Pause for Thought: Kosovo

Last Saturday, at synagogues throughout Britain, Jewish congregations prayed for the people of Kosovo. A week ago, on Saturday morning, I led the congregation in prayer in Exeter Synagogue. In a prayer composed by the Chief Rabbi, we said:

lukhot habrit

"Avinu Shebashamayim, Our Father in heaven, we turn to You at this time of conflict and suffering in Kosovo, to join our prayers with those of others throughout the world for peace and an end to bloodshed…"

The sufferings of the Albanians in Kosovo touch me as a human being, as a Jew, and particularly as my Mother's son. In 1938 my Mother left her native Italy with her family, fleeing the Race Laws that persecuted people of Jewish descent. She was eleven, and spent the next six years living in Albania, where her Jewish origins were unknown, and she was able to survive the war if not in safety, then at least with her family, and the new friends she made. She learnt to speak Albanian, and in the great resettlement of refugees at the end of the war she was able to survive, and help her family to make their way back home. I owe my very existence to her survival, thanks to the temporary home and refuge provided by the people of Albania.

On the same day as our prayers for Kosovo in Exeter Synagogue, I went in the evening to a performance of "Fiddler on the Roof" in my home town of Crediton. Not only was it brilliantly produced and performed, it had a particular poignancy as it illustrated so well for all of us present the effects of intolerance and persecution. Here were simple farming people, my people, driven from their homes and countries for being different. Its relevance to the events in Kosovo was so obvious that I was not the only member of the audience to weep. And at the end of the evening there was no curtain call. Instead there was a collection for the people of Kosovo, to which the audience responded generously. I know that similar responses have been made throughout Devon. We never imagined that something like ethnic cleansing could happen again in our Europe. At least we feel able to respond as human beings and as individuals, and we shall continue to do so, and to welcome those refugees here in Devon too.

A month ago, Jews throughout the world celebrated the festival of Freedom, Pesach, or Passover, by the light of the Paschal Full Moon. In a reference to this, and to the unleavened bread of Passover, the Chief Rabbi's prayer that we read last Saturday continued:

"We, Your people Israel, have eaten the bread of affliction and the bitter herbs of suffering, not in one generation only, but in every generation, to remember for ourselves and for the sake of humanity, the pain of those who suffer at the hands of others. And so, today, we offer a prayer for all those who face homelessness and hunger, terror and the shadow of death, in a world that has not yet risen to the challenge of peace…"

As the NATO raids continue on Yugoslavia, I feel it is right that we stop injustice and evil. I know that the Serbian people are subject to censorship, but I also know that their fathers, sons and brothers are coming home and telling them what has been happening. I recall the same situation occurred in Nazi Germany. Like then, the Serbian people of Yugoslavia cannot say: "We did not know." Like the people of Germany after the Second World War, I pray that when the war is over, those same people can have the courage to confront their terrible mistakes, and that the perpetrators of such horrific crimes will have the courage to admit the wrong they have done, and to attempt to make amends. No-one can rejoice in the sufferings of either side, whether Muslim or Christian, Albanian or Serb. In another passage that we read at Passover, there is a story from the Talmud, which goes:

"Our rabbis taught: When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts [of angels] broke out in songs of rejoicing. God silenced them and said, 'My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?'"

The moon that will shine on us this evening will also shine on the people of Kosovo, on all people everywhere. We are all one people, with the same Father. When peace eventually comes to the Balkans, I hope and pray that we can support those unhappy peoples to rebuild their lives, their homes and their relationships.

[Frank Gent. Broadcast on Radio Devon on Sunday, 25th April, 1999]