Living in Krakow and working as a Rabbi is a very unusual thing for a Jew. When our entire consciousness is embedded with only one association with the word Auschwitz—death, it would mystify most Jews to consider a trip to Auschwitz meaningful without seeing any gas chambers, going into any barracks or experiencing any memories of death. Yet, that is exactly what we did last week and it was most meaningful and memorable.
Our trip began with a visit to Auschwitz the city, or rather Oświecim. Tomek Kuncewicz, a graduate of Brandeis University, has been the director of the Auschwitz Jewish Center since its inception in 2000. The Center comprises a Jewish Museum, a Synagogue and an Education center. Though not Jewish, he has devoted many years in building the Center and museum which is a remarkable historical relic of a once very thriving Jewish community overshadowed by the concentration camp set up by the Nazis just a few kilometers away. The Center has restored the only remaining Synagogue of what was once a city of around 20 in a predominantly Jewish population in Prewar times.
The new exhibition which opens May 18th called Oshpitzin (the Yiddish name for the town of Oswiecim/Auschwitz) will tell the story of the 500 years of Jewish presence in the town. The main museum will house many artifacts found in the excavation of the Great Oswiecim Synagogue around ten years ago. An initiative was taken to dig down to the foundations of a park and they found there menorahs, ner tamids, part of the walls, tiles and books of this Synagogue. There will also be an exhibit on Jewish life in Oswiecim after the war with one family living in their hometown until 1962 before making aliyah. Another man, Szymon Kluger, moved to Oswiecim in 1962 and stayed in his home until his death in 2000, when his family donated the home to become one of the buildings of the museum complex.
As with so many cities and communities in Poland today, there are still hidden Jews who are discovering their past in Oswiecim. Tomek spoke to us of one woman who was intermarried at the time of the Holocaust but nevertheless was hidden and survived. Afterwards she continued to live with her husband and proceeded to have 6 daughters and granddaughters who all live in Oswiecim today. Each one is married with children, which makes us all wonder time and again, ‘how many Jews are still in Poland today?’
The Synagogue is a meeting place for groups who, while visiting Auschwitz the death camp, also want to commemorate Auschwitz the Jewish city, where Jewish life prospered and developed for hundreds of years but was cut down in days. Groups can come and pray in an authentic Shul from early 20th century called ‘Hevre Mishnayot’, replete with a stacked bookcase of siddurim and chumashim and Torahs donated from the Cleveland Jewish community and my home town of Great Neck, NY! Other groups can use this Synagogue as a teaching center before or after a visit to the site commemorating the destruction of the Jewish people—here they lived, prayed, celebrated, prospered…
The final building in the Museum is the home of the Kluger family. The house was donated to the Center and through an immense amount of work by Tomek and many grants, the original frame was saved from destruction and in the spring a Café will open which hopefully will also have some kosher food. It is a place for tourists to unwind and learn about Jewish life in a less formal setting, while in the basement there will be lectures and events sponsored by the Oswiecim Jewish Center (You can learn more about the Oshpitzin Jewish community at www.oshpitzin.pl and about the Center at www.ajcf.org.
The second half of the day concerned the infamous museum itself and we drove the few kilometers and walked the hallowed grounds leading up to the haunting sign. Yet, I walked past the Arbeit Macht Frei, barracks and gas chambers and continued into the main lecture hall. The next three and a half hours would be filled with us teaching not learning, imparting wisdom not experiencing the emotional whirlwind Auschwitz usually presents. An invitation came from Tomasz Michaldo, in charge of the Methodology of Guiding at the Museum for myself and Jonathan Ornstein, Director of the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, to come and lecture to over 150 tour guides about Judaism and the renewal of the Jewish community in Poland in general and Krakow in particular.
280 Tour guides serve the 1.4 million visitors to Auschwitz/Birkenau each year on a three to four hour tour. In order to become a tour guide one needs to take an intensive course, learn every detail about the war, the ins and outs of the concentration camp/death camp, meet and interview survivors, watch footage and read books about the Holocaust, and many more details. But when asked how much knowledge of Judaism is required, the answer was zero. In fact, the totality of formal Jewish education these Non-Jewish Auschwitz tour guides received was coming only from my lecture today ( as well as other supplementary lectures over the course of the year)!
Then I asked what percentage of visitors to Auschwitz were Jewish? 10-15%! Oh, I now realize that while the Jewish people have sadly earned the unfortunate right to call Auschwitz ‘theirs’, due to the inferno our ancestors went through there, we are not the predominant audience; in fact most come from Poland (610,000 per year!), most of them students, while only 70,000 Israeli visitors come each year.
So Auschwitz ‘belongs’ to the Jews, but also to Poles, and most of the visitors throughout the year are actually not Jewish. If that is the case, why did the Director of Educational Methodology of the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum call on a Rabbi in Krakow to educate the tour guides about Judaism for ninety minutes last week?
The answer is clear –Auschwitz and Jews sadly go hand in hand like Holocaust and Jews. That was the plan of the Nazis, that was the way it was implemented, and that is how it is recorded in history. We are not proud of it, but we must save its memory, protect its integrity and remind the world that the most horrifying place of the 20th century was dedicated to the eradication and extinction of the Jewish people—and it failed! When tour groups come to Auschwitz they may learn about the hundreds of thousands of non-Jewish Poles who died of starvation, disease and malnutrition but for Jews it was a million towards genocide; they may learn about the political prisoners or the medical experiments but for Jews the plan was extinction. The attitude of the Nazis towards the Jews was ‘other’.
Therefore it is incumbent on Auschwitz tour guides to know the story of the people for whom this diabolical killing factory was created. Who are the Jews? Where did we come from? Who were the Jews of Poland? What was it about these Jews that caused such ire among the Nazis?
This was the essence of my speech at Auschwitz; this was the impetus of our trip that day.
I spoke for ninety minutes about the history of the Jewish people, holding up a Bible and using it as my personal guide through our physical, intellectual, religious and political story. I moved from Biblical times and surveyed the post-Biblical era with the Jews being exiled in large numbers to surrounding lands and far away ones. I spoke of the necessity for Jews to deftly place men and women in political positions to influence heads of state and how they were successful…until they weren’t. I made reference to the Joseph story as well as the Mordechai and Esther story thousands of years later. I noted the long history of Jewish presence in Poland (1000 years!) and the ups and downs of the Jewish community during that era. From there I moved to the modern era, discussed Jewish festivals, different streams of Judaism and contemporary issues with life in Israel today.
I dared not lecture about the Holocaust or Auschwitz, I was their guest there to teach them rudiments of Judaism so they can better serve those coming to visit and try to comprehend the enormity of the tragedy on these grounds. I stuck to Jewish history, the festivals, Shabbat, Jewish philosophy and the various streams in Judaism.
Then, after concluding my history of the Jewish people from Abraham until the destruction of the Jewish community in Poland, Jonathan stood up and spoke for an additional ninety minutes. His topic? The renewal of the Jewish community in Poland!