By Zev Kedem
As a child my father appears not to have been
involved with the children and I have only one mental picture of him at the
age of six when my parents were negotiating divorce in a muddy village not
long before being rounded up into Krakow ghetto.
From my youngest childhood, mother was the beautiful
and bountiful source of well-being and security that I worshipped as a child
might, with great enthusiasm and unconditional love.
In early childhood, my sister and I were in a most
comfortable home with a maid to clean and cook — and Clara, the children’s
governess whom I loved for her playful and adventurous kindness. The
governess did not diminish my adulation of mother, despite her cool
intelligent personality that came from the ‘enlightenment’ of her parents
and the fact that she was not a hands-on mother.
For the three and a half million traditional Jews of
Poland before the Second World War the enlightenment movement represented a
small minority that did not follow in detail the traditionally religious way
of life but rather in spirit — the spirit that adapted to the realities of
the beginning of the twentieth century.
As children we learned nothing of the awareness of
being a Jew or about God. What young child needed to understand God when an
ever-loving mother was there to be worshipped?
At the age of five in 1939, I discovered from a big
helmeted German soldier that I was a Jew. As mother and I hid in a
goods-wagon at the end of a passenger train, he stormed in and yelled. “Alle
Juden Heraus” [all Jews out].
The concept of God did not originate at home. I
became somewhat aware of God in the concentration camps that followed, but
for a child in the Holocaust there was little to like about God.
In Plaszow where I had learned to contain my
emotions to better survive, my work neighbor in the brush factory was a
defrocked Hassid. One day before Yom Kippur he convinced me that the Messiah
would arrive and rescue all of us from the concentration camp and take us on
a magic carpet across the seas to the land of Israel.
A child’s emotional expectations were shattered on
Yom Kippur when the Messiah did not arrive. How could I trust a God that did
not keep his promises and was oblivious to the years of systematic killing
of Jews including many pious and virtuous Hassidim?
To a child without deep thought, a God that was all
powerful and produced miracles yet allowed millions of Jews to die without
helping must be at least an angry, vengeful God that also punishes the
How can a nine-year-old child in his daily struggle
to survive (when the Nazi Laws decreed that no child younger than 13 was
allowed alive in a concentration camp) trust, have faith or love the God
that was blind to the reality of the Holocaust?
The reality of man’s culture of death remained
imprinted on the child survivor, so from years of murderous experience the
image of God was connected with the culture of death.
Yet from the Holocaust experience it was clear that
life without a loving God to believe in and trust, a God that
provided hope for survival of life and hope for improved quality of life,
was not worth living.
For a child the dilemma was that with God the Jews
were slaughtered and without God life was not worth living. The reality of
man’s culture of death in the Holocaust and God remained a paradox.
Having paid the ultimate price without knowing or
understanding what it is to be a Jew and with my Holocaust impression of
God, I decided to learn about the culture of the Jews in a practical way.
I visited Israel for a year in 1953 and immigrated
there in 1960. Almost every place in the land of Israel is part of the Bible
and the ancient culture of the Hebrews. Here one can touch ancient history
with one’s fingers.
I spent one year in the Sinai desert at the foot of
Mount Sinai as a project engineer constructing a civilian airfield — but
also in search of Hebrew culture and for a new understanding of God. Neither
the burning bush nor God appeared to me during the year at Mount Sinai.
As a survivor of the Holocaust bondage, I felt at
Mount Sinai close to the Hebrews freed from the bondage of Egypt and on
Passover when we read: As if each one of us was a slave in the land of
In the rebuilding of the destroyed Jewish Quarter of
the Old City of Jerusalem I was chief coordinating engineer. Here the Hebrew
culture embedded in verbal tradition often was corroborated by archeological
finds that preceded any new construction.
My search for the one true God goes on, but I am
convinced His chief attribute is love — caring, unfailing and unconditional
like a mother to imperfect children. This sanctifies human life and embodies
‘Love God and thy neighbor as thyself’. The actions of men are tested as
they exemplify or deny this. Once I have defined God, life is much better,
clearer and more revealed and has purpose. -