Traditions Today: Holocaust lessons and reflections

"It was both the most meaningful Shaharit prayer I have ever experienced and the only time when I felt I could not pray at all."

January 26, 2017 10:42
4 minute read.
Israeli praying

Praying. (photo credit: BONNIE GELLER GELD)

Today, January 27, is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. It was chosen because on this day Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated in 1945. Although Israel has Yom Hashoah V’hagvura, it is nevertheless appropriate that we join the other nations of the world in recalling the Shoah today.

Remembering the liberation of that most notorious of concentration camps is particularly meaningful to me this year, since just a few months ago I was there as part of a journey to Poland organized by the Ramah Adult Institute. It was an experience I will not forget.

The trip took us to Warsaw, Lublin and Krakow and many small towns along the way, as well as to Treblinka and Majdanek.

I must admit that I had always been reluctant to go to Poland.

Why would anyone want to visit places in which such terrible atrocities had been perpetrated? Yet I had come to the conclusion that it was important for me to see the Nazi camps in Poland. I had always felt a certain guilt over the fact that I lived through the years of the Shoah as a child and a teenager in peace and happiness when my fellow Jews of the same age were being tortured and slaughtered. Had my grandparents not immigrated to the United States, my family and I would have been there as well. During my lifetime I have had and still have very close friends who were Shoah survivors, including some who had been in Auschwitz, and I felt it only right to go to the place they had been. Obviously my experience would not in any way whatsoever recreate what they went through, but just being there would somehow be a tribute to them and to all those who suffered that martyrdom.

Thanks to both an excellent guide and a sensitive group of fellow participants, the experience was what I had expected and more. In many ways, however, it was strange, paradoxical and almost surreal. One goes to visit mass graves and concentration camps in the comfort of an air-conditioned bus, stopping to picnic along the way, sleeping in luxurious hotels. It is almost obscene.

The day we went to “tour” Auschwitz, we arose very early and traveled in the dark through dense fog, and, remembering the film Night and Fog, I had the strangest feeling. “I am on the way to Auschwitz!” We stopped first in the town of Oswiecim and recited Shaharit in the restored synagogue-museum there. At the same time it was both the most meaningful Shaharit prayer I have ever experienced and the only time when I felt I could not pray at all.

There is not enough space here to describe all that I experienced and learned on this trip, but let me list a few important things.

One thing I had not anticipated was a deeper understanding of the scope and importance of Jewish life in Poland before the war. Mainly through the tour of the magnificent Polin Museum in Warsaw, I began to realize that Polish Jewry had been one of the largest and the most important Jewish communities in the world for hundreds of years, so that its destruction was a tragedy with an enormous impact on Jewish history. I think we are inclined to emphasize the Jewries of Western Europe that were more “enlightened,” but in size and variety of Jewish life, they pale next to Poland.

Secondly, because of several Poles we met who are devoted to preserving the memory of Polish Jewry and the tragedy of its destruction, I have a more nuanced picture of Poland. Our guide at the museum revealed at the end of the tour that his grandmother was Jewish, although he himself did not consider himself a Jew in any way. When I asked him what the attitude of Poles had been to the Shoah during those years, he answered that there were some who endangered themselves to save Jews and some who actively joined in the persecution and killing of Jews. And the majority? I asked. “They were indifferent,” he replied.

Thirdly, seeing mass graves, including those of 800 children near Tarnow, visiting town after town where huge numbers of Jews were marched out and brutally shot, viewing synagogue after synagogue now either in ruins or preserved as a museum because there are no longer Jews there, standing in silence next to the enormous mound of human ashes preserved in a monument in Majdanek and going through the camps and hearing of the way in which suffering and death was an industry fine-tuned by the Germans and collaborated in by others, I was again confronted by the question, “How could human beings do this to other human beings?” It is simply incomprehensible.

And finally I realized that there are two important lessons to be learned from the Shoah – first that we must never let this happen to us again, but secondly that Judaism must never teach anything that even faintly resembles the doctrine of racial superiority or inferiority in which any human beings are degraded to the status of less than human. Any such belief within Judaism will inevitably lead to acts of violence and even the taking of life by extremists who believe that they are acting in the name of God. As a people that has experienced the Shoah, we must reject such beliefs and reaffirm the sacredness of all human life.

The writer, a former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, a lecturer and author, is a two-time winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His most recent book is Akiva: Life, Legend, Legacy (JPS).

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