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Thoughts Upon Leaving Auschwitz

07/06/2017 10:03:48 AM


July 6, 2017 / 12 Tammuz 5777

Thoughts Upon Leaving Auschwitz

Dear Friends,

A few weeks ago, a group of seventeen members of our community traveled together for nine days in Eastern Europe. Our itinerary included in-depth visits to three cities: Warsaw, Krakow, and Prague. Although there are many sites of interest for any tourist, each of these cities have areas which resonate most strongly with Jews. And that resonance, for better or worse, has occupied space in the psyche of the Jewish people for the past 80 years.

Generally, one does not need emotional preparation prior to leaving for vacation. Most often we go on vacation, in part, to escape the emotional intensity of our lives. But when visiting Eastern Europe, that journey is both geographical and psychological. In anticipation of our visits to the places where millions of Jews were murdered, I felt our group needed to discuss and prepare in advance for what we would see and in what context those places should be viewed.

The story of Auschwitz, the Holocaust’s quintessential killing field, is not a story which can be told in a vacuum. More importantly, I believe, it is the context within which one views Auschwitz that provides the lessons of this place of carnage and evil. And, as our visit demonstrated, without context, the lessons, if they are there, are, at best, obscured.

The story of the Holocaust, for the purposes of our trip, had its roots in a community which had become an integral part of Polish history for over a thousand years. Before WWII, Poland was home to three and a half million Jews, fully ten percent of the population. The greatest concentration of Jews was not in the small shtetls but in the cities. Before the War, Warsaw’s population was thirty percent Jewish.

Part of our tour was designed to experience the impact of centuries of Jewish life on Poland and on the Jewish world. Poland provided for the Jews a place which enabled Judaism to flourish over the course of a thousand years. The great yeshivot of Poland produced some of the most brilliant and prolific scholars of Jewish texts. It was in this geographic area where Hasidism began and Jewish creativity reached an apex of excellence. When our group met to prepare for our trip, we spoke of Auschwitz in Poland and Theresienstadt outside of Prague, in the context of that larger Jewish history. We wanted not only to recognize the magnitude of the loss inflicted upon us during the Holocaust but also to remember the glory of Jewish life.


We arrived in Auschwitz early on a Friday morning after a comfortable ride on our touring bus. The contrast between the way we arrived and the way those who we had been brought here to die could not have been more stark. There were some 650 Jewish ghettos throughout the Nazi empire. More Jews were transported from those ghettos to that same platform on which we stood than to any other. Eighty years ago, our grand- and great-grandparents arrived here after three days of travel. They were locked in cattle cars without food or water. When they arrived, those who had not died during the journey stood on the platform where we stood. Eighty years ago, some went to the right and others…did not. We followed our tour guide to the next exhibit.


Auschwitz was as I had pictured it. The few remaining barracks, each built to accommodate several dozen inmates, had been packed with two or three hundred languishing Jewish souls at a time. Most of the scores of barracks which had been built to standards less rigorous than barns erected to care for horses, have either fallen apart through natural deterioration or have been taken down before they fell. The remaining few buildings give visitors enough of a glimpse of what had been there to horrify those who did know the whole story.


After all of the books, films, and lectures I have attended, none of what I saw in the remains of Auschwitz and in its sister camp, Birkenau, located a kilometer or so down the track, surprised me. Moreover, the machinations of the Nazis, the cynical use of the industrial methodology for the purpose of eradicating the Jewish People from the face of the earth is something which I knew before setting foot on that ashen ground. There were, however, other surprises. I share one with you now. I'll share another with you in my next letter.


Following our visit, we returned to Krakow in time to prepare for Shabbat - Auschwitz very much in our thoughts. It was particularly jarring, therefore, to return to the hustle and bustle of a lovely, colorful, youthful, and vibrant town. This feeling was exacerbated as we strolled the areas where so many tourists visit. And there, offering to guide the tours of those who may need some guidance, are touring cars and mini-vans advertising the most popular tourist attractions:

We’ll take you to Schindler’s Factory, Old Krakow and Auschwitz.

Here is the saddest lesson I have gleaned from our visit: Today, Auschwitz has become, for the masses, a tourist attraction, a destination “not to be missed” by those who come to visit the charming Old City of Krakow. The story of the Nazis’ insatiable appetite for evil, cruelty and murder has become, for some, normalized at best or worse, relegated to the vast sea of ancient history.

Neither during a tour of Auschwitz nor in the publicity for Auschwitz as a tourist attraction, was there a reminder that the capacity for evil dwells within each of us. Nowhere are visitors reminded to stand up against evil. On the contrary, evil has been relegated to the past. Suffering has become normalized. Killing is to be expected.


I believe that those of us from our congregation who traveled together concluded our trip with a different message and sense of hope for the future. Despite the pain and anguish inflicted upon our people, there are signs of growth and new life within the Jewish communities we visited. But I left Europe saddened by the message learned by some of those visitors that “these things happen." I left concerned that some will think that hand-wringing is an appropriate and sufficient response.

But mostly I am frightened by the notion that this happened in the distant past, that we are too smart and too sophisticated to allow this to happen in our world. Perhaps the best reason to visit Auschwitz is to remind ourselves that the capacity and inclination to perpetrate evil did not die with the Nazis.

Lori and I are now in Israel. We’ll return at the end of the month. We look forward to seeing you then.


Neil S. Cooper, Rabbi

Mon, July 23 2018 11 Av 5778