Progressively Speaking: What is the significance of Semyon Rosenfeld’s death?

Progressively Speaking: What is the significance of Semyon Rosenfeld’s death?

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild reflects on a topical issue with a progressive Jewish response

Semyon Rosenfeld
Semyon Rosenfeld

The living voice describing what eyes have seen and ears have heard is the most powerful tool we have to transmit historical experience and memory to following generations.

The Bible attempts to simulate that voice, recording words and events as if in a continuous present, but Biblical text is not enough.

Generations of commentators gloss and elucidate, create midrashim and parse meaning; trying to understand and project the experience into the future.

Our whole tradition is about remembering in order to act in the world, preserving the voices of the past.

Mishna Pesachim (10:5) tells us that “in every generation it is our duty to see ourselves as if we too came from Egypt”.

In other words, we become the living voice telling the story as if it is our own. Judaism requires us to absorb and integrate its foundational experiences. The Jewish story is not a set of historical events. It is our own living and experienced story.

But even with the best intentions – the best retelling, memorialising and ritualising – the “k’ilu” or “as if” quality remains.

Only the living voice of the one who experienced something fully penetrates the fog of an unknowing or uncaring audience.

We have recently watched the D-Day commemorations, but it is the voices and images of old men and women telling their story that drove home to us the stark realities of the war against fascism – and most poignantly we know those voices will be stilled.

We create archives, libraries and museums to hold their testimony, grateful that in modernity we can record not only the words, but the voices of witnesses.

Yet already other voices are clamouring to tell a distorted story of that time for their own purposes.

The death of Semyon Rosenfeld, last survivor of the uprising against the Nazis in Sobibor, has severed the last link to that lived experience.

Unlike the Pesach story, we can neither absorb nor integrate the story of the systematised murder of our people: there is no divine intervention, no redemption to be had.

Yet we must hear the echoes of his voice and of others, survivors and murdered, and ensure that their story continues to be told.

Modernity has given us ways to capture images, contain and replay voices. It is our responsibility now to tell those stories loudly in our own living voices, so that this history too becomes “as if” ours.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild has been a community rabbi in south London for 30 years


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