Parashat Shoftim

By Halina Rubinstein

The last section of this week’s parashah describes the strange ritual of the eglah `arufah, the ‘broken heifer.’ When a person is found dead in the middle of a field and the killer is not known, the elders of the closest city take a heifer that has yet to be trained to work, break its neck and pray for forgiveness in order to establish their innocence. This is a remarkable expression of communal responsibility. In light of call of the parashah to pursue justice, it is inconceivable that the community would let something like this happen. Yet they were not able to protect and provide for the individual who was killed. Therefore, they consider themselves responsible; they acknowledge their guilt and cleanse themselves of it through this ritual.

I cannot help but relate this to one of the most intense experiences of my life. This past June, my husband, three other family members and I embarked on a mission in search of our Eastern European roots. Our parents were born and raised in Polish and Ukrainian towns. They managed to emigrate, settled in Mexico before World War II, but left behind parents, siblings and extended families. We planned to visit these towns in search of any information we could gather of lost relatives. For three and a half weeks five of us and our guide drove through the landscapes familiar to them, saw the houses they shared with their unfriendly gentile neighbors, participated in the town markets and took in as much as we could.

The remnants of our families were not buried in cemeteries. Their graves are deep in the forests where the Nazi ersatzcommandos and their collaborators killed them with unbelievable cruelty. Today, in the best of circumstances, only a monument here and there, erected by Jewish families, Trusts or organizations of survivors, marks the place. The Jewish cemeteries that generations of Jews took care of so painstakingly were, in the best of circumstances, still fenced, but the graves were black, strewn all over or buried in tall grass. Most Jewish cemeteries were desecrated, their tombstones used to pave roads, first by the Nazis and then by the communist regime.

Some of our family members were sent to their death in the camps that the Nazis built for the purpose of killing as many Jews as possible in the most efficient way. And so they did. Looking at the remnants of the gas chambers, the ovens and the huge pile of ashes in Majdanek defies comprehension.

The governments on whose soil these atrocities happened have not yet taken responsibility for their participation. It is well known that the Nazi Germans did not act alone. They systematically incorporated in their rank and file the local citizens to act on their behalf. For each righteous gentile who exposed her or his life to save a handful of Jews there were hordes of collaborators.

A most patent expression of this breach of justice is the suit that the Lithuanian government is conducting against three elderly partisan survivors: Rachel Margolis, Fania Brantsovsky ‘ who is still in charge of the Yiddish Library in Vilnius and whom we met in June and through whom I first found out about this lawsuit ‘ and Yitzhak Arad, Yad Vashem’s Chairman Emeritus. The investigation of these three survivors of the Vilna Ghetto was initiated after Rachel Margolis published a memoir in 2006 that included an account of World War II partisan activities by herself and others, specifically one incident in which 38 people in the village of Kaniukai were killed. Prompted by the memoir, Professor Irena Tumaviciute, a retired lecturer of German at Vilnius University, published a newspaper article that equated violent partisan resistance to Nazism and demanded that the Lithuanian government investigate the Kaniukai ambush.

The suit has been widely publicized and has originated strong reactions inside and outside of Lithuania. Several Jewish organizations and American senators and congressmen have been trying to intercede and have petitioned the Lithuanian government to stop the lawsuit. Inside Lithuania the reactions have been of a different nature: two Jewish community centers in the capital, Vilnius, and in the nearby town of Panevezys were vandalized with swastikas and other anti-Semitic epitaphs in an attack earlier this month.

About one hundred thousand Jews from Vilna and its vicinity were killed during the Shoah. It is inconceivable that the Lithuanian government is in hot pursuit of three survivor partisans, while no Nazi collaborators have served a sentence in prison since the country became an independent state in 1991.

In the context of Parashat Shoftim and the dictum of Tzedek, tzedek tirdof, ‘Justice, justice you shall pursue’ (Deut. 16:20) ‘ there is much to be done to put into practice the lesson of the eglah arufah.

Shabbat Shalom

Halina Rubinstein is a rabbinical student at AJR.