Wednesday, October 08, 2008

The Rev. Leslie Hardman, Orthodox Jewish minister, R.I.P.

Today's Times (UK) has an obituary of The Rev. Leslie Hardman, Orthodox Rabbi, present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

In 1942 he joined the Army as a chaplain. It was on April 15, 1945, that the formative event of his life occurred. He later described how he was told to report to the colonel. He said: “We have uncovered a concentration camp. It is horrible, ghastly, sickening. Most of the inmates are your people. You should go there now. They need you.”

As Hardman said, he had never felt more needed in his life. He immediately set about trying to bring comfort to the survivors and then saying the memorial prayer, the Kaddish, over the dead as he tried to persuade the bulldozer drivers who were thrusting the bodies into a pit to bury them with some kind of dignity.

The amazing thing, he recalled, was the effect his uniform had on the inmates. “They saw the Star of David on my cap and my tunic and they at first couldn’t understand it. Then, they regarded me as a kind of messiah.”

One woman who was so emaciated that he at first found it difficult to be with her, begged him not to leave her. He recalled that he spent an hour talking to her in Yiddish before conducting prayers, the first they had heard for years.

Hardman spent the next half century or more speaking about his experiences at Belsen.

“Far too many people have got away,” he would say. “They have hardly scratched the surface of the enormity of this evil.”

At one time he went on record saying that he had lost his faith at Belsen, an astonishing confession from a rabbi. He later amended that: “I didn’t lose my faith, but some of the words of the prayers I said at Belsen stuck in my throat. I couldn’t understand how the God I worshipped could permit this.”

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