HaShoah: From Slaughter to Sanctity

KRAKOW, Poland —“From the King Who reigns over kings, the Holy One, Blessed is He.” It seems antithetical to recite the Shalom Alechem or any such ode to God in the midst of humanity’s abyss—the gas chambers of Majdanek, the ruins of Auschwitz’s crematoria or at one of the estimated 15,000 death camps established by the Nazis across Europe. Some 80 years after the horrors of the Holocaust, uttering these words of loyalty and praise in these cursed confines elicits visceral discomfort and endless unanswerable questions. 

Can we have faith in a God who let this happen? How can we trust God to not allow such atrocities to reoccur? How can we come to terms with the fate God bestowed upon the lives of six million? These dilemmas of faith and moral quagmires tormented victims’ consciousness during the Holocaust and continue to haunt the memories of remaining survivors today. 

These very same questions sparked heated, night-long debates among students, rabbis, and educators on the MEOR Poland trip this past winter. MEOR, a Jewish mentorship and educational non-profit, and J-Roots, a company that delivers inspiring and meaningful Jewish journeys, are the organizers of this evocative experience for American Jewish college students annually.

From Warsaw to Tykocin, Lublin to Tarnow, Ishbetz to Lezajsk, Krakow to Auschwitz and beyond, students are immersed in thriving Jewish life in pre-war Poland, its obliteration during the Shoah, and the historical parallels to contemporary antisemitism. They emerge with stronger connections to Judaism, an appreciation of the Jewish communities supporting them and, most importantly, an emphatic bond to Israel. In the words of Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, students come to realize that you “can live as Jew[s] outside Israel, but not without Israel.” 

The infamous gate at Auschwitz I that reads ARBEIT MACHT FREI, or ‘work sets you free.’ (Sarah Golder)

“Responsibility” was the theme of this year’s journey through Poland. The term, while widely employed, lacks meaning without an understanding of the participants’ roles within the context of the Shoah and in its aftermath. Their mutual responsibilities to one another—that of Jews, non-Jews, neighbors, and community—all intersected, yielding a variety of outcomes ranging from the miraculous to the tragic. The trip organizers’ aim was to instill this new generation of participants with the responsibilities and commitments that will guide humanity away from their predecessors fate.

“Coming here makes me understand why I carry a burden when I’m the first Jewish person people have ever met,” said Sarah Golder, a sophomore at American University in Washington, D.C. Growing up in Kansas City, Golder’s interactions with Jews outside her family were limited. Now, in college, she’s joined organizations like MEOR and Students in Support of Israel which have helped shape her values and life-guiding principles.

This trip convinced me that organized trips to Poland are a must for young Jews who, like Golder, continue to explore and discover their Judaism, self-identity, and passions. The program’s educational and inspiring experience creates strong bonds among participants as they are led on an emotional rollercoaster like no other. This nexus of connection to past, present, and community inspires young Jews to take a united stand against antisemitism among other forms of hate.  

The universal lessons from the Holocaust can help steer an increasingly indifferent generation towards active citizenship rooted in Judaism. The Jewish tenet of Tikkun Olam, prescribing self-repair to repair the world, rises beyond mere concept or duty. It embeds itself deeply as a vocation driving one’s beliefs, values, and actions.

Throughout the Holocaust, it was a higher purpose that led individuals to shift their paradigms and priorities despite the tormenting cycles of choiceless alternatives. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl writes that “in the situations we cannot change, we are challenged to change ourselves.” In an hellish world where victims were stripped of every ounce of control, let alone their individual humanity, strength surfaced when they bore responsibility for their essence and identity. 

Responsibility during the Shoah was manifested through small, yet shimmering, acts of defiance, dignity, and compassion. Such seemingly trivial acts included the secret lighting of Hanukkah candles, holding clandestine weddings, learning Torah, polishing shoes, face-washing, or sharing the meager ration of bread that determined one’s survival. These mundane tasks transformed into sacred privileges.

Too often, our modern society feels bound to responsibility—as opposed to being grateful for the privilege to exercise it. We consider responsibility as some routine duty or moral obligation. On this eye-opening journey, however, I came to realize that we must intertwine responsibility with gratitude. When appreciating what we can do for ourselves and for others—rather than what we must do—we pursue a form of leadership that practically guarantees a meaningful life and legacy. This gives new meaning to ‘Responsibility,’ spelled with a capital ‘R.’

J-Roots educator Zak Jeffay leading the group of MEOR students across the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Sarah Golder)

 “You can’t come here and not ask the God question,” said J-Roots educator Zak Jeffay as he led our group of thirty across the train tracks at Birkenau. While this “God question” sets us in a deep philosophical pit—evident in the opening lines to this article—I’m unavoidably drawn into conjuring up thoughts of what, if anything, could have rendered history differently. The Torah tells us, however, that turmoil—while eternal and inevitable—is how one discovers godliness.

Judaism teaches that all people are created in God’s image, which is why I tend to find divinity in exceptional human courage and virtue. Jews and non-Jews who spoke up or refused to consent to atrocious orders, and risked their lives doing so, took a Godly level of proactive responsibility. Recognizing the righteous and following in their footsteps can help restore faith in ourselves and humanity.

Many Holocaust victims held onto faith by eyeing a transcendental purpose. Some felt it a duty to tell their story to future generations in order to avoid a similar fate. Others felt that merely surviving to form families of their own was an act of defiance: ‘A life for a life’ was the greatest revenge.

The six million lacking such opportunities endowed a responsibility to the new generation. While we may never understand God’s role in their fate, we could try navigating these philosophical spirals through a better understanding of human capacity and pursuing virtuous actions for the collective good. 

Jewish history is characterized by endless cycles of persecution, destruction, diaspora, and expulsion. Like the story of our ancestors in Egypt, each cycle seemed to bring eternal darkness; and yet, the Jewish nation persevered, fought for freedom, and re-blossomed. This demonstrates that authentic faith is only actualized through the effort of the faithful who fight on behalf of their identity.

During our time in Auschwitz, marking the concluding segment of our trip, male students wrapped themselves in tallits (prayer shawls) and tefillin (phylacteries) and prayed in the direction of the infamous Birkenau watchtower. George Washington University student Joey Zorn insisted on having his first tefillin wrapping there. “My family came from a long line of Rebbes. All my great grandmother and great grandfather’s families got killed here [in Birkenau]. As a reform Jew, I felt that it was a way to pay homage to them,” he said.

I was astounded by the boys’ passionate prayer because just three days before, when visiting Majdanek, some of these same students struggled to even utter the words of the Shema. “Wow, that was one of the most spiritual experiences of my life,” Eli Gelb, a sophomore at Columbia University, expressed to his friends as they finished prayers. 

Columbia University sophomore Eli Gelb praying at Auschwitz-Birkenau. (Sarah Golder)

Perhaps Poland really is a holy place. Indeed, the Latin ‘Polonia’ bears holiness in its name, translating to ‘here lies God.’ While many doubt God’s presence during the Shoah, the Torah explains that God serves to enlighten us with truth, repair, and hope in moments of darkness. 

It’s also our responsibility to acknowledge the righteous—the likes of Oskar Schindler and Jan Karski—who expressed a divine spark for humanity against all odds. I leave Poland in awe of their bravery and admire the grit of survivors more than ever. And then I ask myself: Who am I and what’s my role during my short stay on this earth? What’s my Responsibility to better this world? 

Virulent antisemitism and teeming hatred permeates our present environment such that another Shoah is not impossible. Today’s Jews thus become the torch bearers of faith for Judaism and all humanity. We are summoned to engage as active citizens by pausing our daily routines, consulting our history, acknowledging the journeys endured, and appreciating our people’s existence in order to guarantee the continuity of our legacy.

Upon leaving Birkenau, Jeffay instructed each student to pick up a small stone as a source of memory. Each stone, each of different size, shape and shade, symbolized an individual whose potential was robbed from and whom we have the privilege to manifest. I peered at the stone I picked: White and nearly transparent, I was surprised to see my face in its reflection. Anyone picking up that stone could similarly have seen themselves—as one other victim. 

Holocaust victims were not persecuted for their actions or beliefs but for who they were and who they were not. This is precisely why, in the wise words of Holocaust Survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, “In the face of injustice, one may not look the other way. When someone suffers, and it is not you, that person comes first. One’s very suffering gives one priority.” 

In 1946, German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller wrote the following cautionary tale against indifference: “First they came for the Communists and I did not speak out because I was not a communist. Then they came for the Socialists and I did not speak out because I was not a Socialist […] Then they came for the Jews and I did not speak out Because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.” 

A memorial at one of the mass graves at a forest just outside Tykocin. It reads ‘remember and never forget.’ (Sabrina Soffer)

To prevent the fate of ‘Never Again’ ringing empty, we must stand up, speak out and uphold the divine elements of courage, compassion, and care in our communities. No matter where our individual journeys lead, our history reminds us of who we are and the responsibilities we are privileged to carry out.  

“The trip may be coming to an end,” said MEOR group leader Jesse Franco, “but the journey really starts when you get back home and start thinking about what you’re going to do next.”

About the Author
Sabrina Soffer is an undergraduate student at the George Washington University where she is double majoring in Philosophy & Public Affairs and Judaic Studies. She is the former commissioner of the George Washington University's Special Presidential Task Force to Combat Antisemitism and the Vice President of Chabad George Washington. Most recently, Sabrina was a speaker at the American March for Israel in Washington D.C. She is also the author of My Mother's Mirror: A Generational Journey of Resilience & Self-Discovery, a dual-perspective memoir that offers creative, narrative-based tools based on the USC EDGE Center award-winning Self-Ex Guide, authored by Sabrina and her mother.
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