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Thoughts Upon Leaving Auschwitz – Part 2

07/20/2017 11:06:13 AM


July 20, 2017 / 26 Tammuz 5777


Thoughts Upon Leaving Auschwitz – Part 2


Dear Friends,

Today the Polish government oversees the administration and supervision of Auschwitz and Birkenau. It is estimated that there are a million people who visit these camps each year. Our synagogue group left our hotel in Krakow at 6:30 am to avoid crowds. Following our six-hour visit we returned to the camp’s entrance where others were arriving by the busload. As people entered, I could not help but wonder how, several hours later, hordes of visitors would be affected by what they had come to see.

Although the camps have been preserved enough to see where things occurred and there are tour guides to explain what occurred, the tour does not offer its visitors an explanation or suggestion about how all of this happened or about the meaning this place holds for Jews or for humanity in general. The magnitude of this omission can be appreciated by multiplying the missed opportunity to teach at a crucial and poignant moment by the millions who have already visited and those millions who will visit in the future. At Auschwitz, the lessons of the Holocaust have been relegated to silence. That too is a message.

At the end of the tour, every visitor reaches a memorial for those who were murdered. The memorial, erected in 1967 by the Soviets (you will recall that Poland was part of the USSR until the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990), included a series of plaques written in the languages of the countries from which inmates were brought between 1940 and 1945. There were more than twenty plaques displayed, each in a different language conveying a similar message. The plaque in English reads:

Forever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women and children, mainly Jews, from various countries in Europe 1940-1945.

Beyond the awkward wording, incomplete sentences and poor punctuation of the plaque, this plaque, it seems, is intended to convey a message. I read the plaque several times as I stood before it. I read it again, just now, and for the life of me, I cannot say what lesson this memorial or this entire experience is intended to convey. That a million and a half Jews were killed there is a statement of fact. But what is the “warning to humanity” which the plaque notes? What shall those who visit this place take home with them? Nothing but a cry of despair and, perhaps, a sigh over the sad tale of the murders of all those Jews many years ago.

After leaving Auschwitz we returned to Krakow for Shabbat. The main synagogue there, the Isaac Synagogue, built in the 15th century, is the oldest synagogue in the world still in use. Some prayers which had been painted like frescos directly onto the plaster walls, have faded over the years, but the sanctuary was bright and well lit.

We arrived early and found siddurim and comfortable seats. As the time to begin services approached, the room began to fill until it reached its capacity of about two hundred men and women (the women seated behind the mechitzah/barrier designating the women’s section. Full disclosure: I peered into the women’s section…but just to count!). Those in attendance made up a highly eclectic congregation: Young and old; tourists and locals. There were Chasidim, black-hat Orthodox and Conservative visitors and others. Anglos, Israelis, Poles and those from a dozen other European countries. Since services there are led by the local Chabad community, we expected a different experience from a traditional TBH-BE Kabbalat Shabbat Service. We were not prepared, however, for what came next.

A guest cantor stood to lead our services. His voice and command of nusach were perfect. His operatic flourishes delighted all. As it happened (A coincidence? Who knows!) an Orthodox boys choir was also visiting Krakow for that Shabbat. As the cantor extended his closing solo notes for each psalm, the boys, some with pre-pubescent high voices, sang back-up, providing delightful harmonies. And then the dancing began… and persisted. Our Shabbat dinner, held in the building adjacent to the synagogue, began after 9:00 pm.

The evening’s festivities were enhanced, not only by the delicious food prepared by the JCC of Krakow, but by the JCC members who came to speak with us. One young woman who grew up in Canada, discovered that she was Jewish during her years as a student in a Catholic High School. She came to Poland shortly thereafter to find some of her Polish family roots. And she loved Poland. And she stayed. She is now active in the JCC, a proud member of the young Krakow Jewish Community. A similar story was conveyed by another young woman. Her journey back to her Judaism has also found its anchor in Krakow.

The moving accounts of how Poland is becoming a new, emerging and vibrant Jewish community was heartening. At the end of a day that began in Auschwitz, a day in which we were reminded of the destruction of Polish Jewry 70 years ago, the experience of vibrant Shabbat services and the uplifting stories of the Jewish renewal in Poland were exactly what we needed at that moment.

By the conclusion of our trip, we had found the way to end on a high note. Despite the pain and anguish inflicted upon our people at Auschwitz and elsewhere in Europe, there are signs of growth and new life within the Jewish communities we visited. The “cry of despair” memorialized at Auschwitz was not a cry that emerged from the Jewish community of Poland. Jews never despair. This was proved by the energy, resilience and enthusiasm of the new Jews of Poland.

May their strength build and their voices continue to carry the song which so many assumed had been lost. May the Jewish community of Poland, and other emerging Jewish communities, remind us and all people that Jews do not cry in despair. Instead, we feel compelled to sing, each day, a new song of joy, of life and of hope.

See you soon.


Neil S. Cooper, Rabbi


Sat, July 21 2018 9 Av 5778