Editor’s Notes: Hardman’s humanity

By David Horovitz October 17, 2008

Leslie Hardman’s life, to this respectful former congregant, was lived in the spirit of Hillel’s summary of Jewish principles

My childhood rabbi died last week.

For 35 years – from the late 1940s to the early 1980s – Rev. Leslie Hardman was the rabbi of Hendon United Synagogue, better known as Raleigh Close.

He it was, on the occasion of my bar mitzva, who presented me with the traditional gift of a Humash and told me, as he told all bar mitzva boys, that if I read it well, I’d be well-read, and if I kept it carefully, I’d be well- kept.

A man who managed to convey gravitas, warmth, wisdom and dependability while also inspiring a goodly degree of awe, Hardman, again as he did with all bar mitzva boys, completed that welcome message into adulthood by pinching me, not too hard, on the cheek. It was a gesture of avuncular familiarity and friendship that seemed to suggest he was confident I could cope with my new burdens.

For his part, Hardman carried the weightiest of burdens for six decades and more, and it seemed to color his entire orientation as an exemplar and as a religious guide. How could it not?

As a 32-year-old chaplain in the British Army, stationed first in Holland and then in Germany, Hardman entered the Nazi death camp Bergen-Belsen the day after its liberation, in mid-April 1945. He had been told by his commanding officer that he was needed there: ‘We have uncovered a concentration camp,’ he later recalled the colonel telling him. ‘It is horrible, ghastly, sickening. Most of the inmates are your people. You should go there now. They need you.’

He found thousands of corpses awaiting burial – and many thousands more on the very brink of death.
‘Towards me came what seemed to be the remnants of a holocaust – a staggering mass of blackened skin and bones, held together somehow with filthy rags,’ he wrote 13 years later in his book The Survivors: The Story of the Belsen Remnant. ”My God, the dead walk,’ I cried aloud, but I did not recognize my voice.’

The young chaplain found his voice soon enough, however, and did his extraordinary best to minister to the survivors – listening and praying and talking. Some of those who regained their strength and spirit would later hail his efforts and the inspirational hope that this man of their faith, with the Magen David on his uniform, brought to them. Others though, many others of that remnant he encountered, were past healing.

Hardman said Kaddish for the dead, and sought to ensure, even as the broken bodies were being dumped into mass graves in a camp where typhus was widespread, that they were buried with a modicum of dignity.

‘If all the trees in the world turned into pens, all the waters in the oceans turned into ink and the heavens turned into paper, it would still be insufficient material to describe the horrors these people suffered under the SS,’ Hardman told the BBC years later, in a quotation widely cited in the obituaries that have eulogized him in British newspapers these past few days. He also lamented that ‘far too many people have got away’ with their parts in the genocide. ‘They have hardly scratched the surface of the enormity of this evil.’

Hardman may have come close in those terrible days to giving up his fealty to a God who could have countenanced such horror – ‘some of the words of the prayers I said at Belsen stuck in my throat,’ he would acknowledge, while insisting that ‘I didn’t lose my faith.’ But he seems ultimately to have been strengthened in his beliefs – in the Jewish codes of behavior designed to ensure that we overcome humanity’s base instincts, and in the imperative for a strong Jewish state that would ensure his people were never vulnerable to such instincts again.

His approach to Judaism was both firm and embracing. He scrapped Raleigh Close’s male-female choir and frowned on congregational chatter during services. But he also took a relatively liberal view on conversion, supported maverick United Synagogue rabbinical colleague Louis Jacobs, and would memorably tell our congregation that while he’d much rather we properly observe Shabbat, if we didn’t, he’d nevertheless prefer we drove to shul and parked a short distance away, than that we not come at all.

It was Hardman, grave and deliberate from the pulpit, who told our congregation in closeted northwest London 35 years ago that Israel was fighting for its life on the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar, Hardman who brought home to us that our unique sovereign refuge from a repetition of the horrors he had been fated to confront was now in real danger.

He was profoundly committed to Israel, championed its cause, worried about its security, had children and then grandchildren here, and visited unfailingly year in, year out. Indeed, he was last interviewed in The Jerusalem Post on Succot two years ago, when he and his wife, Josi, who passed away last year, were visiting to mark their 70th anniversary.

That abiding concern for Israel’s well-being was the inevitable consequence of the shocking exposure, all those decades ago, to the capacity for man to do the unthinkable to his fellow man. Yet Hardman never allowed his own fundamental decency to be compromised by those memories.

THE DEATH of this admirable man comes as Israel grapples with the rise of another would-be genocidal power that has the Jews firmly in its sights, and an international community again slow to recognize the danger.

His passing also coincides with the renewed evidence of Israel’s own perilous, powder-keg internal reality – the intermittent, minor outbursts of Jew against Jew violence and, in Acre last week, of Jewish-Muslim confrontation.

Ostensible eyewitness accounts of what started the trouble in Acre would seem to indicate that it could so easily have been avoided. According to one account I heard, Jamal Taufik’s Yom Kippur driving route elicited angry but nonviolent objections from a small group of Jewish pedestrians he passed by. Infuriated at their protest, he sped away with a screech of tires and blaring music, prompting fears among others nearby that he was bent on some kind of nationalist road rage attack. This, in turn, led to stone-throwing at his car. And Taufik, in turn, telephoned a relative with the panicked call that he was being attacked. Cue a rising spiral of confrontation, where what was needed was restraint.

The impulse to confrontation is all too sadly evident in too many other aspects of all our daily lives – in mundane encounters in stores, on the roads, in schools, at work. Along the vast scale, from irritating minor insult to shattering mass murder, the root is the same: an absent respect for one’s fellow man.

SEARED BY his immersion in the evils of World War II, Leslie Hardman’s life, to this respectful former congregant, was lived in the spirit of Hillel’s summary of Jewish principles: That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.

In an age where mankind has perfected means of killing more rapid and efficient than ever before, that message, and those inspirational figures like Hardman who live by it and disseminate it, are more precious than ever.

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