Tuesday was the first I had heard of either Helen Rosenthal or Peter Boyer.
Helen was an émigré from Belgium to the United States in 1940, fleeing the Nazis. Helen did not believe that the first-century teacher Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah that God had promised to her people. Still, her words are a beacon of the Christian Gospel for anyone who wishes to see love defeat hatred in this fallen world.
Helen entered the United States at Ellis Island and was one of seven immigrants whose words were included in the most famous work by American composer Peter Boyer. Last evening my family was spellbound by Boyer's music during the Cleveland Orchestra's performance of the multimedia work Ellis Island: The Dream of America at Severance Hall.
The music was refreshingly American in the way that the works of Aaron Copeland and Jerry Goldsmith are American - think of the ballet Appalachian Spring or the soundtrack to the film Hoosiers and you will get a feel for the music of Boyer.
At regular intervals throughout the 45-minute performance, an actor in time-period costume would enter the stage and portray one of the seven immigrants featured as a part of the experience. Helen Rosenthal was the fifth in line but the last of the seven to have come to these shores.
Her quote's final words reflected her loss of family at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in 1942. They struck me and my wife Ann in such a way that we spoke at length about them once we were home.
"If you hate, you lose yourself. There's nothing left in this world after hate."
These words immediately brought to mind an article written by Orthodox Rabbi Meir Soloveichik twenty years ago. In the article "The Virtue of Hate," published in First Things, a neo-conservative journal of religion and public life, Rabbi Soloveichik recounts an event from a symposium on the question of forgiveness and mercy hosted by concentration camp survivor Simon Wiesenthal.
In response to Wiesenthal's telling of a "moment of mercy" when he "brushed a fly away from a Nazi's broken body," the writer Cynthia Ozick said, "Let the SS man die unshriven. Let him go to hell. Sooner the fly [go] to God than he." In Ozick's mind, the soldier should be shown no kindness, and she speaks consistently with the Talmudic belief that hatred for evil people is obligatory.
Since the Talmud is the most authoritative work of post-Temple Jewish theology and morality, Helen Rosenthal spoke in terms that opposed the practice of her religion. She noted that this attitude of non-hate was passed on to her by her father. So it was not from any American Christian influence that she found hatred to be antithetical to her personal integrity.
I don't know if Helen Rosenthal is still in this world. But if she is, I hope she knows that her words are almost singular in their importance in helping make this world a better place. If she has gone home to the bosom of Abraham, then I am confident that Jesus, Who was before Abraham existed, will recognize her as His own and she will recognize Him as her Messiah.