What Auschwitz Can Teach Us About the Future
It seems to me that it should always be cold at Auschwitz, the sky always a dreary gray.
Unless it is a very hot day, I am always cold; I’ve always been that way. And so more than the other horrible sufferings people endured or succumbed to at Auschwitz, I think of the cold – of the thin pieces of rag that inmates wore, their often-bare feet providing no shield against the brutal Polish winter.
It was not cold by normal standards when my wife and I visited Auschwitz, but knowing my usual preclusions, I vowed not to be cold. I wore long johns, a knit cap, gloves, and four layers of clothing on my upper body.
First, we went to Birkenau. The stark barrenness and sense that we were in the middle of nowhere, combined with the knowledge of what happened there, evoked a strong emotional response.
And still, despite how warmly I dressed and the comparatively mild temperature, I was cold.
Next, we made our way to “the main Auschwitz.” Tour buses and crowds greeted us such that it seemed we were visiting just another tourist attraction. Given how many other Holocaust museums and memorials I have seen, the only thing there that I needed to see with my own eyes was the infamous sign over the main gate that reads ARBEIT MACHT FREI, German for “Work makes you free.”
It was smaller than I imagined.
But then our friend, Pastor Martin Pommerening, pointed out something I had not known: The letter B in ARBEIT is upside down. Instead of the bottom being bigger than the top, the top is bigger than the bottom. I had never noticed. It was a subtle protest, he told us, by the workers forced to make the sign against its message.
Martin then asked if the second letter, the bet, has any special significance in Judaism. The rabbis make much, I answered, of the fact that the first word of the Torah, B’reishit – “in the beginning” – begins with bet. Bet is also the first letter of the Hebrew word for b’racha, which means “blessing,” the blessing God charged Abraham and all of us (Genesis 12:2) to make of our lives.
The rabbis also noted that God began Torah with the letter bet because is closed beneath it, behind it, and above it. That teaches that what happens when we are placed beneath the ground, what happened before creation, and so much about God above are beyond our ability to know.
But, the sages, continued, the bet is open in front.
That Midrash symbolizes, for me, the main message I have tried to proclaim in speaking these past three years in synagogues, schools, and churches in Germany: We cannot change the past, but the future is ours to shape.
I could not leave Auschwitz soon enough – and as we drove away, the sun peeked through the clouds.