Our fellow Jews retained their humanity, even in the face of the Nazi’s unbridled hatred.
We should feel proud about the people who, despite the hardship, continued to live according to our Torah and who remained compassionate despite the intensity of the evil that surrounded them.
It was extremely cold when we landed in Poland this week. The whiteness of the snow is breathtaking from high up in the air, but when you step outside and the cold hits you, you realize that the beauty you see from far away doesn’t tell the whole story.
I grew up in a home where the devastation of European Jewry was a well-known part of history. We knew that my father’s parents and siblings perished along with many other relatives. In his speeches and sermons, the grandfather that I did have the privilege of knowing, Rabbi Yitzchak Yedidya Frankel, the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv, would talk about the frightening number: 6,000,000, and about our responsibility to remember what took place “there.”
We heard and read lots of stories about the people who suffered in the Shoah, and yet none of this prepared me for my visits to the death camps in Poland. Our sages teach us that seeing for ourselves is not the same as hearing a story. Only after I stood there for myself did I really begin to understand the significance of the terrible catastrophe that happened to our people.
This was not my first trip to Auschwitz, and yet, each time I come I am struck again by this terrible, overwhelming and unfathomable evil.
They killed our people just because they were Jewish.
The ground was covered with snow and the air was freezing the last time I came, too. I asked the teenagers who were there with me to open their coat for one minute, to take off their ear muffs and feel – even if for a few seconds – how cold it had been for the Jews who had suffered here.
They had been exhausted and starving, their bodies little more than sacks of bones from all the hard work, not knowing – or worse: knowing – what had happened to their families. They wore thin pajamas that were covered in ice, and wooden clogs. But they were alive. Some of them even tried to preserve their humanity through caring gestures to others, or by making an effort to preserve the customs of their ancestors.
They wanted to live like human beings, even while they suffered in the midst of all this evil that surrounded them.
I remember a story about a family that was living in a small, cramped apartment in the ghetto with a few other families. In one of the roundups, the family that had been living in the kitchen area was taken away, and among the items they had left behind was a treasure: an entire loaf of bread. The others searched for the missing family and when they couldn’t find them, they turned to the local rabbi and asked if they could eat the bread. They were concerned that if the family somehow made it back, there might not be any bread left to give them back.
On the other hand, if the family didn’t come back, it would be a waste to let the bread grow moldy and become inedible. So, they asked, are we allowed to take the bread? I wasn’t really interested in the answer – just the question.
How is it possible that people who were so hungry and downtrodden would still not touch bread that did not belong to them without first asking if this was permissible? It’s hard to think about what the people who tortured and murdered the Jews were like. They also had wives, nice homes and children.
They were saddened when their dogs died and moved to tears when they heard a beautiful violin concerto.
And yet, their frightful hatred led them to act sadistically toward our brothers and sisters.
As I walk along the snow, holding the Torah scrolls in my arms, I think to myself how lucky I am to be the descendant of people who had retained their humanity, and not of the ones who gave in to their unbridled lust.
Despite all of the hardships we’ve suffered, I am extremely proud that we are living our lives according to the laws of Torah. This small book represents the simple fact that we have triumphed.
We are here. We represent the Jewish homeland. We stand here with our heads held high. We are proud of our heritage, and that we have returned to our homeland so we can carry on with our traditions. We say to the victims and to the murderers: We are here!
The writer is Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.