Thursday, July 9, 2009

A Blink Back at Auschwitz/Birkenau

We're so busy living this trip that I'm having difficulty blogging it. Which is more than OK. I don't want to fall into the trap of thinking I don't have an experience unless I do it online!

Still, it feels peculiar on late Thursday evening in Jerusalem not to have written about last week's visit to Auschwitz/Birkenau. I have pages and pages of notes taken from lectures and experiences that may result in further reactions.

As noted, this was not my first visit to these horrific places.

My first observation is something that wasn't new: I have learned in recent years to make sure that, in considering the enormity of the Holocaust, we don't lose sight of the individuality of every murder. When I see the photos of people being forced from their homes, selected for extermination at the Camps, or lying as dead skeletons, I try to look at individuals in the photos -- not at the totality of the photo. This affected my picture-taking this time as well. I would look at a picture and then select one or two or three people from the picture and take a close-up of them -- and try to imagine who they were.

Later, it occurred to me that the vast majority of victims were never in any pictures. So it's a little more difficult to imagine their lives. But it's good for us to try to do.

My thinking in this area was probably most influenced by Judith Miller's book One by One by One -- an examination of the holocaust country by country that I highly recommend.

One experience that was new was having a Shacharit service at Auschwitz the Monday morning that we were there. Everyone, I think, was inspired by the fact that hundreds of Israeli soldiers were also at Auschwitz/Birkenau that day -- and we couldn't help but think about how different things would have been had their been an Israel and an Israeli army 65 years ago.

In some ways, it was a creepy place to pray. But much more than that, it was an act of defiance, an act of victory, to be able to stand freely and wear Tallit and Tefillin and read from the Torah on the very site of such crimes against humanity.

One member of our group had done some research and provided the names of 150 cantors who died at Auschwitz/Birkenau -- each on and individual slip of paper. The slips were passed out to membes of the delegation to keep handy -- and think about these individuals over the course of the day. (Takes us back to the "one by one" motif above.)

In one sense, there isn't much to see at Auschwitz/Birkenau. I would say that it is likely that you have seen almost everything that you will see there -- in one or another Holocaust documentary or book. Still, the unreality (or, more accurately of course, the horrible reality) of standing there in person is something you can't get from a work of art or literature. The vastness of Birkenau is difficult to comprehend even when there -- but much more powerful in person than in print or on film.

One other observation about Auschwitz is that it was a little unsettling to be here in the middle of summer. I had previously been here in November and March -- times where it is mostly grey and cold and colorless. At this time of year, everything is lush and green. The famous sign Arbeit Macht Frei was almost obscured by the leaves of a nearby tree. Nature's life in such a place of death was a bit jarring.

Well, there. . . now I've said something about that part of the visit.

May the lives of the many people who passed through Auschwitz and Birkenau (and all the other terrible places) be somehow redeemed. It would be great if there were a heaven where they could have gone. But it is most likely that they just went (as Professor Berk used to say -- I didn't hear him use the phrase this time. . .. maybe he has decided it's too graphic) up the chimney.


Thursday, July 2, 2009


Most of Warsaw was destroyed during the war – much of it because of the war, but not a small amount out of the sheer nastiness of the Nazis – Hitler’s intention to wipe Warsaw from the map (or was it Poland?). Given that the country was under communism from the war’s conclusion (a spoil of war to Stalin) until the triumph of Solidarity in 1968, reconstruction wasn’t always a bargain: the standards of Soviet architecture were rather bleak. So although the concert hall in which we performed the fabulous concert last night looked magnificent from the outside, there was something a little pedestrian (proletariat?) about the inside – reminiscent of the sorry appearance (though not to the same degree) of the concert halls I saw in Bulgaria. A little more vulgarity (rhymes with Bulgarity) would be most welcome. Although one might not be overly proud of opulence, there is something to be said for gilding the lily a bit – demonstrating that you feel that a center of culture is something of a treasure.

What Do We Think About Each Other?

At dinner on Tuesday, we were joined by students in a Polish Intercultural Youth Program that has a very special exchange with Israel. These students receive an Israeli in their home for 10 days to get acquainted. Later the Polish students spend a semester in Israel, living with a family. We spoke with 23-year-old university student Marta Szcaypior. She found that the family with whom she stayed in Petach Tikvah had roots in the city of Czestochowa in which she grew up. The experience of living in Israel and learning Hebrew clearly had made a deep impression on her. The most telling thing perhaps – she described walking through a Warsaw park with her boyfriend this Sunday and hearing Hebrew being spoken – and wanting to go closer and be part of it. I asked if she had visited any of the concentration camps. She said that her parents had taken her when she was 12 or 13 – and that she had gone back a number of times on her own.

In my experience, I have seen large groups of Polish teenagers visiting Auschwitz. This is of questionable utility (although we Americans do it big time, too): teenagers are going to act like teenagers. Isn’t it a better idea to see these places with one’s family? Or alone? I know that I found the giggling and poking that is typical among teenagers to be rather unsettling on previous visits. We’ll see what I’ll see this time. . .

Remembering the Tragedies of Warsaw Jewry

Earlier today (Tuesday), we held a program at the Memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto – in conjunction with the groundbreaking of a new museum to be built near the site commemorating Jewish life in Poland. It was attended by the “President” of Warsaw (essentially the Mayor) and a significant number of dignitaries. The groundbreaking ceremony preceded our concert program. It was a program not for our sake but for the sake of the people here who are moving forward with this important project. The musical program we provided included performances by cantors who had specific family ties to the Warsaw or Polish Jewish community – Yiddish songs that we work hard to sing well and understand – but were so much part of the culture here. The assembled cantors sang a Shehecheyanu, a memorial psalm, and Zog Nit Keynmol, the defiant Partisan Song.

Before the Memorial Program, we visited the massive Jewish cemetery, eternal home to approximately a quarter million Jews. It was a historic cemetery before the terrible events of the Holocaust, and continues to be used today. During the days of the Warsaw Ghetto, 1000 people were dying daily (given that the Nazis supplied an average of 184 calories per person per day, guaranteed to lead to sickness and starvation), creating an unimaginable challenge on so many levels. How do you deal with such a situation in your face, in your eyes, in your nose? Most would have to shut themselves off from it, become somewhat less human – in order to survive themselves. We visited one area in the cemetery that was a mass grave. Yet there had to be many. How many souls just dispatched like flies? Without a thought? In cruelty and pain?

After the Memorial Program, we visited other Ghetto sites – Mila 18, the headquarters of the uprising, where the leaders killed themselves on May 8 after the defeat of the uprising. The ghetto was 2 ½ square miles – in which 300,000 to 450,000 fates were decided (Berk says 465,000 to 485,000 – almost all in tragedy. Consolidation of Jews into the ghetto (and ejection of 100,000 Catholics from it) began in November 1940. A year later (October 1941), the two ghettos that had existed – large one and a small one – were consolidated. Or, to put it another way, the small ghetto was eliminated and its residents forced into the large ghetto. The uprising began on April 19, 1943. 5000 to 6000 people per day (perhaps this was at the time of the liquidation of the ghetto only – in any case 300,000 over a 2 month period) were sent via Umschangplatz, a nearby train depot, to Treblinka. Treblinka is the opposite of Auschwitz/Birkenau, which was a vast, somehow awe-inspiring facility. Treblinka – 1100 x 2200 ft – merely a gas/cremation operation – the ultimate death factory.

The Big Concert in Warsaw

Tonight we had an amazing concert at Warsaw’s National Opera House – complete with the Orchestra and Chorus of this great institution. A full house was there to hear a concert that featured classical music, cantorial music, and the presentation of the Irena Sendler Award to a local teacher. This imposing theater (built in the 1800s, destroyed by the Nazis and rebuilt in the 1970s(?)) was filled – orchestra and first to third rings – with an audience that stayed for a full 3-hour program – and applauded enthusiastically at the program’s end, which featured all the members of the Cantors Assembly wearing tallitot on stage with the Orchestra and Chorus – a performance of Lewandowski’s Psalm 150. A photo of the one-time choir of the Tlomacki Synagogue was in the program. Tlomacki was the great synagogue of Warsaw as Dohanyi Street is the great synagogue of Budapest. The loss to the cantorial art imposed by the Holocaust is incalculable. Each of us functioning as a Cantor today is the poor heir to a rich tradition. The hazzanim of Warsaw (and all of the Europe that disappeared in the Holocaust) were men who were steeped in the traditions of the synagogue – who knew the liturgy and music in a way I will never be able to, having only really been introduced to it as an adult in suburban America. Many of the pieces performed in the cantorial part of the concert were pieces that these greats would have (and did) sing. They were performed well by my colleagues (male and female) – but even these great cantors of today represent but a shadow of what might have been. And this is true of every aspect of Jewish cultural life. It reminds me of the sense that each of us has the obligation to try to live TWO Jewish lives – our own and one for someone who perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Prayers With Different Meanings?

My prayers have felt different here. I find daily prayer so soothing, such a good spiritual and emotional exercise. Sometimes I wonder if this can be true for people who are under great stress. Reciting the words of the Amidah with the victims of the Holocaust in mind takes things to a whole new level. As I recited atah chonen, the passage about praying for wisdom, I thought about Professor Berk’s teaching about the choices available to Warsaw’s Jews in 1939. Leave because of the Hitler/Stalin Pact? Or stay? Leaving meant the uncertainty of trying to find a safe place in an increasingly unsafe world. Staying mean remaining where you had a known network available to you. It’s easy for us to know today that the right choice was to leave – as tens of thousands did. And that the wrong choice was to stay – as hundreds of thousands did. Asking God for wisdom every day is a comforting task – but sometimes wisdom is a life or death matter – that affects generations. What do we know about these kind of decisions?

And the passage about our enemies – V’lamalshinim al t’hi tikvah – to my enemies give no hope – does this offer some solace? Or merely more terror? The many passages that appreciate the greatness of the world in which we live and its creator – did they make people’s lives more livable at impossible times? Or did they give them a false sense of security? Or a disheartening sense of abandonment?

Mashiv Haruach Umorid Hagashem

The weather has been interesting during our visit. Each day has been hot and sunny. Some reported that this is the first hot and sunny weather that has been seen here. But at night, there have been thunderstorms. In fact, the first night, as we gathered at the Nosyk Synagogue, a horrific storm descended on the city and synagogue: From the upstairs gallery where I was seated for the beginning of the program, I could see a huge nearby tree rocking violently in the wind and rain – and when we emerged, we had to avoid floods, mud and fallen trees. (In fact, one of the tour guides was injured by a falling tree and had to be taken to a local hospital.) The storm really was something of biblical proportions.