Auschwitz as seen through the ‘lens of faith’

Orthodox educators provide guides with insight into experiences of observant prisoners.

AMUD AISH MEMORIAL MUSEUM lecturer Rabbi Aubrey Hirsch and Amud Aish chief curator Dr. Henri Lustiger Thaler lead a docent training group, with the main entrance to Auschwitz II (Birkenau) in the background (photo credit: ABMM)
AMUD AISH MEMORIAL MUSEUM lecturer Rabbi Aubrey Hirsch and Amud Aish chief curator Dr. Henri Lustiger Thaler lead a docent training group, with the main entrance to Auschwitz II (Birkenau) in the background
(photo credit: ABMM)
After Orthodox educators traveled to Poland to provide insight into experiences of observant Jews at Auschwitz- Birkenau, tour guides at the museum have recently incorporated the “lens of faith” when showing visitors around the concentration camp.
While Auschwitz has for years worked with Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum to uncover the depth of the Nazi atrocities perpetrated against the Jews, the recent initiative of Brooklyn’s Amud Aish Memorial Museum and Kleinman Holocaust Education Center is the first of its kind by the Orthodox community.
“There definitely has been an influx of Orthodox groups going, and it’s getting larger every year, so the museum felt it needed to be better equipped,” Amud Aish director Rabbi Sholom Friedmann told The Jerusalem Post on Monday, explaining the need for the Auschwitz Docent Project on Orthodox Experiences at Auschwitz.
Auschwitz survivors revisit former camp to remember Holocaust
He noted that there has been a shift in the focus of Holocaust museums, including Auschwitz, from the perpetrators to the victims.
Given the large number of observant victims, their perspective was essential to a comprehensive understanding of the victims’ experiences.
“The one million Jews who perished at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and those who survived, were predominantly religious,” Friedmann said.
“Although the war turned their lives upside down, many still maintained their beliefs.
As a result, their suffering was experienced through the lens of their faith. The new, fuller account that is now part of the education program at Auschwitz acknowledges the different ways that Orthodox Jews faced one of the worst chapters in history.”
In December, Friedmann ran the training session together with Dr. Henri Lustiger Thaler, chief curator of Amud Aish and the creator of the program, as well as Rabbi Aubrey Hersh from London, an experienced Auschwitz tour guide.
Through lectures and tours of the camp, Auschwitz museum tour guides were taught how religious victims struggled to maintain their identities and fought to observe their faith. They also explored life-or-death questions that victims posed to rabbis.
“The goal of this docent training program is to sensitize guides and visitors to the subjective experiences of the victims of Auschwitz-Birkenau, which took place with a religious mind frame and context,” Lustiger Thaler told the Post.
The program allows visitors to learn about transcribed dialogues between prisoners and their rabbis in the very places where they occurred, he said.
One such story comes from the writings of Rav Zvi Hersch Meisels, who in Auschwitz conversed with a man whose son was imprisoned and to be murdered in the morning.
The man came to the rabbi to ask if he could ransom his son with the knowledge that his son’s release would mean the murder of another boy.
The rabbi refused to answer the question, and the father deduced from his silence that it was not permitted to ransom his son for the price of another.
“These stories are emblematic of the depth, landscape and complexity of choices made in the deathworld Auschwitz,” Thaler said.
For the very first time, the complex topic of dealing with the reality of the Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp by Orthodox Jews was analyzed in such an exhaustive manner and presented to museum educators, said Andrzej Kacorzyk, director of the International Center for Education about Auschwitz and the Holocaust at the Auschwitz Memorial.
“They were provided with an important tool that will enable them to present this question both to visitors who are not involved in Jewish Orthodoxy as well as to Orthodox groups, as their presence in the museum is constantly increasing,” he said.
Seventy tour guides attended the training, who collectively speak 19 languages.
Head of Methodology of Guiding at the Memorial Tomasz Michalodo said the training session provided the docents with a better understanding of the Orthodox community and the different perspective with which they come to Auschwitz in comparison with secular visitors.
Michalodo added that the training would not only enrich tours for Orthodox visitors, but for many others too. “If we have say 1.6 million guided here, we can reach most of them with these stories,” he said.
The Auschwitz museum received a record number of almost 2.1 million visitors in 2016.
According to Friedmann, this number is expected to jump to three million this year.
He believes the growing interest is partly triggered by contemporary issues that resonate with the Holocaust, such as rising antisemitism, extremism and terrorism across the globe.
For the part of the Orthodox community, Friedmann believes the shift in attention stems from a stronger desire to connect to its roots as that historical chapter becomes increasingly distant.
“It’s one of those ironies that the further away we get from a historical event, the more interest there is,” he said. “Ten years ago everyone had Holocaust survivors in their community, and that’s not the case anymore.”
Friedmann said while the post-Holocaust generations were intent on rebuilding, establishing and moving forward, now that they feel they have succeeded in doing that, the past 10 to 15 years have seen Orthodox educational institutions begin to embrace Holocaust education as a means to understanding where they came from.
This has led to an increase of visits to Eastern Europe where many Orthodox Jews can trace their family roots.
Visits to concentrations camps have become a more accepted part of Orthodox school curriculum, Friedmann said.