SIGHET, Romania – Seventy-five years ago this week, Elie Wiesel was deported from this small town in the Carpathian Mountains at the age of 15. Within three days he would arrive at Auschwitz, where his mother, Sarah, and baby sister, Tziporah, would be instantly murdered.
Elie’s story of survival in the hell of Auschwitz, along with his father, Shlomo, who would later die at Buchenwald just before war’s end, would become the most famous Holocaust memoir of all time, equaled only by The Diary of Anne Frank.
Visiting Sighet and seeing Elie’s childhood home – today a museum – is a sobering experience. I was here as families of survivors of the four Sighet deportations of May 1944 gathered to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the deportations and subsequent slaughter, which saw 90% of Romanian Jewry annihilated.
Sighet in 1944 had about 27,000 inhabitants. A staggering 12,000 were Jewish. Then, in the space of just four transports taking place between May 16 and 22, 1944 (Elie Wiesel was on the final transport), the entire Jewish community was gone. Disappeared. Vanished. Three days later, upon arriving at Auschwitz, the vast majority went up in smoke, literally.
Over the past few years I have visited much of Europe’s Holocaust death camps and killing fields with my family. I have done so for my children to know what happened to our people and have written a manuscript titled “Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocidal Memory Hell,” which is being readied for publication.
I have come even though it is immensely painful to my family and causes emotional rebellion among our children. I have come because I am certain the six million want us to come and demand to be remembered. I have come because I am a Jew and part of my identity is understanding the great triumphs and unspeakable tragedy of my people.
And I have come despite how it has made me feel toward God.
UNIQUE AMONG the chroniclers of the Holocaust, Elie Wiesel believed that the victims had the right to spar with God, show defiance at His seeming indifference, express righteous indignation at His apparent abandonment of the Jews of Europe.
Others misguidedly tried to find a reason, a purpose, a meaning behind something so utterly senseless.
Just down the road from Sighet, Rabbi Yoel Teitelbaum, the rabbi of Satu Mare, or Satmar, described the Holocaust as punishment for the Jewish people’s embracing of Zionism. They had no right to try to establish political autonomy without the Messiah.
Teitelbaum was born in Sighet and stemmed from an illustrious line of rabbinic figures. It seems incredible that Elie Wiesel – who would later become one of Israel’s most respected defenders and would leverage his unequaled credibility – stemmed from the same city that produced Zionism’s greatest religious opponent.
Other Orthodox rabbis spoke of the Holocaust as punishment for assimilation and intermarriage, primarily of German Jewry.
Elie Wiesel understood that such talk – blaming the Jews for their own annihilation – was itself an abomination.
Over Shabbat in Sighet, a debate broke out among the families of the survivors as to whether the Holocaust had any meaning.
Is it blasphemy to say it did not? Is it not greater blasphemy to say that it did?
Are we really to accept that God had a reason for the Holocaust that simply transcends our limited mortal understanding? In what universe, on what celestial plane, can a deity require the gassing of 1.5 million children to satisfy some cosmic need? And who would wish to worship a God that had any such requirement?
Is not human sacrifice expressly forbidden by the Torah as reprehensible before the deity? So what kind of God would seek the sacrifice of 1.5 million children?
The more I study about the Holocaust, the less I can come to terms with it. The closer I get to it, the more distant it seems. There is nothing about its scope, its magnitude, its utter comprehensiveness that makes any sense whatsoever. I have visited Auschwitz many times, including on this trip to honor the 75th anniversary of Elie Wiesel’s deportation. Each time I visit the death camp, I learn more and understand less.
I loved Elie Wiesel and had the great honor of his friendship, a privilege I continue today with his family. Beginning nearly 30 years ago, when he first spoke for me at Oxford, I was humbled to share unforgettable moments with him and watched as he gave every ounce of his being to the memory of the six million.
The Jewish community owes him so much, but one thing above all else: a total commitment to Holocaust memory, without brooking any compromise. We in the Jewish community must hold fast to every aspect of Holocaust history, whatever the consequences for Israel’s relations with other nations.
POLAND IS a strong ally of Israel, and there can be no question that the Polish people suffered unspeakably under Hitler’s barbarism. Hillel said, “That which you hate don’t do unto others.” We dare not diminish the suffering of the Polish people during World War II, lest our own suffering be diminished.
But we need not equate their suffering with our own either.
Nothing – absolutely nothing – compares with the Holocaust. The genocide of European Jewry was the single greatest crime in the history of the world and the most extensive mass murder the earth has ever witnessed. Even for the purposes of a closer relationship with the Jewish state, there can be no compromises on historical truths about the Holocaust, even if it means articulating painful facts to essential European allies.
Attacks against Poles as drinking in antisemitism from their mother’s milk is an affront to the thousands of Poles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, not to mention the innumerable Poles who work tirelessly today to teach the Holocaust. Yad Vashem recognizes Poland as having produced a quarter of all Righteous Among the Nations.
But equally true is the fact that a great many Poles – far more than the country seems willing to accept – collaborated with the German Nazis in an individual, rather than national, capacity. And then there is Jedwabne and Kielce and other atrocities that were committed by Poles with little to no German instigation, participation or assistance.
Poland is responsible for Holocaust memory at the main extermination camps, and the country is doing an excellent job at preserving the sites where millions of our people were murdered. This is especially true of Auschwitz.
The Jewish people owes Poland gratitude. But recent comments from the Polish leadership that the Poles suffered more during the Second World War than any other group, including the Jews, are an unfortunate provocation and an affront to the six million.
To be sure, suffering is not a game of one-upmanship, and we Jews are in no race for bragging rights to having been the world’s most murdered victims. We wish it were not so. But genocide is genocide, and “the blood of your brother cries out from the grave” for appropriate validation and recognition.
Just as Israeli leaders should not be making the absurd and highly offensive claim that all Poles are antisemites, Polish leaders should not be equating their own country’s horrors at the hands of the Nazis to genocide.
No people has ever been more brutally massacred at any other time in history than the Jews under the Germans.
It behooves our Polish brothers and sisters to state the truth.
It likewise behooves the leaders of both Israel and Poland to de-escalate the current tensions and work together to honor the eternal memory of the men, women, and children whom the Nazis murdered and to whom Elie Wiesel devoted his life to ensure they would never be forgotten.
The writer, “America’s rabbi,” whom The Washington Post and Newsweek call “the most famous rabbi in America,” is the international best-selling author of 32 books, including his most recent, The Israel Warrior. He served as rabbi at Oxford University for 11 years. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
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