THE PERIMETER fence of Auschwitz II-Birkenau is enveloped in a thick evening fog during the ceremonies marking the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of the camp and International Holocaust Remembrance Day, near Oswiecim, Poland, January 2018.
(photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
My first visit to Auschwitz in 1985 left an indelible impression upon me; it was instrumental in my understanding of what it means to be a Jew, post-Shoah, and it went a long way toward defining my role as a rabbi. Two particular memories – among so many others – stand out and I share them with you.
I toured Auschwitz with a mixed group of rabbis and laymen at a time when such trips were not as in vogue as they are today. As we entered the death camp/museum, we were told that we would be joined by a family who had also come to the site that day, none other than actress Jane Fonda and her then-husband Tom Hayden. At some point in the tour, I approached Ms. Fonda – already quite celebrated for her far-left views – and asked what had prompted her to come to this place. She said she wanted to personally bear witness to history’s most extreme example of man’s inhumanity to man. Deeply moved, she said she would encourage others to visit, as well.
Later in the tour, we observed a large group of Polish high-school students on their obligatory school visit to the camp. As their government-appointed guide finished speaking to them, one of our group – a Holocaust survivor from Lodz, who spoke fluent Polish – became very agitated, and angrily confronted the guide. I later asked him what that was all about. He told me, “I heard the guide tell the young people that ‘more than a million Poles were murdered in this place by the Nazis,’ but he said not a single word about the Jews! So I asked him, ‘Why didn’t you tell those kids that most of those murdered here – 90% – were Jews?’ He answered, coldly, “It’s enough that I called them Poles.”
These two incidents frame the debate now raging over the Polish government’s ill-advised decision to criminalize any mention, verbal or written, which states that the Polish state or “Polish Nation” facilitated or contributed to the Nazis’ genocidal activities. The uproar that has resulted in the Jewish community over the whitewashing – some would say fabricating – of history and the suppression of free speech has led some to call for a suspension of Jewish travel to Poland, including school missions and the annual March of the Living.
This visceral response is understandable. Why should we contribute mightily to the Polish economy when they are trampling on our holy ground? Why should we acquiesce to a “conspiracy of silence” and revision of history that defames both the victims and the survivors of the Holocaust? How can we be accomplices to the murder of truth? At the same time, we recognize the invaluable importance of maintaining the pristine integrity of the Auschwitz site – one of the few authentic death camps still remaining in Europe – and of coming face-to-face with the harsh reality of the horror that gripped our people in World War II. As the rabbis say, “ayn sh’mia k’r’ia” – hearing about something pales in the face of actually seeing it in person. When one stands in the gas chambers or next to the crematoria, when you see the mountains of shoes and eyeglasses left by the victims, their photos, their luggage with the names still attached, you are gripped by the reality, the enormity of it all.
Having led five tours to Poland over the years, I can say with absolute certainty that this experience, acutely painful as it is, profoundly changes all who brave it. Auschwitz challenges our faith in a good and merciful God like no other place can, yet at the same time it affirms, in the most penetrating way, the sacrifice, suffering and indomitable courage of our people, even as it deepens our absolute commitment to a strong and secure State of Israel.
I understand the resentment Poles feel when they are accused of complicity in the Holocaust.
Poland suffered greatly in the war, as almost two million of its non-Jewish citizens were killed.
Their underground – though it was highly resistant to admitting Jews – fought valiantly against the Germans, and thousands of Poles risked their lives to save Jews. I also acknowledge that the camps were placed in Poland primarily because that was where the majority of Europe’s Jews lived and could more easily be assembled and murdered.
At the same time, acts of Polish brutality towards Jews before, during and after the war are incontrovertible facts that Poland must face and for which it must take responsibility.
My cousin, himself blue-eyed and light-haired, told me how he had to hide his wife under the seat of a train after liberation as mobs of Poles came hunting for Jews to kill. And Poland, 75 years later, has yet to arrive at an equitable formula for reparations. While we value our friendship with the current Polish government and appreciate their support in the world arena, they must confront the sins of their past.
I believe that every Jew should go to Poland – once. My mother-in-law, who “celebrated” her 16th birthday in Auschwitz, has gone back twice to affirm her ordeal in that terrible place. But while we are there, we must openly present the facts of history as we know them, telling the full story in all its pain and glory. The lost souls of the Shoah demand of us, beyond the grave, that we speak the truth, regardless of the consequences. To do any less, would be to them the cruelest blow of all. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; firstname.lastname@example.org