Friday, 25 December 2020

‘They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain’

Patrick Comerford

On the holiest days of the year, Jews pray for a time when humanity will live in harmony, everyone will recognize God’s greatness, and loving kindness will fill the world.

Maimonides explains that world peace is the natural corollary of belief and knowledge of God. The reason is clear. Anyone who recognises that everyone is created equal will see the senselessness of initiating violence against others; for we are all children of the same God.

Judaism teaches with optimism that one day everyone will understand this. This connection between belief in God and peace on earth was expressed by the Prophet Isaiah: ‘They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11: 9, quoted in Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, 3: 11).

The most famous war-time truce was the Christmas Truce during World War I in 1914, and it is described by Malcolm Brown and Shirley Seaton in their book Christmas Truce (1981) and in their BBC documentary Peace in No Man’s Land (1984).

But there was also another, Easter Truce, in which a young Jewish doctor, Fredrick (Fritz) Kohn (1892-1984), played a key role.

Fritz Kohn was born on 22 May 1892 in Chomutov (Komotau) in north-west Bohemia, north-west of Prague and close to the border with Germany. He was educated at the local gymnasium (grammar school), where he was taught by Cistercian monks. He went to Prague in 1910 for medical studies at the Karl Ferdinand University and qualified in 1915. After six months post-graduate work in Prague, he was commissioned into the Austro-Hungarian army as a lieutenant, was sent to the Eastern Front.

Kohn was a medical officer in a Hungarian regiment in Galicia, when 20 Russian soldiers emerged from their trenches at 5 a.m. on Easter morning, waving white flags and asking for a truce.

The opposing armies shared food and drink, and when the young Jewish doctor complained of shrapnel attacks on his first aid post, the Russian colonel, who spoke perfect German and had once lived in Vienna, promised that so long as he was in command, the doctor would be safe.

For the next 14 days, Dr Kohn’s first aid post was left alone until the Russian commander sent across a rocket, signalling that his unit was leaving and the doctor should be on his guard. Apparently, there were no more major attacks on the post and Dr Kohn survived the ensuing Brusilov offensive in May that year, and survived World War I.

He was called up to the Czechoslovakian Army in 1938 for a short time until the Sudetenland was invaded by Nazi Germany. He was arrested and imprisoned, and spent some time in Dachau before being released as a result of intervention by British Quakers.

Having escaped the Holocaust, he became a house surgeon at Saint Martin’s Hospital, Bath, during World War II. He remained on the hospital staff as a consultant surgeon until 1957. He died on 18 December 1984, aged 92.

In a letter to Brown and Seaton before he died, Dr Kohn wrote: ‘I have seen demonstrated in front of my own eyes that suddenly people who are trying to kill each other, and will try to kill again when the day is over, are still able to sit together and talk to each other.’

Sometimes, in our world of brutal conflict, peaceful gestures seem remote, but Judaism teaches us to savour each instance. That is why the restful peace of Shabbat is called ‘a taste of the World to Come,’ inspiring a weekly day of tranquillity as a model for the future. All can look forward expectantly to the fulfilment of the Rosh Hashanah prayer that ‘wickedness will fade away like smoke and God sweeps the rule of arrogance from the earth.’

Rabbi Daniel B Groper of Community Synagogue of Rye, New York, offers this ‘Blessing for Sharing Christmas Dinner with Family or Friends’:

‘Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who brings Your children together from different faiths to share a meal together on this night, sacred to so many around this table and around the world. May the spirit of generosity that characterizes the Christmas season inspire all in our country to work more fervently for justice. May this day be filled with joy and blessing.

‘We are conscious of the many times in history when Jews and other minorities were persecuted and separated from the majority culture, and of the places in our world today where minorities are still persecuted for their beliefs. So, we give thanks especially tonight for two blessings of living in an open and cosmopolitan society: the blessing that our right to follow our own traditions is secure, and the blessing of knowing that our differences need not separate us from each other. May this meal be a tribute to our right to be true to ourselves, and our delight in sharing in each other’s cultures.’

Rabbi Beth Kalisch of the Beth David Reform Congregation, Philadelphia, offers this ‘Blessing for Sharing Christmas Dinner with Family or Friends’:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who brings your children together from different faiths to share a meal together on this night, sacred to so many around this table and around the world. May the spirit of generosity that characterises the Christmas season inspire all in our country to work more fervently for justice. May this day be filled with joy and blessing.

We are conscious of the many times in history when Jews and other minorities were persecuted and separated from the majority culture, and of the places in our world today where minorities are still persecuted for their beliefs. So, we give thanks especially tonight for two blessings of living in an open and cosmopolitan society: the blessing that our right to follow our own traditions is secure, and the blessing of knowing that our differences need not separate us from each other.

May this meal be a tribute both to our right to be faithful to our own traditions, and to our delight in sharing in each other’s cultures.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָה, יְיָ, שׁוֹמֵר אֶת-כָּל-אֹהֲבָיו.
Baruch Atah Adonai, Shomer et kol ohavav.
Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Guardian of all who love You.

Shabbat Shalom

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