The dusty heat of the brown Auschwitz sun was pouring down on us — 45 teens about to engage with history on the Union for Reform Judaism’s NFTY in Israel L’dor V’dor program.
Our guide was Rabbi Elliot Kleinman. I’d already met him — in a tiny hotel elevator in Prague. It had felt slightly awkward at first, being alone with someone I hardly knew in an elevator that could barely hold one of us. He broke the silence: “I spoke to your grandmother last night. She said to give you a hug.” Looking down at the lack of space separating us, he joked, “I guess this counts” and let out a hearty, jolly laugh. Then we spoke about my grandmother for a while, and he, in typical Jewish tradition, told me that the last time he had seen me, I was “this big.” Though we had walked into the elevator avoiding eye contact, we came out remarkably close.
At Birkenau, walking behind Rabbi Kleinman, we were all looking down — not at our feet, but past the train tracks and the dry rocky soil, past the ashes and tears of those long gone, and into the Earth. How could the being who had brought us out of Egypt and into the Promised Land have allowed this to happen? Each of us seemed to be experiencing a loss of faith in this place where so much hope had died.
Though it was July, the grass was brown and the trees held no leaves. Perhaps the salt of tears had inhibited the foliage in this burnt, lonely landscape. In the distance, birds chirped but dared not enter the abyss. Two tan hares skipped across the barren field as if to say, “Life is still moving. You have to move.” At that moment we could not. It was as if we were bound by the same chains that had imprisoned our people here some 70 years ago.
We sat down in the partial shade of a bare oak tree. Rabbi Kleinman explained to us that the Nazis had demolished the houses of Polish citizens to build Birkenau. When the Poles entered the empty camp after the war, they used the barrack bricks to rebuild their communities. As a result, many of the remaining buildings are barely standing, giving the death camp an eerie, dissonant aura. In a way, it was comforting to see the remnants of so much misery in ruins.
We saw the shelves where the inmates had slept. We looked at the “reception center” where inmates selected for slave labor had been shaved, tattooed, and issued a striped uniform. We visited a now-flattened gas chamber, where thousands had been exterminated.
At the end of the tour, we sat under the tree once more, many of us crying. Rabbi Kleinman, teary himself, stood in front of us.
“I want to tell you a true story,” he said. A rabbi and his son had come through Auschwitz. As the winter of 1942 set in, the rabbi grew weaker and the boy started to worry that his father would not survive the harsh months of Polish frost. When the boy voiced his concern, his father took him into the barrack and removed a floorboard. Hidden there was a month’s worth of margarine rations, a substantial portion of what could have been the rabbi’s daily caloric intake. Instead, the rabbi had saved it. Fearing for his father’s life, the son begged him to stop starving himself. He had already lost his mother; he could not live without his father. The rabbi calmly retrieved the margarine and separated it into nine containers. Then he lit them, and, with the other men of the barrack looking on, recited the blessings over his makeshift menorah.“If we lose faith,” the rabbi said, “we lose hope and we die.” The rabbi survived that winter, not through physical sustenance, but by the power of his faith.
“We Jews do not give up,” explained Rabbi Kleinman. “We reaffirm.”
I thought about Passover — how each spring we Jews celebrate freedom from bondage in Egypt. The hagaddah instructs us to act “as if you yourself came out of Egypt” — not only to remember the pain of slavery, but also specifically to remember the joy of freedom.
In a similar sense, I thought: When studying about the Holocaust, I must focus not only on the atrocities, but on how we as a people persevered. I must teach others that survival was not simply a matter of luck; those who survived the ghettos and concentration camps made it through because they also had faith. When life gets hard for Jews, we do not give up our hope; rather, we reaffirm our faith.
Four weeks after our journey through Auschwitz-Birkenau, our group stood in the Hall of Names at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The room is, in essence, a three-story sphere. At the top of the orb are pictures of victims; below is a pool of water that reflects their faces; on the walls are binders of more than two million pages of Holocaust testimonies. We stood on the edge of a ring-shaped platform, tightly gripping the railing. As our eyes met those of the victims, our tears fell into the reflecting pool.
With the victims’ faces above me, and my friends by my side, I looked around in awe: We had blended into one people. Through the telling of our suffering and our survival, we had come together. Through our collective experience and shared faith, our people live on.