The haunting spirits of Auschwitz

"When I’m in Poland, I don’t have the energy or mental capacity to engage in these constant deliberations about Poland versus Israel."

Birkenau concentration camp in Poland in the snow (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Birkenau concentration camp in Poland in the snow
Auschwitz, Poland – Though I’ve been to this extermination camp countless times, beginning nearly 30 years ago, it never grows easy and it never becomes comfortable. I can honestly say that I hate coming to Auschwitz. So why do I keep on returning? Why do I come to Auschwitz, sometimes even several times a year? Why do I keep on visiting the most horrible, evil, darkest place on Earth?
Because I’m sure in the deepest recesses of my heart that the six million want me to visit, that they want me to come to their graves, that they don’t want to be forgotten. I know in my soul that their spirits take comfort when I come here, that their tormented memories have just a tiny respite from the darkness of their demise when we Jews come to show our love and pay our respects and demonstrate to the holy martyrs of Birkenau that they’ll never be forgotten.
Now I’ve come to Poland for the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the death camp as a guest for the special commemorations staged by the Polish government and attended by a phalanx of world leaders. I’m aware that many Jews see Poles as inherently antisemitic, but that is a silly and offensive belief belied by the Polish people’s dedication to holocaust memory and preserving the camps.
Besides, when I’m in Poland, I don’t have the energy or mental capacity to engage in these constant deliberations about Poland versus Israel. No, I’m way too consumed by the pain of simply visiting the camps and confronting the unspeakable tragedy of my people. Even after you’ve been countless times, it is still soul-destroying.
So many stories come running back to me about my visits. There was the time, nearly three decades ago, when I visited Auschwitz for the first time with Prof. Jonathan Webber of Oxford and his wife, Connie, both very close friends from the university. Jonathan pioneered modern Jewish-Polish relations, and is an unsung hero of so much modern Holocaust education. He helped write the very signs posted throughout the death camp, ensuring that the story of one million Jews who died there is told accurately. And yet, when I visited with him all those years ago, I saw giant crosses covering Auschwitz nearly everywhere.
That was when Cardinal Józef Glemp, the archbishop of Krakow who has been rightly criticized as an antisemite – in one sermon, he blamed the Jews for spreading alcoholism in Poland – allowed a Carmelite nunnery to actually move into the death camp and stay in the building where the Zyklon-B canisters were kept.
THE CATHOLICS felt that if the Jews aren’t going to put up religious symbols in the camp, then they would fill the void with symbols of their own. But we Jews, for our part, felt that Auschwitz is a place of such horror that it represents a tear in the fabric of the universe, a chasm, a black hole of nothingness. No religious symbol could redeem it. It has to remain empty. It was a place of silence rather than prayer, a place of irredeemable darkness.
Ultimately, through the heroic protests of Jewish leaders like Avi Weiss – and the personal intervention of one of the greatest popes of all time, John Paul II, who had just served as the cardinal archbishop of Krakow – the nuns left and with them the crosses. Today Auschwitz has returned to be a place of silent contemplation that is not dominated by symbols of Christian worship as the Polish people rightly recognize that 90% of the people murdered there were Jews.
Then there was the time, years later, when my wife, Debbie, whose family from Slovakia was devastated by the Holocaust, found the name of her great-uncle Zoltan Yisrael Wiesner in the rosters of names of those murdered in Auschwitz. He was just a teenager when he was taken from his parents who watched his train depart the station while they scrambled, unsuccessfully, to show papers to his captors that would have had him freed.
By just a few minutes his life was forfeited. His parents, Debbie’s great-grandparents, never recovered from the murder of their son. And I saw in my wife’s eyes that the pain of confronting relatives murdered in the Holocaust is of course generational. There was nothing I could say to comfort Debbie. I just stood and read the name with her in silence. I felt stupid and useless. A husband who spends his life fighting for the Jewish people could do nothing to comfort his own wife.
I also recalled visiting Auschwitz on the 69th anniversary of the liberation, when members of the Knesset attended through the efforts of Jonny Daniels, and I walked through the terrifying train gates with Chief Rabbi David Lau holding a Torah. We were surrounded by high-ranking IDF officers and soldiers in uniform – most of whom had an empty, vacuous gaze – and my thoughts turned to what would have been, what might have been, had the Jewish people had a state and an army when Hitler came to power.
And then there was the time when I traveled to Auschwitz with Elisha Wiesel just a few months after the passing of his father, when Elisha served as keynote speaker for March of the Living. After Elisha’s beautiful tribute to his father, Elie, who survived Auschwitz, and to his grandmother and aunt Tziporah who did not, we walked around Crematoria 2 and 3, where his relatives almost certainly died and where their ashes were now a part of the very earth where we tread.
I had nothing to say to Elisha, either. What words could be offered? It struck me also that Elisha was just one generation removed from this slaughter. His aunt, after whom his father and mother named the Beth Tziporah schools in Israel, had been murdered here. She was just six years old. A few days later we saw a living, breathing Jewish community in Warsaw when Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich invited Elisha and me to address the Jewish community center in the capital.
BUT PERHAPS most moving of all was in the summer of 2017, when I took my children on an eight-week tour of the ghettos and killing fields of Europe and most of the extermination camps and crematoria. My kids thought I had lost my mind. Why was I subjecting them to this torture? Why was I making them question their belief in God and love of the Creator?
Until today they believe I erred, that I had overdone it. But I knew that at least once in our lives we had to engage in full immersion of the tragedy of our people so that the Holocaust would be indelibly inscribed upon our hearts, and to ensure in whichever way we could that the six million never be absent from our lives, and so my children would know that amidst the joys of being a Jew – which are endless – it has come at a terrible price from whose memory we dare never escape. The journey would later become a book, aptly titled Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent Into Genocide Memory Hell.
It was on that painful voyage that the most hurtful memory of all gripped me. It involved the youngest of our nine children, our daughter Cheftziba. Her secular birthday is July 3. That would be the day on our itinerary when we visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. She would be turning nine. She came to me and Debbie with a simple request: “Please, Tatty and Mommy, I don’t want to spend my birthday in Auschwitz.”
She said it over and over again. So we changed the itinerary and went instead on that day to the Lodz Ghetto, hardly any happier, but in her mind, infinitely better than spending it the most grotesque place on Earth.
Today, she is 11 and about to be bat mitzvah. I think back to that excruciating birthday. And I write these lines as my son Mendy, an IDF veteran, is accompanying me to Auschwitz for the 75th anniversary of the liberation. I do not regret the trip we took, and I do not regret the many times I have visited the camp. Still, I also understand that the descent into this cauldron of death and desolation must be, so that we emerge with an ever greater dedication not only to Jewish survival, but to infinite Jewish flourishing, and endless Jewish joy.
The writer is the best-selling author of 33 books, including the upcoming Holocaust Holiday: One Family’s Descent into Genocide Memory Hell. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @RabbiShmuley.