Rafael Felix Scharf: 18 June 1914 -16 September 2003
For readers of the Jewish Quarterly, ‘Felek’ Scharf was a familiar name as a frequent contributor since the inception of the periodical. For those who worked on and for the Quartery he was the affectionate elder statesman whose good nature smoothed over altercation and disagreement — the person we all deferred to. Until the very end, the succeeding generation made tracks to his door to engage him with a plethora of questions that faced the Jewish world, past and present.
Felek came to define himself as a representative of the 3-million-strong vibrant Jewish community of inter-war Poland that was extinguished by the Nazis. Indeed, his many writings in the Jewish Quarterly were inextricably linked to the Shoah and Poland. He carried the memory of that community — and its fate — with him throughout his long life.
As a teenager he embraced Revisionist Zionism and was a member of that generation that also produced Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir. His great hero was Vladimir Jabotinsky, founder of the Revisionist movement, the brilliant opponent of Chaim Weizmann and perhaps one of the greatest orators of his time.
Sir Wyndham Deedes, former Chief Secretary of the Palestine Administration, spoke at a mass meeting of young Polish Jews at Felek’s school in 1927. As Deedes commented in a memorandum to the Colonial Office on his return: ‘A new type of Jew is being evolved. The Jew in Poland exists, but the Zionist lives: Felek was captivated by the prospect of Zion reborn and the regeneration of the Jewish nation. For Felek and his generation, the Poland of Pilsudski and Dmowski offered only marginalization, discrimination and humiliation. Felek became a passionate Zionist and regularly translated Jabotinsky’s articles into Polish for the Revisionist weekly, Trybuna Narodowa. In 1933, a split developed in the Revisionist movement over leaving the Zionist Organisation. The Cracow branch vehemently opposed Jabotinsky and wanted to remain within. Yet a short visit from Jabotinsky captivated Felek and his friends — they were convinced by Jabotinsky within half an hour to change their minds completely Yet even Jabotinsky’s charisma and magnetism could not keep him within the fold after the Revisionist flirtation with the Polish Colonels, who were not exactly noted for their fondness for Jews.
Jabotinsky thought logically and rationally The Poles did not want their Jews — Jabotinsky wanted them to leave before something terrible happened. But for Felek emotion and principle superceded cold logic — and he left the Revisionist movement. Yet he always maintained an abiding respect and profound admiration for the figure of Jabotinsky. For his contemporary Menachem Begin, however, he had nothing but disdain, accusing him of reinventing Jabotinsky in his own image. ‘Begin? Good, he was not!’ was the usual Felekesque response.
Felek’s relationship to Judaism was complex. He distanced himself from the Talmudic learning of his father and the world of the ultra-Orthodox. Yet in later life he came to think differently ‘Those misty eyes,’ he wrote,
beards, sidelocks, crooked noses — one looked away, embarrassed by what a non-Jewish onlooker might feel or say. It now seems clear that these faces, etched with worry and wisdom, lit with inner light, otherworldly. Rembrandtesque, were inexpressibly beautiful.
He began to understand that tradition could coexist with rationalism. Judaism did not have to be painted in the colours of the supernatural. Thus Felek took great pleasure in attending Rabbi Louis Jacobs’s Talmud shiur every Monday evening.
Felek’s strength was that he was a storyteller par excellence, and especially in reclaiming past events for the present. One which he emotionally related to me over coffee one sunny afternoon was about his beloved teacher, Ben-Zion Rappaport — who, on his way to the death camp at Belzec, threw his Hebrew writings on a range of subjects into a bleak Polish field. The note read: ‘Pious soul, this is a man’s life work. Give it into good hands.’ By chance, a Polish peasant found the flimsy parcel, read the note and, the moment the war was over, started out on a personal trek to locate any living Jew. Felek, who was in Britain at the outbreak of war, returned to Warsaw in 1945 in an attempt to find his mother. While in deep conversation with a fellow returnee, he suddenly found himself confronted by this peasant and his searching question ‘Are you a Jew?’
In this fashion, the teacher’s writings were bequeathed to the pupil. All were later published in Israel. As Felek later wrote so simply, ‘the pity, the horror and the irony out all’. Such events were forever etched on his mind. He always remembered the exact moment when Ignacy Schwarzbart, the Jewish Representative on the Polish National Council, received the telegram from the Warsaw underground announcing the first news of the extermination camps. Such stories – no doubt recounted many times – still recalled his pain and incomprehension of that dark period more than 60 years later. He never forgot Czeslaw Milosz’s comment that ‘There is no such thing as an innocent bystander. If you are a bystander, you are not innocent.’
Many unique manuscripts of survivors reached him and he often attempted to cajole publishers to take them on. In the early 1990s, he came across four rolls of film taken on a summer’s day in the Warsaw ghetto by a German radio operator, one Willy Georg. The degradation of those times was harrowingly resurrected in Georg’s indescribable photographs of decaying, doomed Jews in Felek’s own book. In the 11-Msaw Ghetto: Summer 1941 (London: Robert Hale, 1993).
In the 1970s Felek devoted much time to Polish-Jewish understanding – or the lack of it. Through the Janusz Korczak Society, he attempted to explore the labyrinthine minefield of the interconnectness of the two peoples. He became a respected commentator and writer on Polish-Jewish affairs in Poland, addressing its government and lecturing to Polish teachers at the Jagellonian University.
Many of Felek’s writings appeared in the Jewish Quarterly. He helped Jacob Sonntag., its founding editor, establish the magazine in 1953 as a vehicle of cultural excellence for an unappreciative community. English was not their native tongue, but they brought with them the legacy of a Jewish intelligentsia that was no more. They were also determined to succeed in their seemingly impossible task. Both worshipped the printed word – the bat kol dakah, ‘the small still voice’ – that could change the course of history. A couple of years ago. I mentioned that I had spoken on Israel to a large meeting of an Islamic student society at the height of the current intifada. ‘That was courageous of you.’ he said, and then after a silent reflection murmured: ‘And who knows, someone may take away a sentence – and his grandson may change the world.’ I will always treasure the insight of that comment.
Felek was troubled by the direction that Israel had taken, but he regretted that he had not settled there. To the last, Felek was surrounded by the many younger people who loved him, appreciated his gentleness and devoured his wisdom. During my own editorship of the Jewish Quarterly, he was a good friend in the best of times – and, perhaps more important, he remained steadfast in the most difficult of times. I will miss our schmoozes at his home on a shabbat afternoon, but I will always carry the memory of his smile and his teachings with me. May his memory be for a blessing.
Jewish Quarterly Winter 2003/4