I just arrived home from perhaps the most important trip of my life. People had asked me how it was going. In the beginning I was not quite sure how to respond. Do I say, ‘good’ or ‘I’m enjoying it very much?’ This time I wasn’t vacationing. I was in Poland – accompanying my father and two of my sisters on a mission: to bear witness to the various concentration (death) camps of the Holocaust. As our visit to Poland reached its conclusion, I discovered the most appropriate response: ‘Well, it definitely made its mark. This experience will stay with me forever.’
On Monday and Tuesday, I visited Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II – Birkenau in the Galicia province of Poland. Seventy-two years ago, Auschwitz claimed the lives of one and a half million people with gas chambers and crematoria; over one million of those victims were Jews. The German Nazis transformed this Polish city into the largest Jewish cemetery on planet earth.
We were traveling with the March of the Living organization as witnesses to the horrific genocide that wiped out 90% of Polish Jewry. Once we walked under the black-metal Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Sets You Free) sign, we had officially entered Auschwitz. Honestly, I was most overwhelmed by my lack of emotion. I felt nothing. The enormity of the genocide that devastated the Jews of Europe and the number of those who perished in so few years, refused to take root in my mind or my soul.
Our group stepped cautiously into the only surviving gas chamber and crematoria that sits underground in Auschwitz I. We entered a bare, dark room. It looked like an abandoned bunker, a neglected basement. There were a few light bulbs brightening up the room’s empty space, but the majority of the light poured in from the sun through the many square holes in the ceiling. Ironically, those squares seemed to offer an escape to the outer world, the possibility of freedom for the Jewish victims. But in reality, the German Nazis dropped Zyklon B gas-balls through them to choke the two-thousand naked Jews inside – over and over again.
After, we walked into the next room of this underground hell. I wasn’t prepared. There were ovens. They looked like pizza ovens with an orange-brick rounded opening and a black metal door; that was the eeriest part. These ovens converted Jewish men, women, and children into ash within minutes. I was still unable to feel anything. How can any man or woman absorb what had transpired in those two rooms? How could any human being accept this as a part of Jewish history or the narrative of any nation? It’s not possible.
As I exited the chamber I finally began to cry. My tears first trickled out like rain, but then intensified into streams and soon exploded into a waterfall. Not because the gravity of Jewish suffering during the Holocaust had hit me. It hadn’t. It was something I saw a few yards ahead of me. I observed a group of young men and women directly outside the gas chamber and crematoria. They were standing upright on a little patch of grass, under the shade of a humble, skinny tree holding books and assembling Tefillin (phylacteries); they were praying. These young Jewish men and women were offering praises to G-d in a place almost entirely consumed by death.
At that very moment I witnessed the strength of the Jewish people. I was once again mystified by their defiance. I saw the power of a nation absolutely committed to G-d and his commandment to always “choose life (Deuteronomy 30:19),” despite all of their pain and suffering.
I remembered the profound teaching of Elie Wiesel, the face of the martyred six million, of blessed memory. “Man is stronger than G-d, more resilient,” he said. The Jews have suffered more than any other nation and nevertheless, remain absolutely loyal to G-d. History has tested the Jewish people time and time again, but has never been victorious in destroying the Jewish nation or extinguishing their spirit.
In Auschwitz G-d hid his face. From 1939 to 1945, He remained silent. He didn’t show His power or glory. There was no splitting of the sea or manna that fell from heaven. And nonetheless Jewish men, women and children till today refuse to give up on Him. They remain forever committed to G-d, his Torah, and his commandments. In various places in the Bible the Jewish people are called a “stiff-necked nation (Exodus, 32:9).” This nickname did not chance itself upon the Jewish nation; the stubborn resolve to fulfill G-d’s commandments is their nature. If G-d won’t heal the world and allow good to defeat evil, then His people and all of His children on earth will fulfill that promise.
The millions of Jews murdered during the Holocaust also carried this principle of defiance and hope with them. Many greeted death with the ancient Shema prayer on their lips, ready to give their lives proudly as Jews to “sanctify the name of G-d.” I heard these stories. In Barrack-16 in Auschwitz II – Birkenau, the women left testimony to their hope. They gave color to the bare white walls with their illustrations of Jewish children. One of the drawings depicted a young boy walking to synagogue with a kippah on his head and a backpack resting on his shoulders. My eyes gazed upon those pictures on the barrack wall. Other Jews lead uprisings. In occupied Eastern Europe there were over one-hundred uprising that battled Nazi forces. The largest one occurred in 1943. It began on April 19th and lasted until May 8th – its noble name, The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Twenty-three-year-old Mordechai Anielewicz lead this revolt against the brutal, ruthless German-Nazis with his miniature army of young men and women. I stood at their memorial. Whether it was through prayer, hope, or combatting the Nazis, the Jews remained strong, defiant, entirely devoted to G-d and the Jewish people and fought to demolish the evil that surrounded them.
My friends, that is the idea of Redemption. We aren’t only supposed to anticipate its arrival. G-d actually trusts us, relies on our decisions and chooses to make Himself vulnerable to our every action. And with that G-d expects each of us to work vigorously to usher in the Messianic era. The depths of our souls must cry out for a perfect world and our passionate longing must be transformed into actions that will better humanity and string together the pieces of our broken world. It is in our determination to pursue good and heal the world where G-d takes the greatest pride in humanity, his children.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory insisted that we demand the redemption from G-d. The world has experienced too much pain. Enough is enough. With the greatest power, the Rebbe would swing his arm in furious circles as hundreds of children disturbed the stillness of the room with their rebellious song: “We want Moshiach now and we don’t want to wait.” We have to utilize our G-dly strength and powerful voices to heal disease and illness, conquer poverty, and eliminate evil from the world once and for all.
Outside the gas chamber and crematoria our group gathered together to say Kaddish. We prayed to G-d to elevate the souls of our lost relatives. But with that prayer, we also recommitted ourselves to the Jewish people, strengthening Jewish pride and illuminating a darkened world with more righteous action and moral courage. Witnessing the prayer that surrounded me and young, Jewish men and women in the thousands marching for life through the ruins of their people was one of the proudest moments of my life. I saw the manifestation of the words, “I will not die for I shall live,” recited in Hallel every month as we bless the new moon on Rosh Chodesh, take full force.
In Auschwitz I was reminded that Am Yisroel Chai. The Jews are alive and stronger than ever, thank G-d. May G-d bless the Jewish people and every nation on earth. As G-d’s children we must “choose life” and protect it at every moment. May the memory of the six million Jews and all other victims of the Holocaust remain forever a blessing for each and every one of us. May their souls be revived as we commit ourselves to protecting the lives of our brothers and sisters around the globe threatened by any form of evil. May we be reunited with all of our lost ones with Moshiach at this very moment. Am Yisroel Chai.