a member of a Catholic Church of Eastern Rite (Uniate, Greek Catholic, Maronite,…): from a Catholic POV this is a Catholic marriage in every respect. Subtle issues of “jurisdiction” may arise.

(2a) Roman Catholic with (Greek/Russian/…) Orthodox Christian in an Orthodox Church and ceremony: this is considered a valid marriage even ifythe Catholic partner did not petition for “departure from canonical form”.

(2b) Roman Catholic with (Greek/Russian/…) Orthodox Christian in a Catholic ceremony: in principle “mixed marriage permission” is required before the priest or deacon will marry you, but the marriage is valid even if he married you without permission. (He may be in hot water with his superiors though.)

(3a) Roman Catholic with Anglican, Lutheran,… or other mainline Protestant, by a Catholic priest or deacon in a Catholic Church: “mixed marriage permission” is required, but the marriage is valid even without. Increasingly, as in this sample application form , the reservation “with disparity of cult granted as a precaution” is added.

(3b) Ditto, but in a Protestant church or secular venue, with a Protestant minister officiating: both “mixed marriage permission” and “departure from canonical form” are required, otherwise the marriage is invalid. One recent high-profile case was the marriage of the Dutch Crown Prince, presently King Willem-Alexander (Dutch Reformed) to the Argentinian Princess Maxima (Catholic). This case also arises when a brother, father, or uncle of the Protestant partner is a practicing minister of that denomination and wishes to (co-)officiate.

(4a) Roman Catholic with non-Christian or certain special cases (Baptist who never underwent adult baptism, LDS,…), by a priest in a Catholic church: “disparity of worship” dispensation is required, or the marriage is invalid. This dispensation is generally harder to obtain, for obvious reasons.

(4b) Ditto but at another venue, with an officiant other than an RC priest or deacon: both “disparity of worship”  and “departure from canonical form” dispensations are required.

Summary in Table form

RC with: in RC church in non-RC partner’s place of worship
Eastern Catholic Like RC[*] Like RC[*]
Eastern Orthodox mixed marriage dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid canonical form dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid
Baptized Protestant mixed marriage dispensation, otherwise illicit but valid canonical form dispensation, otherwise invalid
Others (LDS, Baptist without adult baptism, non-Christians) disparity of worship dispensation, otherwise invalid both disparity of worship and canonical form dispensations, otherwise invalid

[*] subtle “jurisdiction issues” may arise that are beyond the scope of this post

Karl Richter (1971) conduct Bach’s Matthäuspassion BWV 244

 

It is Passover for us Jews and the Easter holiday weekend for Christians of the Western Communion. (Orthodox Christian Easter is in another week this year.)

The way in which Karl Richter conducted Bach’s immortal Matthew Passion, BWV 244, would nowadays be considered “Romantic”, and “not historically authentic”. Yet for sheer musical and expressive power, it has rarely been equaled.

Here is the full movie of the 1971 performance on YouTube (featuring tenor Peter Schreier as the evangelist):

A short biography of this amazing Bach performer can be read here. I had no idea that he was offered the position of Thomaskantor in Leipzig — musical director of the St. Thomas Church, the selfsame position Bach held! — at the age of only 30, but that he declined it on the grounds that (a) he felt 30 years too young to bear the weight of such a position; (b) he had built up an excellent ensemble in Munich and did not want to abandon it. Unspoken was probably (c) having fled the East German dictatorship with a single attaché case and the clothes on his back, he surely had no desire to move back there, even in a privileged position.

People would wonder about the punishing workload Richter subjected himself to. His parents both having died young, he apparently suspected the same would be his own fate and said “my time is now — we Richters don’t live long”. Indeed, he died in his mid-fifties of a heart attack while preparing for an upcoming concert tour.

Let Bach and Richter’s music speak for itself. Enjoy and happy Passover or Easter, as applicable!

Kaddish

 

Non-Jews who attend Jewish Sabbath and especially High Holiday services in synagogue often comment on their interminable character.

In contrast, Jewish ceremonies for life cycle events tend to be short and to the point. (Bar mitzvahs, and bat mitzvahs in liberal synagogues, are a special case: the bar mitzvah boy simply is given a role of honor in a pre-existing long prayer service.) A Jewish marriage ceremony, for instance, rarely takes more than 15-30 minutes before the festivities start.

Thus also, the formal religious part of a Jewish burial does not last very long. Typically, most of the time is dedicated to hespedim (eulogies) of the deceased, usually by family members, close friends, or colleagues.

Burial customs may differ between communities: for instance, while coffins are the norm in most Diaspora communities, in Israel only simple shrouds are used. (Men are often buried in their prayer shawls.) The central parts, however, are quite universal: burial rather than cremation, kria (rending of the clothes) by immediate relatives and spouse, the recitation of certain psalms, mourners assisting in filling in the grave, and the request by the rabbi or head of the burial society for forgiveness from the deceased for any slights, however unintentional.

One prayer, however, is so thoroughly associated with Jewish mourning that it has nearly become a synecdoche for it: the Kaddish (“Sanctification”), or more precisely the version termed “Orphan’s Kaddish” (kaddish yetomim) or Mourners’ Kaddish. Remarkably, not only was that prayer not originally intended as a mourner’s prayer, but it does not contain a single reference to death or the hereafter. [*] Moreover, it is not even in Hebrew (except for a single phrase at the end) but in Aramaic, the lingua franca in the Middle East two millennia ago.  It was, hence, a prayer meant to be understood by all who recited it, including those whose Hebrew had become a little rusty. [The mind wonders, if it should therefore today be recited in the lingua franca of our time, namely, English?]

Versions of the Kaddish prayer occur throughout synagogue services. A short version (the “half-kaddish”) is used to demarcate sections; a longer version (“full kaddish”) was originally used to end the service, though a “coda” of additional prayers has been added later. The “Rabbis’ Kaddish”, which invokes blessings over scholars, is used to mark the end of a study session and, in the synagogue, after readings from the Talmud (Mishna and/or Gemara). At the end of the service, if any mourners are present, the Orphans’ Kaddish is recited.

This is its text rendered in English.

[Aramaic:]

Magnified and Hallowed be His great Name

In the world that He created by His word

And may His kingdom come

In our lives, and in our days, and in the lives of all the House of Israel

Speedily and in our days

And let us say, “Amen”

May His great Name be blessed forever and for the ages of ages

Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, 

Extolled, adorned, adored, and lauded 

Be the name of the Holy One, Blessed be He

Even as He is above and beyond all blessings, hymns, laudations, and consolations

That are uttered in the world

And let us say, “Amen”

May there come great peace from Heaven 

Upon us and upon all His people Israel

And let us say, “Amen”

[Hebrew:]

He Who makes peace on High

May He bring peace upon us

And upon all Israel

[And upon all the world]

And let us say: Amen 

 

“Even as He is beyond”: yes, one of our most central prayers says G-d is beyond, and hence beyond the need form, the prayers of us mere mortals. Does that mean our prayers are futile? Of course not—but they are for our sake, not for His.

Let me leave the last word to Maurice Ravel. And may the memory of D. daughter of A. be blessed.

 

[*] There is another prayer, El Male Rachamim/G-d full of mercy, that explicitly references these and asks G-d to admit the soul of the deceased into His presence and to bind it in the bond of [everlasting] life.