Comment: Why the ghettos of Poland are still important

An hour at Auschwitz gives one a better understanding of the Holocaust than reading five 300-page books.

auschwitz 298.88 (photo credit: )
auschwitz 298.88
(photo credit: )
My wife and I had a debate earlier in the year about whether to send our oldest son, a 12th-grader, on a weeklong tour with his school to the former concentration camps and burned-out ghettos of Poland. My wife is opposed to these tours, horrified by the idea that a tourism industry was created out of the ashes of the Holocaust, and that Jews pay money to see where their ancestors were killed.
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I take a different approach, however. The benefit my son would get from visiting the concentration camps outweighed, in my mind, the problematic aspects of being a part of this rather morbid Israeli rite of passage. An hour at Auschwitz would give him a better understanding of the Holocaust than reading five 300-page books - books he would not read anyhow, at least not at this stage of his life. But this is precisely the stage of his life when it is important for him to touch the Holocaust. A year before he goes into the army is precisely the time for him to go to Poland and see where the Jews were then, where they are today, and why it is so important for him to help defend what we have gained in the interim. As the son of a survivor, the Holocaust was a significant part of my life. It shaped my consciousness and influenced key life decisions. Obviously an event that happened more than 60 years ago is less real for my son. But I want it to be real for him. I want it to impact on his thinking, calibrate his morality as it has mine. In the end, my son traveled to Poland, saw the crematoria, toured the ghettos, went to the old synagogues, visited the graves. And when he returned I understood that it was important for him to go to Auschwitz not only to commune with the murdered Jews of the past, but also to get a reminder of what faces the living, breathing Jews of the present. What did we read two short weeks ago in the Haggada? "In every generation they rise against us and seek our destruction." For my mother and her family the Haggada's "they" were Hitler and the Nazis. For my boy and I, "they" are Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his fellow travelers. Sounds crazy? Extreme? Paranoid? Compare the following speeches. On January 30, 1939, Adolf Hitler addressed the Reichstag at the Kroll Opera House in Berlin to commemorate six years since assuming power. Power that was assumed, keep in mind, through democratic means. "I have often been a prophet in my life and was generally laughed at," Hitler said. "During my struggle for power, the Jews primarily received with laughter my prophecies that I would someday assume the leadership of the state and thereby of the entire nation and then, among many other things, achieve a solution of the Jewish problem. I suppose that meanwhile the laughter of Jewry in Germany that resounded then is probably already choking in their throats. "Today I want to be a prophet again. If international finance Jewry within Europe and abroad should succeed once more in plunging the peoples into a world war, then the consequence will be not the Bolshevization of the world and therewith a victory of Jewry, but on the contrary the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe." By all accounts a shocking assertion made by a head of state. Now consider Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent statement at an Al-Quds conference in Teheran 10 days ago. "Like it or not, the Zionist regime is heading toward annihilation. The Zionist regime is a rotten, dried tree that will be eliminated by one storm." On Monday Ahmadinejad struck again, telling a news conference that "this fake regime [Israel] cannot not logically continue to live." And in October, at a "World without Zionism" conference, he said "the establishment of the Zionist regime was a move by the world oppressor against the Islamic world." He added, "As [Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini] said, Israel must be wiped off the map." These are not prophecies that Israel, to paraphrase Hitler, can afford to receive "with laughter." Historians may argue whether in January 1939 the extermination of European Jewry was something that Hitler already thought was possible or whether it was a distant dream, product of an ideological fanaticism, that he wished he could accomplish but didn't really believe he would be able to carry out. But when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 and it looked like he was going to win the war in the east and millions of Jews fell under his control, things changed and it suddenly seemed possible to implement the "dream." Which makes Ahmadinejad's statements so chilling. It's one thing for the Iranian President to threaten Israel with annihilation when he doesn't have the means to carry out the threat. It's quite another when he makes these statements after announcing that he has centrifuges that can enrich uranium and when the acquisition of nuclear weapons looks frightfully within his grasp. What in the past he might have thought was wishful thinking may suddenly look to him all the more real when he has the means to carry it out. Those are the thoughts that will be going through the head of this Israeli son of a survivor when the sirens sound Tuesday morning and we stop and bow our heads. It is difficult escaping the feeling during these days of Iranian nuclear threats, Hamas warnings, and Islamic Jihad suicide attacks that, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Except, of course, the condition of the Jews has changed - which is the reason I wanted my son to go to Poland. I wanted him to touch that change, feel that change, and understand that change. We're now less na ve, less dependent, and infinitely more able to defend ourselves - even against the likes of Ahmadinejad.