(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Thursday, Jews around the world will commemorate a day in which the basic tenants of a normal society broke down, giving way to the dark, swelling tides of the evil that dwells in man’s hearts. We will reflect and wonder and grieve, but with all the books that we’ve read, or the films we have seen, or the tours we may have done, we’ll still not be able to fully understand the horrors of that time – a time when a third of our nation was wiped from the face of this earth.
A few years ago, I visited the Auschwitz concentration camp. And even as I passed under the notorious gates, displaying the words 'Arbeit macht frei,' it didn’t really affect me the way I thought I’d be affected. Perhaps it was the way the entire camp looked almost like what you’d expect from an army barracks – which is what it originally was. Deceptively normal. There were solid brick buildings lining the paths, yet inside each of those buildings brewed cauldrons of unfathomable evil. And as we entered the various structures, we saw the piles of shoes that once provided warmth and we saw the piles up luggage with names etched in the tattered leather hides that once held the precious possessions and memories of those who thought they’d be kept safe. And we saw the piles of hair that was once brushed by mothers to get rid of those annoying knots, or the gentle strands that were once stroked lovingly as their owners fell into peaceful sleep.
But that feeling changed as we made the two-kilometer journey to Auschwitz-Birkenau. As we approached the death camp, the watchtower started coming into focus – the watchtower we’ve all seen in countless movies and documentaries. The watchtower that for most people beckoned a final destination. The watchtower that stood upon the gates of hell. And the train lines that led straight through them.
Unlike the main camp with its museums and exhibits, there wasn’t anything like that over here. There really wasn’t much at all, and yet the emptiness is what was most overpowering. It was as if you were stepping into an empty void where nothing could exist. A quietness that not even the sounds of birds could penetrate. The camp was empty – empty of life – yet it was a powerful feeling that could be felt in the bones. It was quite a large area; and dotted around the railway track that stopped a short bit after the entrance, were sheds where peoples’ bodies would exist briefly, before being consumed to fire. Around from the spot on which I was standing, were the dreams and hopes of entire generations being sucked into a vortex – a hole so dark that no light could escape.
As I left a little while later through those same gates of hell, I thought about how my people are proof that even from the darkest places in history, a black hole of despair, life will find a way, and even the smallest flickering of light will escape through the tiniest cracks of those dark walls.
The sirens that echo on Yom Hashoah through the streets of Israel, our Jewish homeland, also echo through the collective Jewish heart across the world – and the sorrows and the cries they invoke do not fade with the memory of time, or the distance of space, or the march of history, because to us, they are not a relic of the past, or a faded picture, or a washed-out letter. They are our present and every much a part of who we are.
The Jewish people have been through hell. But those sirens are not just the sirens of sorrow. They are the sirens of defiance.
Our hopes and our dreams and our future did not die in the killing fields of Europe.
They live on today.