"Borrowing Time" An Evening with Henri Landwirth

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Over the December holiday I traveled with my wife and children to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague. In Vienna we visited the former home of Sigmund Freud, one of the twentieth-century’s most seminal thinkers. Freud vacated his home on 19 Berggasse in 1939 after more than 25 years of occupancy when he discovered a swastika painted on his door. In Budapest and Prague we visited the Jewish quarters, areas of the cities where Jews were ghettoized, but where they nevertheless developed thriving cultures and vibrant communities even under the duress of segregation and oppression.

Now, all that remains of the once formidable Jewish presence are traces of the past, whether in the form of inscriptions of names of Holocaust victims on a temple wall, or a lone memorial tree planted in a fenced plot, or a synagogue filled by tourists rather than worshippers. In all three of these great Central European cities there is thus what I would describe as a ghostly presence that haunts those of us who discern in the silence the millions of voices no longer to be heard.

It is all the more stunning, therefore, when one does hear a voice emanating from that void, especially when the voice utters not a cry of sorrow or despair but an expression of love and concern. As you will soon see for yourselves, Henri Landwirth looked into and came close to being consumed by the abysmal horror of the Holocaust, but he emerged from that abyss persuaded that what he experienced there need not, indeed could not deprive him of his essential humanity. Instead, he committed himself to reaffirming his humanity by nurturing the very bonds between people that his persecutors and would-be killers sought to destroy.

To know Henri is to be touched by grace. It is surely grace when one person, especially one person who has lost literally everything, chooses not to horde his acquisitions or his remarkable generosity of spirit but to give of himself endlessly to those whose circumstances—whether as a result of poverty or terminal illness—preclude the ability to reciprocate. Against the background of his own enormous loss, Henri’s pure gesture reminds us, in our world of seemingly omnipresent hatred and hostility, that it is possible to transcend difference and to forgive transgression.

I count myself as fortunate to be among Henri’s acquaintances and I am deeply grateful to him for gracing us tonight with his presence. I know he is grateful to you for yours.