Shoes. Wire bins filled with shoes. From floor to ceiling. Dusty and old, infused with the stench of suffering.
Shoes. Cardboard boxes lined with flip flops and plastic summer sandals. Pink and yellow and blue – infused with a sense of hope and a new beginning.
“People, no matter where they come from or what they look like, deserve the same things: dignity, peace and a home,” said Candace Payne.
The Christian author, speaker and podcast host – a viral sensation whose 2016 Facebook video of trying on a Chewbacca mask hit more than 175 million views – sat near former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin’s chair in the Jewish Agency building on King George Street. It was Thursday, June 23, and she had just returned from a several-day journey to Poland where she visited the concentration and death camps and then with Jewish Ukrainian refugees, ultimately accompanying some of them on their aliyah journey to Israel.
Payne closed her eyes for a moment, a plastic cup of water in her heavily tattooed arm.
“Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majdanek – walking through these camps is stunning and overwhelming,” she admitted. “You cannot emotionally process it while you are there. But what hit close to home on so many levels were the shoes.”
“Auschwitz, Birkenau, Majdanek – walking through these camps is stunning and overwhelming. You cannot emotionally process it while you are there. But what hit close to home on so many levels were the shoes.”Candace Payne
One Saturday in June, her mission visited Auschwitz where a ceiling-high pile of shoes was left behind by the Jewish people on their way to their deaths. Two days later, Payne said, she was standing in a hotel with Ukrainian refugees where piles of shoes were being distributed.
“Just seven years ago, I was a mother standing in a donation line to get shoes for my own children. To remember that lack of dignity that was in America, that I felt as a mother and to compare it to this,” she said. “This was not the same kind of giving away of shoes. These were brand new shoes, so people would feel dignity, and would feel at home.”
‘The Holocaust is not something you forget’
Photography has been used to tell stories for as long as it has existed.
But in 2022, in the era of Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, a photo can instantly change the world – one of the reasons that Payne was among three social media influencers selected by Christians United for Israel (CUFI) to travel from June 16 to 23 on a journey to Europe.
The group, whose collective influence reaches in the hundreds of millions, bore witness at concentration camps, saw with their own eyes the CUFI-supported Jewish Agency for Israel efforts to aid Ukrainian Jewish refugees - CUFI has raised more than $8 million for these efforts - and then traveled on a Jewish Agency flight of olim to Israel.
One of the goals was to encourage these individuals to use their platforms to help address the woeful state of Holocaust education in the US.
“The lack of Holocaust education worldwide is coming to a critical juncture,” said CUFI Co-executive Director Shari Dollinger, who told the story of how on a previous CUFI mission, a very successful and influential individual walked into the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and asked her to “remind me what the Holocaust is.”
“We had been in Israel for four or five days and he is highly educated,” Dollinger said. “The Holocaust is not something you forget. ‘Remind me’ means you never learned.”
CUFI has been doing Holocaust education intensely for the last five years. With the Ukraine war, the organization decided to shed light on the parallels between the two experiences and the role that Israel plays as a safe haven for Jewish refugees, who would otherwise have nowhere else to go.
“When the Jewish community thinks of Poland, you do not conjure up positive images. And so, after two intense days of talking about mass graves and concentration camps, we then went to the border with Ukraine and we saw refugees again,” Dollinger continued. “But this time, the refugees are streaming into Poland for safety and security. Poland used to be a death ticket for the Jewish community, and now Poland is a ticket to life, a ticket to Israel.
“It takes your breath away that the safest people in Ukraine are those who are Jewish. That people want to be Jewish in Poland 80 years later; 80 years ago, people were forging papers not to be Jewish and now people will do anything to be Jewish to get out.”
She added, “We wanted folks on this trip who have both depth and breadth and very significant followings so these stories could be told.”
‘Humanity can quickly and effectively dehumanize an entire people’
Australian-born actor Nathaniel Buzolic was one of the travelers. An Instagram post of him standing between the barbed wire fences at Auschwitz, where he wrote that “the tip of human evil and wickedness can be observed,” reached more than 23,000 likes.
“Here, Jews would be convinced that they were to shower and be cleaned. They would be stripped of their personal belongings, their heads would be shaved, and they would be unknowingly led to their death,” Buzolic wrote. “As a visitor, you leave this place. But once you visit such a place, the thought of what wicked men and women are capable of doing comfortably will never leave you… It represents how humanity can quickly and effectively dehumanize an entire people group.”
He told The Jerusalem Report how the wood inside the Majdanek barracks had the “stench of pain and suffering. It was hot and uncomfortable.”
A third influencer, Christian YouTube vlogger Sam Rader, said the piles of human hair are what stood out for him.
“I have three daughters and a wife, and the thought of an evil man putting his hand on their hair hurts,” he said.
Rader’s YouTube channel has 2.6 million subscribers for whom he and his wife, Nia, share stories about daily life as a Christian family. He said that he is “just at the very beginning of this journey” of understanding Judaism, Israel and its connection to Christianity.
Rader admitted he did not know that antisemitism is on the rise in the United States.
“I don’t really come in contact with Jews,” Rader said.
He shared that during his trip a family member sent him a message questioning his motives and warning Rader that the Jews are trying to take over the world, including Hollywood.
“I probably would not have identified that as antisemitic” before the trip, Rader said. “But after I read it aloud to Shari, and I saw the pain, this whole trip just came to convergence, and at that moment, it became real to me.
“I had an epiphany,” Rader continued. “It is my duty when I get back home to bring awareness.”
‘This land feels somewhat magical’
Buzolic had been to Israel before in search of the roots of his faith. When he got to Israel, he said he discovered that the messages being shared on social networks about Israel being an apartheid state and an enemy nation committing genocide were wrong.
He quickly became an outspoken advocate for the Jewish state and the notion that God promised the land to the Jewish people.
“I lost a lot of followers the more vocal I became,” he admitted. But he said that once people are exposed to the reality of antisemitism, it is not something that they can just “unsee.”
“Americans are trying to fight racism, but the Jewish idea of racism is not relevant, and it breaks my heart a lot and reminds me how important it is to be a voice for this nation,” Buzolic said.
“When a Jewish person says antisemitism exists, it is easy to say he is just complaining. But when a Christian and a non-Israeli speak on behalf of the nation, I am more of a threat because I have nothing to gain from this ultimately,” he said.
For Payne, the experience was very personal.
She grew up between bouts of homelessness and forced to move between 23 elementary schools. She recalled how she would pray for a place to feel like home.
“I understand homelessness at a deep level. So, when I heard about these refugees who needed a new home and were offered a new home just by the Law of Return it really enamored me,” Payne explained. “It was quite amazing to be at the bottom of the tarmac and offering suckers to kids who just made a flight to Israel.
“There was this intense sense of peace knowing that once they land in Israel this could be home, but not just home on the level of a place on this planet, but a cultural identity of a home from which they have been displaced for multiple generations. This land feels somewhat magical.”
Payne said she is a proud and faithful Christian, but she stands beside the Jewish people and believes there is “beauty in standing together regardless of our religion” – a message she hopes to share with her followers.
“I am a Christian in a Western culture that is more concerned when I post a cute bag online where they can get it and what is the link,” Payne quipped. “I am sitting here thinking how do I push past that in the narrative of the stories I have been telling, from a lady that was just laughing in her car for four minutes to bring hope to a people that have names and faces, that have been documented and captured and are still even living and carrying on generation to generation, and for me to say this is important for all of us.”
‘We must remember God’s story’
Larysa Butenko is an 84-year-old Holocaust survivor from Ukraine. When she was four, the Nazis invaded her country and she was forced into hiding, according to the story shared by Buzolic on Instagram.
Butenko only returned to her birthplace in the 1950s after Stalin died. Soon after, she was married and moved to a nearby Ukrainian province, Nikolaev. Her husband and daughter died a few years ago, so Butenko remained in the country alone.
A month before the war broke out, scared for her safety, Butenko’s grandson brought her to live with him in Lithuania. But she always believed she would go back to Ukraine. That dream was shattered a few months ago when the Russians heavily bombed Nikolaev.
On Tuesday, June 21, Butenko was flown to Israel, where she joined her widowed sister in Afula. Buzolic accompanied her.
“Antisemitism is really present and widely accepted by the vast majority,” he told the Report. “But it is not just today. Antisemitism has been in every generation. How will Israel win this battle? By lifting up their hands and relying on Hashem [God].”
Although Buzolic is a Christian, he said that he has taken it upon himself to educate the young Jewish population, too, to help them forge their own, deep connection with their Jewish God.
“As Christians, we must remember God’s story, we must remember God’s purpose and we must remember God’s first people,” Buzolic stressed. “Social media is all about algorithms. It’s about sheer numbers. The more people talking about and pushing a narrative the more that idea becomes the truth.” ■