The Gift of a Friendship: Saying Goodbye to Rabbi Bent Melchior
There is gratitude deep inside of grief. A feeling of, how lucky was I to have this friendship at all. That’s how I feel about my dear Rabbi Bent Melchior who passed away in Copenhagen on July 28, 2021. He was 92-years-old.
Bent was the former Chief Rabbi of Denmark. He was a teacher, a writer, a lifelong learner, and a community leader. He was a Holocaust survivor who became a symbol of the heroic Danish rescue operation that saved 95% of Denmark’s Jews. Bent spent his life fighting for refugee rights around the world and was dedicated to building relationships between Muslims, Christians and Jews. He was a beacon of light — an example of how to live a life with purpose, with kindness, with reflection and with conviction. As Benny Dagan, the Israeli Ambassador to Denmark said at Bent’s funeral, “Rabbi Bent, You were throughout your life an industrious, devoted soldier in the prestigious order of Tikkun Olam.” (Tikkun Olam is the Jewish concept of ‘repairing the world’).
But, if you asked Bent to tell you about his life, he would never start by describing himself as I just did. Rather, he would speak of his beloved wife, Lilian, who he was married to for nearly 70 years, and of his four sons, each of whom he was immensely proud. He would tell you about his 12 grandchildren and his dozens of great grandchildren. He would lovingly share memories about their family traditions.
I feel so very lucky that I too was able to be a part of some of those traditions.
I first met Bent in 2015. I was in my mid-twenties and on a trans-continental journey to retrace my grandmother’s Holocaust survival story. It was a February afternoon in Copenhagen when I first walked into his apartment with a bold claim — that he and my grandmother had been on the same refugee boat in 1943 as they fled illegally from Denmark to Sweden during the rescue of the Danish Jews. I retold my grandmother’s memories like they were my own, and Bent shared his.
In the years that would follow, Bent and I traveled together. We revisited history together. We built memories together. He told me stories of fighting in Israel’s War of Independence, meeting Queens and Kings, and what his life was like as a little kid. Together we drove, with him at the wheel, from Denmark to Sweden — across the same waters he and my grandmother crossed 75 years earlier. We had deep talks — about life and death, joy and sorrow, politics and progress. And, we started a tradition of spending Rosh Hashanah together in Copenhagen. He always invited me to sit next to him at the community meal and would introduce me by sharing his connection to my grandmother’s story. Bent brought me into his family and I brought him into mine. The connection we shared was the greatest gift a traumatic history could offer.
I recorded every conversation I ever had with Bent. He was very generous that way. He shared his testimony with anyone who asked. He spoke to students, young and old. He preserved the memory of the living and the dead. He elevated the upstanders and spent time understanding the things that did not instinctually make sense. As a religious man of deep faith, he didn’t live in a world of black and white. Rather, he embraced the fact that in life there is little certainty and many questions.
Bent was an idealist and a realist. He was a gifted listener — a humble man who never lost his sense of humor. Every time I would turn on my recorder or pick up my camera, I would playfully tell him that I needed to record his wisdom. I was serious about what I was saying -- and he knew that -- but he would still laugh it away. He would say, “When people have to give an old man a compliment, they cannot say you are beautiful, you are handsome — all they can say is that you are a very wise man.” And, he certainly was.
Back in 2017, just after I was widowed at the young age of 27, I sat with Bent in his living room. He was one of the only people I told the news of my husband’s sudden death to in-person. I was just beginning to learn that grief is an intense ebb and flow of fear, gratitude, desperate longing, and love. My feeling of guilt was strong — how could I have gratitude about what is now gone? I said to him, “I don’t know how to balance it — to feel like anything good can come from tragedy.”
He said to me, “You cannot live your life without feelings. You cannot put limits to feelings. Emotions are part of life. You cannot say that these emotions are wrong. We have question marks. And sometimes you are left, as I understand, with a certain confusion. But that is part of the conditions under which we live.”
The day after Bent passed away, I sat in my living room in Maine and watched the livestream of his funeral. Our years of conversation played back in my head as I listened to the Danish words spoken at the service. Bent and I have so many good memories together and I have recorded so many of his stories. The history isn’t gone because he is. His passing only makes it more important and more personal. Rabbi Bent Melchior lived a good life and a full life. He knew that. He was a man who respected the stranger as much as he respected the people he knew. He carried opinions without judgment. He understood that everyone must do their part for the world to become a peaceful place. And that is a person I am deeply grateful to have called my friend.
Educators — Rabbi Bent Melchior’s story can be taught with the We Share The Same Sky curriculum. His testimony can be found in Danish in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.
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