Poland Diary / A voyage from Auschwitz to Jerusalem

An American academic finds echoes of the past on his recent trip to Poland and Israel, as part of a delegation from Friends of the IDF.

Herb London Poland 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Herb London Poland 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Herbert London is President Emeritus of Hudson Institute and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at New York University. As a supporter of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces, he took part in this month's FIDF delegation to Poland and Israel. This is his diary of the trip.

Go south young man - April 17, 2013
David Ben-Gurion’s vision as the first prime minister of Israel was in large part the vision of this new nation. As a simple man, his vision wasn’t in the cities, already well established in 1948. He was a pioneer eager to expand the Zionist dream into the desert. For many, the Negev looked barren and foreboding; for Ben-Gurion it was the national expansion of Israel.
In 19th century America, “Go west young man” was a statement of promise. Today, the Negev is finally being realized in the same way. It is understandable. For a variety of strategic reasons, the Israel Defense Forces cannot be concentrated near the major cities. Just as the destruction of the American Navy at Pearl Harbor led to the dispersion of naval vessels, the move to consolidate nine commands under one flag in the Negev makes eminent sense for the IDF. Moreover, this move is consistent with the Ben-Gurion plan.
Ben-Gurion’s grave site resides in the Zin Valley, a beautiful and serene setting. It is a majestic place for a figure of extraordinary influence. Yet it is as natural as Ben-Gurion himself. He wasn’t a religious man, but he appreciated the spiritual dimensions of life. This setting lifts the spirit and even offers the unfolding of a national dream. After all, it was Ben-Gurion who said “If you do not conquer the desert, it will conquer you.” He was intent in realizing that mission.
Ben-Gurion was also the leader of the IDF, uniting various fighting divisions in the newly developed state under one banner. It was therefore appropriate that our group visited the Ramon Air Base, a desert base for the Apache helicopters and F-16s.
Here is the embodiment of Israeli fire power. In seconds F-16s were wheels-up for a fly-by. My heart soared as the pilots waved on their way to the runway. These are the children of Ben-Gurion - warriors intent on protecting Israel who use the Negev as their launch site. Each plane has been Israelized with avionics that are home-grown to account for the neighborhood in which they operate.
On the day we arrived, there were reports of rockets fired from the Sinai into Eilat. In fact, the flight scheduled to take us back to Ben-Gurion Airport was cancelled. My thoughts immediately turned to the Israeli flyboys. They control the skies. Their commander is tough, smart and philosophical. As he noted on an earlier occasion, he makes sacrifices because he loves the State of Israel and because he has three children who he envisions living in a free and secure Israel.
This is the unique spirit that Israeli forces bring to the battlefield. It is Ben-Gurion’s dream being expressed through young men and women who know they are the defenders of the state.
As I left the compound, I wished the commander well. He thanked me and my colleagues for joining him and his pilots. But the real thanks belong to him. Israel is a shining beacon in a dark and dangerous region. It shines because of the IDF and it speaks each and every day to the Ben-Gurion vision.
Bumble bee - April 16, 2013For me, the most appropriate way to describe the State of Israel is as a bumble bee. From the standpoint of aerodynamics the bumble bee should not fly. Its wings are too small to sustain its weight. Yet remarkably the bumble bee soars.
Israel soars as well, despite neighbors that want to eliminate the state, even wipe it off the map; internal politics that are often byzantine at best and fissures of a social and cultural variety.
The commander of an IDF elite intelligence unit made it clear that Israel’s advantage is overcoming the odds against it. Israel’s entire history is an example of small and major miracles. Its strategic vision is one based on optimism. The difficult is handled with dispatch; the impossible takes a little longer.
On the 65th anniversary it was an absolute delight to spend some time with the troops. We danced and celebrated together, but most significant was the conversation which reinforced the view that Israel is a land of optimism. Every one of the soldiers expressed a commitment to Israel, not only because of the tradition they carry in their hearts, but because of their determination to shape the future. They understand what the military must do in order to celebrate one anniversary after another.
Israel remains optimistic, notwithstanding the problems in its neighborhood from Libya and Egypt to Syria. That optimism is not Pollyannaish; it is based on a confirmed belief that whatever the problem, Israel can address it. Every query to commanders and soldiers elicits the same response: "Yes, that’s an issue, but we can deal with it."
I believe that is true, although Israel must guard against confidence morphing into complacency. Israel’s enemies are searching for that chink in national armor. This anniversary suggests, however, what every philosemite already knows – Israel has the will to defend itself and that will is manifest in the remarkable people in the Israel Defense Forces.
The balloons our contingent launched from the roof of the unit soared into the heavens just as Israel itself soars. Every single soldier is a microcosm of the national will. From what I can tell they are resolute, tough and committed to the welfare of the state.
God may not be in his heaven and all may not be right with the world (to draw on Browning), but as I see it, God does smile on Israel and despite any problems Israel may have, it is much more right than wrong.
Let this 65th anniversary remind the world, Israel is here to stay and the IDF is prepared to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to achieve this result.
Yes, Israel is like a bumble bee.Beni Berale – April 15, 2013
Tens of thousands of Israelis gathered across the country on Yom Hazikaron (Remembrance Day), to honor those who had perished in wars and terror attacks. A special ceremony at the gravesites of Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim began with the ritual siren call heard across Israel. Mournful prayer recalled the price of independence, so that, according to the words of Hatikvah, Israel would become a nation of “free people in our own land.”
Each burial site exemplifies an idiosyncratic tale of valor, but one caught my eye. It is was that of Beni Berale, a teenager caught in the cauldron of the Holocaust. Berale was a nickname; no one knew his real name and so posthumously his nickname became his last name.
When he was freed from the concentration camps, Beni was confused.  He was 16 years old; his parents and relatives had been murdered. He was told it was dangerous to go east and dicey to go west, and so, with friends, he came to Israel.
It was 1948 and war had already broken out. Beni was on his own, but he had a burning desire to fight for his adopted home. Upon arrival, he was handed a rifle and drafted into a makeshift Jewish army.  Yitzak Rabin was his commander and the Palmach was his unit. Beni was fighting bravely for something he had never known: a homeland. In a firefight on the corridor to Jerusalem, Beni was killed. But he was no longer alone: another 144 survivors died with him in the 1948 War for Independence. 
These victims who stood helpless in the face of the German war machine died with guns in their hands fighting for something they believed in. Beni was no longer the victim; he was the hero.
Beni was one of millions whose identity had been taken by the murderous Nazis. Yet people like Beni shaped this land; he was a lost soul who had found an identity in Israel. May he rest in peace along with his brothers who gave their lives so others could prosper in this Jewish land of liberty.
At the kibbutz, thousands said Kadish as the Israeli flag stood proudly at half-mast above the assembled throng. The sacrifice that some made cannot be forgotten, and the pledge made today, on behalf of the State of Israel, is to continue to defend the nation’s principles and its independence.
From the cemetery, our group travelled to the headquarters of the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, more commonly known as Mossad. It was an apt conclusion to the afternoon, as the head of this vaunted organization provided some insight into the intelligence needed to protect Israeli security. Although understandably ambiguous and diffident at times, he could be direct. When asked on whom Israel can depend for intelligence, he responded, “Ourselves.” In my opinion, this is the appropriate response. This land shaped by Berale and others who gave their lives must depend on itself. Israel is an independent nation in every way.
The culmination of this day was the transformation of reflection and sorrow into celebration and happiness.It was time to honor the spirit of the past by contemplating the opportunities so many provided for the future. Remembrance Day morphed into Independence Day and the tears became smiles. Israel is a land of contradictions, but at its essence is survival.Israel cannot lose any battles. Its longevity depends on young people who absorb the spirit of Beni Berale. His story and stories like his must be retold so the spirit of this nation is reenergized from generation to generation.
Yizkor – April 14, 2013

Sunday is the day Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with membersof the Knesset. To my delight he metwith our contingent as well, for about half an hour. When asked about the Arab Spring, or what Iwould call the Autumn Nightmare, he said Israeli policy toward its neighborshas not changed.  National defense standsas the overarching concern. However, theperspective on the region has changed. Theological considerations, triballoyalties, government failure and totalitarian impulses are features that havealtered the landscape.

The prime minister also noted that whoever comes to Israelrealizes this nation is a force. As he pointed out, after the completion ofBen-Gurion Airport, “Israel became a real nation.” Indeed Israel is real inevery sense: economically, politically, culturally.

Our day continued with visits to the K-9 division, wheredogs serve as scouts and explosive-seekers, saving lives and reducing terroristinfluence. It is ironic that the German Shepherds herding Jews into the campsnow are employed to save Jewish lives.

This was followed by a visit to the LOTAR counter-terrorunit. The pyrotechnics and the demonstration of breaching a terrorist enclavewere impressive. Even more impressive are the youngsters in this unit: resilient,reliable and attractive. Everyone found themselves gravitating to thisremarkable group of soldiers whose job is to preempt when necessary and savelives when possible.

Arguably the most important event of the day was the inaugurationof Remembrance Day at Metzudat Kfir in Jerusalem, where IDF soldiers honortheir fallen comrades. It is Yizkor, a period of remembrance for thosewho made the ultimate sacrifice so that Israel could survive.

The sirens blare through the dark night, a sharp reminderthat Israel lives because others have died. A screen reveals youthful facesfilled with the blush of life, now honored heroes. Many Israeli parents livewith the grief of their children being interred before them.  Yet theirs is the silent bond that unites thenation. Their sacrifice results in a nation proud and unyielding.

Israel’s soil is drenched with the blood of fallenheroes. That blood is restorative; itsends a message to Israel’s enemies that this nation will do whatever isnecessary to survive. Morale is the nation’s secret weapon. As Hatikvah is sung,cold tears slowly descend down my cheeks. The symbols are palpable. This is theJewish sanctuary; it will live as long as young men and women are willing todefend this land.

After the defeat at the Battle of Midway, Japanese AdmiralNagumo said he was defeated by American culture, by the way American troops conductedthemselves in battle. There is a lesson in this for Israelis. Israel’s strengthis its culture. The love of life; the belief in liberty and the youth who arewilling to defend these principles represent the essential strength of thenation.

Never again? – April 13, 2013

It is clear that the IDF and every sensible Jew standsbehind the slogan “Never Again.”  Neveragain will Jews stand silently as millions are killed and never again will Jewsbe defenseless in the face of overwhelming force.

Yet – and here I hesitate – any briefing on the Middle Eastleads inevitably to the conclusion that chaos reigns in the region.  Ari Melamed offered his view of currentevents and the recent past.  In the caseof state actors, the Arab Spring is the Autumn of despair. 

Egypt is now a failed state with a 50-percent unemploymentrate, a desperate need for imported wheat, and bankruptcies in every quarter.  Without foreign aid, the nation is doomed.

Syria is in the midst of a civil war with Bashar Assadhaving killed 75,000 people, many of them civilians.  The rebel force isn’t much better with warlords attempting to position themselves for authority in a post-Assadregime.  Ironically, the US - throughsurrogates in France and Britain - is supporting a rebel force buttressed byal-Qaeda that has already established itself as a political entity.

The Syrian war has migrated across borders into Lebanon,Iraq and Iran, adding Sunni-Shia tension to an already volatile situation.  The precipitous withdrawal of American forcesfrom Iraq and the ambiguous US position in the region has fosteredconfusion.  President Maliki of Iraq isnow dependent on Iran in order to maintain his position.

Iran’s desire to be the region’s “strong horse” is tied tothe development of nuclear weapons. Should this happen, as I believe it will, a Pandora’s box will be openedthat leads to nuclear proliferation.

These, by the way, are merely the state actors.  Non-state actors such as Hamas and al-Qaedahave their own nefarious agendas.

Without going into painstaking detail, the roiling politicalwaters of the Middle East have a direct effect on Israeli policy.  While one might assume the internal statebattles foreclose on hostile attacks against Israel, the long term isdifferent.  Hezbollah and Hamas maydislike on another, but they unite in their hostility to Israel.  Should events stabilize, it is possibleIsrael could face threats from the south, the north and the east, along with anArmageddon strategy from Iran.  But the“long run” itself is contingent on unpredictable events.

Clearly there are imponderables in any scenario for thefuture.  But whatever unfolds, Israelmust remain strong on every political front. Rebel forces in Syria today could well be terrorist groups in the Golantomorrow.  Al-Qaeda in the Sinai todaycould well be suicide bombers in Ashdod tomorrow.  Hence the role of the IDF cannotdiminish.  There isn’t any way to be sureof the location of the next attack, but it is likely there will be attacks.

From Birkenau to Gaza, Jews have faced enemies.  They come in different guises, but they willcome. While Jews pray for peace – an admirable goal –I believe it is utopian.  I pray for stability, for a time whenviolence decreases.  It may not be peace,but it is better than the status quo.

Resurrection - April 12,2013

Flying from Poland to Israel on an IDF airplane is theequivalent of resurrection. We went from the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenauto the Land of Milk and Honey in Israel. In fact, Israel existed long beforethe year of its founding as a nation in 1948, but its meaning after theHolocaust became all too profound for Jews everywhere.

That was evident when we landed in Tel Aviv amid a joyouscelebration that included dancing, singing and pin distribution.  Israel, not only breathes free, it defies thestench of destruction the Nazis attempted to impose on Jews. On the way toJerusalem, I reflected on what I had experienced during the last few days. Therewas a swing of emotion, from darkness and despair to exhilaration and hope. Ina strange way, the utter depth of despair has given happiness deeper meaningthan might be expected. Every breath a Jew takes is a gift provided byancestors who lost their lives in the death camps.

It is instructive that the plane ride to Ben-Gurion Airportwas a party unlike any trip I have made heretofore. Very few people sat intheir seats. There was a birthday celebration, photos with the flight captain,singing of “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” and even a demonstration ofin-flight refueling.  This was anexplosion of emotion, a relief – a seeming exhalation of tension borne by allwe witnessed.

Israel is indeed home for Jews. It is the realization thathowever much I love America, Israel is a sanctuary, a place where I can alwaysseek repose. I thank God this nation exists and I thank God the Israel DefenseForces stands behind it.

It is not coincidental that our arrival was timed with thearrival of Shabbat. The clouds broke as we drove along the Judean Hills linedwith monuments to the heroic soldiers who broke the siege of Jerusalem in 1948.In the evening, the Sabbath dinner was graced by the presence of the Chief Cantorof the IDF and lone soldiers - those IDF soldiers without families in Israel. Aftera blessing from the rabbi of the Kotel, we enjoyed the music of the IDFRabbinic Ensemble.

My wife and I were exhausted, struggling to stay awake, butit was a time for thankfulness. We are in Israel, a blessed land. Even fatigue couldnot diminish the sheer joy of being here and the gratitude I feel for theexistence of this glorious nation.

Primo Levi in his poem “Shema” admonished thatsurvivors should recall what they experienced. “I commend these words to you. Carvethem into your hearts. At home, in the streets, Going to be, rising; Repeatthem to your children…” The Shabbat is a good time to begin and Israel, basedon its history, is the place to take this admonition to heart.

Don’t be late - April 11, 2013

The horror of Auschwitz and Birkenau is simplyineffable.  These two chambers ofmonumental horror comprise the largest concentration camp in the Nazi plan forthe “final solution” – the eradication of Jews.

The design for mass murder started with stripping away anysign of human dignity. Hair was cut, possessions were taken, eye glasses werecrushed, toothbrushes were confiscated. The daughters of political dissidentswere forced into prostitution with their chests tattooed with the words “fieldwhore.” Children were taken from parents. Siblings were separated from oneanother.

It was understandable that many Jews denied the reality ofthis final solution. How can anyone assume mass murder of this kind was possible?Then I observed the thousands of infant garments collected before mere babieswere gassed and cremated. What kind of barbarian kills infants? What madnessleads to a result so unthinkable?

In the room where millions were gassed to death there arescratches on the wall, signs of complete desperation, of unspeakable suffering.Where were the Allies who could have destroyed the rail lines leading to thedeath camps? Despite all the denials, the evidence indicates they knew what wasgoing on, but were sinfully indifferent.

Survivors of thecamps testified explaining the horror of their experience. They were teenagerswhen forced into the last ring of hell. It was youthful strength that kept themalive. As survivor Asher Aud noted, he got a “lucky number” tattooed to his arm,which meant he would work rather than die. Notwithstanding every effort todestroy the spirit of Jews, there were moments of human concern. The Naziscould not destroy the moral legacy of the past. Joe Gringlas, another survivor,talks of planting flowers when a new victim who was on his way to the gaschamber inadvertently stepped on them. A guard, observing this incident toldJoe to hit the confused victim on the head with a wooden plank. He refused. “Icouldn’t do it,” he said “whatever the consequences.”

At the end of a gut-wrenching day, we marched with IDFsoldiers, proud warriors, who after observing the crimes against Jews understandwhy their role is critical. As the Israeli flag was raised about a quarter of amile from the Birkenau entrance, I was too choked up to speak. Yes, Jews oftensay “never again,” but “never again” occurs again as a French Muslim killsJewish children leaving a Hebrew Day School or Egyptian Prime Minister MohammedMorsi says Jews are the progeny of apes and monkeys, or Iranian PresidentMahmoud Ahmadinejad maintains Israel should be wiped off the map.

This time there was a difference. The hate directed at Jewshas not dissipated in many quarters, but the political killers, the new Nazis,know that there is a force of such magnitude Jews no longer tremble with thethreats. That the Israeli flag and those remarkable IDF soldiers provide ampleevidence that the past is not easily repeated. 

Rabbi Lau, the former chief rabbi of Israel, recently toldof meeting a soldier in Patton’s Third Army that liberated camps in Germany in1945. To the rabbi’s surprise, the solder was disconsolate about theliberation. He explained that “we came too late.” So much slaughter could havebeen avoided had President Roosevelt reacted in time, he noted. When Rabbi Laumet President Obama on his recent trip to Israel, he told him this story andconcluded with the following words: “Don’t be late.”

Now Israel doesn’t have to rely on allies or the righteousfew. If the skies turn red with the billowing smoke of corpses – God forbid –Israeli jets will do the bombing. Perhaps more than any nation on earth, theJewish experience testifies to the claim peace is only possible throughstrength.

The silent scream - April 10, 2013

Words often cannot convey deep emotion. At tour of Tarnow,home to more than 500,00  Jews who facedunspeakable atrocities and Buczyna Forest where 800 children were executed byNazi monsters, left me speechless. I could only conceive of one artistic image, Edvard Munch’s “Scream’”, a silent scream of such intensity that people had tolook and wonder.

Tarnow is a “silent” city. The Jews, who once representedhalf the population and 90 percent of the businesses, are gone, murdered incold blood – the victims of an ideology that violates any notion of humanism. Thecity is silent for two reasons: the Jews are gone, and the Poles were silenteither because they were complicit in the collective murder or they were toofearful to speak. Many forget that in 1947 when several Jewish survivorsreturned to their Polish homes, a pogrom was launched against them. The Germansdidn’t have a monopoly on hate.

When our group reached the Zbylitowska Gora village on theoutskirts of Buczyna Forest, we lined up and marched as one group to the forest“grave” sites. It is inspiring to recall that we marched with our heads heldhigh carrying Israeli flags accompanied by 25 members of the IDF, as opposed tothe naked victims ashamed to stand straight on their way to their deaths.

The mass graves contain thousands of Jews, including at least 800 children. But these are notgrave sites in any real sense; they are death pits. One group waited and watchedas the slaughter went on and the bodies were tossed into the pit. What couldfour- and five-year-olds– too young to understand – have thought as theywatched the horror and realized they were next? In some cases they were simplythrown into the death pit buried alive - why waste a bullet? We read the namesof those fallen and the year of their birth: 1937, five years old; 1939, fouryears old. My mind was spinning and nausea invaded my throat. I was born in thesame year as many of these children and could have easily been one of them.

At the services, members of the IDF stood in attention asthe flags were unfurled and the anthem was sung. My thoughts turned from theutter helplessness of the victims to the strength of Israel’s military force.Colonel Ori Seffert, the commander of the Ramon Air Force base, noted in hiscomments that he has three children he envisioned all through this trip throughKrakow and Tarnow. “I particularly see them here in this forest, walkingthrough the woods in these paths pushed by the wave of people, dragged by theguards and dogs towards the death pit frightened by the shouts. Are theytogether? What are their thoughts? Can I save them?”

In the past, there weren’t any saviors. Now there are, andOri is among them. Yet the nagging question remains: how could anyone killinnocent children for no reason except their Jewishness? It is a question thatgoes right to my core; in fact, nightmares now keep me awake.

Then it dawned on me. Aside from the orders and possibly thedrunkenness, there was something else at work in these murders. These killerspersuaded themselves that Jews are not human. In their perverse mind set theJews are insects to be stepped on. 

In his novel Metamorphosis, Josef Kafka has his leading charactertransformed from human to cockroach. Here is the metaphorical equivalent of theShoah. For these barbarous Nazis, Jews were not human. It didn’t make anydifference if they were young or old; they had to be eradicated like aninvasion of locusts.

I scream in the night, a silent scream. I cry for thevictims. And I assert that the Israeli military force must remain strong,prepared and willing to sacrifice, not only for the welfare of Israel, but forJews everywhere.  That is the lesson ofBuczyna Forest and Tarnow, and wherever Jews are treated as less than human.

Death and affirmation - April 9, 2013
Attempting to revisit the past is a dicey business. No matter how hard one tries, the past never reveals itself fully.
From roughly the 14th century and through to the Holocaust, Krakow had a thriving Jewish community. There were dozens of synagogues; some private, some associated with families and some a reflection of community interest.
We visited several of these synagogues, among the oldest in Europe.  But rather than reveal insight into the past – the obvious intention of the visit – they revealed something about the Shoah. The synagogues were laid waste; they are now museums, or, more accurately, mausoleums. To add disgrace to the devastation, the Nazis used these religious structures as stables and weapons depots.
While religious life blood cannot be restored without life, without an active Jewish community, the Jews in this Jewish Quarter are primarily tourists striving to uncover secrets about their ancestry. Looking at a well-maintained home once occupied by Helena Rubenstein doesn’t cut it. Yet there is something to be said for the design of the neighborhood and the cemetery that transports visitors hundreds of years into another age. 
Before lunch we gathered as a group in the Temple Synagogue. Even if we cannot give this site the transfusion it needs, we did successfully attempt to restore the sounds of the past with moving musical compositions and wonderfully raucous song and dance.
After lunch we travelled across the Vistula to the Jewish ghetto, the community where Jews were forced to live after the Nazi occupation. Eighteen thousand Jews were removed from their homes and marched across the river into a dilapidated community. There they faced the humiliation of waiting hours and sometimes days as the Nazis selected those healthy enough to be taken to a nearby work camp – now made famous in “Schindler’s List.”
They waited in bone chilling cold, unable to use a restroom and brutalized by the sadistic work camp general, Amon Goeth.  When women attempted to retain their children usually separated at this public selection scene, the Nazis bayoneted the knapsacks carrying the infants - leaving blood stains on the plaza for decades. This has been paved over, and nondescript green chairs dot the environment.
The ghetto itself, isolated from the rest of Krakow, was a den of disease and despair. Jews forced into the work camp were obliged to walk miles to reach their destination in cold weather so raw, many froze to death on the way. Spielberg revealed a great deal in his film, but not everything.
No matter how many stories are told, it is difficult for the horrors of the Holocaust to be understood. For the victims who survived, every second was tortuous; for the dead, life was taken too swiftly and without regard for even a scintilla of human emotion.
There are, of course, unanticipated moments. A guest on the trip told me of a colleague living in Krakow who when told to deliver all of his silver and gold objects to the Nazi command, hid these valuables in a floor board in his home as his young son watched fascinated by his father’s hiding place. As the years passed and the communists came to rule Poland, the father was reluctant to claim his treasure.Then he passed away. Ten years ago the boy, now very much a man and father himself, returned to Krakow. He found the house he lived in as a child and then with remarkable zeal started to dig in order to find the buried treasure. Mirabile dictu, despite the passage of 65 years, he recovered the family valuables.
This isn’t a story that mitigates Nazi atrocities, but it does show something about the human spirit: What the Nazis and Soviets couldn’t destroy often survives.
Solzhenitsyn once noted that even if the globe were covered in cement at some point a crack would emerge, and from the crack a plant would grow and flourish. The Nazis tried to destroy every resemblance of Jewish life and culture, but in the end their necromania was trumped by a life spirit that cannot be squelched.
The cobblestones of Krakow - April 8, 2013
Krakow was once the home of one of Europe’s largest population of Jews.  For centuries it was a center of Jewish culture.
My wife and I walked through this charming city that vibrates with vitality.  Even on a chilly afternoon coffee houses are filled.  The stores on the main street might be seen on Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street.
The marketplace or city center is a grand plaza, the kind that would not be out of place in Prague or Brussels.  As I walked over the cobblestones, I realized each one had a story for me.
I closed my eyes and it was 1941.  Jews were herded into the square trembling and silent.  Police dogs stood watch as if shepherding sheep.  Only days before this lock-down, Jews were minding their shops, tending to their children and healing the sick.  Now the cobblestones tell me they had a one way ticket to oblivion.
There is a gossamer thin line between civility and barbarism.  Nazis reared on ficte, Wagner deposited their culture in the slaughter house of savagery.  Hitler may have convinced many Germans that Jews were a toxin, but it was these same Jews who built industries and discovered medicines in Germany and around the world.
From the town square to Auschwitz, from the harmony of quotidian life to the ovens, the cobblestones keep talking.  As Jews were herded on to the cattle cars, their destination was unknown.  Children could be heard weeping, but most were silent, enveloped in their own thoughts and fears.   Do you pack for a week or a lifetime?  Where are the allies?  Where is the outrage?  On these matters, there is only silence.
Now the camps attract tourists – a perverse form of Disney World in which an atrocity breeds a desire for profit.  Clearly that isn’t the case for all who come to Auschwitz.  Many wish to bear witness, to say we do mean “never again.”  But the world is myopic.  Anti-Semitism is the one “ism” that never dies.  It rears its ugly head in the same Europe that claimed it was a stain that must be cleansed.  And it is the calling card for radical Muslims wherever they are found.
Yet I walk these streets bound to hope.  My ancestors didn’t have defenders; they trembled in the night unsure of their fate. Today there is a force of young, talented and tough Jews who are our protectors:  They are the members of the IDF, the Israeli force that defends principles of decency against the barbarians who would recreate the Holocaust.
We are engaged in a civilizational struggle, one whose outcome is unclear.  But this time the cobblestones deliver another message.  We will not tremble in the presence of your S.S. guards.  We will not cower in the courtyards of Europe when rounded up. In fact, we will not be rounded up.  We have a formidable force that, like it or not, you will have to recognize.  Yes, the cobblestones sing a different tune.  Shema Yisrael, we are prepared to defend ourselves.