Returning Home to Auschwitz
If anyone can add more prose or more tears to the story of Auschwitz, it isn’t me. I’m on my way back from a few days in the Killing Fields, thanks to one of my sons who invited me to accompany him to Krakow, Auschwitz, Vilna, Kovno, and the Ponary Forest. I can’t imagine that I have anything meaningful to say that hasn’t been said before.
There are no words.
Did I learn anything new? At Auschwitz – not really. I had read extensively before. Elsewhere – yes. I had not realized how unprepared the Nazis where when they began Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia, for how to kill the treasure-trove of Jewish victims that they found. I had not realized that Lithuania fell right at the beginning, and that what we had read about concerning the Ninth Fort near Kovno and the Ponary Forest near Vilna described the very first “solutions” to the Jewish problem regarding previously Soviet territory. That within two weeks of overrunning Lithuania, the Nazis had found and prepared suitable sites to efficiently transport large numbers of Jews and others, enlist local assistants, murder the victims, and dispose of the bodies. All before the development of Einsatzgruppen and mobile killing vans.
Additionally, I was struck by how small Auschwitz was. And blown away by how huge, by contrast, was Auschwitz II/Birkenau, with rows of barracks almost as far as the eye could see. And four crematoria, rather than just one.
I left with less understanding than before about our practice of davening at the graves of tzadikim. I thought I understood that we daven, as the Mishna Berurah explains, in the merit of the great people buried there. I buy that, and do it myself. By that reasoning, however, the most popular spot for effective davening after the Kotel (and perhaps sites like Maaras HaMachpelah and Kever Rachel) should not be in Tzfat or Uman. It ought to be Auschwitz. Well over a million kedoshim are there, including at least thousands who would be considered tzadikim even if they hadn’t did al kiddush Hashem. Why isn’t it?
Emotionally, what I learned may have been more important.
Many people try to connect with the roots of their family. They travel to the home towns of their parents and grandparents. They take their children to the places where they themselves grew up. This seems to be part of our way of finding our roots, and strengthening our families. We don’t go there to learn anything new, so much as to reclaim our past and strengthen our identities.
Having visited in the last few days, I would propose that Auschwitz et al belong to our identities with the Jewish family, whether we lost relatives there or not. The Killing Fields of Europe belong on the list of places to which we feel drawn in pilgrimage.
There’s a Hassidic story about Oscweis (not accurate spelling) where a holy rebbe passes by there and has to quickly leave because there was a very bad energy there, a very bad feeling. This was in the 1800s.
The emotional fall-out you describe is how I felt during and after my first visit to Yad Vashem. In 1984. I wasn’t looking for a connection to my family. But I got a BIG connection to our People.
I could be getting this wrong, but here is my understanding regarding nazi Germany vs America. Both adolf hitler as well as American Founding Father John Adams, fully acknowledged that we Jews are the ones who brought moral conscience to the world. The difference between those very different two individuals, is what they did with that piece of information. adolf hitler, in his sick, twisted, thoroughly evil mind, was angry at the Jews for making this contribution. He thought that moral conscience was a very bad thing. He thought it had made people, Germans in particular, weak, and wanted it destroyed among his people, hoping to restore Germany to its previous primitive past where Might makes Right. In sharp contrast, President John Adams had such deep admiration for our Jewish people, calling us the moral conscience of mankind, that he eventually admitted later in his life that if he could live his life over again, he would have spent a considerable portion of it studying our Talmud and other sacred Jewish texts. John Adams, and by extension America, has come to realize what we Jews have known all along, namely that Right makes Might. The nazis dealt with our moral superiority by doing all they could to destroy us, while America has, by and large, appreciated the many contributions that we Jews have given to the world, and has even tried to emulate us, to the point where I have heard it said that middle class American values are essentially Jewish values. G-d bless America, and I for one have no intention of ever setting foot in Germany.
my parents and then infant sister lived adjacent to auschwitz in the city of katowice, where another survivor, over 100 years old, told me what my parents had conveyed, that he delivered 6 industrial strength sewing machines to a factory owned by a young chassidic woman in katowice, my mother, who started the factory before she married my father.
in a long story, they all survived the war; my sister one of the few of her age to survive from katowice, the first city germany invaded to start the war. my late father received a haunting beracha from the youngest son of the divrei chaim, born to his fourth wife when the rebbe was in his late seventies, the zhliner rebbe, a few days before he was killed by the nazis. i a not a chassid by any stretch of the imagination, but i repeat that beracha often.
I just visited the graves of my great great grandparents buried in an old cemetery in Queens. As a shomer shabbos descendant, I felt similar feelings to yours in Auschwitz. Continuity.
So is your conclusion that it is appropriate and impactful to daven at concentration camp sites?
That doesn’t need my approval or my opinion. But, yes!
FWIW I have gone to Yad Vashem many times over almost half a century. The crowds have gotten much larger, not only foreigners, but clear,y hear many Hebrew tours of complex