Lau was the keynote speaker at the Life & Leadership Celebration hosted by Ahavas Torah: The Scottsdale Torah Center on March 14 at the beautiful new Chateau Luxe in Phoenix.
In November 1944, during a selection, his mother succeeded in pairing him with his older brother Naphtali, who was sent to a labor camp, according to the Yad Vashem website, yadvashem.org. His mother was murdered in Ravensbrück and Lulek, as he was known as a boy, was deported with his brother to the slave labor camp Czestochowa and from there to Buchenwald, where he was liberated at age 8 by American forces.
In 1945, Lau immigrated to Palestine, where he lived with his uncle and studied at a state religious school then three yeshivas. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1961, representing the 38th generation of rabbis in his family. He recounts his journey in his autobiography, “Out of the Depths.”
At the Phoenix lecture, Lau related a story about when he met with Fidel Castro during a visit to Cuba. Castro told him that if he would have come to Cuba at age 8 with only his brother and no mother or father and not knowing the culture or language, he would have become a criminal or a victim of criminals. And yet Lau went to Palestine under those circumstances and, as Castro put it, “became the Jewish pope.”
The reason for his role is simple, Lau told the audience.
He said that his father, who was 50 when he was killed, told his brother, who was 16, on the night before being sent to Treblinka: “ ‘If a miracle will happen and you will survive, do all that you can that Lulek will continue the chain to make it an unbroken chain of rabbis.’ This was the last will of my father. And my brother kept it.”
His uncle, who had been a rabbi in Poland, arrived in Palestine in 1940. Lau lived with him for five years “and I saw what it is to be a rabbi.”
Lau served as chief rabbi in Netanya from 1978 to 1988 and then as the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv from 1988 to 1993. In 1993, he was elected as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, a role he held until 2003. He is currently the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, as well as the chairman of Yad Vashem, which he was appointed in 2008.
At the lecture, he stressed the importance of Jews continuing to practice Judaism and respecting one another.
“If you close your eyes, and you open spiritually your ears, you can hear the last sentences and the last words of some of the victims of the Holocaust to the survivors,” he said.
“When they took the mother, pushed her into the train and closed the doors, the son or the girl were in the train station. … I can remember now the voices of the parents on the train. Their last words: ‘Remember you’re Jewish.’ ”
“If we show our back to our heritage, it means that [the Nazis] won the battle,” Lau said. “That’s what they wanted – to disconnect us from being Jews.”
He recalled the last seder he spent in the concentration camp, in April 1945, two weeks before the camp’s liberation, “not knowing that we are going out of the dark tunnel very soon. No one knew that redemption was so near.”
They had no matzah, no wine, “not even a potato.”
“The only thing for the seder was niggunim. Melodies. Songs in the camp.” Jews from many countries and backgrounds – Ashkenazim, Sephardim – sang their different melodies.
“We knew the secret of how to die together,” Lau noted; now, it is time to know how to live together. “To die together, we are experts. To the gas chambers, we were pushed, all kinds of Jews. More religious, less religious. Rich and poor. Scholars, those not knowing any Torah. We were all pushed together.”
But now, it’s time to live together, he said, noting that he believes that this is the reason he was helped to survive.
“They helped me to survive because I have a task in my life,” he said. “To be a rav” whose main responsibility is to “look after my brothers, to give them the feeling that we are one family.”
This article first appeared in the March 25, 2015, issue of Phoenix Jewish News.